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Among the Murngin [says Warner] there are six distinct varieties of warfare. Each has a separate pattern of behavior and an individual name. In addition to these there is another form in which only the women participate. The names are nirimaoi yolno, a fight within the camp; narrup or djawarlt, a secret method of killing; maringo (death adder), a night attack in which the entire camp is surrounded; milwerangel, a general open fight between at least two groups; gaingar (ghost spear), a pitched battle; and makarata, a ceremonial peace-making fight which is partly an ordeal. Each of the six forms will be described in detail.

Out of seventy-two engagements in which men were killed, twenty-nine were slain by a gaingar fight, thirty-five by maringo, twenty-seven by narrup, three by milwerangel, and two by nirimaoi yolno. Although the last is the most frequent type of fight, it seldom results in killings; gaingar, on the other hand, has only happened twice in the last twenty years, yet it has accounted for the deaths of twenty-nine men.

The wooden or stone-headed spear, the spear thrower, and the club, as well as the stone knife, are used in these engagements. The spear is the chief weapon, although in camp fights clubs play a prominent part. The stone ax, which is primarily utilized as an implement, also serves as a weapon. No shield is found here. The Murngin depend on the spear thrower to ward off spears, and also on their well-developed agility to avoid being hit. In all fights except the nirimaoi yolno and the narrup, the people paint themselves with a coating of white clay as war paint.

For the last twenty years, out of some seventy battles that were recorded for this paper in which members of the Murngin factions were killed, fifty were caused by the desire to avenge the killing of a relative, usually a clansman, by members of another clan (blood revenge). Of these, fifteen were killings that were done deliberately, against the tradition of what is fair cause for a war, because it was felt that their enemies had killed the wrong people when they retaliated for injuries done them. Ten killings were due to members of a clan stealing a woman, or obtaining a woman who belonged to another clan, by illegal means. Five men were killed because they had slain men by black magic. The clans of the men killed by magic slew the men who were supposed to be the magicians. Five men were slain because they looked at a totemic emblem under improper circumstances and by so doing insulted the members of the clan to whom it belonged as well as endangered the latter’s spiritual strength.

The underlying idea back of the causes for most Murngin warfare is that the same injury should be inflicted upon the enemy group that one’s own group has suffered. This having been done, a clan feels satisfied; if not, there is always a compelling urge within the group for vengeance, which causes a continuous restlessness among those who are out to "buy back" the killing of one of their clansmen. The stealing of a woman from an enemy is on the same basis, since the group feels itself injured if a woman is taken from it, and only the return of the woman and a ceremonial fight, or the stealing of another woman, will satisfy the hurt to its self-esteem, unless the clan has retaliated by killing or wounding one of the enemy clansmen. The same feeling surrounds a member of another clan viewing the group’s totemic emblem. A totemic emblem is a central symbol around which most of the ceremony of the group is centered, and an improper treatment of this object is an insult and an injury to the entire clan. Any of the above causes for war may be due to deliberation on the part of those who injure the feelings of a clan, or they may be done by accident, but in either case warfare is a certain consequence. If a young man accidentally comes upon an old man engaged in making a totemic emblem the former is killed, or if a man is accidentally killed in a fight by a member of a friendly group, the dead man’s people retaliate. There is, nevertheless, a considerable feeling among them that an accidental act should not cause open hostilities, but such a feeling has small influence upon the public opinion of the people who believe they have been injured. There are a number of forms of ritualistic injury. If women look at a totemic emblem they are killed by their own group, with the help of any other group that has been offended by their actions. The clan to which they belong is not held responsible except in a minor way. Some years ago the Liagaomir clan was holding a totemic ceremony and using their carpet-snake totemic emblems (painted wooden trumpets). A woman belonging to the Birkili clan, and a second belonging to the Liagaomir, stole up to the ceremonial ground and watched the men blowing the wooden trumpet during the ceremony. They went back to the women’s camp and told them what they had seen. When the men came back to camp and heard of their behavior, Yanindja, the leader, said: "When will we kill them?" Everyone replied, "Immediately." The two women were instantly put to death by members of their own clan with the help of the men from the other group. . . .

The use of obscenity and profanity against a man always results in a camp fight. Profanity usually reflects not only on the man, but on his clan, and carries an incestuous connotation. Occasionally quarrels result from an unfair division of the game killed in the hunt. Open warfare does not always happen from such a cause, since people who feel they had a right to the game are near relatives. Their solidarity would be too strong to allow fighting.

Adulteries may be the cause only for a husband giving his wife a thorough beating, but usually the lover is also held responsible and a fight is a consequence. The fights are ordinarily of the nirimaoi yolno type. If the lover attempts to steal her, the more serious narrup and maringo are used, because wife stealing is a much more serious offense.

There are a number of customs connected with the killing of a man that serve as causes for war. When the body of a man who has been killed in a fight or by magic is disinterred, the finger bones are given to the near relatives both of the victim’s own clan and related groups, as relics to remind them of their duty of blood vengeance. The relic is wrapped with fiber string and covered with beeswax and parrot feathers. It is placed at the bottom of the man’s personal basket. A piece of a spear that has been broken off and left in the body of the victim is also used as a relic. When a man has been wounded he sometimes soaks pieces of paper bark in his blood and presents them to his relatives to be used as reminders of their duty to compensate him for his injury by helping him kill or wound a member of the offending man’s clan. When a man obtains one of the relics it is an almost absolute demand on him to kill a member of the slayer’s group. This is particularly true if it is given to a young man. The older men usually give their relics to the younger males.

The spirit of the dead is supposed to go with the relics, and the relic has a magical power. It can be thrown into an intended victim’s fire and cause him to go to sleep, or the possessor can blow his breath against it and produce the same effect. It is often carried in the mouth during a battle to make an opponent tired and heavy-footed and to prevent him from dodging spears. Relics play a prominent part in all feuds.

Occasionally men are killed within the clan, but this is not a cause for war or retaliation by members of the clan or from near relatives from without the clan. A man may be such a notorious killer and cause so much trouble for his own clansmen that the entire group will kill him to stop further disturbances. At times men are slain by their own clan for breaking ceremonial tabus, such as divulging secrets of the old men to the women or uninitiated, and for viewing ceremonial objects before their initiation.

If a fight is on and a near relative is accidentally hit by a club or spear, the person responsible hits himself on the head while saying he is sorry. Here, too, the idea underlying this action is that of inflicting a similar injury on the person responsible for the one done to the injured party.

Military honor also contributes its share to the causes for war. A man will brave the spears of a whole clan to demonstrate his fearlessness. The writer has seen two brothers defy fifteen men in a spear fight. The Murngin people are a very brave and courageous group. Fear of death while in a fight is seldom seen. A man who shows an unwillingness to fight is called a woman, and held in extreme contempt by the tribe. . . .

Nirimaoi fights are very frequent and are usually the result of quarrels caused by adultery or a belief on the part of the husband that someone has been attempting to make him a cuckold. The injured man goes to the camp of the lover and accuses him. He carries a bundle of spears and possibly a club with him. Words follow, swearing starts, and indignation is felt on both sides. Relatives of each contestant help him if the quarrel is felt to be very serious. The women usually attempt to hold the arms of the men and thereby stop the fight from becoming too serious, meanwhile cursing the opponents of their brothers and husbands. At times, however, women pick up their digging sticks or a man’s club and help their male relatives; very occasionally a woman is wounded and in certain very rare cases killed.

The nirimaoi yolno fight seldom results in anyone being killed. Friends of both parties always stand back of the men and hit the spear throwers or hold them when the fighters attempt to hurl their spears at each other. The contestants usually depend upon this, and talk much "harder" (dal) to each other than they would if they knew that they were going to be allowed to have free play at each other. They increase their own sense of importance through the interest of others in their actions, and possess a feeling that they are much braver warriors and filled with a much more intense desire to kill than they would have if no one interfered. They are able, by remonstrating with their friends and struggling to get free from them, to vent their outraged emotions and prove to the community that no one can impinge upon their rights without a valiant effort being made to prevent this from happening. Obviously there is a certain amount of bluff in the conduct of the contestants on some occasions. The writer observed one nirimaoi yolno fight when, for some unaccountable reason, the contestants’ friends did not attempt to hold them. They had counted on this happening when they rushed at each other while hurling threats of death and covering each other with obscenity and profanity. When they reached each other no clubs were wielded nor spears thrown; the men stood breast to breast, and obviously felt a bit ridiculous. The usual results of the nirimaoi yolno are a few bruises, much obscenity, and many threats, but few killings ever result.

It must be borne in mind that members of a camp are usually from several clans, or fighting would never take place. Although the clan is undoubtedly involved in this variety of battle, the fight is almost always an individual affair, with a few of the combatants’ relatives joining the fray. The nirimaoi yolno is also used as a kind of debate where angry men may air their fancied or actual grievances and state their position in controversial matters. This latter function is very important, and is in most cases the primary basis of the nirimaoi yolno.

The narrup generally results in someone being killed or badly injured. It is one of the most deadly forms of Murngin warfare, for it occurs at night and by stealth. It is usually conducted by a few individuals who may be members of one clan or a party composed of members of one’s own clan, the mother’s clan, and the wife’s group. . . .

The success of the narrup depends upon surprise. A man is usually attacked while he is sleeping.

Although the narrup may be an individual affair the entire clan is held responsible for the killing. The narrup is a favorite fighting method of young men, since they often conduct it without their elders’ sanction (they usually attempt to gain the sanction of their elders for a maringo expedition). At times an old man may prefer to remain in the background and have a young man do his killings, so that he will not be held as the one primarily responsible for the death of one of his enemies, and due to his desire for secrecy the other old men of the clan would not be consulted. The "pusher" (pidgin English word describing the instigator) is a social personality most prominent in the narrup warfare. When young men kill, everyone speculates on who did the "pushing" for it is always assumed that an old man is really responsible. Although this is not always true, it is a rule of pragmatic value for a clan to follow when it is meting out vengeance. . . .

The maringo (death adder) obtains its name both because of the snakelike formation of the attackers that surround the camp of the enemy, and because of its deadliness. Killings or severe wounds always result from this type of warfare.

When a maringo expedition is decided upon to avenge the slaying of a clan’s relative the following magical procedure is used before the warriors leave camp. Relics of the dead man are always carried by some of the relatives. The oldest man who holds one of the relics of the dead man goes out into the bush some little distance from the camp and makes a fire and hut for himself. He draws the likeness of a man on the earth or molds it on the ground with his hands. The name of the killer is given to the image.

He then instructs a young man to go into the main camp and tell the old men. They organize themselves and go out in a body. They stop some little distance from where the old man and the image are camped. The leader sends two young men ahead as spies. They pretend to look for the camp of the image, which represents their enemy’s camp, and to discover if the "killer" is there.

Everyone in the group is as stealthily quiet as if he were on an actual expedition. The two young men sneak around the camp of the image. They return and announce that there is no one there and they could not find the "killer."

They sit down and say nothing. The others also remain quiet, unless expressions of regret are made by them that "he" has escaped and it is of no use to continue the expedition.

The two young men eat, and when they have finished they pick up some pieces of white clay or other paint material and throw them into the ring of men. Everyone knows then that the image, who is the killer in this magical ritual, is there. The two leaders of the expedition divide their men into two groups; one side goes to the left of the camp of the image and the other to the right. They form a circle of spearmen about the camp. When the advancing leaders have met, and the camp is completely surrounded, they ask if the "killer" is there, and use his name; and then, with shouts and cries, the expedition rushes in and throws its spears into the body of the image.

The above follows very closely the usual maringo fight of the blacks. If the expedition is successful the killer’s body takes the place of the image, and possibly several of his relatives are also slain.

After the spears have been thrown into the image, the owner of the relic kneels on his two knees beside it. He puts a piece of fire that has been taken from the campfire into the image. He places his basket before his mouth; in the basket he has the relic, wrapped up in fiber string or paper bark, so that no profane eye can see it. He addresses the relic as follows: "Where is the killer?" There is no answer. He then starts naming the various possible places where the slayer could be found, and asks the relic, which has the spirit of the dead man, where the enemy is. The naming of places is continued until a kind of click is heard. This is supposed to come from the bone, and is an answer to the question.

The owner of the relic says, "Ah, that is the place." He once more addresses the relic: "You are not lying to me? You are telling me the truth?" The click is heard again. Next day the avenging expedition sets out and goes to the place designated to kill the slayer of their relative. It is thought that such an expedition must be successful after this ritual has been performed. . . .

The milwerangel is a general fight between the members of several clans. The element of surprise is not used in it. The participants know that a certain location (usually an open plain with jungle growths bordering it) will be used for the purpose. The combat resembles a brawl after a few minutes of fighting. Spears and clubs are used, but the latter only play a very minor role in this type of fight. In the account of the feud which is described later in this paper will be found a description of a milwerangel. This gives an excellent concrete example of how this type of warfare is conducted. It is unnecessary to give a more generalized description, except to say the milwerangel is a recognized type of battle, and therefore has a specific name applied to it.

The gaingar is but rarely employed in Murngin warfare. It is so deadly and results in so many casualties that it is only under the most extreme provocation that it is used. There are only two recorded cases in the last twenty years. One occurred between the peoples of the Caledon Bay area and those of Buckingham Bay; the other was between the peoples west of the Goyder River and along the sea coast and those who lived east of the Goyder and in the interior. The gaingar represents a regional fight where a large number of clans are involved rather than the usual type of battle where only a few clans participate.

The writer recorded a list of fifteen men killed in the Caledon Bay fight, and fourteen deaths (with one man severely wounded) in the Goyder River combat. Such a casualty list shows clearly that the sparse population of the Murngin and the surrounding tribes cannot afford such a military luxury except at very rare intervals.

The fight is held between the members of several clans and is the result of regional antagonisms. It may be within the tribe or intertribal. It always follows a long protracted series of killings in which each side is stimulated to an almost hysterical emotional pitch. When one group of clans finally decides to invite its enemies for a gaingar, the people always say that this is a spear fight to end spear fights, so that from that time on there will be peace for all the clans and tribes. This is sincerely believed at the time, since it is an effort to stop clan feuds.

The ideal gaingar takes place in the following way: The challengers make two small spears of a special type. They are wrapped with ceremonial feathered string; two pendants made of this same material and tipped with feathers hang from each. One spear has short arms and the other possesses much longer ones. The first symbolizes the Dua moiety, the second the Yiritja. The arms are also symbolical of the dead men killed by each side before the challenge is sent. Dua men are put in a Dua spear, and the Yiritja are supposed to be placed in their moiety’s weapon. Sometimes the arms may symbolize but one man, but more frequently a whole group of people who have been killed in a feud are symbolized by these objects.

After the spears are completed they are placed away in hiding until the following day. In the morning two young men take the spears and run up and down in front of the warriors, while the latter throw their spears at the ceremonial ones. Should one of the spears be hit, it is believed that the war party will be defeated and some of their own men killed. If they are not struck it is believed that no one of their side will be killed and that the expedition will be a success.

In the afternoon the two spears are placed in the ground at a throwing distance, and once more spears are thrown at them, but this time there is an effort made actually to strike them, since now they represent the enemies, whereas in the morning they represented the challenging clan. The spears are then sent by messenger to the enemy. They are a ceremonial invitation for battle. The enemy goes through the same ceremony if it decides to accept. The two parties then meet halfway from their own territories.

Short spears are used in the gaingar because they can be thrown from any position and are difficult to parry or avoid. The two lines of warriors stand about fifty feet apart. Leadership is almost completely absent after the fight starts. Trickery is used if possible. In the gaingar that was held in the Goyder River district, the sea people who challenged the men from the interior hid part of their forces on each side of the plain in a mangrove jungle.

They placed a small part down at the end of the plain for the advancing people to see. As the enemy advanced this small group retreated to the jungle growth at the far end. They thus enticed their antagonists into the avenue of hidden warriors. The sea people then surrounded those from the interior and killed a large number of the attackers.

The makarata is a ceremonial peace-making fight. It is a kind of general duel and partial ordeal which allows the aggrieved parties to vent their feelings by throwing spears at their enemies or seeing the latter’s blood run in expiation of some deed of violence done against the clan or group of clans.

The ideal makarata will be first described here, but frequently it does not follow the correct form, and instead of providing a peace-making mechanism only produces another battle in the interminable blood feud of the Murngin clans.

When a clan has had a member hurt or killed, and when sufficient time has elapsed for their emotions to calm, the men send a message to their enemies saying they are ready for a makarata. The other side usually agrees to enter into this peace-making ceremony although there is always suspicion of treachery. The injured group always sends the invitation, and the other must wait for them to decide when they wish to have it. Very frequently makarata are held after some of the totemic ceremonies have taken place, since it is at that time most of the clans will be present. When the warriors of the injured clan or clans arrive on the dueling ground they are covered with white clay. They dance in, singing a song which is descriptive of the water of their totemic well. The other side has also painted itself. The two sides stand a little more than spear throwing distance apart, and each is so situated that it has a mangrove jungle back of it for protection in case the makarata becomes a real fight, and it is necessary to take cover. The clan which considers itself injured performs the dance connected with its chief totem. It is of the garma variety, or nonsacred form. The Waruweri clan, for instance, would dance the garawark (mythological fish) totemic dance, or the Djirin clan would perform its shark dance. The challenging group dances over to the people who have inflicted an injury upon it and stops, and without further ceremony walks back to its own side. After the men have reformed their ranks, their opponents dance toward them, using the latter’s totemic dance for this military ritual. They return to their own side and reform their line to make ready for the actual duel.

The men who are supposed to have "pushed" the killers then start running in a zigzag manner in the middle of the field, while they face their opponents. They are accompanied by two close relatives who are also near kin of the other side. The function of the latter runners is to prevent spears from being thrown with too deadly an intent from the aggrieved clan for fear of hitting their friends who are running with the foe and to help knock down spears which might hit the actual runners. When the "pushers" run they are made a target for spears whose stone heads have been removed. Every member of the clan or clans which feels itself injured throws at least once at the men who are running before them. When an individual’s turn to throw arrives, he advances from the group and moves toward the runners. He continues throwing spears if he feels very strongly about the matter until he has chased the runners into the jungle. This is repeated by the more indignant members of the offended clan three or four times. Finally, when their emotions have subsided to a considerable extent, one of the older men of the group says that they have had enough and the spear throwing stops. While the spearmen are still active the injured clan curses the members of the other group; the offending group cannot reply, for this is supposed to add additional insult. They must run and say nothing.

After the "pushers" have been chased and thrown at the actual killers run. The spear head is not removed from the shaft; the throwers continue hurling their spears at them, at first as a group and finally as individuals, until they have exhausted their emotions. While all this is taking place the old men of both sides walk back and forth from one group to the other, telling the throwers to be careful and not kill or hurt anyone. The offending clan’s old men ask the younger men to be quiet and not to become angry, and when they hear insults thrown at them not to reply or throw spears since they are in the wrong. When the old men of the injured clan feel that they have sated their anger as a group they call out to the young men to stop, and each man then throws singly at the killers. He may throw as long as he pleases.

When this has been completed the whole group dances up to the other, and one of the latter jabs a spear through the thighs of the killers. If this happens it means that no further action will be taken and no further attempt will be made to avenge the killing of one of their members. The killers can feel free to go into the country of their enemies and not be injured. If only a slight wound is made they know that they are not forgiven and that this is only a temporary truce. Sometimes no wound is made at all. This acts as a direct statement of the intention of the offended clan to wreak vengeance on the other side.

After the wound has been made the two sides dance together as one group to prove their feeling of solidarity and to express ritually that they are not openly warring groups, but one people. They do the usual water dance.

The above description is the idealized form of the makarata. If all goes well this procedure continues until the end, and its purpose is fulfilled. The following things can happen to turn the makarata into a real fight: (1) The old men may not have enough power to keep their young men in control; (2) the offending side may start swearing or throwing spears, which immediately turns the whole performance into a fight; (3) one of the runners may be badly wounded, which is likely to stimulate his clan members to attack the other side; (4) treachery may be resorted to; (5) the accidental wounding of an outsider may sometimes result; and (6) a member of either side may deliberately throw a spear into the other group because he is anxious to start a general fight.1

1Warner, W.L.n/an/an/an/a, "Murngin Warfare," , 1: 457–477.


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Chicago: "Oceania," Oceania in Primitive Behavior: An Introduction to the Social Sciences, ed. Thomas, William I. (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., 1937), Original Sources, accessed September 30, 2023, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=Q1FIZGGGLKCKPM8.

MLA: . "Oceania." Oceania, Vol. 1, in Primitive Behavior: An Introduction to the Social Sciences, edited by Thomas, William I., New York, McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., 1937, Original Sources. 30 Sep. 2023. http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=Q1FIZGGGLKCKPM8.

Harvard: , 'Oceania' in Oceania. cited in 1937, Primitive Behavior: An Introduction to the Social Sciences, ed. , McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., New York. Original Sources, retrieved 30 September 2023, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=Q1FIZGGGLKCKPM8.