The Melanesians: Studies in their Anthropology and Folklore/Chapter 13



It is difficult to separate the practice of magic arts from the manifestation of a ghost's or spirit's power in possession; because a man may use some magic means to bring the possession upon himself, as in the case of prophecy, and also because the connexion between the unseen powerful being and the man, in whatever way the connexion is made and works, is that which makes the wizard. Yet there is a distinction between the witchcraft and sorcery in which by magic charms the wizard brings the unseen power into action, and the spontaneous manifestation of such power by the unseen being; even though there may be only a few who can interpret, or to whom the manifestations are made. In a case of madness the native belief is that the madman is possessed. There is at the same time a clear distinction drawn by the natives between the acts and words of the delirium of sickness in which as they say they wander, and those which are owing to possession. They are sorry for lunatics and are kind to them, though their remedies are rough. At Florida, for example, one Kandagaru of Boli went out of his mind, chased people, stole things and hid them. No one blamed him, because they knew that he was possessed by a tindalo ghost. His friends hired a wizard who removed the tindalo, and he recovered. In the same way not long ago in Lepers' Island there was a man who lost his senses. The people conjectured that he had unwittingly trodden on a sacred place belonging to Tagaro, and that the ghost of the man who lately sacrificed there was angry with him. The doctors were called in; they found out whose ghost it was by calling on the names of dead men likely to have been offended, they washed him with water made powerful with charms, and they burned the vessel in which the magic water had been under his nose; he got well. In a similar case they will put bits of the fringe of a mat, which has belonged to the deceased, into a cocoa-nut shell, and burn it under the nose of the possessed. There was another man who threw off his malo and went naked at a feast, a sure sign of being out of his mind; he drew his bow at people, and carried things off. The people pitied him, and tried to cure him. When a man in such condition in that island spoke, it was not with his own voice, but with that of the dead man who possessed him; and such a man would know where things were hidden; when he was seen coming men would hide a bow or a club to try him, and he would always know where to find it. Thus the possession which causes madness cannot be quite distinguished from that which prophesies, and a man may pretend to be mad that he may get the reputation of being a prophet. At Saa a man will speak with the voice of a powerful man deceased, with contortions of the body which come upon him when he is possessed; he calls himself, and is spoken to by others, by the name of the dead man who speaks through him; he will eat fire, lift enormous weights, and foretell things to come. In the Banks' Islands the people make a distinction between possession by a ghost that enters a man for some particular purpose, and that by a ghost which comes for no other apparent cause than that being without a home in the abode of the dead he wanders mischievously about, a tamat lelera, a wandering ghost. Wonderful feats of strength and agility used to be performed under the influence of one of these 'wandering ghosts'; a man would move with supernatural quickness from place to place, he would be heard shouting at one moment in a lofty tree on one side of a village, and in another moment in a tree on the opposite side, he would utter sounds such as no sane man could make, his strength was such that many men could hardly master him. Such a man was seized by his friends and held struggling in the smoke of strong smelling leaves, while they called one after another the names of the dead men whose ghosts were likely to be abroad; when the right name was called the ghost departed, but sometimes this treatment failed. It was a different thing when, as used to happen in former days, a ghost from Panoi, the abode of the dead, would come for a certain purpose into a man and speak with his voice. This did not happen to all men alike, but to some who were subject to this possession. Such a man would somewhere see a ghost, come home and lie down sick. People would come to see him, and calling him by his name would ask what was the matter. He would answer, 'It is not he, it is I,' that is, not the sick man, but the ghost who answers by his voice. Then they would call over the names of the lately deceased to see whose ghost it was, and when they hit on the right name he would answer, 'It is I.' Then he would begin to weep, and tell them that he had come back because he knew in Panoi that his wife and family were not duly cared for, or that his property was being wasted. He would scold his relatives for their misconduct, and he would tell them of things they did not know, such as where lost property would be found. Some one would then bring in a bunch of strong-smelling leaves to drive him away, and he would immediately perceive its presence; they would hide it and deny in vain that they had brought it in. They caught hold of him struggling and howling, and put the leaves to his nose; he seemed to die, the ghost departed from him as the soul departs from a dying man. After a while his senses would return, and he would declare that he knew nothing of what had been said or done since he saw that ghost and sickened. Such a medium as this, though not a wizard by profession, no doubt found it worth his while to receive these ghostly visits.

An Omen is a spontaneous manifestation or warning given by supernatural power, and not obtained by the arts of divination. The sign given to a Florida party, when they start upon their voyage and wait for the rocking of their canoe, might be such if the sign were not given in answer to the wizard on board. True omens are observed at Saa. There is a small bird named wisi from its cry, which means; 'No.' It has other notes which resemble the voice of a man talking. If men starting on an expedition hear the cry wisi! it is not enough to turn them back perhaps, but if they fail they remember the warning; if they hear the other notes they are confident of success. A man working in his garden hears the bird, and he asks, 'Is there fighting?' The bird answers wisi, No. He asks again, 'Is it a stranger come from far?' The bird answers wisi, or chatters to give an affirmative reply. This is, however, not seriously thought of. If a frog, or some other creature that does not usually come indoors, is seen in a house it is an omen. They will go and enquire of a wizard what it means. If the creature comes and cries they know that soon there will be crying for a death. There is in that island a remarkable kind of snake rarely seen, called mati e sato; it is about ten inches long, glistening like gold, and when full grown, the natives say, so resplendent that nothing of it can be clearly seen but its eyes and snout; when it is taken into the hand it is exceedingly smooth and slippery. If one of these is seen in a house it is a sign of death; if running, of violent death; if quiet, of death by sickness. If the venomous snake a'u is seen in a house it is a sign of death or fighting or misfortune; if coiled up it is a sign of quiet death; if running, there will be violence. When a beginning is made of building a house or canoe, or of clearing a garden, a man will call aloud, and then if something remarkable appears it is a sign that the work will be interrupted by death or war; if nothing comes, all will be well. The sacred character of the sigo, kingfisher, in the Banks' Islands has been mentioned, and that its cry is ominous. It is the same in Lepers' Island, where, if a party is going to battle and a king-fisher, higo, cries to the right, it foretells victory; if it cries to the left, it bodes failure.

There is a belief in the Banks' Islands in the existence of a power like that of Vampires. A man or woman would obtain this power out of a morbid desire for communion with some ghost, and to gain it would steal and eat a morsel of a corpse. The ghost then of the dead man would join in a close friendship with the person who had eaten, and would gratify him by afflicting any one against whom his ghostly power might be directed. The man so afflicted would feel that something was influencing his life, and would come to dread some particular person among his neighbours, who was therefore suspected of being a talamaur. This latter when seized and tried in the smoke of strong-smelling leaves would call out the name of the dead man whose ghost was his familiar, often the names of more than one, and lastly the name of the man who was afflicted. The same name talamaur was given to one whose soul was supposed to go out and eat the soul or lingering life of a freshly-dead corpse. There was a woman some years ago of whom the story is told that she made no secret of doing this, and that once on the death of a neighbour she gave notice that she should go in the night and eat the corpse. The friends of the deceased therefore kept watch in the house where the corpse lay, and at dead of night heard a scratching at the door, followed by a rustling noise close by the corpse. One of them threw a stone and seemed to hit the unseen thing; and in the morning the talamaur was found with a bruise on her arm which she confessed was caused by a stone thrown at her while she was eating the corpse. Such a woman would feel a morbid delight in the dread which she inspired, and would also be secretly rewarded by some whose secret spite she gratified.

A certain mysterious power was believed to attach to some men in the Banks' Islands, which the natives find it difficult to explain. There is something belonging to a man called his wuqa or uqa. If a stranger sleeps in some one's habitual sleeping-place in his absence and afterwards finds himself unwell, he knows that the uqa of the man in whose place he slept has struck him there; or if one leaves an associate and goes elsewhere to sleep, the uqa of the man he leaves will follow him and strike him; he will rise in the morning weak and languid, or if he had been unwell before he would be worse. Although this is not done by witchcraft a man is held responsible for what his uqa does, and is made to pay money to the injured man, and by an act of his will to take off the malignant influence.

Here may be mentioned also certain tricks which ghosts or spirits play on men, or which men know how to make them play. At Mota in the Banks' Islands a little boy named Peitavunana, heavenly water, was frightened and chased by a ghost up the mountain. He was sought for in vain, and a fight was threatened. They divined for him, so ilo, by cracking of the fingers (page 311), and a man from Vanua Lava announced that he would be found in a certain very inaccessible place. There he was found by Somwaswas at the root of a tree crying and calling on his mother, his body covered with excrement, the food of ghosts, and streaming with blood from the thorns through which he had been forced, and in his hand an unripe fruit of the mammy-apple. He said that his dead mother had come to him and given him the food. Another little boy, Nungwia, sleeping on the beach at night, was conveyed by a ghost into a very small cavity beneath a rock, into which it was impossible for him to have climbed. In Lepers' Island they have a way of playing with a ghost. They build a little house in the forest near their village and adorn it with leaves and cocoa-nut fronds. It has a partition dividing it in two, and a bamboo twelve or fifteen feet long is put within, half on one side of the partition, half on the other. The men assemble in the night to try the presence of a ghost, and sit in the house on one side only of the partition with their hands under one end of the bamboo. They shut their eyes, and call the names of the lately dead. When they feel the bamboo moving in their hands they know that the ghost is present whose name was the last they called. Then they ask, naming one of themselves, ’Where is Tanga?' and the bamboo rises in their hands and strikes him, and then sinks back. They are sure then of the presence of the ghost, and tell him they will go outside; and they go out, singing, with one end of the bamboo in their hands. Then the bamboo leads them as the ghost within it chooses. They make known what they wish by singing, and the bamboo makes them do the contrary to what they say they want; if they sing that they will go up hill it drags them down. Finally, they sing that they wish not to return into the path, and they are led out of the bush into the path; they sing that they do not want to go into the village, and they are taken there. In the same way a club is put at night into a cycas-tree, which has a sacred character, and when the name of some ghost is called it moves of itself and will lift and drag people about. In Mota a few years ago they tried again a practice of this kind long disused, with a success that caused alarm. A basket was fastened to the end of a bamboo and food put in it; a man took the bamboo upon his shoulder and walked along, the basket at his back; presently he felt a heavy weight in the basket as much as he could carry, a sign that a ghost had come into it. The bamboo then would drag people about, and put up into a tree would lift them from the ground. This resembles a good deal a method of divination used at Motlav, and described above, but there is no divination in these tricks.

There was, and perhaps still is, in the Torres Islands something similar to this, when ghosts influenced and took possession of people with the use of sticks. This has been described by a native under the name of Na tamet lingalinga, by which name those who are subjected to the ghostly influence are called. It is done, he writes, on the fifth day after a death. There was a certain man at Lo who took the lead, and without whom nothing could be done; he gave out that he would descend into Panoi, the abode of the dead, and he had with him certain others, assistants. He and his party were called simply 'ghosts' when engaged in the affair. The first thing was to assemble those who were willing to be treated in a gamal, a public hall, perhaps twenty young men or boys, to make them lie down on the two sides, and to shake over them leaves and tips of the twigs of plants powerful and magical with charms. Then the leader and his assistants went into all the sacred places which ghosts haunt, such as where men wash off the black of mourning, collecting as they went the ghosts and becoming themselves so much possessed that they appeared to have lost their senses, though they acted in a certain method. In the meanwhile the subjects lying in the gamal begin to be moved; those who bring as they say the ghosts to them go quietly along both sides of the house without, and all at once strike the house along its whole length with the sticks they carry in their hands. This startles those inside, and they roll about on the ground distracted. Then the 'ghosts' enter in with their sticks, and in this performance each is believed to be some one deceased, one Tagilrow, another Qatawala; they leap from side to side, turning their sticks over to be beaten by the subjects on one side and the other. The subjects are given sticks for this purpose, and as they strike the stick the ghost 'strikes,' possesses, them one after another. In this state the sticks draw them out into the open place of the village, where they are seen. They appear not to recognize or hear any one but the 'ghosts' who have brought this upon them, and who alone can control them and prevent them from pulling down the houses; for they have a rage for seizing and striking with anything, bows, clubs, bamboo water-vessels, or the rafters of the houses, and their strength is such that a full-grown man cannot hold a boy in this state. After a time the 'ghosts' take them back into the gamal, and there they lie exhausted; the 'ghosts' go to drink kava, and as each drinks he pours away the dregs calling the name of one of the possessed, and the senses of each return as his name is called. It is five days, however, before they can go about again. This was done once after a Christian teacher had come to Lo, and two of his scholars whom he let go to prove that it was a deception were possessed.

People in the Banks' Islands have certain tricks which those who do not understand them believe to be the work of ghosts. A man will hear a voice from the ground beneath his feet, calling him by his name. This is said to be done by letting an open bamboo some foot or two into the ground in some place not far from the person to be addressed, where the operation will be unseen, and then speaking into the end of the bamboo, and directing the voice in the way the sound is meant to travel. Again, a family party working in their garden will see smoke and sparks ascending in the direction of their village; they hear the hissing of the flames and the popping of the bamboo rafters; they are sure that it is their own house burning, and run to save what they can. When they reach the village all is quiet, the houses are all standing with fastened doors, as in the hours of work. The trick has been played by a party who somewhere in a line with the house have made a fire, and exploding green reeds which fill with steam when heated in the fire, and beating with the tips of dry cocoa-nut fronds upon the ground, have imitated with wonderful exactness the noises of a house on fire.

It will hardly be inappropriate here to introduce the Melanesian superstition about sneezing, to which some reference has been already made. In Florida when a man sneezes they think that some one is speaking of him, is angry with him, perhaps cursing him by calling on his own tindalo to eat him; the man who sneezes calls upon his tlndalo to damage the man who is cursing him. In the same way at Saa if a man sneezes when he wakes, he cries, 'Who calls me? If for good, well; if for evil, may So-and-So (naming a lio’a) defend me.' In the Banks' Islands also some one is supposed to be calling the name of a man when he sneezes, either for good or evil. In Motlav if a child sneezes, the mother will cry, 'Let him come back into the world! let him remain.' In Mota they cry, 'Live, roll back to us!' The notion is that a ghost is drawing the child's soul away. It has been said that at Mota a man enquires when he sneezes by a certain divination who is cursing him; he will also stamp with his foot and cry, 'Stamp down the mischief from me! Let it be quiet! Let them say their words in vain; let them lay their plots in vain!'[1]. There is a special form of words used when one's step-father sneezes (page 40). The native notions in the New Hebrides are much the same; but in Lepers' Island, if an infant sneezes, it is a sign that its soul has been away, and has just come back; the friends present cry out with good wishes. They judge in the same island by the character of the sneeze what is the motive with which the sneezer's name is being called; if it be a gentle sneeze no harm is meant, a violent paroxysm is warning of a curse.

  1. Vara sur o lea nan nau—id masur—nira vetcet ivora, nira sorsora wora!