Notes From an Expedition to the Cellfoan People

This classic article is from the Annals of Improbable Research.

by David D. Levine, Portland, Oregon

Illustrations by Lino Martins

The Cellfoan People are composed of numerous tribes. Although mutually dependent on each other, these tribes are fiercely competitive, and a good deal of their time is spent maneuvering for position, forming and breaking alliances, and bargaining in order to gain an advantage over other tribes. However, they seldom if ever engage in actual warfare. Instead, a special caste of shamans known as the aturni conducts complex and ritualized formal contests for dominance. These contests sometimes take years or decades to be decided, and at any time a tribe may be engaged in contests on dozens or hundreds of fronts. Because of the complexity of the contests, it is not atypical for both combatants to claim victory no matter what the actual outcome.

The costume of the Cellfoan People is uniform across all tribes and all levels of status. It consists of a woolen jacket and matching pants in a dark color, and a shirt of cotton or polyester in a lighter color. The overall somber appearance of this outfit, or süt, is relieved by a band of brightly colored fabric, called a nektai, worn about the neck. The significance of the colors of this band has not yet been determined, although it is of only limited use in determining the wearer's status. Status is instead displayed by subtle differences in cut and quality within the rigid framework of the standard style of clothing. A more reliable indicator of status is the presence or absense of various totemic objects.

Cellfoan People are usually seen to carry at least one totemic object, or toi, on their person at all times. These objects are used to communicate with the gods and obtain their guidance and blessings for any and all weighty events. Ownership of a powerful toi confers both power and prestige upon the owner; a Cellfoan Person who is so unfortunate as to lose his toi or have it stolen is completely devastated, and often can neither work nor sleep until it is restored or replaced.

The power of a toi is generally proportional to its size. (Curiously, though, within a class of toi the smaller objects generally confer higher status.) Toi are usually carried in a leather box called a brifæs, which is rarely found far from its owner's hand.

The lowest class of toi, carried by almost all Cellfoan People—no matter what their status—is a small leather-covered book containing religious texts and personal notes. This common book is known by many different names; for example, among the Tek tribe it is called a dætima, while among the Intel it is called a franklin. The Cellfoan People believe that all imporant events, both past and future, must be recorded in this book, and few will take any action whatsoever without consulting it. A typical scene in daily life is the sight of two or more Cellfoan People seriously consulting their dætima for a propitious date for some upcoming event.

The second class of toi, the bipa, is a small box which is usually worn on the belt or carried in a pocket. This box is never opened; it is believed to contain a small but powerful bip, or god-messenger, which conveys summonses and instructins from the gods. When the gods are angry or wish to direct the carrier of the bipa, the bip is believed to make a high-pitched mnoise or to jump violently about in its box. Often a Cellfoan Person will excuse himself from a gathering with the excuse that his bipa is vibrating, and he must consult with the gods to determine the cause of the disturbance.

The third and most visible class of toi is the celfon, from which the name Cellfoan People is derived. The celfon is similar to but larger than the bipa. Only shamans may carry a celfon, because it is believed to convey messages both to and from the gods. When in use, the celfon is held close to the head; often the user cups a hand over the ear or mouth in order to ensure good communication. During this communion the shaman's eyes are typically either closed or rolled heavenward, and he make take violent exception to being interrupted.

The pronoucements of the celfon are given great weight. For example, during one expedition, I observed a group of Intel patiently waiting for a sky carriage. Suddenly, their shaman annouced that his celfon had told him that there was snow in a far-off village and that they must take a new route if they were to get home before the sun went down. Immediately the rest of the group gathered their baggage and went off in search of a different carriage.

I was only able to live among the Cellfoan People for a few months, but I gained enormous respect for their courage and sincerity in the face of their harsh environment. It is to be hoped that the great faith of these simple people in their gods and totems will not hinder their progress as they join the civilized world.


The author gives grateful acknowledgment to Intel corporation for its financial assistance in this research project.


This article is republished with permission from the September-October 1998 issue of the Annals of Improbable Research. You can purchase back issues of the magazine or subscribe to receive future issues, in printed or in ebook form. Or get a subscription for someone as a gift! Visit their website for more research that makes people LAUGH and then THINK.

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