Melanesia, an area in the southwest Pacific Ocean, consists of thousands of islands and a remarkable variety of cultures. These individual cultures possess different mythologies and deities. The main island groups of the region are New Guinea, New Caledonia, Vanuatu (formerly New Hebrides), New Britain, the Solomon Islands, the Admiralty Islands, the Trobriand Islands, and the Fiji Islands.
Foundations of Religion and Myth
No single religion or mythology unifies Melanesia. Each island or community has its own distinct beliefs and its own collection of legends and mythological beings. Nevertheless, the mythologies of Melanesia do share certain basic elements and themes. For example, the names of the characters and the details of their stories differ from island to island, but the activities in which they are involved often have much in common.
deity god or goddess
supernatural related to forces beyond the normal world; magical or miraculous
Supernatural Spirits and Forces. Supernatural beings, including ancestral spirits and spirits of nonhuman origin, play an important role in the lives of Melanesians. The islanders believe that ancestral spirits continue to influence the way people act in everyday life. Ancestor worship is a significant part of their religion.
Summoned through prayer and ritual, supernatural beings and forces can be controlled to a large extent by the use of magic, which is central to Melanesian religion. The presence and activities of ancestral spirits are revealed in dreams and by divination. Evidence of their effect on human society can be seen in the health, well-being, and prosperity of the people.
Music plays a key role in Melanesian religious rituals. Throughout the islands the sounds of instruments such as drums and reed flutes are thought to be the voices of spirits and other supernatural beings. Today the use of instruments is usually restricted to men, but some myths tell how they originally belonged to women until men stole them or obtained them through trickery.
Closely related to the belief in spirits is the concept of mana, a supernatural power independent of any spirits or beings, yet linked to them. A characteristic of persons and objects as well as of spirits, mana can be either helpful or harmful. Anything uncommon or out of the ordinary—such as a weapon that has killed many animals or a great hero who defeats many foes—is said to possess mana.
Cargo Cults. A distinctive feature of many Melanesian cultures is the cargo cult, a religious movement created in response to European influence during colonial times. Cargo cults helped Melanesians explain the role of Europeans in the universe. When Europeans first arrived, the Melanesians were impressed by the huge amounts of material goods, or "cargo," they brought with them. The islanders believed that the Europeans must have acquired such wealth through strong magic, and they gradually developed cargo cults in an effort to gain knowledge of this magic for themselves. Religious in nature, cargo cults also had a political side, and they stressed resistance to foreign domination of their societies.
Members of the cargo cults believed that one day an ancestral spirit, tribal god, or culture hero would bring cargo to the people, leading to an age of prosperity, justice, and independence from foreign powers. To prepare for this day, the cults built structures representing docks for boats, runways for planes, and shelters for storing the cargo when it arrived. Such activities disrupted traditional economic practices and caused drastic changes in some parts of Melanesian society. Colonial authorities feared such changes and tried to put an end to the cults, but with little success.
Major Gods and Characters
Melanesian mythology has neither a supreme deity nor a distinct hierarchy of gods and goddesses. Instead, each cultural group possesses its own supernatural spirits, culture heroes, tricksters, and other beings that appear in local myths and stories.
Birth of the Sea
Many Melanesian myths explain the creation of the sea, an important feature in the lives of island peoples. A myth from Dobu Island in New Guinea says that when the sea was released, all the beautiful women were swept to the Trobriand Islands and the ugly women were carried inland on Dobu. People in southern Vanuatu have a myth in which a woman became angry with her son because he disobeyed her. In her fury she knocked down a wall that surrounded the water of the sea. The water broke free, scattering people and coconuts to other islands.
ritual ceremony that follows a set pattern
divination act or practice of foretelling the future
cult group bound together by devotion to a particular person, belief, or god culture hero mythical figure who gives people the tools of civilization, such as language and fire
hierarchy organization of a group into higher and lower levels trickster mischievous figure appearing in various forms in the folktales and mythology of many different peoples
Creator Gods and Heroes. Most cultural groups have creation myths that explain or describe the origin of the world. Melanesians, however, believe that the world has always existed, so they have few stories about creation. Yet various figures do play roles in changing parts of the world and in the formation of islands and features of the landscape.
On the Banks Islands of Vanuatu, the first being in the world was Qat, a creator god and hero who fashioned islands and covered them with trees, animals, and plants. Qat also made humans by carving dolls from wood and then dancing and singing them into life. Then he created day and night so that people could work and then sleep.
In the islands of Vanuatu and New Britain, a creator god made twin brothers, To-Kabinana and To-Karvuvu, by sprinkling the ground with his own blood. To-Kabinana became a creator hero who produced many good things, while To-Karvuvu was responsible for the evil and troubles in the world. In Papua New Guinea, the sky god Kambel made people and the moon. He also created the clouds, which pushed up the sky and separated it from the earth.
Tricksters and Other Spirits. According to the Kiwai people of New Guinea, the trickster Sido could change his skin like a snake. He was killed by a powerful magician and then wandered the world seducing women and children. After losing his human wife, Sido transformed himself into a gigantic pig. Finally, he split himself open so that the pig's backbone and sides formed the house of death, the place where people go when they die.
Another mythological figure of New Guinea is Dudugera, known as the "leg child" because he sprang from a cut in his mother's leg. The people of his village mocked and bullied Dudugera, who one day told his mother to hide under a rock because he was going to become the sun. Dudugera soared into the sky and shot fire spears, which burned vegetation and killed many living things. To stop Dudugera from destroying everything, his mother threw mud or lime juice at his face, and it turned into clouds that hid the sun.
Marawa, the spider, is a friend of Qat. When Qat created humans Marawa tried to do the same, but his wooden figures turned into rotting corpses. That is how death came into the world. Tagaro, a trickster of Vanuatu, destroyed his evil brother Meragubutto by persuading him to enter a burning house to gain more magic and thus increase his power.
The mythologies of Melanesia include many spirits associated with nature and animals. The Adaro are sun spirits, part fish and part human, who use rainbows as bridges and come to earth during sun showers. The Bariaus are shy spirits that live in old tree trunks. The Kiwai of Papua New Guinea say that they are descended from Nuga, a half-human, half-crocodile creature created long ago from a piece of wood.
Major Themes and Myths
Throughout Melanesia some common mythological themes and characters appear. Many myths deal with two fundamental issues: where people came from and what happens after death. Certain characters—such as snakes, monsters, and twins—can be found in legends from numerous islands.
Myths of Origin. Melanesians have several basic stories about how the first humans appeared. In some places these beings descended from the sky. The Ayom people of Papua New Guinea, for example, say that Tumbrenjak climbed down to earth on a rope to hunt and fish. When he tried to return to the sky, he found the rope cut. His wife threw down fruits and vegetables, including cucumbers that became women. The offspring of Tumbrenjak and these women became the ancestors of different cultural groups.
In other places, the first beings came from the sea or emerged from underground. Among the Trobriand islanders, the ancestors of each clan emerged from a particular spot in a grove of trees, or from a piece of coral or a rock. The Keraki of Papua New Guinea believe that the first humans emerged from a tree, while others say that they came from clay or sand, blood, or pieces of wood.
Snakes, Monsters, and Twins. Snakes appear in the myths of many Melanesian peoples as a symbol of fertility and power. In some myths they are said to control rain; in others, animals and humans emerge from their slaughtered bodies. Some snake-beings wander from place to place giving gifts to humans and teaching them how to grow crops or perform magic. The Arapesh of New Guinea believe that spirits called marsalai live in rocks and pools and sometimes take the form of snakes or lizards. The marsalai shaped different parts of the landscape and then became guardians of their territory.
Many Melanesian peoples believe in monstrous ogres that eat people. An ogre killer becomes a hero by slaying these monsters. Ogre killers often perform other great feats as well. According to a myth from Vanuatu, a terrible ogre killed everyone except a woman who hid under a tree. The woman gave birth to twin sons who destroyed the ogre and cut it into pieces, an act that enabled the people who had been eaten by the ogre to come to life again. The people reestablished their society and began to follow new rules of behavior.
Magic is an important aspect of the mythology and religion of Melanesia. According to a myth from the Trobriand Islands, a hero named Tudava taught the people various forms of magic, such as the secret knowledge needed to make plants grow abundantly in a garden. People use magical formulas to manipulate spirits, and most sacred rituals involve magic along with prayer and sacrifice. During ce remonies participants wear or carry carved wooden images of spirits said to contain the spirits' power.
clan group of people descended from a common ancestor or united by a common interest
ogre hideous monster
Twin brothers appear as central characters in many other Melanesian myths. These pairs often include one wise and one foolish brother, such as To-Kabinana and To-Karvuvu. Myths about twins may also represent the presence of both helpful and harmful forces in nature, such as nourishing rains and violent storms.
Afterlife. People throughout Melanesia generally believe in an afterlife. Among the Kiwai of Papua New Guinea, the land of the dead is known as Adiri; in Vanuatu one of its names is Banoi. The god of the dead also has various names; in parts of New Guinea he is called Tumudurere.
In Vanuatu people say that humans have two souls—one goes to an afterlife while the other takes the form of an animal, plant, or object. The route taken by souls to the land of the dead is often well defined. The people of the Fiji Islands believe that this path is dangerous and only the greatest warriors can complete the journey. In other places, the success of the journey depends on whether the proper funeral rites have been carried out.
Souls that go to the afterlife often visit the land of the living as ghosts by taking on human or animal form. Ghosts sometimes help the living, but they can also frighten them and interfere with certain activities. Some places have special types of ghosts, such as beheaded men with wounds that glow in the dark or the ghosts of unborn children.
Legacy of Melanesian Mythology. In some areas of Melanesia, mythology remains a powerful force in society, particularly where traditional religious systems and cult practices have been left relatively undisturbed. In other areas, traditional beliefs have been modified, usually as a result of modernization or the introduction of Christianity. Yet even where change has occurred, mythology continues to play an important role. It has helped Melanesians make sense of the changes in their society and in their relationship to the broader world by providing ways of understanding and interpreting events.
See also Afterlife; Animals in Mythology; Creation Stories; Micronesian Mythology; Polynesian Mythology; Twins.