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The Fijians: A Study of the Decay of Custom

The Priesthood

The Priesthood

The priesthood was no exception to the Fijian rule that all skilled trades must be hereditary. But inasmuch as any man who showed a natural aptitude for carpentry or haircutting or page 158the exorcism of evil spirits might win a clientèle as a canoebuilder, a barber, or a doctor, so a clever rogue who could shake well and make a lucky forecast of public events might pretend to inspiration by a god, and obtain a grudging recognition from the chiefs. In practice this seldom occurred, because the recognized deities were amply furnished with a priesthood who brooked no interference from an amateur, and to overcome their opposition and the cold suspicion of the chiefs demanded a very rare combination of assurance and cunning.

It is doubtful whether the high chiefs believed in the inspiration of the priests, though it suited their policy to appear to do so. There was rather an understanding between the two orders, not the less cordial that it was unexpressed. The priests depended for subsistence upon the offerings made to the god, and a priest who delivered oracles unfavourable to the chief's policy saw his temple falling into decay and his larder empty. On the other hand, so enormous was the influence of the oracle upon the common people that the chief had the best reason for keeping the priests in good humour. Both knew that neither could stand firm without the support of the other. A chief with whom the gods were angry enjoyed but a waning authority; a priest whose god the chief did not think worth propitiating fell into disrepute and was soon superseded by another who could shake as well and more wisely. Such relations between the powers spiritual and temporal are not unknown in other latitudes.

Williams relates that the Thakaundrove chief presented a large offering to the gods on the morrow of a warlike expedition. Among the gods invoked was Kanusimana, but in the subsequent division of the feast the priest of that deity was put off with one wretched pudding instead of the turtle he had expected. That night the god visited him, and foretold defeat as a punishment for the slight, and the tidings were carried to the king, who immediately countermanded the expedition, knowing that the depressing effect of the news upon the spirit of his warriors would bring defeat. In a similar case, however, matters took a different turn. "Who page 159are you?" asked the chief angrily. "Who is your god? If you make a stir I will eat you."

A more organized resistance to sacerdotal pretensions was seen in the "Reformation" in the Rewa province. A few years before the arrival of the missionaries the chiefs found it necessary in their own interests to disestablish the whole priestly caste, which, as they said, had fallen into the hands of "low-born persons of ill repute," or, in more intelligible language, which had begun to assume the imperium in imperio that has provoked Reformations in another hemisphere. They repudiated the entire priesthood publicly, and announced that members of the ruling family had received inspiration. The sacerdotal clan immediately fell into their proper rank in society—a very humble one—but the arrival of the missionaries deprived the new state-made priesthood of a fair trial.

The priests were not always the tools of the chiefs; sometimes they were the mouthpiece of the people's discontent at some unpopular exercise of authority. "The famine is eating us up because you gave the large canoe to Tonga instead of to Mbau." "This hurricane was sent to punish us for your refusal to give the princess to the Lord of Rewa."

The priests of one god were generally, but not always, confined to one family. They owed their consideration to their office rather than to their rank, which was generally humble. They ranked according to the importance of the god to whom they ministered. When the chieftancy and the priesthood were united in the same person, both were of low order. The titular spiritual chief (Roko Tui) was not a priest, although divine honours were paid to him, for the act of inspiration appeared to be thought derogatory to the dignity of a high chief. The priesthood could not be dispensed with, because the gods could not be approached except through the medium of a priest, who could only be inspired in the temple of his god except on rare occasions, such as a campaign in a distant island, when the oracle must be consulted in a private house if at all.

"One who intends to consult the oracle dresses and oils himself, and, accompanied by a few others, goes to the priest, page 160who, we will suppose, has been previously informed of the intended visit, and is lying near the sacred corner, getting ready his response. When the party enters he rises and sits so that his back is near to the white cloth by which the god visits him, while the others occupy the opposite side of the mbure. The principal person presents a whale's tooth, states the purpose of the visit, and expresses a hope that the god will regard him with favour. Sometimes there is placed before the priest a dish of scented oil with which he anoints himself and then receives the tooth, regarding it with deep and serious attention. Unbroken silence follows. The priest becomes absorbed in thought, and all eyes watch him with unblinking steadiness. In a few minutes he trembles; slight distortions are seen in his face, and twitching movements in his limbs. These increase to a violent muscular action, which spreads until the whole frame is violently convulsed, and the man shivers as with a strong ague fit. In some instances this is accompanied with murmurs and sobs, the veins are greatly enlarged, and circulation of the blood quickened. The priest is now possessed by his god, and all his words and actions are considered as being no longer his own, but those of the deity who has entered into him. Shrill cries of 'Koi au! Koi au!' (It is I! It is I!) fill the air, and the god is supposed thus to notify his approach. While giving the answer the priest's eyes stand out and roll as in a frenzy; his voice is unnatural, his face pale, his lips livid, his breathing depressed, and his entire appearance like that of a furious madman. The sweat runs from every pore, and tears start from his strained eyes; after which the symptoms gradually disappear. The priest looks round with a vacant stare, and, as the god says, 'I depart!' announces his actual departure by flinging himself down on the mat, or by suddenly striking the ground with a club, while those at a distance are informed by blasts on the conch, or by the firing of a musket, that the deity has returned to the world of spirits. The convulsive movements do not entirely disappear for some time; they are not, however, so violent as to prevent the priest from enjoying a hearty meal, or a draught of yankona or a whiff of tobacco, page 161as either may happen to be at hand. Several words are used by the natives to express these priestly shakings. The most common are sika and kundru. Sika means to appear, and is used chiefly of supernatural beings; kundru means to grunt or grumble. The one refers to the appearance, the other to the sound attendant upon these inspired shakings.

"As whatever the priest says during the paroxysm is supposed to be direct from the god, a specimen or two of these responses will be interesting…. A priest of Ndengei, speaking for that divinity, once said, "Great Fiji is my small club. Muaimbila is the head; Kamba is the handle. If I step on Muaimbila I shall sink it into the sea, while Kamba shall rise to the sky. If I step On Kamba it will be lost in the sea, and Muaimbila shall rise to the sky. Yes, Vitilevu is my small club. I can turn it as I please. I can turn it upside down."1

The propitiatory offering might be anything from a bunch of cocoanuts covered with turmeric powder to a great feast. In the last case, part, called the singana, was set apart for the god, the rest apportioned among the people. In theory the god consumed the spiritual essence of all the food, and the people ate its grosser fibre. The singana was eaten by the priest and a few privileged old men; it was tabu to youths and women.

The psychological aspect of the inspiration of the Fijian priest is difficult to appreciate. The inspired paroxysm is something more than conscious deception. Williams was present when a famous Lakemba priest was questioned by the Tongan chief, Tubou Totai:—

"Lanngu, did you shake yesterday?"


"Did you think beforehand what to say?"


"Then you just say what you happen to think at the time, do you?"

"No. I do not know what I say. My own mind departs

1 Williams's Fiji and the Fijians, p. 224.

page 162from me, and then, when it is truly gone, my god speaks by me."
Williams adds that this man "had the most stubborn confidence in his deity, although his mistakes were such as to shake any ordinary trust. His inspired tremblings were of the most violent kind, bordering on frenzy."1 He was, no doubt, absolutely sincere. In this race, as in the Hindus and the Malays, there is an undercurrent of hysteria which no one looking at their placid surface would suspect. In the first heat of conversion to Christianity it was quite common in the Mission services for a man to be inspired (by the Holy Spirit, as he said) and to interrupt the minister with an outburst of gibberish accompanied with all the contortions that seized the heathen priest. His companions would try to calm him by patting him gently with soothing exclamations, and the good missionaries, who had been enlarging on the gift of tongues at Pentecost, were not a little embarrassed in discouraging the practice. The "revival" which took place at Viwa in 1845 was a curious instance of this. To judge from John Hunt's account of it, the entire island was seized with religious hysteria, and "business, sleep and food were entirely laid aside" for several days, until the missionaries had to force the new converts to eat. Such ebullitions are rare in these days, but that they are still smouldering unsuspected is shown by the hysterical outbursts of emotion that sometimes take place at the Bolotu or Night Revival meetings, introduced from Tonga. More than one generation must come and go before all danger from this neurotic chord in the Fijian constitution is removed. Any acute cause, of native discontent which might be fanned into active hostility to the white race would most certainly produce the heathen priest again, and the most dangerous of these might well be the man who now delivers eloquent emotional sermons to Wesleyan congregations Sunday after Sunday. Such a spectacle would shock the European missionaries beyond expression, but it would not surprise those who know the natives intimately. The schism of Ndungumoi and the

1 Williams's Fiji and the Fijians, p. 224.

page 163heathen outbreak of Vanualevu in 1895 were but a bubble from the seething pitch that lies below the placid outer crust of the converted Fijian.

Even now a practised eye might pick out from an assembly of Fijians the sons of the heathen priests, by their shifty glance, their crafty expression, and their smooth, insinuating address, which are as much a part of them as the set of their eyes and the colour of their skin.1

1 Such a one was Kaikai of Singatoka, whose exploits as a prisonbreaker were set forth in my Indiscretions of Lady Asenath."