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Saturday 14 September 2013

A Visit from the Wer-Cassowary

     Fans of the late Morris West may remember his novel, Kundu which involved, among other things, a New Guinea witchdoctor who could turn himself into a large flightless bird known as a cassowary. Rather than being a mere literary invention, this was inspired by actual New Guinea beliefs. Throughout the world, sorcerers claim to be able to control certain dangerous beasts, and it is only a short step to claiming to be able to transform themselves into it. Europe has its werwolves. In Africa the favourite animal is the hyaena, while North and South American Indians prefer the puma or jaguar. New Guinea possesses no such ravening predator, so they have to make do with the ostrich-like cassowary, or else a hornbill or pig.
     Of course, completely transforming the shape and size of the human body, all without the use of advanced technology, represents the nth level of magnitude beyond the usual psychic's tricks of levitation or spoon-bending, so we should not be prepared to accept such claims without rigorous evidence. Nevertheless, we ought to be prepared to record any plausible account of the phenomenon, because one day the whole world will be civilised, and no-one will know that such things once took place.
     I consulted my father-in-law, the Rev. Leon Philippi on the matter, because he had worked in New Guinea for an aggregate of twenty-one years. Of course, he replied, he had heard of such beliefs. Everyone had. But it appears he had no direct experience with them. Not so was Fr. André Dupeyrat, a Roman Catholic missionary of the same length of experience in Papua, albeit beginning in 1930.
     The story began when he and another priest were making their rounds, and came to the mission station of Mondov'Imakoulata, in the mountains, about five minutes' walk from the village of Mondo. That evening, they sat around by lanternlight and chatted with a few of the church and village leaders. Eventually, discussion turned to a certain Isidoro Ain'u'ku of the Ilidé tribe. He had been one of the first converts when the original missionaries arrived a few years before, and all had gone well until he had been asked, just before baptism, whether he was married. He replied in the negative, and the villagers supported him, but the truth turned out to be more complicated.
     At the age of fifteen months he had been officially engaged to an even younger girl, and he grew up thinking of her as his sister. As tends to happen in such cases, the couple rejected each other when the time came. The trouble was, they had lived together after puberty, and so had given tacit public acceptance of the union. Even a pagan marriage is considered indissoluble, so the church insisted he go back to his legal wife.
     In retrospect, this must be regarded as an over-zealous mistake. Isidoro announced that he was giving up on God, and would go over to the Devil, and for almost a year he disappeared, having sought out an adept in black magic to learn its secrets. But the two white priests laughed when their companions affirmed that Isidoro could turn himself into a cassowary. However, just then, they heard the distant approach of one such bird.
     There was the characteristic drumming of its great feet on the jungle floor, and the beating of its short wings, like a locomotive getting up steam. Yet cassowaries are diurnal; they do not travel at night. Neither do Papuans - not on the rough jungle paths, where evil spirits lurk. Someone muttered that Isidoro had heard them, and was coming.
     At this point, it should be mentioned that Isidoro's village, Ilidé, was beyond the main range of mountains, on the opposite side to its western slopes on which was perched the little mountain station of Mondo. Thus, the journey from Ilidé to Mondo, even for a Papuan, entailed a good five hours of steep climbs and almost vertical descents over a series of razor-backed ridges, plunging ravines and narrow gorges, the whole way lying through dense virgin forest at altitudes varying from three thousand to nearly eight thousand feet.
     Yet the sound was unmistakably that of a cassowary, and it halted just outside their house. A few seconds later, in walked Isidoro. He sat around chatting to the priests about inconsequential matters, while the other Papuans sat grey with fear. Finally, he announced that he had been paying a visit to Mondo, and was going back there to sleep. As soon as he stepped outside, the drumming of the cassowary's feet started again. Fr. Dupeyrat flung upon the door, but nothing could be seen, and in the distance the distinct, but fading sound of a speeding cassowary.
     The two priests could not let it rest, lest the superstition be confirmed. It was now about half past nine. They hurried over to Mondo and "ruthlessly went into each smaller hut, questioning its inhabitants." They knew the natives, and the latter knew that could not be fobbed off with a tall story like other white men. But Isidoro was not there, and had not been there, or anywhere in the vicinity, for a long time.
     Come the dawn, Fr. Dupeyrat and his companion made the exhausting trek to Ilidé, arriving there about noon. And who should be the first to meet them, but Isidoro! Concealing their astonishment, the two priests went about casually pursuing their investigations. Two things soon became very clear. The first was that Isidoro had remained in the communal hut until about half past seven the previous evening or, as the villagers expressed it, the time it took to smoke two pipes after the cicada announced the approach of twilight. That would have left him two hours to make a journey which would have taken five hours by day, and eight hours by night. Secondly, there had been absolutely nothing unusual in his behaviour that night. Others had seen him enter his own hut, and not come out, but he had appeared on his verandah early the next morning. And even if he had made a return journey that night, as Fr. Dupeyrat pointed out, "there are limits to human endurance."
     However, the next day, the author challenged him over the matter. Suddenly, the sorcerer's affable manner was replaced with a grimace of hate, as he jeered:
"You, a priest, have powers to do extraordinary things. I wanted to show you that I too have such powers."
     He appears to have succeeded only too well.

Reference: André Dupeyrat, Mitsinari, twenty-one years among the Papuans, chapter 20 (translated by Erik and Denyse de Mauny for Beacon Books, 1957)

Note: I have now launched a new blog, Strange but True in which are recorded various quirky stories I have come across. They are expected to become more unusual as readership expands.

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