Melanesian Religions: An Overview

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Anthropologists have disagreed about the exact geographical boundaries of Melanesia, some using the term to designate only the islands east of New Guinea, though without arguing that New Guinea is culturally distinct. Others have suggested that Fiji, because of its links with Tonga, should be considered part of Polynesia. Here, following the most common usage, Melanesia will be understood to extend from New Guinea in the west to Fiji in the east, encompassing the islands of the Torres Straits, the Bismarck archipelago, the Solomons, Vanuatu (formerly the New Hebrides), New Caledonia, and many smaller islands.

Within the northeastern part of this region, a few islands are inhabited by people whose languages and cultures are classified as Polynesian, such as the inhabitants of Tikopia and Bellona. Although these peoples' homes now belong to the same political units as the Melanesian islands, scholars consider them part of Polynesia. Nevertheless, it is difficult to draw a line between the cultures of Melanesia and of Polynesia to the east, Indonesia to the west, and Micronesia to the north, and many continuities exist with these neighboring regions. Furthermore, given its small total land area, Melanesia contains a much larger number of distinct languages and cultures than any other part of the world. This diversity greatly hampers generalization about Melanesia; it is only possible to mention features that recur with some regularity, while acknowledging that a single culture might fail to exhibit any of them.

As has happened elsewhere, an additional complication was introduced by foreign missionaries bringing their own religions and seeking to replace the indigenous ones. The westernmost portion of the island of New Guinea was somewhat influenced by Islam, coming via Indonesia, but in the rest of Melanesia various Christian denominations have greatly altered most traditional religious practices and beliefs. These were further affected by encounters with other foreigners, whose very existence and whose technology changed traditional worldviews; colonial governments also forbade a range of practices, such as ways of dealing with corpses, that often were closely tied to religion. Both missionaries and government officers arrived in some parts of coastal Melanesia in the nineteenth century, but did not enter the Highlands (mountainous interior) of New Guinea until the 1930s. Fifty years later there are still a few parts of this island not yet exposed to missionary influence. Inevitably, our ideas about Melanesian religion derive mainly from a small sample of societies that were either contacted late or that, unlike most, resisted conversion to Christianity. Most of these are found in the interior of New Guinea and of some large islands in the Solomons and Vanuatu, but the group includes a few small islands, such as Manus (Great Admiralty Island) and Wogeo, both north of New Guinea, whose societies were described by anthropologists before the missionaries arrived.

As regards the rest of Melanesia, because conversion has often been recent and not so thorough as to eradicate all traditional beliefs, it is still possible in most cases to learn much about certain aspects of indigenous religion. Theories about the magical causes of disease, sexual attraction, and bad weather often persist long after orthodox Christian ideas about the destiny of the soul have been accepted. Rarely, however, is any religious belief or practice of Melanesians living in the twenty-first century precisely like that of their ancestors. The accelerated spread of ideas from other societies as the result of pacification and wage labor, the introduction of modern technology, new conditions such as foreign diseases, and an altered worldview produce changes even in such practices as garden magic and birth ritual. In the vast majority of cases, contemporary Melanesian religions are highly syncretic, and only in a handful of scattered societies is it possible to appreciate the full complexity and emotional impact of the original systems. Given the persistence of many ideas, however, it is still possible to use the present tense to describe selected aspects of the religions, as will be done here.

The Spirit World

One of the few valid generalizations about Melanesian religions is that they all include a belief in a variety of spirits, some of human origin and some not, who interact with living human beings.


All people are assumed to have a spiritual component or soul (and sometimes more than one). Depending on the culture, it may derive from the descent group of one parent, in which case the child is usually born with it, or it may be inserted into the child by another supernatural being, often well after birth. Belief in reincarnation is found only sporadically. In line with a widespread Melanesian tendency not to speculate about origins, many societies have no theory about the source of the human soul. It is usually thought to be only lightly attached to the body, and to wander in dreams; often it is considered dangerous to awaken a sleeper suddenly, lest he suffer soul loss that can lead to madness or death. The souls of babies are particularly vulnerable to attack or capture by other spirits, whereas the souls of adults are more likely to be captured by human sorcerers performing magic over personal leavings, such as food crumbs, that are thought to contain part of the victim's soul-stuff. Specialist curers may undertake soul rescue in dreams, or sometimes a suspected sorcerer can be persuaded to perform countermagic that releases the soul-stuff.


At death the human soul is transformed into a ghost that usually retains its identity but not necessarily its antemortem personality. In some societies ghosts are expected to be malevolent, resentful of the living, and likely to attack or kill them; in others, they are thought generally to be benevolent, especially toward their close kin; and in others it is assumed that their new condition makes them capricious or unpredictable. Sometimes the ghosts of those who die in particular ways, as in battle or childbirth, are feared even when other ghosts are considered benevolent; so may be the ghosts of former sorcerers.

There is usually a traditional abode of the dead, or a series of abodes, often a different one for each clan. Occasionally these are underground or in the sky, but usually they are on the earth and physically close to human habitations. Although it may be difficult for the ghost to reach the land of the dead, especially if the correct funeral rites have not been performed, very rarely is there any idea of punishment after death for those who have misbehaved in life. The land of the dead is usually much like that of the living, though perhaps somewhat more pleasant; in most societies all of the dead share the same sort of afterlife, gardening, marrying, and behaving much like the living. Ghosts of the newly deceased are thought most likely to stay around their old villages for some time before really severing ties with their kin, but often people have contradictory ideas about the behavior of ghosts, simultaneously believing that they proceed immediately to the land of the dead and that they continue to haunt the village and its environs. In Manus the skull of a particular dead kinsman, in which his ghost resided, would be kept to serve as guardian for each adult man but was banished into a sort of limbo when it failed to confer benefits or when its "ward" died. In many other societies men summon the ghosts of dead kin to help with specific enterprises such as hunting or weather control; they may be aided in this endeavor by keeping some relic of the corpse such as fingernails, but the Manus practice of harboring ghosts within the dwelling house seems to be shared only with the people of Sarera Bay in Irian Jaya. Much more often ghosts are thought to reside either in bones or in special paraphernalia kept in men's houses or cult houses, far from the women and children. In a few societies, however, ghosts are summoned to join the living on special occasions, as at the famous harvest festival of the Trobriand Islands.

Spirits of the dead always have abilities both to aid and to harm that transcend those of living human beings; but they may be thought to take little interest in those left behind, who in turn are primarily concerned to avoid meeting ghosts. As those who remember them die, the names of specific ghosts are forgotten, and conceptually they may be assimilated to spirits of the bush or sea that were never human. In some societies, however, the long deceased are more important and influential than the recently dead, especially if they were the founding ancestors of large descent groups such as clans. Judging from myths, such founding ancestors may have had supernatural attributes even when alive, but in other cases they have been raised near to the status of deities by the period of time that separates them from the living or by the ceremonies carried out on their behalf. Where ancestors are accorded great powers and are regularly appealed to, it is possible to talk of ancestor cults or ancestor worship. The beliefs that ancestors are greatly concerned with the health, fertility, and morality of their descendants and that they can be induced by ritual means such as sacrifice (usually of domestic or wild animals) to grant benefits to the living are found much less often in Melanesia than in surrounding areas, but these beliefs form a prominent part of the religion in many parts of eastern Melanesia and also in the Highlands of New Guinea.


Spirits that have never been human play some part in all Melanesian religions, but their nature and importance vary greatly from one society to another. In western Melanesia, including New Guinea and the nearby islands, one of the most important is a type known in Pidgin English as masalai. Masalai live in wild places and, although they may assume human form, are typically animals of abnormal appearancegigantic, brightly colored, sometimes wearing human ornaments such as earrings. Often they are associated with descent groups whose members they aid in distressif, for instance, they are lost in the bush or drowningbut they do so only if the person has observed relevant rules concerning marriage and food taboos. Offenders may be punished by the masalai, who also attack outsiders who stray into their territory. Monstrous births may be attributed to the child's having been conceived in a masalai place (and possibly actually being its child); getting lost in the bush can result from being led astray by them; and sudden illness after eating wild animals or plants may be ascribed to either having ingested the masalai itself, in one of its transformations, or having "stolen" a food that actually belonged to the masalai. (The spirit may later visit the victim in a dream to explain its action.) Melanesia has few dangerous wild animals, but the uninhabited bush and the deep sea teem with dangerous spirits, and many people are uneasy about moving far outside the area of human settlement and cultivation. In some societies, menas hunters, fishermen, traders, and warriorsthink of the bush as peculiarly their own, free of the threat of sexual contamination by women, while in others women are banished from the village when they are in a dangerous condition (e.g., menstruation and childbirth). Usually the village is regarded as uniquely safe from supernatural threat, at least during the day; after dark, spirits more easily invade the human domain. Belief in menacing beings that assume a harmless form at daybreak is widespread in Melanesia.

Deities and culture heroes

Many spirit beings appear only in mythology and play no part in contemporary society apart from being remembered when origins and migrations are discussed. Some societies even lack such mythological figures. In a relatively small number of Melanesian cultures, however, people believe in uniquely powerful spirits who maintain an interest in the whole society rather than in specific descent groups. They are sometimes referred to in the scholarly literature as "deities," especially if they seem well disposed toward humankind; otherwise they may be called "demons" by outside observers. The large majority of Melanesian religions cannot be described as ethical; spiritual beings and forces rarely support the rules of society except in very limited spheres. Exceptions exist, especially in the east (where influence from Polynesia may be involved in some cases) but also in the New Guinea Highlands. In these societies, deities may punish misbehavior with crop failure, human infertility, sickness in the pig herds, or volcanic eruption. If procedures exist for ascertaining the will of the deity, it may be possible to placate him or her, usually with offerings. Otherwise people simply try to avoid or prevent behavior likely to evoke the wrath of the gods, and sometimes explain that they must do everything just as they were told to in the remote past lest disaster befall them.

Interestingly, several Melanesian societies in which the status of women is low have male cults devoted to the worship of female goddesses who promote male interests alone. Much more common are deities who are concerned with only one activity or one aspect of life, such as fishing for bonito, or warfare. Less powerful spirits may be invoked to aid with other activities such as gardening.

Whether or not deities remain near, or accessible to, human settlements after performing initial acts of creation, they may be mentioned in magical spells as a sign that the magic too derives from them. In a number of societies along the north coast of New Guinea, it is reported that meticulous maintenance and performance of ritual secrets imparted by these deities and culture heroes ensures success in a wide range of activities. Other societies are not so conservative, and their members try out any new rituals that seem promising. To the extent that deviations from morality are punished in these, the actual penalties are usually carried out by men wearing masks and manipulating ritual noisemakers such as flutes and bull-roarers to represent the voice of the spirits. The men may not believe that the spirits are present, but women and children are said to be deluded.

In a few areas there exist religious cults that are dedicated to a particular deity or other powerful being, or to the semideified collection of ancestors. In historical times such cults, typically involving secret rituals held in special structures, have spread widely in the New Guinea Highlands, honoring beings who promote health, strength, and fertility. Elsewhere, cults center on dispelling disease and other ills, so that cult performances tend to be triggered by disasters. Whatever their nature, cults, like most major religious activities in Melanesia, tend to involve only mature males.

Religious Specialists

Officiants who intervene between deities and ancestors and the ordinary people have often been called priests, even though they are never full-time specialists. Throughout Melanesia the most esteemed religious expert is a man of mature age who possesses detailed knowledge of ritual, either through training by another expert or by attaining the higher grades of a secret society. Where he is expected to communicate with the ancestors, he is ideally their senior male descendant, but ability to learn and perform rituals may outweigh pure seniority. By contrast with some other parts of the world, ritual specialists are rarely set apart psychologically or sexually, although they may report many direct encounters with spirits in dreams or, while purportedly fully conscious, in waking life. They are taught what they know rather than being inspired. In a number of Melanesian societies mediums are possessed by spirits, like the Manus women who communicate with ghosts through their own deceased young sons, and the curing shamans of the Baktaman of New Guinea, who must be possessed by a particular spirit before assuming their roles. Such people are rarely the most esteemed experts; the mediums of the Kaluli of New Guinea described by Edward L. Schieffelin (1976) are exceptional in this respect.

That for most of Melanesia religious experts have been described as magicians rather than as priests or shamans reflects the most widely reported attitude toward the supernatural. Power lies in the hands of human adepts rather than with gods or other spirits. Given sufficient knowledge, men can control rain, sun, and wind; they can bring success to themselves and their kin and misfortune to othersmaking gardens flourish or blighting them, luring a pig into a trap or a rival's garden, sending a snake or crocodile to kill an enemy or causing him to fall from a tree, or enticing a woman from her husband. In some societies they accomplish their ends by manipulation of spirit beings, while in others the results follow automatically if ritual is performed correctly. Particularly as regards eastern Melanesia, much has been written about the concept of an invisible supernatural power, called mana (or some cognate term), which can be manipulated by the magician. As originally described by R. H. Codrington in The Melanesians (1891), mana was thought to be a power derived from "spiritual beings," but the term came to be understood by some other anthropologists as designating power that is impersonal and independent of spirits. Certainly the term exists in both eastern Melanesia and Polynesia, but there have been many debates about its exact significance, as Roger M. Keesing points out in Kwaio Religion (1982).

It is generally agreed that even when terms like mana are used, the speakers tend to have no clearly defined and expressed concept of just what this supernatural power is and how it operates. What interests them are results that can be duplicated. If an act seems to be effective, it does not matter just how the effect is produced. Typically, Melanesian magic involves the recitation of spells that must be carefully memorized; the use of substances thought to be potent in themselves, such as ginger; ritual acts that may involve imitation of the results desired; and maintenance of a state of potency by the observation of taboos, as on washing and sexual intercourse. Failure to achieve the desired results is usually attributed to countermagic performed by someone else, but it may also be blamed on failure to learn or perform correctly. All magic is not this complicated; sometimes only the spell or the act is needed. With the simpler forms, it may be difficult to distinguish magic from technology, and often distinctions are made by an outsider that would seem artificial to the local people. Trying to make a woman conceive by simply putting spider eggs into her food is an example of such a borderline case.

In Melanesia, intent is always involved in magic; there is no equivalent of the African witch or European possessor of the evil eye who harms others involuntarily. In most cases, too, evaluation of the act depends on the relation between the performer and those affected. In a few societies, such as that of the Tangu on the northern coast of New Guinea, there exists a belief in wholly malicious sorcerers all of whose attacks are condemned, but in many other societies a sorcerer is admired so long as he does not attack members of his own group. Usually all men know a little magicfor gardening, hunting, fishing, and sexual attractionbut only a few specialists know the major types such as those dealing with weather control, warfare, sorcery, and the curing of serious diseases. In most Melanesian societies all deaths except those of the very young and the very old tend to be attributed to supernatural causessorcery, spirits, or the breach of a tabooand so do all major accidents and serious illnesses. Diviners and curers seek to ascertain the cause of sickness or death, to help cure the sickness (possibly by identifying the person responsible), and to direct vengeance in the case of death. Magicians are often paid fees when they perform outside their kinship group, unless their work benefits themselves along with others, as is the case with garden magicians. Usually each community contains a number of different specialist magicians, but political leaders are likely to control more than one major form of ritual, either through their own knowledge or by being wealthy enough to hire others. Political leadership is reinforced by religious knowledge, but only in a few coastal societies are there official magicians at the service of the leaders.

Taboos and Totems

The English word taboo is derived from a Polynesian word (Tongan, tabu ), and its cognates appear in many of those Melanesian languages that are related to Polynesian languages. Similar concepts, called by different terms, are found among speakers of unrelated languages. There is debate about the range of meaning of these terms, but they normally include the concept of "forbidden," and often "sacred" as well. The words meaning "taboo" may be nouns, adjectives, or active verbs. The source of taboos varies from one society to another, and so does the kind of thing encompassed by them. Sometimes they can be traced to edicts by deities in mythological times, as is usually the case with incest taboos. So too can special attitudes toward totemic animals or plants. These are species associated with particular descent groups, perhaps because people are thought to be descended from similar but supernatural beings; perhaps because they emerged from the underworld together with these species, as is believed in the Trobriand Islands; or perhaps because of aid given by a member of the species to a human ancestor. Whatever the reason for the connection, members of the descent group are usually forbidden to kill or eat members of their totemic species; if they break the taboo, they may sicken or die. Those who punish such breaches of taboo may be the creatures themselves, their ghosts (which may be possessed by animals and plants as well as people), the ghostly founders of the descent groups, or some impersonal force that acts automatically. All associations between people and natural species are not totemic; sometimes members of a particular descent group simply claim to have first discovered a food plant, or to have particular success in hunting certain animals. Where totems do occur, however, they are a significant part of the religion, but in a different category from spirits.

Many other taboos are tied in with aspects of the local worldview. For example, if the soul is called by the same term as the reflection and shadow, as is often the case, it may be taboo to stare at one's own reflection or to step on someone's shadow, for fear of soul loss. Traditional systems of belief typically involve the observation of many taboos, some of which result from revelation by spirits and some from simple deduction. An unexpected event such as an earthquake may be ascribed to the breach of a previously unknown taboo, the nature of which may be revealed by a supernatural being in a dream. Equally often, however, it is simply decided that any action out of the ordinary that immediately preceded the event actually caused it, especially if the action took place in the wild. To avoid further trouble, it may be decided and announced, for instance, that never again should anyone put a stick down a rat hole. Since taboos acquired in this way rarely form a coherent system, they can seem arbitrary and almost meaningless once their origin has been forgotten, but it may be strongly believed that the maintenance of society and of human life depends on meticulous observation of them.

Women and Religion

Melanesia is famous in the anthropological literature for what has been called sexual antagonism, most often expressed in male fears of contact, which can be dangerous and weakening, with women. At their mildest, such fears and avoidance are no greater than those found in many societies outside Melanesia. Men's reluctance to sleep with menstruating women, and their belief that sexual intercourse saps the strength of a warrior and is antithetical to the practice of religion, can be found almost everywhere. More characteristically Melanesian is the frequently encountered belief that fertile women in themselves are polluting to men, particularly, but not exclusively, when menstruating and during and immediately after childbirth. While menstruating, they may be forbidden to cook for men or to enter gardens, and in many societies have to retire to menstrual huts in the bush. If menstrual blood is feared, so too is the blood shed in childbirth. Not only does a man avoid the scene of childbirth, which also may be relegated to the bush, but he may consider both mother and baby to be polluted for months after the birth. It may be considered dangerous for a man to touch a young baby, surrounded as it is by the dangerous aura acquired from its mother. Later little boys may need to be ritually cleansed of female influences before they will be able to become mature men or to participate in male ceremonies. Where fears of female pollution are high, men usually spend much of their time in men's houses separate from the family dwellings. Such structures may be taboo to women and even to little boys, who will have to undergo special rituals before they can begin to sleep there. In a number of Melanesian societies, fertile women are thought to pollute anything that they step over, such as food, firewood, or human beings. Men must take care never to be physically below women, nor to drink downstream from where women bathe. In extreme cases, as among the Kwaio of Malaita in the Solomons, the whole village is built on ridges so that everything pertaining to men, including ancestral shrines, is uphill from the area assigned to women.

The situation is not always so simple as it seems at first glance. In some societies, such as Wogeo, women too are thought to be endangered by the sexual secretions of men, and menstrual blood may also be considered polluting to a woman (who then has to take great care while eating or chewing betel nut during menstruation) as well as to a man. Furthermore, it has been argued that women actually enjoy and profit from the periods of seclusion associated with menstruation and childbirth, rather than feeling that they are suffering because they are unclean. Certainly women's labors may be lightened if it is thought that crops planted by them will not grow well and that men will sicken if they eat food cooked by women. Furthermore, the possibility that an angry wife might put menstrual blood into the food of a husband who beats her, and so "poison" him, gives her some control over his behavior. If, however, women are thought to be innately malevolent, or to become malevolent because they are subject to discrimination in such matters as diet, their ability to harm men may count against them in that they are likely to be accused of causing deaths, and to be killed in revenge.

In most of Melanesia, however, the low status accorded women also keeps them from being considered powerful magicians. An exception is the so-called Massim region off the eastern tip of New Guinea (including the Trobriand Islands), where female status is relatively high, and where cannibalistic female witches who fly abroad seeking victims are blamed for many deaths. In most other parts of Melanesia, those deaths not attributed to spirits are more likely to be blamed on male sorcerers. If women know magic at all, it typically deals with female fertility and childbirth, and with the growth and health of small children. Nevertheless, women may play a role in religious life insofar as their dreams may be taken as seriously as those of men, so that they too may have meaningful encounters with spirits and can act as soul rescuers, as well as sources of information about the world of spirits. The most respected female adepts are likely to be women past menopause, who are exempt from many of the restrictions of their juniors, and who may even be identified with men.

Where women are considered unfit for the most esteemed activities, the reason may simply be that they are thought to be physically and mentally weaker than men. Often, however, it is held that femininity in itself, or because of its association with female blood and milk, is repulsive to spirits and to wild animals, who flee hunting and fishing equipment if women touch it. Sometimes it is the odor of sexual intercourse rather than of women specifically that is thought to repel other beings; nevertheless, even in those societies that do not practice the sorts of discrimination just described, women are usually forbidden to touch certain male tools and weapons, and warriors must avoid too much contact with women or risk death in battle. Usually these effects are automatic. If women are really feared and avoided in other contexts, boys are likely to need formal rites of separation from their mothers before they can join the men in their exclusive domain.

Rites of Passage

Whether changes of status during life are marked ritually depends on the society and on the individual's position within it. If there is a class system, as in many coastal areas, members of the upper class receive much more ceremonial attention than do ordinary people. Elsewhere ritual may be focused on the firstborn child, regardless of sex, in the belief that some benefits will extend to younger siblings. Often ceremonies mark the first time that the child engages in any new activity, such as going to the gardens or having his first haircut. Although rites of passage always mark a change of status, they need not contain a religious element. Ceremonies revolving around children or grandchildren are often sponsored by older men to enhance their own prestige, and the complexity and amount of display has little to do with the significance of the event except as a marker of wealth and social status. Of all the rites of passage commonly held in Melanesia, weddings are least likely to be religious ceremonies, whereas funerals almost invariably are.


A first pregnancy, and the birth of a first child, may be celebrated for the mother as marking her final shift of responsibility from her parents to her new status as a parent herself. Unless she experiences difficulties in childbirth, religious rituals are not usually involved except for the observation of many taboos on acts that might affect her or her child. The husband may need to observe these as well. After birth, however, the baby is vulnerable to many inimical forces, and is normally kept in seclusion until his survival seems likely, when his skin has darkened and the umbilical cord has dropped off. He may then be given a name and formally introduced to the community. Both parents continue to observe taboos on behavior that might affect him, staying away from spirit places and wild foods that might be associated with spirits. Spells are recited to promote his health and growth, and rituals may be performed in connection with such events as the appearance of teeth. Among the Siuai of Bougainville, the young child is the object of an elaborate ritual that summons spirits to help him, after which he is a full member of society; usually, though, the most complex rites are reserved for puberty.

Puberty and initiation

In many parts of Melanesia it is taken for granted that once the perils of early childhood are past, a child will mature naturally; supernatural aid is invoked only for illness. In others, boys especially are thought to need the aid of both society and the supernatural if they are to reach healthy adulthood. Puberty rites for boys are likely to be communal events occupying long periods of time. A girl very often undergoes a ceremony at menarche that may involve a period of seclusion, both because of attitudes about menstrual blood and because her emergence afterward is likely to mark her transition to the new status of marriageability. Sometimes elaborate rituals surround the whole period of isolation.

In a very few societies, such as the Orokaiva of New Guinea, boys and girls go through puberty ceremonies together. But much more often boys are separated from all females. In many parts of New Guinea they are subjected to rituals involving vomiting and bloodletting designed to rid their bodies of the pernicious effects of their former contact with women. In some societies, such as the Wogeo, male bloodletting is equated with female menstruation: designed to rid the body of "bad" blood, it is practiced throughout life. By contrast, in a group of societies in south central New Guinea, it is held that boys will mature only if they are "fed" with semen, and highly secret ceremonies involving ritual homosexuality form the center of the puberty rites. Where much secret knowledge is imparted at this time, puberty rites are indistinguishable from initiation into men's societies or cults; but usually the religious content of the rites is limited to the use of spells and practices to promote health, growth, and beauty. Various taboos are connected not only with separation from women but with the healing of any operations on the penis, nose, ears, or skin that also signal the change of status. At the end of the rituals, the boys emerge fully decorated in a new social persona, but may still avoid marriage for some years.

Men's societies forbidden to women extend from New Guinea to Vanuatu; only in this last island group are women reported to have similar societies of their own. Often the male societies are basically political rather than religious, a way for older men to dominate women and boys; but in some areas much secret knowledge of rituals essential to the maintenance of society is in the hands of the few individuals who have passed through various grades of initiation, typically with severe associated ordeals. Passing through all the grades may take a lifetime, and, in parts of Vanuatu, a fortune. Sometimes the actual secrets are minor, apart from the frequent revelation that purported spirits are simply human impersonations; the initiates may only learn how masks are made or how the "voices" of the spirits are produced. In these cases it could be argued that belief in the existence and nonhuman nature of these beings is part of the religion of the uninitiated but not of the initiates. A measure of deception need not, however, indicate the absence of other levels of belief among the initiates. Several recent studies of rites still being carried on in the interior of New Guinea reveal that often the older adepts really believe that they alone are able to keep society functioning; their activities are serious behind the facade of deception and frequent revelations of trivia. Overall, however, there is no necessary connection between the elaborateness of the ceremonies, the degree of hazing involved, and the care with which the secrets are guarded from noninitiates, and the actual religious content. Perhaps because of the way they spread from one society to another, rites that look very similar on the surface may differ greatly in function.

Mortuary rites

Death triggers the ceremonies most characteristic of Melanesia, particularly of the coastal and lowland regions. Beginning with the funeral, these may culminate years later in great festivals involving dances and masked performances and the dispersing of vast amounts of pork and other food to the participants. In most societies formal funerals are held for everyone, though they may be abbreviated when the corpse is that of a baby or an old woman who lacks close kin. At the wake that enables mourners to view the body, diviners often attempt to ascertain the cause of death from the ghost, which then may be ritually dispatched to the land of the dead. Although cremation is practiced in a few places, in many others initial disposal of the body is temporary. It may be exposed on a platform or buried for a few months until decay is complete, but thereafter some or all of the bones may be subject to special treatment. This varies according to local ideas about the relations between body and soul, and about the symbolic significance of bones and of specific parts of the body such as the head.

The period following initial disposal of the body is typically one of intense mourning for the surviving kin, who abstain from work, keep a restricted diet, make themselves as physically unattractive as possible, sometimes lop off a finger joint, and often go into complete seclusion. The heaviest restrictions fall on the widow, whose willingness to submit to them may be taken as evidence that she did not help to kill her husband by magical means. Only in Dobu, a matrilineal society in the D'Entrecasteaux Islands, east of New Guinea, is mourning for the widower more arduous than for the widow. In a number of lowland societies extending as far as Fiji, the wife or wives of prominent men or chiefs were formerly killed to join them in the afterlife, and in southwest New Britain all widows were killed and buried with their husbands, whose ghosts would linger around the settlements until their wives joined them. A widow cannot resume normal life in other parts of Melanesia until she has been formally released from mourning, in ceremonies that mark her reintegration into the community.

Personal possessions of the dead may be broken, trees cut down, and pigs killed either as signs of grief or so that their spiritual essence can be released to accompany the deceased into the afterlife. It may also be considered supernaturally dangerous for survivors to remain in close contact with the personal possessions, which are imbued with soul-stuff. Much of the remaining property, especially pigs and garden crops, is likely to be used in feasts celebrating the lifting of taboos from the mourners. When this is done, relics of the dead, such as the house in which the person died, may be destroyed. But if further ceremonies are planned, some relic will be preserved for use in these.

Major mortuary ceremonies are not held for everyone. Men of high status are usually honored in this way by their kin; but equally often, a leader or a man who aspires to that status sponsors such a ceremony primarily for the personal glory that he will gain. The dead person may be any type of kin, such as a young child or a mother-in-law; their importance as individuals in life or after death may be wholly subordinate to that of the sponsor. Throughout Melanesia leaders attain or ratify their positions by sponsoring ceremonies in which they try to outdo each other in display and generosity. Some of the food dispensed at mortuary ceremonies may derive from that left by the deceased, and so be taboo to some of those who attend. Furthermore, the specific parts played by those attending may reflect their relation to the dead as well as to the sponsor, and if relics are displayed, those holding them are likely to be close kin, who weep as they remember the dead. Unless the ghost is thought to attend, however, the religious content of such ceremonies may be confined to magic designed to produce a successful occasion, as by preventing rain and ensuring that the food supply is adequate. The deceased may be present only in memory. It is, however, common for a few final mortuary taboos to be lifted on these occasions, such as those prohibiting use of the fruit trees and the house site of the deceased.

In some societies apparently similar ceremonies have the deepest religious significance. Ghosts of the dead, sometimes including those of distant ancestors, may be summoned to attend, and rites are directed at them in an attempt to win their favor and avert their wrath. When pigs are killed, their blood soaking into the ground or burnt portions of their bodies are specifically intended as offerings to the ghosts. The fate of the bones of the dead varies with the sorts of continuing relations desired between their former owners and the living, but often they are deposited in sanctuaries such as caves, or in structures that serve as temples in which the bones will be a focus for future rituals. If bones are reburied or deposited in village or garden sites, their presence may create continuing prosperity, fertility, and safety for the descendants who use the land.

Art and Religion

The spectacular art of most of lowland Melanesia is usually, but not invariably, connected with religion. In some societies, such as those of the area around Lake Sentani in Irian Jaya and of the Massim Islands east of New Guinea, almost all utilitarian objects are decorated, and in most cases the decorations have no religious significance. The most dramatic Melanesian sculptures, paintings, and constructions are, however, produced either specifically for religious ceremonies or to honor and commemorate particular spirits. Some of the most colorful constructions, made of painted barkcloth or woven fiber decorated with colored leaves and feathers, may be quite ephemeral; perhaps inhabited by spirits during a ceremony, they are destroyed or dismantled with the departure of the spirits for their own realm. The sculptures and painting that represent spirits may also be kept permanently hidden inside men's houses or ceremonial structures forbidden to noninitiates; viewing of these pieces, and explanation of their meaning, often forms a major part of initiation ceremonies. Women may never see them. The manufacture of ceremonial art, including even the gathering of leaves to conceal the bodies of maskers, is usually carried out in great secrecy, with women and children threatened with death if they approach the area or voice any suspicion that the supposed spirits are actually human creations. Spirits may indeed be summoned into the art objects after they are complete, and sometimes the actual process of manufacture introduces the spirit, as when eyes are painted on the masks of the Tolai of New Britain. In many societies, however, simple impersonation is involved, but magic is usually employed to ensure that the impersonations are successful, and sorcery is used to punish those who speak disrespectfully of the ceremonies.

When carvings are made for ritualssuch as those connected with puberty and deaththat honor specific individuals, they often include motifs associated with that person's descent group, such as totems and masalai. True portrait sculpture is rare but is found in a few areas, as in memorial carvings in parts of the Solomons and most notably in the modeling of features over the dead person's skull in parts of Vanuatu, New Britain, and the Sepik River region of New Guinea. Often memorials are destroyed when the mortuary ceremonies end, and anthropomorphic sculptures that remain permanently in place usually represent more distant ancestors or deities. Such sculptures are prominently displayed in many regions, forming the doorjambs and finials of houses in New Caledonia, and standing outside men's houses and clubhouses in parts of the Solomons, Vanuatu, and Sepik River region.

The ritual art of other areas focuses not on ancestors but on supernatural beings who are only partly human in form, like the shark god of parts of the Solomons or the culture hero with the body of a snake of western New Britain. Still other beings, such as those painted on the facades of Sepik ceremonial houses or constructed elsewhere for ceremonies to bring fertility or drive away sickness, have little or no trace of humanity in their appearance. Particularly in the New Guinea Highlands, divine power may reside in objects such as stones or boards that are painted with abstract designs of uncertain meaning.

Art objects collected for museums have often been arbitrarily identified as representing gods, ancestors, or totems, without any real evidence that they were so regarded by their creators. Detailed studies of Melanesian art in its context are few, and have demonstrated in some cases that people may be uncertain about the precise significance of designs that may still be thought to form an essential part of a ritual. Some anthropologists argue that art and ritual express and communicate messages that cannot be conveyed verbally, so that it is useless to expect native exegesis. The field is then open for the outsider to proffer his own explanations, and many have taken advantage of the opportunity. Some experts, especially those trained in a German tradition of reconstructing culture history in terms of postulated waves of migration, tend to see evidence in art of the previous existence of earlier religious attitudes such as sun worship. Anthropologists have more often relied upon psychoanalytic theory or a structuralism modeled on that of Claude Lévi-Strauss to explain what is being represented at a subconscious level. The same types of interpretation have been applied to myth and ritual.

In some societies, however, the local experts are willing and able to discuss art objects and their relation to religious concepts. As with other aspects of religion, many details remain inexplicable, simply a traditional way of doing things that is not questioned. It may also, of course, be improper to discuss esoteric matters with noninitiates; but outsiders have often been admitted to discussions that are closed to female or junior members of the society itself.

Sacred and Profane

In describing Melanesian societies, many observers have hesitated both to use the word sacred and to contrast it with the profane. The reasons are several. First, the discovery that often masked men impersonate supernatural beings without feeling any religious awe emphasizes the secular character of many ceremonies. Second, the widespread tendency to rely on magic in which impersonal forces are manipulated by individuals, and the rarity of communal rites dealing with supernatural beings, makes it difficult to apply labels derived from other religious systems. Third, the frequent observation that Melanesian religions tend to be highly pragmatic, concerned with securing benefits in this life rather than rewards in another world, and not concerned with problems of good and evil, has led some to deny that they are really religions at all. The fact that supernatural beings are rarely all-powerful, awesome in appearance, wholly incorporeal in nature, or far removed from human habitations, and in fact that ordinary people so often encounter them in the bush or in their dreams, makes them seem part of everyday life rather than being set apart, natural rather than supernatural.

The rituals of some societies do, however, strike some observers as embodying concepts that can be labeled sacred. Communion with ancestral spirits by priests and other specialists in Fiji, Vanuatu, the Solomons, and Highlands New Guinea; first-fruits rites in New Caledonia; the invocation of powerful nonhuman spirits along the Sepik: all these seem on emotional and cognitive grounds to indicate that the term is applicable. Sacred has also been applied to the state of religious practitioners while carrying out ritual, and of those who are temporarily removed from normal society during rites of passage. In these instances it is suggested that women, children, and noninitiates belong to the realm of the profane, and doubly so as regards women if they are regarded as intrinsically polluting to men and antithetical to religious enterprises. Several investigators have, however, argued that such labels and dichotomies are misleading. If men are taboo when sacrificing to the ancestors and women are taboo when menstruating, they are seen as similar rather than separate (see Keesing, 1982, p. 66). Furthermore, the fact that women usually do interact with the spirit world and control some magical techniques of their own invalidates the assumption that they are excluded from the realm of the sacred.

When sacred is used today, it tends to be in two contexts. Places consecrated to spirits, such as burial caves, ancestral shrines and groves, and cult houses, may be permanently sacred, as are places inhabited by important supernatural beings such as masalai. By contrast, people may be only temporarily sacred during a religious performance; eventually they return to their normal state and to the everyday world. In this, the usual processes of life continue to involve them in contact with supernatural beings and forces, so frequently that it seems meaningless to characterize what is not sacred as profane.

See Also

Christianity, article on Christianity in the Pacific Islands; Homosexuality; Solomon Islands Religions; Taboo; Totemism.


Most of the earlier descriptions of Melanesian societies written by anthropologists and missionaries contain lengthy and relatively straightforward accounts of religious beliefs and activities. On the theoretical side they may devote much time to out-of-date controversies about such matters as the nature of totemism or the possible connections between Melanesian religions and those of other parts of the world. Only a few of the better-known examples are mentioned here, but many others exist. Later investigators more often begin with varying theories about the nature of religion and ways to study it, producing works that differ greatly from each other, in which the author's role as interpreter is usually made explicit, and in which the study tends to focus on a particular problem rather than attempt to cover the entire field. Many recent books are consequently both narrower and deeper than earlier ones. The earlier works are particularly useful for an overview and for descriptions of long-vanished ceremonies, while the later works may be considerably more difficult to read but may expose the student to a wide range of theoretical problems and current controversies in the field of religion both in Melanesia and in other parts of the world where small-scale societies still exist.

Allen, Michael. Male Cults and Secret Initiations in Melanesia. Melbourne, 1967. An out-of-date but useful survey of the nature and distribution of these institutions, which also examines various theories attempting to account for them and settles for one in which social structure is the important variable.

Barth, Fredrik. Ritual and Knowledge among the Baktaman of New Guinea. New Haven, 1975. An interesting attempt to use the author's investigation of an elaborate initiation system as a basis for generalizing about the nature of ritual and the communication of knowledge in other societies.

Bateson, Gregory. Naven (1938). 2d ed. Stanford, Calif., 1958. A classic attempt to analyze certain rituals of a Sepik River society with approaches this writer later made famous in such fields as communications theory.

Codrington, R. H. The Melanesians: Studies in Their Anthropology and Folklore (1891). Reprint, New Haven, 1957. Based mostly on interviews with Melanesian mission students, supplemented by some visits to the islands of eastern Melanesia, this work is often incorrect in ethnographic detail but contains the classic discussions of mana and taboo, and useful descriptions of now-vanished rituals.

Deacon, A. Bernard. Malekula. Edited by Camilla H. Wedgwood. London, 1934. Incomplete, having been edited from field notes after the author's death, but the most accessible account of the elaborate New Hebrides (now Vanuatu) graded societies, with much information on religions.

Fortune, Reo F. Sorcerers of Dobu (1932). Rev. ed. New York, 1963. Includes a general account of ritual in small islands east of New Guinea, with particular attention to the importance of sorcery beliefs and practices.

Fortune, Reo F. Manus Religion: An Ethnological Study of the Manus Natives of the Admiralty Islands (1935). Reprint, Lincoln, Neb., 1965. A famous account of a religious system uncommon in Melanesia for its ethical content and for the role of ancestral ghosts.

Gell, Alfred. Metamorphosis of the Cassowaries: Umeda Society, Language, and Ritual. London, 1975. An innovative attempt to interpret a fertility ritual in a New Guinea society by analyzing the associated language and symbols. The arguments are complex.

Herdt, Gilbert H., ed. Rituals of Manhood: Male Initiation in Papua New Guinea. Berkeley, 1982. A collection noteworthy for the attention paid to psychological as well as social and religious aspects of initiation. Contains several detailed descriptions of ceremonies in their wider context.

Hogbin, Ian. The Island of Menstruating Men: Religion in Wogeo, New Guinea. Scranton, Pa., 1970. Based on fieldwork carried out in 1934, this general account, written for the nonspecialist, pays particular attention to concepts of pollution and taboo, and contains some discussion of theories about magical ritual.

Keesing, Roger M. Kwaio Religion: The Living and the Dead in a Solomon Island Society. New York, 1982. Includes not only description of belief and rites among pagans on Malaita, but discussion of many theoretical issues concerning concepts of pollution, mana and taboo, symbolism and meaning, and the social consequences of religious beliefs and practices. Addressed to a general audience.

Lawrence, Peter, and M. J. Meggitt, eds. Gods Ghosts and Men in Melanesia. Melbourne, 1965. A series of descriptive essays, all but one dealing with the religions of Australian New Guinea (now Papua New Guinea), with an introduction in which the authors attempt to generalize about Melanesian religions as a whole. A very useful survey, though authors of the essays have not all dealt with the same topics. But it has been rendered somewhat out of date by more recent studies.

Lewis, Gilbert. Day of Shining Red. Cambridge, 1980. An interesting and readable critical examination of the usefulness of various theories of ritual in helping to understand the nature and meaning of puberty rites in a New Guinea village.

Malinowski, Bronislaw. Magic, Science and Religion. New York, 1948. Contains three famous essays setting forth Malinowski's theories about the differences between magic and religion and the functions of these practices and of mythology, as well as a description of Trobriand beliefs and rituals concerning the dead. Malinowski's theories continue to influence a number of scholars, and are clearly explained here.

Rappaport, Roy A. Pigs for the Ancestors: Ritual in the Ecology of a New Guinea People (1968). Rev. ed. New Haven, 1984. A well-known and widely quoted attempt to explain ritual in adaptive terms. In the revised edition, the author answers his critics and presents the results of further thinking on such topics as the importance of sanctity ("sanctified understandings") in human societies.

Schieffelin, Edward L. The Sorrow of the Lonely and the Burning of the Dancers. New York, 1976. A short and readable account and analysis of a set of ceremonies in a New Guinea society, with particular attention to their emotional content.

Tuzin, Donald. The Voice of the Tambaran: Truth and Illusion in Ilahita Arapesh Religion. Berkeley, 1980. A complex and detailed examination of the meaning of the numerous rituals associated with male initiation, which are characterized by spectacular religious art in a New Guinea society. Questions of belief and psychological reactions to the rituals are discussed as well.

Williams, Francis E. Drama of Orokolo: The Social and Ceremonial Life of the Elema. Oxford, 1940. A detailed description of one of the most elaborate and spectacular ceremonial cycles ever recorded for Melanesia, and the implications of its decline and neglect in the colonial period.

New Sources

Finnegan, Ruth, and Margaret Orbell, eds. South Pacific Oral Traditions. Bloomington, Ind., 1995.

Knauflt, Bruce M. From Primitive to Postcolonial in Melanesia and Anthropology. Ann Arbor, 1999.

Krieger, Michael H. Conversations with the Cannibals: The End of the Old South Pacific. Hopewell, N.J., 1994.

Lambek, Michael, and Andrew Strathern, eds. Bodies and Persons: Comparative Perspectives from Africa and Melanesia. New York, 1998.

May, John D'Arcy. Transcendence and Violence: The Encounter of Buddhist, Christian and Primal Traditions. New York, 2003.

Sillitoe, Paul. An Introduction to the Anthropology of Melanesian Culture and Tradition. New York, 1998.

Strathern, Andrew. Body Thoughts. Ann Arbor, 1996.

Trompf, G. W. Melanesian Religion. New York, 1991.

Trompf, G. W. Payback: The Logic of Retribution in Melanesian Religions. New York, 1994.

Whitehouse, Harvey. Arguments and Icons: Divergent Modes of Religiosity. New York, 2000.

Ann Chowning (1987)

Revised Bibliography