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Mangaian Society

Sickness and Magic

Sickness and Magic

Injuries received from weapons were generally regarded as the result of an evident, normal cause. In sickness and disease, however, the cause was attributed to supernormal agencies. As in New Zealand and probably all Polynesia, the causes of a departure from normal health were attributed to punishment by the gods for breaking religious prohibitions and to black magic exercised by a sorcerer. In making a diagnosis, the religious cause was investigated first. The relatives and patient were usually aware what restriction had been broken and often made the diagnosis before the sickness commenced. Sometimes, however, the patient hid the cause. Sickness among members of the same family led to careful investigation which revealed that a member of the family had been guilty of murder. The family were suffering from a blood curse. Even wounds and death in battle were not always free from suspicion. When a person had incurred the displeasure of the gods, his death, whether by weapon or by accident, was due to divine punishment.

If all reasons for divine punishment had been eliminated, the only cause for sickness was black magic. Weakness, shortness of breath, and a diminishing agility and skill in battle even were attributed to the spells of sorcerers. Relatives were always suspicious of causes of death and ready to blame some enemy.

With such a theory of disease, it was natural that relief should be sought by propitiating the gods through the tribal priest rather than by investigating the healing properties of herbs. The range of remedies was limited to the use of coconut cream as a purgative, and of a few herbs for diarrhea, cuts, and wounds. Massage was employed for fatigue, stiffness, and the relief of pain. Fractures were treated with splints made of strips of coconut leaf midrib, and certain families were supposed to have acquired skill which was transmitted by teaching. The relatives of the patient, however, generally sought out the priest with presents of kava and food. The god was consulted as to the course of the sickness. A favorable prognosis was expressed by the phrase, "Ka 'aere ki te ra 'iti." (He will go to the rising sun). A fatal prognosis was metaphorically alluded to as "Kua rau ti para." (He is as a dry ti leaf.)

The sorcerer who used incantations (pure) to lesser gods to bring about death was termed a tangata purepure (a person who uses pure). In New Zealand, the term tohunga is applied to priests, craftsmen, and sorcerers with qualifying words; but in Mangaia, the equivalent term taunga is restricted to craftsmen, and tangata purepure distinguishes the evil sorcerer from the priest (pi'a atua). The sorcerer experiences an expansion of his ego from the fear in which he is held, and his business is a lucrative one. Clients secure his services by paying him with food and goods to remove an enemy or to ex-page 188pedite a love affair. Gill (11, p. 22), records the procedure to dispose of the husband of a pretty woman who is desired by the client of a sorcerer.

The expanded flower of a Gardenia was stuck upright—a very difficult performance—in a cup (i.e., half a large coconut shell) of water. A prayer was then offered for the husband's speedy death, the sorcerer earnestly watching the flower. Should it fall, the incantation was successful. But if the flower still remained upright, he would live. The sorcerer would in that case try his skill another day, with perhaps better success. Old natives assert that these enchantments, if persevered in, never failed; but that since the prevalence of Christianity they have all become impotent.

In Mangaia, I could not obtain definite information whether contagious black magic had ever been in use. In the absence of references to precautions in Mangaian narratives, it may be presumed that black magic was confined to the imitative or sympathetic forms.

Sorcery was practised by both sexes. The incantations and procedure that had been acquired by a particular sorcerer were handed on as immaterial property. A sorcerer taught his nearest male relative, either a son or a nephew, and a sorceress transmitted her knowledge to a daughter or niece. Both sorcerers and sorceresses have been killed in revenge by the relatives of those believed to have been done to death by them.

A form of beneficent or white magic is evident in the procedure concerning the disposal of the child's dried umbilical cord. The sinking of the cord in a shell container in deep sea water to confer a sound wind and fearlessness on the sea comes under Frazer's category of contagious magic. A child so treated was probably considered immune from the machinations of a sorcerer who tried to change the direction of the wind while he was out fishing. Children, as they grew up, were told by their parents what had been done for them, and the knowledge gave them confidence in meeting the difficulties of adult life.

Each individual knew a number of magical incantations, used without the mediation of priests and sorcerers, which he recited to produce growth of the food crops, favorable winds for fishing, success to fishing nets and hooks and line, and success in expeditions even of a thieving nature. Incantations were used in games to make the kite fly higher or the throwing dart outdistance others. Warriors had incantations to give edge and point to their weapons, strength and skill to their arms, and through them, victory over their opponents. Some incantations called upon the family god, but others were reliable because of the magic potency acquired by the words themselves.