Popular Science Monthly/Volume 38/December 1890/The Duk-Duk Ceremonies



RELIGION is a vanishing quantity in the western Pacific, and the farther west one goes by so much the more rapidly does this sentiment vanish; dogmatic theology and its practical profession are alike absent from the thought and practice of the dark Melanesian. Simplicity marks all the desires of this island savagery, and this same simplicity marks all the spiritual side of life; instead of wondering puzzlement over the hazy ideas of a great first cause, or a hereafter which may in some sort be molded by the conduct of life in the present, the remote islander limits his religion and the spiritual side of him to an ill-defined, scarcely acknowledged fear of the unknown. Worship he has none; even the idea of propitiation of the malign power has not yet occurred to him; and the most that he can conceive of is sedulously to refrain from naming this terrible unknown.

Another circumstance deserves note because of its interesting coincidence with this absence of faith. What internal connection there may be between the two, if indeed there be any, is most obscure, for the reason that these people are as yet little known, and are very chary of communicating any information concerning these two features of their life. It is noticed by the careful observer that just in proportion as the forms and formulas of religion disappear from the life of the savage communities he visits, so there is a marked increase in the prevalence and power of the secret societies which seem to take the place of priestcraft and kingcraft.

Melanesia presents a very long list of these associations of men who are inducted into some secret or other, who are threatened with the most severe penalties if they divulge any part of these mysteries to the profane, and who are provided with signals for the recognition of other possessors of the same mysteries; and in more than one instance it has been observed that these signals have been recognized and regarded by people on far-distant islands, speaking a dissimilar tongue, and so remote as at once to preclude any chance of frequent communication. The very existence of these mystic orders is as far as possible kept secret, and it is only by long and patient study of the people that even the merest outline of their methods can be ferreted out. That they exist and exercise a tremendous power over the people is certain; that they are more powerful in communities devoid of religion is a fact; and with almost equal certainty it may be said that these secret societies are in some way intimately connected with the practice of polyandry, which it is evident has only recently among the Melanesian races yielded to the present system of polygamy.

New Britain, at the most remote and the most savage verge of Melanesia, shows to their best advantage the absence of the religious sentiment and the development of the secret society. Both are well exhibited in the ceremony of the Duk-duk, which plays a large part in the life of the community. It has not often been seen by white men, for the reason that its performers or devotees are fierce cannibals, and of those few who have seen it none have been able to learn more than just what little they saw. The reasons for the ceremony and the rude symbolism which underlies it have been carefully concealed under the seal of the oath of mysteries, and have evaded the traders who have witnessed the presentation of the ceremony on the village green. That this account can go any deeper into the mystery than others is due solely to a happy chance by which the writer was received into one of the New Britain families, and was allowed to progress into the chief mystery by initiation in due form. The public performance of the Duk-duk will first need recounting.

Upon a day not previously announced to the people the ceremony takes place. It is early in the morning, and the people have not yet scattered to their customary occupations on the beach or in the jungle that lies behind the village; the chief stands at the door of his house, smoking and watching the knots of the villagers; by his side stand some of the elders of the village discussing petty politics; the women chatter loudly at the spring, and the children are noisy at their sport. Suddenly there comes the warning cry, "Duk-duk!" there is a sound of some one crashing through the canebrakes, and the scene at once changes. The men hurry to take their places at the doors of their dwellings, brandishing their weapons of warfare; the women shriek and rush for shelter; and the children scurry home in hot haste, stumbling and falling in their hurry, but showing all the signs of terror. The noise in the jungle grows louder and draws nearer, the.last hedge of rustling canes is parted, and a strange figure appears running at the top of his speed.

It is the Duk-duk. Near the ground are seen the legs of a man black as tropical skies and a hereditary inclination could make them, shining with cocoanut oil, and in rapid motion, as of a man who runs and dances with wild pirouettings as he goes. With the flashing shins all semblance of manhood ceases; what the eye sees is not a man but an animated extinguisher, a gigantic copy in reeds and grass of the tin cones with which a generation that had not yet struck oil was wont to put out its tallow dips. Ten feet high, this extinguisher prances through the village, rushing furiously at every house as though intent upon extinguishing all who might be within, stopping short at sight of the armed householder only to whirl high in air and dart away to the next house, followed by the armed man from every house he has visited. It is a mad dance, this speechless prancing of a rushy cone followed by a constantly lengthening queue of silent warriors grimly brandishing clubs and poising spears. From house to house it goes until every house has been visited. If the Duk-duk chance upon a man away from the shelter of his roof-tree, meet him crossing the village green, or lurking in one of the narrow alleys, he charges down upon him, and destruction seems imminent. The man thus met lifts his arms with certain symbolic movements of the hands and fingers; his sign is recognized, the cone dances back, the threatening clubs are lowered, and the stroller falls in at the end of the procession. If man, woman, or child thus met out of doors failed to give the proper sign the clubs of the warriors would fall and the extinguisher would dance upon the prostrate form, dyeing his feet and ankles and staining the long grasses of his disguise with the blood of the profaner of the mysteries. Sometimes it happens that some man not deemed worthy of initiation is caught unawares before he can gain a place of refuge, and in every such case the full penalty of death by clubbing is exacted.

Sometimes a man met out of cover gives the proper sign, but the Duk-duk still dances before him, and the warriors still threaten but do not strike. Two others then leave the line and stand by the side of the man thus menaced, always one of the boys just growing into manhood; together they all three give the sign, the disguised fugleman and his tail dance away in search of other victims, and the two sponsors lead the lad away to an inclosure near the woods on the outskirts of the village.

The dance is done with a final nourish before the house of the chief, who would be chief no longer if he incurred the enmity of the Duk-duk; the stragglers have given the proper sign and have joined the dancing queue, or been led away by their sponsors, or else they have not hailed the mysterious visitor in the due and ancient form, and lie bloody where they stood, mere dead things. There is a flourish before the chief's house, and then the dancers, still strangely silent, follow their leader by the most direct route to the inclosure of high palisades where await them all such as they have met who have required sponsors; there is always one such, frequently more; for it is generally for the purpose of initiating these candidatas into the mysteries that the Duk-duk makes his visit. When the last dancer has entered the inclosure, a thickly woven hurdle of canes is tied at the gangway, the dancers prance in a constantly narrowing circle about the novitiates, threatening them with clubs and spears and sharp stone axes. At last the dance is finished; the chief seats himself at his appointed place, where a small mat lying on the ground marks the spot; the dancing extinguisher gives over his dancing for the first time since he burst in upon the village, and stands behind the chief; the others stand along the stockade except that side opposite the entrance; the novitiates stand in the center, and their sponsors form a little group a few feet away. When all have taken their places, the deeply masked figure moves toward the novitiates, no longer with a dancing step, but so crouched that his legs do not appear beneath the cone of reeds, which thus seems to possess the power of independent locomotion. The young men again make the signal which has met with a certain measure of success, but this time no sponsors aid them. Before each in turn the cone rests motionless, and the chief, then speaking for the first time, cries out, "Let him be put to the proof!"

Obedient to the royal command, the two sponsors lead the candidate to the vacant side of the yard where the battered wall gives evidence that it has been many times put to the same use. The masked figure also moves to a position close at hand, where he can easily inspect the bearing of the young man under the ordeal. The sponsors then draw back some space away and each lets fly his spear, which whizzes by the novitiate and sings as it sticks in the wall not an inch away from the flesh. If the novitiate wince as the deadly weapons hiss upon him, the keen eye of the Duk-duk would notice it, and at a signal every spear in the inclosure would on the instant be hurled with unerring aim upon the candidate who has been found unworthy. Having successfully passed this ordeal, the candidate is conducted before the chief, and the sponsors fall back a step or two. With a quick glance from one to the other to get the time, they swing their clubs and let them fall as one upon the young man who is toiling over this rocky path toward an insight into the mysteries. If he bear this trial without a show of pain, he has passed all the tests that will be required of him. At a sign from the chief, the hurdle will be cast off from the gate, and the procession reformed will take its way still farther into the half twilight of the jungle. Meanwhile in the village the women and the men who have not shared the great mystery creep out from their houses in fear and trembling and pick up the victims of the masked figure's mystic vengeance.

This ordeal of the spear and club is not the only preparation of the young man for the mystery of the Duk-duk. When he arrives at the age of puberty he is told that he can not take his rank as a warrior and a man of property, but must always remain a communal slave, unless he is hardy enough to sue for entrance to the light of the great mystery. The distinction is one that is plain to him, and he probably does not hesitate in making his choice, but applies to his chief to be prepared for that which is to come. If his prayer be granted, and that is discretionary with the chief, two men skilled in the mystery are detailed, under the title of "brothers of the wood and sea" to educate the postulant. They conduct him away from his home and to a secluded spot in the wilderness of jungle. Here the postulant is made to build a house and hunt a supply of food. At first he is examined in his bodily exercises and in his. proficiency in the few arts of his savage life. From these material considerations his tutors pass to more recondite matters. They instruct him in the secrets of the sea and the forest, each according to his title. When the candidate can pass a satisfactory examination in this branch of his education, his tutors acquaint him with the history of his race and the list of its hereditary friends and immemorial foes. Last of all he is taught to fear the spirit of the hidden fire which from time to time boils up in the craters and rushes down the slopes, marking its path by hot ruin and stony destruction. This power he is taught to fear as one that can not be averted, and that he must always be mindful of if he will save himself alive. All this has consumed a month or more, according to the ability of the postulant to master the lessons set for him to learn. When he finally succeeds in satisfying his masters, the brethren of the wood and sea, they take leave of him.

"We have taught you now," they say, when the time has come for their departure, "much of that which you must know in order to become a man and share our mysteries, and all that it is our duty to convey. That which remains will be taught you by another who will come to you when he is ready, and until that time you must not leave this place, nor speak to any man, nor sleep nor eat. To-day you may have to eat anything you please, but remember that whatever you eat to-day you must never taste again, nor must you so much as speak its name. Choose, then, that which you will now eat for the last time, and eat well, for days may pass before he comes who shall teach you the rest." When the postulant has eaten, the hut is cleared of all that it contains, and the brothers of the wood and sea sew mats over the doorway before they go.

His meal over—the last of that particular food which he shall taste on earth—the postulant composes himself to await the coming of his new master. The day passes, and night comes upon him left alone in a dark hut, in the heart of the dismal wood, and without fire or the means of making it. He remembers that he is forbidden to sleep, and, as he sits, expecting the coming of he knows not whom, his strained senses are awake to a chorus of unfamiliar sounds which bring him terror. The day comes, but brings no food, no water, no master. As the sun declines, and he sees ahead another terrifying vigil, he looks toward the door. Between him and food, fire, and home, hangs but a light mat, yet it makes his dungeon as secure as though forged of steel, for a tabu is on it. As the first night, so is the second; as yesterday, so goes to-day, only the hunger gnaws with a sharper tooth, the thirst parches the throat and mouth still more, and the nerves are set on edge through lack of sleep. The vigil of hunger, thirst, and sleepless eyes may last two, three, or four days; but when even savage endurance can bear up no longer, the master comes. He enters the house in all his glory of rushes and colored grass woven into a cone, and stands before the lad. Little wonder is it that, worn by his ordeal, he should fear this mysterious figure, which he has always been taught meant death to look upon. If his fears overcome him, he is initiated into the mystery of the club, which strikes but once, and there an end. But if he bears up bravely under the trial, the Duk-duk teaches him the sign of recognition, gives him a new name by which he shall hereafter be known, and bids him go to his own home, avoid his childish playmates, tell no one the lessons that have been imparted to him, but await the next visitation, when the Duk-duk will surely claim him, and if he passes the remaining trials will induct him into the mysteries.

The young man goes home, announces his new name, and by abundant food and rest recuperates from his recent privations. Meanwhile, the Duk-duk day is drawing nigh; the profane do not know when to expect it, but the initiated know it to be the day of the new moon, on which the mullet at dawn swim so near the surface of the water as to break it into ten thousand ripples. If, on this day, the fish swim deep at dawn, the ceremony must go over for another time, when these two phenomena occur together. If the fish swim high, the Duk-duk appears, the postulant makes the signal which has been taught him, his sponsors—the brethren of the wood and sea—answer for him, and lead him to the yard where he undergoes the final ordeal, and, succeeding, is carried along with the initiated to enter into the mysteries.

He is led to a path which is adorned with the marks of a stringent tabu, and here it is made known that this tabu is hereafter not binding upon him. By tortuous ways, winding in and out through the dense canebrake, the path leads to a large house screened from sight in every direction. Before the house and, indeed, all around it, is planted a stockade with one gate. Here he is bade wait while the rest enter. At last comes one to the gate who bids him enter, having first made him undertake, under penalty of death, not to divulge to women, to children, or to the uninitiated, anything of that which he may see or hear within. Entering on this stipulation, he finds the yard crowded with the warriors of his town, who welcome him to their ranks, call him by his new name, and congratulate him on passing all the tests so well. When this social function is over, he is led onward to the door of the house, there to receive his martial equipment. As he enters the door he notices the Duk-duk extinguisher standing in a farther corner, and squatting before it some half-dozen of the most considerable men of his tribe, including the chief. The bow and arrows, the spear, the heavy club, and the short-helved stone axe are then given him by the chief, with a few words of counsel, bidding him use them as a warrior should, and advising him that, if he use them well, he may in time be chosen to sit within the house, while the others are privileged only to use the yard. Then another of the seated figures—he who has that day worn the great Duk-duk mask—arises and chants the mysteries, to which, at proper intervals, the initiated standing near the door respond by an answering chant, which has no meaning that they know; the words are in an unknown tongue, and have been handed down by tradition from they know not whom. From the sound of some of the words even in their mutilated condition, and from the frequent use of the remarkably significant word Saba, it is possible that this refrain preserves a trace of an ancient Polynesian migration over these islands, just as the Derry-down chorus in English is a Druidical remnant.

For the rest, the mysteries, which have very little interest for the white man, are merely a rationalistic rehearsal of a creed of unbelief. Everything which by the uninitiated is held as of particular obligation, is here chanted as something that the initiated must rigidly impress upon the profane, yet which for themselves they may disregard. The tabu is to have no force for them except the great tabu, with a flock of hair on it, and that they must not break through. All others they may transgress, if only they do it slyly, and so as not to raise public scandal among the women and the others who are bound by their provisions. They must teach the uninitiated that there are malign spirits abroad by night, but they themselves need not believe anything so stupid. In a word, they form an association for the purpose of playing upon the innocence and credulity of their fellows, and right bravely do they keep up the imposture. One only belief do they profess, and that is in the spirit of the volcano-fires, and even that is discarded by the inner degree of the Duk-duk, those halfdozen men who sit within the mystic house and dupe the initiates of the minor degree as all unite to trick those outside. And the reason is this: the half-dozen members of the most secret rank profess to one another that no better system of governing a savage community could be devised than this ceremonial mystery of the Duk-duk.