Popular Science Monthly/Volume 47/September 1895/Ancestor Worship Among the Fijians

1228771Popular Science Monthly Volume 47 September 1895 — Ancestor Worship Among the Fijians1895Basil Home Thomson



THERE are more gods than tribes among the Fijians, and it is manifestly impossible to give an account of the religions of them all within reasonable limits; hence I take as a type the tribes inhabiting the northern and eastern portions of the island of Viti-Levu, the part of the group first colonized by Fijians. Like the Greeks, the Fijians made their gods as beings of like passions with themselves; but whatever may have been the fountain head of Greek mythology, it is clear that the Fijians humanized their gods, because they had once existed on earth in human form. Their mythology was traditional history. Like other primitive peoples, the Fijians deified their ancestors. The father ruled the family. Each member of it turned to him for the ordering of his daily life. No scheme entered the head of the young man that did not depend upon the consent or prohibition of the head of his family. Suddenly the father died. How were his sons to rid themselves of the idea of his controlling influence that had guided them ever since they were born, even though they had buried his body? He had been wont to threaten them with punishment for disobedience, and even now, when they did the things of which he disapproved in life, punishment was sure to follow—the crops failed, a hurricane unroofed the hut, floods swept away the canoe.

If they won a victory over their enemies, it was he who had strengthened their arms in response to their prayers and offerings. Then each son of the dead father founded his own family, but still owed allegiance to their eldest brother, who represented their father as the head of the joint family. Generations came and went; the tribe even increased its tens to hundreds, but still the eldest son of the eldest, who carried in his veins the blood of the common ancestor in its purest form, was venerated as the head of the tribe. The name of the ancestor was not forgotten. He was now a god, and had his temple and his priests, who had themselves come to be hereditary and had the strong motive of self-interest for keeping his memory green. My belief is that the extra-tribal mythology of the Fijians is in fact legendary history, that the gods that peopled their Olympus had been the men who were the founders of their race. The story of their origin, history, and beliefs is contained in a poem, the Saga of Nakauvadra, by an unknown author, a specimen of which follows:

" Ko Degei sa tagi lagalaga,
Bogi Dua, bog'i rua ka'u yadra,
Bogi tolu, bogi va ka'u yadra,
Sa tubu dugn diria ko Turukawa."

In a distant land to the far westward were three chiefs, Lutunasobasoba, Degei, and Waicalanavanua. For some cause, long since forgotten, they resolved to leave this land with their wives and children, and they sent a messenger to the head craftsman Rokola, bidding him build them a great canoe, which they called the kaunitoni. In her they set sail, and with them went a number of other canoes, all seeking a new land. They found many lands, and at each some of the people stayed to make it their adopted home; but none of them pleased Lutunasobasoba. At last the kaunitoni was left alone, and for many days she sailed and found no land. And then a great storm came up from the westward and struck her, and the waves swept her deck, carrying overboard all their goods, and among them a basket of inscriptions. So for many days she drove before the western gale, and all hope of gaining land left them. But at last they saw high land, and knew that they were saved; and they beached their canoe on a sandy shore, and built themselves huts and called the place Vuda (Our Origin). This is the Vuda on the northwest corner of Viti-Levu. The saga goes on to relate the distress of Lutunasobasoba at losing his basket of inscribed stones. I have not succeeded in finding any contemporary tradition that throws light on this very important passage. The Fijians, when we Europeans first came into contact with them, had no knowledge of any kind of writing, nor even of making rude representations of natural objects in their carving. But the poem says:

"Lutunasobasoba wept bitterly:
'My descendants will be in pitiable plight.
My basket of stones is overset,
My writings (vola) have fallen out.'"

It goes on to relate how he sent out the canoe to look for the lost inscriptions (which, if they really were of stone, was a somewhat futile proceeding), and how the crew of the canoe discovered the Yasawa Islands, but came back without the lost records.

They stayed at Vuda until Lutunasobasoba became very old and infirm, and then they decided to move him to higher ground. Degei, who had now taken the lead of the party, ordered Rokola to build some new canoes to carry them to the eastward. The tribe had become too large for the kaunitoni. When these were ready the fleet crept along the coast to the eastward, and landed in what is now the bay of Rakiraki. Thence the dying Lutunasobasoba was carried up the mountain, and a hut was built of which the posts and walls and thatch were all made of the vadra or pandanus tree, and from this hut or the profusion of this tree the mountain took its name of Nakauvadra. Here Lutunasobasoba lived several years, and when at last he felt his end to be near he summoned his children around him and gave them his dying commands, ordering them to separate and settle in different parts of the wide land he had discovered. Under these conditions Fiji was peopled, and the greater part of the saga is taken up with the wanderings of these children. Besides being the dwelling place of their gods, Nakauvadra Mountain was the first circle of the Fijian inferno, the point of departure for the unseen world that lay to the westward. Nearly all South Sea islanders point to some spot on their island where the spirits of the dead leap into the ocean to be ferried over to the world of shades. These "jumping-off places" (thombothombo) are generally steep cliffs facing the place whence tradition says the race originally came. Whatever may become of the soul hereafter, to Nakauvadra it must first betake itself before leaping into the ocean. From the populous district of the Lower Rewa there is but one path to the Nakauvadra Mountain, called the "Sala ni Yalo" (Path of the Shades). Chance led to its discovery, or rediscovery, if it is true that Europeans had before noticed it. Last year a surveyor was sent to traverse the boundaries of lands claimed by the tribe of Namata. His native guides led him along a high ridge, the watershed between the river Rewa and the eastern coast of the island. As they cut their way through the undergrowth that clothed the hilltop, he noticed that the path was almost level, and seldom more than two feet wide, and that the ridge joined hilltop to hilltop in an almost horizontal line. The surveyor had a patch of the undergrowth cleared away and found that without doubt the embankments were artificial. Following the line of the ridge, the valleys had been bridged with Jbanks thirty or forty feet high. The level path thus made extended, so the natives said, clear to Nakauvadra, fifty miles away. For a people destitute of implements this was a remarkable work. I thought at first that this was a fortification on a gigantic scale, for Fijians never undertake any great work except for defense, under the spur of a pressing necessity. It could not be a road, because the ancient Fijians preferred to go straight over obstacles, like the soldier ants in Africa, that climb trees rather than go round them. The old men at Bau, whom I questioned, knew nothing of its history except that it was called "The Path of the Shades," and that it was an extension of one of the spurs of the Kauvadra Mountain. I asked for guides to take me over it, and they chose three gray-headed elders of the Namata tribe. We started in heavy rain. My guides were reticent at first, but as we went on the spirit of the place seemed to possess them, and at each turn of the path they stopped to describe to me the particular danger that there beset the passing shade. The eldest of the three became at times positively uncanny, for he stopped here and there in the driving rain to execute a sort of weird gamboling dance, whether out of pure excess of spirits or a praiseworthy intention of exorcising the gods of the place I do not know. Little by little I wormed out of them the whole tradition, with fragments of the sagas in which it was preserved. After I got home I set two of my native collectors to write it all down. It is far too long to give here in its entirety, but I will try to condense it.

Long ago—so long ago that the tradition has become dim—the ghosts of the dead used to annoy the living. They whistled in the houses, turned the yams rotten in the ground, filled the cooking pots with live snakes, or played some other of the pranks in which the Fijian ghost delights. And the living reasoned with themselves, and found that it was because of the bad state of the road to Nakauvadra that the shades could not find their way to the sacred mountain, and so they stayed about their old haunts. So the tribes banded together and built a road for the ghosts of their dead to travel over, and thenceforward they did not stay to annoy the living.

When a man died, his body was washed and laid in its shroud, and a whale's tooth was put upon his breast to be his stone to throw at the pandanus tree; and while his friends were still weeping, his spirit left the body and went and stood on the bank of the "Water of the Shades" (Wainiyalo), at the place called Lelele—the ferry—and cried to Ceba, the ghostly ferryman, who brought the end of his canoe which was of hard vesi if it was for a chief, but the end that was of breadfruit wood for a vulgar shade.

Across the stream the shade climbed the hill of Nathegani, where grew the pandanus tree. And he threw his whale's tooth at it, and if he hit it he sat down to await the coming of his wife, who, he now knew, was being strangled to his manes; but if he missed the pandanus tree he went on, weeping aloud, for he knew that his wife had been unfaithful to him in life, and that she cared not to be strangled to accompany him. Then he came to the ghost scatterer, Droydroyalo, who strode toward him and pounded his neck with a great stone, scattering the ndawa fruit he was carrying to eat on his journey. Thence he journeyed to Drekei, where dwell the twin goddesses Nino, who crept on him, peering at him, and gnashing their terrible teeth; and the shade shrieked in terror and fled away. As he fled up the path he came to a spring and stopped to drink; and as soon as he tasted the water he ceased weeping, and his friends also ceased weeping in his home, for they straightway forgot their sorrows and were consoled. Therefore this spring is called the Wai-ni-dula Water of Solace. And when he stood erect from drinking, he look—ed afar off, and saw the white buli shells gleaming on the roofs of the great dwellings of Nakauvadra; and he threw away the via roots he was carrying, for he knew that he was near his resting place and would want no more provisions for the journey. So he flung away his via, to travel unencumbered, and to this day you may see the via sprouting where the shades threw it. Going on, the shade had many adventures. He was crippled by Tatovu's axe; he was wounded by Motoduruka's reed spear; he crawled forward on his belly; he bowed ten times; he fainted away, and was dragged onward as corpses are dragged to the cannibal ovens; he had to pinch the "pinching stone" to see whether his nails are long, for if the stone is indented, it is a sign that he was lazy in his lifetime, and that his nails are not worn away by scooping up the yam hills in his plantation. From the "pinching stone" he went onward, dancing and jesting, till he came to Taleya, the Dismisser, who asked him how he died—whether by the club, or the strangling cord, or the water, or naturally of disease or old age. And if he said he died of violence, the Dismisser let him journey onward, but if he said that he died naturally, he was commanded to re-enter his body; but not all of these obey, so anxious are they to reach Nakauvadra. Thus the Fijians explained recoveries from trances and epileptic seizures. He goes on through myriad adventures and dangers, and it is entirely out of the question to give them all. One of the most curious is that of the vasa tree at Naililili—the "hanging place." From the branches of this tree are hanging the souls of little children, like bats, waiting for their mothers to come and lead them onward, and they cry to the passing shades, "How are my father and my mother?" If the shade answers, "The cooking fire of your mother is set upright," the child ghost wails aloud, knowing that it must still wait, for its mother is still in her prime; but if the shade answers, "Their hair is gray, and the smoke of their cooking fire hangs along the ground," the child laughs with joy, crying: "It is well! my mother will soon be here. Oh, let her hasten, for I am weary of waiting for her!"

I wish that space permitted me to follow the journey of the Fijian shade to its end. The folklore of a people spontaneously developed and uninfluenced from without will always have an interest of its own, because of the light it throws upon the genesis of religions. Many of us have heard of the Fijians as the most striking example of the success of missionary enterprise. Their conversion, however, was in most cases a political move. The chief found it convenient to "lotu," and his people of course followed him. In one of these cases the missionary attended a meeting of the tribe to receive their conversion to Christianity. The heathen priest took his seat near the piled-up feast, and thus addressed the ancestor gods: "O ye, our fathers! be not angry with us. We, your children, bring you this miserably inadequate feast from our impoverished gardens, this wretched root of yagona for you to drink. We are poor, we are miserable. And another thing—be not angry with us if, for a while, we give up worshiping you. It is our mind to worship the foreigner's God for a while, yet, nevertheless, be not angry with us." Then the ancestor gods ate the spiritual essence of the yams, and the missionary lunched on its grosser material fiber, and enjoyed it greatly.

In 1876 the natives of Fiji had all nominally embraced Christianity—outwardly they conformed to the new faith—but at the end of 1885 strange rumors were brought to the coast by native travelers from the mountains. A prophet had arisen, who was passing through the villages, saying to the people, "Leave all and follow me." His teachings were an ingenious compound of Christianity and heathenism. He said that when Nacirikaumoli and Nakausabaria (two of the ancestral chiefs, described in their Saga) sailed away after their defeat by Degei, they went to the land of the white men, who wrote a book about them, which is the Bible; only they lied about their names, falsely calling them Jehovah and Jesus. They were about to appear and bring with them all the ancestors of the Fijians. The millennium would come, the missionaries and the Government would be driven into the sea, and every one of the faithful would have shopfuls of English goods. Those who believed that he was sent before, to prepare their way would have immortality, but the unbelieving would perish. The white men who came in the men-of-war, looking through glass instruments, who falsely said that they were surveying, were really looking for the coming of the divine twins. In the meantime the faithful were to drill as soldiers and the women to minister in the temples. Temples were secretly built at Drau-ni-ivi and other places, and behind the curtain, where the priest and the women sat, the god might be heard to descend with a low, whistling sound. There was some controversy between the faithful whether Degei was God or the devil. Many inclined to the latter belief, because Satan took serpent form, and the traditions describe Degei as a gigantic serpent lying coiled in his cave in Uakauvadra, and causing thunder when he turns his huge bulk. The new prophet fixed the day for the resurrection of the ancestors, but he was arrested and deported to Rotuma, and the outbreak was stamped out for a time; but in 1892 it reappeared, and the Government then decided to remove the village of Drauni-ivi, the fount of all these superstitions, and the houses were removed and the site leveled to the ground. We have by no means, however, heard the last of Fijian mythology. There was another outbreak about a year ago.

  1. Abridged from an address delivered before the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, and published in the Journal of the Anthropological Institute.