Solomon Islands Religions

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SOLOMON ISLANDS RELIGIONS . Peoples of the Solomon Islands have been somewhat arbitrarily divided by convention into "Melanesian" (Guadalcanal, Malaita, Isabel, San Cristobal or Makira, Gela, New Georgia, Choiseul, Shortlands, Santa Cruz) and "Polynesian" (Rennell, Bellona, Tikopia, Anuta, Sikaiana, Ontong Java). The Melanesians of Bougainville and Buka, in the northern Solomons chain, are often included, although they are separated by a political border and by gulfs of language (because Papuan languages, as opposed to Oceanic-Austronesian languages, are mainly spoken in the northern Solomons). Solomons religions may be mapped for convenience onto "Melanesian" and "Polynesian" features, despite modern linguistic and ethnographic evidence showing close relationships between the Oceanic languages and cultures of the Solomons and those of eastern Melanesia, Micronesia, and Polynesia.

The so-called Polynesian Outliers in the Solomons have religions of the western Polynesian type, of which Raymond Firth, Richard E. Feinberg, Ian Hogbin, and Torben Monberg have given good descriptions. Firth's detailed studies of Tikopia ritual and belief provide some of the best evidence on traditional Polynesian religion.

The Melanesian religions of the Solomons were preeminently concerned with mediating relations with ancestral ghosts and nonhuman spirit beings, soliciting and manipulating their support (mana ) and deploying powers of magic for success in fighting, feasting, gardening, fishing, curing, and other pursuits. Through human sacrifice, sacrifice of pigs and other offerings, elaborate rituals, and prayer, the living sought the support and potentiation without which human efforts alone could not succeed.

For most parts of the Solomons there is limited evidence on the pre-Christian past: Christianity took early hold on Gela, Isabel, the New Georgia group, Choiseul, the Shortlands, and most areas of Guadalcanal and San Cristobal. Douglas L. Oliver's important prewar study (published in 1955) of the Siuai of Bougainville gives good evidence on the religion of a Papuan-speaking people, and A. M. Hocart's early texts from Simbo (Eddystone) as well as C. G. Wheeler (Mono-Alu, northwest Salomon) are useful in reconstructing a western Solomons religious system. Some modern ethnographers of Malaita (among others, Roger Keesing, Pierre Maranda and Elli Köngäs Maranda, Ben Burt, Sandra Revolon, and Christine Jourdan) have worked in areas where the ancestral religions are still practiced. The more recent studies shed new light on old problems of the Solomon Islands religion.

Ghosts, Gods, and Spirits

The pioneer student of Melanesian religions, R. H. Codrington, observed that Solomon Islanders and New Hebrideans worshiped two broad categories of invisible beings: ancestral ghosts and spirits that were never human. Whereas New Hebrides (Vanuatu) religions focused on spirits, according to Codrington, those of the Solomons focused on ghosts.

If we look at the western and northern Solomons as well as the southeastern islands that Codrington knew best, this generalization fades. In the New Georgia group and Choiseul, ancient beings, which Hocart (1922) and Harold Scheffler (1965) refer to as "gods," were accorded a central place. These gods differed in their powers, nature, and mythic origins; they were often ranked hierarchically as more or less powerful, as intervening in different ways and degrees in human affairs, and as having introduced different customs and skills. The bangara of Choiseul and the tamasa of Simbo are relatively well documented. From Papuan-speaking Bougainville, we have Oliver's account of the Siuai kupuna spirits, some of which affected the lives of all, while others affected only local descent groups.

In all parts of the Solomons, including the areas where higher spirit beings were believed to exercise the greatest powers, ancestral ghosts were thought to be ever-present participants in daily life, propitiated by, watching over, and occasionally chastising their living kin. The manuru ghosts of Choiseul and the tomate of Simbo are counterparts of the tindalo of Gela and the akalo of Malaita.

Other classes of spirits, of forest and sea and sky, were recognized by Solomon Islanders. These spirits were of nonhuman origin. Some were malevolent, others, especially female spirits, were benevolent, and others merely capricious. Some were involved in human life; others were distant. Snakes, birds, sharks, and other animals were often seen as messengers from or manifestations of these spirits. Representations in folk art and in drawings collected by early ethnologists suggest that the spirits were often conceived as having (invisible) forms that combined animal and human features. Food taboos prevented the members of a clan from eating the "totemic" plants or animals in which they grounded their identities

Shades, Souls, and Abodes of the Dead

Most Melanesians of the Solomons recognized two or more nonphysical components of a human being. Commonly a distinction was made between "breath" and "shadow" (or "reflection") as component souls. Souls of the dead were generally believed to go to an afterlife, a land of the dead where souls lived in villages and gardened and fished in an existence parallel to corporeal life. These abodes of the dead were usually associated with particular islands. Marapa in Marau Sound, Guadalcanal, and Ramos Island, between Malaita and Isabel, were commonly thought by peoples in surrounding areas to be abodes of the dead. But whereas one soul component went off to the village of the dead, an ancestral shade, all-seeing though usually invisible, remained around the living.

A number of Malaitan myths have to do with the resurrection of dead culture heroes, others belong to the Orpheus myth category (a culture hero accessing the land of the dead to bring his wife back to life and losing her irremediably through his own fault upon their return home), and several are variants of a "Myth of the Original Sin" (see below), widespread in the south Pacific, staging a snake, a woman, and a man, in which an end is put to the "Golden Age" by the failure of the man to understand the truechtoniannature of his wife.

Dream experiences were and still are taken as the wanderings of one's shade among the shades of the dead and of the living: reports by those who recovered from coma were taken as experiential evidence on the fate of the dead (in Oceanic languages, the term mate commonly refers to states of unconsciousness, coma, and death). Communication with the dead, in the form of dreams, divination, omens, and prayer, infused daily life with religious significance.

Yet although many Solomonese were deeply religious in the sense that they saw everywhere the signs of ghosts, deities, and spirits, their concerns were pragmatic rather than theological, focused on this world rather than on the invisible world lying behind it. Thus, most peoples of the Solomons had relatively undeveloped ideas, other than those expressed in myths of origin or of ancient times, about the nature of the spirit world and about how spirits intervened in human life. Ghosts, according to the Kwaio of Malaita, are "like the wind" in manifesting their effects in many places at once and in going beyond the constraints of time, space, and agency that bind the living. But how these spirits do whatever it is they do is beyond human ken and even beyond human interest. The living are concerned not with explaining unseen forces but with using them to practical ends: with interpreting and manipulating the will of spirit beings, propitiating them after the infringment of a taboo, enlisting their support, and deploying their magical powers (mana ). Whether the ghosts or spirits have done their part can be discovered by divination, read in omens, or known retrospectively in the outcomes of human effort: success or failure in fighting, feasting, and other enterprises.

Mmana and Taboo

Retrospective pragmatism and relative unconcern with theological explanation and all-embracing cosmology are manifest in the ancient Oceanic concept of mana. Interpretations from Codrington's time onward have viewed mana as an invisible medium of supernaturally conferred power, manifest in sacred objects. Chiefs or warriors "had" mana by virtue of supernatural support; others gained it temporarily through sacrifice or magic. Thus C. E. Fox in his The Threshold of the Pacific (1924), writing of San Cristobal, likened mana (there mena ) to a liquid in which weapons or sacred objects were immersed; E. S. Craighill Handy in his Polynesian Religion (1927) likened mana to electricity.

According to Roger Keesing (this encyclopedia, previous edition),

contemporary ethnographic studies and reexamination of linguistic evidence suggest that mana as an invisible medium or substance or energy may be more a creation of European than of indigenous imagination. Mana in the religions of the Solomons referred to a process, retrospectively interpreted, and to a state or quality manifest in results, rather than to an invisible spiritual medium of power.

However, in north Malaita at least, many landscape features are considered to have mana (mamana ) by their very nature: imposing rocks, some majestic trees that are honored by hanging shell-money spans on their branches, and the like. In Malaita, mamana also means "truth" as well as "power." In Ben Burt's words, "Kwara'ae translate mamana as 'true,' which is quite appropriate since it entails not only reality and veracity but also 'true' in the archaic English sense of effective and faithful. For Kwara'ae traditionalists, ghosts are 'true' in that they can and will actually do what is expected of them" (1993, p. 54).

Evidence that mana was conceived primarily as a process and quality, and not as a "substance," comes both from modern ethnographic accounts, especially in Keesing's studies of the Kwaio of Malaita, and from linguistic evidence. In the Malaita languages and in Roviana in the western Solomons, mana, when used as a noun, is marked with a nominalizing affix that shows that it is an abstract verbal noun: "mana -ness" or "mana -ization." In all the Solomons languages where cognates of mana occur, we find the word used as a verb (the ghostsand female spirits or female "gods" as well"mana for" or "mana -ize" the living) and as a verbal adjective (magic is mana, that is, potent or effective), in addition to its uses as a noun. Comparative evidence suggests that these uses of mana as a verb are ancient and basic in Oceanic-Austronesian languages. Although more evidence is needed, it at least seems clear that in the religions of the Solomons, ideas about mana were not expressed in systematic theological interpretations but were concerned with controlling and retrospectively interpreting the interventions of spirits or gods in human life. Ian Hogbin noted, of his research on mana (there nanama ) on Guadalcanal, that "nobody knows how nanama works, and I gathered that the thought had never occurred to anyone before I made inquiries" (1936, pp. 241274).

In contrast to Hogbin's view, it should be pointed out that many Malaitans other than those he wrote about do know how mana works and how to to acquire it. According to them mana validates a good life, prosperity, and the like, and one obtains it through proper social behavior and adequate ritual practices. Although it has been ignored by many if not most anthropologists who have worked in the Solomonsa notable exception being Ben Burt's documentation of women priests (1993, pp. 58, 138, 145, 271)it is noteworthy that the traditional religion recognized beneficient female spirits, like the 'ai ni asi or 'ai la matekwa, the "woman" (or "goddess" as some Solomonese have it) "of the sea" can bestow mana on people. And the same obtains with the geo (brush turkey, megapod), a female deity worshipped in the Maliata hills, in Guadalcanal, and generally in the central province of the Solomons (Gabriel Maelaasi, from Funafou, Lau Lagoon, north Malaita, Personal Communication, April 2004). Furthermore, in connection with the power of women, it is significant that when possessed by a spirit, a woman may very effectively counter the decision of a chief and cancel all his plans.

On the other hand, mana is closely asssociated with what could be called its mirror image, taboo (or abu ). Actually, someone infringing a taboo will not only lose whatever mana one has but one will also incur severe punishment unless offering a generally momentous neutralizing compensation to the spirits. In that way taboo functions as inverted or negative mana, depriving the person at fault of all dignity and "social truth." In the words of Burt, who sharpens up the converging interpretations of Keesing and of the Marandas, "For tabu is ultimately about the control of power [mana ], a way of socializing the 'strength' of both spiritual and human beings and controlling it by the rules which should govern relationships in society" (1993. pp. 6466).

An important source of taboo relates to the ontological power of women, frightening to men (Maranda and Köngäs Maranda, 1970; Burt 1993; Maranda 2001; see also, which has multimedia data on mana, taboo, sacrifices, ancestor worship, the position of men and women, and other topics). As a matter of fact, the life-giving power of women fragilizes the cosmological status of men in the Solomons as well as in many other societies of the South Pacific. Consequently, men have invented elaborate mythical and ritual scripts to try to override their culturally characterized inferiority as regards procreation. Among such stratagems figures the role of high priests who, on behalf of all the men of their clans, act as "mothers," giving funeral birth to the deada mimicry of biological reproduction.

The ontological power of womentheir mana stems from their association with Mother Earth, embodied in the snake (worshiped by women priests; Burt, 1993, p. 145) of which woman is a daughter. And since, in Oceania, everything connected with the earth (stability, fecundity, and the like) is female and "low," while "high" (instability, barrenness, and the like) is male, and since vaginal blood flows from the lower part of the female torso, that fluid becomes lethal if it gets in contact with men. Hence the stringent taboo that surrounds the areas where women menstruate and give birth (Maranda and Köngäs Maranda, 1970; Keesing, 1982; Burt, 1993; Maranda, 2001). Thus, whereas men strive to acquire mana from the spirits and not to lose it, women are naturally endowed with a similar but extremely dangerous power, that of faasua, of "defiling."

Social Structure and Religion

In tribal societies, we can discern close structural relationships between sociopolitical organization and the nature, scope, and powers of supernatural beings. For Malaita, Keesing's (1982) account of the religion of the Kwaio and the Marandas' (1970, 2001) publications on the Lau illustrate the close fit between hierarchies of ancestors, the structure of descent groups, and rituals focused on ancestral shrines. For the western Solomons, Scheffler (1965) analyzes a similar close relationship between the propitiation of gods and spirits by descent-group congregations and the social structure of the living.

Peoples of the mountainous interiors (like the Kwaio) generally had small, autonomous descent groups and relatively egalitarian social systems. Correspondingly, ritual was localized in small congregations, and cosmologies and myths were relatively undeveloped. Peoples with maritime orientations tended to have more hierarchical sociopolitical systems (with hereditary chiefs in some areas), more centralized and elaborate ritual systems, and more fully elaborated cosmological beliefs and myths. Thus, the Lau of the northern Malaita lagoon, with an elaborate cosmology positing a series of heavens and an extensive body of myths, contrast somewhat with the Baegu of the nearby mountains, despite the cultural heritage they clearly share.

In none of these Melanesian societies of the Solomons were there full-time ritual specialists. The priests referred to in the literature served as ritual officiants on behalf of their groups. Succession to such duties was in some places hereditary; but in everyday respects, these officiants lived and worked as other men did.

Cults and Indigenous Churches in the Colonial Period

Cargo cults of classic Melanesian type apparently emerged in the Solomons only in parts of Bougainville and Buka, in the sphere of German and Australian influence. Thus, the Lontis movement of southern Bougainville, in 19131914, and cargo movements in the 1930s show continuity through to the anticolonialist cultism of the Hahalis Welfare Society of Buka in the 1960s. More politically oriented movements with millenarian overtones (Keesing, 1982) have continued into the 1980s.

On Small Malaita an early syncretic religious cult was reported in 1896, and there is some evidence of a prophetic cult in north-central Malaita somewhat earlier. In the 1920s syncretic movements that combined elements of traditional and Christian theology and ritual were reported from the same area; sporadic cult activity with anticolonial overtones continued in the 1930s. European reports of millenarian fantasy notwithstanding, the Maasina Rule movement, which took shape in the aftermath of the Guadalcanal campaign of World War II, was solidly politicala challenge to colonial rulealthough it had religious trappings.

Since the 1960s two strong indigenous movements have commanded widespread allegiance. On New Georgia a leader named Silas Eto, called the Holy Mama, created an indigenous religious movement combining elements of Methodism and folk belief and ritual. The movement remained strong into the 1980s. On Guadalcanal, the Moro movement has institutionalized a synthesis of traditional custom, Christianity, and capitalism that has adapted successfully to political and economic changes. The Remnant Church has experienced fluctuation since the 1970s in Malaita.

Figures compiled from different sources from 1997 to 1999 (see provide an approximate distribution of Solomon Islanders according to religion: Christians would number some 93 percent; pagans (traditional) some 4 to 6 percent; individuals with no religion, some 3 percent. The film The Lau of Malaita (Granada Television, "Disappearing World" series, 1987) presents a lively account of the endeavors by pagans to keep their traditions and culture alive despite the unquestionable impact of Christianity.

The Christians are mostly only nominally so, which Terry Brown, the Anglican bishop of Malaita recently deplored in his Bishop's Address to the Diocese of Malaita Diocesan Council in Auki (the capital of Malaita Province) on May 22, 2003:

Another emerging problem in ministry in the Diocese seems to be an increase in various questionable and uncritical syncretistical practices. Examples include the Melanesian Brothers' blessing of piles of stones to protect villages from evil influences, persons' revealing through dreams and visions those causing sickness through sorcery, cargo-cult-like movements involving stones and walking sticks, neo-Israelite movements of discovering the ancient sites of the Lost Tribe of Israel in the Malaita bush, inappropriate aenimoni payments to control God's grace, "sucking out" of evil ancestral blood, special holy water combinations including special ingredients such as kerosenethe list goes on. Unfortunately, some clergy and Melanesian Brothers seem to be involved in a lot of these activities. Generally I am quite open to the integration of Christianity and Melanesian culture (and syncretism generally) but some of these practices seem to go well over the line. They are dividing communities and causing people to relapse into magic and superstition. Unfortunately, many people seem to need these magical rites and visions and are unable to trust simply in God's loving grace.

See Also

Cargo Cults; Mana; Tikopia Religion.


There are six detailed accounts of religions in the Solomons: besides Raymond Firth's masterful studies of Tikopia culture and religion, Charles E. Fox, The Threshold of the Pacific: An Account of the Social Organization, Magic and Religion of the People of San Cristoval in the Solomon Islands (London, 1924), Richard E. Feinberg's Anuta: Social Structure of a Polynesian Island (Laie, Hawai'i, 1981), Torben Monberg's The Concepts of Supernaturals, part 1 of The Religion of Bellona Island (Copenhagen, 1966), Roger Keesing's Kwaio Religion: The Living and the Dead in a Solomon Island Society (New York, 1982), Ben Burt's comprehensive survey of both traditional and Christianized Kwara'ae (Malaita), Tradition and Christianity: The Colonial Transformation of a Solomon Island Society (Harwood Academic Publishers, 1993), and Denis Monnerie, Nitu. Les Vivants, les morts et le cosmos selon la société de Mono-Alu (Iles Salomon) (Leyde, 1996), a monograph on the northwest Solomons based on G. C Wheeler's Mono-Alu Folklore (London, 1926) and on an unfinished and unpublished manuscript by the latter.

Briefer modern accounts of the Solomon islands religions are given in Ian Hogbin's Experiments in Civilization (London, 1939); Guadalcanal Society: The Kaoka Speakers (New York, 1964); and "Mana," Oceania 6 (1936): 241274; Douglas L. Oliver's Solomon Islands Society (Cambridge, Mass., 1955); Harold Scheffler's Choiseul Island Social Structure (Berkeley, 1965); Pierre Maranda and Elli Köngäs Maranda, "Le Crâne et l'utérus: Deux Théorèmes nord-malaïtains," in Echanges et communications, vol. 2, edited by J. Pouillon and Pierre Maranda. pp. 829861 (Paris and The Hague, 1970); Matthew Cooper's "Langalanga Religion," Oceania 43 (1972): 113122; Harold M. Ross's Baegu: Social and Ecological Organization in Malaita, Solomon Islands (Urbana, Ill., 1973); Pierre Maranda, "Mapping Historical Transformation Through the Canonical Formula: The Pagan vs. Christian Ontological Status of Women in Malaita, Solomon Islands," in The Double Twist: From Ethnography to Morphodynamics, edited by P. Maranda, pp. 97120 (Toronto, 2001) and his "Mythe, métaphore, métamorphose et marchés: l'igname chez les Lau de Malaita, îles Salomon," Journal de la Société des Océanistes 114115 (2002): 91114. Illustrative of earlier work is A. M. Hocart's "The Cult of the Dead in Eddystone of the Solomons," Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland 52 (1922): 71112.

Solomon Islands theologian Esau Tuza gives an account of his ancestral religion in "Spirits and Powers in Melanesia," in Powers, Plumes and Piglets: Phenomena of Melanesian Religion, edited by N. Habel (Bedford, Australia, 1979). A reinterpretation of mana (see E. S. Craighill Handy Polynesian Religion (Honolulu, Bernice P. Bishop Museum Bulletin 34, 1927) is given in Keesing's "Rethinking Mana," Journal of Anthropological Research 40 (Spring 1984): 137156. Anticolonialist cultism is treated in the following of his articles: "Politico-Religious Movements and Anticolonialism on Malaita: Maasina Rule in Historical Perspective," published in two parts in Oceania 48 (1978): 241261 and 49 (1978): 4673; and "Kastom and Anticolonialism on Malaita: Culture as a Political Symbol," Mankind 13 (1982): 357373.

Roger M. Keesing (1987)

Pierre Maranda (2005)

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Solomon Islands Religions

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