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Saturday, 10 December 2016

The Man Who Could Summons Porpoises

     When I wrote my post on the ant whisperer, I explained that the reason I recount stories under the label of "sorcery" is that a lot of reliable eye-witness reports on the subject are being lost as the world becomes more civilised. I ended up with the comment;
     On New Ireland, in Papua New Guinea, there exists a practice known as shark calling, or summoning mako sharks. You can find a number of videos of it on YouTube, but it is apparently dying out. I watched a documentary about it on Australian TV in the 1980s, and was amazed by the results, but when the same team returned ten years later the success, although confirmed, was not spectacular, and the narrator commented that their power was obviously fading.
     So  I shouldn't have been surprised when, upon going back through one of my favourite travel books, I discovered a report on the summoning of porpoises a hundred years ago in what was then the Gilbert Islands, but is now called Kiribati.
     In this case, the witness was Sir Arthur Grimble, whom I have already cited for his encounter with a ghost, and with what appeared to be "voodoo death". Grimble was a senior colonial official, but he lacked one of the visible attributes of authority in the eyes of his subjects. He was as skinny as a rake, while Pacific Islanders take the view that a chief, particularly a high chief, should be fat - presumably to indicate that he does not need to do any useful work. (It would be interesting to discover the incidence of cardiovascular disease in their aristocracy vis-a-vis the commoners.)
    What he needed in order to put flesh on his bones, an old man named Kitiona told him, was to eat porpoise flesh. As it turned out, Kitiona's own cousin, in the village of Kuma, was the hereditary porpoise caller of the High Chiefs of Butaritari and Makin-Meang, the two northernmost atolls. Would he like to come and try it out?
    The upshot was that Grimble ended up being "cooked like a prawn" after six hours of paddling in a canoe. Nevertheless, when the fat, friendly porpoise caller waddled down to greet him, he told him he should be able to bring in the mammals by three or four o'clock. However, from now on it was taboo to call them by their regular name; they were "our friends from the west". His job was to go into a dream in which his spirit would leave his body to visit the porpoises in the west and invite them to a dance and a feast, and he had to know the precise words to do so. (One would have thought that by now the porpoises would have woken up to the fact that they were to be the main course at the feast.)
     Be that as it may, the villagers obviously had complete confidence in his ability, for they started organizing for the feast - as well as the garlands of flowers to be used in the dance. Four o'clock passed, and Grimble's own confidence was declining, when the caller staggered out, fell down head first, got up, his chin wet with saliva, and cried out that they were coming.
     The cry was taken up by the crowd, who commenced to wade out into the lagoon. Suddenly, his attention was drawn towards a school of porpoises rapidly gamboling towards them. Momentarily, he thought they were gone, but then the dreamer murmured, "The king of the west comes to meet me."
There, not ten yards away, was the great shape of a porpoise poised like a glimmering shadow in the glass-green water. Behind it followed a whole dusky flotilla of them. They were moving towards us in extended order with spaces of two or three yards between them, as far as my eye could reach. So slowly they came, they seemed to be hung in a trance. Their leader drifted in hard by the dreamer's legs. He turned without a word to walk beside it as it idled towards the shallows. I followed a foot or two behind its almost motionless tail. I saw other groups to right and left of us turn shorewards one by one, arms lifted, faces bent upon the water. 
     As they came to the shallows, and the keels of the animals began to touch the sand, the men actually helped them over the ridges. When the water was only thigh deep, the dreamer raised his arms and cried out. Ten or so men gathered around every porpoise and, when the dreamer shouted, "Lift!", they dragged and carried them, unresisting, to the lip of the tide. The people went wild, casting their garlands over the animals, shouting, and laughing. At the fall of the tide, the villagers went over to the stranded animals and butchered them.
    I have no explanation for what happened that day. It was recorded in chapter 6 of A Pattern of Islands by Arthur Grimble (1952). Steve Trussel has provided the unabridged version, if you are interested. He has also provided an article by Cleo Paskal, who had the custom related to her by Winnie Powell, the medicine woman of Butaritari. She provided the additional information that the caller was the one person forbidden to eat the porpoise meat, because he or she was the friend of the porpoises. The caller was also always destined to die young, after which he or she was not buried, but committed to the ocean, and the porpoises. According to Winnie, the last porpoise call was "thirty years ago".  This was written in 1996, and Mrs Paskal  informs me that the conversation took place somewhat before that. It thus appears that this power has also been lost to the march of civilisation.


  1. Is it still possible to visit this place?

    1. Yes. According to the Wikipedia entry for Butaritari, Air Kiribati runs a twice weekly service to the island. But, as I mentioned in my last sentence, the art of calling porpoises appears to have been lost.