Project Canterbury

The Church in Melanesia

Edited by Stuart W. Artless

Sydney, N.S.W.: Melanesian Mission, [1936]

Chapter 2. Religion and the Customs of the Melanesians

By the Rev. Dr. W. Ivens

"Jesus of Nazareth . . . shall change the customs."

(Acts 6; 14.)


The religion of Melanesians is concerned with the worship of ghosts and of spirits. By "ghosts" is here meant souls of the dead, and by "spirits" those beings which are not thought of as having once been in human form.

The worship differs considerably from island to island and from group to group. The fundamental religion throughout the Islands is the worship of ghosts, and these ghosts are the disembodied souls of ancestors. In some islands this worship has been overlaid to a greater or less extent by the worship of spirits, and there is considerable evidence that these spirits represent immigrant peoples, and thus are human as are the hosts underlying such worship of spirits, there are clear traces of a previous worship of ghosts. Nowhere m Melanesia is there any idea of spirits of trees, or streams, or mountains, or winds, or storms. The Melanesian conceives of spirits as personal rather than as impersonal, as taking a shape on occasion and becoming visible. Similarly ghosts may become incarnate taking the form of sharks and fishes, or birds, or fireflies' or snakes. In the Solomon Islands there is a worship of snakes which are regarded as spirits. Several of the Solomon Islands have a worship of Sea Spirits beings connected with the bonito fishing. In the southern islands the worship of spirits is predominant, and is largely connected with the Social Clubs of the people and advancement in worldly matters and increase of wealth are ascribed to the goodwill and favour of the spirits.

In the Solomon Islands sacrifices of pigs are made to the ghosts. These sacrifices may be burnt offerings, or [17/18] the thing sacrificed may be eaten by the sacrificing priest alone, or by the priest and the offerer.

Offerings of first fruits are made in all the islands, the first fruits of the crops, or of the; almond nuts, or of the fishing.

In the Solomon Islands there are what we should call regular priests, men whose duty and privilege it is to approach those who are worshipped. But every man has the right to call on his father's ghost and on the ghosts of his ancestors, asking for their help and protection. Those who are thus called upon are "Family" ghosts, and no one ever has any truck with other people's ghosts.

After death the ghost departs to the home of the dead. The location of such homes differs in each group of islands. In some of the islands, the home of the dead is considered to be underground, in a volcano, or merely in the centre of the earth. In others it is on an island. Stories are told of people who have gone to these homes in search of their dead. Although the dead are said to depart to their own places, yet they are considered to be about and present still, and thus are objects of worship and available for whatever purposes their spiritual powers are demanded.

The methods of burial of the dead vary from island to island. Actual burial in the ground is a well established practice, but exposures on stages or in canoes is common. In several islands of the Solomons the dead are buried at sea. In one island, at least, cremation is practised. Burial or exposure of the dead may actually take place inside the dwelling house. After a certain time the skull and the larger bones are removed, and are placed in a house built for the purpose, or are encased in a reliquary.

Generally speaking, it is true to say that there is no fear of the dead, and no fear of ghosts. By this is meant that a man will not fear his own dead, and will not avoid their burial place. He will keep their skulls and bones in his house; their teeth are removed and [18/19] bored and worn round the neck. But it is true to say that he fears the dead of families other than his own, for he has no claim upon them. They are not his, and he has no right to invoke them, or to sacrifice to them. There are also other ghosts, called in places "wild ghosts," those whom nobody owns, who are not anyone's ancestors, and who may do hurt. These are definitely feared.

The propitiation of ghosts is commonly practised. In the southern islands, libations of kava are made to the ghosts, and scraps of food are put aside for them. This is not done under the idea that the ghosts are harmfully disposed, but is rather a "family" affair, done so as to include the dead in the things of life. Recourse is had to ghosts both to cause and also to remove sickness.

Invocation of ghosts is a common Melanesian practice. Ghosts are invoked for any and all purposes. In most cases the ghosts who are invoked are either "family" or "village" ghosts, or else they are ghosts of certain famous people of the place who were renowned during their life time.

Sickness is ascribed, as a rule, to the action of ghosts, and not of spirits, and recourse is had in black magic to ghosts rather than to spirits. But in some of the Solomon Islands, as will be seen below, certain spirits are credited with causing sickness, and are appealed to for malign purposes or for protection of property.

In the southern islands, where the "Social Club" holds sway, the spirits are invoked in order to gain worldly advancement in the shape of shell-money and pigs. These spirits are not malignant, not "evil spirits," and are not propitiated. They are innumerable, and are mainly unnamed. The two best known of them are Kwat and Sukwe, and the latter is associated with the "Social Clubs" which bear his name.

In the Solomon Islands there are spirits who are called "Sea Ghosts" or "Foreign Ghosts." These are chiefly associated with the ceremonies connected with the catching of the bonito fish. They are credited with [19/20] being malignant, shooting men with the garfish, which are their arrows. They are also put in charge of the canoe houses, and the lodges of the chiefs, and the gardens, to keep off thieves and marauders.

The spirits of the southern islands are generally connected with a cult of stones; offerings are made to them on certain stories, or a stone of a peculiar shape may be associated with a spirit and credited with what we should call "magical" powers over sickness or over the provision of this world's goods. In every case the spirit associated with a stone is spoken of as "the spirit at the stone," and not as "the spirit of the stone."

In certain islands of the New Hebrides, Malekula, Espiritu Santo, Ambrym, the religious practices of the people connected with the "Social Clubs," and with the cult of the dead, centre largely round the erection of stone dolmens or of monoliths. Also in the island of San Cristoval in the Solomons there is a cult of stones connected with funeral rites, dolmens being erected over the skulls of the dead. The stone cult of Melanesia is of foreign origin, and is not native.

The Melanesian and Polynesian word "mana," spiritual force or power, has been largely used by anthropologists in the past to denote a power or influence which is exercised by both ghosts and spirits, and which is mainly "supernatural." In the southern islands mana is impersonal and is associated with spirits; in the northern islands, wherever the word, or the idea, occurs, it is associated with the ghosts of the dead and is personal. Throughout the whole of Melanesia religious practices and rites are confined to men, women being excluded. (In some islands in the Solomons the word for "male" is also used to mean "holy.") The ghosts who are worshipped, whether "family" ghosts, or the ghosts of the greater dead, are all the ghosts of men and not of women. Similarly access to spirits and intercourse with them is entirely the business of the men.

Melanesian women are subject to many restrictions which spring out of this idea of "holiness," or, as one [20/21] might say, out of the idea of the ceremonial uncleanness of women. Thus fishing is prohibited to them, and the only fishing they are allowed to do is the collecting of shell-fish from the reefs. Men in the Solomon Islands ate the larger fish of the catch down on the beach, and sent only the smaller fish to their women-folk in the villages. There is a sacredness also attaching to canoes, and if women travel in them the canoes have to be "made sacred" afterwards. Certain landing-places also are forbidden to women. Women, however, are allowed to share in the offerings of first fruits.

Funeral feasts are commonly observed in Melanesia in the case of men of rank. In the southern islands these take place after a set period of time, or they may be kept up every five days after the funeral, till the hundredth. Only where food is plentiful could these recurring feasts be kept up. Such feasts are confined to the men, the women staying indoors covering themselves with mats, and having their bodies sprinkled with ashes.

Widows go to mourn at their husband's graves, starting out early in the morning, and covered with mats to hide themselves.

There is a practice of magic both malignant and non-malignant throughout Melanesia. The malignant magic is carried on through recourse to ghosts. Thus, in order to cause sickness, fragments of a person's food are accreted, or a lock of hair, the parings of finger nails, spittle, or some object which a person has touched. These are joined with certain things which are hot in themselves, e.g., ginger or lime, a charm or spell is said over them, and they are then put in some sacred place belonging to a ghost, and the victim falls ill in consequence. Ill-will and malice are confessedly at the back of all practice of witchcraft. In addition, in the southern islands, sickness is thought to be caused by a person having inadvertently profaned or lightly used places or objects belonging to a spirit.

The practice of non-malignant magic is concerned with divination, control of weather, dreams, and ordeals.

[22] Customs.

Marriage. The age of marriage varies in the different islands, but nowhere do boy and girl marriages occur. Betrothals generally take place at an early age, the girls in some cases going to live with the prospective relations-in-law. Tattooing may take place when the girl is ready to be married.

Marriages are always arranged by the parents, but a girl may show her liking for a certain boy by giving him presents of food. Presents are given on both sides when the marriage ceremony takes place. It is customary td talk of "buying" the bride; but the return presents made by her people are carefully equated in value to the presents made by the bridegroom's people. The presents given consist of shell-moneys, mats, pigs and food.

The young engaged couple are shy of one another, and as the time for marriage draws on it is correct for the youth to make little presents to his betrothed. Absolute chastity is observed between the young couples previous to marriage. It is the ordinary thing for every boy and girl to be married, and "old maids" and "bachelors" are unknown. In at least two islands, however, cases occur of perpetual virginity amongst women. A chief in these islands may devote his daughter to perpetual virginity. She is useful to him as a worker in his gardens, and he is unwilling to arrange a marriage for her. Her virginity is respected.

Divorce may take place at the will of either party, though it is naturally more easy for a man to dismiss his wife than for a woman to leave her husband. It is customary for a man to demand payment from his wife's relations if she leaves him; and if he divorces her he must make it good. Gifts of money or of pigs pass between the parties in these cases. However, it may be said that generally man and wife get on well together, and are united by their great fondness for their children.

Clubs and Secret Societies. Club houses for men are the rule in all the islands. In the Solomon Islands [22/23] the canoe houses on the beach generally serve the purposes of club houses. There is strict exclusion of women from these club houses, and no women may pass in front of them. The greater dead may be exposed for burial in them in canoes, and the skulls of important men are kept in them. Rites connected with tin; fishing take; place in or in front of the canoe houses. Men and elder boys sleep in the canoe houses, and also prepare and eat food there.

In the southern islands the club house is the chief feature of every village. These club houses are in the open, and everyone, except when new members are admitted, can see what is going on, though women are strictly excluded. It is a social, not a religious, institution. Men rise from step to step, or rather from oven to oven, in the society, as they acquire the successive degrees connected with it. To do this, money is wanted, and food, and pigs. The society is called the Sukwe, and every lad must perforce be entered, or be practically an outcast in the village. At entrance and at every successive step shell-money and/or pigs have to be paid to those who have already attained the step, and a feast more or less costly given according to the rank to be attained. The higher steps are reached only by a few, and they are taken at large festival gatherings and feasts, with songs and dances. The man or men who have acquired the highest ranks are the "great men" of the place, and correspond to "chiefs." In order to attain a higher rank a man has often to borrow money at an exorbitant interest, too per cent, or more, and may thereby be crippled for life financially. To make things worse, his heirs are still liable for the repayment should he die first.

Secret Societies, generally called by a name meaning "ghost," occur throughout the whole of Melanesia. In the southern islands and in New Britain they are very much in evidence. In the Solomon Islands they are only found in certain islands. In Florida Island of the Solomons, the main cult of the Secret Society seems to have [23/24] had a close connexion with the harvest of the canarium almond; the Lodge being on the coast.

In the southern islands, the Lodge of the Secret Society is established in some sacred place, among lofty trees, in the neighbourhood of every big village or group of villages. The path leading to it is staked with tabu marks to warn intruders. No woman or uninitiated person would dare to approach it. Members prepare and eat their food in it. No hidden knowledge is conveyed to the members, and the only thing learned is how to make the hat and dance the dance peculiar to the Society. Fees are paid on admission to the Secret Societies, and at every stage of advance in it.

At certain times the members of the society make a tour of the village or villages. They all wear masks, and their bodies are hidden with golden brown cloaks of sago palm leaves. They exercise a certain amount of tyranny, frightening women and children, and beating any bovs or men who are uninitiated. They may rob gardens, strip fruit trees, and carry off whatever they want. Women prepare food for them, and hand it out through the door, averting the eyes, for the cloaked figures are supposed to be ghosts. At times they emerge and dance in public for the edification of the crowd. A good deal of hardship is entailed for the novices. They have to remain in seclusion for a lengthy period, they cannot wash, and they undergo a certain amount of rough usage at the hands of the initiated. They also have to fast.

Lime eating and Kava drinking. From India eastward to the Solomon Islands there is a practice of eating lime along with betel pepper and the areca nut. By a misnomer this is called "eating betel nut," but the betel is a pepper, the leaf or catkins or the stem being eaten. The lime used is burnt from the fingers of the branching coral. It is usually kept in a bamboo case or in a gourd, and is conveyed to the mouth by a stick which is kept in the container. The practice proceeds no farther [24/25] eastward than the islands of the Solomon Islands Protectorate, including the Santa Cruz group.

The mixture is eaten regularly after or even between meals. Its effect when first eaten is to cause a slight giddiness. Children eat the mixture, leaving out the lime. The practice is an introduced one, for the native names for the areca nut and lime are found also in the Indonesian islands.

Kava is drunk in the southern islands, and in Fiji. The drink is prepared by pounding or chewing the root of the piper methysticum (commonly known as "kava"), and making an infusion. When the fibres are separated, a little water is taken into the mouth to assist in squeezing out the saliva; water is added again in a coconut shell cup, and the fibres being removed and well squeezed over the cup, the potion is ready. In time the cups used become coated with a bright blue enamel. Excessive drinking of kava makes a man listless and stupid. The use of it is confined to men. Before drinking the kava, a libation is made to the dead.

Fasting. Candidates for new steps in the Social Club fasted while preparing for their advancement. In the southern islands fasting is considered to add virtue to magical preparations. In the Solomon Islands, the priest in charge of the rites in connexion with the opening ceremonies of the bonito fishing goes to his duties fasting. Workmen building a relic house fast till nightfall. The same thing obtains at the planting of the yam gardens, and if the work is not completed in one day, no food must be eaten till all is finished. In general, in the Solomon Islands those who carry out the sacred rites abstain from food till the ceremonies are over.

Abstinence from certain common articles of food is practised in the Solomon Islands. Thus parents will abstain from eating yams or certain fish on the death of a loved child, or a woman will no longer cat the betel mixture after the death of her husband. These abstentions may persist till death.

Cannibalism. It is commonly supposed that all [25/26] Melanesians were cannibals. Cannibalism was certainly rife in Fiji, and cases are recorded there of girls being sold in the market as the relish for the vegetables on sale. But in the Banks' Islands and Santa Cruz there was no cannibalism. The practice was held in abhorrence in the island of Ulawa in the Solomons, and also generally by the coastal people of Mala. The natives of the interior of the large islands in the Solomons are credited by their neighbours on the coast with being cannibals, but cases of cannibalism were infrequent, except perhaps in the island of San Cristoval, where the bodies of men killed in fight were sold for food. So far as the island of Mala is concerned, there is no doubt that the eating of human flesh is caused by the lack of flesh food, and the term used for cannibalism, viz., "hunger for a relish," proves this. As a rule where people can get fish, cannibalism is not practised. The New Hebrides islanders appear to have been cannibals; but probably certain islands there also were free from cannibalism.

Head-hunting. Head-hunting in Melanesia was confined to the islands of Santa Ysabel and Savo, in the southern Solomon Islands, and to New Georgia in the west. Occasionally canoes from Savo and northern Guadalcanal went on head-hunting raids. The practice reached Santa Isabel from New Georgia, and probably its introduction to the Solomon Islands is of a fairly recent date.

Heads were taken in the raids, and these were hung up in front of the canoe houses, or were piled up in heaps down by the beach. Boys and women were captured and taken away as slaves. Special canoes were made for head-hunting, beautiful craft, inlaid with pieces of the pearl nautilus, and with a carved human head tied just above the water mark on the prow'. The stems and sterns towered high in the air. Occasions for headhunting were the building of a new canoe house, or the death of a chief. The British Government has put down head-hunting in the Solomon Islands, and the only specimen left of a head-hunting canoe is now in the museum in Melbourne, Australia.

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