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Mountain myths from Papua New Guinea

Mt Giluwe
Mount Giluwe


DAGUA - In Papua New Guinea, in traditional societies, mountains animate a sense of awe and malevolence. And they are also recognised as a source of life, spirituality and identity.

Where gods and goddesses reside in mountains in ancient Greek mythologies, ancestral spirits and masalai reside in mountains in PNG mythologies. In PNG, creation stories are augmented by origin and genealogy stories of an ancestor evolving or coming from the mountain.

In August 2008, I spent six weeks practice teaching at Pangia government station in the Southern Highlands. One of my lessons was a task directing students to write a traditional story.

Among the submissions were two mountain myths from the Ialibu-Pangia and Imbonggu. The main characters were Mount Ialibu and Mount Giluwe. Both tales were based on the premise of nature versus man. How Ialibu and Giluwe were able to influence and direct the lives of the people around them.

In their anthropomorphised state, these mountains displayed the characters and qualities akin to the gods and goddesses of ancient Western mythologies. They were able to talk, squabble, move and think like people.

The mountains felt that it was their right and in their powers to decide on the fate of the people around them. The people in turn accepted their fate and feared the mountains.



This is a tale from the Imbonggu District which is located at the foot of Mount Giluwe. The soil in Imbonngu is not very fertile and there aren’t many crops grown there because all the food has been shared out to other places by the mountain.

Once the mountain came up with an idea and said, “Tomorrow, early in the morning, I’ll share all my food so all the people nearby must come and get a share each.”

Early the next morning while the Imbonngu people who live right at the foot of the mountain were still sleeping, the people from far away were already at the mountain. The mountain was pleased with them and gave them all the best food.

After the people from the distant areas were gone, the Imbonggu people arrived late with their big string bags and bilum. But, the mountain said, “Sorry, because you are late, all the best food was taken away by other people.”

Today, you will see that the soil in Imbonggu is still dry and you cannot grow the best crops there.

So if you are invited to an occasion, you must be the first person there because the first person gets the best treatment.



A long, long time ago, there were two big mountains named Ialibu and Giluwe. They were good friends and lived together. During that time Mount Giluwe existed where Mount Korome is.

One day, Mount Giluwe said, “There are too many people and animals around us, we must kill them all.” Mount Ialibu just listened and did not respond to what Mount Giluwe suggested.

Sometime later, Mount Ialibu got up and said, “We must have a meeting.”

They mumued greens and the two of them had their meeting after the mumu.

Mount Ialibu began by saying, “I do not like the way you talk. Please, can you change your mind. I want to live in front of people and I do not want to kill them. You must go and stay in the middle of the bush where there are no people.”

Mount Giluwe became angry and took the mumued greens and threw them on Mount Ialibu’s face. Mount Ialibu then took a stick and broke Mount Giluwe’s teeth.

Today if you travel from Ialibu Station to Wagum Junction, you can see Mount Giluwe with broken teeth. And when you go to Mount Giluwe, it is not safe to use the bush, cut down trees or do according to your own will. It will kill you when you do wrong things.


Even though these two tales are basic in form and composition like all Papua New Guinea myths, legends and fables, they describe well the geography of the region and the natural formation of the mountains as seen by the local people.

During the six weeks I was in this part of PNG, I noticed that some crops did not grow well because of the poor quality of the land. And while Mount Ialibu has a nice crown of green forest, at its summit Mount Giluwe has rows of jagged volcanic rocks.

These natural features are visible when you are on the road to Ialibu-Pangia or to Mendi. And these features are visible and captured well in these two simple tales.

I would like to acknowledge George Pope of 9C2 and Samson Tirick of 9C1 for the above stories, as well as, the 2008 Grade 9 students of Pangia High School (now secondary school)


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Garrett Roche

Kathleen, in the Hagen area I remember local language names of spirits like ‘kur wagl’, ‘kur gnaip’ and ‘kur wenwen’. If I remember correctly the ‘kur wenwen’ was associated with an echo that was audible if one shouted out across the Nebyler river near Togoba and an echo would come back from the limestone cliffs across the valley. Some claimed that the echo was a spirit answering.

Bernard Corden

Dear Kathleen,

The PNG Tokpisin term is masalai, which is a good or bad spirit that is thought to live in natural parts of the world. Some local people believe there are exogenous spirits within the trees and stones:


In PNG Tokples, they can be called different names such as porikana and are often attributed to unexplained illnesses and deaths amongst local tribes.

Kathleen Donald

I lived in Mt Hagen between the mid sixties and mid-seventies and there were stories about big man-like creatures that lived near the tops of mountains.

I wish I could remember what they were called but I do remember that several European climbers went missing and stories were going around that only the soles of their feet and parts of their backpacks were found.

The local natives blamed their deaths on these larger than life mountain top dwellers.

Local inhabitants would not climb into these regions because of these 'spirits' and would only talk about these myths in hushed tones.

Can anybody tell me the names of these mysterious creatures and if anything has ever been found to substantiate these stories.

Teddy Thomas

This helped me a lot, especially in reviewing oral literature.

I'm currently studying at Divine Word University taking PNG Studies and International Relations.

Good luck with your studies, Teddy. Two good subjects there - KJ

Raymond Sigimet

Thank you, Casmia. I'm glad, reading your comment, that this article helped you in your assignment.

It is important that we all do our little by recording and transmitting these tales. Their substance and value will become known and clear in years to come.

Casmia James

Thanks so much, writer. I am currently studying here in the Papua New Guinea University of Technology doing second year.

This myth contributes something towards my first assignment.

I am really interested in your myth and encourage you to write more like this.

This will equip yourself to write better essays and myths.

Raymond Sigimet

Keith, the St Francis Cappuchins' residence at Pangia station.

Raymond Sigimet

Thank you for all your comments and anecdotes.
During my time there, I was able to visit Mendi and was in awe of the town's limestone cliff with Wara Mendi below.
Also, in the bushes at the back of the St Francis Cappuchins' residence, I was taken to and shown two pools of dark water. The locals have their own stories about these pools.
From the vantage point I was at and viewing these pools and their formation, I believe they were remnants of a meteor hit to this part of the country some millions or hundreds of thousand years ago.

Daniel Kumbon

Raymond - Just last month, I was travelling to Mt Hagen from Kandep via Mendi with a friend, Paul Steward Itiogon.

We were disappointed my camera batteries had gone flat. We couldn't take photos of ourselves with the majestic Mt Giluwe as a backdrop.

Paul is a nephew and family friend who had come up for a funeral after a 10 year absence working in Australia.

Paul's mother who was travelling with us showed us a lake on the foothills of Mt Giluwe which has a story of its own.

This lake which is known as Lake Kasu in Kandep had returned here to its original location after a tribal fight in the 1980s, she explained.

She said Lake Kasu was drained during the fight which coincidentally was over a pig.

Paul’s mother did not mean the actual water in this lake but spirit beings of a brother and sister couple who are believed to have returned here after the fight in Kandep.

A long time ago, they had initially left this area abruptly after a malicious spirit touched the girl’s breasts.

Legend has it that Lake Kasu was formed with pig fat (gris) dripping from a bilum which was carried by a young man who was fleeing from his sister who kept sobbing thinking that he her brother had touched her breasts..

When the young man was out hunting, an evil spirit turned itself into the young man.

It went straight to the garden where the girl was making sweet potatoe mounds. On the way, it collected some wild fruits called Kupi Dii.

When the girl tried to greet him, the evil spirit threw the wild fruits at the girl’s breasts with a evil grin spreading across its face,.

The evil spirit then hurried away into the bushes as the girl began to cry. She refused to take any food or drink for days.

How can her own brother do this to her?.

When her brother returned home with loads of opossums, the girl did not welcome him home as usual. She just sat in a corner and kept on sobbing uncontrollably. .

She did not explain or confront him why he had embarrassed her in the garden.

She did not help him cook the opossum nor did she eat any of it when he offered her some later.

She stubbornly kept on crying for two more days, nor did she take food or drink..

The girl’s unexplained behavior hurt him deeply. He decided to go to some unknown place and disappear for good.

On the third day, he killed their largest pig. The girl didn't even respond or helped when he made preparations to cook it in a large mumu pit.

Finally, he removed the mumu and left some pork for his sister.

He then carried the rest in a bilum and set off on the Tapu trade route up towards Mariant in Kandep.

When he was a mile away, the girl realized her brother was leaving her. He had taken all his personal belongings with him, never to return.

There was emptiness in the house. Nowhere was her brother’s smiling face to be seen.

She panicked and realized her mistake. She wailed all the more louder with renewed energy.

She ran after him and shouted his name, pleading for him to come back.

‘Please brother, my only brother come back to me. Please don’t leave me,’ she wailed as she smashed her fingers against some rocks.

But her brother did not hear her. He kept walking towards the Tapu trade route.

The girl kept following him in hot pursuit - shouting, begging and wailing after him.

Still the young man kept walking without rest.

He crossed the Tapu mountain range and descended down into the Mariant Valley in Kandep.

He kept walking steadily until he reached Kasu village.

As he stood still in a small valley, the pig fat continued to drip down rapidly and began to spread out forming a lake around him.

It began rising up to his neck when his sister finally caught up with him.

But it was too late.

She could not reach out to touch nor talk to him. The pig fat was forming a big round lake which kept getting wider..

As the girl ran around the lake to find a narrow gap, the fat began to cover his face and head finally covering him completely. Only the tip of his cassowary headdress showed above the lake.

The girl kept going round and round the lake calling out her brother’s name in vain.

She eventually turned into an opossum called Paukap which continued to live around the lake pleading to her brother to return to her……

Paul’s mother explained that after Lake Kasu was drained during that fight, the tip of the headdress did not show anymore and the cries of the Paukap opossum were not heard of again.

They had finally returned to the SHP to live in that lake we saw as we drove passed.

Philip Fitzpatrick

Interesting comment about the hausmeri and these stories Joe.

In the social mapping I've done over the years, both in Australia and PNG, the women were always the best source of cultural information, including myths and legends.

Joe Herman

Excellent piece, Raymond. In the Enga these stories were passed down through "tindii pii" at the hausmeri.

The stories and legends, told by older sisters or aunts with their captivating story telling skills, took us to an imaginary world where ours and the spirit world beyond the skies met.

These legends reminded us of the past, embraced the present, and pointed to a steadfast hope. It was life with the sky people through a worldview stitched together between real and imaginary life.

Garry Roche

Raymond, many years ago I heard a similar tale about Mt. Giluwe from a man named Toa son of Rop, from the Mokei Nampakae clan near Kaiwe, right next to Hagen Town.

The basic tale was that all the different tribes were on Giluwe and those who did not wake in time were left with poor food. In the tale, people from Imbongu, Nebyler, Hagen and even Enga were involved.

According to the version I heard, the Engans were the last to wake and so got the poorest food. (No doubt - a Hagen bias!) The tale ended by saying that the mumu pits (earth ovens) for the food can still be seen to this day on Giluwe.

Raymond Sigimet

Barbara, I also find interest in traditional stories. Over the few years I've been dealing with students, I noticed that traditional stories are slowly being forgotten and fading into obscurity.

The interesting bit about some of the traditional stories is the allegorical and symbolic meaning hidden in them. They do express and explain something that was not understood then but we can now work out and interpret what, why and how things or events happened in the way they did.

Some of these tales transcend human experience, geographical and language boundaries. For example, the Sepik tales of the cassowary woman and man, the flying foxes and women of Walis Island, the dog that brought salt over the mountain and others.

Even if these tales are simplistic, they explained something. The meaning is hidden somewhere.

In 2016, a friend from Milne Bay was viewing a TV series "Once upon a Time", a loose portrayal of the famous Grimm Brothers fairy tales when he exclaimed, " I cannot believe this, most of story line, scenes and magic depicted in this TV series are just like the traditional stories from my area in Milne Bay."

PNG just need to find creativity in its traditional stories rather then reading or viewing foreign Western adaptations of traditional indigenous stories or borrowed indigenous knowledge and thinking it is something new.

Barbara Short

Thanks Raymond. I love these old traditional stories from PNG. I used to collect them from my students and publish them on the old Gestetna printers.

I still have a lot here somewhere in my crowded bookshelves. I also have a lot on the computer that were collected years ago on Kairiru.

Please contact me if you want copies of the ones from Kairiru.

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