Project Canterbury

Ten Years in Melanesia

By the Rev. Alfred Penny

London: W. Gardner, Darton & Co., 1888.

Chapter IV. Heathen Superstitions

Burial Customs--Tindalos--Number--Names--Classes--Witchcraft--Charms--Fear Causing Death--Sacrifices--Sorcerers--Secret Societies--Bugbears.

THE natives of Florida are not cannibals. I have never been able to satisfy myself whether or not in former years they practised cannibalism ceremonially. By ceremonial cannibalism I mean the eating of a morsel of the flesh of chief slain in battle, in the superstitious belief that the power of the dead warrior is thereby communicated. The native testimony on this point is conflicting, nothing of the kind having been done there in the memory of the present generation. The grosser form of cannibalism, as it is practised at S. Christoval and Malanta, where human flesh is regarded as a luxury, is held in as much abhorrence by a Florida man as by a [53/54] European. The fact, however, that there is uncertainty in the minds of the present generation as to their ancestors' practice in this matter, induces me to mention the subject; and I place it at the beginning of this chapter on Heathen Superstitions, under the head of which ceremonial cannibalism must be classed.

The burial customs vary in the different islands. At Florida they form an interesting example of the native superstitions. A dead mans possessions are taxed, and the inheritors bring the sum at which their respective shares are assessed to the funeral, to be wrapped up and buried with the deceased in his winding-sheet of mats. This legacy duty forms sometimes a considerable amount; and the items range from a heavy sum of native money paid by the heir to a grove of cocoanuts, down to a few pipes and a little tobacco, contributed by the legatee who receives the deceased's smoking stock. The idea is not that the dead man will want the money in his new abode. I used to think that this was the case: the answers to my questions on the subject [54/55] were equivocal, and the old people were naturally reticent, knowing that I was only prompted by curiosity; when, however, I came to know Florida well enough to understand the general conversation, I came to the conclusion that it was only a tax upon the legatees.

After the funeral an altar-like structure is raised outside the dead man's house, on which are placed food, pipes, and tobacco. This is for the consumption of the departed spirit during the few days it is supposed to linger near its old house, while the old attractions are still too strong to allow it to obey the summons to migrate to its new sphere.

The whole structure of the religious superstition of the people is based upon a belief in the existence and the powers of the ghosts of their ancestors. The general name "Tindalo" is applied to these ghosts, and the word "Mana" signifies their spiritual power. It will be convenient to use these terms in speaking of this subject. The vowels are pronounced with the sound which they have in Italian.

[56] The number and names of these Tindalos are legion. They are classified into groups of those who exercise powers in sickness, health, love, war, fishing, fighting, agriculture, and so forth. Besides these there are private Tindalos which are possessed by certain individuals, such as chiefs, doctors, warriors, orators, &c., whose "Mana" is shown in the powers of mind or body displayed by their possessors.

When a chief dies, he is canonized, at any rate for a time, by his tribe or immediate followers, and his spirit becomes a Tindalo. He is sacrificed to, invoked, and sworn by: If the devotee is successful in the enterprise for which he has invoked the Tindalo's aid, then the Tindalos "Mana" is considered strong, and his reputation spreads, till, with continued or marked success, it becomes established. On the other hand failure consigns him to the limbo of obscurity. I can only account in this way for the fact that while there are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Tindalos known by name among the old people of whom I have inquired, yet there are few [56/57] comparatively speaking, who have attained to the dignity of tribal or even class pre-eminence, and whose names are heard in the oaths with which the conversation of the natives is emphasized.

The following are examples of the classes into which the Tindalos are divided:--

The "Keramo" class gives "Mana" in fighting. "Put petticoats on his Keramo," is a common taunt of a chief, in contemptuous allusion to the pusillanimity of the "Mana" in the strength of which his enemy fights.

The "Bagea" class presides over the sea. If a canoe begins to roll or gets swamped, one of these marine Tindalos has, in some way, been outraged and must be propitiated. The word "Bagea" means a shark and the following story will show how the native mind connects the fish with the superstition. I remember being caught in a heavy blow, when I was crossing from one island to another in my whaleboat. I had with me a native of the island I had just visited. I had taken him as pilot. [57/58] A heavy sea soon got up, requiring us to be very careful in the management of the boat, for we were twenty or thirty miles from land. As the seas followed us up on the boat's quarter, the pilot, who was not accustomed to a boat, though a good hand in a canoe, crouched in terror watching the waves presently, he seemed more comfortable in his mind, and began to chatter in his own language, which I did not understand. The case was soon explained by one of my boat's crew, who understood the stranger's language, saying, "Look at that shark, he fancies that it is his grandfather come to protect him he is praying to it."

From this, and many other indications, it would seem that some, at any rate, of the marine Tindalos are believed to live in the bodies of the sharks, and thus the name "Bagea" is given to this class.

The amatory Tindalos are called "Luvaolu." There is no other meaning to the word. At one place, a small spring bubbling up from a rock is believed to be the haunt of a group of [58/59] these. A fragment of a woman's dress, or a lock of her hair procured through the offices of a go-between, if dipped in this magic fountain, gives rise to reciprocal affection, while bathing in the water is believed to render a woman's charms particularly attractive. At another place, a Tindalo of this class plays at times upon his flute: for a consideration bestowed upon the functionary who presides over his mysteries, the obdurate lady may be induced to wander within hearing of the ghostly melody, with a satisfactory result. Nothing is supposed to happen by chance, and no one dies a natural death. Of a sick man it is said, "A Tindalo is making him ill," because of something the sick man has done to incur the Tindalo's anger; or, of one who dies, "A Tindalo has killed him."

Sicknesses and deaths are considered to spring from two causes--a Tindalo's displeasure, visited directly upon the person who has incurred it, and Sorcery. I will give instances of both these. Again and again I have had schools boycotted [59/60] because the chief of the village had fallen sick. Nearly all the schools now permanently established in this district have had in their early days to go through this troublesome experience. A school has begun with twenty or thirty children and young people. All has gone on well for a time, when some day, without any warning, when the bell has been rung as usual for school, no one has come. After a bit the reason would appear, "The chief is ill." 'this expression I soon found to be a euphemism it meant that the chief's personal Tindalo was angry because of the school, and he was venting his displeasure on his devotee, who was compelled to stop the school to save his life.

There is a small island mid channel between Mboli and Gaeta, believed to be the haunt of a whole host of Tindalos. No one would land upon it, and as for eating food there, it would literally have been as much as a man's life was worth to do so, for he would certainly die of fright afterwards. This island is about half-way between two central stations, and so was [60/61] a most convenient place to land at for refreshment when going from one to the other. My crew, who were Christians, had of course no scruples, and would laugh at the fears of their friends. A favourite trick of theirs was to put the empty meat-tins in a conspicuous place where they could be seen by a passing canoe. These tins are in great request as balers, but much as the natives coveted the prize, no one was rash enough to land and possess himself of it till in time there came to be a collection of tins, the relics of half-a-dozen lunches, standing in a tempting row upon the rocks of the island.

From my boat's crew I often heard of the anxious enquiries from the people about my health, or whether anything unlucky had happened to me after one of these picnics, with a view to connecting some misfortune with what in their opinion was cause sufficient to produce every evil under the sun. Once, after I had made the passage on a more than usually hot day, and was compelled to lie down with an attack of fever and ague, the popular opinion was, [61/62] "I told you so, the Tindalos have got him at last."

The system of Sorcery has many strange features. It is interwoven with the Tindalo superstition, and rests upon it the leading idea being, that by means of a fragment of food or other media, the vital forces of the person who has partaken of the food can be brought into contact with the power of a Tindalo and destroyed.

The Sorcerers are a hereditary class. I have known instances where a sacrifice could not be offered because the priest or sacrificer refused to do his part, and because there was no one of the same family to take his place; but these might have been exceptional cases.

If a man has a grudge against another, he tries to possess himself of what he can convert into a charm. A fragment of food is generally the thing used, but a lock of hair will do as well, or a piece of tobacco cut from the twisted roll with which the man has filled his pipe. The charm is then taken, with the fee, to the Sorcerer, who places it inside a shell in the haunt of his Tindalo, [62/63] on whom he calls to consume the victim, The next thing is to send word to the man that he is being bewitched, the result of which message almost invariably is to make him feel ill. Events may then take one or other of two courses. The Sorcerer may be "squared" by a heavy bribe, and induced to give up the charm; in which case, such is the power of mind over body, the victim will recover; or else, if the Sorcerer himself is the enemy, or if he has been heavily paid to push matters to the bitter end and allow no compromise, the victim dies.

At Mboli a chief named Savui, second only in power to Takua, was ill; he was bewitched, the people said, by a Sorcerer of great repute whose Tindalo was so strong that no one dared to punish him within the limits of the Tindalo's power. Savui was certainly very ill, he was suffering from what I think was remittent fever. His friends from far and near came together, as is usual when a chiefs death is imminent. They had tried to redeem the charm, but the sum named as the price was too great. Savui was [63/64] known to be a rich man, and the Wizard and his friends fixed their price at an immoderate figure accordingly. Then came a struggle, superstition and love of life on one side, and the love of money on the other. The former gained the day, and the price was paid, a sum in native shell money that would buy six or eight large pigs; on the receipt of which the charm, a fragment of betel nut, was given up, and brought back in triumph, and from that moment Savui began to recover, and in a week or ten days' time he was as well as ever.

It will be seen from this story how difficult it was to combat this superstition. If there be no Tindalos, the people would say, what makes a man ill, or why does he get well when the cause of his illness is removed? There is a ludicrous element about this story, but of a widely different type is another, of which the scene is laid at Ysabel. Bera, the chief of a large province of this island, had a grandson named Kikolo. Bera's son was dead, and he had appointed that Kikolo should succeed him. The voting man was at this [64/65] time about 22 or 23 years old. He had been a scholar in our school, and was peaceably and kindly disposed; in this respect he was a marked contrast to his grandfather, who was the worst obstructionist I had to encounter. When I arrived at Ysabel one year at the beginning of the season, Kikolo was ill; he was in consumption apparently. I told Bera that I could do nothing for him, beyond giving him some medicine to relieve his cough at night. He continued in about the same state until I left Ysabel in my boat for Florida; but on my return in the Southern Cross two months afterwards, he was dead, and I then learned the story of his death. A large bay, along the shores of which the villages are built, is studded with tiny islands; I now noticed on several of these, which are usually uninhabited, signs of a regular habitation, and the traces of a large number of people having been gathered together. The reason was this: Bera, finding his grandson continued to get worse, tried the experiment of taking him first to one of these islets and then another, in the hope of getting him out of [65/66] the reach of the Tindalo, who was killing him. In this hope, Bera and all his immediate followers moved from island to island, building houses, making fences, setting up palisades, and going through the whole process of opening out a new country at each place. And all the time the most elaborate precautions were taken to prevent the possibility of some traitor in the camp further bewitching the dying man in one or other of the methods usually adopted. A description seems very poor, after seeing what I am attempting to describe; hut it appeared to me a singularly touching spectacle, the traces of this desperate struggle with the irresistible. But the worst part of the story remains to be told. Finding that everything they had done was of no avail, the last dread expedient was tried--a human sacrifice. A party of men were sent to steal a victim; they had fixed upon one, a child about three or four years old: him they decoyed from his mother's care, and out of her hearing, as she was working in her garden then, snatching him up, the robbers put him in a canoe they had in waiting, and paddled across to [66/67] the little island on which Kikolo lay. There, beside the dying man, the victim's throat was cut, and as the life-blood ebbed away the old man called upon the Tindalo to take the life he now was offering in lieu of that which he longed to save. It was strange that Bera should not have seen death already stamped upon Kikolo's face and so stayed his hand: it surely must have been already there, for he also died before that day was done.

When at last it appeared to Bera that all hope was gone, he caused Kikolo to be carried to his chief place of abode, that he might die there, and be buried as a chief, with a general gathering of the people to cry and howl for the appointed number of days. As soon as the news reached the Mission Station that Kikolo was dead, the native teacher offered to make a coffin and bury him decently. This Bera agreed to, and the man vent home to set to work. However, it was not to be. Bera had then a mother living, an old hag of upwards of eighty years, who was the cause of nearly all the atrocities Bera had [67/68] committed, and seemed to exercise an unaccountable influence over him.

In this instance she persuaded him not to listen to the teacher's suggestion but to observe the barbarous obsequies that generations of chiefs had been buried with. The dead man was accordingly placed upright in a deep grave, and the earth filled in till it reached his neck; the grave being then about half full, fires were lighted round the head from which the scorched flesh soon dropped, leaving the skull bare, and. this was carried to the canoe-house and set up to be sacrificed to as a Tindalo. The dead man's young wife and child were next dragged to the open grave and strangled there, and their bodies thrown in, together with his possessions, guns, rifles, money and valuables of all kinds. The work of destruction was not even yet complete. Every one there brought an offering, some article of value, which he cast into the grave: rows of cocoanut trees were cut down, and groves of bananas hacked to pieces: then the grave was filled in, and a heap of stones piled over it, and [68/69] the whole assembly began the dismal crying and wailing which lasted many days--a fit type of the sorrow which has no hope.

Periodical sacrifices and feasts are made in connection with this superstition; some to inaugurate the time of eating the first fruits of certain trees, others to make certain localities sacred.

I was present at one of the former class, at least at the gathering of people before the sacrifice was offered. This I could not see, for the priests declined to offer it in my presence. The chief of the district introduced me to the function, but he was as much blamed by his people for doing so as they dared, for only a privileged few were admitted to see the mysteries. The place of meeting was the top of a little hill which had been cleared of the undergrowth. Inside a space fenced in, three or four men were busily engaged in cracking the large almond-like nuts of the country, and pounding the kernels into a mash with which they were making cakes; a goodly supply of these delicacies had been [69/70] made and dished up on banana leaves. They reminded me of rows of roly-poly puddings. Outside this cooking pen others were preparing the fuel for the fire on which the puddings were to he baked. The ritual, I was told, consisted in calling upon the Tindalos who presided over the nut-trees to partake of the first fruits in the shape of the baked puddings. After a reasonable time had elapsed, the very sensible conclusion was arrived at and acted upon, "The Tindalos won't eat, so we will;" and the feast was consumed to the general satisfaction of the party.

I have only two more points to refer to before I conclude this subject: these are secret societies, and bugbears. The party into which my friend the chief so inconsiderately introduced me was a secret society. There were many such at Florida, and no doubt there are many in existence at the neighbouring islands where the old system still prevails.

Admittance to these societies was purchased by the payment of a considerable sum of native money, and conferred extensive priviliges. These [70/71] were--the right to land on certain portions of the beach, which the uninitiated were prevented from doing save by the payment of a fine--the right of way along certain paths--and, above all, share in the fines in food and money from their less privileged fellow-countrymen or visitors. It was in this way that a system of what I have called bugbears was set up. I will give, as an illustration of this, a story, with which I will conclude the chapter.

When the downfall of the Tindalos happened at Florida three years ago, it was frequently a question on which I had to use whatever influence I possessed among the people, how to prevent these initiated Elders from being roughly handled by the younger men, who then found out how they had been victimized through their fears. I remember once seeing two old men crying bitterly. They were surrounded by half-a-dozen young fellows, who were making in derision the noises which were once supposed to proceed from the mouths of the Tindalos; and this was the story they told me:

[72] "You blame us," they said, "for tormenting these men, but you don't know how they have punished us while they were able to do so. This was one of their dodges to get a feast. They and their friends would come to us who were not initiated, and say, 'You must prepare a feast for the Tindalos, to-night they will come.' Then they would stop up the windows and fasten the door of the house from the outside, leaving only a small space open above, large enough for their purpose. If you look out, or stop cooking till all is ready, you will die,' they would say; and then they would go away till night. And we, pity us, would break nuts, scrape cocoanuts, and pound yams, till the heat of the cooking fires, and the dust inside the house, and our perspiration would torture us. At nightfall the Tindalos would come, screaming, whistling, hissing, their bodies covered with leaves, so that even if we had dared to look out we should not have recognised them; and we, trembling and weary, would hand out the bowls of food we had cooked through [72/73] the hole above the door, which pairs of hands would take and carry off into the darkness."

Human nature is much the same everywhere. I thought of this as I looked at the statue in one of the temples at Pompeii, and saw the place where the priest used to stand and speak through its marble lips. And again when I saw the church at Naples, in which is treasured the vial holding the blood of S. Januarius. The Solomon Islanders are not singular in their belief in Tindalos.

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