The Melanesians, Their Anthropology and Folk-Lore,

Date: 1891

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ByR. H.n/aCODRINGTONn/an/an/an/a

The religion of the Melanesians is the expression of their conception of the supernatural, and embraces a very wide range of beliefs and practices, the limits of which it would be very difficult to define. It is equally difficult to ascertain with precision what these beliefs are. The ideas of the natives are not clear upon many points, they are not accustomed to present them in any systematic form among themselves. An observer who should set himself the task of making systematic enquiries, must find himself baffled at the outset by the multiplicity of the languages with which he has to deal. Suppose him to have as a medium of communication a language which he and those from whom he seeks information can use freely for the ordinary purposes of life, he finds that to fail when he seeks to know what is the real meaning of those expressions which his informant must needs use in his own tongue, because he knows no equivalent for them in the common language which is employed. Or if he gives what he supposes to be an equivalent, it will often happen that he and the enquirer do not understand that word in the same sense. A missionary has his own difficulty in the fact that very much of his communication is with the young, who do not themselves know and understand very much of what their elders believe and practice. Converts are disposed to blacken generally and indiscriminately their own former state, and with greater zeal the present practises of others. There are some things they are really ashamed to speak of; and there are others which they think they ought to consider wrong, because they are associated in their memory with what they know to be really bad. Many a native Christian will roundly condemn native songs and dances, who, when questions begin to clear his mind, acknowledges that some dances are quite innocent, explains that none that he knows have any religious significance whatever, says th at many songs also have nothing whatever bad in them, and writes out one or two as examples. Natives who are still heathen will speak with reserve of what still retains with them a sacred character, and a considerate missionary will respect such reserve; if he should not respect it the native may very likely fail in his respect for him, and amuse himself at his expense. Few missionaries have time to make systematic enquiries; if they do, they are likely to make them too soon, and for the whole of their after-career make whatever they observe fit into their early scheme of the native religion. Often missionaries, it is to be feared, so manage it that neither they nor the first generation of their converts really know what the old religion of the native people was. There is always with missionaries the difficulty of language; a man may speak a native language every day for years and have reason to believe he speaks it well, but it will argue ill for his real acquaintance with it if he does not find out that he makes mistakes, Resident traders, if observant, are free from some of a missionary’s difficulties; but they have their own. The ’pigeon English,’ which is sure to come in, carries its own deceits; ’plenty devil’ serves to convey much information; a chief’s grave is ’devil stones,’ the dancing ground of a village is a ’devil ground,’ the drums are idols, a dancing club is a ’devil stick.’2 The most intelligent travellers and naval officers pass their short period of observation in this atmosphere of confusion. Besides, every one, missionary and visitor, carries with him some preconceived ideas; he expects to see idols, and be sees them; images are labelled idols in museums whose makers carved them for amusement; a Solomon islander fashions the head of his lime-box stick into a grotesque figure, and it becomes the subject of a woodcut as ’a Solomon Island god.’ It is extremely difficult for any one to begin enquiries without some prepossessions, which, even if he can communicate with the natives in their own language, affect his conceptions of the meaning of the answers he receives. The questions he puts guide the native to the answer he thinks he ought to give. The native, with very vague beliefs and noti ons floating in cloudy solution in his mind, finds in the questions of the European a thread on which these will precipitate themselves, and, without any intention to deceive, avails himself of the opportunity to clear his own mind while he satisfies the questioner.

Some such statement as this of the difficulties in the way of a certain knowledge of the subject is a necessary introduction to the account which is given here of the religion of the Melanesians; and it is desirable that the writer should disclaim pretentions to accuracy or completeness. The general view which is presented must be taken with the particular examples of Melanesian belief and customs in matters of religion which follow.

(1) The Melanesian mind is entirely possessed by the belief in a supernatural power or influence, called almost universally mana.3 This is what works to effect everything which is beyond the ordinary power of men, outside the common processes of nature; it is present in the atmosphere of life, attaches itself to persons and to things, and is manifested by results which can only be ascribed to its operation. When one has got it he can use it and direct it, but its force may break forth at some new point; the presence of it is ascertained by proof. A man comes by chance upon a stone which takes his fancy; its shape is singular, it is like something, it is certainly not a common stone, there must be mana in it. So he argues with himself, and he puts it to the proof; he lays it at the root of a tree to the fruit of which it has a certain resemblance, or he buries it in the ground when he plants his garden; an abundant crop on the tree or in the garden shews that he is right, the stone is mana,4 has that power in it. Having that power it is a vehicle to convey mana to other stones. In the same way certain forms of words, generally in the form of a song, have power for certain purposes; a charm of words is called a mana. But this power, though itself impersonal, is always connected with some person who directs it; all spirits have it, ghosts generally, some men. If a stone is found to have supernatural power, it is because a spirit has associated itself with it; a dead man’s bone has with it mann, because the ghost is with the bone; a man may have so close a connexion with a spirit or ghost that he has mana in himself also, and can so direct it as to effect what he desires; a charm is powerful because the name of a spirit or ghost expressed in the form of words brings into it the power which the ghost or spirit exercises through it. Thus all conspicuous success is a proof that a man has mana; his influence depends on the impression made on the people’s mind that he has it; he becomes a chief by virtue of it. Hence a man’s power, though political or social in its character, is his mana; the word is naturally used in accordance with the native conception of the character of all power and influence as supernatural. If a man has been successful in fighting, it has not been his natural strength of arm, quickness of eye, or readiness of resource that has won success; he has certainly got the mana of a spirit or of some deceased warrior to empower him, conveyed in an amulet of a stone round his neck, or a tuft of leaves in his belt, in a tooth hung upon a finger of his bow hand, or in the form of words with which he brings supernatural assistance to his side. If a man’s pigs multiply, and his gardens are productive, it is not because he is industrious and looks after his property, but because of the stones full of mana for pigs and yams that he possesses. Of course a yam naturally grows when planted, that is well known, but it will not be very large unless mana comes into play; a canoe will not be swift unless mana be brought to bear upon it, a net will not catch many fish, nor an arrow inflict a mortal wound.

(2) The Melanesians believe in the existence of beings personal, intelligent, full of mana, with a certain bodily form which is visible but not fleshly like the bodies of men. These they think to be more or less actively concerned in the affairs of men, and they invoke and otherwise approach them. These may be called spirits; but it is most important to distinguish between spirits who are beings of an order higher than mankind, and the disembodied spirits of men, which have become in the vulgar sense of the word ghosts. From the neglect of this distinction great confusion and misunderstanding arises; and it is much to be desired that missionaries at any rate would carefully observe the distinction. Any personal object of Worship among natives in all parts of the world is taken by the European observer to be a spirit or a god, or a devil; but among Melanesians at any rate it is very common to invoke departed relatives and friends, and to use religious rites addressed to them. A man therefore who is approaching with some rite his dead father, whose spirit he believes to be existing and pleased with his pious action, is thought to be worshipping a false god or deceiving spirit, and very probably is told that the being he worships does not exist. The perplexed native hears with one ear that there is no such thing as that departed spirit of a man which he venerates as a ghost but his instructor takes to be a god, and with the other that the soul never dies, and that his own spiritual interests are paramount and eternal. They themselves make a clear distinction between the existing, conscious, powerful, disembodied spirits of the dead, and other spiritual beings that never have been men at all. It is true that the two orders of beings get confused in native language and thought, but their confusion begins at one end and the confusion of their visitors at another; they think so much and constantly of ghosts that they speak of beings who were never men as ghosts; Europeans take the spirits of the lately dead for gods; less educated Europeans call them roundly devils. All Melanesians, as far as my acquaintance with them extends, believe in the existence both of spirits that never were men, and of ghosts which are the disembodied souls of men deceased: to preserve as far as possible this distinction, the supernatural beings that were never in a human body are here called spirits, men’s spirits that have left the body are called ghosts.

There is, however, a very remarkable difference between the natives of the New Hebrides and Banks’ Islands to the east, and the natives of the Solomon Islands to the west; the direction of the religious ideas and practices of the former is towards spirits rather than ghosts, the latter pay very little attention to spirits and address themselves almost wholly to ghosts. This goes with a much greater development of a sacrificial system in the west than in the east; and goes along also with a certain advance in the arts of life. Enough is hardly known of the Santa Cruz people, who lie between, to speak with certainty, but they appear to range themselves, as they rather do geographically, on the side of the Solomon Islands. In Fiji it is the established custom to call the objects of the old worship gods; but Mr. Fison was ’inclined to think all the spiritual beings of Fiji, including the gods, simply the Mota tamate,’ i.e., ghosts; and the words of Mr. Hazelwood, quoted by Mr. Brenchley (Cruise of the Curaçoa, p. 181), confirm this view. Tuikilakila told one of the first missionaries how he proposed to treat him. ’If you die first,’ said he, ’I shall make you my god.’ And the same Tuikilakila would sometimes say of himself, ’I am a god.’ It is added that he believed it too; and his belief was surely correct. For it should be observed that the chief never said he was or should be a god, in English, but that he was or should be a kalou, in Fijian, and a kalou he no doubt became; that is to say, on his decease his departed spirit was invoked and worshipped as he knew it would be. He used no verb ’am’ or ’shall be’; said only ’I a kalou.’ In Fiji also this worship of the dead rather than of beings that never were in the flesh, accompanies a more considerable advance in the arts of life than is found in, for example, the Banks’ Islands. It is plain that the natives of the southern islands of the New Hebrides, though they are said to worship ’gods,’ believe in the existence and power of spirits other than the disembodied spirits of the dead, as well as of the ghosts of men. When a missionary visitor to Anaiteum reported that the people ’lived under the most abject bondage to their Natmases,’ and called these ’gods,’ he was evidently speaking of the ghosts, the Natmat of the Banks’ Islands, for the word is no doubt the same. The belief in other spirits not ghosts of the dead, appears equally clear in the account given of the sacred stones and places, which correspond to those of the northern islands of the same group, and in the ’minor deities’ said to be the progeny of Nugerain, and called ’gods of the sea, of the land, of mountains and valleys,’ who represent the wui of Lepers’ Island and Araga. There does not appear to be anywhere in Melanesia a belief in a spirit which animates any natural object, a tree, waterfall, storm or rock, so as to be to it what the soul is believed to be to the body of a man. Europeans it is true speak of the spirits of the sea or of the storm or of the forest; but the native idea which they represent is that ghosts haunt the sea and the forest, having power to raise storms and to strike a traveller with disease, or that supernatural beings never men do the same. It may be said, then, that Melanesian religion divides the people into two groups; one, where, with an accompanying belief in spirits never men, worship is directed to the ghosts of the dead, as in the Solomon Islands; the other, where both ghosts and spirits have an important place, but the spirits have more worship than the ghosts, as is the case in the New Hebrides and in the Banks’ Islands.

(3) In the Banks’ Islands a spirit is called a vui, and is thus described by a native who was exhorted to give as far as possible the original notion conveyed among the old people by the word, and gave his definition after considerable reflection:—’What is a vui? It lives, thinks, has more intelligence than a man; knows things which are secret without seeing; is supernaturally powerful with mana; has no form to be seen; has no soul, because itself is like a soul.’ But though the true conception of a vui represents it as incorporeal, the stories about the vui who have names treat them as if they were men possessed of supernatural power. The wui of the Northern New Hebrides are the same. . . .

These spirits, such as they are, have no position in the religion of the Solomon Islands; the ghosts, the disembodied spirits of the dead, are objects of worship; the tindalo of Florida, tidadho of Ysabel, tinda’o of Guadalcanar, lio’a of Saa, ’ataro of San Cristoval. But it must not be supposed that every ghost becomes an object of worship. A man in danger may call upon his father, his grandfather, or his uncle; his nearness of kin is sufficient ground for it. The ghost who is to be worshipped is the spirit of a man who in his lifetime had mana in him; the souls of common men are the common herd of ghosts, nobodies alike before and after death. The supernatural power abiding in the powerful living man abides in his ghost after death, with increased vigour and more ease of movement. After his death, therefore, it is expected that he should begin to work, and some one will come forward and claim particular acquaintance with the ghost; if his power should shew itself, his position is assured as one worthy to be invoked, and to receive offerings, till his cultus gives way before the rising importance of one newly dead, and the sacred place where his shrine once stood and his relics were preserved is the only memorial of him that remains; if no proof of his activity appears, he sinks into oblivion at once. An admirable example of the establishment of the worship of a tindalo in Florida is given in the story of Ganindo, for which I am indebted to Bishop Selwyn. There was a gathering of men at Honggo to go on a head-hunting expedition under the leading of Kulanikama the chief (himself afterwards a ghost of worship), and Ganindo was their great fighting man. They went to attack Gaeta, and Lumba of Gaeta shot Ganindo near the collar-bone with an arrow. Having failed in their purpose they returned to Honggo, and said they, ’our friend is dead.’ But as he still lived they took him over to Nggaombata in Guadalcanar, brought him back again, and put him on the hill Bonipari, where he died and was buried. Then they took his head, wove a basket for it, and built a house for it, and they said he was a tindalo.’ Let us go and take heads,’ said they; so they made an expedition. As they went they ceased paddling in a quiet place and waited till they felt their canoe rock under them; then said they, ’Here is a tindalo.’ To find out who he was they called the names of tindalos, and when they called the name of Ganindo the canoe shook again. In the same way they learnt what village they were to attack. Returning successful, they threw a spear into the roof of Ganindo’s house, blew conches, and danced around it crying, ’Our tindalo is strong to kill.’ Then they sacrificed to him, fish and food. Then they built him a new house, and made four images for the four corn ers, one of Ganindo himself, two of his sisters, and another. Then, when eight men had carried up the ridge covering for the house, eight men translated the relics to the shrine. One carried the bones of Ganindo, another his betel-nuts, another his lime-box, another his shell trumpet. They all went in crouching, as if under a heavy weight, and singing slowly, ’Ma-i-i, ma-i-i, ka saka tua, hither, hither, let us lift the leg’; the eight legs were lifted together, and again they chanted ’ma-i-i, ms-i-i,’ and at the last mai the eight legs went down together. With this solemn procession the relics were set upon a bamboo platform, and sacrifices to the new keramo were begun; by Nisi first, then by Satani, then by Begoni, the last, at whose death some four years ago the sacrifices ceased, and the shrine fell to ruin before the advance of Christian teaching. To the natives of Florida this Ganindo was a tindalo, a ghost of worship, a keramo, a ghost powerful for war; he would be spoken of now by some Europeans as a god, by others as a devil, and the pigeon-English speaking natives now, who think that ’devil’ is the English for tindalo, would use the same word.


2 It may be asserted with confidence that a belief in a devil, that is of an evil spirit, has no place whatever in the native Melanesian mind. The word has certainly not been introduced in the Solomon or Banks Islands by missionaries, who in those groups have never used the word devil. Yet most unfortunately it has come to pass that the religious beliefs of European traders have been conveyed to the natives in the word ’devil,’ which they use without knowing what it means. It is much to be wished that educated Europeans would not use the word so loosely as they do.

3 Professor Max Müller, in his Hibbert Lectures of 1878, did me the honour of quoting the following words from a letter. ’The religion of the Melanesians consists, as far as belief goes, in the persuasion that there is a supernatural power about belonging to the region of the unseen; and, as far as practice goes, in the use of means of getting this power turned to their own benefit. The notion of a Supreme Being is altogether foreign to them, or indeed of any being occupying a very elevated place in their world. . . . There is a belief in a force altogether distinct from physical power, which acts in all kinds of ways for good and evil, and which it is of the greatest advantage to possess or control. This is Mana. The word is common I believe to the whole Pacific, and people have tried very hard to describe what it is in different regions. I think I know what our people meant by it, and that meaning seems to me to cover all that I hear about it elsewhere. It is a power or influence, not physical, and in a way supernatural; but it shews itself in physical force, or in any kind of power or excellence which a man possesses. This Mana is not fixed in anything, and can be conveyed in almost anything; but spirits, whether disembodied souls or supernatural beings, have it and can impart it; and it essentially belongs to personal beings to originate it, though it may act through the medium of water, or a stone, or a bone. All Melanesian religion consists, in fact, in getting this Mana for one’s self, or getting it used for one’s benefit—all religion, that is, as far as religious practices go, prayers and sacrifices.’

4 The word mana is both a noun substantive and a verb; a transitive form of the verb, manag, manahi, manangi, means to impart mana, or to influence with it. An object in which mana resides, and a spirit which naturally has mana, is said to be mana, with the use of the verb; a man has mana, but cannot properly be said to be mana.

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Chicago: R. H. Codrington, ed., The Melanesians, Their Anthropology and Folk-Lore, in Source Book in Anthropology, ed. Kroeber, Alfred L., 1876-1960, and Waterman, T. T. (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1920), Original Sources, accessed June 20, 2024,

MLA: . The Melanesians, Their Anthropology and Folk-Lore,, edited by R. H. Codrington, in Source Book in Anthropology, edited by Kroeber, Alfred L., 1876-1960, and Waterman, T. T., Berkeley, CA, University of California Press, 1920, Original Sources. 20 Jun. 2024.

Harvard: (ed.), The Melanesians, Their Anthropology and Folk-Lore,. cited in 1920, Source Book in Anthropology, ed. , University of California Press, Berkeley, CA. Original Sources, retrieved 20 June 2024, from