The Duk Duk: An Ancient Secret Society of Possessed Executioners
The Duk Duk is a secret society of the Tolai people in Papua New Guinea. This ancient secret sect has played an important social role for centuries and continues to operate today, although with a very different focus. Members of the Duk Duk played the role of judge, jury, and executioner, though it is believed that they were possessed by spirits while performing these tasks. During the colonial period, efforts were made to stamp out the Duk Duk. Although this secret society stills exists today, it no longer carries out its former function and serves mainly as a tourist attraction.
The name ‘Duk Duk’ is believed to be derived either from the Tolai word ‘dekdek’, meaning ‘strong’, or ‘douk’, meaning ‘cruel’. This secret society is part of the social structure of the Tolai people, the name given to the indigenous people who inhabit the Gazelle Peninsula of New Britain, an island in Papua New Guinea. It may be added that secret societies like the Duk Duk may be found in many other Melanesian societies as well.
Tolai dancers - the Tolai have a secret society called the Duk Duk. (Kahunapule Michael Johnson / CC BY-SA 2.0)
A Different Definition of Secret Society
Although considered to be a secret society, the Duk Duk is not such an establishment according to the Western understanding of the term. The Duk Duk is a secret society in the sense that its rituals and ceremonies are known only to its members. On the other hand, the identities of its members are known to the rest of the community, even among the uninitiated. Additionally, the Duk Duk had the task of administering justice in Tolai society, and such actions were done openly rather than in secret, when its members decided that the time was right for them to do so.
One of the most notable features of the Duk Duk is the two types of ceremonial costumes worn by its members, both of which consist of a cone head and a leafy body. The difference between the two costumes lies in the facial features on the cone. One of these is faceless and referred to as a Duk Duk, while the other which has large eyes and a thin crescent-shaped mouth, is called a tubuan. The former is believed to attract male spirits, while the latter female ones. Both costumes, however, were worn by men, as women were prohibited from joining the Duk Duk.
Duk Duk dancers 1899. (Lysippos / Public Domain)
What Are the Ritual Grades?
Those who intend to become members of the Duk Duk are required to progress through a series of ‘ritual grades’. There are five of these in total, the first four of which are aimed at differentiating a male from the females by incorporating him into a male community, while the last one serves to differentiate a male from most other males. The first ‘ritual grade’ involves the taking of a boy to the men’s ground, known as a ‘taraiu’. During the second and third ‘ritual grades’, the boy learns that there is a human being within the costume of the tubuan and the Duk Duk.
During the next ‘ritual grade’, the man is required to purchase a Duk Duk costume which involves the expenditure of a considerable amount of divara (shell money). Most men stop at this stage, though the completion of the final stage is a requirement for those who intend to become ‘big men’. The final ‘ritual grade’ involves the buying of a tubuan costume, which not only includes the costume itself, but also the ritual knowledge needed to construct one. The owner of a tubuan costume has the right to sponsor a mortuary ceremony which would earn him prestige.
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Shell money Papua New Guinea. (Ron van der Stappen / Adobe)
In order to administer justice, members of the Duk Duk would begin by dancing in their costumes. They believed that by doing so, they would be possessed by the spirits of their ancestors. In the meantime, the tribal chiefs would carry out discussions, including the need to punish those who broke the law. After the dance, shamans would confirm that the dancers were indeed possessed, and the secret society would travel across the island to execute the sentences proclaimed by the chiefs. These sentences sometimes involved the death of the wrong-doer. Nevertheless, as the executioner was in theory possessed, he was not responsible for his actions and need not feel guilty for killing another person.
During the colonial period, the Duk Duk was seen as a threat to European authority and measures were taken to eradicate this practice. The Christian missions were especially successful in this, as they converted the Tolai to Christianity, thereby getting rid of these ‘heathen practices’ from their culture. In spite of that, the Duk Duk has survived till this day, though without the same importance that was attached to them before the Tolai converted to Christianity. Today, the dance of the Duk Duk is performed for tourists visiting Papua New Guinea without any ritual significance.
Papua New Guinea Highlands. (Tom / Adobe)
Top image: Duk Duk dancers; the Duk Duk - secret society of men, 1913. Source: Переход Артур / Public Domain.
By Wu Mingren
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