Millennial Markers

Pamela J. Stewart + Andrew Strathern

Centre for Pacific Studies, James Cook University 1997
A book review by Danny Yee © 1998
Stewart and Strathern's introduction to Millennial Markers surveys some common themes in Pacific millenarianism: a role for technology, the Antichrist and the Pope, ecology, and the body as millennial markers, as well as the absence of any definite conception of heaven. A paper by Theo Ahrens provides a brief overview of the history and present status of millenarianism in Western Christianity, which has provided the antecedents for Pacific millenarianism. The other three contributors offer ethnographic studies of groups from central New Guinea.

The 400 strong Urapmin community is officially Baptist, but they have never had a missionary live among them and have developed their own form of Christianity. This includes a strong belief in the imminent return of Jesus and a complex apocalypticism based on the biblical book of Revelation, in which the number 666 plays a central role. Joel Robbins argues that the significance of this number lies in its appearance on the skin, which in Urapmin epistemology plays a critical role as an indicator of emotional and moral state. Numbers are also connected with badges of authority, and the state also has a prominent place in Urapmin millennial speculation.

Christopher Morgan follows changes in Huli ritual and mythology in response to incorporation in the world system and contact with Christianity. He focuses on the life of one individual, Hayara, who was a small boy at first contact with Europeans. Hayara was baptised around 1960 and became a Methodist lay preacher, but in 1974 he had a religious experience and now, convinced that he was tricked by the missionaries, espouses his own apocalyptic belief system. He has been diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenic, but Morgan argues that the particular forms of his alienation reflect the mytho-logic structure of Huli society.

Lorenzo Brutti writes about the Oksapmin yuan hän ritual, a fertility cult involving human sacrifice which, he argues, originated with the ecological revolution following the introduction of the sweet potato. The introduction of the Yuan cult has parallels with conversion to Christianity, which was "largely based upon a millenaristic collective illusion rather than upon an intimate individual motivation". He considers Oksapmin Seventh Day Adventist millenarian beliefs in more detail.

While much of Millennial Markers is narrowly ethnographic, it touches on broader themes in the interaction between indigenous religion and Christianity and colonialism. I am not a New Guinea or even a Pacific area specialist, but I found it an intriguing set of papers.

January 1998

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%T Millennial Markers
%A Stewart, Pamela J.
%A Strathern, Andrew
%I Centre for Pacific Studies, James Cook University
%D 1997
%O paperback, references
%G ISBN 0864436394
%P v,131pp