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MELANESIAN MYTHOLOGY

FIJI

Of the generally recognized gods, Degei was the most important. It was said that he lived on the slopes of the Kauvadra mountains near the Ra coast - an area that is considered to be the most specific location of the origin of the Fijian people.

         

Traditionally the people of Fiji attributed all unexplained phenomena either to gods and spirits or to witchcraft. There were gods to ensure favourable winds for sailing, success in war and deliverance from sickness. There were gods who were born gods and gods who had been men - the spirits of ancestors and chiefs of renown, known respectively as kalou-vu and kalou-yalo. There were gods acknowledged by all Fijians and others which were the local gods who were somewhat down the scale but had more influence over the fortunes of the people.

Of the generally recognized gods, Degei was the most important. It was said that he lived on the slopes of the Kauvadra mountains near the Ra coast - the area is the most specific location of the origin of the Fijian traditions. In this respect, Degei is not only considered the origin of the people but also as the huge snake living in a cave in the northernmost peak of the Kauvadra Range. He took no interest in his people's affairs however earth tremors and thunder were attributed to his uneasy turning within the cave. By association with Degei, snakes have a honoured place in Fijian traditions with many snake legends on islands where no snake existed.

It is said that the image to the left originally came from Tonga and that it was given by the chief of Fiji to a doctor as payment for curing a swollen neck. It was then returned to Nadi on Viti Levu where the image is said to have become the possession of a goddess called Lilavatu, wife of the chief's god of Nadi. She was a dangerous goddess who could cause swollen necks. If people failed to make offerings to her, they died or were killed in war. Lila was the name given by Fijians to an epidemic which arrived with the first European ships.

Of the other gods widely recognized, Ravuyalo, Rokola, Ratumaibulu and Dakuwaqa are the most well known. Ravuyalo was the soul-slayer; he was posted on the path followed by departed spirits, for the purpose of clubbing them and various means were proposed for outwitting him.

Generally speaking, the powers of the other gods were restricted to the present life. Rokola, a son of Degei was served by canoe builders as he was the chief of the carpenters and founder of the Mataisau or craftsman's mataqali. Cultivators ensured the success of their crops by offerings to Ratumaibulu who was also known as Ratu Levu.  

Dakuwaqa was believed to manifest himself as a great shark who lived in a cave on Benau Island, opposite Somosomo Strait and who roams the adjacent seas. He was generally the god of seafaring and fishing communities although he was also considered to be the god of adultery. In his honour all sharks were saluted when seen and it was considered tabu to eat shark flesh. When canoes passed over areas of sea he was known to frequent, cups of yaqona and morsels of food were thrown overboard to gain his favour. 

This wooden figure set upon the platform of a hook was labeled as the Old Woman of Na Kauvandra. Resinous matter on the head suggests that hair was once attached. The plaited cord around the middle may be either the remnant of a fringe waist band or a fibre rope used to suspend the figure. Na Kauvandra is regarded as the traditional place of origin of all Fijians and Degei dwelt as a snake in a cave in the Na Kauvandra mountains.

 

The priests were the mediators between gods and people. The rituals for doing this was simple and involved the preparation of a feast. The chiefs and elders then entered the bure kalou, presenting the feast and an offering of whales' teeth and sat in silence gazing intensely upon the priest. Presently the priest would begin to twitch, first in one limb and then in another, until he was seized with violent muscular convulsions and fell in a fit, with eyes rolling and sweat running from every pore. Then the gods spoke and everyone listened to the priest's words - the shaking grew less violent and gradually subsided and the priest relaxed and recovered.

The gods also manifested themselves in living creatures or trees, and dwelt in certain inanimate objects. These were recognized as the abode of a god but in themselves were not objects of worship. Indeed, the Fijians had no religious idols of worship.

The Fijians believed also that the human soul - at any rate that of a chief - survived the body but their conception of the spirit world varied greatly according to locality and the consequent degree of outside influence. In all parts of Fiji, however, the spirit world was believed to lie in the direction from which the original migration came and that departing spirits retraced the path followed by their ancestors when coming to Fiji. Spirits of the dead remained near their earthly homes for four days before beginning the journey to the spirit world.

Sickness and insanity were considered to be the work of malignant spirits and food gardens wilted under their spells. In all such cases, some form of sorcery was assumed and steps were taken to find the sorcerer and to counter his spell with a more potent one. Should a spirit strike a family with sickness a feast and ceremonial yaqona were prepared and offered with a prayer that the spirit might depart. If that were unsuccessful, the services of an exorcist might be secured, who, with suitable rituals and incantations drive out the unfriendly spirits and invoke friendly ones.

Small bure, or god-houses shaped like this one and made from sennit sometimes housed sacred objects. It was shaped like a larger temple with some having woven ears and a mouth which enabled the priest to address the gods and hear his reply. In Fiji, the priest was regarded as the mouthpiece of the gods or in some places as a god incarnate.

The office of sorcerer (vu-ni-duva) was generally hereditary although any man or woman with enough cunning could build up a reputation in witchcraft. Potions were purveyed to give invulnerability or invisibility in war. Any man wishing to rid himself of a rival or enemy and who was able to afford the fee might engage an expert in witchcraft. In order for the witchcraft to be applied, it was first necessary to secure a fragment of something that had been worn or eaten by the intended victim, or something personal such as hair trimmings or nail clippings. Whatever of this kind was available was tied up in a banana leaf or placed in a bamboo tube together with certain leaves and roots known to the sorcerer. With appropriate incantations, this charm was then placed in a thatch above the victim's door or some other place frequented by him. He was told of this by his friends and the news would prey upon his mind as he believed he must grow sick and die. If the charm was not overtaken by another more potent one then the victim would die.

From birth to death, the Fijians were guided by observances of things that he must do and tabu - things that he must not do. Some of these include closing the eyes when a man planted coconuts lest he be blinded. The knife used for cutting seed yams must not be used for any other purpose or heated by being placed near a fire. It was tabu to call after fishermen asking them where they were going as they would catch nothing. No person might reach for an object above a chief's head without first asking permission. Indeed, the simplest acts were regulated by tabu of this kind, while in the more important relationships of the communal life, they filled the place occupied by a code of laws in other societies.   

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Jane Resture
(E-mail: jane@janeresture.com -- Rev. 26th December 2008)