Tikopia - Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Until the early present century all Tikopia were pagan, practicing a polytheistic religion. They believed in spirit beings called atua, a term including ghosts of the dead, ancestors, and spirit powers that had never assumed human form. (These last beings were sometimes termed tupua, a word now applied mainly to the Christian God.)

Religious Practitioners. The major practitioners in rites, as priests, were the chiefs of the four clans, assisted by ritual elders who were the heads of the most important lineages. By about 1923 about half the Tikopia population became Christian, under the aegis of the Melanesian mission of the Anglican communion (now the Church of Melanesia). This conversion led to friction in the Tikopia community, but the new religion gained ground till in 1956 the last pagans, led by their chiefs, joined the church, thus radically changing ceremonies and practitioners.

Ceremonies. The major spirit beings were worshipped in elaborate rites, with offerings of food and bark cloth. The validating feature of every rite was the pouring of libations of kava, a liquid formed by chewing up the root or stem of a pepper plant ( Piper methysticum ). Every six months ceremonies were performed in which canoes, crops, temples, and people were rededicated to gods and ancestors for protection and prosperity.

Arts. The Tikopia traditionally have had little competence in graphic arts. Their sculpture consisted of simple geometrical forms applied to woodwork. Their great performing art has been dancing, which has inspired a profusion of songs and which is of great social and (formerly) religious importance.

Medicine. Tikopia medical practices were rudimentary, consisting of massage and external application of coconut oil and leaf infusions. These practices were linked with appeals to spirit forces, usually held responsible for illness. The trance—in which a medium, man or woman, explored the cause of illness and suggested remedy, in alleged spirit guise—was a common mode of treatment. Such practices still persist, but modern Tikopia rely largely on Western medicine and hospital treatment.

Death and Afterlife. A death is an occasion for great mourning. Tikopia funeral ceremonies continue after burial of the body with periodic wailing and massive exchanges of food and other goods between the kin groups concerned. Traditional conceptions of the afterlife were vague but involved a notion of a series of heavens on different levels or in different wind points (sources of prevailing winds), each controlled by a major god. There was also an image of a "rubbish pool," into which would be thrown the souls of those who had consistently misbehaved on earth. Life in the afterworld followed much the same pattern as on earth, but with dancing as the main activity. Nowadays,conceptions of the afterlife follow a Christian model, but elements of traditional belief may still persist.

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