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The Fijians: A Study of the Decay of Custom


page 111

The religion of the Fijians was so closely interwoven with their social polity that it was impossible to tear away the one without lacerating the other. It was as unreasonable for the people to continue to reverence their chiefs when they ceased to believe in the Ancestor-gods, from whom they were descended, as for the Hebrews to conform to the Mosaic law if they had repudiated the inspiration of Moses. Religion was a hard taskmaster to the heathen Fijian; it governed his every action from the cradle-mat to the grave. In the tabu it prescribed what he should eat and drink, how he should address his betters, whom he should marry, and where his body should be laid. It limited his choice of the fruits of the earth and of the sea; it controlled his very bodily attitude in his own house. All his life he walked warily for fear of angering the deities that went in and out with him, ever-watchful to catch him tripping, and death but cast him naked into their midst to be the sport of their vindictive ingenuity.

The Fijian word for divinity is kalou, which is also used as an adjective for anything superlative, either good or bad, and it is possible that the word was originally a root-word implying wonder and astonishment. Sometimes the word is used as a mere exclamation, or expression of flattery, as, "You are kalou!" or "A kalou people!" applied to Europeans in connection with triumphs of invention among civilized page 112nations, either in polite disbelief, or disinclination to attempt to imitate them.

The Fijian divinities fall naturally into two great divisions—the Kalou-vu (Root-gods), and the Kalou-yalo (Spirit-gods, i.e. deified mortals). There is much truth in Waterhouse's contention that the Kalou-vu were of Polynesian origin brought to Fiji by immigrants from the eastward, and imposed upon the conquered Melanesian tribes in addition to their own Pantheon of deified mortals, and that the Ndengei legend, which undoubtedly belonged to the aborigines, was adopted by the conquerers as the Etruscan gods were by the Romans. The natives' belief in their own tribal divinity did not entail denial of the divinities of other tribes. To the Hebrew prophets the cult of Baal-peor was not so much a false as an impious creed. The Fijians admitted from the first that the Jehovah of the missionaries was a great, though not the only, God, and, as will presently be shown, when converted to Christianity, they only added Him to their own Pantheon. So, in giving their allegiance to the chiefs who conquered them, it was natural that they should admit the supremacy of the gods of their conquerors, who, by giving the victory to their worshippers, had proved themselves to be more powerful than their own gods. Wainua, the great wargod of Rewa, is said to have drifted from Tonga, and his priest, when inspired, gives his answers in the Tongan language. The Rewans had given the chief place in their Pantheon to the god of mere visitors.

First among the Kalou-vu was Ndengei, primarily a god of Rakiraki on the north-east coast of Vitilevu, but known throughout Fiji except in the eastern islands of the Lau group. The evolution of this god from the ancestor and tutelary deity of a joint-family into a symbol of Creation and Eternity in serpent form is an exact counterpart of Jupiter, the god of a Latin tribe, inflated with Etruscan and Greek myth until he overshadows the ancient world as Jupiter Optimus Maximus. The variants of the Ndengei myths are so numerous that they must be reserved for another chapter; it is enough here to say that Ndengei and the personage page 113associated with him are proved by the earliest myths of his home on the Ra coast to be deified mortals who have risen to the rank of Kalou-vu by their importance as the first immigrants and the founders of the race.

Next in order to Ndengei is Ndauthina (the torch-bearer), the god of the seafaring and fishing community throughout Fiji. That he is one of the introductions from another system of mythology and not a deified mortal of Fiji is strongly suggested by the fact that all the fisher-tribes are tauvu or Kalou-vata (worshippers of the same god, and therefore of common origin). These tribes, by the nature of their occupation, are prone to scatter widely, though comparatively late arrivals in the group. They seldom own any land in the province of their adoption, but attach themselves to the chiefs, from whom they enjoy marked privileges in return for their services. It would take but few years for the newest arrivals, scattering thus among far distant islands, to disseminate their cult throughout a group of islands, and there is nothing in the Ndauthina myths that disproves their Eastern origin. The fisher-tribes had the best of reasons for keeping the freemasonry of their bond of Kalou-vata (lit., same God) alive. Their calling subjected them to frequent shipwreck, and by the law of custom the lives of castaways were forfeit—a survival, perhaps, of a primitive system of quarantine. But the shipwrecked fisherman might always find sanctuary in a temple dedicated to Ndauthina, and thus win the "freedom of the city" in a village where he was a stranger.

Ndauthina was the Loki, the Fire-god of the Nibelung myth. He is the god of Light and of Fire—the fire of lightning and the fire of lust in men's blood. His love of light in infancy prompted his mother to bind lighted reeds upon his head to amuse him, and now he roams the reefs by night hooded with a flaming brazier. He is the patron of adulterers, and himself steals women away by night. He loves night attacks, and flashes light upon the defences to guide the besiegers. Taking human form he sells fish to the doomed garrison, who, noticing a strong smell of fire, know that Ndauthina has been among them, and that their warriors page 114will not see another sun. His pranks and whims are numberless. When plots are hatched against his favourites a voice cries "Pooh!" through the reed-walls, and he flies off to put his friends upon their guard. He buoys up a rotten canoe to tempt warriors to embark in her only to lure them into club-reach of their enemies. But upon his friends the fishermen he plays no pranks, giving them fair winds and good fishing.

Ratu-mai-Mbulu (Lord from Hades), though primarily a local divinity of the Tailevu coast, is also probably a foreign intruder. Through him the earth gives her increase. In December he comes forth from Mbulu, and pours sap into the fruit trees, and pushes the young yam shoots through the soil. Throughout that moon it is tabu to beat the drum, to sound the conch-shell, to dance, to plant, to fight, or to sing at sea, lest Ratu-mai-Mbulu be disturbed, and quit the earth before his work is completed. At the end of the month the priest sounds the consecrated shell: the people raise a great shout, carrying the good news from village to village, and pleasure and toil are again free to all.

In a hole near Namara he lies in serpent form, and thither the Mbauans carried food to him once a year, first clearing the holy ground. Unlike the other gods he drinks no kava, for the wind and noise of a blast on the conch-shell are meat and drink to him. There was once an agnostic of Soso, the fisher class of Mbau, named Kowika, who set forth alone to set his doubts at rest. To a snake sunning himself at the cave-mouth he offered fish, but this was the great god's son. When he was gone to summon his father from the cave, a greater snake appeared—the god's grandson he proved to be—and he departed with a more urgent message. At length there issued a serpent so huge and terrible that Kowika doubted no longer, and proffered his gift in fear and trembling, but as the god was loosening his vast coils he shot an arrow into them and fled. As he ran a voice rang in his ears, crying, "Nought but snakes! Nought but snakes!" And so it was. The pot was cooked when Kowika reached home, but his wife dropped the skewer with a shriek, an impaled snake wriggled on its end. When he lifted the bamboo to drink, page 115snakes poured forth instead of water. He unrolled his sleeping mat; that too was alive with snakes. And as he rushed forth into the night he heard the voice of the priest prophesying the fall of the city as a just punishment for the sacrilege of wounding the God of Increase. He took the one way of salvation left to him: he soro-ed in abject humility, and he was pardoned.