Micronesian Religions: An Overview

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In 1838, the French explorer Dumont D'Urville divided up the Pacific into Polynesia, Melanesia, and Micronesia. Scholars since then have debated whether or not these three terms do justice to the diversity of cultures in these areas, especially in Micronesia, where the first settlers arrived at various times and brought with them different cultures and languages. The Micronesians' exposure to Western influences also varied. The people of the Marianas, for example, were Christianized by the Spanish by 1700 ce. The Caroline island of Ifalik, on the other hand, became Christian only after World War II.

When the missionary Luther Gulick arrived on the central Pacific island of Pohnpei in 1852 he found the native priests dying out, and their shrines, like the megalithic Nan Madol, were almost abandoned. Populations were decimated by whaling ships that left behind diseases to which the local people had no immunity; the Caroline island of Kosrae, one of the hardest hit, was left without a population large enough to support elaborate priestly hierarchies and religious title holders. Western governments raced to the islands to claim their shares of the new colonies in the Pacific, and so Micronesia became a patchwork of Spanish, German, British, Japanese, and American trusteeships, protectorates, and colonies. In the twenty-first century all of the Micronesian islands except Guam, a U.S. territory, are independent.

Few of the "little islands" that give Micronesia its name were unified at the time of first contact. Kosrae was the only island with a centralized government under a single paramount leader, and the smaller islands sometimes had several chiefs. The geology of the islands varies greatly. Some, like Pohnpei, one of what are called the high islands, are volcanic with lush vegetation. Others are coral atolls of a few acres only a few feet above sea level. The Marshall Islands, for example, are made up of coral atolls and islands with a total dry land area of 74 square miles spread over 375,000 square miles of ocean. Kosrae, on the other hand, is a single high island of 42 square miles with its highest point, Mount Finkol, at 2,064 feet above sea level.

In spite of the diversity within Micronesia, its cultures and old religions demonstrate certain shared patterns. These patterns can be seen in three areas: the Micronesian conception of the cosmos, the spirit inhabitants of this cosmos, and the patterns of interaction between spirits and humans.

Why these common traits exist when the Micronesian islands were settled by different peoples who spoke different languages and were widely separated from each other isn't entirely clear. Certainly the fact that the Micronesians were and still are some of the Pacific's finest boatbuilders and navigators is part of the explanation; they had the technology to make the Pacific Ocean not an obstacle but a means of colonizing and trading over long distances. Evidence of traffic in precontact Micronesia includes a highly organized trading and exchange system called the sawei (basket) that joined the people of Yap and the central Caroline atolls, with the Ulithi islands as the intermediary. Pottery exchanges show that this system began in the seventh century ce.

The Micronesian Cosmos and Its Spirits

Their image of the cosmos allowed the Micronesians to explain how things work and why things happen (as is the case with the Polynesians and Melanesians). The cosmos defined the spheres of activity between spirits and humans. Within the cosmos are places for gods, ancestral spirits, and living humans. There are places where people go after death, places where the dead are put to various tests, and places where the living can interact with their deceased kin.

Most Micronesian views of the cosmos are of a sky world as an inverted bowl, with several layers populated by different categories of deities. The islands of Micronesia are seen as columns projecting up from the bottom of the sea, and the bottom of the sea has a trapdoor that opens not into an underworld but into an undersea world. This is where the people of some islands believe they do when they die.

Early ethnographers recorded descriptions and even collected drawings depicting the cosmos, including a surviving sketch made by a native of Puluwat in 1910. The inverted bowl is the most widespread image, but there are variations. In Pohnpei the vault of the sky was like the roof of a ceremonial meeting house. In the Marshalls there were four heavenly post-men who held up the heavens in each of the four cardinal directions. But as the post-men fell asleep the heavens at each corner collapsed, and then the vault of heaven became an inverted bowl. On the Kiribati atolls the cosmos are depicted as a gigantic clamshell that the god Naurea tried to pry open to let the light come in. He persuaded Riki to help him. Riki succeeded in opening the shell and was rewarded by losing his legs and becoming the eel or snake in the sky: the Milky Way.

Curiously the sun, moon, and starsall important to navigatorsare not of widespread importance in most Micronesian religions, with Kiribati the notable exception. Kiribati is influenced by Polynesian religions, where the sun and moon play prominent roles in myth and ritual. One also finds occasional myths about the sun and moon on Palau, and the constellations Antares and the Pleiades play a role in Marshallese mythology. In the Marshall Islands story, Liktanur, the mother of two brothers, asks the older brother Tumur (Antares) to take her along with him in a canoe race, but he does not want the extra weight. Jebro (Pleiades), the younger son, does take his mother, and as the race begins Liktanur opens a parcel and sets up the first sail and rigging. As Jebro begins to overtake his older brother, Tumur commandeers the sailing boat. But clever Liktanur keeps some of the rigging, and Tumur is unable to change course. Liktanur and Jebro finish the race first and hide in the bushes. Tumur lands and proclaims himself winner and chief. Then Liktanur and Jebro emerge from hiding, and Liktanur proclaims young Jebro the new chief.

This is what is known as a charter myth and is typical of Micronesian mythology. In this case it demonstrates the unwritten law that the rank of chief (irooj, lerooj, or iroojlaplap ) is determined by the mother's lineage. This myth has been reinterpreted by contemporary Christians on the remote atoll of Ujelang, who see the rising of Jebro/Pleiades, which comes into view about the time of Christmas, as symbolic of Jesus' birth.

The people of Pohnpei have the same myth, which also has both political and religious meanings. A woman named Likitanir creates the starts. None of her children wants to listen to her, with the exception of the smallest one, Margiregir, who obeys her and takes her in his canoe. She teaches him sailing and proclaims him nahnmwarki (a paramount chief, the equivalent of iroojlaplap in the Marshalls). Margiregir becomes Margigi on Yap and is a mythic foundation for both the political and religious centers of Yap. This story, like many others, transcended the boundaries of ocean and language to become one of the common features of Micronesian mythology.

The spirit population

The spirit population of the cosmos exemplifies the Micronesian characteristic of great diversity with certain common features. Many of the islands use the same term to describe the myriad spirits in their cosmos: énú, or some cognate of this Chuukic term, which is applied to various kinds of spirits. Across Micronesia, these spirits fall into the following main categories:

  • Sky gods, often called the great spirit. An example is the Chuukic Enúúnap. Frequently the sky god's son or brother, the spirit Luk or Nuuk (among other variations), works for the sky god.
  • Patron deities. They may live in highest heaven but are still deeply involved in helping humans. They sometimes bring culture and technology, like Liktanur of the Marshalls, who taught humankind the all-important art of sailing.
  • Ancestors of the family, the lineage, or the clan. These are the spirits who take possession of their living kin and offer advice, help, and predictions. The Micronesian attitude toward these spirits ranges from what we commonly refer to as ancestor worship to a veneration that is more akin to filial piety.
  • Nature spirits (tolls, ogres, and wee people). These spirits are geographically bound to certain locations, like the reef spirits of the Chuuk Main Lagoon.
  • Trickster spirits. The trickster is a common mythic symbol throughout Polynesia and Micronesia. He is Olifat (Wonofáát) in the Chuukic islands, Letau in the Marshalls, Nareau in Kiribati, and Maui in Polynesian Hawai'i. In some places he is pure trickster, the archetypal character who does everything wrong, breaks all the rules, and hops into bed with his brother's wife. In others he is cruel, and in many stories he kills one of his brothers. He can also be helpful: on some islands it is the trickster who brings fire to humankind. In general, he functions more as the central figure in a cycle of morality stories illustrating how not to behave than as a supernatural sanction against breaking cultural rules.

A further assortment of divinities does not fit into the above categories. Most cultures have a local deity whose activities overshadow all the others in importance. On the central Carolinian atoll of Ifalik this is Tilitur, who was sent by the high sky god Enúúnap to take care of the people of this atoll. Anthropologists just after World War II recorded the reverence the people of Ifalik showed for Tilitur and his interactions with them. He frequently possessed his chosen vehicles.

Two types of spirits are either rare or completely missing in Micronesia: an omnipotent and uncreated deity and a purely evil deity. The Micronesian pantheon generally lacks an uncreated creator of all things who existed before the universe and before other gods. Naurea of the Kiribati opens a cosmic clamshell to let light into the world, for example, but that world was already in existence. There is one known exception: ethnologist Wilhelm Müller recorded, and in 1917 published, a Yapese story about an uncreated deity who, merely by thinking, brought into existence the other deities, who in turn created islands, people, plants, and fish (p. 505). However, Dobbin, writing in 1996, found that no contemporary Yapese knew of this god, who was called Gavur li yel yel.

The Micronesian pantheon also lacks a genuinely omnipotent deity and an incarnation of evil like Satan or the devil in Western cosmology, despite the ideas of early Christian missionaries, who identified Enúúnap with the Judeo-Christian God and the trickster figures with Satan. Enúúnap, like Zeus or Jupiter in Greco-Roman mythology, is caught up in the foibles of his children and nagged by his wife. Whatever else he may be, he is not omnipotent. In the category of evil spirits, none is totally evil like the Christian Satan. The tricksters Letau, Nareau, Wonofáát, and Yalifath are a glorious mixture of evil, stupidity, and cleverness, acting at various times as gift givers, killers, and slapstick comics.

Another kind of spirit found only in rare instances occurs when a dead human being returns to possess the body of a living person. William Lessa (1961) traced one of the few examples to an infant boy from Ulithi named Marespa, born in the mid-nineteenth century. The infant's father was possessed by his deceased child, and the spirit of Marespa quickly inspired a cult for healing and curing that spread to other islands, including Yap, Ngulu, and the atolls south of Palau.

Roles in the spirit world

While it is possible to draw a genealogical chart of the spirits for most islands, who begat whom is notoriously inconsistent. The spirits' characteristics vary as well. Olifat (Wonofáát) is a trickster and sometimes a cruel spirit in eastern Micronesia, but on Yap he is Yelafath the Elder (a god who creates the other gods) and Yelafath the Younger (the trickster). This pattern also occurs in Kiribati, where one manifestation of Nareau is a creator and the other is the trickster. In Chuuk tradition, Luk and Lukenleng (or Nuuk and Nuukeyinen, literally "middle of heaven") are one and the same god, a god who is something of an heir apparent who does most of the work of Enúúnap. In Yap tradition, however, Lug (Luk) is the god of death who flies about snaring humans in his net, and Lukenlang is a different god.

Patron deities were active in the everyday work of craftspeople, healers, medicine makers, and navigators, and helped assure a bountiful harvest or successful fishing trip. The blending of religion and daily life involved more than just blessing a new canoe or house or praying for the safe return of the fleet. The famed navigators of old learned their craft through training filled with religious ritual. They were initiated into the profession with an elaborate ceremony and performed complex rituals before setting sail. In medicine the healing chants and formulas for making up medicines ultimately came from the spirits through dreams, possession and trace, or from an elder who passed on these spirit-given gifts.

The creator deities, the sky gods, had different ways of working with the cosmos and human beings. Some of the great sky gods were aloof from the lives of humankind, having finished their creating work and retired to the bliss of one of the high heavens. But in the Chuuk tradition the priest-chiefs (itang ) invoked the sky gods Enúúnap and Luk as they led their men into battle. The Marshallese creation myth resembles the first chapters of Genesis, where God says, "Let there be " and lo, there it is, only in this case the chief Marshallese sky gods send a divinity to earth to teach canoe building, sailing, and tattooing.

Pohnpei mythology offers an interesting contrast. The Pohnpei universe is created by divinities and humans working together. A supernatural octopus directs the first human settlers to the place where the rocks will be deposited to become Pohn-pei, literally "upon a stone altar"). The god Dau Katau confers the first title of Soumenlang on the priest at Salapwuk; this according to oral historian Bernart Luelen is the beginning of religion and the title system on Pohnpei. After the Sau Deleu dynasty was destroyed, the god Luk appeared in a canoe floating in the sky. The current priest-chief, Soukisenlang, and the ruler of Ant Island are brought to the canoe, and they talk with Luk. Together they determine the political structure of Pohnpei: autonomous states (wehi ) each led by a paramount chief, the nahnmwarki.

The relative importance of each type of spirit varies from island to island, again following the Micronesian pattern of diversity and similarity. In the Chuuk Main Lagoon and nearby atolls the spirits of the ancestors were of primary importance. On nearby Pohnpei the high gods like Dau Katau or Luk were more important.

Where Spirits and Humans Meet: Places

There is no doubt that Micronesians of old believed that the divine met the human at certain physical sites, and the belief in the sacred or taboo nature of some of these sites continues in the early twenty-first century.

Household shrines were common through much of Micronesia. In the eastern Chuuk-speaking islands hanging shrines or altars, often in the shape of miniature double-hulled canoes, provided a place for the spirits of the ancestors to be with their kin. Here offerings of flowers and food were made, and it was at the household shrine that the ancestor spirits could possess a living family member, enabling the possessed one, called the wáátawa, to answer questions in the voice of the spirit, predict events and even deaths, and give advice to the living.

Sacred places were often combined with living spaces. The Palauan kerong (a possessed and entranced diviner like the wáátawa of Chuuk) often conducted their rituals in part of their own house. The raised-rock platforms (taliuw ) on Yap were both the sacred dwelling sites of the gods and the residence of priests. On Pohnpei a variety of natural rock formations were considered to be sacred sites where the gods gave the island its physical shape and its culture.

Sacred places were created in other ways. On Kiribati collections of ancestral skulls became a kind of portable shrine that the living talked to in their homes and took to dances in the giant meeting houses, the maneba. The cult of the skulls, as Sir Arthur Grimble called it, gave the character of a sacred spot to the place where the skulls were kept.

Where Spirits and Humans Meet: Ritual

Micronesians also sought interaction with the spirit inhabitants of the cosmos by means of ritual.

Household rituals

Probably the simplest and most widespread ritual around Micronesia was conducted in the family dwelling or boathouse and dedicated to the remembrance of deceased kin. Rituals were conducted at household shrines throughout Micronesia, even in places with gigantic cult centers like Kosrae's Lelu. On Nauru the household shrine was located at the center pole of the house, where gifts of food were placed for the ancestors (later replaced by Roman Catholic converts with a picture of Jesus). The hanging altar or shrine of the Chuukic-speaking islands, the faar, was basically a household shrine for the lineage. Flowers, wreaths, and food could be place in this hanging altar. In some areas the ritual was even simpler. On Palau the ancestor's betel nut bag (a purse holding the ingredients needed to chew betel nuts) might be hung on the wall of the house and offered a tidbit of food. The Kiribati kept their ancestors' skulls in the house and treated them quite informally, talking with them, offering them cigarettes, and blowing cigarette smoke into the skull.


Micronesians had a bevy of divination rituals to call on to help them make decisions and forecast the future. The simplest methods were perhaps not religious at all, but, like tarot cards, horoscopes, and palm reading, simply a way of probing into the unknown. Micronesian divination involved analyzing the number and sequence of knots made from fresh young palm fronds. Sometimes the palm knots were replaced by stones thrown on the ground. A Micronesian equivalent of tea-leaf reading analyzed the lines on the inside of a coconut shell. These were forms of do-it-yourself divination, although some people were known to be better at it than others.

Professional diviners worked in a variety of ways. The kerong of the Palauans might, for a price, offer to make predictions or answer questions in their own dwellings, from behind a screen, possessed by a spirit but apparently not in a trance. In some cases they had special huts next to their houses reserved for divining. Or they might rapidly chew and spit betel nut in order to stimulate a trance state, during which they spoke as a possessing spirit. Sometimes another person interpreted the words of the entranced diviner.

In some Palauan villages a god or goddess ruled the village, and the leading kerong passed along its decisions. At times these diviners or oracles became threats to the political chiefs. One of the few nativist movements in Micronesia involved a revival of the diviners' arts. In 1915 a kerong named Tamadad developed a syncretistic religion that combined elements of the old ecstatic rituals and healing and curing with Christian elements. The religion, known as Modekngei, still exists.

Ecstatic rituals

In Micronesia divination ritual leads logically to ecstatic ritual, which involves trances or altered states of consciousness that are often interpreted as possession. Trances or possession can be found in the past or present culture of almost every atoll or island of Micronesia. The priests at the great cult centers on Pohnpei and Kosrae used trances in divining rituals. The ibonga of Kiribati, whom Sabatier variously described as soothsayer, magician, divine, doctor, prophet, miracle worker, and charlatan, used trance. On the atoll of Ifalik, women who fell into trances were often the inspiration for new songs; the same was true of certain people on Yap.

The best-recorded tradition of trance and possession is on the Chuukic-speaking atolls and especially in the Chuuk Main Lagoon. Ancestor spirits were believed to descend onto the shoulders of a living relative and possess them. Those chosen as vessels by the ancestors were called the wáátawa or wáánaanú, literally "the canoe of the spirit." This possession did not happen automatically, however, and there was often speculation at the wake and burial about whether the deceased would be a helping spirit or a harmful one. The hope was that the spirit would descend from the hanging shrine (faar ) and possess one of the living kin, who would become the wáánaanú for the family or lineage and offer valuable advice to the living. Some reports indicate that this tradition is still alive on certain atolls, but by the end of World War II the wáánaanú as an official status within the community was rare.

What did continue in Chuuk communities is a more voluntary form of spirit possession and trance, especially among young girls. The signs of an altered state are clearly present in the transformation of the individual's persona. Dobbin has argued that the possession trance is a culturally sanctioned way for young females to protest problems, especially family problems that their cultural status prohibits them from otherwise confronting. If a girl is possessed by her mother or grandmother, the matrilineal Chuuk social system allows the senior woman to berate male family members. Contemporary possession trance is reported in other Micronesian islands, but it is rare. The Chuuk case is a classic example of continuity and change in Micronesian ritual.

Funeral rituals

Funeral rituals vary throughout the islands of Micronesia. The wake and burial rituals on Palau focused on the transfer of the deceased's title (if he or she was a titleholder) and determination of why the person died. The leading women of the group, which might be a clan, extended family, or village, gathered together, and one woman held a bouquet of sis branches (Cordyline fruticosa ). The women would shout out potential reasons for the death, and if the sis bouquet shook, this indicated that the correct cause had been found. Sometimes someone known to be good at this type of divining was invited to the ceremony. Early reports indicated that the woman holding the branches was believed to be possessed by the deceased's spirit, but the evidence is vague. Palauan funerals may still feature trances without possession, as they did in the past.

Burial rituals also vary greatly from island to island. On Yap the dead are considered a source of spiritual pollution, and the immediate kin leave the deceased's house as quickly as possible. They may remain in seclusion and eat a restricted diet for as long as a hundred days. In some areas upper-caste people are buried by landless lower-class people who are beholden to them (this tradition is still observed on Yap). In the past burial was often at sea among the Chuuk, while burial on the family homestead was common on Kosrae. In some places the interment of the body in the ground was temporary, and the bones and skulls were exhumed and given places of honor, often in the home. In some of the matrilineal societies where Christian cemeteries have replaced older burial sites, some of the old ways continue.

The rituals of medicine

Traditional or local medicine is still commonly used in Micronesia, as it is in many parts of the Pacific. How much of it is tied to spirit beliefs and ritual is impossible to gauge. On islands that are overwhelmingly Christian, nobody wants to be known as a pagan, so the use of traditional healing rituals is often disguised. The physical ingredients of a medicine may be used without the traditional chants or with the chants mumbled. Dobbin, however, describes how the mother in a devout Christian family was in the process of becoming a medicine expert and received curing chants in a dream.

The local medicine system may begin with an informal diagnosis of an illness, but there is also a more formal system in which a diagnostic specialist uses divination to determin which spirit power is responsible for an illness. In some cases another specialist will then be called in who has the means to cure the illness. Sometimes these are one and the same person. The curing ceremonies are generally public events that require the presence of family and friends. The location of medicinal plants and details of the recipes, however, may be kept secret.

Occasionally a medicine specialist in Chuuk will receive chants and recipes for medicines while in a trance state, but the more common source of local medicine, as it is called now, is through dreams sent by spirits. One can learn the specifics from an elder or even buy the formula, but ultimately medicine, especially on Chuuk and Pohnpei, comes from the spirits.

Fertility and increase rituals

This category includes rituals designed to help mothers with pregnancy and childbirth and to insure a good harvest and a bountiful catch from the land and sea. On Yap the tamarong (priest, magician, conjuror, or diviner) visited the pregnant woman at distinct periods during pregnancy and offered ritual words or chants (pig ) to insure the healthy birth of a child. Chuuk had elaborate rituals to ensure the fertility of crops, probably some of the most elaborate among the smaller Micronesian communities.

Breadfruit was the staple starch of the Chuukic world, and the spirits of the breadfruit were believed to live in the mystic south of the cosmos. A breadfruit caller would beckon the spirits to come to the community's breadfruit trees so that the flower would blossom and produce large breadfruits. So important was the caller that his larynx or entire body might be mummified when he died, lest he take the breadfruit spirits with him when he went on to Ewúr, the mystic home of the breadfruit gods and goddesses.

As a breadfruit season approached, the caller began his rounds, blowing on a conch horn and calling the spirits or souls of the trees to come and blossom. Some of these prayers and petitions are still remembered on Puluwat, where the caller was a ritual specialist of high honor. He petitioned, and he begged, and he prayed. He assembled the leading men of the island in a procession. The caller led the way, chanting, and the followers responded as he waved a spear-like rod from side to side. They stopped at each complex of extended family residences, where the caller plunged the rod into the ground and put some of the earth into a basket. He deposited the earth in his own land, and repeated the ritual around the atoll.

The incarnate breadfruit god, a conger eel called the Hewanu, appeared on the shores of Puluwat every few years. When one arrived, the breadfruit caller took the eel, wrapped in mats, to a meeting house; only the caller (or priest, as the early reports call him) knew what the sacred eel was saying. The eel's presence sometimes meant that one of the select few who traditionally took care of the eel was going to die, and the ritual became a dirge for the coming death. In other cases the eel was checking up on the Puluwatese, and inquired of the breadfruit caller as to how hard they were working. The eel was put on a special platform bedecked by the women with sweet-smelling wreaths of flowers, and the men brought coconuts as offerings. At first all could come and pay their respects to the breadfruit god, later only men were allowed, and finally only the select few who served the eel god maintained the vigil. Eventually the eel was returned to the sea.

The eel was an important symbol throughout Micronesia. The Kosraean breadfruit goddess, Sinlanka, was symbolized by an eel, and the grand ritual at Pohnpei's Nan Madol included the sacrifice of a turtle to a ravenous moray eel. Myths abound on Pohnpei about the smaller freshwater eels as well.

The grand rituals at Nan Madol and Lelu

Nan Madol at Pohnpei and Lelu at Kosrae were elaborate stonework constructions that functioned as the residence of the leading political authorities and groups of hierarchically ranked priests, and also served as ceremonial centers.

Kosrae had a centralized chief or king, the tokosra, and several priesthoods, each dedicated to a leading deity such as Sinlanka. Some priests stayed in the ritual and political center of Lelu at Kosrae. Others lived at shrines scattered across the island, and on certain occasions these rural priests led processions into Lelu. One of the most important rituals they led celebrated the coronation of the king and his queen.

Nan Madol was the residence of the leading chief of the Sau Deleur dynasty with a section for the attending priesthoods. Next to the Sau Deleur residence and court was the tiny islet of Idet, where a turtle was sacrificed to a sacred moray eel. To what extent Nan Madol controlled all of Pohnpei is debatable, but other ritual centers with priest-chiefs continued to exist as independent entities.

The turtleeel ceremony may have been the culmination of a longer, more ancient ritual. Its symbolism is debated. Rufino Mauricio, a Pohnpeian archaeologist and specialist in oral histories, has suggested that the Nan Madol ritual combines an older ritual focused on sacred sites with newer rituals worshipping living animals like the eel. Another interpretation focuses on the meaning of wehi, the turtle, which is also the name for the main sections of Pohnpei, and says that three wehis sacrificed their independence and autonomy to the ravenous appetite of the Sau Deleur dynasty.

Neither interpretation is compelling, especially since the ritual outlived the fall of the Sau Deleurs and then was stopped by one of the paramount chiefs (nahnmwarki ) of the Nan Madol area after a priest killed the eels because he did not get his share of the turtle meat. After about 1860 the priesthoods disappeared along with the animal sacrifices. Nan Madol is now abandoned, a monument to the Pohnpeian fear of centralization.

The political structure after the fall of the Sau Deleurs mirrors a shift in the evolution of Pohnpeian religion. One or two priestly centers of worship predate Nan Madol and the Sau Deleur dynasty, with a high priest who also was the political chief of the area. At least one of these the high priests and chiefs, the soukisenleng (literally "the master of the part of heaven"), eventually joined the post-Sau Deleur structure of autonomous, paramount chiefs (nahnmwarkis ) and took or was given the highest title of nahnmwarki. His priests took lesser noble titles. The ruler or nahnmwarki of the southern wehi of Wene is still called the soukisenleng, and the other nobles of Wene still have the old priestly titles. Mauricio judges this shift to be an early form of secularization. Of the priesthoods only the titles remain, although it is not known when they lost their religious functions.

Some elements of the old priestly rituals are maintained in the ceremonial houses (nahs ) of the nahnmwarkis. Ritual offerings of sakau (kava, Piper methysticum ) are made to the god as they were in days of old. Sakau offering is part of a formal reconciliation ritual led by the chiefs; it is now incorporated into the Roman Catholic sacrament of forgiveness. In modern times sakau, which is made into a slightly narcotic drink, has been secularized, and can be enjoyed in sakau bars.

The dance as sacred ritual

On some islands the dance tradition has all but disappeared. On Guam a so-called ritual fire dance is performed by Filipino entertainers for visiting tourists at the Guam Hilton hotel. Palau is struggling to revive its dance traditions. But in two areas the dance needs no revival: on Kiribati and on Yap. The extent to which Kiribati dance is considered holdy or sacred is uncertain, although the dancers of old were thought to be inspired by the spirits. But on Yap the sacred dance still exists. Sometimes the men or women of a village perform the dance for their village, with no outsiders allowed to attend. Yap is now largely Roman Catholic, and the sacred dance is regularly performed as part of the liturgy. At the adoration of the cross on Good Friday, the women perform the mourning dance and dirge; at the Easter vigil, the hymn of the resurrection, the Exultat, is danced. At the ordination of a priest or deacon, the dancing comes after the Roman Catholic ritual. As one Yapese remarked after the Catholic ceremony was finished, "now the real liturgy begins."

In the late nineteenth century on the Mortlock islands of Chuuk, a strong outbreak of dancing occurred. Protestant missionaries, fearing both its inspiration by the spirits and also what they saw as its obscene forms, thought this a return to the old pagan ways, although the German colonial authorities encouraged it. Different denominations reacted differently to the old ways. On Kosrae and in the Marshalls, where Boston-based Congregationalism became the dominant Christian denomination, the bare-breasted women were required to wear the all-encompassing muumuus. In Yap, the Catholic services are filled with bare-breasted women and men in scanty wraparounds that cover only the genitals.

What happens at death

An almost universal Micronesian belief is that the soul and/or the spirit leave the body three or four days after death. On some islands, like the Marshalls, early writers could not find a clear notion of soul among the locals, probably because the Micronesians did not distinguish between soul and spirit, or perhaps because the spirit functioned like the soul of Western traditions. The people of Yap and Chuuk believe in two spirits within a single individual: a good-spirit soul, ngúnúyééch, and an evil-spirit soul, énúngngaw. The good spirit was a spiritual double of the living person and hence could appear to the living. The Chuukese also had a separate word for soul, gnúnú.

Another almost universal belief in Micronesia is that a departed spirit can be helpful to its living kinfolk. This is the basis for what early writers called ancestor worship, but the term is misleading. Although the deceased might be put in the same general category as the sky deities, for example, in other cases, such as on Chuuk, the good ngúnúyééch might become an énú, which is the global Micronesian term for gods and goddesses, patron deities, and harmful land or sea spirits. Various islands also had a combination term that identified the énú as a spirit that originated as a human being (énúúyaramas in Chuukese).

Widespread ambivalence among the living regarding recently deceased kin is common throughout Micronesia. On the one hand, people hope the deceased will be helpful to his or her relatives, and even take possession of one of the living who will function as the family or lineage medium. On the other hand, they may burn the possessions of the deceased, hoping that the spirit will climb on the column of smoke away from the living and up to the heavens.

Few Micronesian islands seem to have had a version of eschatological judgment, where one's accumulated merit is rewarded or punished at death, although this is debated. Various reports, like Father Cantova's interviews in the 1720s with Chuuk-speaking atoll dwellers who were stranded on Guam or records from the Russian expedition of 1927 speak of an afterlife involving reward and punishment. Spiro's investigations on Ifalik found a highly developed morality, but the sanctions for enforcing the morality came from the chiefs, not the gods or the religious specialists. He saw no evidence of an afterlife of reward and punishment.

The destination of the dead is often determined by a test rather than the record of a good life. Pohnpeians at death came to a swinging bridge over water. If the deceased could not sing well, the swinging bridge dumped the poor singer into the "place of no return." Yapese could not ascend to the sky layer unless their ears were pierced. On Ulithi a bad person might be destined for a sticky garbage pit. Many traditions include a long journey to the place where the deceased would ultimately live, sometimes on the mystic island of Matang. It was also commonly believed that one went to a part of the cosmos associated with one's occupation, like the deceased breadfruit callers who went to the south part of the heavens where the spirits of the breadfruit came from.

The practitioners or leaders of the old religions

Religious leaders in Micronesia generally performed a combination of roles, including soothsayer, magician, divine, doctor, prophet, and miracle worker. The biggest problem in describing them is to find an appropriate word for, say, the Palauan kerong, the Chuuk breadfruit caller (sowuyótoomey ), or the Marshallese diviner and magician (drijikan). Three of the high islands, Kosrae, Pohnpei, and Yap, had distinct hierarchies of priests. The Kosraean and Pohnpeian priests disappeared in the nineteenth century, and the last practicing Yap priest (peq'taliuw ) performed his final rituals, unattended by anybody, after World War II. Saipan or Guam had no religious hierarchies, and the Palauan kerong generally worked alone. The religious status these leaders hold is given or inherited, not chosen or earned. The spirits have selected these people to receive their spiritual gifts.

Many religious practitioners were part-time functionaries, as is still the case for the Chuuk healers, the sowusáfey, and for the Yap masters of the weather, the tamarong. Certain practitioners were also craftspeople, experts, and possessors of exotic lore. Classic examples include navigators and the priest-chiefs (itang ). The navigators had to have technical skills as well as spirit-given knowledge and power to succeed. The priest-chiefs had the technical knowledge to plan wars and also the power of the spirits to lead battles with success. The itang were actual combatants poised ahead of their own battle lines. In a sea battle they stood in the lead canoe, blowing the conch horn, waving a spear, leading the men in battle chants and prayers to the war god. When the German colonial powers banned warfare, the itang became the respected repositories of traditions, old customs, and lineage histories. Functionally speaking, the itang are now the equivalent of the Pohnpeian oral historians, the soupoadoapoad. In the twenty-first century about five or six itang are reportedly still working in the Chuuk Lagoon. They seem to be confined to the eastern Chuukic islands. The names of some of the itang training schools are the same as the navigators' schools in the central Chuuk atolls, where perhaps the navigators were also itang. The priest-chiefs found it valuable to know both the skills of the itang and of the navigators.

The unsolved distinctions and terms

Many of the neat terminological distinctions made by scholars about the Pacific religions cannot be sustained in Micronesia, including the distinction between magic and religion. When the Ulithian masters of the weather gather near the ocean side of the lagoon and make their pleas and petitions to the gods, is this magic or religion? Some of the chants certainly are petitions and not an attempt to manipulate the powers of the cosmos. Some priests also worked as diviners, and some of the breadfruit callers functioned like priests when they recalled the legends of the breadfruit spirits and petitioned the breadfruit spirits to come and bless the trees with a good harvest.

Every Micronesian culture has words for taboo (forbidden) and sacred (holy). On the islets of the Kwajalein atoll, the places where the chiefs were buried and medicine was made were called sacred, but they could just as easily have been called taboo. And the taliuw the platforms used by the Yap priests of old, which had a shrine for the site's god of goddess on top of the platformwere sacred because of the deity dwelling there, and access was prohibited to anyone but the priests, making them both holy and taboo. Many English translations or glosses for Micronesian words and religious terms are less that perfect fits. Their meanings were frequently distorted by observers who did not understand the theology or cosmology they were reporting.

Was There a Single Micronesian Religion?

The pre-Christian religions of Micronesia underwent a long period of evolution and change. Pohnpei is the best example of the shift in religion from the cult centers of the priest-chiefs to hierarchical priesthoods at various sites, followed by an attempt at centralization under the Sau Deleurs and new rituals involving the sacrifice of living beings, and ultimately the secularization of priestly titles in the polity of the autonomous states (wehi ) under paramount chiefs, the nahnmwarkis.

Rituals and religious organizations varied from region to region. Patterns such as the prominent role of divination and the widespread use of trance and possession cut across the diversity in Micronesia, although they are carried out differently in different regions. Certain types of gods are universal: sky and creator divinities, patron gods and goddesses, evil spirits bound to certain locations on land and sea, and of course ancestors. The main categories are the same, but the emphasis given to various gods varies greatly. A test or trial to determine who goes where in the cosmos after death is widespread, and the general lack of eschatological judgment to allot rewards or punishment in the afterlife is a common feature across Micronesia.

Because of the regional differences fostered by geographic distances as well as varying degrees of influence from adjacent culture areas, an overall character cannot be assigned to Micronesian religion. It is a mélange of many elements: celestial and terrestrial deities, nature spirits, demons, and ancestral ghosts, with a strong infusion of magic, taboo, and divination. No one trait dominates the system, but many common patterns run through the overarching diversity.


Aoyagi, M. "Gods of the Modekngei Religion in Belau." In Cultural Uniformity and Diversity in Micronesia, edited by Iwao Ushijima and Ken-ichi Sudo. Osaka, 1987. Burrows, Edwin G., and Melford E. Spiro. An Atoll Culture: Ethnography of Ifaluk in the Central Carolines. New Haven, Conn., 1953. A classic Freudian interpretation and good description of the workings of religion in the Chuuk-speaking atolls. Dobbin, J. D., and F. X. Hezel. "The Distribution of Spirit Possession and Trance in Micronesia." Pacific Studies 19 (1996): 105148. Erdland, August. The Marshall Islanders: Life and Customs, Thought and Religion of a South Seas People. Translation in part by Richard Neuse. New Haven, Conn., 1961. In Die Marshall-Insulaner: Leben und Sitte, Sinn und Religion eines Südsee-Volkes. Münster, 1914. The best study of religion on the Marshall Islands. Goodenough, Ward H. Under Heaven's Brow: Pre-Christian Religious Traditions in Chuuk. Philadelphia, 2002. Limited to the religion of the Main Chuuk Lagoon. Grimble, Arthur. Tungaru Traditions: Writings on the Atoll Culture of the Gilbert Islands. Honolulu, 1989. Grimble, Arthur, and Grimble, Rosemary. Migrations, Myth, and Magic from the Gilbert Islands: Early Writings of Sir Arthur Grimble. London, 1972. Hanlon, David L. Upon a Stone Altar: A History of the Island of Pohnpei to 1890. Honolulu, 1988. Rich data about the evolution of religion on Pohnpei. Kubary, Jan S. "Die Religion de Palauer." In Allerlei aus Volks- und Menschenkunde, edited by Adolf Bastian. Berlin, 1888. A 1969 translation is located at the University of Hawaii's Pacific Collection. Kubary's article on the religion of the Palau is short by highly detailed. Lessa, William A. Tales from Ulithi Atoll: A Comparative Study in Oceanic Folklore. Berkley, 1961. Lessa, William A. Ulithi: A Micronesian Design for Living. New York, 1966. The best analysis of the folklore of the Chuuk-speaking islands and atolls. Mahony, F. A Trukese Theory of Medicine. Ph.D. diss., Stanford University, 1970. Lucid analysis of the role of medicine in the Chuuk-speaking isles. Mauricio, R.ufino. Ideological Bases for Power and Leadership on Pohnpei, Micronesia: Perspectives from Archaeology and Oral History. Ph.D. diss., University of Oregon, 1993. Müller, Wilhelm. Yap. Hamburg, 19171918. Parmentier, Richard J. The Sacred Remains: Myth, History, and Polity in Belau. Chicago, 1987. Parmentier, Richard J. "Transactional Symbolism in Belauan Mortuary Rites: A Diachronic Study." Journal of the Polynesian Society 97, no. 3 (1988): 281312. Sabatier, Ernest. Sous L'Equateur du Pacifique: Les Isles Gilbert et la Mission Catholique. Paris, 1939. Reprinted as Astride the Equator: An Account of the Gilbert Islands, translated by Ursula Nixon. Melbourne, 1977. Sarfert, Ernst G. "Kosrae: Results of the South Sea Expedition." In Kusae, edited by Ernst Sarfert. Hamburg, 19191920. A translation from the German by Elizabeth Murphy is located at the Pacific Collection of Hamilton Library, University of Hawaii at Manoa, 1919. The only extensive ethnography of the old religion. Tobin, Jack A. Stories from the Marshall Islands. Honolulu, 2002.

William A. Lessa (1987)

Jay Dobbin (2005)