We only have a few days left in 2020, and naturally I’m thinking about a man named Marafi who lived in New Guinea in the early 30s and apparently worshiped Satan.

I mean what else is there to reflect on at the end of 2020, really?

I’d never even heard of this until just a couple weeks ago. Maybe that’s just because it really is an obscure reference, but I can’t shake the feeling that it’s in certain people’s interests not to talk too much about this historical anecdote or let it get around too much.

Because the story is strange, and because its implications are both pretty terrible for some of our shared cultural history and potentially very disquieting for whatever’s going to happen in the future. And the future, after all, is where we’ll be spending the rest of our lives…


marafi satanism New Guinea

Nice thing about not leaving the house anymore is I never have to take this off.


A 1936 issue of the Australian newspaper the Argus ran a short item under the truly one-of-a-kind headline, “Cult of Satan In New Guinea”:

“A remarkable story of Satanism in the territory of New Guinea is contained in the latest report to the Council of the League of Nations on the administration of the territory. […] A native named Marafi, of Bunki village, about a year ago spread a report among the natives of his own and neighbouring villages that Satan had visited him and given him supernatural powers.

“Satan had taken him, he said, into the bowels of the earth, where the dead told him that Satan would not allow them to return to the earth until he, Marafi, had induced the villagers to believe that Satan was the supreme being. Marafi demanded presents of the natives, and held seances on very dark nights, and claimed that he could fly overhead like a bird. He collected tribute in many villages.”

That’s…something all right.

Per historian Nicholas Ferns, Australia of all places occupied about half of the modern New Guinea for nearly 70 years. Prior to that, the country was a combination British and German holding, and Australia received the colony as a sort of post-war graduation gift, because after all they’d done such a great job looking after their own indigenous population, right? Right?

Papers from the US and Canada carried the story as well, but unfortunately they’re mostly light on details. Nobody, it seems, was able to consult Marafi himself (whom the Australians arrested to prevent further spread of the Satan cult) to discover who he was or the precise nature of his beliefs.

Racist and colonialist tropes are forever trying to hang the stigma of devil worship on indigenous religions. Reports of “Satanism” in occupied countries are usually either racist misinterpretation of local practices, white supremacist propaganda, or both.

But this story feels different, as it doesn’t ascribe any existing religious practice to the devil but, seemingly, an entirely new one. Peter Worsley’s 1968 book The Trumpet Shall Sound points out although it’s not quite clear who or what Marafi imagined Satan to be (other than the enemy of his enemies’ god), the reference to the spirits of the dead longing to return invokes an element of ancestor worship.

Worsely called the movement “a thoroughgoing ideological inversion of orthodox Christianity,” one that “condemned the existing social order by creating a Heaven which represented the overthrow and inversion of the existing society.”


marafi satanism New Guinea

“Phil, I don’t think this is exactly what he meant.”


In a similar vein, the 1984 book Protest & Dissent In the Colonial Pacific notes that Marafi’s mission was not just to incite the worship of Satan and collect tribute for himself but to overthrow the power structure of missionary Christianity, after which the devil promised “the world order would be reversed, and black culture would be triumphant instead of white.”

Reversing the status quo is exactly what the apocalypticists who invented the Satan myth in the first place wanted–except that Marafi opted to side with the devil. The backbreaking Satanism history Children of Lucifer suggests that colonization provoked “spiritual turmoil” in the region around the Markham River, and that the Marafi cult was just one of many schismatic movements during this period.

All things considered, we might wish there had been a hundred Marafis, or a thousand of them, scattered in countries all over the world. I say that not because the handful of words written about him suggest that Marafi was much of a high-minded crusader–much of the effect of his ministry prior to arrest seemed to be enriching himself, in the style of prophets since time immemorial.

But I do think this historical anecdote reflects a species of discontent that almost all of us can (or certainly should) relate to. All of us, I think, can empathize with a profound feeling that the status quo is not right and that the world must change.

(Unless of course you’re one of the tiny number of people disproportionately favored by the way things are now, in which case, why are you reading this? Are you lost?)

In the wrong hands, such a feeling can even be dangerous. And yet, how can we avoid it?

I’ve never been a big New Year’s Eve guy. When I was a teenager, I opted out of the festivities to protest what I saw as the arbitrary nature of the celebration, arguing (although nobody was listening) that real change doesn’t come through relativistic milestones like calendar years.

Probably for the best that Teenage Me stayed home and spared everyone that martyr routine anyway. I still don’t much go in for the holiday now, though; New Years offer little to hold my attention.

I prefer to dwell on the Old Year. And on the year before that. And the year before that. And on whether anyone in fact wants for things to keep on the way they have been? And on why, if they don’t, things seem so rarely to change for the best?

In moments like these, we turn to Satan. And now we know that, evidently, we’re not the first.


marafi satanism New Guinea

If that’s not a mood I don’t know what is.