Sorcery in PNG

March 7, 2011 at 4:00 am (Papua New Guinea, Wewak) (, , , , , , , , )

"Post-Courier" 4 March 2011

Peter Johnson sent me this cutting from the Post-Courier, and the question of sorcery and supposed witchcraft in PNG reminded me of something Fr John O’Toole told me about many years ago in Dreikikir. One of his parishioners from his mission station at Dagua just outside of Wewak, where he was stationed in the early 1950s, complained of intense pain in the general area of his lower stomach and liver, saying only that “sanguma man kisim mi”. Most white men at the time would have taken this with a grain of salt and put it in the same category as the Australian Aborigines talking about pointing the bone. John was sufficiently concerned to take his parishioner to Wewak to consult Dr John McInernery, the then District Medical Officer. Dr John gave the patient a physical examination and could find nothing obviously wrong, and he was inclined to think he was dealing with a malingerer, but he just wondered, and he was not a man who liked to be left with any lingering doubts about any final diagnosis he might make, so he ordered an x-ray. And just as well he did as the x-ray revealed a foreign object very close to vital organs that would have eventually caused death if not removed.

The interesting thing was that there were no surface signs of how this object had got into the man. The skin was unbroken and intact. The foreign object was a piece of wire which Dr John removed.

In this incident sorcery was used but not in a supernatural sense. The sorcerers had ordered that sanguma be employed to end this man’s life.

Fr F. Mihalic explains this: “sanguma, (sang-guma) (Mel) secret murder committed by orders from sorcerers. The victim is waylaid, short poisoned thorns are inserted into the base of his tongue, causing swelling and loss of speech. Then other thorns (usually from the wild sago plant) are pushed into vital organs, where they cause infection and eventual death.”

The Jacaranda Dictionary and Grammar of Melanesian Pidgin

The actual method employed may not be exactly as described by Fr Mihalic, in the case under discussion, but anyone who has lived in the Sepik would have some awareness of the existence of sanguma.

There are many factors associated with magic, black and otherwise, which are both physical and psychological, and even criminal, to say nothing about any spiritual dimension, if it exists or not. The question of what people actually believe is also important.

I’ll leave the last word with the Bard, in what I hope is a respectful tone, and of course there is some sanction of magic, if indeed it be, of the good variety:

“O, she’s warm!
If this be magic, let it be an art
Lawful as eating.”
William Shakespeare (The Winter’s Tale)


  1. Antony Ruhan said,

    In Africa sorcery is part of life. Poisoning is part of the craft. A woman from Gula down in south Uganda had worked as a catechist among the northern Aringa tribe and been threatened by sorcerers there. She warned me against sitting alongside a guest, an Aringa, because the Aringa use powder, sprinkled unobtrusively, while sitting near you. Stories are commonplace and deaths attributed to sorcery innumerable. But the victims take revenge. This makes sorcery dangerous for the practitioner.
    In Korea a certain type of person becomes a sorcerer – although the Koreans do not use that term. They call the person in contact with the spiritual world a ‘mudang’. Whatever his or her degree of education, a Korean will take mudangs seriously and patronise them.

    • deberigny said,

      The term “sangguma” is intelligently discussed in: ENCYCLOPAEDIA OF PAPUA AND NEW GUINEA, Volume 2, page 1029, Melbourne University Press, 1972 (General Editor Peter Ryan).

  2. deberigny said,

    Source: Radio New Zealand International

    PNG government wants to toughen laws on sorcery
    Posted at 16:54 on 13 March, 2011 UTC

    The Papua New Guinea government is looking at toughening the laws surrounding sorcery and sorcery related killings.

    It has asked the Constitutional and Law Reform Commission to review the law in an attempt to either repeal the Sorcery Act or amend it

    The aim of the Commission is to determine the effectiveness of the law in terms of the existing offences and penalties.

    One Commissioner, Dr Betty Lovai, says the current law is not adequate to deal with sorcery related killings.

    Dr Lovai says the increase in the number of sorcery and sorcery killings is a growing concern for the government.

    “By the fact that we were given a reference, because the reference was issue by the minister for justice and that means that the government sees it as an issue.”
    Dr Betty Lovai says as part of the review the Commission will also visit all the provinces, starting in Port Moresby.

    She also adds the Commission is aware that the task ahead will be a challenge.

    News Content © Radio New Zealand International
    PO Box 123, Wellington, New Zealand

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