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The Fijians: A Study of the Decay of Custom

Chapter XII — circumcision and tattooing

page 216

Chapter XII
circumcision and tattooing

Like the Arabs, the Fijians circumcised their boys when just entering upon puberty, about the twelfth year. In heathen times the age seems to have been somewhat earlier, for Williams gives the age at from seven to twelve, which corresponds with the custom of the ancient Egyptians, from whom the Jews probably derived the custom. It does not appear to have been strictly a religious rite, though, like all ceremonial acts of the Fijians, it was invested with a religious observance of the tabu. The operation was generally performed in the village mbure, upon ten or twenty youths at a time, by one of the old men, who used a piece of split bamboo. The blood was caught on a strip of bark-cloth, called kula (red), which in some places was suspended from the roof of the temple or the house of the chief. Food, consisting of a mess of greens, was taken to the boys by women, who, in some places, as they carried it, chanted the following words:—
"Memu wai onkori ka kula,"Your broth, you, the circumcised,
Au solia mai loaloa,From the darkness I give it,
Au solia na ndrau ni thevunga,I give you thevunga leaves,
Memu wai onkori ka kula."Your broth, you, the circumcised."

The word for circumcision, teve, may not be uttered before women; in their presence it must be called kula. The proper time for performing the rite is immediately after the death of a chief, and it is accompanied by rude games—wrestling, sham fights, mimic sieges, which vary according to the locality. Uncircumcised youths were regarded as unclean, and were not permitted to carry food for the chiefs. The page 217ceremony was generally followed by the assumption of the malo, or perineal bandage, for children of both sexes went naked to the tenth year, or even later if of high rank; but this was not invariable, for the malo was worn sometimes many months before, and sometimes not assumed till some time after the ceremony. The assumption of the malo, or of the liku (grass petticoat) by the child of a chief was the occasion of a great feast, and the postponement of this feast sometimes condemned the child to go naked until long after puberty. The daughter of the late chief of Sambeto was thus still unclad till past eighteen, and the unfortunate girl was compelled, through modesty, to keep the house until after nightfall.

The custom of circumcision still persists despite the abandonment of the ceremonial that attended it. The instrument is now usually a trade knife, and the operation is performed in the privacy of the boy's family, who may, or may not, give a feast to his near relations. I have tried unsuccessfully to obtain any traditions that would give a clue to its origin. The most that a Fijian can say is that to be uncircumcised is a reproach, though to a people who cover the pudenda with the hand even while bathing, and probably never expose their nakedness even to their own sex throughout their lives, this can have but little weight. No doubt the Fijians brought the custom with them in remote times, and its origin is probably the same in their case as in that of the Nacua of Central America, the Egyptians, and the Bantu races of Africa—namely, the idea of a blood sacrifice to the mysterious spirit of reproduction.

Shortly before puberty every Fijian girl was tattooed. This was not for ornament, for the marks were limited to a broad horizontal band covering those parts that were concealed by the liku, beginning about an inch below the cleft of the buttocks and ending on the thighs about an inch below the fork of the legs. The pattern covered the Mons Veneris and extended right up to the vulva. There is not much art in the patterns, which are, as a rule, mere interlacing of parallel line and lozenges, the object being apparently to cover every portion page 218of the skin with pigment. The operation is performed by three old women, two to hold the patient, and the third to use the fleam. It is done in the daytime, when the men are absent in their plantations. The girl is laid stripped upon the mats opposite the open door, where the light is best.

With an instrument called a mbati, or tooth, and a cocoanut shell filled with a mixture of charcoal and candle-nut oil, the operator first paints on the lines with a twig, and then drives them home with the mbati, which consists of two or more bone teeth embedded in a wooden handle about six inches long, dipping it in the pigment between each stroke of the mallet, and wiping away the blood with bark-cloth, while the other two control the struggles of the patient. The operation is continued until the patient can bear no more, for in the tender parts between the thighs it is excessively painful. There is usually some inflammation, but the wounds heal quickly. A ceremonial feast is generally given by the girl's parents.

In addition to this tattooing, barbed lines and dots were marked upon the fingers of young girls to display them to advantage when handing food to the chiefs, and after childbirth a semicircular patch was tattooed at each corner of the mouth. In the hill districts of Vitilevu these patches are sometimes joined by narrow lines following the curve of both lips. The motive for this practice, which even Fijians admit to be a disfigurement, is to display publicly a badge of matronly staidness and respectability. The wife who has borne children has fulfilled her mission, and she pleases her husband best by ceasing for the remainder of her life to please other men.

The tattooing of the buttocks has undoubtedly some hidden sexual significance which is difficult to arrive at. It is said to have been instituted by the god Ndengei, and in the last journey of the Shades an untattooed woman was subjected to various indignities.

The motive of the girl in submitting to so painful an operation was the same as that which underlies all sub-page 219servience to grotesque decrees of Fashion—the fear of ridicule. If untattooed, her peculiarity would be whispered with derision among the gallants of the district, and she would have difficulty in finding a husband. But the reason for the fashion itself must be sought for in some sexual superstition. When I was endeavouring to obtain some of the ancient chants used in the Nanga celebrations on the Ra coast, I was always assured that the solemn vows of secrecy which bound the initiated not to divulge the mbaki mysteries sealed the lips even of their Christian descendants. I was persuaded either that they had forgotten the chants, or that they considered them unfit for my ears, for it was impossible to believe that the reward I was able to offer would fail to tempt a Fijian to risk offending deities in whom it was evident that he no longer believed. After infinite persuasion the son of a Vere was induced to dictate one of the chants, and it proved to be an extremely lascivious ode in praise of buttock tattooing—the only instance I am acquainted with in Fijian chants in which lechery and not religious awe animated the composer. Vaturemba, the chief of Nakasaleka in the Tholo hills, who was always plain-spoken, chuckled wickedly when I questioned him upon the matter, and declared that physically there was the greatest difference in the world between mating with a tattooed and an untattooed woman (Sa matha vinaka nona ka vakayalewa, na alewa nkia), and that the idea of marriage with an untattooed woman filled him with disgust. He left me with the impression that besides the other advantages he had mentioned, tattooing was believed to stimulate the sexual passion in the woman herself.

The Mission teachers have long waged war against the practice as a heathen custom, and in most of the coast districts it has fallen into disuse, but in the upper reaches of the Singatoka river, though the people have long been Christians, it still persists, though not universally. Interference with it by a man, albeit a Mission teacher, was evidently considered indecent in itself, for men cannot, without impropriety, concern themselves with so essentially feminine a business. More than one teacher was charged before my court with page 220indecency for having returned to the village to admonish the tattooers while the operation was being performed.

With the introduction of writing it has become common for young men and women to tattoo their names on the forearm or thigh of the person to whom they happen to be attached, and there are comparatively few who do not carry some memento of their heart's history thus ineffaceably recorded. The inconvenience of this custom in a people as fickle as the Fijians does not seem to trouble them.

The keloids, or raised cicatrices, that may still be seen (though the custom is dying out) upon the arms and backs of the women are formed by repeatedly burning the skin with a firebrand, so as to keep the sore open for several weeks. The wart-like excrescences that result are arranged in lines with intervals of about an inch, in half-moons or curves, or in concentric circles. Sometimes they are formed by pinching up the skin, and thrusting a fine splinter through the raised part. They are intended only for ornament, and have no other significance.

The only other interference with Nature is the distension of the ear-lobes in the older men of the hill districts. The ear is first pierced, and gradually distended by the insertion of pieces of wood of increasing size, until the lobe forms a thin cord, like a stout elastic band, and is large enough to receive a reel of cotton, or a circular tin match-box, which are both in favour as ear ornaments. Sometimes the cord breaks, and if the owner has not ceased to care about his personal appearance he will excoriate the broken ends, and splice them with grass fibre until they reunite.