(Essay) The Oceanic Goddess: Near Oceania: Papua New Guinea by Judy Foster

‘Trying to discover Pacific women’s roles and status, (and by implication, the Oceanic goddess) is problematic: women’s cultures, rituals, and symbols are there, despite contrary information. Pacific women are only now speaking out about themselves and their cultures and it is through their words that one can gain a true perspective. Western colonialism has been responsible for upsetting the harmonious balance between the sexes and for bias against women which has rendered them invisible in the New World.’ 1                                                                                                           

I have chosen to look for the presence of the great Oceanic goddess in Papua New Guinea and related Islands because it is perhaps the largest and least known of all the Pacific Islands. (West New Guinea is Indonesian territory.) Australia was first settled around 100,000 years ago by peaceful hunter gatherers. Papua New Guinea had formed part of Australia until around 8,000 BP and this new island became known as New Guinea, located in the region what is now known as Near Oceania2.

Those who lived in Australia needed to retain a semi-nomadic lifestyle in an uncertain climate, but the hunter gatherer Papua New Guineans, with their fertile landscapes and frequent rains, occupied small clan villages along the steep slopes of the heavily forested mountains and on the lower river plains, becoming horticulturalists and developing the earliest known irrigation plots. These were the Non-Austronesians who recognized the presence of spiritual beings, spirits of ancestors, and non-human spirits, respected nature and led separate ritual lives. They formed 700 different language groups, each consisting of a few small clans, most of whom were apparently matrilineal until outside influences introduced patriarchal practices. Here the primordial goddess/female principle often appeared in the sculpted symbolic form of pestles and mortars, whether as marsupials, birds, frogs or other natural creatures/spirit-beings, and in one rare instance, as a human/bird figurine.


Drawings by Judy Foster
Drawings by Judy Foster

1. Bok female woman/bird figurine from Long Island, Papua New Guinea, (B.J. Egloff & J. Specht, 1982).

2. Animal pestle, Oro clan, Mt. Lamington, PNG.

3. East Sepik River, bird pestle.

4. Sambu clan animal/frog pestle.

5 & 6. Animal (marsupial?) pestle (in May & Tuckson, 2000).

7 & 8. Ambon Valley, animal pestle.

9. Simbu clan animal pestle.

10. Pedestal mortar.

11. Mortars decorated with clan ‘faces’, Morobe district.

Fig. 2-10 from P.Swadling (2008) ‘Prehistoric stone artefacts from Enga and the implications of links between the highlands, lowlands for early agriculture in Papua New Guinea’.


Because of the hot, tropical climate throughout Papua New Guinea, very little remains of the prehistoric arts of the early Non-Austronesian cultures except rock art, because any artefacts were made of wood or other perishable materials. Also, among the first Europeans to arrive were missionaries who destroyed almost all the artefacts they could find because they had been used in ‘pagan’ rituals. Stone mortars and pestles evidently escaped because they had been used for domestic purposes.

Later arrivals included peaceful Taiwanese Austronesians, who settled in parts of the north and east coasts of Papua New Guinea and associated Pacific Islands 4,000-3,600 years ago. These were early Micronesians, Melanesians and early Polynesians3 in whose cultures traditionally women and men had complementary roles at first. After 3,000 BP, these societies became patriarchal due to new outside influences, and women’s roles became subservient.

Where do we find the primordial goddess in such a scenario? S/he was reflected in the ‘soft’ materials which were traditionally used by women, and their activities included the ceremonial weaving of palm-leaf mats for use as floor, wall or roof coverings. Dried reeds were split and woven into bags, or ‘bilum’, in which women carried their babies or other goods, and were often decorated with certain painted abstract designs relating to the spirits of the natural world. There is a lovely traditional story associated with the Papua New Guinea bilums made on Mt. Lamington, recorded by Drusilla Modjeska4 which tells of ‘the Omi people where the ‘old woman’ climbs up the mountain and puts the sun into her bilum at sunset, and takes it out in the morning’.

Bark cloth, traditionally made by women, was widely used in the Pacific regions for clothing, wraps and mats, used by both women and men, as well as for sacred rituals and ceremonial occasions. For example, the goddess/ female principle presence was particularly evident in the ceremonial rituals involved when the women made, and still make, bark cloth. Sana Balai5 tells us of the Omie, a clan which remains a matrilineal culture, diverse, complex, highly organized but flexible enough to accommodate changing traditions. They live on the side of Mount Lamington in east Papua and continue to make nioge (bark cloth) even today. Young women must be initiated to create nioge, and observe its rituals including customs, stories, songs and dances. A suitable bark is ceremonially removed from a certain tree by the women, and beaten with wooden mallets to produce a cream coloured cloth. Colours are made from plants and ash, while the designs include creation stories of the first making of nioge. One of the most used symbolic designs is that of ‘the climbing vine with thorns and tendrils’, a design which was also tattooed onto newly initiated women’s faces. Other imagery includes lizard bones, snake skins, cassowary eggs, caterpillar’s markings, spider webs, frogs and snails. They all have everyday and secret meanings.

Pottery-making6, yet another women’s ritual activity symbolic of the goddess/female principle, did not emerge in Near Oceania until 6,000 years ago, (and even more recently in Remote Oceania). After this time, women in many parts of Papua New Guinea made pottery, including lovely globular baked clay pots of different sizes, engraved with certain abstract designs, their meanings usually only understood by women. Some pots were used to store water or for cooking, others had ritual uses.

The presence of the goddess/female deity was there when the women gathered together in groups to collect the right clay, bringing it back from the forest to the place of making, preparing a fire, and in the ritual forming and baking of the pots at every stage of their creation. S/he was there when the women, who had their own symbolic language, expressed Her forms within the beautiful rounded shapes of their pots and in the special designs decorating the rims.

There was a myth telling of a female deity known as Kolimangga, who was made from earth and clay, and who “created pottery for the tribe and taught the women to pot…[S]he subsequently transformed herself into earth and clay and is thus [named] “kolimangga”.  S/he then lost much of Her power because of Her association with pottery. Another version of the myth tells how the clay, fuel and the sago sealing solution all came to Her when She called them. On Her command, the fuel prepared itself for firing, the pots settled themselves on the fuel and later took themselves to market and stood in a row. After marrying a man called Korumblaban, S/he lost her command over the raw materials and pots, and since then the women potters must carry their own clay, build their own fires and take their own pots to market7.

Yet another myth is told by the Inyai-Ewa people in northeast New Guinea of ‘two primordial sisters who helped shape the world, and are responsible for the creation of two of the valleys where the Inyai-Ewa live and hunt today’ 8. Sometimes they are said to be clan ancestors and some may represent female clan founders. The carved wood sculptures were usually to be found in rock shelters where they have survived, often for a very long time. Present day examples could date to between 1,500 and 1,800 years old. They may have originally belonged to prehistoric women from matrilineal societies because they were clan ancestors and female clan founders. These myths would seem to mark the change from matrilineal cultures to historic male-dominant cultures and the subsequent fading away of the goddess/female principle in Papua New Guinea.

The Goddess/female principle: the images.

The only known example of a prehistoric female human/‘bird’ figurine perhaps relating to the great goddess found so far in Papua New Guinea is the highly symbolic basalt sculpture9 from Bok in the Madang Province with no certain date. But because her basic human shape relates to stone pestles dated to between 5,000 and 8,000 years old, it would seem that she may date within that time-frame. Her head is wide at the top, with indented eyes each side of a ‘long nose’, suggesting a somewhat vague ‘bird’s beak’ (?). Her shoulders are squared, formed without arms (perhaps suggesting folded wings), but she has well-defined human female breasts, waist, belly button and hips, finishing with short legs and pointed ‘feet’. Her pubic triangle is emphasized by a large vulva, and her back-view has little detail apart from an engraved line suggesting buttocks.

Most other wood or stone human female figurines found today in this region have been created within the patriarchal period.

Stone pestles and mortars10 are the more common symbol of the great goddess, and were used by prehistoric women in traditional everyday life as well as in ritual. They have been present in the eastern half of New Guinea and wherever the taro plant has been grown, at least for the last 12,000-8,000 years. They have also been found in the nearby Islands of New Britain and New Ireland. Hunter gatherers and horticulturalists in both regions recognized ancestral and other supernatural beings in their oral stories (myths). Because there were many different Non-Austronesian language-speaking clan groups, there were also varied styles of both pestles and mortars, including those with bird, marsupial, zoomorphic, and the less common anthropomorphic characteristics, all of which are presently dated to between 12,000-5,000 BP.

We are not told whether the pestles and mortars shown here were made by men or women, but because they are basically a much-used women’s tool, it could be assumed they were a women’s creation, perhaps made when a girl was newly initiated or to be ‘married’. The animal-shaped pestles usually represent various marsupials in ‘spirit’ form with carefully formed heads and facial features, sinuously curved bodies forming a rounded base for grinding, with tail, and front and back legs indicated rather than fully sculpted. ‘Spirit’ birds have beaks and tails, but wings are small or merely indicated while their bodies are rounded for use as a grinding base.

Anthropomorphic figures are less common, but are also basically rounded in form. Their overall roundness is essentially female in character, again suggesting their relationship to women, and to the Near Oceanic great goddess. Mortars also usually feature rounded shapes with a flat base, a shallow hollow top, and low in height, with much less decoration around their sides. There are some with engraved symbolic ‘faces’ on the front sides, while a few examples are mounted on pedestals, and perhaps these last were only used in ritual.

Because there were so many examples of pestles and mortars scattered often quite densely over east and mid Papua New Guinea, it suggests the presence of a widely recognized great goddess in Near Oceania, in context with the other well-known goddess figurines from around the world.

With the arrival of a second wave of Austronesian-speaking Pacific Islanders who were patriarchal settlers with a very different agenda11, the great goddess was forced underground, where S/he remains today.                                                                                                                   


1. From ‘Invisible Women of Prehistory: three million years of peace, six thousand years of war’, Spinifex Press, 2013.                                                                                                                                                             

2.  Papua New Guinea includes inland Papua New Guinea and associated Islands (the Bismarck Archipelago, Palau, the Marianas, and part of the Solomon Islands).                                                                                                                        

3. It is notable that warrior conflict between the peoples anywhere in this region did not occur until after 2,500 BP when incoming Chinese Han Austronesians introduced radical patriarchal Dong Son warrior social and cultural changes in the South East Asian region. Also most (male) researchers still take it for granted that violence, warlike behaviour and male dominance have always been present everywhere around the world.                                                                                                          

4.  Drusilla Modjeska, ‘The Mountain’ Vintage Books, Australia, 2012.                                        

5Sana Balai, Drusilla Modjeska, and Judith Ryan, Exhibition Catalogue ‘Wisdom of the Mountain: Art of the Omie’, 2009.

6. Patricia May and Margaret Tuckson, “The Traditional Pottery of Papua New Guinea”, University of Hawai’i Press, Honolulu, 2000.                                                                                     

7. Ibid.                                                                                                                          

8.  Heilbrunn Timeline  of Prehistory, Female Figurine. 1500- 1400 BP. Inyai-Ewa   people, Middle Sepik region, Papua New Guinea. (Wood.)  http://www.metmuesium.org/toeh/works-of-art/1978.412.857                                                                                                                                         

9. ‘Long Island, Papua New Guinea – Aspects of the Prehistory’ ,  B.J. Egloff and J. Specht,  in Records of the Australian Museum, 1982, Volume 34  Number 8, pp. 427-446, Figure 7.                                                                                                         

10.  P. Swadling (2008) ‘Prehistoric stone artefacts from Enga and the implication of links between the highlands, lowlands and islands for early agriculture in Papua New Guinea’,   http://jso.revues.org/2942#tocto1n7.    

11. Today Papua New Guinea remains a male-dominant region, where many of the men are employed by recently established large mining or other big companies, and are paid a salary usually spent on grog and other ‘pleasures’, instead of to support their families. As a consequence, the women struggle to feed, clothe and educate their families by working, usually only earning a small amount of money, and are left with little hope of change any time soon.

Read Meet Mago Contributor Judy Foster.

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Fascinating article… amazing how consistent the shift is from female to male dominance in virtually every known culture… seems archetypal as in a “pattern” of dominance that became global…