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date: 05 December 2023

Assault Sorcery and Religionfree

Assault Sorcery and Religionfree

  • Pamela StewartPamela StewartDepartment of Religion, University of Pittsburgh
  •  and Andrew StrathernAndrew StrathernDepartment of Religion, University of Pittsburgh


Assault sorcery is a type of aggressive magical action against victims, distinguished from other types of sorcery by its imputed use of physical aggression and associated with intergroup hostility and ritual practices involving cosmological ideas of magical power and performance. Secrecy is the hallmark of the sorcerer’s activity and the means by which the sorcerer attacks a victim. In leavings sorcery, the sorcerer observes victims’ moves and stealthily harvests food leavings, or bits of them, on which spells can be made to kill the victim. Leavings sorcery is a variety of a wider class of magical actions that are based on the idea that people’s vital force exists in anything that has been in close contact with them. The actions must be done in secret, and the sorcerers must take care not to handle the bespelled items themselves so as to avoid being harmed by their own magical actions. In both assault sorcery and leavings sorcery, internal body parts of the victim are targeted. In leavings sorcery, the bespelled item enters the victim’s body, disrupting its normal processes. In assault sorcery, the sorcerer is said to open up the body of the victim directly and replace its vital organs with pieces of rubbish. The body and its internal functioning parts are the locus of action in both cases. These practices may involve the secret invocation of spirits and the performance of actions that imply supernatural powers generated by the sorcerer’s manipulative actions, such as by confronting the victim and reducing the victim to terrified submission in the face of the confrontation by the sorcerer. Reports make it clear that the sorcerer intimidates the victim away from sight of the community and is accompanied by a set of accomplices. The sorcerer’s power is thus to be seen as based in magic rather than as founded simply on physical strength. The same can be said of other categories of sorcery, such as sorcery based on the contamination of food leavings and the magical treatment of such leavings so as to kill a victim. Sorcery beliefs all ultimately depend on the creation of fear; in extreme cases, fear itself can cause a victim’s death. This psychosocial syndrome opens up the possibility of comparing classic assault sorcery with methods of intimidation that appear in the running of academic institutions in which those in power confront enemies with accusations and character assassination that can lead to expulsion or to harassment, which taxes the endurance of the victims and dangerously weakens them. The psychosocial context is also important in all circumstances in which sorcery is feared and its practice is kept secret. The basic cosmology is found in many regions of the world.


  • Mysticism and Spirituality

The Concept of Assault Sorcery

Assault sorcery is a term that gained initial currency in anthropological studies as a way of marking a kind of magical aggression involving direct physical harm inflicted on a targeted victim.1 It is contrasted with the idea of food sorcery, in which sorcerers or their agents secretly insert a toxic substance into the food of a victim for the victim to ingest and, as a consequence, to die from, owing to the substance’s deleterious effects.

Two points apply here. First, assault sorcery is distinguished from ordinary physical aggression or fighting because cosmological notions are involved in its putative efficacy. The sorcerer intimidates victims, rendering them unable to resist the sorcerer’s powers. Second, however, all forms of sorcery are in fact acts of intended aggression. The person who places lethal substances into the food of an opponent is enacting an assault on the victim’s body, mediated by the corruption of the person’s food and by any relationship of trust that may enable a toxic power to enter the body of whoever consumes it. Cosmological ideas are also at work. The sorcerers may be able to teleport from one place to another or to become invisible and so avoid detection. Another way in which food sorcery can work is if the person who administers it has a close relationship to the victim and so is unlikely to be accused of sorcery. The sorcerer may be a spouse of the victim who holds a secret grudge against the victim, or it may be a spouse who originally comes from an enemy group and has been coerced by kin who wish to take revenge for some past sorcery killings. So the food sorcerer is in effect aiming at an assault on the victim either by plain deceit or by magical deceit. Secrecy is the key in food sorcery and assault sorcery, and the concomitant motivation of intent to kill is also key.

The circumstances, however, differ. In assault sorcery in Duna and Wiru—both located in the Highlands of Papua New Guinea—the typical scenario is that assault sorcerers work as marauding packs in a semimilitary way.2 They tend all to come from the same local group, and they work together to confront a victim or victims and to terrify these victims in advance of harming them. It is in the act of causing terror that their magical appropriation of a force-field of aggression comes into play. The sorcerers may be held to acquire such powers through training or by consumption of substances. In any case, they present an image to their victims of extraordinary power that cannot be overcome, leaving the sorcerers free to carry out their acts of destruction. This power may include the ability to make themselves invisible in order to avoid detection.

Examples here come from parts of the Papua New Guinea Highlands where ideas about both sorcery and witchcraft are rife and influential in social processes.3 These post hoc statements about assault sorcery nevertheless represent deep-seated fears and anxieties that govern people’s sense of place and space and the malign motivations imputed to sorcerers.


Robin M. Wright provides a detailed examination of “the cosmology and practices of assault sorcerers” in Amazonia and elsewhere, which provides a compelling comparative approach to the phenomena.4 He notes that assault sorcerers are tied in with “a nexus of religious knowledge and power” in which sickness and death are imputed to the violent actions of sorcerers and are combated by shamanic healers. The concomitant struggle between the forces of “good” and “evil” places life at risk, and perceptions of this situation may have increased over time, in Amazonia at least, with a serious decline among shamanic healers.

Wright also argues that assault sorcery is not simply something of the past. Examples show that “non-indigenous politicians can harness shamanic powers to do their dirty work,” as “indigenous politicians” also can, according to folk views of politicians in Papua New Guinea Highlands.5 As Wright also notes, “The shamans who cure are the same as those who practice sorcery” and, for that reason, are considered to be ambiguous in their personas and their exercise of powers at the community level.6

The idea that there are supernatural powers at work in the world provides the basic substratum to belief in the efficacy of sorcery attacks. Such powers may be exercised for benefit or for harm. Among the Duna people of Papua New Guinea Highlands, a powerful female spirit, the Payame Ima, is traditionally held to be able to possess people and to control their actions so that they become wild or mad and go around in the bush before eventually getting better and becoming prophet-like figures.7 Possession is like the effects of assault sorcery but is ultimately directed to positive ends. Duna prophets, or contemporary ritual experts, are a relatively new phenomenon, described in the Tok Pisin vernacular language as glasman; they can find places where a witch has been said to have hidden the life force of a victim and retrieve it, returning the victim to a state of health. The particulars and the terms used are, but the basic worldview is much older.8 Thus, in the Papua New Guinea Highlands generally, the Tok Pisin term sangguma has been used to reference categories of sorcery and is substituted for earlier terms prevalent in the precolonial past, reflecting existing fears and concerns resulting from conflicts and rapid social transformations. Sangguma often indexes putatively violent practices of aggression found in assault sorcery and is said to spread from place to place. In the Melpa language of Mount Hagen, in the Papua New Guinea Highlands, this phenomenon is called kum, specifically kum koimb, indicating the same range of meanings as sangguma in Tok Pisin.9 The example shows how old and new elements of expression and experience become linked. Ideology and cosmology are tied together, blurring boundaries between secular and religious spheres of practices.

Prior to gaining political independence in 1975, the Australian administration in Papua New Guinea (Papua New Guinea became one country after 1975) favored rapid political and economic development, local government councils, electorates, and cash cropping. The strain of these processes imposed on primordial tribal structures produced new hybrid versions of beliefs that emerged out of the conversion activities of missions and church groups. Business leaders who became relatively rich and politicians who gained power and resources soon became afraid of the type of sorcery known as “poison”—the insertion of lethal substances into their food—and the deaths of such leaders were always attributed to “poison” in this sense, as was also documented in Amazonia by Wright.10 At this time, another vernacular term, jelas (jealousy), entered the language. Growing social inequality led to this feeling and to fears that it was translated into secret sorcery attacks leading to deaths. This, too, had its roots in earlier practices, in which the deaths of traditional leading figures in exchanges were liable to be interpreted as some enemy “taking the cordyline”—that is, dying by poisoning—on behalf of others who resented the leader.

Examples of this kind provide motivations for poisoning sorcery. The deeper reasoning for why sorcery exists at all has to do with the ambivalence of life itself, in which cosmology assumes the existence of evil or death, which is counterbalanced against forces of good or light; this counterbalance has developed to a high point in Amazonian cosmology.11 The cosmology also assumes that there will always be conflicts that lead to acts of sorcery. Kanaima is one category of sorcery that is particularly reminiscent of assault sorcery in Papua New Guinea. The violent kanaima sorcerers among Carib people suck vital juices from the bodies of deceased persons at gravesites. Neil Whitehead has called these kanaima sorcerers “dark shamans.”12

All destructive acts of harming the body or mind of a victim may be seen as sorcery, as with, for example, the idea of the evil eye, in which a malevolent look at a victim may activate a spirit’s power to cause death. The power of malevolence of “evil” is exemplified in the idea of the troubling spirit that has to be driven out by exorcism, as in Catholic exorcism practices. The point here is that hostile intent, accompanied by self-justification, is assumed to be basic and ineluctable, an inevitable part of life.

It is this category of the evil that appears most strongly in assault sorcery. This type of sorcery thus comes to be an icon for all kinds of mystical attack and can be seen to implicate forms of secret attacks in organizational contexts such as academia and political arenas. Wright uses the idea that such attacks reflect attempts to reassert an egalitarian ethos. Such an ethos, however, often coexists uneasily with the fact of stratification and its diversity. The general argument is that cosmology invokes the agency of spirits of hostility and envy, but this is also mimicked in supposedly secular ideologies, such as when a marauding pack of sorcerers is replaced by packs of colleagues who vote opponents down. In Papua New Guinea, assault sorcery may be enacted either by individual practitioners or by collectivities, but in either case the ideology is the same: to terrify and destroy an opponent, usually one at the boundary of social interactions.

The worldview of the Duna and Wiru follows that commonly found in Papua New Guinea and elsewhere—namely, that the world is populated by spirits as well as humans, that spirits have special powers, and that the belief in magic and spirits explains why people think that accidents, sickness, and death can be attributed to the agency of spirits. This includes the beliefs that ancestral spirits punish their descendants for wrongdoing and that sorcerers express their malevolence or resentment by attacking victims. These beliefs become intertwined with Christian ideas, such that membership in a church may protect against sorcery or against accusations of sorcery.13

Assault Sorcery among the Duna and Wiru

Among the Duna-speaking people of Hela Province in Papua New Guinea, assault sorcerers are spoken of as marauders who come into the Duna area across the Strickland River, spread out, and advance toward Duna settlements.14 They are said to place in the forefront of their formation young women as attractors who lure victims to themselves, which then allows their sorcerer kin to attack the victims easily. The young women here stand for a kind of baffling or magical effect intended by the marauders. The Duna do not have ritual defenses against these powers. In their own cultural milieu, they have elaborate concerns about witchcraft (tsuwake kono), and they have techniques for discovering and tracking down people suspected of being witches, including using the aid of experts who manipulate a divining stick (ndele rowa) in order to find the person said to be responsible, who is generally a female. Oksapmin (a neighboring group to the Duna) males said to be assault sorcerers (tsuwake tene) present a different challenge, against which Duna men have not developed a ritual response, suggesting that the challenge has only emerged in colonial or postcolonial times, specifically since the time of early explorations by Australian government officers in the 1950s.

A parallel can be found in the district of Pangia, in the Southern Highlands Province of Papua New Guinea, among the Wiru-speaking people. Pangia was brought under colonial administrative control in the 1950s and 1960s.15 The people had been living in hamlets built around ritual centers used for large periodic sacrifices to spirits and around collective men’s houses, in which skulls of male ancestors were kept and propitiated at intervals of time. Australian administrative field officers had these hamlets brought together in lines of houses at the old ritual centers. This meant that subgroups who previously had lived separately were brought into closer proximity, giving rise to enmities and anxieties. The subgroups also became identified over time with different Christian church affiliations, leading to a further sense of separation rather than of solidarity.

It was in this context of colonial change that ideas of alterations in danger from aggressive “sorcerers” came to the surface. Assault sorcery was said to take two different forms, maua and uro, and these two forms together caused a commonly felt fear of assault sorcerers to spread out from the peripheral areas on the geographical edges of Wiru settlements—where, according to proverb, they were said to have their sites of dwelling and from which they attacked people in the new, consolidated villages—all the way to the new colonial government outpost set up by the Australian administration. The introduction of a road for vehicles and the possibilities for people to move around more freely because of the imposed colonial ban on fighting among groups was said also to have facilitated assault sorcerers in their expansive spread. Similar processes have happened at large in Papua New Guinea, such as, for example, in relation to the Highlands highway.16 Paradoxically, then, “pacification” induced a fear that sorcerers were enabled to move around more easily beyond their range than they had been able to do previously in order to wage their hostile attacks on groups. These sorcerers’ mode of action was classic. It was said that they would hide in bushes beside pathways and leap out to terrify victims, disorienting their minds. They would then ask them where the sun rises and sets. After noting that “informants” or “victims” were in a state of confusion, the sorcerer would open up the victims’ bowels and extract a kidney, telling victims to roast it in a fire and then eat it. Victims were supposed to comply and then subsequently die. The sorcerers were said to stuff rubbish inside their victims, having removed vital organs such as the kidneys. The extreme physical aggression in such a scene is matched by the mesmerizing force that the sorcerers wield to overcome any resistance their victims might attempt to muster.

Tangupane, an Origin Place of Assault Sorcery among the Wiru

The settlement that reportedly harbored the greatest number of such sorcerers was said to be located an eight-hour walk from the nearest other Wiru village, through an unoccupied jungle and overlooking a big river that sweeps down to the Purari River delta area toward the coast of Papua. In 1967, few people from the bulk of the Pangia area would ever have gone to this remote settlement, known as Tangupane, partly because of its remoteness and partly out of entrenched fears of sorcery. Rumors of the malign powers of the Tangupane assault sorcerers circulated widely and continued apace in the time when the Australians began their work of “pacification.”17

In mid-1967, Andrew J. Strathern organized a trek from a central Wiru village through a jungle to Tangupane in order to see what the place and people were like. The walk took some twelve hours and went past numerous limestone sinkholes, where assault sorcerers were reported to lurk. Five local men took part in the expedition, and after reaching the destination safely the expedition party was billeted in an unoccupied men’s house. Everyone was nervous, and one man of the group began to stuff leaves into the holes in the woven walls of the hut in order to stop sorcerers from looking in and directing their malign gaze upon the group. The residents of the village seemed not very robust, receiving the group passively but not wanting to talk about involvement in assault sorcery. This was in marked contrast to the stereotype of Tangupane people held by the residents of other Wiru villages as being feared for their malign powers. Refusing to talk about sorcery could be interpreted as wishing to preserve its secrecy. During daytime, the group kept a close watch on locals to see if they would exhibit hostility. By night, the group appointed guards from among themselves to watch at the door of the hut, and escorts took persons wishing to use the outdoor pit latrine and waited at the entranceway to discern whether sorcerers might launch a surprise attack on them while they were in a vulnerable situation. The group left after a couple of days. The visit was a reminder that, precisely in regard to a remote settlement of this kind, fears of sorcery might be generated through a kind of self-reinforcing group paranoia. As long as such an area remains remote and its inhabitants do not visit other places or arouse suspicion by appearing out of their village area, the rumors do not escalate. However, the colonial authorities sometimes required villagers from remote areas to visit the local station of government. The presence of those people at that station would excite comments. In this context, a rumor arose that the assault sorcerers, previously penned up in Tangupane, were now secretly infiltrating all the villages and killing victims on the way. Since there was no known means to ward them off, it came to be said that an epidemic of sorcery killings was happening. This may well have been brought on by the colonial introduction of a road network running around the whole Wiru-speaking area, triggering a kind of mobility among groups that had not been feasible before. The Australian officers saw the roads as an instrument of modernization as well as control. For local people, however, there was another side to the change. The roads were thought to have opened up the possibility for assault sorcerers to roam widely and to ply their malign activities. Force-fields of protection between local groups were breached, and sorcerers were said to have arrived close to the government station, and rumors of their movements accelerated, unbeknown to the Australian expatriate government officers.

Wiru and Duna Compared

The Duna and Wiru situations were similar. In both cases, the assault sorcerers were seen as moving from a peripheral, little-known margin into areas of settled habitation. The idea of the sorcerer is based on fear of the magical unknown, in which the weapons are not simply physical strength or dexterity but the image of uncanny and irresistible malevolence that stun opponents into submission.

Assault sorcery in these two examples of Duna and Wiru does stand out clearly when contrasted with another major category of mystical attack. With the Duna, there has been an enduring concern about witchcraft, mostly seen as secretive acts of aggression by women against men within their own communities. With the Wiru, the comparable concern is with the type of food sorcery known as tomo, often translated by the Wiru as “poison.” Tomo is thought to be practiced within the community, but in one case, a kind of leavings sorcery, there is a twist. A person with malign intent is said to pick up pieces of food consumed by a victim. The sorcerer must not touch these leavings but must use a pair of tweezers made of wood. He (always male) is said to take the piece of food, which he gives to an operating sorcerer in a distant village, who is said to hang it in a bog over a pool. The pool rises and falls. As it rises, the victim feels weak and hot. As it falls, the pressure on the victim lessens. The symptoms here follow the syndrome of malaria, a disease that is endemic in the Wiru area. Eventually, the victim will supposedly die. This sequence can appropriately be called a version of assault sorcery. Indeed, the simple insertion of tomo into food can also be understood as a kind of hidden assault, since the intention is to cause the death of the victim, inflicting pain and suffering in doing so. Classic assault sorcery differs from other types only in the fact that the aggression is depicted as direct and face to face. In the case of leavings sorcery and poison, the act of aggression is hidden and is known only by its putative effects. We distinguish the category of assault sorcery from other types in part because this links it to acts of sheer violence inflicted on people by criminal gangs of youths in the early 21st century. The criminal’s actions are hidden to the world in general, although they are obviously made known to their victims, and are also perhaps justified as ways of combating enemies, sorcerers, and witches.18 The theme of sorcery falls into place, as it is invoked in interpretations of misfortunes and accidents that otherwise do not have meaning or imputed causes tied to the victims.

In all of the cases, suspicions that hostile sorcery has or may have been activated circulate as forms of rumors and gossip. A hostile act may be detected if someone appears to have been seen furtively harvesting a piece of food such as chewed sugarcane pith left over from consumption or to have been observed near to some partly consumed food such as sweet potato or pieces of pork. The rumor is passed on. If someone in the community dies, the death is post hoc attributed to sorcery. Even classic assault sorcery may be implicated. As noted in “Assault Sorcery among the Duna and Wiru,” in this kind of attack, the sorcerers confuse the victims and send them back home to their settlements. There, they are supposed to be found by their kinsfolk with one of their own kidneys roasted and placed within their mouth as a sign that they have been fatally damaged. This cultural motif must depend on rumors of such a scene happening, so the motif itself becomes a part of a wider context of rumor and suspicion leading to accusations.

Rumor, Gossip, and Academic Practices of Bullying

The whole murky arena of ideas about sorcery and its connections with rumor and its local embeddedness in gossip indicates that there are parallels between this domain of rumor, gossip, and the broad context of the power of words as determinants of personal reputation in situations of competition, jealousy, slander, and defamation in 21st-century venues in societies in which specific cultural equivalents of assault sorcery are not present but in which rumors themselves can be seen as channels of assault sorcery against victims. The purveyor of such rumors can be seen as a sorcerer who deals with innuendos and weaponizes them in order to damage the personhood and capacities of targeted individuals. In accordance with general theories about rumors, the efficacy of such weaponized rumors depends on situations of ambiguity and hostility; in such situations, the boundaries between legitimate criticism and malicious twisting of facts are unclear, which allows for targeted persons to be blamed or undermined or for their good reputation to be demolished. A classic way to do this is to impute personal or financial or professional wrongdoing on the part of the targets or, in academia, to claim that their intellectual work lacks value or does not meet some imputed standard chosen or fabricated by the critics without affording the targets the opportunity to refute the claim.

A variant example can be found in the practice of internet bullying, in which vulnerable victims are identified and then targeted with damaging allegations. The victims are placed at a disadvantage, and their attempts to refute allegations are difficult to substantiate. The effects of such relentless bullying can be extreme, leading to depression and, in the most extreme cases, suicide on the part of the victims. The bully here can appropriately be called the assault sorcerer, someone who is able to impugn the victim without damage to his or her own status.

However, internet bullies lack any open legitimacy in their attacks on victims. The most pernicious examples of terror occur when the “sorcerer” has a legitimate role but is twisting it for the purpose of destroying a colleague who may stand in the way of the sorcerer’s own further advancement. Persons with a penchant for this kind of assault sorcery tend to be ruthless in the domain of reputational destruction under cover of making an allegedly objective evaluation. This process is especially open to malign manipulation when the sorcerers put in their weaponized evaluation secretly and do not have to discuss it in advance with the victim, forwarding it to a superior authority with the explicit aim of damaging the victims and, if possible, ousting them from their position in the same institution. Worst of all is when the sorcerers’ further aim is to replace victims in their specific position within the structure. Replacement requires that the incumbent be forcibly ousted by extraordinary means, sometimes by invoking the platitude that this is “for the good of the whole” as a justification for the sorcerer’s hostile action. The sorcerers will also attempt to suborn colleagues and to turn them against the victim, even perverting the idea of a vote to be made against victims on grounds of some deficiency in the victims’ publications or their departmental service.

Of course, we are not saying that these scenarios are predominant in academia, only that they can potentially occur and cause unmerited suffering. The potentiality of the comparison we have made with assault sorcery opens up through an element of surprise, enabling the perception of malevolence and harm at work in the very contexts that are supposed to be free of such features. Evil lurks inside the domain that proclaims it is for the good and uses this claim to dominate and destroy those whom the sorcerers see as their enemies. The comparison here also bridges over between village societies in Papua New Guinea and university cultures in the United States and elsewhere, showing that the roots of enmity are found everywhere in human ill will masquerading as professional conduct or operating in deception and secrecy.

At a broader level here, beyond pointing to the manifest empirical level of how malice arises and operates, the success of such malice depends on the manipulation of an overall form of ideology about virtue and value that functions by occupying the space of religion and utilizing this space in order to achieve hostile purposes. A prime mechanism is “othering” the targets and so defining them as an enemy. Over and above this device, the prime move is to colonize the space of power and to cover it with the cloak of virtue. This tactic can be seen as a mode of assault sorcery, in a way that highlights the justification of violent action that underlies this move in the game of conflict. The images of such sorcerers project them as simply the embodiment of terror. This is how the target or victim represents them. In shifting to the broader context of how violent actions are covered in legitimizations, violence can be reinterpreted as virtuous action in pursuit of vindication of a wider cause. Such an act of vindication is in effect a component of the violence itself, since it is intended to strengthen the commitment of followers to that action. Where explicit expositions are available, the motive of revenge is most often put forward.

Cosmology and Terror

This outcome of revenge itself depends in turn on a notion of a shared cosmological set of beliefs and values that inform action. Specific religious ideas may be pressed into service at this point, turning religion into politics and vice versa, or such ideas may turn politics into morals and values as a means of gaining support and downplaying the possibility of resistance or disbelief in the purpose of action, especially as the action involves severely damaging individuals or groups within the same moral ambit as the attackers. Contexts in which issues emerge are broad political struggles regarding sovereignty, autonomy, colonization, exploitation, and oppression. Warfare in particular entails competing narratives, all a part of the conflict itself. An image of heroic resistance may be counterposed to a rhetoric of recovering or safeguarding territory identified with ethnic groups. Each side attempts to appear legitimate in order to obtain resources and to prevail. The role of the witness becomes important as an arbiter of legitimacy between the opposing forces in the “triangle of violence.”19 The borders of legitimacy are at stake. “Atrocities” and “war crimes” are claimed as witnesses to this point, and they occupy the ideological space belonging to assault sorcery. Taken to smaller-scale contexts of academia, businesses, or local political conflicts, the same point holds. An excessive assault may lead to negation by a higher authority it or to the witnesses seeing through it for what it really is, stripped of its ideological protective sheath.

Ideological components are always woven into the practices and experiences of violence. In ideas of classic assault sorcery, the image of it as cosmologically produced terror predominates as the view of the victim or witness. In warfare, each side tries to claim ideological precedence. In academia, the perpetrators of assault attempt both to terrify the target of their violence and to present the violence itself as justified in terms of their cosmological aims. Religion may be called on by all parties to violence in order to obtain moral legitimization. Human competitive malevolence hides underneath such invocations of virtue.

Review of the Literature

Assault sorcery especially drew the attention of scholars working in the Pacific region because of its dramatic character and the question of whether it is ever in fact practiced. By contrast, other kinds of sorcery may plausibly be considered to happen because they simply involve the insertion of toxic substances such as poison into the victim’s body. All types of sorcery involve secrecy and the production of fear in the minds of targeted persons. Secrecy also produces ongoing ambiguity and speculation within a community, and physical violence may result from emotions generated through suspicions of secret hostile sorcery being practiced. Pamela J. Stewart and Andrew J. Strathern have previously discussed categories of sorcery and their nuanced connections with circumstances of social change, giving examples from the Melpa (Mount Hagen), Wiru (Pangia), and Duna (Lake Kopiago) areas of Papua New Guinea.20 Broad surveys of comparable themes can be found in the work of Michele Stephen and Mary Patterson.21 The image of destructive violence through assault sorcery also places this image alongside two other categories of literature. One category has to do with ritual murder in contexts of interethnic conflict, such as in Rwanda during the struggles between the Tutsi and Hutu populations. The other category is on comparable acts of violence imputed to “dark shamans” in Guyana, Venezuela, and elsewhere in South America.22

These examples reflect reports that have emerged in Papua New Guinea involving gendered violence against women accused of using sorcery to kill males in their communities. These would be accusations of leavings sorcery, whereas the violent acts of retribution against women are like acts of assault sorcery, with added elements such as torture that likely derive from recent knowledge of practices in the outside world. Another feature that seems to be derived from knowledge of historical practices in parts of Europe is the practice of setting fire to supposed witches, reminiscent of burning them while they are tied to a stake.23 In one instance from the Enga area of the Papua New Guinea Highlands, as reported by The National newspaper on September 8, 2022, a woman accused of witchcraft or sorcery was set on a burning pyre consisting of car tires. She died from her injuries. This case is only one among many such incidents of torture and killing that have occurred over a decade of recent history in Papua New Guinea. The types of sorcery putatively involved could not include assault sorcery but would focus on leavings sorcery or its equivalent, while the act of punishing the supposed witch does resemble an assault sorcery attack and one that may be performed openly, its violence justified by claiming it as retributive justice.

A further point is that in practice, any hard-and-fast distinction between witchcraft and sorcery does not work because supernatural or “mystical” attacks on the personhood of targets can comprise elements of both witchcraft and sorcery as putative ideal types. In such ideal typifications, witchcraft has sometimes been seen as connected with female agency and the unconscious exercise of malign powers, whereas sorcery has been linked with conscious acts of male agency, as with assault sorcery. Indigenous classifications, however, may complicate such distinctions, because they contain elements of intentionality linked to both male and female actions. The example of bwaga’u from the Trobriand Islands area in Milne Bay Province in Papua New Guinea shows that this category is indeed applied to male sorcerers who learn magical spells with the power to destroy victims and who pay for these spells if taught by a mother’s brother or who receive them free from their fathers. The sorcerer’s spells first make the victim ill, then the sorcerer secretly approaches the victims’ house and seeks to push through the thatch of its roof or its walls a bundle of bespelled herbs that, when burned in a fire by the sick person’s bed, will cause the person’s death. Kinsfolk of the victim will hire other sorcerers to make protective magic. To defeat this countering move, the sorcerer then boils a stingray spine in coconut oil and wraps it with herbs and hides in the bush until he can point it at the victim like “a magical dagger.”24 He twists it around and makes a stabbing action with it, aiming to kill the target. His act of magical sorcery thus falls within the category of assault sorcery. Male bwaga’u, moreover, have a counterpart in the supposed actions of the female mulukwausi, or flying witches, who reportedly attack sailors at sea intentionally, swooping down on them and removing their inside parts in order to eat them, causing the victims’ death.25 They are said to hide the body parts and then consume them, unless another witch has the power to retrieve them before they are eaten. These female “witches” are thus clearly portrayed as acting like male assault “sorcerers.”

R. F. Fortune comments on Bronislaw Malinowski’s account of these flying witches who are said to “eat the heart and lungs, drink the blood, snap the bones of their enemies, and moreover possess the powers of invisibility and of flying.”26 This passage makes it clear that the flying witches are seen as cannibals, consuming choice inner organs of the bodies of their victims. Malinowski here also refers to the vada practice of assault sorcery among the people of Mailu, on the Papuan coast, who are said to stun their victims, open up their bodies, remove or harm their insides, then bring the victims to life again, and send them home to die.

Fortune obtained a comparable account of what the Dobu Islanders with whom he worked called wawari, which he realized was also known as vada in coastal parts of Papua. Fortune obtained a version of the story of wawari from an informant he calls Christopher. Fortune notes that all these practices had been made a criminal offense by the Australian colonial administration and punishable by imprisonment, but the major problems of securing convictions lay in the difficulty of obtaining reliable evidence of any wrongdoing. Similar difficulties have accompanied iterations of government enactments on “sorcery” in Papua New Guinea since independence in 1975, although ideas about sorcery are deeply ingrained in the beliefs of many different peoples in Papua New Guinea, and the issue enters into deep concerns about the situation in the early 21st century, in which violence is often inflicted on women accused of lethal acts of witchcraft or sorcery, as noted in “Wiru and Duna Compared.”

Susanne Kuehling comments on Fortune’s analysis of witchcraft and sorcery and on dimensions of gendered agency.27 In addition to noting that informants may have misled Fortune in relation to details of hostile magical spells, Kuehling also argues that the Dobuan attitudes should be interpreted not simply as paranoia but as ways of moral discipline. Kuehling notes that “with reference to the Dobu person, I have argued that sorcery and witchcraft beliefs function primarily to induce self-discipline bypassing the threat of surveillance and punishment.”28 She also says that the phenomenon of the fear of sorcery and witchcraft “is in effect an experience constitutive of self-awareness and a sense of social situation.”29 This functionalist interpretation of witchcraft and sorcery replaces the image of “paranoia” found in Ruth Benedict’s secondary portrayal of Dobu, which is based on Fortune’s firsthand ethnography. Some distinctions can be made here between male sorcery and female witchcraft in Dobuan representations. Kuehling does not take note of the kind of violent assault sorcery described to Fortune by his informant, Christopher.30 The question of what is legitimate or not is complex, but it is clear that functional concomitants of beliefs are at work in some instances, while others deal with images of “evil” cloaked as “retribution.”

The literature on this kind of topic continues to appear. Nancy Munn makes numerous references to “witchcraft,” making it clear that the word for this in the Gawa language is bwagau, the same as for sorcery among the Trobrianders, and that it also covers powers similar to those of the mulukwausi.31 Frederick Damon writes of the people on Woodlark Island (Muyuw) that women are held to have secret powers, notably bwagau (witchcraft) exercised at night. Such female witches reportedly consume people and have the strength, given to them by men, to fly, to sail in big steamships, and to drive huge trucks through remote parts of the island—a piece of cultural fantasy probably derived from seeing trucks in World War I.32

Ideas in the interior of Papua New Guinea about cannibalistic female witches with supernatural powers are common through the Central Highlands and involve beliefs about such witches as invading gravesites at night and robbing the bodies buried there in order to consume them. Bruce Knauft has documented a concept on the edges of the Southern Highlands among the Gebusi people—namely, the concept of ogowili, a “semi-invisible warrior” form taken on by a real man, often one from the warlike Bedamini group beyond the Gebusi community.33 These assault sorcerers were said to operate in spaces outside of ordinary human settlements and to hunt victims who ventured there, as with the Wiru example of Tangupane. A fall or slip while out walking indicates an ogowili attack. It is said that if the ogowili find a victim, they shoot the victim with arrows or inflict blows on the head. They hide the evidence of their attack, flaying the skin of the victim but later restoring it and the whole body so that the victim does not remember the attack. The ogowili take flesh from the body home and eat it, causing the victim’s death. Close relatives of the dead person are supposed to protect against such ogowili attacks, stopping the sorcerers from capturing their prey. A death attributed to an ogowili attack can generate homicidal disputes, and the deceased’s kin generally try to avoid this.34

The Daribi people live on the Karimui Plateau south of Chimbu on the southern margins of the Highlands of Papua New Guinea and were studied by Roy Wagner during fieldwork in 1963–1965. Wagner describes how a raiding party is picked from a number of clans to carry out assault sorcery. One or more of the groups formed should have knowledge of the magic of kebidibidi, which means “cassowary man.” This kind of magic derived from the aggressive character of the mountain cassowary and its ability to move swiftly and with stealth. Wagner describes how the raiders first kill a victim and then bring him back to life and send him home in a stupefied state, unable to recall the attack. The sorcerers secretly return and dispatch him. The aim of the killing has to do with revenge. Revenge is also reportedly cited as a reason in general for sorcery killings among enemy groups or as a result of individual animosity. During Wagner’s fieldwork, many deaths were attributed to this type of assault sorcery; whether this was owing to an increase in deaths from illness is not clear. In turn, a death attributed to kebidibidi generates revenge because the ghost of the murdered victim is said to demand this.35

These examples are sufficient to indicate that assault sorcery is a pervasive and endemically recognized category of hostile action in different parts of the fringe Highlands of Papua New Guinea. Given this, it is likely that it is also resurgent in these areas and others, wherever suspicions and hostilities exist among groups. Across swathes of areas, assault sorcery is known by the term sangguma, found in many places along the northern coast of Papua New Guinea and spread out across the Central Highlands.36

An interesting further point is that revenge issues and sorcery attacks are sometimes linked to rules of food sharing. Since sorcery is done in secret, the identity of the sorcery is often not known, even if attempts are made at divination to determine this fact. In this case, the relatives of the dead person make another move. The victim’s clan kin “go around to suspected clans and ask to eat with them. If, when the clan eats, the children of the victim’s clan become ill, then the clan with which the food was eaten contains the killer.”37 The reason is that the victim’s ghost is resentful of his brothers eating with his murderers and so attacks their children.

What makes this observation particularly interesting is that the idea involved is also found in the Mount Hagen area of the Western Highlands Province, far from Karimui and connected with warfare rather than with assault sorcery: these two contexts, however, show obvious parallels, as both involve responses to violent killings. In 2019, a leader in Hagen gave an account of his efforts to bring about a peace settlement between his group and an enemy group with which fighting had taken place over discussions in relation to the support of rival candidates in a national election.38 Years after the conflict, the leader wanted to bring about reconciliation among those involved. In doing so, he explained that food taboos had to be abrogated among the combatants, using the phrase el poer nggu (the breaking down of a war fence.) If killings occur, among enemies, the enemies must not sit down, sleep, or eat together. If they do, sickness will result. As long as these taboos hold, the fence or boundary separating the groups remains. Eating with the enemy without a peace settlement constitutes a breaking of the protective fence. The taboo can only be broken by special sacrifices and prayers. A genius for peacemaking was exhibited by the leader here, but the motivation for it was to avert the misfortune of sickness that could be brought on by the unilateral or unknowing breaking of the taboos on shared consumption. In contrast, the Daribi example, which was not an example of peacemaking, centers on exactly the same kind of cultural ideas that the Hagen leader dealt with and creatively reframed as a pathway for making peace—rather than perpetuating hostilities—by enabling food sharing to be a mark of amity and the opposite of food taboos, which were the mark of enmity. The potentiality for transformation of relationship is thus made clear.


The authors of this article thank the anonymous reviewers for their numerous insights and suggestions, along with supplementary references to materials. Thanks also go the editorial staff at Oxford, especially Developmental Editor Sam Green for helpful encouragement, and to Professor Margo Kitts for suggesting this topic.

Further Reading

  • Forsyth, Miranda, and Richard Eves, eds. Talking It Through: Responses to Sorcery and Witchcraft Beliefs and Practices in Melanesia. Canberra: Australian National University, 2015.
  • Lattas, Andrew. Cultures of Secrecy: Reinventing Race in Bush Kaliai Cargo Cults. New Directions in Anthropological Writing. Madison: University of Wisconsin, 1998.
  • Lemert, Edwin M. The Trouble with Evil: Social Control at the Edge of Morality. New York: SUNY Press, 1997.
  • Lindenbaum, Shirley. Kuru Sorcery: Disease and Danger in the New Guinea Highlands. Explorations in World Ethnology. Mountain View, CA: Mayfield, 1978.
  • Parkin, David, ed. The Anthropology of Evil. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1985.
  • Riboli, Diana, et al., eds. Dealing with Disasters—Perspectives from Eco-Cosmologies. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2021.
  • Stewart, Pamela J., and Andrew Strathern. Humors and Substances: Ideas of the Body in New Guinea. Westport, CT, and London: Bergin and Garvey, Greenwood, 2001.
  • Stewart, Pamela J., and Andrew Strathern. Sacred Revenge in Oceania. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2019.
  • Stewart, Pamela J., and Andrew J. Strathern. “Gossip—a Thing Humans Do.” Anthropology News (January–February 2020): 18–21.
  • Stewart, Pamela J., and Andrew Strathern. “Are Rumors in Pursuit of <<Truth>> or Alternative <<Realities>>?” Rivista di antropolgia contemporanea 1, no. 2 (2020): 253–257.
  • Stewart, Pamela J., and Andrew Strathern. “Le dicerie anelano alla <<verita>> a <<realta>> alternative?” [Are Rumors in Pursuit of <<Truth>> or Alternative <<Realities>>?] Rivista di antropolgia contemporanea 1, no. 2 (2020): 253–257.
  • Stewart, Pamela J., and Andrew Strathern, eds. The Palgrave Handbook of Anthropological Ritual Studies London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2021.
  • Stewart, Pamela J., and Andrew J. Strathern. “Moka (Ceremonial Exchange) with Death.” In The Palgrave Handbook of Anthropological Ritual Studies. Edited by Pamela J. Stewart and Andrew Strathern, 373–382. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2021.
  • Strathern, Andrew, and Pamela J. Stewart. “Shamanic Performances: Issues of Performativity and Comparison.” Journal of Ritual Studies 22, no. 1 (2008): 53–59.
  • Strathern, Andrew J., and Pamela J. Stewart (Strathern). “Dark and Light Shamanisms: Themes of Conflict, Ambivalence, and Healing.” In Shamanism and Violence: Power, Repression and Suffering in Indigenous Religious Conflicts. Edited by Diana Riboli and Davide Torri, 11–23. London: Ashgate, 2013.
  • Strathern, Andrew J., and Pamela J. Stewart. “Ritual, Performance, and Cognition.” In The Palgrave Handbook of Anthropological Ritual Studies. Edited by Pamela J. Stewart and Andrew Strathern, 147–158. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2021.
  • Strathern, Andrew, Pamela J. Stewart, and Neil L. Whitehead, eds. Terror and Violence: Imagination and the Unimaginable. Anthropology, Culture, and Society Series. London and Ann Arbor, MI: Pluto Press, 2006.


  • 1. Pamela J. Stewart and Andrew Strathern, Ritual: Key Concepts in Religion (London: Bloomsbury, 2014).

  • 2. Pamela J. Stewart and Andrew Strathern, “‘Feasting on My Enemy’: Images of Violence and Change in the New Guinea Highlands,” Ethnohistory 46, no. 4 (1999): 645–669.

  • 3. For a detailed exposition, see Pamela J. Stewart and Andrew Strathern, Witchcraft, Sorcery, Rumors, and Gossip, New Departures in Anthropology (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2004).

  • 4. Robin M. Wright, “Assault Sorcery,” in Oxford Handbook Topics in Religion (Oxford University Press, 2015).

  • 5. Wright, “Assault Sorcery.”

  • 6. Wright, “Assault Sorcery.”

  • 7. Pamela J. Stewart and Andrew Strathern, Remaking the World: Myth, Mining and Ritual Change among the Duna of Papua New Guinea, Smithsonian Series in Ethnographic Inquiry (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2002).

  • 8. Stewart and Strathern, “Remaking the World.”

  • 9. Stewart and Strathern, Witchcraft, Sorcery, Rumors, 114–119.

  • 10. Wright, “Assault Sorcery.”

  • 11. On the Mapuche, see Wright, “Assault Sorcery”; Ana Mariella Bacigalupo, “Gendered Rituals for Cosmic Order: Mapuche Shamanic Struggles for Wholeness,” Journal of Ritual Studies 19, no. 2 (2005): 53–69; and Ana Mariella Bacigalupo, Shamans of the Foye Tree: Gender, Power, and Healing among Chilean Mapuche (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2007).

  • 12. Neil L. Whitehead, Dark Shamans: Kanaima and the Poetics of Violent Death (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2002); and Neil L. Whitehead and Robin Wright, eds., In Darkness and Secrecy: The Anthropology of Assault Sorcery and Witchcraft in Amazonia (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004).

  • 13. Bruce M. Knauft, Exchanging the Past: A Rainforest World of before and After (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002).

  • 14. Stewart and Strathern, “Remaking the World,” 1–20; Stewart and Strathern, Witchcraft, Sorcery, Rumors, Passim; and Andrew Strathern and Pamela J. Stewart, Empowering the Past, Confronting the Future: The Duna People of Papua New Guinea, Contemporary Anthropology of Religion (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004).

  • 15. A. J. Strathern and Pamela J. Stewart, “Outside and Inside Meanings: Non-Verbal and Verbal Modalities of Agonistic Communication among the Wiru of Papua New Guinea,” Man and Culture in Oceania 15 (1999): 1–22; and A. J. Strathern and Pamela J. Stewart, “Dangerous Woods and Perilous Pearl Shells: The Fabricated Politics of a Longhouse in Pangia, Papua New Guinea,” Journal of Material Culture 5, no. 1 (2000): 69–89.

  • 16. Pamela J. Stewart and Andrew Strathern, Violence: Theory and Ethnography (London and New York: Continuum, 2002), 84–88.

  • 17. Stewart and Strathern, “‘Feasting,’” Passim.

  • 18. See David Riches, ed., The Anthropology of Violence (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1986), on contested legitimacy, as discussed in Stewart and Strathern, Violence, 6.

  • 19. On terror and violence, see in particular Stewart and Strathern, Violence, 1–39.

  • 20. Stewart and Strathern, “‘Feasting,’” Passim.

  • 21. Michele Stephen, ed., Sorcerer and Witch in Melanesia (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1987); and Mary Patterson, “Sorcery and Witchcraft in Melanesia,” Oceania 15, no. 2–3 (1974–1975): 132–160, 215–234.

  • 22. Christopher C. Taylor, Sacrifice as Terror: The Rwandan Genocide of 1994 (Oxford: Berg, 1999); Whitehead and Wright, Darkness and Secrecy; and Pamela J. Stewart and Andrew Strathern, “Afterword: Substances, Powers, Cosmos, and History,” in In Darkness and Secrecy: The Anthropology of Assault Sorcery and Witchcraft in Amazonia, ed. Neil L. Whitehead and Robin Wright (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004), 314–320.

  • 23. Stewart and Strathern, Witchcraft, Sorcery, Rumors, 140–167.

  • 24. Bronislaw Malinowski, Argonauts of the Western Pacific (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1922), 75.

  • 25. Malinowski, Argonauts, 76.

  • 26. Reo F. Fortune, Sorcerers of Dobu (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1963), 288; and Malinowski, Argonauts, 42.

  • 27. Susanne Kuehling, Dobu: Ethics of Exchange on a Massim Island, Papua New Guinea (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2005), 116–145.

  • 28. Kuehling, Dobu, 134.

  • 29. Kuehling, Dobu, 137.

  • 30. Fortune, Sorcerers of Dobu, 161–164.

  • 31. Nancy D. Munn, The Fame of Gawa (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1986).

  • 32. Frederick Damon, From Muyuw to the Trobriands (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1990), 132.

  • 33. Bruce M. Knauft, Good Company and Violence: Sorcery and Social Action in a Lowland New Guinea Society (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1985), 104, 223–224.

  • 34. Knauft, Good Company, 105.

  • 35. Roy Wagner, The Curse of Souw: Principles of Daribi Clan Definition and Alliance (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1967), 51–55.

  • 36. Kenelm O. Burridge, Tangu Traditions (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1969).

  • 37. Wagner, Curse of Souw, 51. See also Roy Wagner, Habu: The Innovation of Meaning in Daribi Religion (Chicago: University Chicago Press, 1972).

  • 38. Personal field notes, Hagen, Papua New Guinea ; and Pamela J. Stewart and Andrew Strathern, Sacred Revenge in Oceania (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2019).