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September 2022

Soc Sci Med. 1988 ; 27(5): 425-36.

From Mantra to Mataráa: opacity and transparency in the language of Tobelo magic and medicine (Halmahera Island, Indonesia).

Taylor PM.

Department of Anthropology, National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC 20560.

This paper presents a definition of the Tobelo concept of 'magic/medicine', and examines the role of mataráa ('magical formulae') within Tobelo magical/medical activities. The curative use of opaque, esoteric formulae is widely reported; Tobelo also have a specialized speech I call 'neo-Ternatese' used for this purpose. Several explanations for the opacity of magical formulae are examined; some apply to the Tobelo case and some do not. Examining the full range of registers in which neo-Ternatese is used, with sample texts, we find a continuum from transparent to opaque, paralleling a continuum of contexts from public to private (or esoteric), and we can identify the techniques used to produce (or increase) a text's opacity. Magical formulae, at the opaque end of that continuum, represent a secret, prestigious, and relatively liquid asset whose high value is maintained by several cultural conventions.


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