Religious Rituals in Micronesia and The North Pacific

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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.

Traditional or local medicine is still commonly used in Micronesia, as it is in many parts of the Pacific. How much of it is tied to spirit beliefs and ritual is impossible to gauge. On islands that are overwhelmingly Christian, nobody wants to be known as a pagan, so the use of traditional healing rituals is often disguised. The physical ingredients of a medicine may be used without the traditional chants or with the chants mumbled. Dobbin, however, describes how the mother in a devout Christian family was in the process of becoming a medicine expert and received curing chants in a dream.

The local medicine system may begin with an informal diagnosis of an illness, but there is also a more formal system in which a diagnostic specialist uses divination to determine which spirit power is responsible for an illness. In some cases another specialist will then be called in who has the means to cure the illness. Sometimes these are one and the same person. The curing ceremonies are generally public events that require the presence of family and friends. The location of medicinal plants and details of the recipes, however, may be kept secret. Occasionally a medicine specialist in Chuuk will receive chants and recipes for medicines while in a trance state, but the more common source of local medicine, as it is called now, is through dreams sent by spirits. One can learn the specifics from an elder or even buy the formula, but ultimately medicine, especially on Chuuk and Pohnpei, comes from the spirits.

Divination in Micronesian Religion

Lessa wrote: Micronesians had a bevy of divination rituals to call on to help them make decisions and forecast the future. The simplest methods were perhaps not religious at all, but, like tarot cards, horoscopes, and palm reading, simply a way of probing into the unknown. Micronesian divination involved analyzing the number and sequence of knots made from fresh young palm fronds. Sometimes the palm knots were replaced by stones thrown on the ground. A Micronesian equivalent of tea-leaf reading analyzed the lines on the inside of a coconut shell. These were forms of do-it-yourself divination, although some people were known to be better at it than others. [Source: William A. Lessa (1987), Jay Dobbin (2005), Encyclopedia of Religion,]

Professional diviners worked in a variety of ways. The kerong of the Palauans might, for a price, offer to make predictions or answer questions in their own dwellings, from behind a screen, possessed by a spirit but apparently not in a trance. In some cases they had special huts next to their houses reserved for divining. Or they might rapidly chew and spit betel nut in order to stimulate a trance state, during which they spoke as a possessing spirit. Sometimes another person interpreted the words of the entranced diviner.

In some Palauan villages a god or goddess ruled the village, and the leading kerong passed along its decisions. At times these diviners or oracles became threats to the political chiefs. One of the few nativist movements in Micronesia involved a revival of the diviners' arts. In 1915 a kerong named Tamadad developed a syncretistic religion that combined elements of the old ecstatic rituals and healing and curing with Christian elements. The religion, known as Modekngei, still exists.

Ecstatic Rituals in Micronesian Religion

Lessa wrote: In Micronesia divination ritual leads logically to ecstatic ritual, which involves trances or altered states of consciousness that are often interpreted as possession. Trances or possession can be found in the past or present culture of almost every atoll or island of Micronesia. The priests at the great cult centers on Pohnpei and Kosrae used trances in divining rituals. The ibonga of Kiribati, whom Sabatier variously described as soothsayer, magician, divine, doctor, prophet, miracle worker, and charlatan, used trance. On the atoll of Ifalik, women who fell into trances were often the inspiration for new songs; the same was true of certain people on Yap. [Source: William A. Lessa (1987), Jay Dobbin (2005), Encyclopedia of Religion,]

The best-recorded tradition of trance and possession is on the Chuukic-speaking atolls and especially in the Chuuk Main Lagoon. Ancestor spirits were believed to descend onto the shoulders of a living relative and possess them. Those chosen as vessels by the ancestors were called the wáátawa or wáánaanú, literally "the canoe of the spirit." This possession did not happen automatically, however, and there was often speculation at the wake and burial about whether the deceased would be a helping spirit or a harmful one. The hope was that the spirit would descend from the hanging shrine (faar ) and possess one of the living kin, who would become the wáánaanú for the family or lineage and offer valuable advice to the living. Some reports indicate that this tradition is still alive on certain atolls, but by the end of World War II the wáánaanú as an official status within the community was rare.

What did continue in Chuuk communities is a more voluntary form of spirit possession and trance, especially among young girls. The signs of an altered state are clearly present in the transformation of the individual's persona. Dobbin has argued that the possession trance is a culturally sanctioned way for young females to protest problems, especially family problems that their cultural status prohibits them from otherwise confronting. If a girl is possessed by her mother or grandmother, the matrilineal Chuuk social system allows the senior woman to berate male family members. Contemporary possession trance is reported in other Micronesian islands, but it is rare. The Chuuk case is a classic example of continuity and change in Micronesian ritual.

Fertility, Harvest and Food Rituals in Traditional Micronesian Religion

William A. Lessa wrote: This category includes rituals designed to help mothers with pregnancy and childbirth and to insure a good harvest and a bountiful catch from the land and sea. On Yap the tamarong (priest, magician, conjuror, or diviner) visited the pregnant woman at distinct periods during pregnancy and offered ritual words or chants (pig ) to insure the healthy birth of a child. Chuuk had elaborate rituals to ensure the fertility of crops, probably some of the most elaborate among the smaller Micronesian communities. [Source: William A. Lessa (1987), Jay Dobbin (2005), Encyclopedia of Religion,]

Breadfruit was the staple starch of the Chuukic world, and the spirits of the breadfruit were believed to live in the mystic south of the cosmos. A breadfruit caller would beckon the spirits to come to the community's breadfruit trees so that the flower would blossom and produce large breadfruits. So important was the caller that his larynx or entire body might be mummified when he died, lest he take the breadfruit spirits with him when he went on to Ewúr, the mystic home of the breadfruit gods and goddesses.

As a breadfruit season approached, the caller began his rounds, blowing on a conch horn and calling the spirits or souls of the trees to come and blossom. Some of these prayers and petitions are still remembered on Puluwat, where the caller was a ritual specialist of high honor. He petitioned, and he begged, and he prayed. He assembled the leading men of the island in a procession. The caller led the way, chanting, and the followers responded as he waved a spear-like rod from side to side. They stopped at each complex of extended family residences, where the caller plunged the rod into the ground and put some of the earth into a basket. He deposited the earth in his own land, and repeated the ritual around the atoll.

The incarnate breadfruit god, a conger eel called the Hewanu, appeared on the shores of Puluwat every few years. When one arrived, the breadfruit caller took the eel, wrapped in mats, to a meeting house; only the caller (or priest, as the early reports call him) knew what the sacred eel was saying. The eel's presence sometimes meant that one of the select few who traditionally took care of the eel was going to die, and the ritual became a dirge for the coming death. In other cases the eel was checking up on the Puluwatese, and inquired of the breadfruit caller as to how hard they were working. The eel was put on a special platform bedecked by the women with sweet-smelling wreaths of flowers, and the men brought coconuts as offerings. At first all could come and pay their respects to the breadfruit god, later only men were allowed, and finally only the select few who served the eel god maintained the vigil. Eventually the eel was returned to the sea.

The eel was an important symbol throughout Micronesia. The Kosraean breadfruit goddess, Sinlanka, was symbolized by an eel, and the grand ritual at Pohnpei's Nan Madol included the sacrifice of a turtle to a ravenous moray eel. Myths abound on Pohnpei about the smaller freshwater eels as well.

Practitioners and Dance in Traditional Micronesian Religion

William A. Lessa wrote: Religious leaders in Micronesia generally performed a combination of roles, including soothsayer, magician, divine, doctor, prophet, and miracle worker. The biggest problem in describing them is to find an appropriate word for, say, the Palauan kerong, the Chuuk breadfruit caller (sowuyótoomey ), or the Marshallese diviner and magician (drijikan). Three of the high islands, Kosrae, Pohnpei, and Yap, had distinct hierarchies of priests. The Kosraean and Pohnpeian priests disappeared in the nineteenth century, and the last practicing Yap priest (peq'taliuw ) performed his final rituals, unattended by anybody, after World War II. Saipan or Guam had no religious hierarchies, and the Palauan kerong generally worked alone. The religious status these leaders hold is given or inherited, not chosen or earned. The spirits have selected these people to receive their spiritual gifts. [Source: William A. Lessa (1987), Jay Dobbin (2005), Encyclopedia of Religion,]

Many religious practitioners were part-time functionaries, as is still the case for the Chuuk healers, the sowusáfey, and for the Yap masters of the weather, the tamarong. Certain practitioners were also craftspeople, experts, and possessors of exotic lore. Classic examples include navigators and the priest-chiefs (itang ). The navigators had to have technical skills as well as spirit-given knowledge and power to succeed. The priest-chiefs had the technical knowledge to plan wars and also the power of the spirits to lead battles with success. The itang were actual combatants poised ahead of their own battle lines. In a sea battle they stood in the lead canoe, blowing the conch horn, waving a spear, leading the men in battle chants and prayers to the war god. When the German colonial powers banned warfare, the itang became the respected repositories of traditions, old customs, and lineage histories. Functionally speaking, the itang are now the equivalent of the Pohnpeian oral historians, the soupoadoapoad. In the twenty-first century about five or six itang are reportedly still working in the Chuuk Lagoon. They seem to be confined to the eastern Chuukic islands. The names of some of the itang training schools are the same as the navigators' schools in the central Chuuk atolls, where perhaps the navigators were also itang. The priest-chiefs found it valuable to know both the skills of the itang and of the navigators.

On some islands the dance tradition has all but disappeared. On Guam a so-called ritual fire dance is performed by Filipino entertainers for visiting tourists at the Guam Hilton hotel. Palau is struggling to revive its dance traditions. But in two areas the dance needs no revival: on Kiribati and on Yap. The extent to which Kiribati dance is considered holdy or sacred is uncertain, although the dancers of old were thought to be inspired by the spirits. But on Yap the sacred dance still exists. Sometimes the men or women of a village perform the dance for their village, with no outsiders allowed to attend. Yap is now largely Roman Catholic, and the sacred dance is regularly performed as part of the liturgy. At the adoration of the cross on Good Friday, the women perform the mourning dance and dirge; at the Easter vigil, the hymn of the resurrection, the Exultat, is danced. At the ordination of a priest or deacon, the dancing comes after the Roman Catholic ritual. As one Yapese remarked after the Catholic ceremony was finished, "now the real liturgy begins."

In the late nineteenth century on the Mortlock islands of Chuuk, a strong outbreak of dancing occurred. Protestant missionaries, fearing both its inspiration by the spirits and also what they saw as its obscene forms, thought this a return to the old pagan ways, although the German colonial authorities encouraged it. Different denominations reacted differently to the old ways. On Kosrae and in the Marshalls, where Boston-based Congregationalism became the dominant Christian denomination, the bare-breasted women were required to wear the all-encompassing muumuus. In Yap, the Catholic services are filled with bare-breasted women and men in scanty wraparounds that cover only the genitals.

Grand Rituals at Nan Madol and Lelu

Nan Madol at Pohnpei and Lelu at Kosrae are two of the greatest archaeological sites in the Pacific region. They thrived from A.D. 8th to 12th century. Lessa wrote: Nan Madol at Pohnpei and Lelu at Kosrae were elaborate stonework constructions that functioned as the residence of the leading political authorities and groups of hierarchically ranked priests, and also served as ceremonial centers. [Source: William A. Lessa (1987), Jay Dobbin (2005), Encyclopedia of Religion,]

Kosrae had a centralized chief or king, the tokosra, and several priesthoods, each dedicated to a leading deity such as Sinlanka. Some priests stayed in the ritual and political center of Lelu at Kosrae. Others lived at shrines scattered across the island, and on certain occasions these rural priests led processions into Lelu. One of the most important rituals they led celebrated the coronation of the king and his queen.

Nan Madol was the residence of the leading chief of the Sau Deleur dynasty with a section for the attending priesthoods. Next to the Sau Deleur residence and court was the tiny islet of Idet, where a turtle was sacrificed to a sacred moray eel. To what extent Nan Madol controlled all of Pohnpei is debatable, but other ritual centers with priest-chiefs continued to exist as independent entities.

The turtle–eel ceremony may have been the culmination of a longer, more ancient ritual. Its symbolism is debated. Rufino Mauricio, a Pohnpeian archaeologist and specialist in oral histories, has suggested that the Nan Madol ritual combines an older ritual focused on sacred sites with newer rituals worshipping living animals like the eel. Another interpretation focuses on the meaning of wehi, the turtle, which is also the name for the main sections of Pohnpei, and says that three wehis sacrificed their independence and autonomy to the ravenous appetite of the Sau Deleur dynasty.

Neither interpretation is compelling, especially since the ritual outlived the fall of the Sau Deleurs and then was stopped by one of the paramount chiefs (nahnmwarki ) of the Nan Madol area after a priest killed the eels because he did not get his share of the turtle meat. After about 1860 the priesthoods disappeared along with the animal sacrifices. Nan Madol is now abandoned, a monument to the Pohnpeian fear of centralization.

The political structure after the fall of the Sau Deleurs mirrors a shift in the evolution of Pohnpeian religion. One or two priestly centers of worship predate Nan Madol and the Sau Deleur dynasty, with a high priest who also was the political chief of the area. At least one of these the high priests and chiefs, the soukisenleng (literally "the master of the part of heaven"), eventually joined the post-Sau Deleur structure of autonomous, paramount chiefs (nahnmwarkis ) and took or was given the highest title of nahnmwarki. His priests took lesser noble titles. The ruler or nahnmwarki of the southern wehi of Wene is still called the soukisenleng, and the other nobles of Wene still have the old priestly titles. Mauricio judges this shift to be an early form of secularization. Of the priesthoods only the titles remain, although it is not known when they lost their religious functions.

Some elements of the old priestly rituals are maintained in the ceremonial houses (nahs ) of the nahnmwarkis. Ritual offerings of sakau (kava, Piper methysticum ) are made to the god as they were in days of old. Sakau offering is part of a formal reconciliation ritual led by the chiefs; it is now incorporated into the Roman Catholic sacrament of forgiveness. In modern times sakau, which is made into a slightly narcotic drink, has been secularized, and can be enjoyed in sakau bars.

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.

Funeral Rituals in Micronesia

Jack A. Hill wrote in the Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices: Islander Christians mark transitions between five stages in a person's life span: babyhood, childhood, young adulthood, middle age, and old age. Traditionally many taboos were associated with these and other rites of passage. For example, in the early 1900s, the family of a deceased person in Yap was separated from the community and prohibited from eating certain kinds of food. High priests in Pohnpei and Kosrae officiated at rites that entailed petitioning deceased family members for protection from spirits, especially during times of transition. Today in Yap, funeral services are still highly ritualized. When someone dies relatives and friends set up a formalized wail, singing songs of lamentation. The corpse is washed, decorated with flower garlands, and presented with gifts for the journey to Lang (the other world). Dirges are sung at the grave for three days, and on the fourth day a tomb is erected over the grave. Then the whole village observes a 10-day period of respect; those who washed the corpse observe a longer period. When close relatives have ended a five-month period of mourning, a rite called pay stone is held, in which those who assisted in the funeral are rewarded. [Source: Jack A. Hill, Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices, 1999]

The practice of four-day funerals (as observed in certain parts of Micronesia, including Pohnpei) stems from the traditional belief that the soul of the dead did not depart the body for the heavens until the fourth day. Until that point it was necessary to appease the soul so it would not bring any misfortune to the family. Once the soul departed for the heavens, it served as the family's protector spirit.

Lessa wrote: Funeral rituals vary throughout the islands of Micronesia. The wake and burial rituals on Palau focused on the transfer of the deceased's title (if he or she was a titleholder) and determination of why the person died. The leading women of the group, which might be a clan, extended family, or village, gathered together, and one woman held a bouquet of sis branches (Cordyline fruticosa ). The women would shout out potential reasons for the death, and if the sis bouquet shook, this indicated that the correct cause had been found. Sometimes someone known to be good at this type of divining was invited to the ceremony. Early reports indicated that the woman holding the branches was believed to be possessed by the deceased's spirit, but the evidence is vague. Palauan funerals may still feature trances without possession, as they did in the past. [Source: William A. Lessa (1987), Jay Dobbin (2005), Encyclopedia of Religion,]

Burial rituals also vary greatly from island to island. On Yap the dead are considered a source of spiritual pollution, and the immediate kin leave the deceased's house as quickly as possible. They may remain in seclusion and eat a restricted diet for as long as a hundred days. In some areas upper-caste people are buried by landless lower-class people who are beholden to them (this tradition is still observed on Yap). In the past burial was often at sea among the Chuuk, while burial on the family homestead was common on Kosrae. In some places the interment of the body in the ground was temporary, and the bones and skulls were exhumed and given places of honor, often in the home. In some of the matrilineal societies where Christian cemeteries have replaced older burial sites, some of the old ways continue.

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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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