MicSem Publications

Congeries of Spirits

by Francis X. Hezel, SJ

1995 Religion

The Meaning of Religion

What is meant by religion? The first systematic studies of the subject, written in the last century, sought to answer this question by identifying its origin. To do so they turned to "primitive" religions such as those found in the Pacific because they believed that these represented early stages in what they thought to be the evolution of religion. Tylor and Spencer located its beginnings in animism, the belief in a soul and other spirit forms. Others like Frazer held that the heart of religion lay in the human drive to understand and thereby control forces that were beyond comprehension. Humans initially used magic, but soon advanced to religion and later to science. In Frazer's evolutionary progression, as in Comte's, religion was a primitive device that would yield to more sophisticated disciplines as time passed and the society matured. Freud, an evolutionist like the others but working from within a new discipline of his own invention, located the roots of religion in the earliest stage of psychic childhood, the Oedipus complex. Frustration at the father's demands, together with the remorse that follows transgressions of the father's taboos, provided the psychological basis for religion, which for Freud was no more than an "infantile obsessional neurosis."

Social scientists in the early 20th century, backing away from these extreme evolutionist positions, tended to look upon religion in the more positive light of its significance for society. For Radcliffe-Brown, as for Durkheim before him, religious ritual had the function of affirming and strengthening social solidarity. Malinowsky, a functionalist like Radcliffe-Brown, saw religion as an important mechanism for maintaining and integrating society. Religion might answer to the needs of individuals, as by assuaging anxiety or providing consolation in time of grief, but it also propagates a social code and conveys a sense of public purpose and meaning. In our own day religion, like language, is increasingly being viewed as a social construct that serves many different functions for society. As a counterbalance to an older functionalism, Geertz and others are now emphasizing the symbolic dimension of religion.

An acceptable definition of religion for our day might be: a symbol system that mediates meaning through language (e.g., myth and song), action (as in ritual and taboo), and organization.

Scope of the Bibliography

This scope of this bibliography includes only what may be called the traditional religions of Micronesia. No attempt has been made to include works on the introduction and spread of Christianity into island society. The bibliography, however, includes references to Modekngei, a nativistic and syncretic cult that sprang up in Palau early in the century in reaction to Western influence. The geographical range embraced by the bibliography extends beyond the Caroline, Marshalls and Marianas, where most such studies draw their boundary, to Kiribati and Nauru.

This bibliography on Micronesian religions includes "lore" or oral tales, which constitutes a large body of material in its own right. It should be noted that the oral material herein includes more than myths, that is, sacred narratives. It also includes legends and folk tales, which have no direct bearing on those aspects of life that we might call religious or sacral. Naturally, it is not easy to distinguish between the sacred and secular in any society, despite the importance this fundamental distinction had for early theorists like Emile Durkheim and Rudolf Otto. This is all the more true in Micronesia. No island society seems to have had labels to designate its religious mythology in contrast to its merely profane stories. Micronesian cultures make distinctions between historical myths and tales told for entertainment, but these cut across the sacred-secular boundaries. Many of the tales about the deity Olofat, for instance, seem to have been invented primarily for their entertainment value. Yet Lessa (#614) sees a higher purpose served by these tales. In his view, the trickster figure Olofat, a charmingly irresponsible womanizer, offers Ulithians a model of how to resolve life's conflicts and grow through the tensions between community and individual interests.

The editors of this bibliography have decided to include all oral material of whatever form, even proverbs and riddles. This corpus of traditional wisdom, while it cannot be called religious in the proper sense of the word, offers insights into the mind and imagination of the traditional islander. Even more, it gives a glimpse of the islander's heart and the ethical system by which he or she lives.

Main Sources

Nowhere is there to be found a synthesis of Micronesian religion that might compare with the compendia of Melanesian religion done by Malinowski and Firth. Lessa's short encyclopedia article (#269) offers the only English overview on the subject since the 1924 publication of Frazer's compilation on Micronesia as part of his series, The Belief in Immortality and the Worship of the Dead (#154). Böhme (#102) and Schmidt (#332), however, are fine summaries of Micronesian religion in German.

Much of our information on the religious practices and beliefs of islanders is fragmentary. Nowhere is this truer than of the Marianas, where we must reconstruct what we can of the traditional religion from scattered references, many of them ambiguous or of doubtful accuracy. One early European source, for example, erroneously imputed human sacrifice to the ancient Chamorro people (Mendoza #4). Micronesian sources were no less prone to exaggerations of this sort, it should be noted; an early group of Carolinian castaways reported that Yapese worshipped the crocodile and Pohnpeians the shark (Cantova #114).

Our fullest and most reliable sources on Micronesian religion date from the German period (c1890-1914). Kubary, a Pole who wrote mainly in German and a natural scientist by training who showed an interest in all facets of Micronesian life, was the first to do serious study on the subject. Although his major contribution was on the religion of Palau, Kubary contributed to our knowledge of religion in almost every island group in Micronesia (#252-7, 1057). German administrative officials added much to the corpus: Knappe (#235) on the Marshalls, Girschner (#166) for Namoluk, an outlier of Chuuk, and Hahl (#182) on Pohnpei. German Catholic missionaries during this time made their own significant contribution through Bollig's (#101) monograph on Chuuk, Walleser's (#367) and Salesius' (#326) work on Yap, and Erdland's (#141) book on the Marshalls. The work of the French missionary Sabatier (#320) on Kiribati, published after this period, might be added to the list of important missionary contributions. Frazer's volume (#154), the nearest thing to a compendium we have on Micronesian religion, draws almost entirely on these sources.

The German South Seas Expedition of 1908-1910, the most ambitious anthropological survey attempted in Micronesia up to the advent of the American-sponsored Coordinated Investigation of Micronesian Anthropology (CIMA) project in the late 1940s, provided a remarkable amount of data on religion and myth for the short time the party of scholars spent in the islands. The 22 volumes produced by the Expedition provide excellent and full documentation on nearly every aspect of the religious life of the islanders studied. They also contain abundant material on myth, oral history, songs and other indigenous art forms. The series includes a volume by Hambruch (#188) on Pohnpeian myth, another by Krämer (#244) on Palauan folklore, Müller's volume (#699) on Yapese chants and dances, as well as sections on religion and myth, sometimes rather extensive, in the volumes on virtually all other island groups in the area. The chapter on religion in Sarfert's volume on Kosrae (#328) constitutes the single reliable source we have on the subject.

Research on Micronesian religion has continued rather sporadically to the present. More recent major works include Böhme (#102) on ancestor worship, Käser (#228) on the Chuukese concept of the soul, Mahoney (#926) on Chuukese spirits and medicine, and Lessa's two volumes (#616, 619) on Ulithian myths. Schmidt (#332) offers an updated general review of myth and religion in the area. Although they have published no books exclusively on the subject, Alkire, Lessa and Goodenough have published several articles on central Carolinian religion. Goodenough, one of the foremost authorities on Chuukese culture, is now preparing a book on the religion of Chuuk.

The Spirit World

The dominant and unifying element of all Micronesian religions is the belief in spirits. The religions of the area, like those everywhere else in the Pacific, have been described as animistic. One author, writing of the Gilberts in the last century, describes the religion in that island group as "the loosest system of spirit-worship" (Bartlett #90). Each island group in Micronesia has its own well-populated spirit world that seems to be at the center of traditional beliefs and rituals. There are many different kinds of spirits. The mélange of spirits has inspired various attempts to catalogue them (e.g., Alkire #974), but they resist any simple classification.

Nature Spirits

What can be called nature spirits abound in every part of Micronesia. Some are believed to live in the open ocean but come ashore to sleep at night; others reside in the reefs and shallows. In the Marshalls there were woodland spirits, good-humored creatures that lived in the thickets or high grass (Erdland #141). Some spirits are associated with breadfruit trees or coconut trees in general, while other named spirits are believed to reside in a certain cave or atop a particular mountain. Many of the nature spirits bore names and were associated with one or other physical feature of the island: mountains, bushes, rocks, springs, and so forth. In Yap all animals of an unusually large size or peculiar appearance, such as monitor lizards and certain eels, were thought to house spirits (Walleser #367). Nature spirits were many and they varied greatly from one island to another, but with very few exceptions they shared as a common trait their fearsomeness towards humans.

Spirits Associated with Skills and Crafts

There are spirits that have come to be linked with certain skills and crafts. On some islands there are spirits associated with canoe-building and house construction, others that are linked with specific kinds of fishing. On Pohnpei the different nature spirits thought to reside in sugarcane, breadfruit trees, and coconut trees were invoked in the cultivation and harvesting of these crops (Hahl #182). Palau, too, had its patron spirits for various activities ranging from cutting down trees and house-building to hunting animals (Kubary #256).

Spirits of the Dead

In every part of Micronesia the spirits of the dead formed a major part of the pre-Christian religion. The spirit of a dead person was believed to linger around the body for a time, usually for four days, before flitting off. The family of the deceased had to exercise great care to do everything possible to encourage the spirit, which could be dangerous, to move on to its eventual destination. Offerings to the spirit of the departed, consisting of perfume, food and other gifts, were very important to win the good will of the departed soul.

The common belief was that the soul must endure a trial or tarry at a spot for a while shortly after death. In Yap, spirits were thought to have to pass over a bridge and bathe in a river before passing on (Muller #297 and Walleser #367); Chuukese also believed that souls had to bathe after passing between a pair of clashing rocks (Bollig #101). The soul's final destination was variously conceptualized by Micronesians, but the ultimate fate of the spirit depended much less on the moral quality of life than on the way in which the person had met death. Suicide and homicide victims, as well as women who died in childbirth and others who had not died a natural death, were condemned to a restless and troubled existence. These spirits also represented a threat to their kinfolk, whom they sometimes sought to harm.

The spirits of the dead seem to have stirred ambivalent feelings in the living. On one hand, they could be the source of blessings for the family they left behind inasmuch as they could impart valuable information from the other side of the grave. On the other hand, if not shown proper respect and appeased sufficiently, they might bring illness and other evils on their family. In Chuuk, these ambivalent feelings found expression in the belief that each person had two souls, a good soul and a bad one (Goodenough #170). Psychological anthropologists have found rich material for speculation in Micronesian attitudes toward spirits of the dead. Spiro (#1020) maintains that the fear and hostility islanders manifest toward such spirits is a convenient means of displacing aggression.

In certain parts of Micronesia something close to ancestor worship seems to have been practiced. In Kiribati and in the Marianas, the skulls of ancestors were kept in or near the family dwelling, anointed with oil and presented with food offerings, and moved from place to place at times (Hale #160, Burney #40). Although other island groups did not venerate the skulls of their ancestors, they developed cults to some of the spirits. The spirits of chiefs and others of a high social status in the Mortlocks could become guardian spirits of their clans (Girschner #166). The same is true of the spirits of deceased notables in Palau, who sometimes became local deities and patrons and had a shrine dedicated in their honor (Kubary #256). In the Marshalls, Erdland (#141) records, ancestral spirits would sometimes take up their abode in stones, trees, fishes or birds.

Heavenly Spirits

Throughout Micronesia there are certain named spirits that are believed to dwell in the heavens and hold greater power, even if not all of them intervene in the lives of people. These heavenly spirits, or gods, are more universally venerated than other spirits and they are the favorite subject of myths. Their number usually includes a god or goddess who was responsible for the creation of the world and everything in it, although in some traditions part of this work is delegated to other deities (Luomala #641). Commonly, the creator is portrayed in myth as a remote and shadowy figure who has surrendered the intervention in human affairs to another deity. Anulap was the creator god of the central Carolines, but it was his son, Lukeilang, who became the cult figure and was recognized as the lord of the entire realm of spirits and mortals (Bollig #101).

Other parts of Micronesia had their own pantheon of celestial spirits. The major gods of Kiribati reveal strong Polynesian influence and bear few similarities to other divinities in the region, Luomala (#641) writes. Frequently these celestial spirits were believed to exert control over natural forces. The Pohnpeian deity Nansapwe was the god of thunder and Nanduinin held power over the winds (Hahl #182, Hambruch #188), while the Yapese divinity Yalafath controlled the rain (Müller #297). There are numerous instances of diffusion of deities among islands in Micronesia. The Yapese gods Yalafath and Lugalang have their counterparts in the atolls of the central Carolines (Müller #297), and Lukeilang was also venerated on Pohnpei (Hambruch #188). The Pohnpeian sky god Soukatau was introduced to Chuuk, according to Goodenough (#487), where it became the center of an important cult. Perhaps the most widely known figure was Olofat, a mischievous divinity who is the subject of a cycle of legends that has parallels in Melanesia and Polynesia. Olofat was known throughout the entire Carolines except for Pohnpei and Kosrae.

The celestial spirits sometimes include deities that were associated with certain crops or particular areas of human activity. Selang in the central Carolinian atolls and Yap is the patron of canoe-building (Alkire #974, Müller #297), for example. Pohnpei and Kosrae have several heavenly beings that were invoked for help in carrying out such activities as farming, fishing and building (Hambruch #188, Sarfert #328). This raises the question of whether the gods were originally nature spirits before being elevated to their celestial status. Sarfert (#328) thinks that this was the case for Kosrae. Such also seems to have been true for Sinlaka, the goddess of breadfruit, who had become the dominant cult figure on Kosrae during the mid-19th century, as we know from missionary sources (#64, 65). There is reason to believe that many of the figures in the celestial pantheon had humbler origins as nature spirits. In a few instances, human beings were also apotheosized and subsumed into this class of deities. One case occurring in the central Carolines, well documented by Lessa (#998), was that of Marespa, an Ulithian infant who died in the last century.

The spirit world in Micronesia presents the appearance of a complex tangle, possibly because Micronesians have always assimilated freely from outside sources of all types. Western students of religion throughout the years have attempted to reduce this unmanageable congeries of spirits and gods to a simple formula. The early ethnologist Kubary (#256, reference on Mortlocks?) maintained that all the various types of spirits that inhabit the religious world in Micronesia could ultimately be traced to the spirits of the dead. Even Frazer (#154), as sympathetic as he was to religious evolutionism, took exception to this argument. Although many of the nature spirits and perhaps even some of the divine spirits might have been had their genesis in human souls, he maintained that it was pushing the point too far to argue that all spirits had their origin this way.

Cults and Shrines

Although early missionaries declared island Micronesia to be free of "idols, temples, and priests" (Walter #369), there were shrines and cults on many islands. In Palau the most important spirit of a locality often had its own shrine in the form of a miniature house, at which food offerings would be left (Kubary #256). Throughout the central Carolines, shrines to ancestral spirits were often maintained in homes (Lessa #269). Although Chuuk does not seem to have had shrines as such, offerings to ancestral spirits were sometimes placed in a model canoe that was suspended from the roof of the men's house (Bollig #101). Some of the more notable spirits in Yap had huts dedicated to them in the middle of the groves they were thought to inhabit (Walleser #367). Simple shrines were also found in Kiribati, Pohnpei and Kosrae, with titled priests to serve the deities honored there. On Kosrae there were said to be nine priests who cared for the major shrine in honor of Sinlaka, and six priests at another site (Sarfert #328). Pohnpei had two lines of priests, at least some of whom served at the shrines of certain gods.

The shrines usually consisted of little more than a small hut or a model house, and often not even this much. Basaltic rock was often an important element in shrines and served as the repository or resting place of the divinity. A basalt stone covered by a rough hut was the manner in which the spirits inhabiting sacred groves in Yap were represented (Müller #297), and a small round stone was placed in the Palauan shrines to serve as the resting place of the deity (Kubary #256). Basalt altars were erected on Pohnpei (hence the etymology of the name) in honor of the thunder god and perhaps other deities, who were served by titled priests, and the same cult was later introduced to Chuuk. Pieces of basalt were carried as far off as Namu and Ebon in the Marshalls, where they became the center of a cult similar to that practiced on Pohnpei and Chuuk (Goodenough #487).


In every part of Micronesia rituals abounded in connection with death and mortuary practices, but they were also practiced on other important occasions. The harvest season of a staple crop was one such occasion. Erdland (#141) offers a description of a pandanus festival in the Marshalls at which food offerings were presented and incantations made over the effigy of a bird constructed of palm fronds. A pandanus fruit was pulled apart and scattered in all directions, and then sacrificed food was placed on a pandanus leaf and launched at sea. Krämer (#247) records a ritual that Chuukese used to encourage an abundant breadfruit harvest. It involved sprinkling trees with water into which a ball of medicinal herbs had been dipped, chanting prayers each morning for several days, and racing toy boats along the shore. In Yap special practitioners were called upon to perform the rites of benediction upon sweet potatoes, coconuts and betelnut palms (Walleser #367).

Rituals were also employed on numerous other occasions. Before cutting down a tree in Yap, for example, a specialist would daub the tree with a certain concoction while praying to the spirits of the tree to leave it so that it could be felled (Walleser #367). House construction, fishing expeditions, long canoe journeys, warfare, and threat of a typhoon were some of the other occasions that called for the exercise of rituals. As a rule these ceremonies were conducted by accredited shaman-like individuals. The older literature refers to such rituals as magic, but the use of that term is under challenge today. Rituals like those alluded to above, even if mechanistic, were set in a religious context and involved incantations and prayers to spirits.

As might be expected, more elaborate rituals were to be found in those places that had a genuine priesthood—that is, in Pohnpei and Kosrae. The priests in both places regularly conducted blessings and conjurations, according to informants in 1910 who had only a general recollection of the nature of the rituals (Hambruch #188). These priests seem to have officiated at a sakau ceremony during which a sacred drum was beaten and chants were intoned as the cup was passed around. Dogs were sacrificed at these ceremonies, it is said. Ceremonies similar to these seem to have also been performed in Kosrae (Sarfert #328).

Communication with Spirits

Communication with the spirits of the dead was thought to be vital to the interests of the individual or community, so contact was frequently made through spirit possession. The purpose of the contact was usually to elicit valuable information, although in some places spirit possession seems to have been involuntary and not occasioned by such requests. Spirit possession was characterized by trembling, loss of control over body movement, and a marked change in voice as the communication began.

In Chuuk and the Mortlocks families usually attempted to communicate with the spirit of a deceased relative within a few days of the death, with a member of the family acting as medium (Bollig #101). Spirit possession was also common in the atolls of the central Carolines, sometimes occurring in response to the initiative taken by recognized mediums. In other places like Kiribati, Palau, Pohnpei and Kosrae, spirit possession was far more institutionalized and the role of medium was taken by a professional (Kubary #256, Hambruch #188, Sarfert #328). Usually a single medium, either male or female, was associated with a major deity and came to be regarded as this spirit's "voice." With the help of betelnut or sakau, the medium would enter a trance state in order to elicit the information desired by clients or worshippers. The medium typically enjoyed a very high status in his community.

Such communication enhanced the reputation of the spirit as well as the medium. The apotheosis of individuals like Marespa in Ulithi is attributable to the frequency with which Marespa's spirit visited and spoke to persons (Lessa #998). Goodenough (#487) suggests that the reason some ancestral spirits became associated with certain skills and lore and gained a wider following was that they communicated with the living through mediums so often and with such effect.

Besides consulting the spirits of the dead, Micronesians resorted to other means of acquiring information about the unknown past and the future. Each island group had its preferred methods of divination. Although not religious in the strict sense of the word, divination had spiritualistic overtones, especially when practiced through dreams. In Palau, divination could be done by smashing a coconut and observing the fragments, by throwing betelnut into the air and observing how it fell, by hacking a stick with a knife and noting the position of the notches, by listening to the calls of birds at night, or in a variety of other ways (Frazer #154). Much the same was true in other islands, despite some variation in the techniques used. The most widespread and favored method of divination was by tying knots in coconut fronds, counting the knots by fours, and interpreting the resulting numbers according to a formula (Lessa #920). This method, known as pwe or some cognate, was practiced throughout Micronesia and, according to Lessa (#919) may be related to the I ching trigrams of ancient China.

Medicine and Sorcery

All illnesses and most injuries were thought to be caused by spirits, as Alkire (#879) and Mahoney (#926) have pointed out. Within this conceptual framework, the best kind of preventative medicine was to guard against incurring the ill will of the spirits by carefully obeying all taboos. Another means employed by the central Carolinians to protect themselves from malevolent spirits was to enlist the services of a curer to help them seal off the island to all foreign spirits (Alkire #879).

For the cure of illnesses, people turned chiefly but not exclusively to the spirits; they also practiced massage and used pharmaceuticals, but often concurrently with spirit medicine. In some cases they attempted to placate the malevolent spirit, while in others they appealed to a friendly spirit to counter the power of the angry spirit. Curers or shamans were normally summoned to perform the requisite rites and incantations. In some places, notably in Yap (Müller #297) and the Marshalls (Erdland #141), charms and amulets were used along with incantations to provide relief from illness or to protect from it.

Just as persons could use "spirit power" to heal, they might also employ it to inflict an illness or worse on another. There was sorcery that could be used against anyone trying to move one's boundary marker, counter-spells to deflect and reverse the efforts of an enemy to harm one, and curses against lovers who ran off with someone else. The rituals and prayers used were usually not much different in kind from those employed in medicine and consisted of incantations recited over certain objects. There were exceptions, however, as in the case of the "flaming bones" sorcery in Chuuk that was worked to produce inflammation of the joints. It entailed bringing back the corpse of an enemy, arranging it in a sitting position so that it faced one's foe, and making food offerings designed to entice the spirit of the dead person to take revenge on the intended victim (Mahoney #926). Love potions were also widely used throughout Micronesia.


Taboos of a religious or semi-religious nature were universal throughout Micronesia. The most well known were those connected with the clan totems, normally a species of animate objects that was identified with the clan's origins and which all members were expected to respect. The totems in Pohnpei, for instance, included turtle, shark, eel, different kinds of fish, the owl, a species of banana and one type of yam (Hambruch #188). Clan members were forbidden to eat the plant or animal associated with their totem, although they were allowed to kill these objects. Totems were generally fish, animals, birds and sometimes plants, but in the Marshalls totems could also be inanimate objects like stones (Erdland #141). Totems existed in every part of Micronesia, as far as we know.

Many taboos were associated with religious rituals that were customarily practiced before important pursuits such as voyaging, fishing, and warfare. They usually involved restrictions on food or sex. Throughout Micronesia men were supposed to abstain from sexual relations before fishing, with the length of time varying according to the island and the type of fishing. Women in Yap were secluded in huts during menstruation and after childbirth (Walleser #367). It was common in all islands to impose a taboo on the land and fruit trees, and sometimes also the shore waters, belonging to a man that had just died. His family and others were forbidden access to these places for a certain period of time. In Yap, the family of the dead person were placed in quarantine for some days and not allowed to eat certain kinds of food (Walleser #367).

Sacred persons and places were also the object of taboos. Persons who took a leading role in rituals or acted as curers and shamans were obliged to abstain from sexual intercourse and from eating certain kinds of fish before performing a function. Those places dedicated to a special deity, like the sacred groves on Yap and the shrine of Sinlaka on Kosrae, were off limits to ordinary people.


The mass of descriptive material that has been recovered on traditional Micronesian religions appears to defy simple systematic organization. This is owing to more than the differences that existed between the many distinct cultural areas in the region. Micronesian religions, like the societies themselves, have always been ready to assimilate influences from the outside without forcing them into rigorous conceptual schemes. Consequently, the religions are not as tightly organized as those in other societies.

Recent work in Micronesian religion, however, has taken an important and productive turn. Focusing as it does on indigenous perceptions, this work has attempted to recover the basic organizing principles vital to an understanding of Micronesians' religious world. The people of the central Carolines, for instance, classify all spirits in four categories representing two dyadic schemes, Alkire (#974) writes. There are "spirits of the island" and "spirits of the sea," reflecting a key polarity that runs through all island life (women are entrusted with the care of the land, just as men look seaward, for example). The second dyadic scheme, between "spirits of the lineage" and "spirits of the sky," is even more crucial for an understanding of the religion. The "spirits of the lineage" are ancestral spirits that are anchored on the island, while the "spirits of the sky" are those originating in the mythological world and living far off in the heavens. This polarity is a constantly recurring theme in the Pacific. It reflects the division between the known island environment and the mysterious, distant world beyond. This distinction, according to Goodenough (#487), is central to the understanding of island cosmology and religion.

As work progresses in these directions, there is the hope that the contribution Luomala and Lessa, among others, made through their organization of themes in Micronesian mythology may soon be paralleled in the area of Micronesian religion.