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Is sorcery real or just a myth? Here’s our dilemma


ALL THE HULLABALOO AND HYPE on sorcery in recent times has been focused on the sorcery killers.

Almost all sectors of PNG society condemned the sorcery killings. The O’Neill government, riding on the wave of popular public outcry, has now repealed the Sorcery Act and passed new laws that will see sorcery killers facing the harshest penalty. Death.

This is fine as far as protecting the innocent is concerned. However, what hangs in limbo is the question of whether sorcery is real or just a myth.

If it is real, and the accused practitioner proven guilty by scientific means, for example DNA tests, can that person be held accountable?

Sorcery and sorcery killings are common throughout Papua New Guinea. People believe in sorcery. It has long been part of PNG’s culture and inheritance since prehistory.

Each culture has its own type of sorcery and sorcery practices.

In some cultures, people are using physical media like lime (kol kambang mainly in the New Guinea Islands and northern regions), barks or leaves of certain trees and plants, and carvings made of wood or stone (stone man of Pangia and Erave). In other cultures, they use non-physical supernatural spirits, called sanguma.

Sanguma (witchcraft) is the most predominant form of sorcery. It is believed to be responsible for most of the sorcery-related deaths that have been reported.

Sanguma is believed to be a person who presents in the form of an animal or insect of supernatural power. The spirit, through its supernatural power, enables the host to perform incredible acts mostly malevolent and harmful to humans.

The host, enabled by the supernatural power of the medium, can kill another human being by removing an organ or a vital body part. Alternatively, the sanguma can remotely control a person by causing fatal accidents and other acts.

Let me exemplify the judicial problem by building a hypothetical case.

A man is accused of killing a young woman through sanguma. The man is brought before a legally constituted council of witchdoctors in the presence of police, a judge and local authorities.

The council is told that the accused, using sanguma, removed the heart of a young woman and kept it in a dish of water and it can’t be put back.

To prove that the heart is actually missing, a post mortem is done on the corpse. The heart is missing, which is witnessed by all.

The authorities then ask the council if the heart can be brought before them. The dead heart is brought before the authorities in a dish.

A DNA test is done on the heart and the young woman. The result confirms that the heart belongs to the young woman.

What will happen to the sorcerer murderer? Should he be set free?


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Gabriel Kuman | Social & Behavioural Researcher | Melanesian Institute, Goroka

Sanguma or witchcraft and sorcery are two different things altogether and to say one thing as the other is completely wrong and misleading.

The two have completely different definitions and their characteristics and their uses are also different.

One has to read my article "Sorcery, witchcraft and development" in the Catalyst publication of the Melanesian Institute as well as other major publications of the Melanesian Institute on Sorcery and Witchcraft such as "Sanguma in Paradise" in the Point publication to understand the meanings, dilemma, and issues surrounding sorcery and witchcraft.

For people interested in the issue of sorcery and witchcraft I would highly recommend you to purchase those books at the Melanesian Institute in Goroka.

Francis Nii

Thanks everybody for your meaningful and insightful debate on this issue.

With due respect to your individual beliefs, experiences and reasoning, sorcery has been deeply rooted in PNG and sorcery killing has been going on for centuries.

Nevertheless, as PNG as a nation progresses into modernisation, sorcery and sorcery killings should be labeled as a fiendish and counterproductive belief and practice that should be gotten rid of.

Enacting laws against sorcery killing is welcome except that it addresses only one part of the whole issue.

It would have been a holistic approach had the Sorcery Act not been repealed and instead strengthened.

In my opinion, the O'Neill government has made a grave mistake by repealing the Sorcery Act and only time will reveal the fruit of this decision.

Mrs Barbara Short

Jeff, Christians don't deny sorcery as a spiritual power. We look on it as an evil power.

Christ taught us to pray "deliver us from evil".

We believe that Satan is behind evil things. Satan is the Father of all Lies.

Much of the beliefs of people who believe in sorcery and practice sorcery on people they hate, is not based on rational human thinking. Their actions often involve clever trickery into making people believe in them.

Satan and his "fallen angel" friends can cause a lot of people to believe falsehoods. People who attend seances are tricked. People who "follow the stars" are tricked.
Sangumas practice trickery. All of these things cause many problems.

Christianity is a spiritual power. Human beings are made of body, mind and soul. The connection between the mind and soul is very intricate.

Fortunately Christians are able to call on the spiritual power of God, his Holy Spirit, to help them use their minds to sort out the truth from all the lies and to be rational thinking beings.

The lies are the superstitions. The Truth is the Truth!

Jeff Febi

Corney, no I don't wish for sorcery to continue nor do I want age old superstitions to continue too.

The problem here is Christians who believe in a supernatural Being and of his archrival- the Devil - continue to deny sorcery (both bad and good).

So how come superstitious Christians deny another superstitous belief - sorcery & sanguma? Isn't this hypocrisy as both sides believe in the supernatural?

Of course we can move on peacefully unless we (Christians and non-believers) accept that sorcery is real and is here to stay and move to educate people about its (sorcery & sanguma) disadvantages.

If we continue to deny it and its existance we can't eradicate sorcery and sanguma in our societies.

Joe Wasia

Corney, in this country with diverse cultures and believes, how do you expect every Papua New Guineans to live away from this overnight?

Cultures and traditions are part of human existence that they learn over year. And they pass on from generation to generation.

You are supporting the sorcerers to do more like the MPs who have repealed and passed the sorcery bill as if they were totally changed in the new century.

The 21st century doesn’t mean anything to unconverted PNGeans who have strong belief in their culture and their believes are true in every particular. It would take thousand years just to divert these long existing cultures and believes.

The government has failed miserably in the sense that they did look at other side of the coin. They did not pass any laws against sorcerers. They just allowed them and put restriction on any actions against them. And that is very strange.

They MPs have blindly passed some of the bills that will have greater negative impact on the future of this nation. Death penalty is another one. Come MPs! Make laws that will work well in PNG society. We are not in US or in Europe.

Steven Gimbo

I still think the government made a big mistake by abolishing the law against sanguma.

Now all those people who practise these black arts are jumping up and down with joy because the state has legalised their practises!

Corney Korokan Alone

Joe and Jeff,
Do you want to tolerate this insidious and age old so-called custom in this 21st century?

Or do we have to make a conscious effort to unlearn some of these and move on with things that work well for the communal benefit and those that drive peaceful co-existence.

Joe Wasia

It seems to me that those PNGans reading and commenting here have flown down from heavens and so the 107 elected MPs of the Parliament.

Sorcery practices have been here for years even at the pre-independence. Repealing and passing of the sorcery act is a joke.

Now the sorcerers are flapping their lungs knowing that they will take more lives for their night meals as long as the laws protect them.

Jeff was right in that scenario. We have hundreds of similar experiences which i don't need to tell you. You all know that.

Mrs Barbara Short

Jeff, I was not joking. If you want to discuss it more contact me by email - [email protected]

Peter Kranz

My own beliefs are pretty simple. Hurting people is bad, helping people is good. However you arrive at that conclusion is your own concern.

If you are interested in an academic study, I recommend Ernst Cassirer - 'The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms'. Not an easy read, but pretty comprehensive.

And he points out the links between magic, religion, art, and even music.

Jeff Febi

Barbara, I like your response to my comment. Did you mean it as a joke?

Marcus Mapen

Sorcery and Christianity (or religion) are inseparable. If you believe in God (or in any religion), then you have to believe in any (or all) forms of sorcery.

Christianity preaches that God has an enemy (the opposite of God). Is this 'opposite' going to freely allow God to have all the glory or allow everyone to go to heaven?

Corney Korokan Alone

Peter, All heaven and earth knows that there's no "how to sexually abuse children module covered in priestly training".

Just like some policemen who abuse their power, ill treating innocent people, some priests have committed such abuses. Such repugnant incidences are not something the whole Christian community tolerates.

You would have noted that, all true Christians are priests and not all priests are Christians.

Robin Lillicrapp

As to which system liberates: "The wheat and the tares grow together till the harvest."

In matters of the Spirit, the outward appearance, the soft spoken words are not always what they seem.

What better place for the "devil" to hide than in the church.
Have no fear, the yield from the transformed heart is always a clear revelation of liberty, freedom from fear and hopelessness accompanied by a reverential and abiding trust in the finished work of Christ at Calvary.

The corruption of religion accompanied by deviant outcomes is message enough of its profession but not possession.

As in witchcraft and sanguma the manipulative and deviant outcomes of "christian religion" are related to the same master.

David Ransom

That some people believe in sorcery is not in question. That a belief in sorcery can harm some people also appears to be true. But whether sorcery exists in any supernatural sense is a very different issue.

Those who lived in PNG pre independence will recall a parliamentary investigation into sorcery which found that that deaths by sorcery mostly had mundane explanations . Poison was a popular.

Peter Kranz

Corney - are they poles apart? What about the many cases of child sexual abuse perpetrated by Christian priests?

Which belief system liberates and helps people, or imprisons one's soul and borders on fear?

Corney Korokan Alone

Christianity and the world of witchcraft and sorcery are poles apart.

The former liberates and helps people.The latter imprisons one's soul and borders on fear.

Christianity condemns witchcraft/sorcery and denounces it flatly.

The two are not the same thing.

Take your pick.

Would you choose something that is done in broad day-light (and publicly) that has a positive influence on your life or something that is practised in secrecy in the cover of darkness that consigns one to perpetual fear and mistrust?

The middle ground is for yoyos and unstable people.

Harry Topham

Despite empirical evidence proving otherwise, people will always believe what they want to believe.

Some recent studies in the USA showed that some people still believe that the landing on the moon was a hoax and that US World Series wrestling is real.

Brian Ballard

Hi Francis, I have worked in PNG and with Australian Aboriginal communities long enough to know that there is something to 'the spirit'.

It is only the very foolish who use those forces adversely as I have been warned that retribution is severe against perpetrators who play with the 'black arts'.

Peter Kranz

Isn't there a deep problem of hypocrisy here?

Can you condemn belief in sorcery as mere superstition, while urging people to embrace a religion which believes in virgin birth, resurrection of the dead, walking on water, making donkeys talk, making the sun stand still etc?

One person's superstition is another person's religion.

Mrs Barbara Short

Jeff, thanks for your story. I can understand why you still partly believe in sorcery.

I would try to rationalise what you saw. Most likely the uncles tricked you. Somehow they removed the heart and intestines secretly and then tricked you into believing that the sanguma did it.

I remember one of the students at Brandi telling me how he saw his uncle turn another man into a crocodile, then he saw the crocodile turned back into the man.

I believe that this was done by hypnotism. Maybe some of that was done in your case too. Young people can be very susceptible to being tricked. They tend to believe everything they are told and have not had the seeds of doubt planted in them.

I'm sure older men, especially uncles, felt it was their duty to put the fear of sorcery into their young relatives.

I can see by now you have some seeds of doubt planted in you and I hope you will continue to think about what happened and realize that you were tricked.

Jeff Febi

I witnessed an event I have not forgotten to this day.

As an educated man I have tried and tried to scientifically made sense of it but have failed.

This happened at my mother's village - Genabona, Gumine District, Simbu Province.

I was having a chat with my uncles (mum's eldest & little bro) just in front of the eldest's house. Not far off was the family's herd of goats feeding on grass.

Suddenly one of the goats, a huge female, collapsed with a loud thud.

We went over to check and the goat was dead - I mean it was really dead.

My uncles starting cursing and shouting profanities at the top of their voices - ocassionaly mentioning 'kum' or 'awal kum' - sanguma or sanguma meri - and they were damn sure about that.

I heard my uncles say that a sanguma or sangumas have plucked out the goat's heart. I was shaking but was eager to see for the first time the handiwork of a sanguma.

After opening the goat up, to my horror, the heart and the intestines - all of it - were missing. It was a bloody neat job expertly done! Only a puddle of blood remained.

Now don't get me wrong! As an educated man, I don't want to subscribe to superstitious beliefs. But as an eyewitness, this I can't forget.

How else will I scientifically explain this?

My father is from Lufa, Eastern Highlands Province. Many people call us - Eastern Highlanders - 'ol posin man'...and that is not a joke.

I have witnessed just too many things, that in honesty, if I publically state that sorcery and sanguma isn't real, I will not really mean it.

I want to deny sorcery and sanguma, but my experience always nudges from the corners of my memory.

Leonard Roka

To me, it's kind of a power-of-mind in the old days (before modernization) but today, it is nothing but some form of extreme phobia of the spiritual realm of Melanesian epistemologies.

Education is the only cure we can think of.

Em longlong blo tingting tasol.

Steven Gimbo

Sanguma is an issue of a spiritual nature, being that where good exists, evil also lurks.

For that reason,if the government is serious about the sanguma issue, then it must set up an institute, comprising church organisations and their exorcists or experts who deal with things of a spiritual nature.

After all the church is solely for dealing with such issues, arent they? The Catholic Church has exorcists. These people can judge, after investigation, whether someone is possessed or not and can even perform excorcism on the possessed.

The Churches must come up with an explanation for that! Otherwise the people are always bound to blame the unexplainable on sanguma.

On the other hand, with the current law outlawing sanguma, the government may be playing into the hands of those who are evil and practising the black arts, in other words, legalising the practise of black magic!

Just my 2 toea tingting!

Chris Overland

Sorcery is not real in the sense that it has no scientifically verifiable basis in fact. However, it is also very real in that it can be used to kill people.

The method is to rely upon the victim to induce a pyschosomatic illness that has a fatal outcome.I have seen a case where a perfectly healthy man starved himself to death because he believed that black magic (pori pori) had been used against him.

There was nothing that anyone could do to help this man because he had become gripped with the idea that he would die and so made this a self fulfilling prophesy.

I asked local villagers why I, as a Kiap, was not vulnerable to pori pori. The answer was simple: you cannot harm those who do not believe that you can.

I think that PNG has a pretty interesting legal challenge before it in dealing with this very nebulous but nonetheless real problem.

Corney Korokan Alone

Francis, I have lived, dined and stayed with people who other people told me do "puripuri na ol pipia sanguma nambaut"

None of their so-called sorcery worked on me. Have even challenged them to try their so-called magic formula on me. None of them worked!

One thing that I have settled in my life that is, God alone is the giver of life and He alone has authority over it.

No demonic or evil forces of the dark world have any power over God.

People live in fear and sometimes fear kills them and many a times cultural blindness heaps all sundry and blame to the "percieved sorcerer or sanguma".

The curse of paranoia is something every thinking and "cooked-food eating" Papua New Guineans need to get a grip on and graduate from.

See a typical paranoia story below by my wife below.

Robin Lillicrapp

Amidst a world of science and reason, sceptics will abound.
They will assert that the realm of sorcery prospers amidst a clientele of superstitious and , perhaps, unsound mental processing.

Yet, the outcomes are real enough: people die or are otherwise tormented by the sorcerers art.

One of my classmates in college, a Prince of a main tribal group in Nigeria, told me of a witch-doctor being teleported to a remote location within a time frame denying the event to be staged or achieved by modern transport.

Stories are numberless concerning the proliferation of the sorcerers art.

The sorcerer is often a nondescript (by western standards) identity amidst tribal peers. There is little other than associated regalia to indicate a possession of power.

Ultimately, like electrical activity which is invisible to the eye, the power asserts its whim upon targeted victims by its being sought or conjured by the sorcerer.
At whose whim: sorcerer or holder of power within?

Like most elements of the spiritual world, the "powers" attendant are the product of a possessed relationship with unseen forces / entities.

Most cultures feature a notion of good and evil attached to philosophical benchmarks.
In the Christian experience, ideally, a relationship exists with the living Saviour, Jesus Christ.

I doubt whether the realm of law has much traction in that arena either.
Would the "good" that arises from this relationship be a prosecutable offence, can a rationally applied rule of law pronounce a verdict based upon science? I doubt it.

Like the death of a sanguma victim, the visible outcome is real but how to prosecute the devil, that is the detail.

Paulus Ripa

That hypothetical case does not exist. That is because sanguma does not exist except in the minds of people.

As long as reasonable educated people lend credence to the idea it will continue to be propagated. It seems an impossible task but we need to make a stand.

The same ideas were present all over the world including the current western world where witchcraft only a few hundred years ago was rife with the burning of people at the stake.

At the medical school at UPNG we tell incoming medical students that if they believe in sanguma this is not the place for them.

On the other hand they must bear in mind that their patients will believe in sorcery and that whilst emphathetic must be careful not to lend legitimacy to sanguma.

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