New Caledonia Religion

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NEW CALEDONIA RELIGION is best known from the work of Maurice Leenhardt, a former Protestant missionary (Société des Missions Évangéliques Pratique de Paris), who was Marcel Mauss's successor as professor of comparative religions at the École Pratique des Hautes Études.

Because each local group (mwaro ) in New Caledonia is linked with an animal or plant or other natural phenomenon, Western observers have described the religion of the island as "totemism." Though this term is now less fashionable than it was in the period from 1880 to 1940, it can still, for convenience' sake, be applied to the New Caledonia religious system. The local groups have divided among themselves all the aspects of nature that either can be utilized or need to be feared, with each group becoming the master of a particular aspect. Within each group, one of the members of the most junior line, referred to as the group's "master," is in charge of performing the ritual that will protect or benefit all the mwaro. Thus, the master of the yam ensures a good crop over the whole of the valley. Along the sea one finds masters of the trade winds, the shark, the whale, or the mosquito, while masters of the thunder are to be found nearer the mountain range.

Each master not only ensures prosperity and wards off natural disasters, but also controls the specific sickness thought to be linked with the totemic entity assigned to him. If someone is ailing, word is sent to a seer, who divines the cause of the sickness. A messenger is then sent to the master in charge of the force responsible for the sickness. The master prays and gives the necessary herbal remedies to the patient; many of these medications are quite effective in treating at least those illnesses that were not brought by Europeans.

The natures of the New Caledonia gods are complex, and Leenhardt spent considerable time attempting to understand them. R. H. Codrington, in The Melanesians (1891), distinguished two principal types of gods: those who were once human and those who have never been human. The New Caledonians, however, make no linguistical distinction, both types of gods being referred to either as bao or due. The two kinds of deities are linked in the figure of Teê Pijopac, a god who has himself never been human but who controls the subterranean or submarine land of the dead, where all must go. According to local belief, the dead reach the entrances to this land by following ridges that lead down to the sea. At one of these entrances, known as Pucangge (near Bourail), the goddess Nyôwau examines all those who wish to enter to make sure that their left earlobe is pierced. She pierces any unpierced lobe with the mussel-shell knife that she also uses to peel yams.

There is constant communication between the living and the dead. The dead can be seen and spoken with when needed. They can be called upon to help in a crisis such as sickness or war, or to favor the results of family labors. Myths speak of the living going to the land of the dead and of the dead acting in the land of the living. There are, for example, various versions of a myth in which a loving husband attempts to bring his young wife back from the land of the dead. He either succeeds in his quest through the help of a bird (a common link for communication with the dead), or he fails. Among the stories about people from the underworld acting among the living there are those that describe an unsuspecting husband who might find, for example, that his new wife snores at night, or that she is double-jointed, both of which are characteristics of people from the underworld. There are also numerous versions of a myth about a goddess, usually Toririhnan, who, after drowning the pregnant wife of a chief, disguises herself as the wife by filling her belly with pots. The true wife, however, is saved by a miracle and taken away to a distant island. Later, this woman returns with her grown sons; their identity is revealed, and the usurper is killed.

Other gods preside over agriculture, such as Kapwangwa Kapwicalo, who protects irrigated taro terraces in the Gomen area, or Toririhnan, who causes it to rain each time she blows her nose at the top of the Hienghène Valley. There are also a great number of gods whose function is the protection of a given clan, protection that is often traced back to the clan's mythical origin. Gods can have sexual relations with humans, an event that either can have terrifying consequencessuch as the death of the mortal or the turning backward of his heador can resemble normal human sexual acts. Myths in which families trace their origins to instances of intercourse between gods and humans record both types of occurrences.

Indeed in Melanesia, as in Polynesia, all genealogies have divine origins, and although the religion of New Caledonia is totemistic in appearance there is no available evidence that any of the kinship groups believe that they are descended from the animal species or natural phenomenon with which they are spiritually associated. These totem entitiescalled rhë re (sg., rhë e )represent the "spiritual belonging" of the group and are passed along through the male line. When a woman marries outside of her totem group, her rhë e is sometimes said to follow her. This does not mean, however, that the rhë e has left its original abode; because mythical beings are understood to be ubiquitous they are thought to be able to dwell in the two places at once.

There are occasions on which the rhë re and the bao (who were formerly human) meet. Such a meeting will take place in part of the landscape that is outside of human control, such as the bush, the forest, or the mountain range. The dead, those bao who were formerly human, can merge with the rhë e that is linked with their clan. Thus, for example, if thunder is associated with a particular group, the rumbling of the thunder is also the voice of the dead of that clan. Also in accordance with this pattern, no ancestor of the octopus group, for example, will appear in the form of a shark, unless they have what early authors referred to as "linked totems," that is, clusters of symbols all of which are linked to a certain mwaro. In some cases a group's rhë e will manifest itself in various forms depending on the setting: thus, for some chiefly families of the so-called Naacuwe-Cidopwaan group the rhë e takes the form of a lizard if seen inland, but becomes a water-snake on the beach, or a shark in the sea, and is also thought of as a masked male dancer said to emerge from the sea.

Missionaries who worked among the New Caledonians attempted to find the natives' idols in order to destroy them; they discovered objects resembling idols that had been carefully preserved by clan leaders over the course of centuries. Pierre Lambert (1900) has published illustrations of some of these items. They are stones of various shapes about which little is actually known except that they turn up from time to time in yam gardens, are linked with the clan's totem entity, and are in some way connected with success in farming, fishing, weather control, and so forth, as were the thunderstones (meteorites) of the Europeans of old. It has been observed that when these artifacts are used as repositories of the divine presence for sacramental purposesand not as representations of godsthey can be replaced if lost or confiscated. This provision allows for the indefinite preservation of this type of link with the divine.

It is important to recognize that the mythical systems of the hundreds of different clans are highly diversified, a diversity that appears most clearly in the origin myths of the various groups. Some clans believe their spiritual origin to be the mountain that is called Souma (in the Ajië language) or Caumyë (in the Paici language). The vernacular texts obtained by Leenhardt demonstrated that the mountain had a connection with the creation of mankind and that its importance stems from the gods who live in the various principal mountains. For instance, Ka To Souma, the god associated with Souma, guards one of the possible entrances to the subterranean land of the dead. So great is the respect for, and fear of, this god that his proper name (Gomawe or Kavere) is never uttered. Other clans, usually those living near the watershed, claim a spiritual link with one or another of the forms of thunder. These different forms are grouped in distinctive ways according to the local theology, thereby giving each clan a powerful mythical protector. Clans can thus be classified according to their myths; conversely, mythical beings in charge of protecting the various clans may be classified according to the patrilineal marriage moieties with which they are associated in the Paici area or, in the north, according to the political phratries to which they belong.

The nearby Loyalty Islands (Uvéa, Lifou, and Maré) present a different set of problems. Although the inhabitants have been Christians for a century and a half (twice as long as the natives of New Caledonia proper) sacred groves still exist there, the old deities are remembered, and the cult of the dead continues to surface from time to time. However, the distribution of mythical beings among the families of the islands is significantly different from what prevails in New Caledonia. One essential aspect of the religion of the Loyalty Islands is that direct relations with the invisible world are the prerogative of the oldest established clans. These privileged clans, called ten adro (on Lifou), wäi (on Uvéa), or èlè-tok (on Maré), act as hosts to visiting gods. It is this status as host to the gods that provides legitimacy to the chiefly lines of today. The senior clans are also, however, the wardens of the invisible road along which the dead travel, eventually diving into the sea and reaching the island of Heo (Beautemps-Beaupré), where the entrance to the world of the dead is located. At the court of each of the paramount chiefs, a special person (called Atesi on Lifou and, on Maré, Acania) has the role of being the representative of these clans. He acts as their intermediary, for neither they nor their yams can enter a chief's house since their presence would endanger his life. On these islands there is thus a formalized distinction between families having the privilege of communicating with the divine worldeach ten adro has its own god, to which only it can prayand those who must be satisfied with praying to their own dead. The latter use diviners to discover whom they must negotiate with in order to ward off any invisible power which is causing injury to the clan.

See Also

Codrington, R. H.; Leenhardt, Maurice.


The oldest, but still quite illuminating, work on the subject of New Caledonia religion is R. P. Gagnère's Étude ethnologique sur la religion des Néo-calédoniens (Saint-Louis, France, 1905). It vividly describes the man and lizard cult relation in the Pouebo area of northeastern New Caledonia. Pierre Lambert's Moeurs et superstitions des Néo-calédoniens (Nouméa, New Caledonia, 1900) is interesting, although Lambert is at times less than accurate in his descriptions of the religions of the Belep Islands in the north and the Isle of Pines in the south. The monumental, two-volume Ethnologie der Neu-Caledonier und Loyalty-Insulaner (Munich, 1929) by the Swiss ethnographer Fritz Sarasin contains an indispensable atlas. The classic works in the field are Maurice Leenhardt's two volumes: Notes d'ethnologie néo-calédonienne (Paris, 1930) and Documents néo-calédoniens (Paris, 1932). Admired for their precision at the time of their publication, Leenhardt's books are full of information, and continue to be valuable research tools. My own contributions to the subject include the following: Structure de la chefferie en Mélanésie du sud (Paris, 1963), Mythologie du masque en Nouvelle-Calédonie (Paris, 1966), Des multiples niveaux de signification du mythe (Paris, 1968), and Naissance et avortement d'un messianisme (Paris, 1959). Recent publications in the field include Marie-Joseph Dubois's Mythes et traditions de Maré, Nouvelle Calédonie: Les Elètok (Paris, 1975) and Alban Bensa and Jean-Claude Rivière's Les chemins de l'alliance: L'orga-nisation sociale et ses représentations en Nouvelle-Calédonie (Paris, 1982).

New Sources

Lenormand, Maurice H., and Léonard Drilë Sam. Lifou: Origine des Chefferies de la Zone de Wé: Quelques Éléments de la Société Traditionnelle. Nouméa, 1993.

Métais, Eliane. Au Commencement Était la Terre: Réflexions sur un Mythe Canaque d'Origine. Talence, France, 1988.

Jean Guiart (1987)

Revised Bibliography

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New Caledonia Religion

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