MicSem Publications

Spirit Possession in Chuuk: A Socio-Cultural Interpretation

by Francis X. Hezel, SJ

1992 Social Issues


Spirit possession seems to be an unusually common phenomenon throughout the lower latitudes of the globe. Many of the cultural areas in southern and southeast Asia–parts of India, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and the Philippines, for example–report frequent occurrences of possession [Bourguignon 1968; Bulatao 1982, 1986; Suwanlert 1972; Teoh and Tan 1976]. A similar phenomenon is reported among some Native American peoples, among them the Navajo [Levy et al 1987]. A cursory glance at abstracts of articles on transcultural psychiatry revealed a similar phenomenon in such disparate places as Ethiopia and Liberia, among other parts of Africa, and in Jamaica, the West Indies and Brazil [Bourguignon 1968; Kiev 1961; Kahana 1985; Torrey 1967; Whittkower 1970]. The literature on the Pacific is sprinkled with references to cases of alleged possession, as well.

One cannot live for any length of time in Chuuk, the most populous state of the Federated States of Micronesia, without hearing tales of spirit possession. As a Catholic priest residing in Chuuk, the author has been called upon to assist in two cases within the last four years and his colleagues in the Catholic ministry have been summoned dozens of times to bless persons who were said to be possessed.

An incident involving Fermina, the 15-year old daughter of devout Christian parents, is rather typical. One evening a few years ago she went to bed complaining of a pain in her stomach. By the next morning her body was twitching uncontrollably and she was seized with convulsions. As the family gathered around her mat to comfort her, they heard her suddenly reprimand a much older male relative, angrily telling him "Leave the house, because I don't like what you are doing." The words came from Fermina's mouth, but the voice was that of her mother who had died a year or two earlier. Fermina recovered within two or three days of the incident, but she has had similar experiences a few times since this one.

In 1989, Cathy Hung, then a Peace Corps volunteer in Chuuk, generously offered to assist the author in the collection of case reports on spirit possession. Within two months, she had collected from her interviews of Chuukese women accounts of 57 spirit encounters, more than 40 of which could be called spirit possession. Had it not been for limitations of time and access to informants, she could have easily collected twice this number of stories. It was apparent that, despite her dedicated efforts, we had done no more than skim the surface of a deep pool of such cases in Chuuk. All but a few of the possession cases gathered involved female subjects. There was an undeniable bias towards women in our collection techniques since the investigator was herself a woman and so had far greater access to female informants than male. On the other hand, the choice of a woman to do the interviewing was prompted by the strong association that Chuukese make between spirit possession and women. A deliberate effort on our part to elicit cases of male possession may have yielded a few more instances of episodes among men, but the strong gender imbalance almost certainly would have remained.

The case reports compiled on the possession incidents are admittedly quite thin, since there was normally only one informant for each incident and he or she was asked to provide information on an event that sometimes occurred years before. Consequently, the description is often sparse and lacks the rich detail that one would desire. Nonetheless, what the case files lack in texture they compensate for in quantity, since the number and variety of cases gathered for this study far exceeds the standard.

Drawing on this fund of case material, we shall examine spirit possession in Chuuk as a psycho-social phenomenon, a phenomenon that is rooted in an institution of traditional Chuukese society but which has been modified over time to serve new purposes. If the spirit world of Chuuk has changed in the past century, so has the way in which the people of Chuuk interact with it. Against this background, we shall attempt to describe how spirit possession itself has been transformed into a mechanism that serves essential functions in Chuuk's modern-day society.

Chuuk and Its Spirit World

Chuuk, a large lagoon containing a dozen inhabited high islands and surrounded by satellite atolls, is situated in the geographical center of Micronesia. It is populated by 50,000 living people and, to judge by the stories these people tell, at least as many spirits. These spirits resist easy classification, as anthropologists have frequently noted [Lessa 1987:498; Alkire 1989]. All spirits, whether human or non-human, are known by the single term énú [Mahoney 1969: 133].


There are certain spirits believed to inhabit the sky that have long been cult figures for the Chuukese people. The trinity of spirits regarded as the oldest and most powerful are Anulap ("Great Spirit"), the uncreated spirit who lives remote from mortals and their affairs; Lukeilang ("Middle of Heaven"), son of Anulap and lord of all in the realm of spirits and mortals; and Olofat, the eldest son of Lukeilang, a trickster god and the subject of a cycle of popular tales [Frazer 1968 III: 124-5] There are a number of other figures that might be called gods–figures like Semenkoror ("Father of Wisdom), Sinenap ("Skilled One"), and Aremei ("Achiever") [Bollig 1927: 6-7]. One of the most popular and most often supplicated is Inemes, the goddess of love or the "Venus of Chuuk", as Bollig [1927: 6] called her. She is imprecated in the love magic that is has survived even down to the present day.

Nature Spirits

The origin of this group of spirits is lost in the mists of the past, although some of the Chuukese knowledgeable in traditional lore maintain that these spirits were once human spirits that in time became associated with a particular locality. Some of these are sea spirits (oos) that live out in the open ocean but are believed to come ashore to sleep at night [Mahoney 1969: 140]. One of the most well-known and most feared of these was Anumwaresi, the spirit of the rainbow, who is still today thought to afflict pregnant women [Anon nd: 4]. There are also the spirits known as chénúkken who reside on the reefs and in the shallows inside the lagoon. These spirits, most of them female, are often named; Inepeitan and Inepauoch were identified with shoals near Toloas, and Inaun was believed to live off a section of Uman [Anon nd: 4]. Two separate spirits who shared the name "One-Legged Spirit" (Niipecheefóch) were thought to live just off the islands of Fono and Pis [Mahoney 1969: 140]. On the land, especially in the crevices and fissures, lived the spirits of the soil, each with its own name [Mahoney 1969: 140]. In addition, there were spirits of breadfruit trees (anumumai), among them Seningeruu, who was known to sow discord among people [Bollig 1927: 12]. The Chuukese also recognized many other spirits associated with particular mountains, bushes, rocks and other landmarks [Bollig 1927: 4-5]. The nature spirits, which were numberless, Bollig wrote, could be classified only in the most general way; but they shared as a common trait their fearsomeness towards people [Bollig 1927: 12].

Spirits of the Dead

Formerly Chuukese believed that there were two spirits in each individual: the good spirit and the bad spirit. At the death of a person the bad spirit would hover around the grave of the deceased, sometimes taking the form of fruit bats or other animals and terrorizing those who lived nearby. The bad spirit could attack people and "bite" them, the effect of which might be to darken the victim's mind or cause temporary insanity [Mahoney 1969: 134-5]. But any harm that the bad spirit could do was limited, for the bad spirit remained in the immediate vicinity of the grave, stalked only at night, and could be frightened off by light. If the spirit became too annoying, a sorcerer was called to drive it into the earth to rejoin the body of the deceased [Bollig 1927: 20-2]. The good spirit, which had the power to roam more freely than the bad spirit before it eventually drifted up to its abode in the sky, could be a source of blessings for its former family. This spirit, if well disposed to the family, could reveal to its kinfolk a wealth of valuable information on such things as new kinds of medicine, ideas for dances, and the location of good fishing grounds. On the other hand, the good spirit could become a scourge for the family unless it were treated with proper respect and placated with gift offerings [Mahoney 1969: 137]. When angry with the family, the good spirit could cause serious illness and might be more of a threat, oddly enough, than the bad spirit. It was with the "good spirit" that Chuukese families attempted, in years past, to establish communication after the death of one of its members.

Close Encounters with Spirits

Chuukese today, like most other Micronesians, simply assume the existence of spirits and their intervention in human events. Their belief in spirits persists despite the conversion of Chuuk to Christianity late in the last century–the population is now almost equally divided into Catholic and Protestant. Although many people will disavow a belief in spirits when asked directly, especially by a church minister, their behavior indicates otherwise. They are uncomfortable walking alone in the woods in the evening and avoid places associated with the more notorious nature spirits. Women, especially, take precautions when venturing into the vicinity of chénúkken, or sea spirits, believed to cause miscarriage and other problems in childbirth. People continue to use traditional "medicine" to ward off malevolent spirits, even as they still believe in the efficacy of love potions (ómwmwung) to win the affections of those whom they find sexually attractive.

While the Chuukese belief in spirits is very real even today, it is limited and reactive (rather than initiating) when compared with the past. Chuukese use every means possible to avoid the harm that they believe can be done by spirits, but they no longer make offerings or prayers of propitiation to spirits, either nature spirits or the spirits of the dead. In suchwise, most Chuukese have satisfactorily integrated their belief in the spirit world with their Christian faith. Christian teaching, after all, recognized the reality of a spirit world of its own populated by demons and angels. The panoply of spirits that share the universe with Chuukese are regarded as a potent but lower order of beings that are subordinate to the Christian god. Hence, the spirit world of Chuuk might be seen not as a rival of Chuukese Christian beliefs, but as a substratum of this professed Christianity, even when it is devoutly embraced. Indeed, the Christian god is often called upon to counter the destructive influence of these spirits.

Chuukese today attribute to the influence of spirits many kinds of misfortunes, ranging from injuries that Westerners would simply label accidents to suicide attempts. Even beyond such effects of the influence of spirits in their lives, Chuukese sometimes report direct encounters with spirits. People frequently speak of seeing ghosts and sometimes even being "bitten" by ghosts (ochei énú). Since Chuukese do not trouble themselves with fine distinctions in the typology of encounters with spirits, it is often difficult to know whether they consider the individual "possessed"–that is, whether the spirit in question has, in their judgment, actually occupied the body of the victim–or whether the spirit acts as an external force on the person. The Chuukese term awarawar énú "the coming of the spirit" suggests simply an encounter with a spirit, while the word wáánaanú "the vehicle of the spirit" implies what Westerners would think of as actual possession. Yet, Chuukese often use the terms interchangeably, and few seem to make an attempt at a conscious distinction.

Not many years ago, a woman in her early 30s was with a group of other women from the village doing net fishing in the shallow water just offshore. As she was hauling in her section of the long fishing net, she became entangled in it. While struggling to free herself, she saw a big, naked black man in the deep water advancing toward her. Upon freeing herself from the net, she ran toward the house screaming in panic. An adult male relative of the woman's intercepted her on the way, but the woman threw him to the ground with apparent ease. While the woman cowered in the house over the next several days, an expert in medicine (sousáfei) was summoned from another island to treat her. After applying his remedies and relieving the woman's distress, he explained that the woman had been afflicted by Soumwerikes, the ghost that troubles women who have recently given birth. The woman had just delivered her sixth child a few weeks prior to the incident.

Another story is told of a young girl, 16 years old, from a different island in Chuuk, who was pregnant and soon due to deliver. One night as she was preparing to go to sleep, she saw a stout man clad entirely in yellow who lasciviously clutched at her dress. She fought off the "man" with remarkable strength while the household looked on in astonishment at her wild thrashing. Members of her family saw no assailant, but they noticed that the girl seemed to be pulled toward the door and resisted violently, screaming all the while. She calmed down later that evening, but there were further episodes during the next few weeks, The family called the Catholic priest to assist them and the incidents stopped when the girl delivered. It should be noted that this girl, like the woman in the previous case, was unmarried when she became pregnant.

In both the above cases the women were said to be agitated by an encounter with a spirit, but neither is a clear-cut instance of what might be called possession. The Chuukese informants on these cases were quick to attribute the abnormal behavior of the women to the work of spirits, but could not say whether the spirit was actually "on" the girl. The informant for the second case inclined to the view that the young girl in question was not really possessed because there was no change in her voice. Although both women suffered intermittent episodes for a week or two, the duration of the symptoms in itself was not a telling sign of actual possession. Whatever designation we use for these cases, there are features that they share with the majority of the spirit possession cases, as we shall see.

The Phenomenon of Possession

There are incidents such as that which occurred to Fermina, described at the beginning of this paper, that are unambiguously regarded as spirit possession. One possession case involved a girl who complained of a severe headache one night just before she retired. The girl, whom we shall call Loretta, awoke some hours later when she began hearing voices. Soon she began babbling to herself and then carrying on conversations with spirits of dead relatives. Adopting the speech patterns and voice characteristics of the deceased family members, Loretta harangued her family about some quarrel that had arisen a few days before. The spirits demanded an apology from the errant members of the family for their misbehavior. This behavior continued off and on over the course of several days until Loretta recovered. Subsequently, however, she experienced two or three recurrences of possession.

Michko, a woman in her late 30s, fell into a seizure one evening and began speaking in the voice of her deceased grandfather. Her grandfather was summoning her to join him outside the house. Michko shouted in her own voice, "Wait for me, I'm coming. "Her family gathered at the door of the house to prevent her from leaving, but with what seemed preternatural strength she thrust her brother and another man aside. Only the combined efforts of several men in the family sufficed to restrain her. A few hours later Michko was back to normal, although she had similar experiences once or twice after this.

In each of these cases recounted above, the victim was thought to be possessed by the spirit of a dead relative. Each of the victims was regarded as being under the influence of a deceased family member, for whom she served as a "vehicle" or medium for the transmission of messages from beyond the grave. The change in voice, even in the last case to the husky voice of an elderly male, was taken as a signal of the women's status as "possessed". This is not to say that everyone in their family accepted their possession as genuine, for the father of the one of the victims, at the onset of her episode, slapped her and accused her of faking the possession. Whether the family accepted the authenticity of the possession or not, however, everyone immediately recognized the role that the woman was assuming–she was being defined as a "possessed person," for which there is a clearly defined niche for in Chuukese society.

Spirit possessions, as distinguished from what I have called mere encounters with spirits, are strongly patterned in Chuuk. Frequently the episode begins with a severe pain, often a persistent headache or abdominal pain, or with a bout of illness. One woman's possession was preceded by a sore throat and laryngitis; another started with a pain in the chest that perdured despite all the remedies she used. The woman then takes to her sleeping mat as the rest of the family gathers around her to look after her in her illness.

Next, the woman will typically experience a violent bodily upheaval. She may begin yelling and screaming, or possibly sobbing hysterically. She may begin flailing her arms at those around her, or her body might start convulsing or shaking in what might resemble a seizure. This often takes the form of an assault on those who are in the household–one young girl suddenly grabbed her grandmother and began to throttle her; another victim picked up a broom and struck an older relative standing nearby. One possessed woman suddenly began beating her young son, all the while threatening to pluck out his eyeballs and eat them. Sometimes the possessed individuals chase people around the house, throwing things at them and grappling with them, occasionally even wrestling them to the ground. Again and again informants comment on the remarkable strength of the afflicted woman, who is often capable of besting a grown man much heavier than she. Yet, it is also noteworthy that the violence exhibited by the possessed person is a controlled violence, much as a young man on a drunken rampage in Chuuk will carefully moderate his violence despite appearances to the contrary. The relatives of the possessed woman may be scratched and sore from restraining her, but there is no instance in our data of anyone receiving a serious injury from the possessed person.

Possessed individuals demonstrate other sorts of unusual behavior, some of it flagrantly transgressing the code of propriety in Chuukese society. Much of the time, the afflicted persons simply moan unintelligibly or babble nonsense, but at times there is a sharp edge to their speech. They may wantonly insult those around them, even using vulgarity that Chuukese women, under ordinary circumstances, would never dream of speaking in the presence of their brothers and other male relatives. At times there is a sexual tenor to their remarks, as when they describe to the full circle of relatives the sexual fantasies that they have experienced. One woman hitched up her skirt and scratched her pubic area while her family tried to modestly cover her and pull her hand away. Another young woman, after telling some of her older relatives how ugly they were, made sexual overtures to pre-teenage boys standing nearby.

In roughly one-third of the cases we have collected, informants recalled that the possessed person demonstrated a strange prescience. She seemed to know who was about to come in the room, often announcing the person's arrival before the person appeared. Women are sometimes able to point out exactly where lost or hidden objects are to be found. One young girl gave detailed instructions on where a pistol belonging to a recently deceased relative might be found. Before his death the man had concealed the pistol in a house in a distant village; it was found in the exact spot that the girl indicated. Many years ago a woman in a possessed state predicted that a group of men who had gone off to a distant island to work on a plantation would be back very soon. They did in fact return a week later. The same evening that the woman had made her prediction, as her kinfolk later learned, the men were boarding the ship that would bring them back to Chuuk. One women allegedly told her family that a boy who had been missing for a few days had hanged himself in the bush, and she told her family where they might find his body. At times the clairvoyance takes threatening forms. Possessed women have been known to predict deaths of relatives and publicly announce the intimate details of the personal life of family members, including clandestine sexual relationships. For this reason, the family of the possessed woman usually is guarded in its dealings with her and does everything possible to avoid provoking an angry outburst.

For Chuukese one of the most dramatic and telling signs of possession, as we have already seen, is the change in voice that occurs when the "spirit" begins speaking. Indeed, this transformation involves more than a change in the sound of the voice; the possessed woman usually takes on the very persona of the spirit that is upon her. The timbre and tone of her voice and her speech patterns become that of the dead person; and there is also a corresponding change in the gestures, the facial expressions and other mannerisms. When one stooped old woman began speaking in the voice of her brother, she walked around the house ramrod straight–the first time anyone could remember her doing so–and began smoking, just as her brother had during his life. One possessed woman, in imitation of her deceased mother's injured hand, held her own hand as if to favor it and asked her son to massage it to relieve the "pain". Another woman stroked her throat while speaking, just as her mother did during her lifetime, and conversed in the same soft, strained voice that her mother used.

At times a possessed woman may speak to more than one spirit during an episode. In one recent case a young girl, in a virtuoso performance of characterization, took on the speech and mannerisms of four different spirits during a single episode. There are other cases in which the possessed person had adopted the personae of two or three spirits in an evening.

Although the change in persona is usually quite brief, lasting only a few minutes at a time, the entire seizure episode has a much longer duration. Individual episodes may range from a day or two to a couple of weeks, with a few apparently dragging on for as long as two or three months. One old woman was said to have been possessed from the time of her paralysis through the last year of her life. Sometimes it is difficult to tell precisely when one episode ends and another begins, for some of the afflicted women have such a long and continuous history of such experiences that they can almost be called chronically possessed. Two younger women have had a series of incidents that began in the early 1980s and continued intermittently until 1990. One informant, whose sister-in-law was first possessed in 1980 at the age of 15, said that in recent years the afflicted woman has been exhibiting the symptoms of possession every three months.

Possession As Illness

Spirit possession is perceived by Chuukese as dangerous, and they lose no time in seeking treatment for the possessed person. It is dangerous, on one level, because it brings the victim and her family in contact with spirits, otherworldly presences with powers far beyond the control of mere human beings. The realm of the spirits, whether they are the souls of the dead or nature spirits, is a dark and murky one fraught with perils, as it has always been for the people of Chuuk. Within the framework of Chuukese Christianity today possession is associated with Satan and the forces of evil at work in the world.

On another level, spirit possession is seen as dangerous because it represents a violent upheaval of the established social order. Possessed women defy the canons that govern social conduct in Chuuk: women flaunt their sexuality in the presence of male relatives; they voice publicly what ought to go unspoken; they flail, verbally and often physically, at those to whom they are expected to show respectful restraint. Possession, which brings people into proximity with the dark spirit realm, also introduces an element of chaos that threatens to unravel the social fabric of their community lives.

In the face of such a threat, Chuukese sometimes turn to local healers (sousáfei) for traditional remedies. More commonly, however, they will seek treatment from within Christianity, from the God who they have been taught is superior to all the powers and principalities, the lower order of spirits that roam the world. Frequently the family of the possessed person will pray over the afflicted family member or sprinkle holy water on her. If the episode continues for more than a day or two, many will summon a Catholic priest to assist the possessed person, even if the family is Protestant. Part of the attraction of Catholic services no doubt lies in the church's ritual, often conducted with litanies, candles, religious medals or relics, and abundant ablutions with holy water. There are instances, though, where Catholic families have turned to Protestant faith healers for treatment, especially when the latter are known to use chants and more theatrical techniques.

For all their reliance on religious cures, however, Chuukese are well aware that there is another, more mundane dimension to spirit possession, one that Westerners would call psychological. One informant pointedly mentioned in his interview that, apart from the few cases in which the victim violated a strict taboo, spirit possession is almost always brought on by family problems. The data collected for this study strongly confirms his judgment, as the following case illustrates.

A few days before Mariana's possession began, her brother started coming home drunk every night, although he did not normally drink alcohol before this. The family took this unusual behavior as an indication that he had an unspoken grievance against someone in the family. Mariana took the silent reproach to heart, for she had been having a affair with a second cousin of hers even though she was married and had several children. As Mariana began a possession episode, the spirit that came upon her was that of her dead mother who warned the family to take better care of her brother. Mariana's sisters were enjoined to show their love for their brother by washing his clothes, as good sisters should, and take pains to prepare tasty food for him. Mariana herself did not escape "her mother's" reproach, for she was scolded for neglecting her poor brother. Implicitly understood in this admonition was that if Mariana's brother were treated properly by his family he would have no reason to continue his drinking and peace would again be restored to the family.

To understand the importance of family tensions in bringing on the possession episodes, we need only look at the messages that are delivered in the name (and voice) of the dead relative. To one family torn apart by a dispute over land that had been leased to foreigners, the possessed woman announced that they were to cease quarreling because the land would soon be returned to the family. Another woman, whose older sister had a long-standing dispute with her brother over disposal of family land, warned her family, through the persona of her dead mother, that the sister would be taken from them (presumably through death) unless the bickering ended. Soon after the episode the brother and sister were reconciled. One young girl, in the voice of her recently deceased aunt, chastised the family for not properly caring for the dead woman's children. The aunt's husband had remarried shortly after his wife's death and the children were being neglected, to the dismay of the young possessed girl. Some women, in their possessed state, have chided their sons or daughters for failing to do their work for the family or for seeking to marry someone the family disapproved of. A possessed man (one of the few male cases in our data) in his mother's voice urged all his brothers and sisters to show a proper sense of family solidarity by taking good care of one another and their older kinfolk. He then picked up a broom and started buffeting a niece who had been negligent in visiting his mother during the months before she died.

When informed of a possession, Chuukese instinctively ask what brought it on. The suspicion is that a family problem, perhaps a serious quarrel or tensions that have smoldered for several months, occasioned the possession episode. Most often this is correct. One young girl experienced seizures and the possession syndrome just an hour or two after a noisy drunken fight had broken out in her house. The squabbles over land or factiousness that develop over family responsibilities are common antecedents to possession incidents. Other kinds of stress may also bring on possession. Frequently the possession will occur shortly after the death of a family member, sometimes during the week-long mourning period for the deceased. A family death occurring under unusual circumstances, as in the case of suicide, may pose a particular threat. Five of the women exhibited the first signs of possession shortly after the suicide of a close family member, and one possessed girl had lost two young men in her family to suicide within a month. Pregnancy, especially in the case of unmarried girls who sense their family's disapproval, has also been known to occasion possession episodes.

The data gathered indicate that a victim of possession has nearly always experienced considerable stress just prior to the onset of her episode. In most cases the stress is due to friction in the family, with the possessed woman sometimes playing a direct part in the tension and sometimes cast in the role of tormented observer. In some cases, as we have seen, other sources of stress–notably the woman's pregnancy or a death in the family–may trigger the possession incident. Overall, there is little doubt that stress is a major factor contributing to the possession episode.

A Psychological View of Possession

Possession in Chuuk today has become almost a monopoly of females, in marked contrast to the gender distribution earlier in the century. Of the 44 clear-cut cases of possession from among the 57 reported spirit encounters collected, all but four of the possessed individuals were women. The victims were mostly younger women, usually in their teens or twenties, although the information on ages in our data is often uncertain. The age profile shows eight victims in their 30s and 40s, and at least two much older women: one about 60 and another in her mid-70s.

The strong linkage of contemporary spirit possession with females is not without its parallels in other parts of the world. Mageo [Chapter __] and Gordon [Chapter __] report a similar phenomenon in Samoa and Tonga respectively, and the author's initial inquiries into possession cases in other island groups in Micronesia suggest a preponderance of female victims there as well. Much of the literature cited in the introductory section of this chapter reveals a strong prevalence of female possession over male; the victims were women in three of the four cases of spirit possession described in Trinidad [Ward 1980] and in five of the seven possession cases occurring in the Philippines [Bulatao 1982]. In an etymological footnote intended to underscore the long historical association made between such phenomena and women, McCulloch [1969: 635] reminds us that the term "hysteria", often used to describe such occurrences, was derived from the Greek word for uterus, which was believed to wander throughout the body and so cause reactions such as trance states and spirit possession.

The behavioral manifestations associated with what the Chuukese look on as spirit possession include, as we have seen, violent shaking, wild activity, moaning and crying, screaming and shouting, sudden dramatic changes in voice, and displays of unusual strength. In their search for a psychological term to explain similar phenomena in other parts of the world, Western scholars have often resorted to the concept of hysteria. The present generation of ethnopsychologists, however, would object to the term on the grounds that, with its medical bias, it implies that possession is a manifestation of psychological illness. Nearly everyone today recommends a "cleaner", more value-free term, although there is still no agreement on what that term should be. The symptoms associated with spirit possession are characteristic of trance states, in which the boundaries of the self are weakened and astonishing personality changes sometimes introduced [Ludwig 1968; Bourguignon 1980]. That indefatigable scholar of possession, Erika Bourguignon [1991: 5-10], prefers the use of the term "possession trance" to distinguish it, on the one hand, from other trance states such as ceremonial trances, shamanistic trances or those trance states aided by biochemical agents, and, on the other hand, from haptic possession and forms of spirit influence that leave the psyche unaffected. Altered state of consciousness is another blanket term, one gaining currency among ethnopsychologists, that is commonly used to characterize the phenomenon of spirit possession. Many of those who have studied the psychodynamics of possession states would argue that this is the most convenient and non-judgmental way to describe the phenomenon [eg, Bourguignon 1980; Bulatao 1986; Ludwig 1968].

Once having established a neutral term for the phenomenon, scholars sensitive to the perils of ethnocentrism are much more free to view "spirit possession" as a cultural strategy rather than merely an illness. In this context, most authors today seem to interpret spirit possession as a form of dissociation. As such it is a useful mechanism for managing severe stress–one of the three universal, cross-cultural coping strategies, along with denial and somatization, according to Kleinman [1980]. Dissociation in the form of "possession" offers obvious advantages to Chuukese beset with serious stress. It permits the individual to distance herself from the "spirit" and its message, even as she reveals in more or less symbolic form the cause of her distress [Tredgold and Wolff 1970: 79-81]. The "possessed" person can have it both ways; she can vent her negative emotions and yet escape any guilt feelings by projecting blame on to the intruding spirit [Ward 1980: 202-3].

This is not to imply that the possession episodes are deliberately contrived to achieve social or personal ends. There is no question of conscious fakery involved, as most of the clergymen who have been called in to assist at such episodes would attest. Whatever options are made occur on the sub-conscious level from a menu of coping strategies that the particular culture makes available to individuals. "Spirit possession" is one of the items on the menu, so to speak, but it is not equally proffered to everyone in the society.

The Historical Transformation of Possession

Spirit possession has had a long history in Chuuk, we know from early ethnographies and descriptions that date back to the late 19th century [Bollig 1927; Anon nd; Girschner 1912]. The accounts found in these early sources agree on the essentials of spirit possession, which normally occurred in the lineage meeting house in which was hung a model double-hulled canoe, or náán, that served as a vehicle for the descent of the spirit. A spirit medium, known as a sou awarawar or wáátawa, was seated in the midst of the family, smeared with fragrant perfume, and as the family chanted the name of the dead relative with whom they wished to speak, the medium "mumbles to himself, begins to moan, breathes several times with his mouth wide open, and then lapses into convulsive trembling." [Anon nd: 8] Often his head jerks back and forth, his neck is bent "under the weight of the spirit", and his hands begin to quiver [Bollig 1927: 61] As the trembling became more violent, the family, recognizing that the medium is now in a state of possession, begin asking questions of the spirit. There was usually no voice change in the medium, although his response was spoken in a special "spirit language" that had to be interpreted by someone especially knowledgeable in this form of speech [Girschner 1912: 190].

The spirit possession described in the literature, while generally similar in form to the type of possession occurring today, shows a few significant differences. For one thing, traditional possession was purposeful: it resulted from a deliberate attempt to communicate with the spirits of the dead (nature spirits and gods could not be summoned). When serious illness befell someone, the family would often gather to summon the spirit of one of their deceased members in the hope that the spirit would reveal the nature of the illness. At other times of family crisis–during a famine or confrontation with another family, for instance–the lineage group might call on a spirit to provide the crucial information needed to survive unharmed. The spirits were also consulted on the whereabouts of missing valuables or about what will happen in the future. Shortly after the death of someone in the family, the relatives would frequently initiate communication with the spirit in the hope of gaining access to knowledge–the knowledge hidden from the living–that might have value for them.

The medium in the traditional spirit possession was, ideally at least, someone from within the inner family group who showed a sensitivity to the movements of the spirits. The chief requirement for a medium, in the terms of a German doctor who observed possession incidents during the first decade of this century, is that they "have a nervous sensibility, increased by continuous auto-suggestion, so that they can easily go into a hypnotic state" [Girschner 1912: 190]. Anyone might be chosen as a medium–man, woman or child. Bollig records that those whom the family looked upon as its leading candidates were placed upon mats and told to relax until one of them suddenly jumped up with a shout, signifying to all that he was the selected by the spirit as its medium [Bollig 1927: 61]. If Bollig is to be believed, there was no dearth of individuals able to serve as spirit mediums in former times; on Fefan Island, with a population of 2000, he reports that there were more than 90 mediums [Bollig 1927: 61]. Almost every lineage would have tried to cultivate its own medium, with many apparently having more than a single individual able to communicate with the spirits. Finally, although females could and did perform this function, the literature agrees that most of the mediums earlier in the century were male.

Spirit possession in Chuuk, then, appears to have undergone a substantial transformation in this century. The possession incidents described in the early literature, as we have seen, were intentional, were aimed at obtaining important information from ancestors, and were mediated by males or females. The possession incidents that are recorded today are involuntary, occur largely at times of family stress, and involve mostly women as mediums. It is difficult to date this change with precision, but we must assume from the case reports we collected that the newer form of possession became increasingly common after World War II. The fact that all four cases of unambiguously intentional possession in our records date back to the 1930s or 1940s would seem to support this supposition. The older form of deliberate possession seems to have gradually declined during the present century, with only very occasional incidents occurring in post-war years. The model double-hulled canoe (náán) that was once suspended from the Chuukese meeting house to facilitate spirit communication could no longer be found after World War II, although it was remembered by older informants [LeBar 1964: 181-3]. By the late 1960s or early 1970s, as spirit calling became virtually extinct, the type of involuntary possession that is the subject of this paper was almost commonplace.

One of the major reasons for the disappearance of voluntary spirit possession was the growing influence of Christianity in Chuuk. What might be called "possession on demand" was discountenanced by a society that had enthusiastically embraced Christianity. Anything that might be interpreted as spirit worship, including offerings to the spirits or supplication for assistance, was bound to be judged by missionaries and early local pastors as incompatible with Christian practice. The dividing line between "heathen" and Christians was drawn across such practices as voluntary spirit possession and the active solicitation of assistance from the spirit world. Chuukese, of course, continued to believe in the ghostly powers of the sprites, goblins, sea creatures and the spirits of the dead much as before. (There is, on the other hand, clear evidence even in the early ethnographic descriptions of a syncretic influence in the opposite direction–the impact of Christian teaching on local beliefs related to such things as the afterlife). It was one thing to acknowledge the power of the spirit world, however, and quite another to actively seek help from this realm. Chuukese Christians might retain a fearful respect for the traditional spirit world and attempt to counter the ever present threat of these beings, normally by an appeal to the higher powers that Christianity put at their disposal, but they would not initiate contact with the spirits to secure their assistance. Christianity, therefore, did not eradicate the belief in spirits among Chuukese any more than it did among the first century converts in Asia Minor; it simply eliminated, over a period of time, the propitiation of these spirits.

The Social Function of Possession Today

Possession, like suicide, is an old cultural practice that seems to have been revitalized and adapted to serve new purposes today. The strong gender link that modern possession has acquired, together with our analysis of the context in which it typically occurs, suggest that spirit possession has become a cultural vehicle that women under stress utilize to give expression to vent their grievances and resolve family tensions.

In present day Chuuk, as in other island societies undergoing rapid modernization, there are signs that the level of social stress has heightened even as the old strategies for alleviating conflict and other forms of tension have disappeared or become attenuated. To take but one example, the monetization of the traditional land-based economy has seriously weakened the Chuukese lineage, once the basic family unit, as this author has pointed out in other writings [Hezel 1989; 1990]. With the contraction of the extended family, some important female roles in familial affairs have been lost, the opportunities for women to share in corporate decision-making within the family unit has diminished, and the network of collateral relatives that once provided support to young people in times of tension is much abbreviated.

What is said here of females is all the more true of Chuukese males, especially young males. For years there have been unmistakable signals of distress among young men in every part of Micronesia: the high suicide rate, serious alcohol abuse, and abnormally high rates of mental illness, as recorded in a recent epidemiological survey [Hezel & Wylie, In Press]. Indeed, the author's initial interest in the phenomenon of spirit possession stemmed, in large part, from the fact that it appeared to be a female "problem", one of the very few that could be found. It seemed to provide one answer to the recurrent question: How did women manage their own stress, particularly in view of the several mechanisms that men had available?

Previous studies of suicide and youth drinking in Micronesia have shown the high degree of cultural patterning in these acts, seemingly so random and spontaneous [Marshall 1979; Hezel 1981]. Both are culturally sanctioned means of venting negative feelings in a society that curtails this form of expression. Whatever other attractions drinking may have for males, it is commonly used as a way of defining oneself as "drunk" and placing oneself outside of the usual cultural restrictions so that one can express strong feelings, usually feelings of exasperation or irritation. If a young man is angry at someone or something in the family, he can get drunk and have his say with a freedom that is not ordinarily permitted him. Naturally, the drunken youth also draws attention to himself, another enticement for someone who may feel that he has been thrust into the shadows of his home and community. Suicide, curiously enough, serves the same functions for the young victim. In most cases, it is a rebuke to the victim's family for not providing the love and material care that he felt he had a right to expect. At the same time, it is an obvious ploy to draw attention to himself and his plight, not with the intention of remedying this in his short lifetime, of course, but in the hope of winning an eternal place in the affections of the family [Hezel 1987:286-7].

Spirit possession may serve the same function for women that drinking and suicide do for men. Possession draws attention to the plight of the afflicted woman inasmuch as a seizure is sure to bring the family together at her bedside. It wins her sympathy, for the victim is treated as a sick person, a special kind of sick person, as is obvious to anyone who has watched the family pour out its concern towards one who is possessed. It also gives her a platform from which to speak. As we have seen, the messages that are communicated by the possessed person to the family are almost always a plea, sometimes even a command, to mend quarrels, care for the neglected members of the family, and resolve whatever tension is pulling the family apart. It allows a woman–or, more rarely, a man–to say what she would not otherwise be permitted to say openly–and to do so without incurring disapproval from her relatives, engendering further resentment and perhaps widening the rift in the family. A possession state is another of those cultural free-zones, an occasion on which women are exempted from the cultural rules that ordinarily bind and inhibit them.

If spirit possession is therapeutic for the person possessed, it is often just as much so for the family. The voice of the "spirit" does what few members of the family would dare to do; it brings out into the open family tensions that may have been festering for weeks or months and, in drawing explicit attention to these, often hastens their resolution. A speedy reconciliation is many times forced upon the family as the result of spirit possession.

Spirit possession, therefore, serves an important social purpose for the troubled individual and the family. Modern possession, although it may seem dysfunctional, has become a cultural form of fairly common occurrence and plays a significant role in Chuukese society, much as drinking does. Adapted from an older feature of pre-christian Chuuk, possession is culturally defined and ritualized, functions as a release of tension and hostility, and is medicated in patterned ways consistent with the accepted interpretation of possession. Spirit possession is, therefore, not simply a para-psychological phenomenon, but a socio-cultural one of considerable importance in Chuukese culture.


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