Project Canterbury


By Robert Henry Codrington.

From Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics. Edited by James Hastings.
Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1915. Vol. VIII, pages 529-538.

Transcribed by the Right Reverend Dr. Terry Brown
Retired Bishop of Malaita, 2008

MELANESIANS.--1. Extent and limits of the subject.--The region of the South Pacific, which is called Melanesia, is well defined, except on the western side. The boundary on the east lies between Fiji, which is Melanesian, and Samoa, which is Polynesian. To the south the Melanesian island of New Caledonia is separated by a considerable space of ocean from New Zealand, which is Polynesian, as are the small islands of Micronesia on the north from the Melanesian Solomon group, but to the west the islands of Melanesia overlap New Guinea. Some of the inhabitants of that vast island are Melanesian, at any rate in language; but, though Melanesians have been called Papuans, there can be no doubt that Papua, or New Guinea, cannot be placed as a whole in Melanesia. Five distinct groups of islands are without question Melanesian: (1) the Solomon Islands, with the groups which connect them with New Guinea; (2) the Santa Cruz group; (3) the Banks' Islands and New Hebrides; (4) New Caledonia, with the Loyalty Islands; and (5) Fiji.

The first discovery in Melanesia was that of the Solomon Islands by Spaniards, under Mendaña, in 1567. In 1595 the same voyager discovered Santa Cruz; and in 1606 Quiros and Torres discovered the New Hebrides and Banks' Islands. The Dutch discovered Fiji in 1643. French voyagers in the latter part of the 18th cent., and finally Captain Cook in his second great voyage, completed the general survey of all the groups. In the records of these passing visits it is vain to seek for information concerning the religion of the natives. The discoverers saw what they believed to be temples, idols, worship and invocations of devils; they interpreted what they saw, as succeeding voyagers have done, according to their own conceptions of savage beliefs. It was not till missionaries, about the middle of the 19th cent., began to live in closer intercourse with the native people and to learn their languages that any certain knowledge [529/530] of Melanesian religion could be gained. The following account represents in the main the knowledge which has been gained by the Melanesian Mission of the Church of England. The religion of the Fijians is considered in another article (see FIJI). The account here given has been drawn from the Solomon Islands, the Santa Cruz group, the Banks' Islands, and the Northern New Hebrides. It has been gathered from natives of those groups in native language, and much of it has been gained from what educated natives have written in a native language. Very little, however, has come from the Western Solomon Islands or the Southern New Hebrides; but there is every reason to believe that religious beliefs and practices in these islands do not differ considerably from those of the central parts of Melanesia.

2. Basis of Melanesian religion.--From whatever source they may have derived it, the Melanesians generally have held the belief that their life and actions were carried on in the presence and under the influence of a power superior to that of living man. This power, they thought, was all about them, attached to outward objects, such as stones, and exercised by persons, i.e., either by men, alive or dead, or by spirits who never were men. This 'sense of the Infinite,' as Max Müller (Lectures on the Origin and Growth of Religion [HL], London, 1878, lect, i.) calls it, was the foundation of the religious beliefs of the Melanesians; the general object of their religious practices was to obtain the advantage of this power for themselves. This power is impersonal, and not physical in itself, although it is always put in motion by a person; and all remarkable effects in nature were thought to be produced by it. It is not fixed in anything, but can abide and be conveyed in almost anything. All spirits, beings superior to men, have it; ghosts of dead men generally have it, and so do some living men. The most common name for it is mana (q.v.). The methods by which living men use and direct this power may well be called magical; the controlling force lies generally in words contained in chant or muttered charms. If worship is addressed to beings who are not living men, and if the use of their power is sought from them to do good or to do harm, it is because such beings have this mana; the forms of words have efficacy because they derive it from the beings which have mana; a common object, such as a stone, becomes efficacious for certain purposes because such a being gives it mana power. In this way the influence of the unseen power pervades all life. All success and all advantage proceed from the favourable exercise of this mana; whatever evil happens has been caused by the direction of this power to harmful ends, whether by spirits, or ghosts, or men. In no case, however, does this power operate, except under the direction and control of a person--a living man, a ghost, or a spirit.

3. Objects of worship.--The objects of religious worship, therefore, were always persons to whom prayer or sacrifice was offered, or in whose names charms were recited, with the view of gaining supernatural power, or turning it, either directly or indirectly, to the advantage of the worshipper. These personal objects of worship are either spirits or ghosts. By spirits are meant personal beings in whom the spiritual power already mentioned naturally abides, and who never were men; by ghosts are meant the disembodied spirits or souls of dead men. To keep these distinct is essential to the understanding of Melanesian religion. Natives themselves are found to confuse them at times, while Europeans are venally content to call all alike deities, gods, or devils.

(1) Spirits.--A native of the Banks' Islands, where spirits are called vui, wrote the following definition:

'Whai is a vui? It lives, thinks, has may intelligence than a man; knows things which are out of sight without seeing; is powerful with mana; has no form to is seen; and has no soul, because it is itself like a soul.' (See Codrington, Melanesians, p. 123.)

The wui of the Northern New Hebrides is of the same nature. Yet such spirits are seen, in a shadowy, unsubstantial form; and there are many spirits called by the same name to whom the definition does not accurately apply, while the stories concerning them treat them as if they were men with superhuman and quasi-magical powers. Still the natives steadily maintain that these are not, and never were, men. In the Solomon Islands beings were believed to exist who were personal, yet who had never been men, and who lacked the bodily nature of men, but they were very few and enjoyed little religious consideration. The term which is applied to such beings is also applied to some who had undoubtedly existed at some time as men. The question arises whether those beings, concerning whom stories were told and believed in the Banks' Islands and New Hebrides which showed them to be like men of more than human power and intelligence, should not be called gods. Such were Qat in the Banks' Islands, Tagaro, Suqe (in various forms of the names) in the New Hebrides, and Lata in Santa Cruz. To such as these it would certainly not be improper to apply the word 'god.' But the native word by which they are known, such as vui, is applicable also to other beings for whom 'god' is too great a name, this category including elves, fairies, nameless beings of limited influence whose nature is still spiritual, so to speak, not corporeal. To describe all these, to distinguish them from dead men, the best general term seems 'spirit'; and it is to these beings that the religion of the New Hebrides and Banks' Islands looks, as possessing and wielding mana, the power which must be called spiritual, which men have not in themselves, and which they seek to obtain for their advantage by sacrifices, prayers, and charms.

(2) Ghosts.--It makes the matter clear if this term be used when the beings spoken of are simply men who are dead in the body while that part of them that is not bodily retains activity and intelligence. In the Banks Islands and New Hebrides the word used is merely 'dead man,' such as tamate or natmas. In the Solomon Islands a very common word in various forms is tindalo. The question again occurs whether these should not rather be called gods. There are certainly some to whom prayers and sacrifices are offered, whose place and time in human life are forgotten or unknown, and whose existence as persons possessed of powers far superior to those of living men is alone present to the belief of the existing generation. Such may not unreasonably be called gods. But, whereas in the Eastern groups such beings are plainly called 'dead men,' it seems more correct, and serves better for clearness, to use an English word which shows them once to have been living men, and separates them from any such beings as are believed never to have belonged to human kind. The word 'god' cannot be a translation of 'dead man.' Where, as in the Solomon Islands, a distinct name, such as tindalo, is in use, this objection to the use of the word 'god' does not so plainly apply. Yet the natives emphatically declare that every tindalo was once a man, that the tindalo is the spirit (tarunga) which once was the seat and source of life, intelligence, and power in a man who was then in the body. The living men who worship the tindalo regard themselves as possessed of that non-corporeal nature which alone remains in the dead, and is the seat of the dead [530/531] man's superhuman power. They believe that some of them have a measure of that power, derived by them from the dead. They believe that, when they are dead, they will also, it may be, receive a great access of this power. The difference which they recognize between themselves and the tindalo is that they are alive and have but a comparatively small measure of spiritual power. But it should be understood that every living man does not become a tindalo after death. The large majority of men are of no great importance, and show no remarkable powers in their lifetime; alive they are nobodies, and such they remain when dead. But there are always some living men who show qualities which give them success and influence. Such success and influence are not ascribed by the natives to natural qualities, but to the possession of that spiritual power which they have obtained from the tindalo with whom they live in communication. When a great man dies, it is expected that he should prove to be a tindalo, a ghost worthy of worship, an effective helper, one whose relics will put the living in communication with him. Thus, after the death of Ganindo, a chief, a famous fighting man of Florida, his name was invoked and a sign of his power sought from him. On proof of this power a shrine was built for him, his head, his tools, and his weapons were preserved in it, and sacrifices with invocation were offered to him there. Such a one might, indeed, appear to European visitors to be a god; but to the natives of the place, who now worshipped him, and among whom he had lived as one of themselves, it was his ghost, in the common English sense of the term, who was among them.

Again, the question may arise whether this is not the worship of ancestors. The ghost of a dead man, however, who was well remembered in the flesh, and who was often, no doubt, younger in years than some of his worshippers, is not an ancestor. The natural tendency is, as new objects of worship of this character arise, and as one great man after another dies, to neglect and desert the ghosts and their shrines of the past generation, while the newer wonders and powers attract faith and veneration to new ghosts and shrines. As the object of worship thus became more of an ancestor, he was less an object of worship. But certainly there are some concerning whose time and place of life the natives profess themselves to be ignorant, but whose names, such as Daula and Hauri in Florida, are known to all, and who are now universally believed to be very powerful tindalo, though in ancient times they lived in human form on the island. These may be called ancestors, and they are worshipped, but not as ancestors.

The personal beings towards whom the religion of the Melanesians turns, with the view of obtaining their mana for aid in the pursuits, dangers, and difficulties of life, are thus spirits and ghosts; and it is remarkable that the Melanesians are thus divided by their religious practices into two groups. In the Western group, as in the Solomon Islands, there is a belief in spirits who never were men, but worship is directed to the ghosts of the dead; in the Eastern group, as in the Northern New Hebrides, the ghosts of the dead have indeed an important place, but worship is in the main addressed to spirits who have never been men. And in the parts of life and in the advance from savagery towards civilization, the Solomon Islander who worships ghosts certainly ranks before the New Hebrides man who worships spirits.

4. Prayers.--The Melanesian native, believing himself surrounded with unseen persons who can help him, naturally calls upon them in distress, just as he called upon his father as a child. Such appeals are not prayers according to the meaning of the various native words which would be translated 'prayer' in English. Prayers in the native sense are forms of words; and, strictly speaking, they are formulas which are known only to some, and which have in themselves a certain efficacy and even compelling force. It may be said that exclamatory appeals in case of danger at sea and in the extremity of sickness are prayers in a true sense of the term, which yet to the native are not strictly prayers, because they have public utterance and an elastic form. A man in danger by the sea may call on his father, grandfather, or some ancestor to still the storm, lighten the canoe, and bring it to the shore; when fishing he may beg for success, and when successful may thank his helper. But in such cases a formula, if one were known, would always be preferred, and that would be a prayer in the native sense of the word. Charms, muttered or sung under the breath for magical purposes and in the treatment of sickness, are easily distinguished; but it must be said that in Florida, an important centre of Christian teaching in the Solomon Islands, the word used for Christian prayer is taken from these charms.

It is remarkable that in the Banks' Islands and the Northern New Hebrides, where spirits have a more important place in native religion than ghosts, all prayer must be addressed to the ghost of a dead person. Indeed, every proper form begins with the word tataro, which is, no doubt, a word meaning 'ghost.' It is true that in danger at sea a man will call on dead friends to help him, but this is not a true prayer (tataro) because no formula is employed. It is also true that men in danger call on spirits, either with or without a formula; but neither is a true tataro, since it is not addressed to ghosts. Many forms of words, moreover, which are true tataro prayers, are formulae for cursing as well as for petition. Such are used when a man throws a bit of his food aside before eating, and pours a libation before drinking kava, or when he pours water into an oven, since in them he asks for benefits to himself and mischief to his enemies. A tataro prayer is a spell; a call for help in danger is a cry.

5. Sacrifices.--There can be little doubt that sacrifices properly so called have a place in Melanesian religion. One simple form is probably universal A fragment of food ready to be eaten, a bit of betel-nut, and a few drops of kava poured as a libation are offered at a common meal as the share of departed friends, who are often called by name, or as a memorial of them with which they will be gratified. This is accompanied with a prayer. With the same feeling of regard for the dead, food is laid on a grave or before a memorial image, and is then left to decay, or, as at Santa Cruz, is taken away and eaten by those who have made the offering. In a certain sense, no doubt, the dead are thought to eat the food. Yet the natives do not apply to these offerings the words which connote sacrifices in the strict sense of the term. In the Western Islands the offerings in sacrifices are made to ghosts and consumed by fire as well as eaten; in the Eastern groups they are made to spirits, and there is no sacrificial fire or meal. In the former nothing is offered but food; in the latter native money has a conspicuous place.

(1) In the Solomon Islands.--A sacrifice in San Cristoval, one of the Solomon Islands, has been thus described in writing by a native of the place:

'in my country they think ghosts are many, very many indeed, some very powerful, some not. There is one who is principal in war; this one is truly mighty and strong. When our people wish to fight with any other place, the chief men of the village and the sacrificers, and the old men, and the men elder and younger, assemble in the place sacred to this ghost: [531/532] and his name is Harumae. When they are thus assembled to sacrifice, the chief sacrificer goes and takes a pig. . . . The pig is killed (strangled), not by the chief sacrificer, but by those whom be chooses to assist him, near the sacred place. Then they eat it up; they take great care of the blood lest it should fall upon the ground: they bring a bowl and set the pig in it, and when the pig is cut up the blood runs down into this. When the cutting up is finished, the chief sacrificer takes a bit of flesh from the pig, and he take a cocoa-nut shell and dips up some of the blood. Then he takes the blood and the bit of flesh and enters into the shrine, and calls that ghost and says, "Harumae! Chief in war! we sacrifice to you with this pig, that you may help us to smite that place; and whatsoever we shall carry away shall be yours, and we also will be yours." Then he burns the bit of flesh in a fire upon a stone, and pours down the blood upon the fire. Then the fire blazes up greatly to the roof, and the house is full of the smell of pig, a sign that the ghost has heard. But when the sacrificer went in he did not go boldly, but with awe; and this is the sign of it: as he goes into the holy house he puts away his bag, and washes his hands thoroughly, to show that the ghost shall not reject him with disgust.' (Codrington, p. 129f.)

The pig thus sacrificed was eaten by the worshippers. When this account was written, the older people well remembered Harumae as a living chief.

In the neighbouring island of Mala a native gives the names of seven kinds of sacrifice. (1) A man returning from a voyage puts food before the case which contains the relics of his father. (2) In sickness, or where failure of a crop shows that some ghost has been offended, a pig is offered as a substitute for the man whom the offended ghost is plaguing, and is strangled and burned whole on the stones of a sacred place, together with mixed food. The sacrificer calls aloud upon the offended ghost and upon many others, and sets a bit of the food which he has left unburned before the relic case of the dead man to whose ghost the pig was offered. (3) To 'clear the soul,' a pig or dog is killed and cooked; the sacrificer calls upon the ghost by name to clear away the mischief, and throws the sacrifice into the sea or sets it in the place sacred to the ghost invoked. (4) This is performed in the house of the sick person who is to benefit by it. A pig or dog is cooked and cut up; the names of the dead members of the family to which the ghost to be propitiated belonged are called out, with a petition to each on behalf of the sick man; the sacrificed animal is eaten by the males who are present. (5) (6) (7) are sacrifices of firstfruits--yams, flying-fish, and canarium nuts--which are presented as food to the ghost concerned, with the invocation of his name, and set in a sacred place.

In Florida and Ysabel, both belonging to the Solomon group, sacrifice is of the same character. There are those who know, having been taught by their fathers or mother's brothers, how to approach the powerful ghosts of the dead, some of whom were the objects of a more public and some of a more particular worship. Such a ghost of worship, called a tindalo, had his shrine in which his relics were preserved. The officiating sacrificer is said to 'throw the sacrifice.' A certain tindalo, whose worship and influence are not local, is called Manoga. A native writes:

'He who throws the sacrifice when he invokes this tindalo heaves the offering round about, and calls him, first to the East where rises the sun, saying, "If thou dwellest in the East, where rises the sun, Manoga! come hither and eat thy mashed food." Then turning he lifts it towards where sets the sun, and says, "It thou dwellest in the west, where sets the sun, Manoga! come hither and eat thy food." There is not a quarter towards which he does not lift it up. And when he has finished lifting it he says, "If thou dwellest in heaven above, Manoga! come hither and eat thy food. If thou dwellest in the Pleiades or in Orion's belt; if below in Turivatu; if in the distant sea; if on high in the sun or in the moon; if thou dwellest inland or by the shore, Manoga! come hither and eat thy food"' (Codrington, p. 131f.).

Whether, as in this case, the offering be vegetable food or whether it be a pig, a piece is consumed in the fire within the shrine, and the people without partake of the sacrificial food. In these islands, moreover, the sacrifice of the firstfruits must precede the general use of the products of each season.

Human sacrifices were occasionally made, and such were thought most effectual for the propitiation of an offended ghost. In this case the victim was not eaten by the assistants as when a pig was offered; but a piece of flesh was burned for the ghost's portion, and bits were eaten by young men to get fighting power, and by the sacrificer who had made the offering.

In the island of Santa Cruz the flesh of pigs or vegetable food is placed before the stock of wood that represents a person recently deceased for him to eat; feather-money and betel-nuts are laid out for ghosts, and food is thrown to them at sea. These are distinctly offered for the ghost to eat or use, but they are soon taken up and disposed of by the offerers as common things. Such offerings resemble those of food laid on graves or at the foot of an image in the Solomon Islands, which would not there have the name of sacrifices; but the full sacrifices of the Solomon Islands, as has been shown, have the sacrificial characteristics of intercession, propitiation, substitution, and a common meal.

(2) In Banks' Islands and New Hebrides.--To offerings here, no doubt, the name of sacrifice is far less properly applied, and yet it is almost necessary to employ it. The offerings are made in almost all cases to spirits, but in some cases to the ghosts of dead men. The offering is generally native money; nothing is killed or burned, nothing eaten; and the offering is laid upon a stone, cast into water, or scattered upon a snake or some other creature, the stone, the creature, or the sacred spot being chosen because of its connexion with the spirit who is to be conciliated or from whom benefits are sought. Access to the spirit is to be obtained through the sacred object; but the common worshipper or suppliant cannot obtain this access by himself, and is consequently obliged to use the services of a go-between who knows the stone or whatever it may be and through it is able to know and to approach the spirit. The worshiper generally gives native money to the 'owner,' as he is called, of the sacred object, who then gives a little money to the spirit, and perhaps pours the juice of a young coco-nut on the atone, while he makes his request on behalf of his client. There is thus an intercession, a propitiation, an offering of what the suppliant values and the spirit has pleasure in receiving. So far it is a religious action of a sacrificial character, and is distinct from prayer. In the New Hebrides, besides similar sacrifices to spirits, offerings are made to the ghosts of powerful men lately deceased, either at their graves or in the places which they haunt. Men who know these and have access to them take mats, food, and pigs (living or cooked) to the sacred place, and leave, or profess to leave, them there. Nowhere in these islands is there an order of men who can be called priests. The knowledge of the spirits and of the objects through which access to them can be obtained is open to all, and is possessed by many. Most of those who possess it have received it secretly from their fathers or elder relatives, but many have found it by happy accident for themselves, and have proved their connexion with the spirit by the success of their ministrations.

6. Sacred places and objects.--The sanctity which belongs to such stones or sacred spots as have been mentioned in connexion with sacrifice has, of course, a religious character. Native life in Melanesia is, for the most part, in continual contact with the prohibitions and restrictions which belong to this religious feeling. The sacred character of the object, whatever it may be, is derived from one of two causes: it may lie in the nature and associations of the thing itself, or [532/533] it may be conferred by men who have the mana, the spiritual power, to confer it. It may be said, generally speaking, that among these sacred objects there are no idols, in the strict sense of the term. It is true that images are made more or less in all quarters to represent the dead, being set up as memorials at funeral feasts, in burial-places, in canoe houses, and in places of general assembly. They are treated with respect; offerings of food are made, and other valuable things are occasionally laid before them; but the images are memorials of men deceased, likenesses to some extent, and representations; they are not worshipped, and are sacred only because of what they represent.

(1) Stones.--Sacred places almost always have stones in them. The presence of certain stones gives sanctity to the place in which they naturally lie; and, when a place has for other reasons become sacred, stones which have that character are brought and placed there. Here again recurs the important distinction between spirits and ghosts. The stones of the burial-place of a powerful man receive mana from him, or a man who had mana is buried near sacred stones, thus connecting the ghost and the stone. In other cases, the stone is believed to have such a relation to a spirit, who never was a living man, that it acquires a mysterious quality, and becomes the means by which the man who has the knowledge of the stone can have access to the spirit. Many sacred stones then are sepulchral, and this is usually the case in the Solomon Islands. The sacrifices already described are offered upon stones. A stone is also frequently sacred in the Eastern Islands because a vui (spirit) belongs to it. In this group stones may be divided into those that naturally lie where they are reverenced and those which have mana derived for various reasons from a spirit, and which are carried about and used for various purposes, and as amulets The natives emphatically deny that the connexion between stones and spirits is like that which exists between the soul and body of man. Certain stones are kept in houses to protect them from thieves; and, if the shadow of a man falls on one of these, the ghost belonging to it is said to draw out his life and eat it. It has been supposed that the ghost which consumes the man's life must correspond in the stone to the soul in a living man; but the natives do not believe that the ghost dwells in the stone, but by it or, as they say, at it; they regard the stone as the instrument used by the spirit, which is able to lay hold on the man by the medium of his shadow.

(2) Trees, streams, and living creatures.--Trees are sacred because they grow in a sacred place, or because they have a sacred snake, e.g., that haunts them. Some have a certain inherent awe attaching to their kind. The natives deny that they ever regarded a tree as having anything like a spirit of its own corresponding to the soul or animus of man. Streams, or rather pools, are sacred as the haunts of ghosts in the Western, and of spirits in the Eastern groups. The reflexion of a man's face upon such water gives the ghost or spirit the hold upon the man's soul by which it can be drawn out and its life destroyed. Among living creatures which are sacred, sharks have a conspicuous place. If one of remarkable size or colour haunts a shore or rock in the Solomon Islands, it is taken to be some one's ghost, and the name of the deceased is given to it. Before his death a man will give out that he will enter into a shark. In both cases it is well understood that the shark to which the ghost has betaken himself was, before it was thus occupied, a common shark; but, now that he is in it, the place where the man lived is visited by the fish, and the neighbours and relatives of the deceased respect and feed it. A spirit, known to some one who sacrifices for it, can, in like manner, be introduced in the Banks' Islands into a shark, which thus becomes familiar. In the Solomon Islands a crocodile may be a tindalo, since the ghost of a recent ancestor may possibly have entered it, or may be known to have entered it. Almost any living creature that haunts a house, garden, or village may well be regarded as conveying a ghost. Among birds the frigate-bird is conspicuous for its sacred character in the Solomon Islands; the ghosts of deceased men of importance find their abode in them, and indeed ancient and widely venerated tindalos dwell in them. In all the groups there is something sacred about kingfishers. Snakes receive a certain veneration wherever they are found in a sacred place. The original female spirit, that never was a human being, believed in San Cristoval to have had the form of a snake, has given a sacred character to all snakes as her representatives. In the Banks' Islands, and still more in the New Hebrides, snakes with which certain vui associate themselves, and which therefore have much mana, are worshipped and receive offerings of money in sacred places. One amphibious snake is firmly believed to appear in human form to tempt a young man or woman.

Is, then, the religion of the Melanesians altogether an animistic religion? Nowhere does there appear to be a belief in a spirit which animates any natural object, tree, waterfall, storm, stone, bird, or fish, so as to be to it what the soul of a man, as they conceive it, is to his body, or, in other words, so as to be the spirit of the object. The natives certainly deny that they hold any such belief; but they believe that the spirit of a man deceased, or a spirit never a man at all, abides near and with the object, which by this association receives supernatural power, and becomes the vehicle of such power for the purposes of those who know how to obtain it.

7. Magic and charms.--The belief in magic and the use of magic and charms do not perhaps properly belong to religion; but among Melanesians, it is hardly possible to omit this subject. The foundation of religion is the belief in the surrounding presence of a power greater than that of man; and in great part the practice of religion comes to be the method by which this power can be turned by men to their own purposes. The natives recognize, on the whole, a regular course of nature in the greater movements of things which affect their lives, but at every point they come in touch with what they take to be the exercise by men of the power which they derive from either ghosts or spirits. By means of this power, men who know the proper formula and rite can make rain or sunshine, wind or calm, cause sickness or remove it, know what is beyond the reach of common knowledge, bring good luck and prosperity, or blast and curse. No man has this power of himself; but derives it from a personal being, the ghost of a man deceased, or a spirit of a nature which is not human. By charms (certain forms of words muttered or chanted, which contain the names of the beings from whom the power is derived) this power becomes associated with the objects through which the power is to pass. These things are personal relics, such as hair or teeth, remains of food, herbs and leaves, bones of dead men, and stones of unusual shape. Through these objects wizards, doctors, weather-mongers, prophets, diviners, and dreamers do their work. There is no distinct order of magicians or medicine-men, just as there is no separate order of priests; the knowledge of one or more branches of the craft is handed down from father to son, from [533/534] uncle to sister's son, or, it may be, is bought and sold. Many men may be said to make a profession of magic, and to get property and influence thereby. A man cannot, it may be said, be a chief without a belief that he possesses this supernatural power. There is no doubt that those who exercise these arts really believe that a power resides in them, though, indeed, they are conscious of a good deal of deceit.

A great part of this is sympathetic magic, and seems to the people to have reason in it. The failure of some charm or of some magician does not discredit charms or magic, since the failure is due to the counteraction of another and stronger charm; and one doctor who has failed has been, secretly or openly, opposed by another who has on his side a more powerful ghost or spirit. Thus the people were at every turn in contact with the unseen world and its powers, and in this religion was certainly at work. It is not necessary to go into this subject in any detail. With regard to sickness, it is often said that savages do not believe that any one is naturally sick. That is not the case in Melanesia, in the case of such troubles as fever and ague; but any serious illness is believed to be caused by ghosts or spirits; and the more important the patient is the more reasonable it seems to ascribe his sickness to some ghost or spirit whom he has offended, or to the witchcraft of some enemy. It is not common to ascribe sickness to a spirit in those groups where spirits have so great a place in the religious regard of the people. There it is the ghosts of the dead who inflict sickness, and can be induced to remove it; for there is a certain malignity belonging to the dead, who dislike to see men well and living; a man who was powerful and malevolent when alive is more dangerous than ever when dead, because all human powers which are not merely bodily are believed to be enhanced by death. So, whether to cause sickness or to remove it, the doctor by his charms brings in the power of the dead. A wizard is paid by a man's enemy to bring the malignant influence of the dead upon him; he or his friends pay another to bring the power of other dead men to counteract the first and to save the endangered life; the wizard who is the more powerful--who has on his side the more or the stronger ghosts--will prevail, and the sick man will live or die accordingly. Two parties of such hostile ghosts are believed in San Cristoval to fight the battle out with ghostly spears. All success and prosperity in life, as well as health and strength, are held to depend on the spiritual power obtained by charms or resident in objects which are used with charms; the Melanesian in all his employments and enterprises depends upon unseen assistance, and a religious character is thus given to all his life.

8. Tabu.--This word, commonly tapu or tambu in the islands of Melanesia now under consideration, and established as an English term, was taken from the islands of Polynesia. In Melanesia the belief prevails, clearly marked by the use of distinct words in some islands, that an awful and, so to speak, religious character can be imposed on places, things, and actions by men who have the mana to do it. A place, e.g., in which a powerful man has been buried, where a ghost has been seen, which a spirit haunts, is holy and awful of itself, never to be lightly invaded or used for common purposes. But a man who has the proper power can tabu a place as he chooses, and can forbid approach to it and common use of it. Behind the man who exercises this power is the ghost of the dead or the spirit whose power the man has. Tabu implies a curse. A chief will forbid something under a penalty. To all appearance it is as a chief that he forbids, and as of a chief that his prohibition is respected; but in fact the sanction comes from the ghost or spirit behind him. If a common man assumes the power to tabu, as he may and sometimes does, he runs a serious risk; but if, on the other hand, he forbids the gathering of certain fruit, and sets his mark upon it, and then, as often naturally happens, some one who has disregarded his prohibition and taken the fruit falls ill or dies, this is at once a clear proof that the tabu is real, and any future prohibition made by him will be respected. Thus to a considerable degree, in the Banks' Islands at least, men of no great consequence, as well as the societies which are there so numerous, set marks of prohibition which meet with respect. Every such prohibition rests upon an unseen power; there is in it no moral sanction, but there is the consciousness of the presence of the unseen which certainly works much for morality. What is wrong in itself is by no means always tabu; but what is tabu is very often what the natives recognize as wrong in itself. For it must not be supposed that Melanesians know no moral distinction of right and wrong. Disobedience to parents, unkindness to the weak and sick, are no doubt common, but there is a general feeling, both strong and marked, that it is right to respect and love parents, and wrong to be unkind. Neighbours will carry food to the sick whose friends neglect them, and very plainly express their blame. Those who lie freely upon occasion respect truthfulness, and say that it is bad to tell lies.

9. Totemism.--If totems, properly so called, exist among Melanesians, they must be considered in treating their religion. A totem is defined by J. G. Frazer (Totemism and Exogamy, London, 1910, i. 3f., 8) as being 'a class of material objects which a savage regards with superstitious respect, believing that there exists between him and every member of the class an intimate and altogether special relation.' The relation between a man and his totem has partly a religious and partly a social character. It is held that 'the members of a totem clan call themselves by the name of their totem, and commonly believe that they are actually descended from it.' Each one, moreover, 'believing himself to be descended from, and therefore akin to, his totem, the savage naturally treats it with respect. If it is an animal he will not, as a rule, kill or eat it.'

(1) Florida, in the Solomon Islands, where the native system as it is understood by themselves has been carefully explained by natives of some education, affords probably the best field for consideration of the subject. The people are divided into six exogamous kindreds, called kema, each with its distinguishing name, descent following the mother. Two of these kindreds are named from living creatures, a sea-eagle and a crab. Each of the six has some object which its members must avoid, and which they must abstain from eating, touching, approaching, or beholding. This is the mbuto of the kema. In one case, and one case only, this mbuto is the living creature from which the kin takes its name. The Kakau kin may not eat the kakau crab, and that crab might accordingly be regarded as the totem of that Crab kindred. But the other kin which takes its name from a living creature, the Eagle kindred, is quite at liberty to kill or eat that bird; it, therefore, cannot be the totem of that kin. Again, a member of the Eagle kindred may not eat the common fruit pigeon, which is his mbuto, and would say that the pigeon was his ancestor. Here, then, the pigeon appears as the totem of the Eagle kin; they cannot eat it; it is their ancestor. But was a pigeon their ancestor [534/535] in the sense that they are descended from it? Decidedly not. It was a human ancestor who associated himself with the pigeon; the pigeon represents the dead man, the pigeon is a tindalo, a dead man of power. A native writes:

'We believe these tindalo to have been once living men; and something that was with them, or with which they had to do, has become a thing forbidden, tambu, and a thing abominable, mbuto, to those to whom the tindalo (once a living man) belongs' (Codrington, p. 31f.).

That is to say, the pigeon represents the human ancestor; the man begat the generations of his kindred before he died and entered into a pigeon. The pigeon is not truly an ancestor, nor is it truly a totem. The native writer goes on to give the example of another kindred which avoids the giant clam, the traditional ancestor of which haunted a certain beach. That ghostly ancestor is represented by the clam on that beach, and a native will say that the clam is his ancestor, but without meaning more than he means when he says that an ancient weapon in a shrine is a dead chief, a tindalo, that is, belongs to him.

(2) In another of the Solomon Islands, Ulawa, not long ago the people would not eat the fruit of the banana, and had ceased to plant the tree. The elder natives would give to the fruit the name of a powerful man whom they remembered living, and say that they could not eat him, thus accounting for their avoidance of the banana as food. The explanation was that this man, before his death, announced that after death he would be in banana fruit, and that they were not to eat it. Soon he would have been an ancestor, the banana would be an ancestor, while clearly there was no descent from a banana in the belief of the people. This, then, is no totem, though it may illustrate the origin of totems.

(3) In the New Hebrides, in Aurora Island, there is a family named after the octopus. They do not call the octopus their ancestor, and they freely eat it; but their connexion with it is so intimate that a member of the family would go to the reef with a fisherman, call out his own name, and say that he wanted octopus, and then plenty would be taken. This, again, seems to approach totemism.

(4) In the Banks' Islands and New Hebrides, however, there is what comes very near to the 'individual totem.' Some men, not all, in Mota conceived that they had a peculiar connexion with a living creature, or it might be a stone, which had been found, either after search or unexpectedly, in some singular manner. If this was a living thing, the life of the man was bound up with its life; if an inanimate object, the man's health depended on its being unbroken and secure. A man would say that he had his origin in something that had presented itself to him. In Aurora also, in the New Hebrides, a woman dreams or fancies that there is something--e.g., a coco-nut--which has a particular relation to her unborn child, and this the child hereafter must never eat.

10. Societies, mysteries, and dances.--(1) Societies.--A very conspicuous feature of native life in the Torres Islands, Banks' Islands, and New Hebrides is the universal presence in those groups of a society, called by some form of the name supwe. There are, or were, certain objects commonly in view which, at first sight, could not fail to connect this with the religion of the people. The visitor to a village would see platforms built up with stones, with high, pointed, shrine-like little edifices upon them, within which were the embers of a fire below and images in human form above. If he hit upon a festival, he would see such images carried in the dance. But such appearances show, as a matter of fact, nothing else than the presence of this society, since they are merely the hearth and the emblems of the men of high rank in the supwe, an institution which is entirely social, and has no religious character. To gain advance and distinction in it requires, no doubt, the spiritual power of mana, as does every other form of success, and so sacrifices, prayers, and charms are used; and doubtless the supwe is under the sanction of tabu. It is also true that a man's position after death is believed to depend in some measure on his rank and his liberality in this society But the account of it cannot come under the head of religion.

(2) Mysteries.--A religions character attaches much more truly to the mysteries, the mysterious secret societies which hold an important place in native life in the Solomon Islands and in the Eastern groups. The lodges of these societies appear to visitors to be temples and seats of religious worship; the images within them seem to be idols. The mysteries are closely fenced by a strict initiation, and a rigid tabu guards them; to those outside the secret and unapproachable retreats the mysterious sounds and the appearance of the members in strange disguise convey a truly religions awe. In fact, the mysteries are professedly methods of communion with the dead, the ghosts which are everywhere, more or less, objects of religious worship. In the Banks' Islands the name of the mysteries was simply 'the Ghosts.' Yet, although within the mysterious precincts the ordinary forms of sacrifices and prayers were carried on to gain the assistance of the dead and communion with them, there was no esoteric article of belief made known and no secret form of worship practised. There were no forms of worship peculiar to the society, no objects of worship of a kind unknown to those without. There was no 'making of young men,' no initiation without which the native could not take his place among his people. The women and the children, perhaps, really believed that what they saw and heard was ghostly, but many an accident betrayed the neighbour in disguise; and the neophyte, when introduced into the sacred place, found himself in the company of his fellows of daily life. Still, since the presence of the dead was professed and believed, and since so much of the religion of the Melanesians, particularly in the Solomon Islands, was concerned with the ghosts of the dead, it is true that these secret societies and mysteries belong to the religion of the people.

(3) Dances.--This is by no means the case with dances. All the societies have their dances, which are part of the mysteries, and which it is the first task of the neophyte to learn. But there are dances everywhere in the public life of the people which, however difficult, all boys and young men desire to learn, and have to learn in secret before they can perform them at the feasts. The ghosts in Hades, in their shadowy life, dance as living men do. Visitors are too apt to speak of 'devil dances' and 'devil grounds'; but it may be said to be certain that dances, as such, have no religious or superstitious character in Melanesia.

11. Creation, cosmogony.--The consciousness of the relation of men to a creator is commonly accepted as a chief ground of natural religion. Consequently, when natives are asked (perhaps very imperfectly) who made them and the things around them, and they give the name of the maker to whom their origin is ascribed, they are thought to name their creator; and it is assumed that this creator is the chief object of their worship. Thus Qat, under the name Ikbat, was thought at first to be the chief deity at Mota.; and the name of the supposed creator has elsewhere been taken as the name of God. But creation, the making of men and things, is by no means a proof of very great power, or a ground for great reverence, among Melanesian people. It [435/436] may almost be said that relation to a creator has no religious influence at all, though reference to Qat as the maker of men is made in correcting children in the Banks' Island. The existence of the world, as the natives conceived of it, and the course of all the great movements of nature, are quite independent of that creative power which was ascribed to certain spirits. The makers were spirits. In the Solomon Islands the belief in Kahausibware is characteristic. She was a female spirit in the shape of a snake; she made men, pigs, coco-nuts, fruit-trees, and food in San Cristoval; death had not yet appeared. There was a woman who had a child. The snake strangled the child; the mother chopped the snake in pieces; thenceforward all good things changed to worse, and death began. Respect is shown to snakes as the progeny or representatives of this female spirit, but she cannot be said to be worshipped.

In the Banks' Islands and the New Hebrides, as has been stated before, spirits are the principal objects of worship, and they are also believed to have had much to do with the fashioning of the world of man. Yet it must be borne in mind that they are by no means held to be originators; they came themselves into a world existing under circumstances such as those in which men now live, where there were houses and canoes, weapons and ornaments, fruits and gardens. In the Banks' Islands Qat held the highest place. He was born the eldest of twelve brothers, who dwelt in a village in Vanua Lava. There Qat began to make men, pigs, trees, rocks, as the fancy took him, in a land which already existed. His chief assistant in his work was another spirit (vui) named Marawa ('spider'); his brothers envied and thwarted him; when he made a wife for himself, they tried to kill him; he instructed them and played tricks on them. There were other spirits in the world when he was born, some enemies whom he had to overcome. From one of these spirits, dwelling in another group, named Night, he bought the night to relieve the tedium of perpetual daylight. Finally, when the world was settled and furnished, he made a canoe in the middle of the island of Santa Maria, where now is the great lake, collected his wife and brothers and living creatures into it, and in a flood caused by a deluge of rain was carried out into the sea and disappeared. The people believed that the best of everything was taken away by Qat, and looked for his return. Though no longer visible, he still controlled to a great extent the forces of nature, and he heard and answered the cries of men. In a way the natives looked upon him as an ancestor as well as their creator, but they were emphatic in their assertion that he was never a man himself; he was a spirit, a vui, of a nature different from that of man; and, because a spirit, he was master of all magic power, and full of that mana which was at work in all around. It is, however, scarcely possible to take him very seriously or allow him divine rank, even though he is the central figure in the origin of things and his influence is present and effective. In the New Hebrides nearest to the Banks' Islands Tagaro takes the place of Qat. He is no doubt the Tangaroa of Polynesia. He made things as Qat did; he had his brothers, ten of them, and there was another, Supwe, who thwarted Tagaro and made things wrong. Tagaro also went back to heaven. In other islands Supwe appears as the chief of this band of great spirits. In Santa Cruz, Lata corresponds, but not very closely, to Qat and Tagaro, since he also made men and animals.

These greater spirits are named and known as individual persons. Besides these, in all the islands are spirits innumerable and unnamed. These are they whose representative form is very often a stone, who haunt the places which their presence makes sacred, who associate themselves with snakes, sharks, birds, and the various things through which men can communicate with them and draw from them the spiritual power from which comes all manner of success in life, and which can be turned to injury as well as succour. It may safely be said that these spirits were not malignant beings, though they were spiteful at times and were willing to do mischief to the enemies of their worshippers. The multitude of beings who in the Solomon Islands have power in storms, rain, drought, calms, and especially in the growth of food--the vigona, hi'ona, and others--seem to belong rather to the order of spirits than to that of the ghosts of the dead, and such they are acknowledged to be, though the natives speak of them as ghosts.

Thus the world of the Melanesians was populous with living beings, visible and invisible, with men, with the ghosts of the dead, with spirits great and small; and pervading and surrounding all was a power which belonged to all spirits, to the dead as such, and to many men; all these could direct it and employ it, and it was everywhere at hand. The world so inhabited was bounded to the Melanesians by the circle of the sea which surrounded the islands which were known to them, a circle which varied in place and size according to the position of the centre. The old world of the Banks' Islanders did not include the Solomon Islands; that of the Solomon Islanders was a much wider world. Wherever the circumference of the circle fell the sky was supposed to shut down fast upon it. Under this firmament the sun and moon made their journeys; and the stars hung in it. The heavenly bodies were not thought to be living beings, but rather rocks or islands. In the sun and moon were inhabitants with wives and families, in whom the sun and moon were personified and about whom many stories were told; but these have no religious character.

12. Death and after death.--Without some belief in a life after death, as well as in a power superior to that of living man, it is plain that the Melanesian religion could not be such as has been described. This implies a belief in a soul of man, though what that is they find it difficult to explain. They naturally use different words in their different languages, and these words convey various metaphors, when they are properly understood, the use of which probably involves a certain inconsistency. It may safely be said, however, that, whatever word they use, the Melanesians mean that there is something essentially belonging to man's nature which carries life to the body, which is the seat of thought and intelligence, which exercises a power which is not of the body, which is invisible, and which, after it has become separate from the body in death, still has an individual existence. It is in a sense a spirit, and in some islands is so called; but it is quite distinct from those spiritual beings that never were the souls of men and therefore never disembodied. The soul can go out of a man in a dream or a faint; it can be drawn out of the body or injured in the body by magic or spiteful ghosts or spirits; when finally separated from the body in death it becomes a ghost. Such a soul is peculiar to man. It is true that, as will be seen in the account of Hades, there is something which is like the ghost of a pig, of a weapon or ornament, something that remains and has a shadowy form; but the natives will not allow that even a pig, an intelligent and important personage with a name, has a soul as a man has.

(1) Death.--It was not part of the original nature [536/537] of men that they should die. In stories the first men are represented as changing their skins, as snakes cast their slough, and returning to youth and strength, until by some accident or folly life could no longer be so renewed, and death came in. When it came, the way to the abode of the dead was opened and men departed to their own place, Hades. The funeral rites do not require description. The disembodied spirit is not thought generally willing to depart far from the body which it has left or the place in which it has lived; but, the body being buried, or otherwise disposed of, the ghost proceeds to its appointed place.

(2) Hades.--There is a great difference between the conception of the Solomon Islanders and that of the Banks' Islanders and New Hebrides people with regard to the place where the dead take up their abode. In the Eastern Islands Hades is in the underworld; in the Solomon Islands the dead, though there is an under world, depart to islands and parts of islands belonging to their own group, and from Florida they were conveyed in a ghostly canoe, a 'ship of the dead.' In all parts of Melanesia alike the condition of the dead in these abodes is an empty continuation of the worldly life; in all parts the ghostly life is not believed to be eternal, except in so far as the native imagination has failed to follow their existence with any measure of time. But, though the dead congregate in Hades, they still haunt and frequent the homes of their lifetime, are active among the living, and, as has been shown, in the Solomon Islands the religion of the living is mainly concerned with the worship of the dead. In these islands the weapons, ornaments, and money of a man of consequence are buried with him or placed on his grave. Whether these decorate the dead or serve his use in Hades is uncertain. It is as when a dead man's fruit-trees are cut down, as they say, as a mark of respect; he ate of them, it is said, while he was alive, he will never eat again, and no one else shall have them.

The notion is general that the ghost does not at first realize its position, or move with strength in its new abode; and this condition depends to some extent on the period of the decay of the body; when that is gone, the ghost is active. It is to expedite this activity that in some parts the corpse is burned.

While in a general way the ghosts of the dead pass to their Hades above ground, there are some which have their principal abode in the sea. Before his death a man may declare his purpose of taking up his abode in a sea-bird or a shark, or the dead body may be sunk into the sea and not buried. These sea-ghosts have a great hold on the imagination of the natives of San Cristoval and the adjacent islands, and were frequently represented in their carvings and paintings. They appear as if made up of fishes, and fish are the spears and arrows with which they shoot disease into the living.

In Santa Cruz the dead, though they haunt the villages, go into the great volcano Tamami and pass below. In the Banks' Islands the common Hades has many entrances; in this they have villages in which they dwell as on earth, but in an empty life. The ghosts hang about their graves for a time, and it is not desired that they should remain, though at the death-feasts they have a portion thrown for them. The great man goes down to Panoi with his ornaments, that is, with an unsubstantial appearance of them. In the Northern New Hebrides there are passages to Hades at the ends of the islands, the northern or southern points, by which ghosts go down, and also return. In Lepers' Island the descent is by a lake which fills an ancient crater. Living persons in all these islands have gone down to see their dead friends; they have seen the houses, the trees with red leaves, and the flowers, have heard the songs and dances, and have been warned not to eat the food of the ghosts.

(3) Rewards and punishments.--There remains the important question whether the condition of the dead is affected by the character of the living man; whether the dead are happier or less happy, in better or in worse condition, according as they have been, in native estimation, good men or bad on earth.

(a) Solomon Islands.--It cannot be said that in these islands the moral quality of men's lives affects their condition after death. When the canoe of the dead took the ghosts of Florida across to the neighbouring island of Guadalcanar, they found a ghost of worship, a tindalo, with a rod which he thrust into the cartilage of their noses to prove whether they were duly pierced. Those who passed this test had a good path which they could follow to the abodes of the dead; those who failed had to make their way as best they could with pain and difficulty. In Ysabel they present themselves to the master of their Hades at a pool, across which lies the narrow trunk of a tree. They show their hands; those who have the mark of the frigate-bird cut in them are allowed to pass; those who have not the mark are thrown from the trunk into the gulf beneath and perish.

(b) Banks' Islands and New Hebrides.--In these islands there is something which approximates to a judgment of a moral kind. It is true that, as a man's rank in the world has depended very much upon the number of the pigs he has slain for feasts, so the ghost fares badly who has not so done his duty by society. So in Pentecost Island, when the ghosts leap into the sea to go below, there is a shark waiting which will bite off the nose of a man who has not killed pigs; and in Aurora a fierce pig is ready to devour the ghost of a man who has not planted the tree that supplies material for the mats which are so highly valued. But there is a kind of judgment, a discrimination between good and bad, which has a moral character, and is, perhaps, well worthy of remark. Thus in the Banks' Islands it was believed that there was a good Hades and a bad. If one man had killed another by treachery or witchcraft, he would find himself opposed at the place of descent by the ghost of the man whom he had wronged; he dreaded the path which led to the bad place, and wandered on the earth. If a man had been slain in fair battle, his ghost would not withstand the ghost of the man who slew him. The bad, they said, were not admitted to the true Panoi, the Hades where there were flowers, though but shadows, and the empty semblance of social life. But who was the evil man? It was answered, 'One who killed another without cause or by charms, a thief, a liar, an adulterer.' Such in their Hades quarrel and are miserable; they haunt the living and do them what harm they can. The others, who lived as they ought to live, abide at least in harmony in Panoi after death.

It is very likely that these notions of something like retribution in the under world have not entered very deeply into the native mind, and are not generally entertained. But that such beliefs should have been received at all is enough to show that their sense of right and wrong has been carried by Melanesians into their prospect of a future state, a view which can hardly have failed to have something of a religious tendency, even if it cannot be said to prove in itself the existence of a religion which these islanders undoubtedly possess.

Literature.--J. Lubbock, The Origin of Civilisation, London, 1870; H. B. Tylor, PC4, do. 1903; A. W. Murray, [537/538] Missions in Western Polynesia, do. 1862; R. Steel, The New Hebrides and Christian Missions, do. 1880; J. Inglis, In the New Hebrides, do. 1886; G. Turner, Samoa, do. 1884; C. M. Woodford, A Naturalist among the Head-Hunters, Solomon Islands, 1886-88, do. 1890; H. H. Romilly, The Western Pacific and New Guinea, do. 1886; H. B. Guppy, The Solomon Islands and their Natives, do. 1887; R. H. Codrington, The Melanesians: their Anthropology and Folklore, Oxford, 1891.


Project Canterbury