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Ethnology of Tongareva

Sickness and Death

Sickness and Death

The treatment of sickness was in the hands of the priests, known as taula, who used incantations addressed to particular gods which resulted in page 81 the expulsion of the disease. No information could be obtained regarding the formula used or the particular gods invoked. Some priests had more than a local reputation and were sought after by reason of their superior powers. Lamont (15, p. 272) states that a priest living in Omoka had such a reputation that Opaka, ariki of Mangarongaro, risked his life in venturing among his hereditary enemies to seek treatment. The priest's house was tapu, and it was only after being safely conveyed into its precincts that Opaka's life was safe from attack. Patients from all over the atoll sought this particular priest, for, though his incantations were the same as those used by the other practitioners, his greater reputation enabled him to effect more cures. The Omoka physician conducted his treatment within his own home. For his services the physician received fees.

At the marae the assistance of the gods was invoked. Lamont (15, p. 268) relates that one invocation was concerned with healing. He tells of an old chief of Motu-unga, who, after various incantations had been recited, prostrated himself before the sacred house of the marae. The priests brought out the material form of the god in the shape of a bundle of feathers and, after reciting various incantations, struck the patient three blows with the god. The patient subsequently recovered.

Washing in fresh-water pools was much resorted to for curing sickness and skin infections.

It is not clear whether or not herbal remedies were used. In a system of medicine which depends upon the exorcism of the disease by means of prayer the mind is not turned toward the seeking of material remedies. The one definite remedy used was the roro—a beverage of coconut cream, the purgative powers of which were appreciated. Pa informed me that as a purgative roro was infinitely superior to anything the European doctors had ever given him. He stated that it was so efficacious that after taking it a person's eyes were sunk in his head. The liberal use of roro at the feasts was recognized as having the double use of giving pleasure as a beverage and of correcting the effects of overeating.

Of actual diseases, leprosy and yaws were probably present in ancient times. Today a doctor from the Health Service at Rarotonga visits the atoll when opportunity occurs. Remedies for the ordinary ailments are left with the Resident Agent, who administers them when occasions arise. During my visit here I had frequent sick parades, but the cases were mostly of minor ailments, many being merely requests for purgatives, the efficacy of roro being disregarded for the more easily procurable European remedies. I saw no cases of elephantiasis, and both hookworm and yaws have been eradicated by the Health Service. More cases of leprosy occur here than in any other part of the Cook Islands administrative territory. Formerly the page 82 lepers were isolated on Motuunga, but recently they have all been transferred to the leper station on Makogai in Fiji. In 1929 thirteen lepers were removed to Fiji.

Death is a calamity after which the community gathers to express its grief. The relatives, in addition to weeping and wailing, express their grief by such acts of violence as beating their heads against wood or stone and throwing themselves on the ground. The grief is real enough, but exaggerated outward show is expected of those who are near of kin. The corpse is laid out, and the husband or wife embraces it with lamentations, and both are covered up with a mat for the immediate period of intense mourning. The community gathers and goes through the pehu ceremony of wailing and cutting the flesh.

When the first outburst has subsided, the body is rubbed with coconut oil. According to Lamont (15, p. 208), a priest took a young palm branch, formed to represent the human body, drew it over the body from head to foot, and shook it, repeating the farewell formula, “a hana” (go). Two women holding a sleeping mat by opposite corners advanced chanting a dirge and went through a ceremonial dance akin to the saka. As they concluded with the farewell words, “a hana,” the mat, which formed a shroud, was laid before the corpse. The corpse was then laid upon the mat. The personal possessions used by the deceased before death were collected near the corpse. Lamont states that this was done in order that the deceased might have the same comforts in the world to come as in this. This was inference on Lamont's part, and the procedure was more likely to have been motivated as it is in the similar custom in New Zealand, where the objects are tapu through death. They would not be used by the relatives, and the correct procedure was to get rid of them with the corpse. Personal drinking cups, pearl shell graters, and perhaps a fishhook were placed on the mat with the corpse, and the edges of the mat were sewn together with sennit braid, a pointed stick being used to make holes through the mat. The bundle was made secure by lashing turns of sennit around it.

Special small houses of mourning (hare pehu) were constructed. In one of these the corpse was suspended from the roof and the husband or nearest male kin retired to be near it for a period of seclusion. Other close male kinsmen retired into similar small houses especially constructed for the occasion. Lamont describes a visit to one of his adoptive parents, Monitu, while Monitu was in mourning for his deceased wife. The stench was so intolerable that Lamont fled without waiting to exchange the customary greeting of pressing noses that the occasion demanded.

As was customary in such community gatherings, much food was consumed. Frequent deaths led to such serious inroads into the coconut supply page 83 that a general closed season (masanga) was often imposed to allow the coconut crop to recover. During the period of close mourning within the huts special food called manga hui atua (tapu food) was cooked by the women for the mourners. The importance of the occasion was shown by the inclusion of roro beverage on the menu. The women themselves could not partake of such food, so that any remnants left over had to be thrown into the sea. The house of mourning was entirely closed in except for an aperture about two feet square through which the food was passed to the mourner. Instead of wasting the extra food provided, relatives or friends were honored by being asked to partake of it. When so selected, they were supposed to contribute to the supply of coconuts.

The mourners did not usually leave the houses until evening, and then they did so by the back entrance, parting the coconut leaf sheets which closed in the walls. On leaving the houses the mourners covered their heads and bodies with huge plaited baskets made of coconut leaves. Lamont (15, p. 210) states that the mourners presented a ludicrous sight with their feet projecting below, and that they were not unlike animated haystacks. Food was not cooked near the mourning houses. As everything had to be quiet, the coconuts were even carried down the tree or silently lowered with ropes.

The period of mourning (noho i roto i te hare pehu) ranged in length with the status of the deceased. If the family was wealthy, the period was prolonged, as more food was available. For poor people the mourning period was shortened and the body interred. The chief mourner remained in the house with the corpse as long as three or four months, when a certain amount of dessication had taken place and the corpse was finally disposed of. Relatives secluded in the other mourning houses ended their period of mourning when they considered that they had demonstrated their grief sufficiently.

The termination of mourning was ka suaki te mate. The word suaki (Maori, huaki), “to open,” refers to the opening up of the closed house of death (mate). A noise was made in the house (ka hakasaruru te hare) by beating it with sticks (patu ki te rakau).

The procedure is summed up in the sentence: “Kia inangaro kia hakakore i te noho i roto i te hare pehu, ka suaki te mate; ka hakasaruru te hare, ka patu ki te rakau” (When it was desired to end the staying in the house of mourning, the death was opened up; sound was created in the house by beating it with sticks). When the period of mourning was over the people celebrated the occasion by returning to normal conditions, expressed in the phrase, “kua saka te tangata” (the people danced).

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Sometimes the dessicated body, bound in mats, was conveyed to another territory occupied by relatives. Lamont (15, p. 252) states that the wife of Monitu was taken from Omoka to Mangarongaro. Here the appearance of the corpse led to a repetition of the community pehu wailing, with kapa and saka dances and feasting.

The bodies of chiefs were conveyed to a marae. Lamont (15, p. 275) relates that Opaka, the ariki of Mangarongaro and Hakasusa, died at Omoka, where he was visiting a noted priest for treatment. The body was conveyed by canoe to Mangarongaro, where the entire population met it at the beach. The corpse was carried by four chiefs to the marae and remained there in a temporary house for a few days. While the corpse was on the marae Opaka's two favorite wives were allowed to approach the remains by crawling on their hands and knees and returning backward in the same way.

The missionary teaching since 1854 has so changed the death ceremonials that details of the ancent observances have been lost. My informants were unable to explain the use of some of the small inclosures on the marae which were just large enough for a body stretched out and which were marked by low coral slabs (karaea) about 6 inches high. The inclosures suggested graves, but excavation of the coral gravel failed to reveal any traces of human bones or even pearl shell utensils. These inclosures are in marked contrast to the authentic graves of limestone slabs where the bones were on the surface or just under a thin layer of gravel, and where remains of pearl shell graters (tuai) were common. From Lamont's account of the temporary lying in state in the marae, it seems likely either that the body was laid in a small inclosure, or that the inclosure of low stones was made when the body was laid down. A small temporary house was erected over the body without any stones to define the walls as in ordinary dwelling houses, for stones already defined position of the corpse. The corpse was afterward removed, which accounts for the absence of bones. The temporary shelter was also removed or fell into decay without leaving any trace except for the small inclosure which had defined the position of the corpse.

The bones were evidently allowed to remain suspended from the roof for a considerable time, for Lamont (15, p. 162) records that his adoptive brother, on entering a hut on Hangarei, sorrowfully kissed a carefully sewn up little basket suspended from the roof. Later Lamont secretly examined the basket and found a little roll of fine matting sewed up in it. The roll contained a little human skull and the mouldering bones of a young infant.

Lamont (15, p. 275) states that Opaka's body, after exposure on the marae, was removed to his own house in Hakasusa, in which it was suspended in mats from the roof. One or two of his wives remained in the page 85 house at all times, “whilst several families throughout the island shut themselves up in mourning.”

The final disposal of the body after the period of mourning had elapsed was by interment in one of the graves inclosed with limestone slabs or on the marae. The small inclosure on the Rauhara marae (fig. 31, b) contained skull and long bones. There were no signs of ribs or vertebrae, and as the inclosure was only 5 feet by 4 feet, it is evident that the whole body was not laid out in the inclosure in extended position. After decay and dessication the skulls and long bones were collected and placed in the marae inclosure. Respect for the feelings of the Tongarevans prevented the making of any extensive excavations.