The story of Afek varies greatly from place to place and the details are often contradictory and confusing.
No one knows the myth in its entirety. Rather, various groups know different parts of it.
Anthropologist Robert Brumbaugh says the myth is the ideological device which the Min mobilise to deal with unprecedented situations arising from contact and development. It is a statement of identity and a map of relationships. It was invoked during the development of the Ok Tedi mine.
In the late 1970s its existence came under serious threat from a Christian revival movement. The Christians rampaged through villages destroying the men's spirit houses.
The main spirit house at Telefolmin was almost lost but the 'pagans' held fast and saved it. The government then moved to protect the spirit house from Christian attacks by declaring it a national monument.
So the Afek myth is still alive and well today thanks to the efforts of the 'pagans' and it still fulfils its age-old role in Min life.
Beyond the traditional context, such as trade, the myth has the ability to underwrite new types of connection as circumstances change.
Initiation into an Afek cult house does not produce a ‘fully initiated’ man who knows the whole story. Knowledge is ‘parcelled’ out rather than shared. No one person knows the full story of Afek.
Some Min groups partition knowledge between ritual moieties, each excluded on principle from the full knowledge held by the other. Only the collective knowledge of the Min encompasses the full story.
The epoch that Afek created began about 300-400 years ago and it was not intended that it should last forever. Afek predicted that it would not last beyond 27 re-buildings of the Telefolip cult house (27 is the base of the Min counting system).
At that point the earth is destined to turn over and flood. Based on genealogical data and oral history the epoch has currently reached just beyond the midway point.
There were no people before Afek. The world before belonged to the Utungmin or ‘spirit people’. Afek drove them into the deep forest to make way for her descendants but they remain hidden there to this day, where they are sometimes encountered by hunters.
While there is no definitive account of Afek and the collective version is riven with contradictions and inconsistencies it is possible to construct a narrative of sorts.
The outline of the myth below is constructed from the Telefolmin version of the myth as recorded by Robert Brumbaugh, which is largely followed by other Min groups like the Faiwolmin and Wopkaimin around Ok Tedi.
Afek came from the north east beyond the headwaters of the Strickland River and the Ok Om. There are some similarities between the Afek myth and the ritual systems of the people to the north east like the Oksapmin, Hewa, Duna and Huli.
Of particular interest is the concept of underground roads linking ritual centres. In this sense Afek’s origins from that direction seem plausible.
She was the child of a cassowary and her gender was thought to be female. After she crossed the Sepik an old man called Mapsilagim at Telefolip who was disguised as a dog surprised her. He had avoided all the traps that she had set to keep from being followed.
He attempted to have intercourse with her but she killed him with her black palm club. She was sorry about killing him and temporarily revived him and sent him back to Telefolip.
Mapsilagim re-crossed the Sepik where it narrows to only an arm’s width. Afek had built a false bridge there which threw him into the water but he called the banks together and pulled himself out.
Afek then went to a cave at Wimtem, below Safoltigin, and followed an underground road west to Bultem in Wopkaiman territory. She built a shelter there and explored the area and then continued west along the underground road. She emerged at Afintembli in Atbalim territory and built a cult house there.
She continued west along the underground road and surfaced at Bongelabip in Ngalumin territory and built a cult house there. She then came back along the underground road to Bultem and built a cult house there which the Wopkaimin call Futmanam and started building a bridge at Moyansil over the Ok Tedi. Along the way she built a cult house at Imigabip in Faiwolmin territory.
She then passed under Ulapmin and went to get Mapsilagim man at Telefolip. When she got back to Telefolip she took Mapsilagim along the underground road to Bultem and they finished building the bridge at Moyansil and he crossed the Ok Tedi and went to the land of the dead.
The cave at Wimtem is the entrance to the underground road that the dead from the west follow to Bultem. In the east they find their way to the start of the road at Telefolip. The land of the dead lies west of Bultem under Mount Fubilan.
Afek then went west to the Tifalmin and killed a Tifalmin boy and brought his body back to Telefolip. She then went to Falamin territory where she killed a man who had been cutting branches from a tree near the village of Oksimin and also brought his body back to Telefolip.
She set the two bodies to cook while she went to clean the intestines in the river. While she was away the fire spread and burnt all the forest, thus creating the surrounding grasslands. She found a rat and his sister among the grass and drove the sister into the river where she became a frog.
She ate the bodies of the boy and man and then made an underground circuit of the cult centres. She took the Falamin man’s heart to Bultem and shared it with the ghosts of the dead and left one of his bones at Bongelabip.
When she got back to Telefolip she rubbed the blood of both the dead boy and man on the posts of the cult house and finished building it. This is the cult house now known as the Telefol.
Afek’s brother, Olmoim, came from the north east and joined her at Telefolip. He slept in a nearby house and Afek slept in the cult house. Olmoim’s penis grew very large and immobilised him so Afek cut it back to a proper size.
She then called on a bandicoot to create her vagina and had intercourse with a wild dog to open it. In that way she became a woman.
She then placed two marita pandanus nuts into her vagina and had intercourse with her brother. His blood was absorbed by the nuts and accounts for the colour of marita.
The brother looked after the pigs in his house and Afek stored their bones and fat in the cult house after they had been eaten. The pigs frequently misbehaved so Afek and her brother decided to try changing places.
This worked well and the pigs behaved. The next morning Afek was surprised to see her brother shining with pig fat. She was so impressed that she put him through a series of initiations and turned him into a man.
Olmoim stayed in the village while Afek went into the forest. One day he followed her. Each day she opened her legs and gave birth to various animals. Olmoim continued to spy on his sister and discovered that the animals came to her call. When the animals realised he was watching they ran away.
Afek also gave birth to taro while her brother was watching. She then turned back the Om River and built up the swampy area with sand from the river. She banished the sago that was growing in the swamps and planted the taro in its place.
Olmoim hunted the wild animals with his bow and arrows and Afek cultivated the taro.
They divided the cult house into two according to the ritual division of arrow and taro. Olmoim was put in charge of the arrow moiety and Afek retained the taro moiety for herself.
However, when Afek discovered that her brother had been spying on her and knew both the secret of the animals and taro she killed him with a spell. She placed his body on a burial platform but it did not decay so she created maggots to eat it.
Olmoim followed the underground road to the land of the dead at Bultem. When he was there he discovered an adze and brought it back to Telefolip. He traded the adze for one of his bones from the burial platform and returned to Bultem with it.
The particular type of stone adze that Olmoim brought from Bultem is called a fubi. These adzes were a major trade item that came to the Min via the river crossing at Moyansil.
The maggots that were caught in Olmoim’s hair when he came back from Bultem with the fubi are equated to nassa shells, which are another trade item coming from the south via Bultem and Moyansil.
The animals that Afek gave birth to are the ancestors of the Min people. Some Min people are reluctant to acknowledge animals as their ancestors but most Min elders will confirm it as a truth.
When their numbers increased Afek changed their languages and customs and sent them out to occupy their present territories.
When Afek died her skull was retained at Telefolip, her pelvis was sent to Wimtem and her other bones were distributed to the other cult houses.