Tikopia Religion

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TIKOPIA RELIGION . Tikopia is a small island, three miles long and a mile and a half wide. It is part of the political grouping of the Solomon Islands, a thousand-mile chain of islands in the Pacific Ocean. It is also the peak of an old volcano, now largely sunk beneath the sea, and the original vent of the mountain has become a small brackish lake. To the northeast of the island the sacred mountain Reani rises; to the southwest are flat swamplands. The population of around fourteen hundred lives mainly around the western and southern coast of the island. Another six hundred Tikopia have migrated either temporarily or permanently to other parts of the Solomons. Whereas the island is theoretically controlled by the central government of the Solomon Islands, its distance from the seat of government and its general isolation have meant a degree of autonomy in retaining traditional practices and beliefs. The effect of this isolation on its religious practices will be discussed below.

While the majority of islands in the Solomons are peopled by Melanesians, Tikopia is a Polynesian outlier. That is, while it lies outside the true Polynesian triangle in the Pacific Ocean, it shares genetic, linguistic, and cultural traits with Polynesian islands such as Samoa, Tonga, and with the Maori of New Zealand. The major religious beliefs and practices of traditional (i.e., precontact) Polynesia were similar. Traditional Polynesians believed humans had an invisible counterpart or soul that continued its existence after death in an afterworld variously located in the sky or the sea and often composed of a series of heavens. They believed in an analogous life principle in animals and plants. They worshiped gods (atua) who had never been human as well as important human ancestors now also regarded as atua. Some of these gods could be regarded as departmental deities having responsibility for the sky, the sea, the land, and warfare as well as for elements, like the wind. The atua generally were beneficent, but there were also spirit entities that could cause harm.

Traditional Polynesian religion used abstract thought and symbolism. Offerings of food to the gods were made in the belief that the immaterial substance of the food was consumed by the gods but that the actual food could later be eaten by human participants in the rituals. Equally the material symbols of gods and ancestors (statues, significant rocks and trees) were seen as representations or memorials and not actual figurations with specific powers.

Existing knowledge of traditional Polynesian religion is, on the whole, fragmentary and often mediated through the records of missionaries whose duty it was to extirpate these pagan beliefs. Complete conversion of most of Polynesia to Christianity had taken place by the middle of the 1800s. However, Tikopia's isolation and small size made it difficult to find in the early days of Pacific exploration and not worth the effort of exploiting commercially for forced labor or land. This meant that when Raymond Firth carried out his first period of anthropological fieldwork in 19281929, the traditional religion was still practiced by three out of the four chiefs and by half the population. Therefore an excellent ethnographic record exists of the traditional ritual cycle, which was referred to as the "Work of the Gods." This summary of traditional Tikopia religious beliefs comes from Firth's extensive writings.

The island is traditionally controlled by four ariki (chiefs), heads of patrilineages believed, according to origin myths, to have begun with the birth of four male children to the Atua Fafine (premier female god) and the Atua Lasi (great god). The birth order of the children is reflected in the ranking of the chiefs, and their divine antecedents meant that the chiefs traditionally were regarded as sacred (tapu). The body of the chief, and especially his head, is still regarded as tapu because of his mana or inherent mystical power. In this hierarchically ranked society, maru or ritual elders are next below the chiefs. They are men who come from junior chiefly lines. They originally had roles with the ariki in the traditional religion, and they still have a political function on the island. Commoners, or tauarofa, make up the bulk of the population. Descent is traced patrilineally, and women take no roles in either the politics or the religious practices of the island, although this is changing among those who have left the home island.

Tikopia Concepts and Ritual

Tikopia religion traditionally rested upon a belief that a set of spiritual beings (atua) controlled the fertility of nature and the health and well-being of the people. These atua comprised the spirits of dead chiefs and their ritual elders and a number of major gods, most notably the eponymous gods of each clan: the Atua i Kafika, Atua i Tafua, Atua i Taumako, and Atua i Fangarere. The Kafika clan is the senior of the four, and most significant in the Tikopia pantheon was the Atua i Kafika. An elision may have occurred here: the original four brothers were the children of true deities and were themselves deities, but the Atua i Kafika, as he is conceptualized now, was believed to have lived as a mortal man, a chief and a culture hero, responsible for many Tikopian traditional institutions. Killed by an opponent in a struggle for land, he abjured retaliation as he lay dying, and thus morally elevated, he succeeded to the highest position among the gods.

A few female deities were usually highly dangerous to humans: Nau Fiora was preeminent in this group and was believed to have the power to steal the souls of children, thereby killing them. Other female spirits, not deities but also never human, existed in various parts of the island and were sometimes seen benignly leading their spirit children to the sea. However, more dangerous ones existed in the bush and were capable of seducing and killing men. Ideas about gender in the temporal world, where women were conceptualized as powerless but having the potential to be dangerous, were reflected in the spirit world. There were also some other potentially dangerous entities with human origins, such as the spirits of children, either stillborn or miscarried. A child that died before recognizing his or her parents, that is, up to about the age of six weeks after birth, also came into this category, as did occasionally the spirits of young males who had died in accidents. While these spirits could perform mischievous actions by themselves, they were also the ones that often manifested themselves through spirit mediums.

The major gods of the pantheon had several personal names or titles that were held as secret information by the religious leaders, and it was through the ritual invocation of the name that the god could be stimulated to listen to and grant the requests of his worshipers. The deities were on the whole "owned" by different clans and lineages, and although there was some overlap in their attribution, each spirit had a primary social affiliation.

Unlike some of the larger Polynesian groups, the Tikopia had no separate category of priests whose main function was ritual performance. The four chiefs themselves, and their ritual elders, communicated with the gods and ancestor spirits with prayers, invocations, and offerings on behalf of their people. They also performed secular social roles as heads or administrative officers of lineages overseeing clan lands, canoes, and other property. The four ariki were the main priests, and each had a primary responsibility for certain crops and elements. The Ariki Kafika had prime responsibility for the success of the yam crop and for the welfare of the island generally. The Ariki Tafua was responsible for the coconut, and he looked out, away from the island, to matters concerning outsiders. The Ariki Taumako was responsible for the taro and for things to do with the sea, while the Ariki Fangarere looked after the breadfruit. This latter chief, for reasons described in the origin story of the birth of the four males, was also connected with disasters like cyclones and drought.

On the whole, commoners were merely supporters in the rituals, providing food and mats and, on some but not all occasions, an audience. However, there were some men (and a few women who had usually passed menopause) who had the potential to go into trance. These mediums were called vaka atua (spirit vessels). Their function was more informal and usually involved healing by communicating with some spirit that may have caused sickness. Spirits could also speak through the mediums to express concern at social and interpersonal derelictions. Where the chiefs and ritual elders performed rituals for the larger groups of clan and lineage, the mediums tended to cater to the concerns of families with whom they were connected.

The basic traditional Tikopia religious rite was the presentation of kava to the gods. Kava is the root of Piper methysticum that is macerated by pounding or chewing and mixed with water. In modern Tonga, Samoa, and Fiji, kava is prepared and drunk in ceremonies and on social occasions, but traditionally it had a religious function. In Tikopia the kava liquid was hardly drunk at all: it was offered to the gods as a libation poured on to the ground to the accompaniment of prayers for welfare. To perform a kava rite, a chief or elder assumed ritual purity by bathing, and he then donned a special waist cloth and a leaf necklet as a sign of formal religious dedication and set out offerings of bark cloth and food that, with the libations, served as a channel for invoking the spirits. The language used was highly symbolic and honorific; the chief adopted a tone of great humility, pleading poverty and signifying abasement before a god. Using conventional and ritual terms, the chief beseeched the gods to excrete on the earth, the gods' excrement being seen symbolically as all the goods things of the land and the sea.

The Work of the Gods

A notable feature of Tikopia traditional religion was a collective set of seasonal rites that involved elaborate organization of the community and the assembly of large supplies of food. The title Work of the Gods used by the Tikopia to refer to these rituals represented the amount of energy that was required from the people in performing them.

The basic theme of the Work of the Gods was the periodic resacralization of some of the most important elements of Tikopia culture. Under religious auspices, canoes and temples were repaired and rededicated, yams were harvested and replanted, and a red pigment was extracted from turmeric rhizomes and preserved for ritual use. (The turmeric ceremony, nuanga, is one of the few elements of traditional ritual to survive the island's conversion to Christianity and will be described below.) Ceremonies were performed for the welfare of the crops and fishing. However, these rituals not only dealt with the technological and economic affairs of the island, they also included a sternly moral public address, under conditions of great sanctity, instructing the people on proper behavior as members of Tikopia society. This included injunctions about birth control, an essential matter on a small island far distant from the next piece of land.

The period ended with ritual dancing in which formal mimetic displays and chanting of archaic songs were succeeded by freer performances by firelight at night in which men and women could indulge in often ribald reference to sexual matters, although still in a highly controlled setting. This aspect of the festival, partly cathartic in nature, was thought to seek the gods' approval of human recreation. Most of the rituals of the Work of the Gods were carried out on marae, ceremonial assembly spaces, often outside temples or large meetinghouses.

The Work of the Gods comprised a two-part cycle. It was not strictly calendrical but recognized the two major seasonal alternations: the trade wind period that went from April to October and the monsoon season of sometimes savage cyclones and rain from November to March. The timing of each cycle was based on natural observations, such as the appearance of constellations, especially the Pleiades, the migration of birds, and, for the beginning of the turmeric making, the flowering of the bright red coral tree (Erithrina sp.). Each ritual lasted about thirty days and was elaborately organized with much mobilization and exchange of food supplies, drawing the whole community into a vast network of social and economic relationships. Two clear functions of the whole series of religious performances seemed to be to provide occasion for the expression of personal and role status, especially of the chiefs, and to demonstrate communal solidarity.

The Work of the Gods had a special quality of sanctity through traditional authority. No particular myth was told by the Tikopia people to account for the genesis of the ritual cycle. They merely described it as having been instituted by the Atua i Kafika, and the performances of the rituals were regarded as a continuation and replication of the practices the deity had initiated. Therefore every effort was made to see that they were repeated in accurate detail, which required the careful passing on of the rituals from one generation to the next. The cycle began with the burning of a fire stick, and until the ceremony was completed, there was a ban on noise and much secular activity. Each ritual cycle concluded with the lifting of the taboo in a ceremony known as "freeing the land" that was emphasized by deliberate loud noise in contrast to the previous peace. Children ran about shrieking, and men whooped and yelled from the hills as they went about their daily work, making hollow booms by beating the buttresses of giant Tahitian chestnut tree trunks. A detailed description of the rituals is in Firth's The Work of the Gods in Tikopia (1940/1967).

Conversion to Christianity

Tikopia's relative isolation, as mentioned above, protected the small island from early intrusions by colonizers, traders, and missionaries (who initially contacted the Tikopia in 1858), but the Tikopia themselves discouraged outsiders from settling on their island. This kept missionaries at bay until 1907. Where much of the rest of both Polynesia and Melanesia was missionized by Europeans, Tikopia's first resident missionary was a man from the Banks Islands, a Melanesian. This probably muted to some degree the impact of a new religion. Where the technological superiority (including guns) of Europeans in other parts of the Pacific led to some fairly rapid conversions, in Tikopia the first missionary was not white and not particularly well equipped. The Tikopia gave him a Tikopian name, Pa Pangisi (after Banks), and married him to a Tikopian woman. He spent his whole life with the Tikopia, and his sons underwent the manhood ceremonies of all Tikopia boys.

Pa Pangisi was a missionary for the Melanesian Mission, the Anglican Church in Melanesia. He settled on the leeward side of the island, where one of the four chiefs lived, the Ariki Tafua. This chief converted to Christianity, and a number of commoners belonging to his clan followed him. Pa Pangisi instituted some changes to traditional practices: he discouraged the young men from growing their hair long and joining in the pagan dances. He also insisted on marriage between young people who were in sexual relationships. In this matter, his interpretation, through a Christian lens, of sex outside of marriage failed to take into account the pragmatic Tikopia thinking underlying human relationships. On a small island the necessity to control the population had been recognized in the exhortations of the Work of the Gods. To this end only the eldest son was allowed to marry, "marriage" involving the production of children. Younger sons were allowed to have sexual affairs, but they could not produce offspring, something ensured through abortion or infanticide. Pa Pangisi's insistence on marriage for all sexually active couples led to a population explosion. In about thirty years the population increased 50 percent and led to deaths after a cyclone, when the island's carrying and recuperative capacity was overextended.

The Work of the Gods had also involved the participation of most of the population in the rituals. By 1955 only one of the chiefs, Tafua, had become Christian, but many commoners had converted and were therefore prohibited from joining in the rites of the old beliefs. This meant that the remaining three pagan chiefs did not have sufficient material and human support to carry out the rituals in a manner they thought appropriate. The unity of the people for the good of the land was central to Tikopia belief, and the pagan chiefs, always pragmatists, met and decided that for the good of the land they should convert to Christianity. There are two accounts of the decision to convert.

The first comes from the ethnographic records of Firth and James Spillius, who carried out fieldwork in Tikopia in 1952 and 1953. They recorded that one chief was baptized by Pa Pangisi, who had married into this chief's family, but the other two chiefs insisted that their reception into the Church of Melanesia should be performed by the bishop. A radio message was therefore sent to Honiara asking the bishop to come to Tikopia, and the mission ship, the Southern Cross, set out. The two remaining chiefs and nearly all of their clans were thereupon baptized as Anglicans. Only one old woman refused, saying that her husband had died a pagan and she would too. The degree to which there was a deeply felt doctrinal understanding is unknown, although it has been noted that the Ariki Taumako did not intellectually reject his old gods; he just decided not to worship them any longer. Nonetheless the old temples were left to decay, the ritual adzes were destroyed or buried, and new church buildings were constructed in the centers of several villages. The chiefs no longer led the rituals; they were simply members of the congregation. The first priest was the Melanesian Pa Pangisi, but the Tikopia quickly arranged for the education of some of their men as Anglican priests or brothers of the Franciscan order. Priests and catechists in Tikopia have since been largely Tikopian.

The second story of the island's final conversion is consistent with a society taking control of its own history and rewriting it to some degree. This version, recorded in 1980, suggests that, rather than the historical accident of being missionized by Anglicans, a deliberate choice was made. In this version the chiefs looked at all the religions then practiced in the Solomon Islands. They rejected Roman Catholicism on the grounds that the prohibition on priests marrying was an unnatural practice. They rejected Seventh-day Adventism, to which the people of two other Polynesian outliers in the Solomons (Rennell and Bellona) had converted, on the grounds that the dietary restrictions of this religion were unrealistic. The chiefs considered, it was said, that Anglicans were the least trouble and that the island would therefore become Anglican.

With one priest on the island but several churches, the priest moved around the various parishes, named by Anglican tradition after saints. Catechists or senior men of rank could conduct prayer services in the other churches in the priest's absence. The mission ship came once a year for the confirmation of the young, and the priest and other church functionaries were taken off the island once a year for synod. Various parts of the order of service and some gospels were translated into the Tikopia language, and the communion service was always conducted in the local language. However, accretions that were purely Tikopian crept into the religious practice. Women, allowed no voice in political, economic, or even domestic matters in Tikopia, were not allowed a role in the church, and women's groups like Mothers' Union were actively discouraged. Menstruating women, excluded from traditional rituals and even from dances, were technically prohibited from attending church in that state, something that was seen more as a relief than an exclusion.

The earlier priests were more doctrinally rigid, and ceremonies associated with the Work of the Gods were specifically prohibited. However, by 1980 the turmeric-making ceremony was reinstated. Turmeric is the culinary spice made from the rhizomes of a lilylike plant. The yellow lees from the process are used in food, but the bright orange part of the spice is mixed with coconut oil to make a body and cloth paint. Turmeric was used to mark the body in every life passage ceremony, as well as in the decoration of dancers and their bark-cloth skirts or loincloths. Referred to as "the perfume of the [old] gods," it was traditionally believed to draw the kindly attention of the gods to whatever activity was in progress. During the time it had not been made on the island, turmeric, judged inferior but necessary, was imported from another island. The making of the turmeric in Tikopia involved ritual withdrawal from everyday life and a series of elaborate taboos and restrictions to be followed over the two to three weeks the process took. Once again chiefs or their ritual elders took up their traditional roles in directing the process.

In 1980 the oldest of the four chiefs, the Ariki Taumako, was still alive and was the only one who had taken part in the traditional rituals. His ritual paraphernalia was kept in a small house, which he referred to as a "museum," behind his main dwelling place, and he regularly threw a small offering of food toward the museum. He still remembered and used his invocations to the gods of the sea, who had been the responsibility of his clan when people were to take the interisland ship away from Tikopia. However, he has subsequently died, and two or three generations have passed since the forebears of the present chiefs practiced the old rituals. Their memory exists only in Firth's record.

The interventions by the first missionary in Tikopian birth-control measures resulted in an increase in the population that was unsustainable for the island. From the late 1960s on, people left the island for other parts of the Solomons, forming permanent settlements first in the Russell Islands, later on Makira, and increasingly in the capital of the Solomon Islands, Honiara. There, Tikopia men sometimes married Melanesian women whose exposure to Christianity and practices inclusive of women differed from the Tikopia experience. In the Tikopia village of Nukukaisi on Makira, an in-marrying Melanesian woman became president of the Mothers' Union for the top half of the island. Some Tikopia women (mainly those related to this woman's husband) joined and took responsibility for matters like church linen, something that was not used in Tikopia itself because no money economy existed there. Meanwhile, Tikopia in Honiara have been exposed to a variety of sects, and young men especially have been attracted to religions that provide youth activities such as dances. While Anglicanism remains virtually the only religion on the home island, Tikopia in other parts of the Solomons have begun to espouse other religions, including Jehovah's Witnesses and Mormonism, whereas others have ceased religious observances.

See Also



Firth, Raymond. We, the Tikopia. London, 1936.

Firth, Raymond. The Work of the Gods in Tikopia. London, 1940; 2d ed. London, 1967.

Firth, Raymond. The Fate of the Soul: An Interpretation of Some Primitive Concepts. Cambridge, U.K., 1955.

Firth, Raymond. History and Traditions of Tikopia. Memoirs of the Polynesian Society no. 33. Wellington, New Zealand, 1961.

Firth, Raymond. Tikopia Ritual and Belief. Boston, 1967.

Firth, Raymond. Rank and Religion in Tikopia. Boston, 1970.

Firth, Raymond, and James Spillius. Study in Ritual Modification: The Work of the Gods in Tikopia in 1929 and 1952. Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland Occasional Paper no. 19. London, 1963.

Macdonald, Judith. "The Tikopia and 'What Raymond Said.'" In Ethnographic Artifacts: Challenges to a Reflexive Anthropology, edited by Sjoerd R. Jaarsma and Marta A. Rohatynskyj, pp. 107123. Honolulu, 2000.

Raymond Firth (1987)

Judith Macdonald (2005)