Traditional Religion in Micronesia and The North Pacific

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Most people of Micronesia — a nation comprised of many islands in the Pacific Ocean 3,200 kilometers east of the Philippines and 3,650 kilometers west of Hawaii — 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.

History of Religion in Micronesia

William A. Lessa wrote: When the missionary Luther Gulick arrived on the central Pacific island of Pohnpei in 1852 he found the native priests dying out, and their shrines, like the megalithic Nan Madol, were almost abandoned. Populations were decimated by whaling ships that left behind diseases to which the local people had no immunity; the Caroline island of Kosrae, one of the hardest hit, was left without a population large enough to support elaborate priestly hierarchies and religious title holders. [Source: William A. Lessa (1987), Jay Dobbin (2005),Encyclopedia of Religion, Lessa (1908-1997 studied chemistry at Harvard University and earned his PhD in anthropology from the University of Chicago in 1947. He taught at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA and is regarded as "one of the pillars of anthropology in Micronesia", Lessa is best known for his work on Ulithi Atoll in Micronesia.

Few of the "little islands" that give Micronesia its name were unified at the time of first contact. Kosrae was the only island with a centralized government under a single paramount leader, and the smaller islands sometimes had several chiefs. In spite of the diversity within Micronesia, its cultures and old religions demonstrate certain shared patterns. These patterns can be seen in three areas: the Micronesian conception of the cosmos, the spirit inhabitants of this cosmos, and the patterns of interaction between spirits and humans.

Why these common traits exist when the Micronesian islands were settled by different peoples who spoke different languages and were widely separated from each other isn't entirely clear. Certainly the fact that the Micronesians were and still are some of the Pacific's finest boatbuilders and navigators is part of the explanation; they had the technology to make the Pacific Ocean not an obstacle but a means of colonizing and trading over long distances. Evidence of traffic in precontact Micronesia includes a highly organized trading and exchange system called the sawei (basket) that joined the people of Yap and the central Caroline atolls, with the Ulithi islands as the intermediary. Pottery exchanges show that this system began in the seventh century ce.

Traditional Religion in Micronesia

Lessa described Micronesian religion as "a mélange of many elements." Although basic aspects of missionary Christianity were accepted in Micronesia, islander Christians still revere ancestors and the spirits of ancestors. In Chuuk, prior to the last half of the twentieth century, offerings to ancestor spirits were placed in model canoes suspended from the roof in men's houses. The spirits of certain animals — such as sharks, eels, and lizards — were sacred to the clan of which they were the totem. Heavenly spirits such as the Yapese Yalafath (a trickster god) and nature spirits associated with certain trees and plants were also sacred. Tapuanu masks were worn for ceremonial purposes. Only traces of these cultural forms remain. Part of the Nan Madol ruins, Madol Powe, was an ancient religious center; many Pohnpeians believe it is still a tabu (forbidden) area. Today some Catholic liturgies include such traditional sacred symbols as the bestowal of the mwaramwar (head garland) at baptismal rites.[Source: Jack A. Hill, Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices, 1999]

William A. Lessa wrote: Many of the neat terminological distinctions made by scholars about the Pacific religions cannot be sustained in Micronesia, including the distinction between magic and religion. When the Ulithian masters of the weather gather near the ocean side of the lagoon and make their pleas and petitions to the gods, is this magic or religion? Some of the chants certainly are petitions and not an attempt to manipulate the powers of the cosmos. Some priests also worked as diviners, and some of the breadfruit callers functioned like priests when they recalled the legends of the breadfruit spirits and petitioned the breadfruit spirits to come and bless the trees with a good harvest.[Source: William A. Lessa (1987), Jay Dobbin (2005), Encyclopedia of Religion,]

Every Micronesian culture has words for taboo (forbidden) and sacred (holy). On the islets of the Kwajalein atoll, the places where the chiefs were buried and medicine was made were called sacred, but they could just as easily have been called taboo. And the taliuw — the platforms used by the Yap priests of old, which had a shrine for the site's god of goddess on top of the platform — were sacred because of the deity dwelling there, and access was prohibited to anyone but the priests, making them both holy and taboo. Many English translations or glosses for Micronesian words and religious terms are less that perfect fits. Their meanings were frequently distorted by observers who did not understand the theology or cosmology they were reporting.

The pre-Christian religions of Micronesia underwent a long period of evolution and change. Pohnpei is the best example of the shift in religion from the cult centers of the priest-chiefs to hierarchical priesthoods at various sites, followed by an attempt at centralization under the Sau Deleurs and new rituals involving the sacrifice of living beings, and ultimately the secularization of priestly titles in the polity of the autonomous states (wehi ) under paramount chiefs, the nahnmwarkis.

Rituals and religious organizations varied from region to region. Patterns such as the prominent role of divination and the widespread use of trance and possession cut across the diversity in Micronesia, although they are carried out differently in different regions. Certain types of gods are universal: sky and creator divinities, patron gods and goddesses, evil spirits bound to certain locations on land and sea, and of course ancestors. The main categories are the same, but the emphasis given to various gods varies greatly. A test or trial to determine who goes where in the cosmos after death is widespread, and the general lack of eschatological judgment to allot rewards or punishment in the afterlife is a common feature across Micronesia.

Because of the regional differences fostered by geographic distances as well as varying degrees of influence from adjacent culture areas, an overall character cannot be assigned to Micronesian religion. It is a mélange of many elements: celestial and terrestrial deities, nature spirits, demons, and ancestral ghosts, with a strong infusion of magic, taboo, and divination. No one trait dominates the system, but many common patterns run through the overarching diversity.

Traditional North Pacific View of the Cosmos

Lessa wrote: Their image of the cosmos allowed the Micronesians to explain how things work and why things happen (as is the case with the Polynesians and Melanesians). The cosmos defined the spheres of activity between spirits and humans. Within the cosmos are places for gods, ancestral spirits, and living humans. There are places where people go after death, places where the dead are put to various tests, and places where the living can interact with their deceased kin. [Source: William A. Lessa (1987), Jay Dobbin (2005), Encyclopedia of Religion,]

Most Micronesian views of the cosmos are of a sky world as an inverted bowl, with several layers populated by different categories of deities. The islands of Micronesia are seen as columns projecting up from the bottom of the sea, and the bottom of the sea has a trapdoor that opens not into an underworld but into an undersea world. This is where the people of some islands believe they do when they die.

Early ethnographers recorded descriptions and even collected drawings depicting the cosmos, including a surviving sketch made by a native of Puluwat in 1910. The inverted bowl is the most widespread image, but there are variations. In Pohnpei the vault of the sky was like the roof of a ceremonial meeting house. In the Marshalls there were four heavenly post-men who held up the heavens in each of the four cardinal directions. But as the post-men fell asleep the heavens at each corner collapsed, and then the vault of heaven became an inverted bowl. On the Kiribati atolls the cosmos are depicted as a gigantic clamshell that the god Naurea tried to pry open to let the light come in. He persuaded Riki to help him. Riki succeeded in opening the shell and was rewarded by losing his legs and becoming the eel or snake in the sky: the Milky Way.

Stories About the Stars in the North Pacific

Lessa wrote: Curiously the sun, moon, and stars — all important to navigators — are not of widespread importance in most Micronesian religions, with Kiribati the notable exception. Kiribati is influenced by Polynesian religions, where the sun and moon play prominent roles in myth and ritual. One also finds occasional myths about the sun and moon on Palau, and the constellations Antares and the Pleiades play a role in Marshallese mythology. In the Marshall Islands story, Liktanur, the mother of two brothers, asks the older brother Tumur (Antares) to take her along with him in a canoe race, but he does not want the extra weight. Jebro (Pleiades), the younger son, does take his mother, and as the race begins Liktanur opens a parcel and sets up the first sail and rigging. As Jebro begins to overtake his older brother, Tumur commandeers the sailing boat. But clever Liktanur keeps some of the rigging, and Tumur is unable to change course. Liktanur and Jebro finish the race first and hide in the bushes. Tumur lands and proclaims himself winner and chief. Then Liktanur and Jebro emerge from hiding, and Liktanur proclaims young Jebro the new chief. [Source: William A. Lessa (1987), Jay Dobbin (2005), Encyclopedia of Religion,]

This is what is known as a charter myth and is typical of Micronesian mythology. In this case it demonstrates the unwritten law that the rank of chief (irooj, lerooj, or iroojlaplap ) is determined by the mother's lineage. This myth has been reinterpreted by contemporary Christians on the remote atoll of Ujelang, who see the rising of Jebro/Pleiades, which comes into view about the time of Christmas, as symbolic of Jesus' birth.

The people of Pohnpei have the same myth, which also has both political and religious meanings. A woman named Likitanir creates the starts. None of her children wants to listen to her, with the exception of the smallest one, Margiregir, who obeys her and takes her in his canoe. She teaches him sailing and proclaims him nahnmwarki (a paramount chief, the equivalent of iroojlaplap in the Marshalls). Margiregir becomes Margigi on Yap and is a mythic foundation for both the political and religious centers of Yap. This story, like many others, transcended the boundaries of ocean and language to become one of the common features of Micronesian mythology.

Traditional Micronesian Gods and Spirits

William A. Lessa wrote: The spirit population of the cosmos exemplifies the Micronesian characteristic of great diversity with certain common features. Many of the islands use the same term to describe the myriad spirits in their cosmos: énú, or some cognate of this Chuukic term, which is applied to various kinds of spirits. Across Micronesia, these spirits fall into the following main categories: [Source: William A. Lessa (1987), Jay Dobbin (2005), Encyclopedia of Religion,]

1) Sky gods, often called the great spirit. An example is the Chuukic Enúúnap. Frequently the sky god's son or brother, the spirit Luk or Nuuk (among other variations), works for the sky god. Patron deities. They may live in highest heaven but are still deeply involved in helping humans. They sometimes bring culture and technology, like Liktanur of the Marshalls, who taught humankind the all-important art of sailing.

2) Ancestors of the family, the lineage, or the clan. These are the spirits who take possession of their living kin and offer advice, help, and predictions. The Micronesian attitude toward these spirits ranges from what we commonly refer to as ancestor worship to a veneration that is more akin to filial piety.

3) Nature spirits (tolls, ogres, and wee people). These spirits are geographically bound to certain locations, like the reef spirits of the Chuuk Main Lagoon.

4) Trickster spirits. The trickster is a common mythic symbol throughout Polynesia and Micronesia. He is Olifat (Wonofáát) in the Chuukic islands, Letau in the Marshalls, Nareau in Kiribati, and Maui in Polynesian Hawai'i. In some places he is pure trickster, the archetypal character who does everything wrong, breaks all the rules, and hops into bed with his brother's wife. In others he is cruel, and in many stories he kills one of his brothers. He can also be helpful: on some islands it is the trickster who brings fire to humankind. In general, he functions more as the central figure in a cycle of morality stories illustrating how not to behave than as a supernatural sanction against breaking cultural rules.

A further assortment of divinities does not fit into the above categories. Most cultures have a local deity whose activities overshadow all the others in importance. On the central Carolinian atoll of Ifalik this is Tilitur, who was sent by the high sky god Enúúnap to take care of the people of this atoll. Anthropologists just after World War II recorded the reverence the people of Ifalik showed for Tilitur and his interactions with them. He frequently possessed his chosen vehicles.

Gods and Spirits Missing or Rare in Traditional Micronesian Religion

William A. Lessa wrote: Two types of spirits are either rare or completely missing in Micronesia: an omnipotent and uncreated deity and a purely evil deity. The Micronesian pantheon generally lacks an uncreated creator of all things who existed before the universe and before other gods. Naurea of the Kiribati opens a cosmic clamshell to let light into the world, for example, but that world was already in existence. There is one known exception: ethnologist Wilhelm Müller recorded, and in 1917 published, a Yapese story about an uncreated deity who, merely by thinking, brought into existence the other deities, who in turn created islands, people, plants, and fish (p. 505). However, Dobbin, writing in 1996, found that no contemporary Yapese knew of this god, who was called Gavur li yel yel. [Source: William A. Lessa (1987), Jay Dobbin (2005), Encyclopedia of Religion,]

The Micronesian pantheon also lacks a genuinely omnipotent deity and an incarnation of evil like Satan or the devil in Western cosmology, despite the ideas of early Christian missionaries, who identified Enúúnap with the Judeo-Christian God and the trickster figures with Satan. Enúúnap, like Zeus or Jupiter in Greco-Roman mythology, is caught up in the foibles of his children and nagged by his wife. Whatever else he may be, he is not omnipotent. In the category of evil spirits, none is totally evil like the Christian Satan. The tricksters Letau, Nareau, Wonofáát, and Yalifath are a glorious mixture of evil, stupidity, and cleverness, acting at various times as gift givers, killers, and slapstick comics.

Another kind of spirit found only in rare instances occurs when a dead human being returns to possess the body of a living person. William Lessa (1961) traced one of the few examples to an infant boy from Ulithi named Marespa, born in the mid-nineteenth century. The infant's father was possessed by his deceased child, and the spirit of Marespa quickly inspired a cult for healing and curing that spread to other islands, including Yap, Ngulu, and the atolls south of Palau.

Roles of Traditional Micronesian Gods and Spirits

William A. Lessa wrote: While it is possible to draw a genealogical chart of the spirits for most islands, who begat whom is notoriously inconsistent. The spirits' characteristics vary as well. Olifat (Wonofáát) is a trickster and sometimes a cruel spirit in eastern Micronesia, but on Yap he is Yelafath the Elder (a god who creates the other gods) and Yelafath the Younger (the trickster). This pattern also occurs in Kiribati, where one manifestation of Nareau is a creator and the other is the trickster. In Chuuk tradition, Luk and Lukenleng (or Nuuk and Nuukeyinen, literally "middle of heaven") are one and the same god, a god who is something of an heir apparent who does most of the work of Enúúnap. In Yap tradition, however, Lug (Luk) is the god of death who flies about snaring humans in his net, and Lukenlang is a different god. [Source: William A. Lessa (1987), Jay Dobbin (2005), Encyclopedia of Religion,]

Patron deities were active in the everyday work of craftspeople, healers, medicine makers, and navigators, and helped assure a bountiful harvest or successful fishing trip. The blending of religion and daily life involved more than just blessing a new canoe or house or praying for the safe return of the fleet. The famed navigators of old learned their craft through training filled with religious ritual. They were initiated into the profession with an elaborate ceremony and performed complex rituals before setting sail. In medicine the healing chants and formulas for making up medicines ultimately came from the spirits through dreams, possession and trace, or from an elder who passed on these spirit-given gifts.

The creator deities, the sky gods, had different ways of working with the cosmos and human beings. Some of the great sky gods were aloof from the lives of humankind, having finished their creating work and retired to the bliss of one of the high heavens. But in the Chuuk tradition the priest-chiefs (itang ) invoked the sky gods Enúúnap and Luk as they led their men into battle. The Marshallese creation myth resembles the first chapters of Genesis, where God says, "Let there be …" and lo, there it is, only in this case the chief Marshallese sky gods send a divinity to earth to teach canoe building, sailing, and tattooing.

Pohnpei mythology offers an interesting contrast. The Pohnpei universe is created by divinities and humans working together. A supernatural octopus directs the first human settlers to the place where the rocks will be deposited to become Pohn-pei, literally "upon a stone altar"). The god Dau Katau confers the first title of Soumenlang on the priest at Salapwuk; this according to oral historian Bernart Luelen is the beginning of religion and the title system on Pohnpei. After the Sau Deleu dynasty was destroyed, the god Luk appeared in a canoe floating in the sky. The current priest-chief, Soukisenlang, and the ruler of Ant Island are brought to the canoe, and they talk with Luk. Together they determine the political structure of Pohnpei: autonomous states (wehi ) each led by a paramount chief, the nahnmwarki.

The relative importance of each type of spirit varies from island to island, again following the Micronesian pattern of diversity and similarity. In the Chuuk Main Lagoon and nearby atolls the spirits of the ancestors were of primary importance. On nearby Pohnpei the high gods like Dau Katau or Luk were more important.

Sacred Places in Micronesian Religion

William A. Lessa wrote: There is no doubt that Micronesians of old believed that the divine met the human at certain physical sites, and the belief in the sacred or taboo nature of some of these sites continues in the early twenty-first century. [Source: William A. Lessa (1987), Jay Dobbin (2005), Encyclopedia of Religion,]

Household shrines were common through much of Micronesia. In the eastern Chuuk-speaking islands hanging shrines or altars, often in the shape of miniature double-hulled canoes, provided a place for the spirits of the ancestors to be with their kin. Here offerings of flowers and food were made, and it was at the household shrine that the ancestor spirits could possess a living family member, enabling the possessed one, called the wáátawa, to answer questions in the voice of the spirit, predict events and even deaths, and give advice to the living.

Sacred places were often combined with living spaces. The Palauan kerong (a possessed and entranced diviner like the wáátawa of Chuuk) often conducted their rituals in part of their own house. The raised-rock platforms (taliuw ) on Yap were both the sacred dwelling sites of the gods and the residence of priests. On Pohnpei a variety of natural rock formations were considered to be sacred sites where the gods gave the island its physical shape and its culture.

Sacred places were created in other ways. On Kiribati collections of ancestral skulls became a kind of portable shrine that the living talked to in their homes and took to dances in the giant meeting houses, the maneba. The cult of the skulls, as Sir Arthur Grimble called it, gave the character of a sacred spot to the place where the skulls were kept.

Rituals in Micronesian Religion

Before the missionaries arrived Micronesians performed a great variety of rituals, including breadfruit harvests in Chuuk, where trees were sanctified by herbs; rites of benediction in Yap, which preceded the felling of trees; and numerous sakau ceremonies prior to fishing journeys, warfare, or threats of typhoons. Sakau rituals were governed by strict rules, and the highest chief was served first. Women in Yap were secluded in huts during menstruation and childbirth. The Yapese mitmit was an all-out traditional feast accompanied by gift giving, singing, and dancing. One village would give a mitmit to another to reciprocate for one given to it in a previous year. [Source: Jack A. Hill, Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices, 1999]

William A. Lessa wrote: Probably the simplest and most widespread ritual around Micronesia was conducted in the family dwelling or boathouse and dedicated to the remembrance of deceased kin. Rituals were conducted at household shrines throughout Micronesia, even in places with gigantic cult centers like Kosrae's Lelu. On Nauru the household shrine was located at the center pole of the house, where gifts of food were placed for the ancestors (later replaced by Roman Catholic converts with a picture of Jesus). [Source: William A. Lessa (1987), Jay Dobbin (2005), Encyclopedia of Religion,]

The hanging altar or shrine of the Chuukic-speaking islands, the faar, was basically a household shrine for the lineage. Flowers, wreaths, and food could be place in this hanging altar. In some areas the ritual was even simpler. On Palau the ancestor's betel nut bag (a purse holding the ingredients needed to chew betel nuts) might be hung on the wall of the house and offered a tidbit of food. The Kiribati kept their ancestors' skulls in the house and treated them quite informally, talking with them, offering them cigarettes, and blowing cigarette smoke into the skull.

Views About Death in Traditional Micronesian Religion

William A. Lessa wrote: An almost universal Micronesian belief is that the soul and/or the spirit leave the body three or four days after death. On some islands, like the Marshalls, early writers could not find a clear notion of soul among the locals, probably because the Micronesians did not distinguish between soul and spirit, or perhaps because the spirit functioned like the soul of Western traditions. The people of Yap and Chuuk believe in two spirits within a single individual: a good-spirit soul, ngúnúyééch, and an evil-spirit soul, énúngngaw. The good spirit was a spiritual double of the living person and hence could appear to the living. The Chuukese also had a separate word for soul, gnúnú. [Source: William A. Lessa (1987), Jay Dobbin (2005), Encyclopedia of Religion,]

Another almost universal belief in Micronesia is that a departed spirit can be helpful to its living kinfolk. This is the basis for what early writers called ancestor worship, but the term is misleading. Although the deceased might be put in the same general category as the sky deities, for example, in other cases, such as on Chuuk, the good ngúnúyééch might become an énú, which is the global Micronesian term for gods and goddesses, patron deities, and harmful land or sea spirits. Various islands also had a combination term that identified the énú as a spirit that originated as a human being (énúúyaramas in Chuukese).

Widespread ambivalence among the living regarding recently deceased kin is common throughout Micronesia. On the one hand, people hope the deceased will be helpful to his or her relatives, and even take possession of one of the living who will function as the family or lineage medium. On the other hand, they may burn the possessions of the deceased, hoping that the spirit will climb on the column of smoke away from the living and up to the heavens.

Few Micronesian islands seem to have had a version of eschatological judgment, where one's accumulated merit is rewarded or punished at death, although this is debated. Various reports, like Father Cantova's interviews in the 1720s with Chuuk-speaking atoll dwellers who were stranded on Guam or records from the Russian expedition of 1927 speak of an afterlife involving reward and punishment. Spiro's investigations on Ifalik found a highly developed morality, but the sanctions for enforcing the morality came from the chiefs, not the gods or the religious specialists. He saw no evidence of an afterlife of reward and punishment.

The destination of the dead is often determined by a test rather than the record of a good life. Pohnpeians at death came to a swinging bridge over water. If the deceased could not sing well, the swinging bridge dumped the poor singer into the "place of no return." Yapese could not ascend to the sky layer unless their ears were pierced. On Ulithi a bad person might be destined for a sticky garbage pit. Many traditions include a long journey to the place where the deceased would ultimately live, sometimes on the mystic island of Matang. It was also commonly believed that one went to a part of the cosmos associated with one's occupation, like the deceased breadfruit callers who went to the south part of the heavens where the spirits of the breadfruit came from.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: William A. Lessa (1987), Jay Dobbin (2005), Encyclopedia of Religion,; “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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