Religious Beliefs. The precontact religion involved a combination of animism, ancestor worship, and pantheism. The pre-Christian religion of Rotuma included several types of Supernatural beings, including high gods, ancestral ghosts, and local spirits. The high gods, of whom Tagaroa was the most noteworthy, were the source of sustenance. They were prayed to for rain, for fruitful land, and for success in islandwide efforts. Tagaroa was the god of human fertility and the deity of the sau and mua. His son, Tairagoni, was personified by a turtle and was considered to be able to render the sea fruitful and safe. Ancestral ghosts were presumed to occupy the localities where they lived and to require propitiation. The good or bad fortune of individuals, families, and local groups were attributed to them. In addition, a number of free-roaming, largely malevolent spirits, who sometimes appeared in the form of anomalous creatures, were believed to inhabit the land.
Rotuma was converted to Christianity in the 1860s by English Wesleyans and French Catholics. The Catholics, who compose approximately one-third of the population, are concentrated on the south side of the island. In recent years a Seventh-Day Adventist church has been built and serves a number of families, and a small group of Jehovah's Witnesses meet together regularly. The churches play a vital role in the lives of most people and are centers for many communal activities.
Religious Practitioners. The sau and mua were Traditionally responsible for attending to ritual activities propitiating the high gods to ensure the prosperity of the island. At the local level, certain individuals were designated to channel the powers of the spirits to ensure success and to heal sickness. Following missionization these activities were curtailed and now are viewed by most Rotumans as examples of devil worship. Today a significant number of Rotumans hold offices in the Christian churches as ministers, lay preachers, stewards, and the like.
Ceremonies. Ceremonial events play a major role in the social life of the island. Key elements in every ceremony are formal presentations of kava and food to the chiefs by men, the giving of mats by women, a feast, and formal speeches. Group dances are also often performed as entertainment. Ceremonial occasions include: life-crisis events, such as Weddings, firstborn children's first birthdays, funerals, and the unveiling of headstones a year after death; welcoming Ceremonies for Rotumans who have been away or for first visits of outside dignitaries; the anniversaries of historic occasions such as cession and the coming of the missionaries; and rious church events.
Arts. At the time of contact the main forms of artistic expression included tattooing, personal ornaments such as breastplates and necklaces, and the manufacture of fine mats and tapa. Dancing and oratory were also well developed. Today, singing, dancing, and oratory (including preaching) are the dominant art forms. Fine mats are still produced by women, along with such handicrafts as fans, purses, and crocheted items. Although such items are sold on occasion at Island events, they are not marketed overseas.
Medicine. Traditionally, therapeutic practices included cutting and burning and massage. Coconut oil, cold water, and purgatives were important items in purification rituals. Poultices were made with various leaves, mixed with turmeric, and applied to sores and inflammations. Healers derived their curative efficacy from ancestral spirits who guided their actions during possession episodes. The ability to heal was thought to be transmitted within families or directly from a practitioner to a chosen apprentice. Western medicine has largely replaced these folk practices, although massage remains popular as an alternative form of treatment.
Death and Afterlife. A person's soul was believed to wander during sleep, and if it did not return to the body before wakening or if it was carried off by a spirit, the person would sicken and die. When a person was seriously ill and apparently dying, it was presumed that his or her soul was wandering, and efforts were made to coax it to return. The ghost of a recently deceased relative was often implored to assist in such circumstances. At death the soul migrated to "the unseen world," said to be under the sea. This realm was divided into regions corresponding to places on the island. The final resting place of souls was off the western end of the island, where the sun sets. The ancient Rotumans buried their dignitaries under large basaltic stones, which sometimes weighed several tons and were transported over considerable distances. Following contact, cannons obtained from European vessels were sometimes used as grave markers. Cemeteries are usually on hills or promontories, and they are well cared for by the communities that use them.