Deep in the forest, high up in the mountains of New Guinea, a huge bird strides confidently through the undergrowth.
Foraging here and there for seeds and fruit and insects, the cassowary is the queen of the forest, the biggest creature in this ecosystem. She doesn’t need to fly – she has size, speed, intelligence, and strong, barbed claws. She is more than a match for any other living creature, including humans.
“To trap cassowaries, one needs to know a very great deal of magic.” Ian Saem Majnep, Birds of My Kalam Country
A cassowary came to me in a dream, and gave me the seed for this story.
My cassowary quest has taken me on a long and circuitous journey through folklore and myth, ecology, biology, anthropology, transpersonal psychology, spirituality and many other areas of scholarship and expertise. But I’m not an expert in any of these fields.
For a long time I just had the name, “The Cassowary’s Daughter”. I didn’t know what I was looking for. But I knew that I’d recognise it when I found it.
I’ve been looking for this elusive, magical, mysterious bird all my life. I’m feeling excited and exhilarated as I get close.
Along the way I’ve had sparks of recognition, every time I found another piece of the puzzle. This is my first attempt at bringing the pieces together. I know it needs polishing, but I want to let it out for a run.
Sparks were kindled by Women Who Run with the Wolves, by Clarissa Pinkola Estes, and Goddesses in Everywoman, by Jean Shinoda Bolen. And The Soul’s Code, by yet another Jungian, James Hillman. And the Arthurian quest stories, starting with The Sword in the Stone, by TH White. And the Celtic treasury of The Mabinogion.
When I read A Mythic Life: Learning to Live Our Greater Story by Jean Houston, foreword by Mary Catherine Bateson, I knew I was on the right track. The synchronicities were starting to appear.
Mary Catherine Bateson’s parents, the intrepid American anthropologist Margaret Mead and the British anthropologist, linguist and systems theorist Gregory Bateson, were colleagues and fore-runners of both my adventurous parents, in multiple ways. (I could write a blog post about this.) Mead’s second husband, the New Zealand anthropologist and mathematician Reo Fortune, was a close friend and mentor of my father, Ralph Bulmer, in Cambridge.
A strange bird
The cassowary was a constant, but invisible, presence during my childhood in Papua New Guinea.
This huge flightless bird lives deep in the forests of the island of New Guinea, the Aru Islands, Yapen, and northeastern Australia.
I’ve only once seen a wild cassowary, in northern Queensland.
A cassowary is elusive, secretive, unique, powerful, dangerous and important.
In most parts of the world, a creature that’s as mysterious as this is supernatural: dragons, unicorns, firebirds, yeti. But the cassowary is real flesh and blood.
A cassowary has a surreal, heraldic image, with its sculptural head, casque, beak, bright, glaring eyes, vivid colouring and powerful presence.
Cassowaries don’t by choice live anywhere near humans. They need plenty of space, even from other cassowaries. They don’t thrive in zoos, and they can’t be domesticated.
With its powerful beak and claws, a fully grown cassowary is always dangerous to humans.
If provoked, a cassowary will attack. The cassowary has been called “the world’s most dangerous bird”.
In northern Queensland, human settlement is reducing cassowary habitat and forcing cassowaries to live close to people, which creates problems. In Mission Beach there’s conflict in the community over people feeding wild cassowaries.
A keystone species
Papua New Guinea has a plethora of remarkable creatures, including birds of paradise and bower birds. The cassowary doesn’t have to compete with these showbirds. It’s something else entirely.
In ecological terms, the cassowary is considered a keystone species. It’s the largest of all forest birds. It plays an important role in seed dispersal over wide areas. More than 200 other species depend on the cassowary for their existence in an ecosystem.
There are three cassowary species: the Southern Cassowary, the Northern Cassowary, and the Dwarf Cassowary (also called the Mountain Cassowary). They are classified as part of the ratite group, which includes emu, rhea, ostriches, kiwi, and the extinct moa and elephant birds.
Adult Southern Cassowaries are 1.5 to 1.8m tall. Female cassowaries are larger than males and may be up to 2m.
Even the Dwarf Cassowary is hardly deserving of its name, being well over 1m in height.
All three species are considered endangered, due to changes in human land use in the last century.
A cassowary feeds mainly on fruit on the forest floor. However, they are omnivorous and may also eat other plant foods, invertebrates and small vertebrates.
An elusive creature
Cassowaries are very difficult for humans to find, let alone study, in the wild. They are adept at sensing the presence of humans and disappearing long before people realise they were there.
A cassowary can run through dense forest at nearly 50km per hour, and can also leap obstacles and swim across wide rivers.
Cassowary chicks are fairly easy to catch, if you can avoid being attacked by the father cassowary.
In many Papua New Guinea communities people often raise a cassowary chick in a tiny enclosure, and harvest the quills for ceremonial costumes. Eventually the full-grown cassowary becomes too dangerous and seriously injures someone, and then it is killed.
I never saw a cassowary being kept like this in my childhood. I’m glad I didn’t – I think I would have been upset and angry on behalf of the cassowary.
Not social birds
Cassowaries are not social birds. They spend most of their time as lone individuals. The main exception is during courtship and egg-laying.
The male cassowary is responsible for incubating the eggs and rearing the chicks.
A male cassowary has a territory of about 7km2 (1700 acres). A female cassowary has a much larger territory, overlapping that of several males.
A female cassowary may lay clutches of between three and eight huge greenish eggs in the nests of two or three males, before leaving the males to their duties.
A cassowary’s nest is not a complicated structure, being essentially a big heap of leaf litter, but the father cassowary takes pains to turn the eggs and shift the litter to maintain the right temperature to incubate the eggs.
The baby cassowaries are cute, with gold and brown stripes, which is good camouflaging. They lose the stripes at three or four months, but don’t have full adult plumage for two or three years.
The father cassowary looks after the babies for between nine and fifteen months, when the female cassowary returns to mate again, and he has to kick the young ones out of home.
This lifestyle contributes to the mystique of the female cassowary. Nobody knows what she’s doing most of the time.
It’s easy to see what the males are doing – they’re busy rearing chicks. But the female cassowary may be up to anything, including shapeshifting and seducing human men.
A cassowary has coarse plumage, more like spines and bristles than feathers.
Cassowaries have a distinctive casque on top of their heads. This is hollow inside, with fibres that are believed to amplify and receive sounds.
The cassowary makes the lowest known of all bird calls: literally a “rumble in the jungle”. It inflates its neck, vibrates its body and emits a pulsing boom that dips below the threshold of hearing for humans (23 hertz and lower) and travels long distances through the forest.
A hunter knows a cassowary is in the vicinity by feeling the vibration in his gut.
Not a bird?
My father, Ralph Bulmer, wrote a well-regarded article called “Why is the cassowary not a bird? A problem of zoological taxonomy among the Karam of the New Guinea Highlands.” (Man new series vol 2, no.1 March 1967, pp. 5-25.) This was the point where Ralph successfully pivoted from social anthropology into his passion, which was ethnobiology.
In this paper he notes that the Kalam consider themselves kin to cassowaries, and don’t classify the cassowary as a bird. Amongst other things, Ralph compares Linneaean classification with the classification system of the Kalam people. (NB this is the current correct spelling of Kalam.)
“Why is the cassowary not a bird?” established Ralph’s authority as an ethnobiologist, before he started his groundbreaking research collaboration with New Guinea Highlands natural history expert Ian Saem Majnep. Their first co-authored publication was Birds of My Kalam Country (Majnep and Bulmer, 1987, Auckland University Press.)
Ian Saem Majnep, who died in 2007, has an international reputation as a pioneer of indigenous science. There’s a wing in the Papua New Guinea National Museum named in his honour.
The cassowary occupies a unique, magical space in New Guinea cultures, art and spirituality.
Papua New Guinea has a rich cultural diversity, with more than 700 different languages.
There are many folk tales involving cassowaries.
Various cultural groups have differing cassowary traditions. It’s impossible to make one single statement of what the cassowary means.
It’s often a symbol of wildness and nature, as contrasted with human culture. Some groups identify cassowaries as male, others as female.
For the Maring people of the Eastern Highlands, the cassowary is the only animal whose death is invariably treated as a sacrifice, writes anthropologist Christopher Healey. He says the Maring associate the cassowary with maleness. There is an identification between male hunters and cassowaries. “Why is the cassowary sacrificed?” Man and a Half: Essays in Pacific anthropology and ethnobiology in honour of Ralph Bulmer, 1991, pp. 234-241.
The Kalam people, who are neighbours to the Maring, regard cassowaries as cousins to humans.
In Birds of my Kalam Country, Kalam natural history expert Ian Saem Majnep tells a story about a shape-shifting cassowary-woman. (pp.177-183)
In other cultures, the cassowary is a fertility symbol and powerful female creator figure. Some cultures see cassowaries as reincarnations of ancestors. The cassowary is also seen as an intermediary between the human and animal worlds.
Men, women and cassowaries
In some New Guinea cultures, the cassowary may be a symbol of male-female gender conflict.
“Cassowary hunting stands midway between war and shamanism, and makes a particularly explicit contribution to the production and exaltation of men’s dominance over women.” Maurice Godelier: The Making of Great Men: Male Dominance and Power among the New Guinea Baruya.
This was a constant, underlying and unspoken tension throughout my childhood and young adulthood. It was chronic, in my family, in my home and in the world around me. Not just Papua New Guinea.
Living with cassowaries
When I was a teenager in Auckland, our living room walls featured graphic images of a man having sex with a cassowary.
My parents owned some artworks by the well-known 20th century Papua New Guinea artist Timothy Akis. He was from the same region of the New Guinea Highlands as the Kalam.
The few young men I brought home would gaze bug-eyed. It underscored the futility of my efforts to present myself and my family as normal.
My father the cassowary
“In the Kalam culture, a tall man is often given the nickname kobti, or cassowary.” A Dictionary of Kalam, with Ethnographic Notes, by Andrew Pawley, Ralph Bulmer, John Kiyas, Peter Gi, Ian Saem Majnep (2011), pp 306.
My father, Ralph, was a giant, even in his homeland, the British Isles. He was 6 foot 6 ½ (2m) in his stocking feet.
His friends and colleagues in the New Guinea Highlands, healthy, energetic full-grown men, were mostly around 5 foot (1.52m).
When my father was dying of cancer in the late 1980s, a group of his colleagues contributed to a book in his honour, a festschrift, Man and a Half. The cover features a drawing of a cassowary by his colleague Christopher Healey.
The Swan Maiden
The Swan Maiden is a folk tale about a young man who steals a magic robe made of swan feathers from a young woman, a swan maiden, so she cannot fly away. The gist of the story is that the man steals the power of the shapeshifting bird-woman, and she is then forced to stay married to him.
This story occurs in cultures worldwide, from the far north of Scandinavia to the Americas, across Asia and to the southern hemisphere.
In The Cassowary’s Revenge: the life and death of masculinity in a New Guinea society, U.S. anthropologist Donald Tuzin describes how the cassowary features in a local iteration of the Swan Maiden myth for the Ilahita Arapesh people in the Sepik region of New Guinea.
He traces the spread of the Swan Maiden myth, across Europe and Asia to the island of New Guinea.
My mother the cassowary
My parents’ marriage had Swan Maiden elements.
Ralph was the hunter; Sue was the swan. Or, in this case, the cassowary. The feathery cloak was Sue’s work as an archaeologist, that meant more to her than anything else in the world.
Sue told me she had a strong sense that she had been hunted and trapped by my father. Being married to my father kept her trapped as a mother and housewife, and prevented her from fully pursuing her calling as an archaeologist.
It’s not the whole story, but it is one way of looking at it. And I’m not attributing blame in this situation. It was fairly normal in the mid-20th century.
My mother told me many times that she never for a moment regretted having children.
Ralph didn’t forbid Sue from being an archaeologist. That would have been impossible. But he did expect her to be a good housewife and mother, and he actively prevented Sue from getting a paid job.
A cloak stored in boxes
Sue’s cassowary cloak wasn’t stored in a magic wardrobe. It was packed into more than 30 cardboard boxes of bones and stones, research materials from her work in the New Guinea highlands in 1959-1960.
My brothers and I were always aware that these boxes were much more important to our mother than our household furniture and our toys.
The boxes went with Sue everywhere we lived.
The cassowary story helps me bring together some of the most elusive pieces of the story of my childhood in Papua New Guinea.
The cassowary points to magic and the supernatural, in a land where these things were very real to most people, but almost completely unacknowledged by expatriates. My parents knew that magic existed, but assumed it didn’t apply to them, and they certainly didn’t consider that it might affect their children. Ralph’s friend and colleague Inge Riebe describes conversations with Ralph about magic, “Do We Believe in Witchcraft?” Man and a Half, pp.317-326.
As we’re finding in the 21st century, we may not believe something is real or true, but if enough people do, it can become real anyway. This applies across politics, economics, religion and many other aspects of human culture.
I’m reclaiming the cassowary as a symbol of female strength and power and self-determination.
A cassowary also symbolizes danger, which for me was the very real danger of being an unprotected girl child in New Guinea.
But the cassowary is also a symbol of male nurturing and protection.
The cassowary in my dream was a father cassowary, caring for me and his other chicks in his dreamtime cassowary nest. He protected me in a way that my own father couldn’t, having been brutalised and traumatised by British boarding school and army service and more.
Meeting my cassowary
Alice in Wonderland logic: If I’m the daughter of cassowaries, then it’s quite probable that I too am a cassowary.
I’m a strange, secretive, untrackable wild creature that swallows fruit and disperses the seeds/ ideas over wide distances.
I’m also the hunter, following the trail of seeds and collecting them in my basket.
The cassowary quest is a metaphor for the process of creating my story. It’s elusive, mysterious. As soon as I approach it, it’s gone, speeding away through the forest of my dreams.
And when I do get close, it’s dangerous and scary. It’s always wild. And what I learn from the cassowary may not make sense in the light of day.
Hunting my cassowary is fascinating, exciting, and much stranger than I could ever have imagined.
“The Cassowary’s Daughter” is my storytelling project.
Many of the pieces of writing on this blog are part of this. If you’d like to keep reading, here are some more: