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Oceanic Religions: An Overview


The Pacific Islands are dispersed over the widest expanse of sea in the world. They consist of semi-continents (such as New Guinea), strings of large mountainous islands (along the curve of the Melanesian chain), and groups of larger and smaller islands further east, which are arranged as isolated atolls, or, more rarely, organized into whole archipelagoes, such as the Tuamotus and the Carolines. The classic view is that one should distinguish between three large cultural areas: Micronesia in the northwest, Melanesia in the south, and Polynesia in the east. The reality is that whereas Micronesia is somewhat distinct in that its cultures display the influences of constant Asian contacts, Melanesia and Polynesia are artificial concepts created by Western powers. The Europeans overran and Christianized Tahiti and eastern Polynesia, using the peoples of these islands to contact and control islands further westas soldiers, Christian teachers, and petty civil servants who were accorded a status slightly higher than that of the supposedly "cruel" Melanesian "savages." In Polynesia the islanders resisted European settlement by force, and land transfers to the newcomers were often obtained through marriages with local women of high rank: these practices provided support for the inaccurate conception that the islanders of the east were closer to their colonizers in terms of civilization, whereas those of the west were uncouth and dangerous.

The islands are in fact very similar, showing the same range of variations along their coasts. All the atolls are alike, with their peaceful lagoons ringed by white beaches crowned by endless rows of coconut trees and ironwood trees, their dazzling sun, their fragility in time of hurricane, their lack of fresh water, and the many hardships of life and the precarious food supply if no rain comes. Power and authority are exercised with a streak of what is called "bigmanship"that is, the use of cajolery and intrigue, as well as good husbandry and economic sense, to further one's ambitions. Hereditary chieftainships exist, throughout Melanesia as well as in Polynesia, and chiefs are often surrounded by such formal behavior and etiquette that Westerners gave the title of "king" to all such titular heads of extended descent groups without checking to see if these "kings" in fact had kingdoms. The view that chieftainships are found only in Polynesia and that Melanesia only knows "big men" is not supported by facts. Complex systems of chieftainship exist in both cultural areas, as well as in the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, New Caledonia, the Loyalty Islands, and Fiji, Tonga, and Samoa.

The foundations of Oceanic religions are locality and the cult of the dead. (This article will avoid the commonly used word "spirits," as it is quite imprecise.)

The Cult of the Dead

Corpses in Oceania receive all sorts of ritual treatment. They may be laid in a grave or buried fetus-like in the ground, with the head sticking out; the head might later be removed for use in special mortuary rites. In southern Malekula the corpse is put on a platform and a small fire is kindled underneath to accelerate the putrefaction process. When this is accomplished, the villagers remove the head and place it in an ant's nest for thorough cleaning, after which the face is rebuilt with vegetable paste before being fixed to the top of a life-size puppet, the rambaramb, which bears marks indicating the dead man's rank. This puppet is present, six months after a man's death, at the deceased's last funerary ceremony and dance. After this the widow is allowed to remarry, usually with the dead man's younger brother, to whom she was in many cases forbidden to speak during her husband's lifetime. The skull is then put in a special placein a rocky area, for example, or on the edge of a sacred grove, or on the flat stones at the back of the men's housewhere it remains, and where it may be offered prayers. Mortuary techniques vary from place to place, and change according to fashion. For instance, the custom of rubbing newborn children with the dead person's fat and of eating parts of the dead body, particularly the braina practice that was the origin of the famed kuru sicknesswas introduced into the Fore area of the New Guinea Highlands only six generations ago. Corpses kept whole can be burnt (North Solomon Islands and inland New Guinea); laid on the ground, with stones all round (South New Caledonia); left inside the deceased's house; put inside clefts of a raised cliff and laid on an old carving (central New Caledonia) or a piece of a broken canoe (Loyalty Islands); or thrown into the sea where a guardian shark will deal with it (Tanna and Efate in Vanuatu). The bones can be made into parcels and kept in a sacred grove or cave.

Throughout much of Oceania, a special rite often occurs ten days after death, during which the deceased person is reverentially asked to depart his lifelong place of residence and join the other dead in their abode, where he now belongs. One day each year, in Vanuatu and elsewhere, food is displayed for the benefit of the dead, who are invited, often through calls on conch shells, to come and partake of it. The next day, toward dusk, the dead are sent home by the same means. This practice does not prohibit the dead from being called for at any time in the year, as when the sickness of a close kinsman or one's own child warrants their help.

The dead who are prayed to are always those related to and from the locality of the descent group. Foreign ghosts are feared, the most so when the unwelcome visit is thought to be from the ghost of an unburied man, or temes bal (North Vanuatu), murdered on some path and craving revenge on anybody around. Such ghosts can enter the food produced ceremonially and make people sickso doors may be shut to prevent this from happening. Any object pertaining to the white man may be put out of the house at this particular time for this very reason, its presence being thought of as introducing the temes bal. Food cooked inside the stone oven will be cut and shared with a bamboo knife, metal tools being left on the side for the same reason.

In some places, the dead are thought to have their own island (Bulotu in central Polynesia, Buloma at the eastern tip of New Guinea), which can fade into the skyline the more a canoeist strives to get there. Elsewhere, the land of the dead is aerial (Banks Islands), submarine, or under the face of the earth (New Caledonia). It can be inside a cave (North Malekula, Vanuatu) or inside the crater of a live volcano (East Malekula, Ambrym, and Tanna, Vanuatu).

The deceased traveling to the land of the dead follow a routebeginning along an open road, then continuing down subterranean pathsthat links together neighboring districts (northern Viti Levu, Fiji) or neighboring islands (Lifou and Ouvea in the Loyalty Islands, East Malekula and Ambrym in Vanuatu). Members of specific lineages who live along the aboveground part of these routes hold the power to send back those among the deceased who are not yet ready to travel to the land of the dead. As they travel, the dead are armed with objects that have been placed in their graves, such as a ropeusually tied to a pig's foot, symbolizing the tusker pig that must be offered to the godly warden on the road to gain his permission to proceed furtheror a model canoe, which allows the incorporeal dead to cross the sea.

Live humans have been known to follow these routes and survive, if they manage to keep looking only in front of them and resist the enticements of the fair-haired maidens (called konghoc in Ouvea, where they are believed to be the daughters of the godly pair Walewe and Hida) who appear on the side of he road. Eventually, they are confronted by a stem god or goddess, with arms ending in crab pincers, who will either ask a question; draw a design on the sand, then rub out half of it (the person is then expected to complete it); or closely examine the lobe of the person's ear and pierce it if it is lacking a hole.

Some men and women are said to be in the habit of going to the land of the dead to carry on an affair with a man or woman there; when they return, they bring back presents for their family: new knowledge, new songs, and new dance music. They might even bring back an invisible spouse, powerful in ritual matters pertaining to agriculture, thus bringing to the living part of the couple great crops of yams, or the techniques of making "sweet" dishes. But the goddesses who come back to live with a human male are made jealous and go back with the human's child if the husband starts an affair on the side with a living woman.

At the start of the twenty-first century, the cult of the dead is still flourishing in Oceania, though some elements have disappeared and beliefs tend to be intellectualized in towns, where the traditional spatial references are lacking. The cult's existence, however, is strongly hidden from Western onlookers.


The land of the dead is governed by gods and goddesses, who have always been in existence and, in the words of Robert H. Codrington, have never been either dead or alive as humans. Thus there is always a chief of this land, as well as a guardian of the entrance, a master of the dance of the dead, and a messengeroften a birdwho serves as a go-between, and is often seen fluttering near chiefly houses as well as flying away to join the other gods.

In many parts of Oceania one finds a belief in a sky world, which can be reached from the world of the living in various ways: via a path made of arrows, through the swinging of a club that, with the help of the South Wind, can break open the sky, or by means of a rope that the people in the sky let down.

Another link to the sky world is provided by winged maidens (the tuarere of central and northern Vanuatu) who meet at night on reefs to bathe and fish. Men can sneak up on them and hide one of their pairs of wings, then claim as a wife the young woman who is bereft of her wings, and thus powerless to go back to her people. It is said that one of these maidens taught the men how to make love in the right fashion, cutting a too-long penis with a shell knife until it was the right length. Another tuarere, having born two children to her human husband, was so incensed that he had talked badly of her to her children that, having found her well-hidden wings, she flew away, coming back ten days later with her sisters, who killed and ate the man bit by bit, only leaving the hairs and bones for the children to bury.

Another story tells of a man who, either in a canoe or carried by the tuarere over the seas, landed on an island (Merig of the Banks Islands) that was inhabited only by women, whose spouses were flying foxes that came to visit them at night, landing on the protruding bamboo roofs of each house. He laughed at the women and taught them about true loveand how to cook and eat their former husbands. This island is still peopled by women who are in effect the owners of the land, their brothers and sisters having all married elsewhere, and they themselves having married older men who had agreed to come and live on this small island, which is beautiful but very remote.

There are also stories that involve just-married men or women who have lost their spouse, either through an accident or because the spouse has been killed by a jealous local chief. The living spouse follows the road going to the land of the dead and negotiates with the warden at the entrance the way by which they can bring back to life their loved one. In some sadder versions of this story the return is deemed impossible and the couple must part; each tells the other how to know if they are close by, inside a rainbow or in the mist climbing down a mountain in the morning (Northwest New Caledonia).

Specific godly beings are the masters of a particular part of the universe: the sun, the moon (the woman in the moon is called Siva, or Hiva in Polynesia), the rain, each of the winds, the hurricane, fish in the high seas, forests and their inhabitants, the tilled land and its food crops. All these beings are said to be powerful, which means they each can bring to life what they control, or what they are said to be themselves, to work either for the benefit of man or against him.


Any power, mythical or magical, works both ways, for the good or for the bad. Prayers and offerings are used to summon both kinds of powers. Prayers can be spoken or silent and may be public or private depending on who the supplicant is: an ordinary individual, who may choose to speak out in the open if the matter is of interest to others, or a priest, who always acts alone in a secluded spot. Offerings are of all sorts: flowers, grasses, and leaves fastened to an ironwood pole; a yam tuber (or a white rooster with legs fastened) deposited on a stone in a sacred spot; great quantities of food that are shown to the dead and the gods, and then eaten by the men in their special club house (in the second half of November, after the rise of the palolo in Vanuatu, Fiji, West Polynesia, or after the flowering of the erythrina tree in New Caledonia); or shell money, which is either inserted inside holes in underwater rocks, in rivers or out at sea, or opened up on a sacred stone at a distance from any house, while an ancient chant in an archaic language is sung, asking for rain to come (New Caledonia) or for the crop to be abundant. Prayers are not complex poetical texts, being usually made up of a list of the gods and dead ancestors who are being called upon, to which is added only a very few sentences, some explaining the supplicant's wish in a precise and straightforward way, others offering a symbolic expression of the same wish.

Complex cosmogonies in Oceania are found only in East Polynesian cultures, and are the product of a caste of priests. Pacific Islands societies have tended to resist the formation of colleges of priests, which traditionally were only found in Tahiti and Hawai'i. Chiefs did not usually cherish the idea of sharing what power they hadit was never absolutewith a community of priests living by their own rules. Whereas in New Zealand a youth could be trained to become both ariki and tohunga, chief and priest, in Melanesia, Fiji, and West Polynesia power was shared through a system of linked social actors. One principal chief dealt with earthly matters, while another served as the orator, or talking chief (matapule), who was responsible for knowledge of the oral tradition and for protecting the principal chief from dangers originating in the outer world beyond the village. There are examples of this special dignitary being killed and buried with the principal chief, along with the latter's wives. His corpse was then placed just under the chief's head, the wives being laid out on the three other sides (South Central Vanuatu).

One specialized function of the matapule was to stand between two chiefs as they drank kava, so that the mana of one chief did not interfere with the mana of the other and so cause sickness. This precaution was general in Polynesia, but could be found also in Melanesia among kava -drinking peoples (North Malekula, Vanuatu).

This brings us to the concept of mana (or men ), which is not strictly Polynesian, as thought by many modern scholars, but was first found by Codrington in the Banks Islands, among Melanesian languagespeaking people. Mana is the power held by an individual through their particular relation with the world of the dead, that is, through the rank of the forebears protecting them. Mana can grow or diminish according to the way each person deals with the power they have inherited at birth. Losing a war and being taken prisoner diminishes one's mana, the more so if one is sent to the kitchen as a servant working with the women. Only blood spilt through a massacre can restore the former level of mana in such extreme cases. Utu, the necessity for revenge, or "pay-back," as they say in New Guinea, is justified by the need to reclaim lost mana. When this is not feasible, a suicide will do. In New Zealand, wives of high rank have been known to leave their lesser-ranked husband to stop their personal mana from being overcome by the renown earned in battle by their warrior spouse.

Mana is linked to tapu (kap, kep, etc.), which, from the perspective of a particular possessor of mana, is a power held by others that threatens mana. The back and back of the head are the most tapu parts of the body and are not to be touched. The gravity of this tapu depends on the rank of the person. Thus one will go a long way round so as not to pass close to the back not only of a chief, but also of his, or his wife's, relatives. A person's tapu grows or diminishes with the amount of their mana. The greatest tapu was that of several Hawaiian princesses who married their own brother; being older, they outranked their brother/husband and could only go out at night. Any person who saw their faces had to be killed on the spot. So the women stayed secluded in the day, and at night had special servants walking in front of them, warning people to look the other way.

Similar procedures involving tapu were played out on the battlefield. No real or classificatory kin of a warrior's wife could be hurt in any waywhich explains why, as a rule, war in the islands led to few deaths. (It should be understood that marriage is regularly practiced between antagonistic descent lines, notwithstanding the fact that they are in a competition for prestige with one another.) The very strong tapu associated with eating, drinking, or smoking inside a communal Maori house still under construction can only be broken by a Maori first-born girl of high rank cooking and then eating a roast kumara (sweet potato) inside the house. Then only can other women and children enter the house, and can everybody eat inside. This tapu is still respected today, and horror stories are told of newly Christianized carvers and carpenters falling sick and dying after eating inside a house under construction.

Another system of multiple authorities, encompassing both opposition and complementary functions, involves the chief and the master of the land (mata ni vanua in Fiji). This situation displays a great number of variations. The masters of the land can have been chased away, in order that their former territories be taken over, and thus not be present at all. They can live next door to the chief, under new names forced upon them so as to cut their former privileged link to the land. They can be just there and occasionally honored ceremonially without being recognized for any specific function (the üay in Ouvéa). They can have retained a strong link to the non-human world, by being the only priests (ten adro: "who is on the land," or alalu: "who goes two by two") able to communicate with the different godly beings, and thus appear too dangerous to be accepted inside the chiefly court, where they are represented by special secondary chiefs (or atresi, for atre sine haze, "on the side of gods," in Lifou). These secondary chiefs are treated in ceremonial contexts as if they control the gods (haze) the ten adro serve. In fact the atresi have no power as such, but must go through the specific ten adro priest who can refuse to act as wished.

The island societies of Oceania revolve around interlocking systems of social status, which function as part of fragile balancing acts, by which individual heads of families, or lineages, strive constantly to protect as much as is feasible of their autonomy of action. They are not constantly consensus-seeking, as is so often said, but, to the contrary, use what consensus they can build, or help bring about, to further their real aim, which is to gain a modicum of prestige at the expense of others. In most cases, every man of some rank is embroiled in a prestige competition with another man of equivalent rank, as happened with both their fathers before them. Competition between chiefs is so extensive that the real institution appears to be the competition itself, rather than the competing chiefdoms. Each side appeals to its part of the outer world, which means that the invisible land of gods and ancestors is divided into the same competing camps found in the world of humans.

When soccer was introduced in the islands, young people consulted with the local traditional priests in order to win matches, feeling that the Christian god, being for everybody, could not be expected to help them in particular. Political decisions rested on the words of seers, or diviners, who could be either men or women. Would-be rebels against colonial authority had to have their plans approved through divination. As a result, colonial police had trouble predicting when and where problems would arise.

During the nineteenth century, a new belief developed about a kind of poweralways deemed negativeassociated with so-called witchcraft parcels. Carried from man to man and not inherited, these parcels had the power to kill the person who was in the direction they were pointed. Known as doki, doghi, or narëk, they appear to have first arrived in Oceania during the seventeenth century, aboard ships bringing missionaries and their families to Melanesia. They were in the possession of lascar sailors who brought them all the way from the Portuguese Congo, which they had fled following a campaign against witches initiated by Portuguese Jesuits.

The god hidden inside the parcels is said to have a sex organ made of fire, and to "eat" his successive owners if he is not given enough victims. This belief grew strongly as the Melanesian population began to dramatically decrease, due to the prevalence of gonorrhea. Belief in the power of witchcraft parcels faded, however, following two World Health Organization campaigns (in 1960 and 1962) that largely eradicated gonorrhea in Vanuatu. Today witchcraft is rarely discussed in Melanesia, except in towns, where it is a subject that fascinates many in white and half-caste communities. Aboriginal islanders expound upon it for the sake of white people, because they know Westerners love horror stories.

Missionary as well as lay European authors tend to believe that witchcraft is a fundamental aspect of Oceanic culture. This is nothing more than a case of attributing to the islanders what was part of our own culture. What can be found everywhere in the area are healers and seers, and an involved system of blessings and cursesbut it would be a mistake to equate this with Western sorcery and witchcraft, as the belief systems underlying Oceanic practices are quite different.


Authentic textual records of Oceanic oral traditions are today, happily, replacing the older adaptations of European authors. The latter collections often shortened stories, or even mixed different versions together; their authors deleted parts of stories that were not of interest to them, and sometimes emphasized story elements artificially on the basis of a quite unscientific rule of thumb: the more a theme is manifested, the more authentic it is. This kind of majoritarian system overlooked the fact that each lineage insists on its own version of any particular story, and that each version is as authentic as the next. Authenticity is a concept introduced by Christian churches. It has no value within a tradition based on multiple perspectives.

Oceanic oral tradition consists of broad themes expressed in a poetical or literary way, with each variant conveying a wealth of information about particular traditions through the use of specific names: names of living creatures, or of the different heroes or godly beings, ancestors' names, and place names indicating the limits and details of the social group's territory.

No synthesis is sought of all these versions. Each one is made to order so as to add to the prestige of the myth-owning descent group. Contradictions between differing versions have no other meaning than as markers of difference and serve to establish each lineage's relative autonomy and prestige.

For the scholar, the methodological problem is to map every bit of information found in the textual record. One must first obtain a complete version of a story, in the vernacular. Through comparisons of different versions (dealing with the same geographical area), one may begin to see what part of the story is explicit, and what part is implicitthat is, accessible to any knowledgeable aboriginal listener, but not easy for a Westerner to grasp. These texts can thus be read on at least two different levels. Taking them at their face value is a currently common mistake. The problem is to learn the meaning of each word, the significance of a sequence of words, and the social symbolism of each name. Names can indicate to the knowledgeable listener that a particular location is a sacred place, an important or insignificant stretch of territory, a place where offerings should be brought (a piece of a brightly colored shrub or a stone put on a heap), a plot of land that is under a curse and cannot be tilled, a spot where a child or a woman with child should not go, and so on.

Paths are individually owned when they only lead to one person's field, but are controlled by a lineage if they penetrate inside its territory, and by the entire social group if they link villages together. The pairing of two names within a story delimits and defines a path or road, and in this way implies the descent group or individual associated with that path or road.

Principal gods are often unnamed except through oblique references, or a very general descriptive name (i.e., "the great god"), or, as in Polynesia, their names can be altered through additions, so that each social group employs a variant of the god's name, allowing them to put him at the start of their descent line without hurting the feelings of the neighboring descent group. There is in theory a single god of the sky and of the forest in Polynesia, known as Tanebut there may in fact be as many Tanes as there are descent groups on a given island, each different Tane being the first name cited in a particular group's genealogy.

The existence of all things present on earth (social, biological, or material) is attributed either to the actions of the dead (who are believed to hold, collectively or individually, enormous power), or to the actions of the so-called culture heroes of the cosmogonic or semi-cosmogonic myths. The origin of culture is often attributed to one of these heroes or to two brothers. In the Madang district of northern New Guinea, these brothers are Kilibob, the inventor of all useful arts, and Manup, the brother responsible for love, magic, sorcery, and warfare. It is believed that both brothers will return: Kilibob's return will be announced by the arrival on the sea of a wooden plate carved in the Siasi Islands, and Manup's by the arrival of a canoe from the north. The so-called cargo cults have integrated this myth into their own system. Often, white explorers were initially taken for the dead coming back to give their riches to their descendants. The extraordinary mobilizing power of such myths has been demonstrated by the messianic cults that have sprouted all over the Pacific, from the early Mamaia cult in Tahiti to the more recent cargo cults in New Guinea and Melanesia. It appears that such prophetic or messianic cults have existed in the area since ancient times: one case (the Roy Mata story, from central Vanuatu) has been archaeologically dated to around 1300 bce. However, religious concepts are usually a means of justifying the way in which a society and culture function, and thus generally support institutionalization and not change. Autochthonous Oceanic beliefs are responsible, even now, for stability in the societies of this area. Experience over recent decades has shown that aboriginal religious beliefs and concepts are far from dead in the Pacific Islands, although the whole area is nominally Christian. Prayers are still offered to ancestors and to symbolic beings whose invisible presence is still felt.

One case in point is the continued existence, more or less everywhere, of a traditional belief in ogres or ogresses. This should not be understood as a reference to the former practice of cannibalism, as some authors have thought. Examining the range of types referred to by the same names, one finds ogres that are completely benevolent, and never eat anybody, and others that behave as ogres are generally expected to behave. Each is associated with a sacred place, where offerings are made at the time of the first-fruit ceremony. Ogres are distinguished between by referring to their sacred spot, and a mention of the name of a particular spot is by itself enough to indicate a specific ogre to a knowledgeable listener.

The same is valid for any godly being. Local gods or goddesses who send the rain, thunderstorms, and floods are recognized as benevolent or malevolent according to the place with which they are associatedin their case thought to be their home. Knowledgeable islanders thus learn to remember thousands of specific names, which, put together, crisscross the island, thus placing on the map all the descent groups with which such names are associated.

In Oceania, people's ambitions are realized through control of some power over the world around them. Every descent group has its own way of playing a role inside a symbolic representation of the universe. Edible plants, fish, octopuses, sharks, whales, birds, mammals, dangerous beasts, clouds, thunder, rain, hurricanes, volcanoes, the suneach is owned by a "master" who, in the name of his descent group, assumes responsibility for the necessary ritual that causes the plants to grow, the sun to shine, and the rain to come when needed, or that prevent catastrophes (hurricanes, tidal waves, volcanic eruptions). Each "master" thus plays a role in a universal concert, and does their part for the survival of all. Those who master the sun and the rain are considered powerful people. This system was called totemism by early researchers, who linked it with systems found elsewhere, as they believed in the existence of a universal institution. The facts do not fit this hypothesis. Systems by which people control the universe around them are very varied, and should not artificially be made to fit one pattern. Closer study of the Oceanic system reveals that animals, plants, and meteorological phenomena are considered to be one of the forms the dead of a descent group can take. They assume these forms in order to appear before their descendants when these descendants are attempting to control the particular aspect of the world with which they are associated.


Pacific Islanders see the world they live in as a dynamic space, in which various forces (of mana, amongst other things) unfold along a path that is conceived of as a spiralaccording to the politician and poet John Kasaipwalova, from Kiriwina (in the Trobriand Islands), the spiral path is the route any power must take in order to grow endlessly. This explains why dances on the islands making up the Melanesian arch go round, apparently in circlesthey are in fact representing the launching of a spiral from a central point, which can be a pole, or only be implicit. Dancers usually move from right to left, but reverse directions if the dance is meant to mark a recent death. This explains also the ubiquitous presence of spirals and concentric circles engraved on rocks.

Another dancing tradition (seen in Tanna, among other places) involves hundreds of male dancers who go from one end to the other of the dancing ground, seemingly showing a preference for a longitudinal axis. But if one observes the dance all night long, one notices that the mass of dancers slightly change the angle of their dancing each time they traverse the dancing ground. Over time, they are slowly and powerfully swirling, and in this way they express the spiraling model.

The spiral is the means by which the land of the dead and the world of humans can be linked. When the living dance, the dead and ghosts are dancing the same dance at the same time, to the same tunes. Parallel worlds thus act in harmony during the nights when hundreds of people come and dance at the same time. These worlds become separate again in the daytime, when the dead and the gods retreat to look on from afarthough they are always present close by if needed.

Families can be brought together not only through intermarriage, but also by visitations from the dead. If a person sees a white ghostly figure coming towards them on the road, they know there has been a death on the other side of the island and set out through mountain passes to be present at the mourning ceremonies.

One must go to Eastern Polynesiaexcept Easter Island, where things are not exactly clear on this pointto find a view of the universe in which the dead and the gods are separate. Here, the general and, in a way, official godsresponsible for great swathes of the human world (the sea, the air, the forests, tilled land)are in the skies, leading their own lives there after having started out on Earth, where they established the basis of human society as it was before the coming of the white man. The dead are thought to live inside an underground kingdom of their own. The gods and heroes of Eastern Polynesia were worshipped inside roofless temples. This cosmology has had great appeal for Western scholars, who have focused on what seemed familiar to them.

Many early Western observers were convinced that human sacrifices were a part of the religion of Eastern Polynesia. We know for sure that two levels of sanctions for religious and social transgressions were found on all the Pacific Islands. One obliged the culprit to go into exile, usually where they could find kin of their own; the other required that they be dispatched by an executioner under the orders of a chief. The condemned was killed by a surprise blow on the nape of the neck with a short, often curved, stone club. Parts of the bodythe eyes or the heartcould then be offered to a god. But there is no proof of human sacrifices of the sort imagined by missionaries and the first European witnesses.

Outside of Eastern Polynesia most gods lived close by humans, looking after their crops, their fishing, or their hunting. All over Melanesia, certain gods were enshrined yearly inside stone figures placed in the ground. These gods did not live in the skies, and were not dealt with during the great ceremonial gatheringswhich in any case had more to do with competition between chiefs than with strongly held beliefs.

Throughout Oceania a carved figure can be the repository of a godly presence, but the god has no obligation whatsoever to choose this particular abode. Gods can be incarnated at will in stones, trees, stone outcrops, whales, sharks, mats, and in carefully wrapped sennit bundles (which in Tahiti bear indications of facial features) or more deliberately constructed figures (which have an abundance of shell pendants). Or gods may take up residence in carved wooden human faces, called "heads of the shell money," which are linked in New Caledonia with Urupwe, one of the names of the god who reigns supreme over the land of the dead. Monumental carvings are rarely thought of as possible repositories for godly presences, with the exception of the Hawaiian wickerwork figures covered with parrot feathers that were carried into battle as representations of Ku-ka'ili-moku, the god of warbut which really represent a particular set of descent groups linked together by their allegiance to the same chieftainship. In the same part of Hawai'i, if the presence of a god was called for inside a dwelling, a large empty space would be shrouded all round with a tapa curtain.

See Also

Cargo Cults; Mana; Melanesian Religions, overview article; Micronesian Religions, overview article; Polynesian Religions, overview article; Power; Taboo.


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Jean Guiart (2005)

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