Religions in the Pacific

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Christianity is the dominant religion in Oceania and the Pacific. Christians make up 44 percent of the population of Australia, 37 percent of New Zealand, 64 percent of Fiji, 85 percent of New Caledonia, 99 percent of Papua New Guinea, 97.4 percent of the Solomon Island, 93.3 percent of Vanuatu, 94 percent of Guam, 97 percent of Kiribati, 97 percent of the Marshall Islands, 95 percent of Micronesia, 79 percent of Nauru, 87 percent of Palau, 98 percent of American samoa, 97 percent of Samoa, 96 percent of the Cook Islands, 94 percent of French Polynesia, 99 percent of Tonga, and 99.6 percent of Tuvalu. [Source: Wikipedia]

Places with significant numbers of Non-Christians include Fiji, where Hindus make up 28 percent of the population and Muslims make up 6.4 percent. Hindus make up around 2.7 percent of the population in Australia and New Zealand. Muslims comprise 3.2 percent of the population of Australia and 1.3 percent in New Zealand. Around 48.5 percent of New Zealanders regard themselves as non-religious, with 39 percent of Australians doing the same. Other religions are strongest in Palau (10.6 percent) and Nauru (7.6 percent)

Some Polynesians worship sharks. Some cargo cults have religious ceremonies "built around document bills of lading and purchase orders." Haruspicy (searching for omens in the entrails of animals) to predict the future has been practiced in Polynesia as has ritualistic cannibalism..

Christianity in the Pacific Islands

As we said before Christianity is far and away the predominate religion in Oceania (See Above). According to Having already been exposed to Western trading contact, the islanders embraced Christianity, largely by choice and for reasons that seemed valid to them at the time. Through the agency of Pacific Island teachers, Christianity spread rapidly in the eastern and central Pacific (Polynesia and Micronesia). In each island group, the first mission to introduce Christianity usually received the support of the majority of the population. The evangelization of the more populous and fragmented societies of the southwest Pacific (Melanesia) was a much slower process and, in the island of New Guinea, is incomplete at the beginning of the twenty-first century.

The relationship of Christianity and colonialism in the Pacific Islands has varied. At different times and in different places Christian missionaries have been defenders of the independence of indigenous governments, supporters and opponents of imperial expansion, willing partners and critics of colonial administrations, and backers of nationalist and independence movements.

The early European missionaries initially had great difficulty converting the inhabitants of New Guinea. One mission on the Mandang coast went 13 years without baptizing a single native. Many resorted to giving natives steel items and food in exchange for their conversions. Many people in New Guinea converted to Christianity to waylay their fears of evils spirits and sorcery. Now according to some sources Papua New Guinea is 99 percent Christian.

According to the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: “To this day, new groups of missionaries are arriving and expanding throughout Oceania, but those early representatives were especially significant, not only in terms of their effects on the customs and beliefs of Pacific islanders but also because their presence constituted a major factor in the development of commerce and accompanying demands for the establishment of colonial governments and services. |~|

Religion in Micronesia

Most Micronesians are Christians now. Roman Catholicism and Protestantism have been widely accepted throughout Micronesia following their introduction by missionaries in the 1880s. Yap in the west is mostly Catholic, while Chuuk and Pohnpei seem to have an equal number of Catholics and Protestants Kosrae in the east is predominately Protestant. The largest Protestant denomination is the United Church of Christ. Others include Baptist, Seventh-Day Adventist, Mormon, the Salvation Army, Jehovah's Witness, and Assemblies of God. . Kosraeans were drawn to the Christianity introduced by Congregational missionaries. There is a small Buddhist community of Pohnpei. There are also a small number of Baha'is in the country. The constitution provides for religious freedom and a bill of rights specifically prohibits the establishment of a state religion. [Source: Worldmark Encyclopedia of Nations]

Although most people of Pohnpei are Christians they still worship the gods and kings of Nan Madol. It is believed the authority of chiefs is supported by supernatural spirits and ancestral ghosts. Affronts to these spirits and ghosts is believed to result in sickness and disasters. A feast of apology has traditionally been staged when the "riahla" disease occurs.

According to “Countries and Their Cultures”: “Prior to the arrival of Christianity, beliefs focused on the activity of ancestral souls, a pantheon of deities, and the numerous spirits, both kind and malevolent, that inhabited the earth, sea, and sky. Although Christianity has largely replaced the traditional animistic systems of belief, elements of pre-Christian belief systems are interwoven with ecclesiastical practice. Many Micronesians still believe in the power of deceased ancestors to influence events and the existence of spirits and spirit possession. [Source: Bryan P. Oles, “Countries and Their Cultures”, 2001]

Prior to Christian conversion, island societies relied on a variety of religious specialists to mediate between the natural and supernatural world. The men who held these positions were responsible for a variety of tasks including divination, healing, navigation, weather control, and bringing about propitious events such as victory in battle and abundant harvests. Although specialists with supernatural skills are still employed from time to time, the majority of formal religious practitioners are members of Catholic and Protestant churches. Practitioners in both faiths are ordained by the formal ecclesiastical organizations. Protestant churches feature a hierarchy of religious titles for which members of each congregation compete.

The ritual cycle of Christian churches dominates the organization of community activity in many parts of Micronesia. Elements of traditional culture, such as competitive feasting and the harvest of first fruits, have been incorporated into church calendars. People can be found preparing for, or celebrating, a church-related event almost every day. Churches are the primary holy places and are often the most conspicuous buildings in Micronesian communities. Even so, many places associated with legendary or historical events are considered sacred. Such sites may have an inherent power relating to the past, or may be the abode of spirits.

Christianity in Polynesia

Most Polynesians are followers of Christianity, both Catholicism and Protestantism. Some traditional beliefs and mythologies have been incorporated into Christian ideology. At churches in Papeete, women sit on one side of aisle and men sit on the other. Women dress in their white Sunday best clothes. Describing uplifting “himenes” (Tahitian-style hymns), one observer said the sound "lifts you right out of your seat."

The conversion of the people of Polynesia to Christianity began when the London Missionary School (LMS) sent evangelical Protestant missionaries to Tahiti in 1797. Catholicism was introduced much later by the French. The Catholic population lives primarily in the Gambier and Marquesas archipelagoès. Protestantism predominates in the Society, Austral, and Tuamotu island groups. Today 49 percent of the population of French Polynesia is Protestant, 33 percent is Catholic, 5 percent is Mormon, 5 percent is Sanito, and 4 percent is Seventh-Day Adventist. [Source: Jeanette Dickerson-Putman and Laura Jones,“Countries and Their Cultures”, 2003]

According to “Countries and Their Cultures”: In Protestant areas, the Christian faith, the church, and the pastor are central features of village life. Pastors preside over the religious activities of the community, conduct Sunday school, teach the Bible, conduct weddings and funerals, and provide communion. The village pastor is also a protector of community morality and can affect political decision making. Elders have an important power base in the church, and one of their primary roles is to assist the pastor in enforcing social control. Some contemporary villages have indigenous practitioners (primarily male) who use their knowledge and control of spirits and ghosts to heal people who have a spirit-caused disorder.

Many rituals involve the events of the Christian calendar year, such as cemetery visiting on All Saints' Day, or the annual re-enactment of the arrival of the missionaries by boat. There are a number of rituals that involve life-cycle events such as baptisms, weddings, and funerals. For example, traditional weddings include the ceremonial presentation of gifts including traditional speech making and dancing. The annual collection of church tithes by the Protestant churches on May Day also involves ritual oratory and ceremonial visitation of local households.

Traditional Polynesia Religion

Before Western contact, people in Polynesia believed in a pantheon of distant gods and a host of local and family spirits that affected daily life. Early missionaries discouraged fire-dancing and other forms of Tahitian cultural expression. Today, many Polynesian continue to believe in ancestral spirits, or have merged such beliefs into the Christianity they practice. These spirits gather around the village and are encountered as the ghosts of formerly living people.

Ancient Polynesian temple platforms (“marae”) are still considered to be holy places by many Polynesians even though indigenous religious practice has largely ceased. Professional traditional dance companies stage ritual re-enactments of ancient ceremonies on a reconstructed temple platform in the Tahitian district of Paea for tourists and visiting dignitaries.

J. Williams wrote in the “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life”: Polynesian religion changed dramatically with the coming of European missionaries to the region in the early part of the 19th century. From what we do know of precontact practices, there was considerable variation in religious ideas and practices throughout Polynesia. In Hawaii, for instance, priests performed sacrificial rites at monumental temple complexes to provide legitimacy for the authority of the chief. Chiefs were genealogically related to gods and, as a result, were believed to possess sacred power called mana. The Hawaiian system recognized four major gods and one major goddess. Ku, the god of war, fishing, and other male activities, ruled the ritual calendar of ancient Hawaiians for eight months out of the year. Ku was the patron god of the well-known Hawaiian king Kamehameha. [Source: J. Williams, “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life”, 2007]

Religion and Society in Polynesia

On traditional Polynesia, Historian Jack Keegan: Polynesian society is theocratic in structure. Chefs, who are believed to be descended from the gods, in turn deified or supernatural forefathers, also hold the office of high priest. As high priest the chef mediates between gad and man to bestow on his people the fruits of the soil and the seal his power of mediation — “mana” — entitles him to scared rights (“tapu”or taboo) over land, fishing grounds, their produce and much else that is good or desirable. “man”and taboo assured remarkably stable and peaceful societies in normal circumstances and in the happiest Polynesian islands theocracy safely regulated relations between chiefs and people, as well as among the clans that had descended from the original chief." [Source: "History of Warfare" by John Keegan, Vintage Books |||]

The concept of tapu, English "taboo," was important in all Polynesian societies, generally meaning forbidden or prohibited due to sacredness. There were things that were tapu such as certain body parts of particular individuals-the head of the first-born, for example. There were also rules that served to protect through the prohibition of certain actions. In the Marquesas Islands, a woman's menstrual cloth was not tapu; however, it was tapu to touch it. [Source: J. Williams, Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life, 2007]

The rules governing “mana”and taboo usually kept people in line. The war for warrior, “toa”, is identical for the word of iron tree, from which weapons are made. Usually the chief was the strongest warrior and the only time serious conflicts broke out was when quarrels over women, power, and property escalated in to situations in which taboos by a strong warrior who was willing challenge the chief for supremacy. |||

Shark Gods and Legends in the Pacific

Shark Blogger wrote in “We Love Sharks”: From the Cook Islands comes the popular legend of Tekea the Great, the king of all sharks. One of the most popular tales is that of Ina and the Shark. Though there are many versions of this story, it basically says that Ina was a beautiful, young maiden in love with the god of the Ocean, Tinirau. Tinirau lived on a floating island and asked Ina to come and see him. But she needed transportation across the waters and an unnamed shark offered to help her. She hopped on his back and they were off. Afterwards, she became hungry and she wanted to break open one of the coconuts she had carried along. She hit it against the shark’s head to open it, denting his head in the process. The angry shark threw her off and she would have drowned (or he would have eaten her). Luckily, Tekea the Great came to her rescue and carried her to meet Tinirau. Anyway, the islanders believe the knock on the head was how sharks got the indentations on their heads. This story is so popular that bank notes were made in 1992 to mark 6th festival of Pacific Arts Rarotonga Cook Islands. [Source: Shark Blogger, We Love Sharks, November 13, 2020]

The most popular shark entity in Fijian mythology has got to be the angry, fearless, and jealous sea-god Dakuwaqa. Dakuwaqa is known as a shark-god and is greatly revered by fishermen as a god controlling the waters around Fiji to date. They believe that he protects them from all kinds of danger at sea. The legend says that he was the guardian of the reef entrance to the islands, but he was somewhat a bully. As such, he would often transform into the shape of a fearsome shark and go around the reefs challenging and terrorizing the other guardians. One day, after another major conquest, Dakuwaqa heard about an unbeatable god guarding Kadavu island. Dakuwaqa was displeased and he immediately set off to defeat this god but he met his match. This god in the form of an enormous octopus, entangled Dakuwaqa securely in his tentacles. Some versions say he even pulled out many of his shark teeth and nearly killed him. Eventually, he begged for mercy and promised to change his ways permanently and never harm anyone from Kadavu. The Octopus-god finally released him and Dakuwaqa kept his promise till now.

The people of Kadavu do not fear sharks in the waters around them. However, the fishermen always remember to pour a local drink called kava (or yagona) into the sea in honor of Dakuwaqa before they set sail. Dakuwaqa has many forms. But his most popular one is that of a Fijian male with human legs and a shark’s torso.

Hawaiian culture is one of the richest worldwide as regards shark names, cultures and beliefs. To Hawaiians, sharks are not just animals. They are a powerful force to be respected and protected with pride of place in the marine ecosystem. For centuries, they have had shark gods and spirits that protect them. Specifically, generations of Hawaiians have family guardians, aumakua, that protect their interests and give them spiritual guidance and comfort.

Aumakua are ancestors that reincarnate and come back to protect and help family members. These aumakua could be a tree, cloud, bird, land or sea animal but sharks remains the most popular to date, especially the tiger shark. Such ‘family sharks’ would lead fishermen to where they can catch many fish and in return the fishermen would feed them. Of course, not all sharks are considered aumakua and even if your family aumakua is a shark, you can’t expect every shark to be friendly towards you on account of that.

A few popular Hawaiian shark-gods include: 1) Kamohoali’i: King of the shark gods and sea guardian of the Hawaiian Islands. Kamohoali’i would rescue and help people after transforming into different sea creatures or human forms. A popular story recounts how he escorted Pele, the Goddess of Fire and Volcanoes when she was transporting the volcanoes. 2) Ka’ahupahau: Ka’ahupahau and her brother Kahi’uka, were guardian sharks that were worshiped for centuries. It is said that they were benevolent gods who protected fishermen and other sea-goers and chased away man-eating sharks. 3) Kane’apua: A trickster shark god with magical powers. 4) Kane’i’kokala: A kind shark god that regularly saved shipwreck victims.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: “Encyclopedia of World Cultures, Volume 2: Oceania,” edited by Terence E. Hays, 1991, Wikipedia,, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated July 2023

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