Kapingamarangi - Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. There were three classes of spirits with whom people had to cope. The high gods were spirits who came to the atoll on the original canoe or were spirits of former high priests. The priesthood (with its sacred/secular class distinction) and the organization of people by age category were designed to deal with these powerful unpredictable beings. Another set of spirits, called the "line of ghosts," were spirits of recently and long-deceased people who inhabited the outer lagoon, coming ashore in a line at night to steal the souls of unwary people sleeping or wandering outside their houses. One simply avoided these spirits by trying not to attract their attention. Finally, there was a female spirit who inhabited the northern islets, enticing unsuspecting men at night to drive them crazy. A male spirit in the southern Lagoon waited to molest women at night, making them ill. Being accompanied by someone of the opposite sex would forfend an attack by either.

Religious Practitioners. The priesthood was organized in a panel of twenty men, with ten on the side of the high priest and ten led by the "calling" priest. Each side consisted of five priests and five sergeants-at-arms, all ranked asymmetrically
(i.e., the high priest outranked the "calling" priest, who outranked the next priest below the high priest, etc.) The high priest's job was to maintain a good relationship with the gods, to ascertain their desires and their moods, and to keep them well disposed to the community so that they would bring rain and fish and would not precipitate disasters such as droughts and gales.

Ceremonies. In addition to daily rituals of supplication, the high priest conducted major rituals called boo, of which there were five, conducted on an as-needed basis: renovation of the cult house, replacing of dark mats, replacing of bleached mats (used by the gods), canoe making, and freeing of parturient mothers from confinement. These rituals all used an identical format, differing only in the specific prayers and chants inserted. Lower-ranking priests had specific roles in these rituals. The ripening of breadfruit and the beaching of whales were also ritual occasions for which special prayers were given. Men fishing on the deep sea had to offer chants of supplication to the gods before commencing fishing. Special rituals also were performed during droughts and epidemics, at the sighting of ships, and to correct errors in performance of a prior ritual.

Arts. Arts native to the atoll were dance, song, and Folktales. The Kapinga dance, called k oni , was performed during and after major rituals. It involved a stereotyped stance with the body held rigid and the feet moving in place. The dance was accompanied by songs called daahili that were short sentences and phrases repeated in a monotone at increasing tempo. Their contents referred obliquely to events that were otherwise gossip—love affairs, being jilted, ridicule for some faux pas, and the like. The bulk of Kapinga song repertoire was the chant. The subjects of chants included prayers of supplication or celebration of the gods and other ritual formulas; eulogies; and accounts of fishing expeditions, the beachings of whales, and sexual encounters.

Medicine. Medicinal practices included bone setting, massage, special foods for specific illneses, and chanting by the priest in life-threatening situations. Plant medicines and sorcery were imported by a Woleaian in the 1780s.

Death and Afterlife. Kapinga believe that death is a natura! part of the life cycle. They fear early, untimely death by accident, disease, or malicious spirits and socialize their Children with lessons of reasonable caution at work, at play, and in those situations when spirits might be about. Because Control over one's emotions is so important in forfending disaster, grief was and is considered particularly dangerous, attracting the attention of ghosts and leading to insanity. Funerals control personal emotion through the work of having to organize a major set of ceremonies and provision them with food for mourners and others. All of this activity takes place over a 24- to 36-hour period requiring intense concentration, work, and both the incurring and collection of debts. Chanting marks every stage of a funeral, providing its closure as entertainment. At death, the soul is said to leave the body forever. The souls of men and women go to the far lagoon to join the line of ghosts. Those of women who die in childbirth go to the goddess Roua in the deep sea, where they (and the souls of high priests) may return to the atoll as beached whales. Otherwise, the souls of high priests become new gods.

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