The Hidden Matrix: Myth and the Human Mind

By Neil Philip

One of our foremost interpreters of myth argues that it is essential to all culture: the factory reset of human consciousness

Sunday, 12 August 2018

Christianity and Paganism

While it has proved possible for Christianity in a few cases to absorb the energies and mould itself to the mental patterns of existing belief-structures, as with the Zinacantecs in Mexico or the Nuxalk in British Columbia, more usually Christianization has required a complete break with the previous “pagan” religion. The anthropologist Raymond Firth was able to observe this process up close with the Tikopia in the Solomon Islands, to whom he devoted a lifetime’s study.

         Although Tikopia is in Melanesia, its culture is essentially Polynesian. When Firth first went there in 1928, the island had a population of about 1,200. Every aspect of Tikopia life was governed by a complex ritual cycle known as the Work of the Gods, which has affinities with other Polynesian ritual systems such as the Makahiki of Hawaii or the Inasi of Tonga.

         The Work of the Gods was divided into two six-week ritual cycles, the Work of the Trade-Wind and the Work of the Monsoon, during which time the whole of Tikopian society devoted itself to the performance of the necessary rites. Major rites included the re-dedication of the sacred canoes, the re-consecration of the temples, harvest and planting rites, and the ritual manufacture of turmeric, which was used as a ritual body paint and as a sacred dye. Simply remembering the intricate sequence of ritual performances, and ensuring that all were carried out correctly, involved an impressive collective act of memory and commitment. The purpose of it all was to maintain contact with the atua, powerful spiritual beings whose favour was required to feed the Tikopia and guard their health. These gods and spirits were appeased with food and kava, and asked with elaborate formality to ensure plentiful harvests of crops such as breadfruit or yams.

         The rituals of the Work of the Gods were not simply acts of worship; they were part of a logical system of trade between the Tikopia and the atua. The Tikopia performed the rituals for the gods, and in return the gods granted the Tikopia the necessities of life. It was a system in which ritual performance and economic activity, such as food production, were inextricably combined. Although the ostensible sacrifice to the gods was of food and kava, in fact most of this was consumed by the participants in the rite. The real sacrifice was of time and energy, but even this was not wasted, as most ritual activities—such as plaiting mats, making thatch, or repairing canoes—were in themselves economically valuable.

         For the Tikopia, mythology, religion, economics, social status, community values, and simple survival were all bound together in the Work of the Gods. The rites were said to have been instituted by a man named Saku, the culture hero of the Tikopia. Saku (whose name was a sacred taboo, and never uttered), gave the people clothing, and by doing so awoke their human consciousness, giving them “minds.” He made the sacred adzes, and established the Work of the Gods.

         In those early days, everything in the world had a voice, even the trees and the rocks, but Saku ordered them to be silent. He then ordered the rocks to form a pile, and the earth to cover it, forming a platform where the temple of the Kafika clan was raised. Saku had a companion in his exploits, Te Samoa, said to be an immigrant from Samoa. Many of the myths tell of their friendly rivalry, until finally Saku trapped Te Samoa in a pit beneath the tree used as the supporting post for the temple of Kafika. Te Samoa pleaded to be released, but Saku told him, “Sleep then, friend! Your house which stands here shall obey you!”

       When Saku died, in a dispute over territory, he flew to the gods, to be cleansed by Atua Fafine, the female deity who was half of the ancestral couple of the Tikopia. When the island of Tikopia was pulled up from the sea, Atua Fafine was sitting on it plaiting a pandanus leaf mat, with her husband Atua i Raropuka beside her, plaiting coconut sinnet cord. Because Saku allowed himself to die, rather than rising up to kill his opponent, he arrived among the gods unpolluted, and was able to say to each of them in turn, “Give me your mana”, that is, their supernatural powers. And so, renamed Mapusia, he became the most powerful of them, to be appeased and feared, and only named in ritual contexts, as, “When I utter his name he hears in the heavens, and bends over to listen to what is being said.”

       Out of such contexts, the name Mapusia was rarely used. He was Te Atua I Kafika, “the Deity of Kafika”, or, to the Ariki Kafika, “My Sacred Chief”. He was also Te Ariki Fakamataku, “the Fear-Causing Chief”, who caused the thunder by clattering his staff from side to side in the heavens.

       Mapusia was not only the principal god of the Kafika, but was regarded as the god above all others in Tikopia: “No god can come and supplant him; he is high because he is strong.” The anger of Mapusia was terrible. An individual who offended him might be struck down with illness or death; if society as a whole failed to appease him, he might send drought, pestilence, or a tropical cyclone. The island of Tikopia is particularly vulnerable to tropical storms and subsequent famines, as was demonstrated in December 2003, when the island was devastated by Cyclone Zoë. Whole villages were swept away, and the fertile land soaked with salt water, from which it takes three years to recover.

         Because Mapusia was the principal atua of the Kafika clan, the chief of that clan, the Ariki Kafika, acted as the high priest of the Work of the Gods. It was the Ariki Kafika who decided when to “throw the firestick” to set the ritual sequence in motion.

         Turmeric, used as a sacred dye and as ritual body paint, was said to be the perfume of Mapusia, and the ritual extraction of turmeric took place over several days in the trade-wind season. “I eat ten times your excrement, My Sacred Chief,” chanted the priest, offering food and kava to the god, “Your turmeric-making will be prepared.”

         Whether we translate the word atua as god or spirit, the atua were not simply abstract concepts of divine or supernatural power; they were thought to be as real as human beings. One of the ceremonial dances of the monsoon season was the Taomatangi, the dance to quell the wind. The atuawere believed to be present at this dance, sitting with their backs against sacred stones, the male atua cross-legged, the female atua with their legs stretched out in front of them. When Raymond Firth took photographs of this dance, the Tikopia were amazed that the atua, whom they could collectively see, were not visible to the camera.

         Throughout the twentieth century, this deeply-engrained system of belief was eroded by Christianity. Gradually the community will to perform the rites dwindled away. After an epidemic in 1955 in which 200 people died, including the Ariki Kafika and other chiefs, there were simply not enough believers left to carry out the Work of the Gods. The remaining chiefs performed a final kava ceremony, the “kava of parting”, to inform the atua that their rites were being abandoned, and they should drink their kava and retire to rest forever in their spirit homes.

Back to project page
Share on social


Voula Tsoflias
 Voula Tsoflias says:

An amazing story, especially their collective ability to see the atua. Thank you. Voula

posted 14th August 2018

Top rewards

£25  + shipping
172 pledges


First edition hardback, the e-book and your name in the back of the book
Choose this reward
67 pledges


The e-book edition and your name in the back of the book
Choose this reward