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A Pattern of Islands

Introduction in Sorcery

Introduction in Sorcery

Most Europeans who believe in an after-life draw a clear horizon-line between the worlds of the living and the dead. The pagans of the Gilbert Islands, as I knew them, imagined no such comfortable partition. The seen and the unseen made but one world for them. Their dead were helped overseas to a western paradise, it is true, but no known ritual could bind them there; only the lapse of generations could do that.

The belief was that the more recently departed could and did return. They were jealous. They wanted to see what their descendants were doing. Their skeletons or skulls were preserved in village shrines mainly for them to re-enter as they liked. If skulls at least were not kept, their ghosts would come and scream reproach by night with the voices of crickets from the palm-leaves that overhung the dwellings. And so, whether a man was pious or impious to his fathers, his house was a house forever brooded over by unseen watchers.

Not that the older folk thought of their dead only as threatening ghosts. There was love as well as fear in the ancient cult of the ancestor, and mostly the love predominated. I was looking round the waterfront of a Tarawa village one day when I came upon an old, old man alone in a canoe shed nursing a skull in the crook of his elbow. He was blowing tobacco smoke between its jaws. As he puffed, he chuckled and talking aloud: 'The smoke is sweet, grand-father – ke-e-e?' he was saying. 'We like it – ke-e-e?' He told me he was loving the skull because his grandfather – who was inside it at that moment – had been very good to him in years gone by. 'Is it not suitable,' he asked, 'for me to be good to him in return?' and answered himself at once, 'Aongkoa! (of course!)' He went on to say he had chosen tobacco as his offering of love because, as far as he knew, there was no supply page 127of that particular luxury in the ancestral paradise. For his homely affection, at least, the skull was no grim reminder of death, but a cheerful token of man's and love's immortality.

The sad thing was that the earliest Christian teachers in the Gilbert Islands gave no honour to the spirit of filial gratitude and fatherly goodness that breathed through the old beliefs. More modern pioneers would have used them, much as gardeners use the rugged stocks of wild rose and bitter orange, for grafts of tenderer yield. I saw one or two later missionaries, both Protestant and Roman Catholic, earnestly trying to do that; but the harm had gone too far by their day to be undone. Cruel, unavenged raids on village skull shrines in the last thirty years of the nineteenth century, and indiscriminate derision poured upon the old ways of thought well into the twentieth, had destroyed almost all veneration for the pagan dead among the rising generation by the time I reached the Gilbert Islands. Affection had made its exit with respect, and only superstition remained. Ancient superstitions are not rooted out as easily as ancient loves. The ghosts of the dead still haunted the villages; the difference was that they had become wholly vindictive now in the belief of everyone but a handful of the dying generation.

Then, too, there was the immanence of Things – Things that were not human. The new religion had not yet banished the fear of these. There was not a single inanimate object but had a Thing lurking inside it. A stick, a stone, a tree, a leaf, or the fragment of a leaf was not only its visible self but also a hidden presence. And every presence was a possible menace; it could be enlisted to destroy you. The more intimately it was attached to you, the more dangerous it could be. The spirit of your fish-hook could be turned by nothing more than the fixed stare of your enemy to bring you luckless fishing. The spirit of your cooking-oven could be made by sorcery to encompass your madness or death, the spirit of a fragment of your dress, or a nail-paring, or a stray hair of your head (especially if you were a woman) to work hideous things upon you. And crowding in at you out of the dark with the ghosts of the dead and the Things that lurked in things were the prowling familiars. Every sorcerer had his familiar. It was usually something alive like a page 128beetle, bird or fish, but it might be some unbodied spirit of disease, or rottenness, or the blackness under the earth. Whatever it was, it could spy on you and bring evil as the sorcerer ordained. Beyond the familiars again were the multitudinous creatures whose death might mean your own, you knew not when – the life-index creatures. If your enemy took a lizard or a dragon-fly and slowly starved the breath out of it, using the right rituals, so would yours fade away, and when it died so would you too.

It seems a marvel that the race remained cheerful under the weight of so many dreads, for it did remain cheerful. I found plenty of evidence in the humorous legends and old burlesque songs and dances of the villagers that laughter never died in the Gilbert Islands. I personally believe that the survival of the people's sense of proportion was due mainly to their religion. 'Be of good heart amid all these dangers,' said the village fathers, 'for your ancestors love you.' I am not quoting at random; the words were said to me by Taakeuta, an elder of Royal Karongoa, the Sun clan into which I was adopted, when he believed me to be threatened by a death-curse. His teaching was that I had only to justify myself before the ancestors and the sun – first, by giving them honour, second, by avoiding incest, third, by abstaining from violence against their sacred creatures – and they would save me alive if I called upon them properly. A system of protective rituals had its roots in this comforting doctrine.

The appeal for protection was made in the form of invocations called tataro, which were, in effect, simple prayers. Taakeuta gave me two tataro for personal use. He recommended the first for what he courteously styled my 'bad luck' at fishing. It had to be recited sitting on my canoe, looking up at the sun (when it was at its noonday strength, ideally) with the luckless hook raised breast-high between joined palms:

Sun-e-e, Sun-o-o, I beg thee, I, Grimble!
Thou knowest me with my ill-wished hook.
Ancestors-e-e, Auriaria, Tituaabine-o-o, I beg you, I, Grimble!
You know me with my ill-fortune.
I am faint-hearted, you! Help me!
It is ended. Blessings and Peace are mine. Blessings and Peace.

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The true characters of prayer appear more convincingly, perhaps, in the next example, for an attitude of supplication is associated there with an oblation and a plea of righteousness. My teacher gave me this one with others, as a sure defence against the death-spell I have mentioned. The instructions ran that, before beginning to eat any meal, I must raise a morsel of food on upturned palm before me and repeat aloud:

This is the lifting up of the portion of the Ancestors.

Here is thy food, Auriaria: I have committed no incest.

Here is thy food Tituaabine: I have not harmed thy creature (the Giant Ray).

I am excellent-e-e! I touch the Sun, I clasp the Moon.

Turn back the spirits of the death-magic; turn them back, for I, Grimble, beg you.

I am not lost. Blessings and Peace are mine. Blessings and Peace.

Taakeuta said the prayer would please the Ancestors best if I could get one or two companions of my adoptive clan to repeat it with me, I speaking in the first person singular for myself, they using the first person plural for all of us. It was disclosed to me later by my servant and dear friend Kirewa – also an adopted member of the sun clan – that tataro of the same shape were used in collective ceremonials for the fructification of the pandanus tree and the eating of first-fruits. One of the fructification prayers Kirewa gave me is of double interest here because it refers to the birth of Karongoa's secret sun-god Au, so many times mentioned already, from the crest of a virgin pandanus tree in the ancestral lands of Abatoa (Aba-the-Great) and Abaiti (Aba-the-Little). Abaiti is, of course, the Gilbertese equivalent of the ancient Maori fatherland Jawaiki. The prayer was intoned by a single officiator sitting with hands upturned at the foot of an emblematic pandanus tree. There was no limit to the number of Karongoa folk, men or women, who might be present, and members of Maerua, the moon-clan, might be invited but all others were strictly excluded. The ceremony took place at noon, the sun's strongest hour for ritual purposes:

This is the planting of our emblem of a tree, Au-forever-rising-o-o!

This is the planting of our emblem of a tree, Au-forever-turning-over-o-o!

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This is our planting of our emblem of a tree, Au-forever-setting-o-o! I have spread the branches of our tree of fruitfulness, our tree of the Sun and the Moon.

The lightning flashes, the thunder and the rain descend, even the fructifiers of the tree,

The virgin tree, the pandanus of Abatoa and Abaiti,

Thy tree, thy mother, Au-of-the-Northern-Solstice, Au-of-the-Southern-Solstice!

Spirit of the Crest, son of the tree, Au-forever-rising,

Spirits of Matang, Tituaabine, Tabuariki, Tevenei, Riiki, I call to you, I call only to you:

Bless us under our tree of fruitfulness, fructify our pandanus trees, I beg you.

I beg you-o-o! I, Kirewa.

Blessings and Peace are ours. Blessings and Peace.

And when the first-fruits had been gathered in, sweet puddings called karababa were made of the best of them for an offering to the sun and moon. The officiator, sitting as before at the foot of the emblematic tree, with the congregation in a half-circle behind him facing east, lifted a fragment of the sweet stuff on upturned palms towards the crest, intoning:

This is your food, Sun and Moon,

Even the first-fruits of our pandanus tree.

This is thy food, child of the virgin tree, Au-forever-rising,

Even the first-fruits of our pandanus trees.

This is your food, spirits of Matang, Tituaabine, Tabuariki, Tevenei, Riiki,

Even the first-fruits of our pandanus trees.

We are blest under our tree of fruitfulness.

Blessings and Peace are ours. Blessings and Peace.

After which, he threw back his head to look up at the sun and in that position swallowed the oblation, and the congregation, with cries of 'Blessings and Peace are ours. Blessings and Peace,' turned their faces to the sky and joined in the ritual meal.

The Gilbertese word mauri which I have here construed 'blessings' might also, in a very general sense, mean 'safety'. It has compendious connotations of material prosperity, good health and security from the attacks of evil spirits. In its prayerful page 131context, I think 'blessings' is the better word, as the state of being mauri was regarded always as a gift from the gods and the basis of all human happiness. I found few tataro, and none of those which appealed for protection from the death-magic, that did not close with the wistful formula – statement of faith and benediction in one – 'Blessings and Peace are ours. Blessings and Peace.' An equally touching and constant feature of all the protective prayers was their total freedom from revengeful motives. 'The Sun and the Ancestors will do what they will to your ill-wishers,' said my old friend to me: 'the tataro is not for anger.' These prayers aimed at security, in fact, not through the malice of the suppliant or his gods, but simply through the faith of a man in the love of his fore-fathers.

But the active charities that went with the cult of the ancestor were confined within the family group. There was no obligation upon a man to abstain from the practice of sorcery against members of clans other than his own, except his mother's and that into which he might have been adopted. The same person could be Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde – a user of tataro for self-defence and of the death-spells called wawi and wairaakau, maniwairaa and terakunene, for aggression. As a sorcerer he was crudely animistic. He believed that everything in the world had inside it an anti – or spirit, that could be called up out of the darkness of its imprisoning stuff. Nothing was needed to evoke it but the use of the right words with the right movements. If every detail of his ritual were correct, the sorcerer became the master of the anti; there was no nonsense about its loving him or wanting his love.

But this is not to say that Gilbertese magic was wholly bent on evil. Its spells covered the entire range of village activities; there was not a cranny of a man's or a woman's life into which it did not penetrate, and great sections of it – especially those which covered childbirth, marriage, prosperity, and death – were untainted by human malice. My aged friend Tabanea, of whose traffic in the 'magic of kindness' I shall have more to say later, gave me some samples of spells meant to comfort, not to kill. One of them was of the family known as te Kaanangaraoi, the givers of good direction, i.e., roughly, the bringers of good page 132fortune. It was a father's blessing on his son, but Tabanea said it would do well enough, alternatively, for any of my daughters.

'Lead her to an eastern beach just before sunrise,' he instructed me, 'and seat her on a stone facing the dawn. You may take her to the stone I use for myself, if you like. When she is seated, anoint the crown of her head with a little coconut oil – a drop or two will be enough – and tie a fillet of young coconut-leaf about her brows, making a knot like this. Then let her sit very still, her hands upon her knees, waiting for the sun to rise. And when you see the top rim of the sun appear over the horizon, stand beside her with your right hand resting on her head, saying these words three times:

By this crowning with a fillet, by this anointing with oil,
Thou art beautiful, thou art the first of thy generation.
Thou shalt overturn the hearts of the old men,
Thou shalt overturn the hearts of the warriors;
They shall gaze upon thee and eagerly speak thy name.
Thou art become the child of the sun;
Thy feet shall tread high places;
Thy heart shall burn, thy body shall shine;
Thy face shall be beautiful and terrible;
Thy word shall be a judgement that is judged,
And thy name only, Joan Ruth, shall be in the mouth of all people,
Thine, thine, thine!
The Sun is risen.'

Spells of this benign quality lent themselves very easily as a bridge between paganism and Christianity in the days of groping from belief to belief. The old pagans of my time had seen the emissaries of the new faith working ruthlessly against their loved ancestors in the earlier days of missionary work, and for that reason most of them resisted to the very end every effort to christianize them. But they distinguished with extraordinary sensitiveness between the new God and His human prophets. Their stubborn resistance was directed not against the notion of a foreign deity but against the church organization as such. The Christian God seemed very powerful to them. Had He not saved from the anger of their own spirits the desecrators of their village shrines? They had need of the protection of such a page 133Power, not His enmity, in their bitter loss. So Katutu, a pagan of about eighty, put it to me at Tarawa. 'And besides, God and Jesus do not belong only to the Protestants and Roman Catholics,' he said to me. 'They belong to pagans also. They are not surrounded by a fence up there in Heaven, and we do not have to run into a mission fence to find them here on earth. They are everywhere, like Auriaria and Tabuariki and Tituaabine. We can take them for our own friends if we want them.' And some of them did precisely that, by the simple expedient of using the names of God and Jesus as names of power in their magic of kindness. I cannot think that there was anger in the courts of Heaven when the following prayer was heard there. It was used by Katutu when he was lost at sea in his fishing-canoe. Lifting a little sea water at arms' length in cupped hands, he called:

This is the lifting of the draught of the sightless:
I am cross-eyed, I am blind! I know not North, I know not South,
I know not heaven or the underworld-o-o!
Lift thyself up my draught – I drink thee;
Let them tell me, let them direct me, for I am cross-eyed, I am blind.
O bu-u-u, ba-a-a, God and Jesus!
Only thou, God, art the land, thou the ocean.
The ill wind blows: destroy it, disperse it,
Return it to its place – the ocean-o-o!

'And when I had said it three times,' said Katutu, 'the ill wind dropped its wings, the sea fell, a fair wind blew, and I came safe home.'

Katutu like Tabenea was a professional sorcerer who dealt only in the magic of kindness. His sort brought nothing but help to villagers nominally Christian yet still far less confident than pagan Katutu of the love of their accepted God. But there were few professionals like him; the majority were sinister beings; curses intended to bring madness, disease and death were their common stock-in-trade, and the terror of their works hung like a black cloud over the villages. Here are the words of a curse upon a cooking-oven. The sorcerer is to be imagined squatting naked in the dark before dawn over his enemy's fireplace and stabbing it with a stick as he mutters–

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Spirit of madness, Nei Terang!
Spirit of excrement, Nei Tebutae!
Spirit of eating alive, Nei Mataora!
Spirits of rottenness, Maauere, Maauere-o-o!
I stab the fire of his food, the fire of that man Naewa.
 Strike west of him, you! Strike east of him, you!
 Strike as I stab, strike death!
 Strangle him, madden him, shame him with rottenness!
His liver heaves, it heaves, it is overturned and torn apart.
His bowels heave, they heave, they are torn apart and gnawed.
He is black mad, he is dead.
It is finished: he is dead, dead, dead. He rots.

My old friend of the protective ritual, Taaketa of Marakei, gave me this spell as an example of the kind of curse that had been laid upon my shrinking self. Obviously, apart from their obscenity, such curses amounted to nothing more than any other pack of words. But the trouble was, they often worked. The sorcerers took care to back their rituals with something more than words. They knew a good deal about fish-poisons, and also about the blistering secretion of the cantharides fly, which swarms among the coconut-blossom. And even when no such adventitious aid was used, there was always man's fear working on the side of the sorcerer. It is an eerie thing to know yourself cursed, even if you are a European. A brown man with sixty generations of terror-struck belief whispering in his blood, and no trust any more in the saving love of his ancestors, and not yet any deep hold on the comforts of his new religion, was easy meat for the death-magic. The sorcerers had little to learn in practice about the murderous force of auto-suggestion.

I believe all these dark things are done with in the Gilbert Islands of today. Education in the mission schools and (if I may be so sentimental) more comforting emphasis upon the dynamics of love in Christian teaching, had already helped much by 1933 – when I left the Pacific – towards banishing dread of the death-magic from the villages. Since then, exciting new things like co-operative marketing, and political progress, and radio have come into the life of the islands. The long tedium of the village nights is brightened in 1951 by talk and thought about a page 135hundred interests that were not there to drive out the spectres of old. But I lived there when fear was still master. The villages, so bright by day, were haunted when night closed down upon them.

I am not suggesting that ghosts returned from the dead, or familiars prowled, or presences lurked in things. I write as a sceptic about that kind of belief. But it is my experience that malice and fear are strong infections. They can taint things and places, just as human love can sweeten them. Generation upon generation of sorcerers who willed evil, and of people who dreaded their power, had lived out their lives in those islands. The piled-up horror of their convictions had achieved, down the ages, a weight and a shadow of its own, an imminence that brooded over everything. It was man's thought, more potent than ghosts, that haunted the habitations of men. One felt that practically anything could happen in that atmosphere.