Rapa - Religion and Expressive Culture



Religious Beliefs. Rapa was converted to Protestant Christianity soon after the arrival in 1826 of Tahitian teachers representing the London Missionary Society. With the Exception of a few Roman Catholics, the entire population of Rapa is Protestant. In addition to Biblical supernaturals, most Rapans believe in the existence of ghosts, normally of persons who have died relatively recently, called tupapau'u They may cause sickness among the living, either out of anger or from a powerful desire to draw a dearly beloved spouse or child to them. If other means fail, a tupapa'u can be stopped by exhuming and destroying the corpse, a practice probably encouraged by Dracula films, which are very popular in Tahiti.

Religious Practitioners . One pastor (a Rapan who was elected as a young man by the church members and sent to Tahiti for seminary training) divides his Sundays between the two villages. In addition to the pastor, a chief deacon serves both villages, and each village has two deacons and an assistant deacon. To the assistant deacon falls the tasks of ringing the church bell and prowling the aisle during services with a long bamboo pole to prod dozing parishioners. All of these officials are elected by the communicant members, who essentially are the married adults.

Ceremonies. Physically, the church in each village consists of a church proper, a meetinghouse, and an eating house. The church is immensely important in Rapan society, with no fewer than eleven church functions each week. Although scarcely anyone attends all of these events, one can easily appreciate the joking remark made by one man that "in Rapa, we spend more time discussing the Bible than cultivating taro!"

Medicine. Some illnesses are thought to be caused by ghosts, but most are attributed to natural causes. Rapans affirm a hot-cold system of illness, whereby an upset of the body's proper temperature equilibrium brings on disease. Medicines are herbal and each one is accompanied by a special massage. Medicines are private property, and nearly every adult woman on the island owns one or more of them. Thus instead of a few practitioners who treat many different sorts of illness, the Rapan system of medicine has a great many practitioners, each of whom specializes in one or a few disorders. Although others may know the herbal recipe for a Certain medicine, it is ineffective unless applied by, or with the express permission of, its owner. No charge is ever assessed for administering medicines, but patients do reciprocate with gifts. Medicines originate in dreams. Someone is sick, no treatment is effective, and then a woman of the household sees, in a dream, her deceased mother or grandmother preparing and administering a hitherto unknown medical concoction of various leaves, water, etc. Upon awakening, the woman prepares the medicine just as she dreamed it. She gives it to the patient, who rapidly recovers. The woman who dreamed it is the owner of the new medicine, and others with the same symptoms come to her to be cured. When she gets old she gives the medicine, and others she may have dreamed or inherited, to individual heirs—usually her daughters—and thus medicines pass through the generations.

Death and Afterlife. The deceased are thought to enter the Christian heaven. A funeral service and burial is followed by a large feast. People congregate at the house of the deceased for several evenings after the funeral for Bible discussion and hymn singing, to support the surviving loved ones, and to reintegrate them gently into society.

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