Woleai - Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Nearly all residents are Roman Catholic. Each island has a church tended by a lay deacon. Each Island is visited four or five times a year by a priest from the mission on Ulithi. Perhaps no more than a dozen non-Christian residents remain. The traditional religion was animistic and ancestor-focused. Many Christians retain some degree of belief in various elements of the traditional system. Yalus is a term applied to all gods, spirits, and ghosts. A number of gods (who were also patrons of important crafts) existed beyond the island. Malevolent and benevolent spirits inhabited the sea, sky, and land. Ancestral spirits and ghosts might remain on estate lands to aid their descendants or to punish them if taboos were broken.

Religious Practitioners. Traditional specialists included diviners, curers, navigators, mediums, and weather, crop, and fishing magicians.

Ceremonies. The main house of each lineage had an altar dedicated to ancestral spirits where offerings were periodically renewed. Rituals were held when deemed appropriate by the chiefs, as before overseas voyages, or to ward off typhoons or guard against illness. Church services and processions are now held on important Catholic holidays.

Arts. Women have an inventory of complex weaving designs and men carve images or paint designs on canoe-house lintels. Both sexes tattooed themselves in traditional times with an extensive set of elaborate designs. Song and dance are the most developed of the arts. Songs are composed by women and both sexes have separate inventories of standing and sitting dances.

Medicine. Most illnesses are diagnosed by a diviner and thought caused by malevolent spirits. Medicines are prepared by curers from land and sea ingredients that frequently have some homologous association with the illness. Massage is also a highly developed curing technique.

Death and Afterlife. A period of mourning may last for several months, but the first four days are the most restrictive. Dirges are sung from the time of death until burial on land or at sea the next day. Today most bodies are buried in the church graveyard. Taboos are placed on harvesting coconuts for a period of several weeks to several months, depending on the rank of the deceased. Similar restrictions are placed on reef fishing if a chief or his sister or mother dies. People who die in accidents or during pregnancy or childbirth may be captured by evil spirits and haunt the living. Others may help the living by communicating through mediums.

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