The following article is based on my theological and anthropological studies as well as on my twenty year experience in Papua New Guinea, which is one of the nations in Southwest Pacific usually called Melanesia; the others being: the Indonesian Province of Papua, and the archipelagos of Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, New Caledonia, and Fiji.
The topic assigned to me should have included also Polynesia but, unfortunately, my knowledge of the Polynesian cultures is very limited. However, the theological principles which I apply to the initial proclamation of Christ in the context of the Melanesian cultures can easily be applied also in the context of Polynesian and other cultures.
I am a Catholic pastor with a Master in Theology (Gregorian University, Rome, 1969) and a Doctorate in Sociology (Trento University, 1978). After spending 13 years in Indonesia (Flores 1974-87) and a few years in Italy and England (1987-1993), I was assigned to the Ecumenical Melanesian Institute of Goroka1, in which I have been working since 1994.
The article is limited to the ‘content’ of the initial proclamation of Christ although the author is aware that other factors should also be taken into consideration for a successful initial approach, such as relying on prayer and God’s providence, having and humble attitude, achieving the trust of the targeted population, knowing the language and culture of the society, etc. These factors are very important and cannot be neglected.2
In regard to the content of the initial proclamation my most important theological assumption as far as the relationship between Gospel and peoples’ cultures and religions is concerned, is that of the so called ‘theory or model of fulfilment”. According to this theory Christianity brings to completion what God has already sown in the peoples’ cultures and religions while at the same time purifying them from sinful elements. This theory is built on the approach used by Jesus and the early Christians in proclaiming the Good news. In the Gospels the incarnation and mission of Jesus Christ is described as the coming into the Jewish culture of God’s Word in flesh, who was “the real light which enlightens everyone” (Jn 1: 9) and which “shines in the darkness and the darkness could not overpower it” (John 1: 5). Jesus came into the Jewish culture not to “abolish the Law and Prophets but to complete (greek: ekpleroso) them” (Mt 5: 17).3 In other words, Jesus came to earth, born to a specific people at a specific time and in a specific place. He learned how to behave in that culture, learned how to speak in that language, and ministered to the real needs of the people in the context of their historical and political situation. He did not destroy, though he did confront the Jewish culture and religion and correct its deviations (cfr Mt 5: 20-48).
The early Christians made use of the religious beliefs and institutions of both the Jewish and pagan people in their first proclamation of Christ. In relation to the Jews, Christ’s life and preaching were seen as fulfilling prophecies, figures, and institutions of the First Testament. The proclamation of the Gospel was done in the familiar context of traditional terminology, beliefs and practices. Look for instance at the titles given to Jesus: Messiah, Lamb of God, Second Adam, High Priest, Word and Wisdom of God, Son of Man, Redeemer, Paschal Lamb, Rabbi, etc. They must have sounded very familiar to the Jews.
The “completion” brought about by Jesus did not only regard the Jewish legislation but also its religious institutions and symbols. Jesus is the “second Adam” (cfr Rom 5: 14), the “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (Jn 1: 29), the “Supreme high Priest” (He 4:14), “the Mediator of a better Covenant” (cfr He 8: 6-7), “the new temple” (cfr Jn 1: 19), etc. Jewish festivals too came to assume Christian forms and meanings, like the Passover meal, Easter festival, Pentecost, the baptism ritual, etc.
Also in relation to the pagans – the non-Jews – the initial proclamation of Christ strived to build on their beliefs and traditions. Christian missionaries avoided to impose the Jewish Law on the non Jews (cfr Acts 15), Paul and Barnabas addressed the pagans of Iconium in a way accessible to them (Acts 14) and the same happened in the Paul’s speech before the Greek council of the Areopagus (cfr Acts 17). The Gospel of John borrowed the notion of Logos from the Greek philosophers and the early Church continued to build on the beliefs and customs of the people she intended to evangelise. John Newman sums up the whole process of ‘indigenisation’ in the following lines:
The use of temples, and these dedicated to particular saints, and ornaments on occasions with branches of trees; holy water; holydays and seasons, use of calendars, processions, blessings on the fields; sacerdotal vestments, the tonsure, the ring in marriage, turning to the East, images at a later date, perhaps the ecclesiastical chant, are all of pagan origin, and sanctified by their adoption into the Church4.
The fulfilment theory is in line with what Pope Pius XII already wrote in 1951:
The Church from the beginning down to our time has always followed this wise practice; let not the Gospel, on being introduced into a new land, destroy or extinguish whatever its people possess that is naturally good, just and beautiful. Fore the Church, when she calls people to a higher culture and a better way of life under the inspiration of the Christian religion, does not act like one who recklessly cuts down and uproots a thriving forest. No, she grafts a good scion upon the wild stock that it may bear a crop of more delicious fruit. (Evangelii Precones – Heralds of the Gospel # 52)
To the above statement the Second Vatican Council added some solid theological foundations5, which could be summarised by the following quotation:
The Catholic Church rejects nothing of what is true and holy in these [non-Christian] religions. With sincere respect she looks in those ways of conduct and life, these precepts and teachings which, though differing in many points from what she herself holds and teaches, yet not rarely reflect the ray of that Truth which enlightens all human beings. But she proclaims and must ever proclaim, “the way, the truth and the life (Jn 14: 6), in whom human finds the fullness of religious life and in whom God has reconciled all things to himself [cfr 2 Cor 5: 18f]. (Nostra Aetate #2)
On his part, Pope John Paul II supported the statements of the Council in his Encyclicals6 and in other documents issued by the Vatican during his term of office7. He even implicitly referred to the “fulfilment theory” in some documents. The following are two quotations among many:
God’s Spirit presence and activity affect not only individuals but also society and history, peoples, cultures and religions. It is the Spirit who sows the “seeds of the Word” present in various customs and cultures, preparing them for the full maturity in Christ”. (Redemptoris Missio 1990: 29)
The incarnate Word is the fulfilment of the yearning present in all the religions of humankind: this fulfilment is brought about by God himself and transcends all human expectations. Christ is the fulfilment of the yearning of all the world’s religions and, as such, he is their sole and definitive completion. (Tertio Millennio Adveniente 1994: #6)
The theory of fulfilment, while holding a positive attitude towards human cultures does certainly not deny the presence of sin in all of them. All cultures –including those in so called Christian countries – wear the stains and bear the shame of human sinfulness8. They may even contain and perpetuate corrupting elements. This fact does not generally mean that they are completely depraved but rather in need of purification and redemption.
For sin has been at work in the world, and so religious traditions, notwithstanding their positive values, reflect the limitations of the human spirit, sometimes inclined to choose evil. An open and positive approach to other religious traditions cannot overlook the contradictions which may exist between them and Christian revelation” (Lumen Gentium # 10).
One major presupposition of the fulfilment theory is that, in similarity with Jesus’ and the early Christians’ approach, carriers of the initial Gospel proclamation are to be well acquainted with the cultural and religious beliefs and practices, and more in general with the so called “epistemology” of the targeted population. Such deep knowledge will make the “proclamators” not only aware of what God has already sown in the culture of the people but also of the possible misunderstandings of the gospel’s message, since it will be received within the people’s already established frame of mind. This deep cultural knowledge is particularly important in Melanesia, since its cultures are very different from those of other continents’ populations.
And so the Church has this exhortation for her children: prudently and lovingly, through dialogue and collaboration with the followers of other religions, and in witness to the Christian faith and life, acknowledge, preserve and promote the spiritual and moral good, as well as the socio-cultural values found among them. (Nostra Aetate # 2)
Finally, I also assume that the recipients of the ‘initial proclamation of Christ’ are not only the non baptised but also the baptised whose knowledge of Christ is not adequate or even false, which is often the case among the baptised in Melanesia nowadays. Besides, I assume that the proclamation is not only made by words but also by deeds and examples. Having stated that, let us start with a summary of the main characteristics of Melanesian traditional cultures and religions.
Traditional Cultures of Melanesia9.
I have to start by emphasising the extreme variety of systems of life (i.e., cultures) to be found among the Melanesians, due to very old causes. At the same time, however, we must hurry on to the claim that there are also many general similarities. The highest values in the various Melanesian cultures almost always involve the achieving of an abundance of material and spiritual goods here on this earth. They include women, children, animals, health, beauty, prestige, power and objects considered locally to be of value. Since those good were, and partly still are, only achievable within the descent group (lineages and clans), the well-being of the latter over-rides all other priorities. The descent group is made up of relationships, which are created, maintained and mended through exchanges, seen as reciprocal giving and receiving. The whole social organisation was and is harnessed towards these ends.
New Guinea villages were often notable for having a single very large building for the use of adult males, while women and children were housed separately and far more simply, often together with the pigs. This practice could also be found in other parts of Melanesia. Men lived and slept together for various reasons, one being the need for instant mobilisation of fighters in the case of the expected attacks by enemy clans. These “men’s houses” also allowed for male activities, ritual, political and so on to be kept secret from women and from uninitiated male children. Such a house made very central values more concrete. It was often the store house for magical objects and the location for magic rites and initiation ceremonies. Access was usually forbidden to women. In some places unmarried male youths also lived apart, in a house of their own.
There must have been many social structures, but exogamous clans seem to have been common, most of them small, usually subdivided into sub-clans and lineages. Clans and sub-clans had their heads. There could be more than one clan in the same village, and in that case one of the heads gained higher authority. There is a mixture of patrilineal clans and matrilineal clans today, with inheritance through the male line predominating in continental Melanesia, and inheritance through the female line being typical of island Melanesia. In matrilineal societies women tend to have more authority and value, but this is not automatic. Clans were strongly linked to their territories, their land, which was the main inheritable asset.
There could be higher level groupings of clans, coalitions formed for tribal fighting, but in general these were unstable and temporary. In island Melanesia it was common to divide the society into two major subgroups formed of associations of clans. These are called moieties in English. Only Fiji had stable coalitions of many clans, which we could call “tribes”.10 And this was influenced by Polynesian custom. Linguistic groups could include hundreds of clans, but did not correspond with political units. A clan’s enemies were often its closest neighbours.
The leaders were often called big men, and this position was typically not inherited. Heredity could at most have had some influence on a man’s achieving the highest status. The proven qualities of a man were far more important, ability in battle, ability to acquire wealth and to distribute it, speaking ability and perceived wisdom. Heads were considered to be knowledgeable about magical formulas and rites, and were consequently feared for non-physical reasons. Clans were permanently unstable because the “top job” was open to all capable comers, and any leader would have the new aspirants snapping at his heels. Some coastal clans and many eastern clans did have hereditary leaders and even a “grand chief” at the highest, tribal, level. This is typically Fijian, and anthropologists have characterised Fijians as “Polynesians in Melanesian skins”. In general, the minority of societies in which leadership was inherited were far more stable than the majority, the big man sort.
Clans were based on totems, more commonly in the coastal areas of the large islands and in the archipelagos to the East. Totems were almost all animals, birds and some large fish, not plants, and were considered as the remote ancestors of the clan, or at least as having some special bond with that clan, and as a general rule clan members could not hunt, much less eat their totem animal. But for a few clans totems were mere symbols by which (rather than with which) its members identified themselves.
As in many Asian countries, political decisions in most of Melanesia were made by consensus. A council of elders, usually the heads of the various clans and sub-clans, would discuss problems to exhaustion, and eventually arrived at a formal consensus. Every clan and lineage would be represented. Of course, the prominence and the oratorical powers of some of the heads would have played a larger than average part in the final decision. But it was important that no one felt unhappy with the eventual decision, or was left still holding on to a minority view, and this sort of intense negotiating culture is clearly highly political, through and through. The political systems respected the general structure of the societies, which did not recognise majority rights over minorities, and were strongly egalitarian. Even in those Melanesian societies more influenced by the very hierarchical Polynesian cultures, the leaders based their power on consensus, not on force.
In the most general sense, the clan owned the land, and defended its boundaries ferociously. The identification of the people with their territory was so close that anthropologists have suggested that the people belonged to the land, rather than the other way round. In fact, land was conceptualised as a gift from the ancestors to the current generation, who had to preserve it for their descendants in the future. Belonging to a territory was culturally more important than belonging to a line of inheritance, a “blood line”, or even a line of fictive, ascribed parentage. This facilitated the common practice of adoption (even of abduction) so as to add new members of, rather than to the territory. Effectively then, the real members of the clan were those who cultivated a particular piece of land and who defended it in battle.
The clan was so all-important that its well-being was the highest imperative of morality. So, “good” was anything which contributed to the welfare of one’s own clan, and “bad” was everything which could cause it any harm or disadvantage. All the social institutions, particularly those of the family and of tribal politics, had to contribute to the well-being and prestige of the clan. At a very deep level, individual consciences were formed around this fundamental principle of morality, which has effects that we still can be surprised by today.
Traditional society, like many others, was most strongly divided across the gender boundary. Melanesians have had some of the most extreme distinctions between male and female in the anthropological record, not just a 100% division of tasks or even fear of menstrual blood, but separate buildings, limited physical contact, separate personal taboos, and often violent, ritualised antagonism. Work was strongly divided according to sex, but this has been a common practice in many cultures. Almost all the clans and cultures had an extreme fear of menstrual blood, and of eating food cooked, or even touched, by a menstruating woman. . The damage to men is not just illness or bad luck, but a halting of their natural growth and a reduction of their strength. This belief gave rise to a whole host of taboos and regulations concerning sharing a building and sharing food. It was quite common for tribes to have a woman’s hut in which women isolated themselves during menstruation or childbirth, being attended only by other women. And in the Highlands of PNG at least, a polygamous male would house each wife separately with their own pigs and garden, and visit them on a kind of circuit. We have also mentioned the separation brought about by the men’s house, or “lodge”, the haus man. This was not primarily meant for bachelors.
In the highlands of New Guinea the old ritual conflict between husband and wife was particularly severe. This was because the exogamous woman was an intruder to her husband’s clan. In addition, she was often from an enemy clan, as wives were commonly exchanged with enemy clans in periods of reconciliation between tribal fights, in an attempt to make the peace binding, but “peace” was usually no more than a temporary truce. These things exacerbated the universal male fear of woman’s blood and her ability to “poison” food, and, no doubt, of a general awe at the generative, reproductive powers of women, when the contribution of men to a pregnancy was often regarded as being little or nothing. All these attitudes led to a lack of displays of emotion between husbands and wives, except of course, anger, to restricting visits to wives and their houses to a very short period, to the use of protective amulets and magical formulas, and to many elements of the different rites of initiation. One example of this is the reason often given in today’s PNG for renewed, non-traditional practices of circumcision, either young male on young male, or by a young male on himself. It is “to void the mama blood”. While witchcraft has been feminised in many cultures, there are particular reasons for such accusations predominantly targeting women in Melanesia.
This grim picture needs to be modified in various ways, especially by noting that when a wife has accepted the restrictions of “being a Melanesian woman”, and has produced children, marital relations can soften. But “the war of the sexes” remains a disturbing aspect of various Melanesian societies, including the westernised and educated elite, and where a succession of “girl friends” or worse, a second, third, or sixteenth wife comes in; there can be a war of the women, or on the women by their different supporting clans.
Polygamy was widespread but not common—which means that it could be found in many places, but was not a practice indulged in by every member, or even the majority of them. It was most common among the leaders and prominent males. Their wives increased tribal wealth by producing children, by gardening, and by caring for the pigs, often in the same living space. All this directly raised the prestige of the leader and the whole clan. Women mostly had a subordinate position in public affairs and social organisation, though this inferiority could be reduced in matrilineal cultures. However, what women did was much valued in all social systems, and this tribal fact threw a fainter reflection on the woman herself—a clan which was agreeing to one of its women marrying out (the normal custom) would demand collective compensation for the loss of this woman’s potential as child bearer, gardener and one who takes care of the pigs. And this debt remained for the whole life of the woman. Patrilineal cultures had the same general system, but with some differences. Even after marriage the woman, and her children, were regarded as being entirely the property of her husband’s clan. When this husband died the women and children had no easy return to the clan of her youth, which would have been the normal path for a widow to take in matrilineal cultures. Various tensions and conflicts could arise, and in some islands of Vanuatu and Fiji there is hard evidence of a widow, or of widows, being forced to die and share the tomb with their husband. The excavated tombs can also contain the bodies of servants, and clearly not all the deceased died peacefully. Some seem to have been buried alive.
One of the most notable aspects of social life in Melanesia has been the complexity of the network of exchanges which can leave everyone so indebted to everyone else that no escape from debt is possible, for almost everyone. Exchanges can be of goods, or, as we have seen with marriage, of persons. Slavery properly so-called was almost unknown. Exchanges could be between individuals, or between clans, entire communities. Goods seen as being of value include pigs and other, lesser animals (especially cassowaries and large pythons), shells, the feathers of some birds, dog’s teeth, boar’s tusks, and stones variously shaped, particularly those bored through the centre. Some exchange goods were of use and others purely for display, and of course, some could have both sets of functions. To give things or people away provided a person, or a collectivity, with great prestige. As in other such systems, there could be a devastating competition in gift giving. The whole society was deeply bound together by bonds of all sorts of reciprocity, and Melanesians are naturally suspicious and even contemptuous of those who don’t or won’t give. Unfortunately for the chances of a modern, civil society in their new States, many groups regard reciprocity as something that only applies between people inside the clan and with their traditional neighbours. While a “relationship” itself is non-material, Melanesians conceptualise it by the exchange or gift which initiates a personal or commercial or political relationship, the succession of exchanges which periodically reinforce it when it seems to be weakening, those which make up for both deliberate and unintentional wrongs, those which merely demonstrate gratitude, and those which re-establish the equilibrium between persons and between clans. .
Exchanges have been conducted over long distances. They are evidenced between the coasts and the interior of the large islands, and between different islands. The most famous is the kula ring described by Malinowski, conducted around the islands of S.E. New Guinea. Coastal people and those on small offshore islands had, as a rule, far greater connections with each other (by exchange) than Highlanders did, or any other groups living in the interior. As has become a cliché, the sea connected more than it divided. But this was true for almost all of human history before the railways. Seas, rivers and canals united, but land divided. Once again, it is the recognition and analysis of the pottery called Lapita and of finds of obsidian that most clearly show the extent of travelling and exchange, even in quite ancient times.
Melanesians were not the favourites of the early explorers. While other groups could be every bit as aggressive and exploitive, the Melanesians were quickly regarded as being typically unwelcoming, thieving and unpleasant in every way. While not universal, cannibalism was widespread and head hunting was practised. Whatever the form it took, a state of permanent warfare was the normal situation among the clans, and the losers in an important battle could be driven off their land, which became the property of the victors. Ownership by conquest was an accepted reality. Fighting was mostly hand to hand, though arsenal such as bows and arrows, spears, and in minor disagreement, hails of stones could be used at a moderate distance from the enemy. Painted shields, often of a large format, were common. Clubs and axes also. It was not uncommon for raiding parties to descend on enemy villages and for children and women to be abducted. Some tribes depended on abductions to keep up their numbers. Fighting was a major custom provided for excitement and risk taking in a fairly monotonous daily life, it could satisfy very deep religious needs, guarantee the renewal of their culture and livelihoods, and consolidate the power of the conquerors over the conquered. But the state of fear, which arose from the very insecure situation (and from fear of bush spirits and of human sorcery), was a dark cloud throwing a shadow over daily life and making it difficult, and unusual, for any individual to move far outside the territory of their little clan or of their allies. Physical aggression was also the norm in many families, husband and wife (and this was not all one way!), and parents to children. It is not clear if the “trials and tests” which many young boys endured during initiation contributed to the high level of physical aggression to be found in many of the societies. Physical aggression, through a display of fighting prowess was a survival mechanism; for a passive community was always an easy victim of invading clans.
Excitement was also provided by the great feasts, during which Melanesians painted their bodies in different colours and adorned themselves with the plumage of birds. Coloured clays could make the face into a mask for different purposes; common clay was a sign of grief and morning. The meaning of the decoration could differ from being a sign of impending aggression, or high rage, or being on a war footing. Masks and total body coverings of various kinds had deep symbolic meanings, often being the personification of spirits, or of ancestors. Skilled carvers of wood were widely employed to make different types of drum, to which the men (and sometimes, the women) danced. Dances were often an enactment of some myth, or they could be the recreation of some sad or joyous event. Along with the drums there could be the blowing of large shells, of bamboo flutes, and of different types of whistles. Dances and songs could be sung by outsiders who did not know the language, and there was a kind of “copyright” on them. “Payment” (some kind of exchange or compensation) was required for outsiders to use these ceremonial creations legitimately.
Melanesian society has become mainly agricultural, and so many rites and myths were based on the agricultural cycle, as well as on the hunting cycle, for land game or for fish. There were ceremonies before planting and others after the harvest. Likewise, for the beginning and end for periods of hunting and fishing. It was common for all hunting or fishing to be banned for considerable periods of time, apparently to allow for the stocks of the forest and the sea to grow back again, but there is clear evidence that not all the peoples of Melanesia, particularly of Island Melanesia, were ecologically sensitive or even sensible.
The greatest ceremonies were often those which accompanied the death of a head man or some other important member of the clan. Where carving was a tradition, statues could be sculpted in his honour, lines of pigs killed and cooked, and extraordinary types of exchange could be activated between families and clans. The funeral celebrations could go on for some months, running through various stages. Typically, the spirits of recently deceased clan members were deeply feared, and various offerings were made to satisfy, propitiate them. Depending on local cultures, all sorts of sickness and misfortune could be laid at the door of recently deceased people, and were viewed as punishment for any kind of insult or disobedience to them, whether from the lifetime of the person, or after his or her death.
3. Traditional Religions of Melanesia
In primal cultures it is difficult or impossible to separate religion from culture in general, if by “religion” we mean beliefs and practices directed at beings not to be found in mankind’s common experience. In fact traditional Melanesian religions permeated the whole life of the community. People would not engage in hunting or fishing, or go out fighting without first calling on supernatural help through religious rituals. Activities connected with gardening cycle or initiation were also accompanied by magic-religious practices.
Melanesian epistemology is essentially religious. That is, Melanesians rely primarily on religious knowledge as their basis for knowing and understanding the world in which they live. (Whiteman in Mantovani 1984: 88)
Melanesians also had no writing system and no elaborate tradition of specialists in oral culture, so the way they formulated their religious attitudes and beliefs was not direct, clear, and conceptual, but discursive and symbolic. Religion was carried by myths, dances and other ceremonies, and expressed in practices. Melanesian religions were also very different, but they can be seen as sharing a core of beliefs and practices. No doubt they would be comparable with the religions of distant peoples at the same level of culture.
Another aspect of traditional Melanesian religions is its secrecy. Mythical stories, beliefs, practices, etc., were and are kept secret and eventually revealed to clan members within initiation rites. Non members, especially foreigners, do not have easy access to those kinds of knowledge.
Most anthropologists separate “cosmic” or “bio-cosmic” religions from the “theistic” ones. Melanesia is seen as having “cosmic” religions, and in these human beings are considered part of nature, and not their lords and masters. What we may call “life” is shared by man and the animals, but also by plants, by spirits, and the souls of the dead, by totems and by less personalised occult forces. Somewhere in all this we could also put individual stones, and large natural features of the landscape. The world is perceived in its totality and life holistically, without any separation between the natural realm and the supernatural realm, between empirical reality and some non-empirical reality. Natural phenomena and processes like rain, sickness, death and disasters could easily be attributed to what we would call supernatural or meta-empirical causes. These tended to be semi-personalised “agencies” without being made into gods: the spirits of nature, the souls of the deceased, the “force” of magical incantations and the power of witches and of their magical procedures.
Thus the Melanesians believed in what we would class as miracles, in things they saw in dreams, in visions seen while awake, in magic, in witchcraft, in good and bad spirits. The “enchanted vision of the world” had by Melanesians was total and unchallenged by learned critical attitudes. Their native critical attitudes were directed to whether their practices were effective or not, and they were more ready than most cultures of their type to try new things when old ones did not work. Their world was full of mysteries, full of spirits and “divinities”. Dreams were not (and still are not) a trick of the brain, but products of the wandering of a man’s spirit outside the body, or the invasion of his body by another’s spirit to pass on messages from beyond the empirical realm. Custodial spirits infested the woods and the springs. Many birds could bring messages from the “ones above” and spirits of the ancestors watched over their sons and nephews. In some places contact with the spirit world and the world of ghosts was facilitated by stimulating drinks, like kava.
Magical minded people postulate a personal cause behind every event and cannot accept the notion of “accident’, especially when facing negative events. Whereas a scientific minded person would ask what series of circumstances has provoked those events, most Melanesians would enquire about the “who”, that is the personal entity (human or spirit) who has caused them. Inquests into the human causes of death still occupy a great deal of the time and energy of Melanesians leading to sorcery accusations and punishments.
Belief in some kind of high or supreme spirit, or god, could be present in the culture, but was not central to it. Especially in the Highlands of New Guinea, heavenly bodies could be considered as divine: the sun, the moon and the stars.
Creation from nothing was not a serious question for traditional Melanesians, nor was transcendence or monotheism. Creation deities, who gave the world its familiar form, are not transcendent, totally other beings. They do not preside over other deities and spirits and had generally withdrawn from active involvement in the life of the community. (Whiteman, in Mantovani 1984: 107)
Most of the myths collected in Melanesia are concerned with the foundation of a clan. The distant ancestors were not only the originators of the clan or some higher grouping, but also were the source of its traditions and customs. Anthropologists call these figures “cultural heroes”. In Melanesia, such origin figures were often a pair of brothers who founded the clan, but then for whatever reason fell out with each other. This then resulted in one of them (often the “good” brother) going away.11 These myths were of course orally transmitted, and they had many variations to their common themes, always being open to additions and new interpretations according to changing circumstances. Many myths left open the possibility, if not the promise, of a return of the founding ancestor, bringing a pile of goods for his descendants. “Cultural heroes” are present in many myths, but they were rarely invoked or venerated with offerings or gifts.
Throughout Melanesia there is a group of mythical ancestors known collectively as “dema” deities12.
A dema is an ancestor who because of some difficulty or other is either killed violently or chooses to die. But its body is hardly in the ground when something miraculous happens. From the body of the dead ancestor grows a coconut tree, a yam, sweet potatoes or taro, or pigs come from the grave, or some other plant or animal essential for the livelihood of the community appears. (Whiteman in Mantovani 1984: 106)
The spirits of the natural world were far closer to the people. Forests, springs, rivers, mountains and striking natural features had such presences. They were considered to be ambivalent in nature, that is, they were capable of either good or evil. So there was a definite need to work towards getting their favour and not annoying them, to earn protection rather than punishment. A complicating factor was another belief, namely that spirits and ghosts could take human or animal form and thus come into close and unexpected contact with mortals.
The forefathers were also considered to need placating, because they watched over the clan to check that their traditions were being followed and respected. In Island Melanesia the more distant ancestors tended to be thought of as kind and protective, while the more recently deceased clan members tended to be feared. The greater part of the cult and the offerings went to the most feared spirit beings, precisely to placate them. Anthropologists have often noticed that the offerings made to the ancestors, of animals and food, were not so much “sacrifices” as an extension of the exchanges that clan members made among each other as a normal part of daily life.
Another common belief was that humans were also constituted of a spiritual principle, which could be described as a shadow, breathing, or spirit, and that this could sometimes leave the body and take on other forms. After someone’s death this power to survive transformations allowed for people to become living ancestors after their death, and to continue to be active in the area where their clan members lived and moved. In some cultures the spirits of the dead remained close to the settlement for a limited time, and then went away and lived in a variety of remote places such as islands, highland lakes or caves. But they were not totally out of reach even there, and could be called upon in special circumstances. Their help, which is readily available, is elicited by clan members.
These classes of spirits have something of the personal about them, but Melanesians also believed in the presence of occult powers somehow separable from personality, like the ancient “numen”. Souls and spirits had such powers, but so did places and things, which were never considered to have personal qualities. “Magic stones” were widely reverenced throughout Melanesia. The Polynesian term “mana” has been modified to express this mysterious force, by anthropologists at least. People and things can both have “mana”. Persons could inherit it or obtain it by acquiring the appropriate magical formulae. Any unusual success in hunting, fishing or fighting was put down to “mana”, and those who possessed it were thought to have powers far less common than that: most often controlling the rain and stopping storms, diverting a cyclone, causing droughts or food shortages, multi-location, and so on. Such impressive men (women usually did not have this force) were specially venerated after their death. In fact, death was a good career move, in the sense that they were more open to being invoked and gained more prestige. Their names were specifically invoked on special occasions, and were given to many children to perpetuate their memory.
This “magical” view of the world ensured that daily life was an inextricable tangle of the natural and the supernatural, of the empirical and the meta-empirical. People planted their yams with care, but also invoked the primordial spirits who gave them the yam. People set off on voyages and trips with the proper precautions and provisions, but also gave offerings to the spirits of the land through which they had to pass. The taboos designed for moments of crisis were many. These occasions included menstruation, pregnancy, tribal fights, initiation times, and the death of a relative. When misfortune or disaster struck, the first thing to do was to clarify who (or what) had caused it. The searchers usually looked at the meta-empirical world. Thus there was a rite of divination, practised by experts in the art of uncovering secret causes. These people would closely scrutinise the human relations and the behaviour of the victims, and of suspects, to see how the ancestors or spirits might have been offended, or how the powers of sorcerers or witches might have been drawn down on them. And there would be a decision. Then the task was to see if they could reconcile the offended spirits, ancestors, or living people, or, in the case of sorcery or witchcraft, if they could kill the sorcerer or witch. More often than not, a witch was female.
Melanesian religions were deeply pragmatic. There was no interest in the “truth” but every interest in what was useful, in what “worked”. If a Melanesian rite did not produce the desired effect it would be changed. A divinity was considered to be true if it demonstrated its power, otherwise it would be a false one. If a spirit turned out to be powerless, it was abandoned for another one.
Rituals served to control cosmic events: rain, divert a hurricane, cure some illness, hold back the lava of a volcano, make a woman fertile, make children thrive, help the growth of animals and plants, ensure a successful hunt or catch of fish, make someone love you, cause the recovery, or the death of another, and so on. Some anthropologists have described the various religions of the Melanesians as being more a set of techniques for obtaining a result than instruments of spiritual salvation.
There were many rituals, many of them privately performed, but there were great public occasions too, sometimes yearly, and sometimes in a loose cycle of several years or more. In these a huge number of pigs and enormous amounts of fish and tubers were consumed. These were rites of “cosmic renewal”. They renewed the life of the cosmos and of all its inhabitants. Thus they were authentic celebrations of “Life,” in which symbols of fecundity were enacted (and not just symbols), and in which the myths of the founder ancestors were renewed in story and in dance. Friendly clans could also be invited, and at such unusual gatherings alliances were firmed up, marriages projected, and the prestige of the clan was enhanced.
Most Melanesian societies did not build temples or establish special places of religious cult. Magic rites were conducted in the men’s house, in gardens, in any places considered sacred in themselves, and in graveyards. Some societies however had great halls reserved for the cult of the spirits of the ancestors, like the haus tambaran to be seen along the Sepik River, in northern New Guinea. Here they keep their magical objects: masks, sacred flutes, magic stones, skulls and bones of the ancestors. Some groups kept their sacred objects in the house of their chief.
Melanesian societies were rich in rites of initiation, especially for young males. Other “rites of passage” were those, which accompanied birth, childhood, puberty, adulthood, and death. The most important were those associated with puberty, which required a time of segregation during which the initiates were subjected to physical trials and punishment and were introduced to the secrets of the clan. The end of this process was often marked by circumcision and/or scarification of the skin. These were truly religious rites, and they preserved the continuity between the spirits of the ancestors and the living, between the totem and the clan members. This was where the foundation myths were revealed, and this contributed to a sense of belonging and of loyalty among the young products of the process of initiation.
Other rites were associated with the induction of a new chief in some parts of Melanesia, or entry to some secret society. Especially in Island Melanesia, men rose in the social scale by means of rites which followed on various prestations (offerings, donations) by the candidate. In general these were made in the form of items of value. Secret societies, seemingly almost all male, excluded the non-initiates and all women. Despite the lack of hard evidence, it seems that sorcerers had secret societies running across clan boundaries.
Secrecy was a particularly strong value in Melanesian religions. A clan’s foundation myths, rites, initiation ceremonies, taboos and so on were all kept very secret and revealed only to initiates. It was a common belief that myths and rites lost their magic force as soon as they were known to outsiders. In the hands of enemies they could even be turned against their original owners.
It is clear from what we have tried to say that despite some strong common features, Melanesian religions were highly specific to each clan. There were different founders, different myths, different rites, ancestors, nature spirits, sacred objects and formulae, beliefs, and so on. You could imagine “the” religion” of the Melanesians as a large collection of similarly formatted pigeon holes, holes which were filled with very different contents, according to the tribe or clan that each represented.
Brief excursus on the evangelisation of Melanesia
The first attempts in the evangelisation of Melanesia were sporadic. In the 17th and 18th centuries the Spanish and Portuguese ships that plied a regular trans-Pacific route from South and Central Americas to the Moluccas and return, usually had religious personnel on board. From time to time, local islanders would be taken on board and transported to places like the Spanish Americas to be christianised there, and to return as evangelisers of their own people. But these Catholic efforts were without fruit in Melanesia.
It wasn’t until the late 18th century that Christian missionaries began a serious evangelisation effort in Polynesia, which reached Melanesia a few decades later. With the exception of the Indonesian Province of Papua – which was first evangelised by missionaries coming from Java- the Pacific evangelisation spread from east to the west. Protestant missionaries, sent by mission agencies mostly located in Europe and Australia, arrived first and made use of indigenous Christians in spreading the Good News in other islands. They reached Fiji in 1830, New Caledonia and Vanuatu in 1840, the Solomon Islands in 1845, and Eastern New Guinea (the present Papua New Guinea) in 1871. Western New Guinea (the present Indonesian province of Papua) was reached by protestant missionaries already in 1855. The founding Protestant Denominations were Methodist, Congregationalist, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Calvinist, Anglican, and Adventist.
On the part of the Catholic Church, the evangelisation of Oceania was first entrusted by the Vatican to religious orders of recent formation, such as the French Society of Mary, the Italian Pontifical Institute of Mission Overseas (PIME), the French Missionaries of the Sacred Heart, the French Missionaries of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary, and the German Society of the Divine Word. Catholic missionaries arrived in New Caledonia in 1843, in Fiji in 1844, in the Solomon Islands in 1845, in Eastern New Guinea in 1847, in Vanuatu in 1848, in Western New Guinea in 1912.
The evangelisation of Melanesia was accompanied by enormous difficulties and heavy loss of personnel. Mission stations were often to be abandoned due to the hostility of the local populations or to infections and epidemics. Many foreign missionaries suffered from violent or earlier death. The evangelisation of Melanesia did not happen as smoothly as that of Polynesia and suffered also severe setbacks during the First and Second World Wars. In spite of all that, by the mid 20th century most Melanesians had been “converted’ to Christianity. Starting from the 1960s onwards many Protestant missions became autonomous churches while the previous Catholic Apostolic Vicariates became autonomous Dioceses.
After the Second World War many new Protestant denominations entered the Melanesian region as well as male and female Catholic Religious Orders. The pioneering churches found their ranks being thinned by the success of the newly arrived and the scene of the religious affiliation was changed significantly. It is estimated that in Melanesia during the last 50 years a good quarter of the faithful of the pioneering churches had transferred their allegiance to recently arrived churches. Percentages differ according to the country but the overall tendency is clear and seems destined to increase. From the data collected by the Melanesian Institute Research Team in 2003, the following was the situation of Melanesian as a whole in the matter of religious affiliation at the turn of the second into the third millennium.
Table 1: Religious Affiliation in Melanesia (2003)