Project Canterbury


By C.E. Fox

From Southern Cross Log, New Series, No. 16, Auckland, January 1, 1927, pp. 25-27.

Transcribed by the Right Reverend Dr. Terry Brown
Retired Bishop of Malaita, 2012

[25] Mana

When we were children we thought of magic as something splendid and strange. The owner of a cap could put it on and become invisible, because it was a magic cap. In an enchanted castle anything might happen, because the castle was full of magic. A lantern was called a magic lantern if, instead of lighting up the wall like an ordinary lantern, it brought to light the beautiful pictures otherwise hidden there. Of course, there was good magic and bad magic, white magic and black magic, false magic and real magic, but the world was full of magic. Then we grew up and magic lost this meaning, and came to mean either fraud or superstition, and Sir James Fraser may have persuaded us that it was even earlier than religion, the beginning of the cold, clear light of science, and that the savage really thought he could cause a storm at sea by making one in a shell, on a small scale; magic and religion had nothing in common; and to say that we supposed there was magic in the Eucharist was to accuse us of folly and superstition.

The Melanesian, however, believes in the magic we believed in when we were children, and with him magic and religion are all one. There are, he believes, spiritual beings unseen, from whom all magic comes, and when these unseen beings act in and through the things that are seen the magic in them touches and transfuses and changes these things, and for some time remains in them; while it so remains these things are, as it were, hot; but after a time, if no fresh magic touches them, they get cold again. He prays to the beings who are the source of magic to help him with it, and he rarely does any act that we in seeing it call magic without a prayer.

You may see a Melanesian, skilled in magic, set to work to make a storm. He takes a very old shell trumpet, handed down from generation to generation; he fills it with water, sets up in the middle a red dracaena leaf, and then blows upon the water in the shell, till that little sea is all storm tossed. Some would call it sympathetic magic, would say that this Melanesian thought like would follow like, and a storm at sea follow the storm in the shell. But while he did these acts he was praying to those, dead and gone, who had owned the shell; their magic would make the storm he desired on the sea; and what he did was neither more nor less than a dramatic representation to them of what he wished them to do; nor in any of his magic, as we call these outward acts, does he suppose the acts can compel the hidden magic to come.

This magic power has different names. In Polynesia it is called m?na, in the Banks Islands (at Mota) m?na, in the Eastern Solomons mena, nanama, and other names. To understand something of [25/26] Melanesian religion we have to ask these questions: What sort of thing does he think this magic (m?na) to be? What does he think about its source? And how does he think its acts?

1. What is m?na?

Or. Codrington describes it as "a power or influence not physical, and in a way supernatural; but it shows itself in physical force or in any kind of power or excellence which a man possesses." It is not material. For instance, when a chief's son is secluded for two years in a small stone hut by the shore he acquires a great deal of m?na; but when he comes out to the feast made in his honour he leaves this m?na temporarily behind in the stone hut. It is left in a small nut, and it does not matter how much is put into the nut, all the m?na in the world could be put into this single nut and yet the nut would not be full, since m?na is an immaterial spiritual substance. It is more like a liquid than anything else, or like heat, or like electricity, but is not limited by space or other material limitation. It is invisible, and it is known to be present by what it does; the results of its action on all things is seen, but m?na itself is the hidden power which produces the results observed. A thing full of m?na is described as hot, and as the m?na leaves it, it is said to cool. It is not in itself either good or bad; it is power which may be put to either good or bad purposes; it has a wider meaning than grace; and magic, as a child thinks of magic, is the word which best expresses it.

2. What is the source of m?na?

The source of m?na is in personal beings. In the Eastern Solomons, there is a belief, not known to the ordinary native, in one supreme personal source of all m?na; but the ordinary native finds the source of m?na in a number of spiritual beings, either spirits who have never been men, or the souls of the dead. Where a man is believed to have two souls (as in San Cristoval), one goes to the land of the dead, and one, malicious and capricious, corresponding rather with a man's lower self, remains behind, finding some material habitation, in a stone figure, a tree, a fish, a bird, a bone, or possessing a living man. And to the ordinary Solomon Islander the source of m?na is in practice connected with these souls or ghosts of the dead which remain behind on earth; to a less extent with the spiritual beings which have never been men. The object of the ordinary man's religion is to receive and use helpful m?na and to avoid and overcome harmful m?na, either purposely directed against him or not, for to come into contact with m?na heed- lessly and carelessly is in itself dangerous, like touching something charged with electricity. It is for this reason that he seems to us to act [26/27] with such great reverence when approaching Christian m?na, for from a child he has learnt to respect and approach with caution every sort of m?na known to him.

How does m?na act? and how can it be obtained and used, and how avoided and overcome?

Just as some substances absorb heat more easily and retain it longer than others, so the Melanesian thinks certain things absorb m?na better than others, and retain it longer. They are therefore dangerous to approach or handle carelessly, and are capable of injuring any enemy in whose path they are placed. These things are the bones and hair of the dead, certain plants, especially dracaena and amaranthus, possessions of the dead, such as clubs and spears, stone objects, and pearl shell. And since mere heedless contact with objects impregnated with m?na is dangerous, all these things in which m?na may remain for generations, are useful. For instance, the chiefs were credited with great power of making rain, and this rain-making power or m?na remains in their personal possessions after death. Ancient clubs are therefore used for rain-making; kept usually wrapped up, when rain is needed they are unwrapped and brought out into the centre of the village; the names of the dead chiefs who possessed them are secretly spoken and their ghosts invoked, the m?na in the club is thought perhaps to attract the m?na of the ghost, which produces rain. Often there is merely the representation by the living to the dead, in dramatic form, of what the dead are desired to do, and this is always accompanied by secret prayer and invocation. The European sees only the outward acts, and rarely learns of the secret prayer; he supposes the outward acts to be all that are required and thinks the savage superstitious; and no doubt Melanesians themselves are apt to rely on the outward act, a tendency common to all religions. But in reality the outward act is intended to be the dramatic representation of the heart's desire. For instance, all the dances of Melanesians are dramatic representations of fishing of different sorts, or other things in which they desire the help of m?na. In one of these dances they will go through the various actions of catching fish or fighting, or whatever it may be; so do they express to the ghosts the m?na they desire; and probably all the dances were originally religious acts, dramatic prayers, though now they have lost their meaning. Or a Melanesian may climb a tree and break the twigs so that his enemy's bones, distant though he be, may likewise be broken; but as he breaks the twigs he invokes secretly some ghost, and it is this invocation, not the dramatic representation, of his wish which is the kernel of the act, and the means by which the m?na may be brought into action. C.E.F.

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