To Culture

To Aspects of Rotuman Myth


The Rotuman people today are almost all committed Christians, with Methodism, Catholicism, Seventh Day Adventism, and Jehovah's Witnesses represented on the island (see below for a brief history of missionization). Some Rotumans abroad have joined other denominations, such as the Mormons. Christianity, however, overlays an age old set of beliefs implicating spirits of various kinds.

[The following account of Rotuman spirit beliefs is adapted from A. Howard, 1996, "Speak of the Devils: Discourse and Belief in Spirits on Rotuma," in Spirits in Culture, History and Mind, edited by J. Mageo and A. Howard, New York: Routledge (pp. 121-145).]


The most general Rotuman word for spirits is 'atua, which Churchward defines as 'dead person, corpse, ghost.' He adds that "The last is its commonest meaning, ghosts being very material the Rotuman mind" (Churchward 1940:352). But such a simple, concise definition fails to do justice to the complexity of usage in Rotuman discourse. European visitors to Rotuma have, from the beginning, had difficulty coming to grips with such concepts, in part it seems, because they have been more concerned with logical consistency and systemization of beliefs into religious theologies than with the contexts in which the concepts were used. That early European visitors to the island were disconcerted by the lack of systemization in Rotuman discourse about spirits is evident in their accounts (see, for example, Lesson 1838-9:437; Bennett 1831:478).

It seems likely that the conclusions of early commentators were a consequence of responses to a discourse format Rotumans found unfamiliar. Instead of discussing spirits in the abstract, it appears Rotumans talked about spirits in rather specific contexts--when telling stories, expressing apprehension or a sense of foreboding, attempting to explain anomalous occurrences, coping with uncanny feelings and unnatural sensations, and so on.

Not surprisingly, early European accounts of Rotuman "religious beliefs," or as they were frequently designated, "superstitions" (which suggests irrationality as well as inconsistency and incoherence), fall back on anecdotal information. But Rotumans learned, rather early on I suspect, to provide coherent accounts that were more satisfactory to European interrogators. Thus Churchward provides a verbatim account (in Rotuman) obtained from Mesulama Titifanua in response to queries concerning the meaning of various terms. With regard to the word 'atua, Mesulama replied:

As soon as a human being dies he becomes an 'atua. It was held by [our] forefathers that it was the spirit ('ata) of the person that was the 'atua, and that he was able to go about. In their time, moreover, they were in the habit of summoning their dead to come to them that they might converse. This they did, at times, [just] because they loved their dead friends so much. They also had great confidence in them when they wanted to know various things, asking their 'atuas to tell them. Especially did they trust in [the 'atuas of] their prematurely born children. They said that the 'atua that had more power to deliver than any other was [that of] a child prematurely born (one born before arriving at its proper time). (Titifanua, M. and C.M. Churchward 1995:123-124)

Some aspects of the meaning of 'atua proved confusing to Europeans. For example, as Churchward's definition indicates, 'atua refers to a corpse as well as a ghost. This usage suggests a being devoid of "spirit." Hocart wrote that "any Rotuman will tell you that atua is a dead man (famör ala). It is actually used of the dead body, and once children playing with human bones told me that they were "the bones of atua" (sui ne atua)" (Hocart 1915:129). To make matters even more complicated, 'atua, modified by possessive markers used with edible items, is used in reference to a person killed in war or defeated in a wrestling match.

Rotuman attitudes toward 'atua, and their efforts to control spirits' powers, were an endless source of fascination to European visitors. Here, too, outsiders encountered a range of propositions that failed to meet their criteria for a reasoned (and reasonable) religion. Gardiner reflects typical European perceptions in his discussion of relations between 'atua and human beings:

Long before the advent of the missionaries to Rotuma, the religion of its people seems to have degenerated into the grossest superstition and a mere belief in atua, a generic name for all devils, spirits, and ghosts. It is also used for the soul, as we understand it. These atua were ever ready to punish and prey on any one who did not propitiate them with plentiful gifts of food and kava. Each hoag [ho'aga 'section of a district or village under the authority of a sub-chief'] had its own atua, but several hoag might acknowledge a big atua over all, while they each had their own atua. At the same time, so long as they propitiated their own atua, no great harm could happen to them, unless a greater atua laid a curse on them, causing sickness, etc.; the atua, though, could only affect them personally, and had little or no power over their crops. This atua might be termed 'the god of the hoag,' but there was also an inferior class of atua, who might be called 'devil spirits,' whose sole delight it was to go about causing sickness and death ... Their dwelling-places were in trees, stones, and rocks ... but some were said to enter into men ... The still inferior class of atua, but a class with little or no power of itself alone, would best be termed 'the ghosts of men.' They could be to some extent called up at will by the relations to assist them against their enemies and to cure them of sicknesses of a certain class, supposed to be due to the influence of soul on soul. (Gardiner 1896:466)

The compound form sur'atua is used in reference to possession [sur = 'to enter']. According to Churchward, the term signifies a person into whom the spirit of a deceased person has entered. It can also be used adjectively to designate a person who has such visitations periodically, i.e., a spiritual medium, and in noun form to refer to a 'spiritualistic seance.' When a person was possessed by an 'atua they were said to take on the appearance, mannerism and voice of the deceased person who entered them (Churchward 1940:317). In contrast, the phrase to'ak 'atua, meaning 'to utter messages alleged to come from the spirit of a deceased person,' does not imply possession, only the use of a living individual as a medium by the spirit (Churchward 1940:334).

The phrase re 'atua [re = 'to do'] is used in reference to actions oriented toward harnessing the powers of 'atua through ritual transactions. Various forms of cursing, attempts to gain advantage in conflicts or disputes by appealing to dead ancestors, and invoking the healing powers of 'atua were so labeled.


'Aitu is a second term used in reference to spirits. Churchward defines 'aitu in its noun form as 'god, object of worship; shark, stingray, or other creature regarded as the habitat of a god'; as a verb 'to regard as divine, to worship' (Churchward 1940:348). The distinction between 'aitu and 'atua was unclear to many European commentators, some of whom treated them as synonymous (Russell 1942:249). This may have been in response to the fact that certain kinds of 'atua are considered to be 'aitu, as in the case of a group of wandering spirits known collectively as sa'aitu (alternatively as la' ti' ta 'the big travelling company'). Mesulama described sa'aitu to Churchward as the souls of uncircumcised men who, in times of war, helped one side or the other to victory (Titifanua and Churchward 1995:124). Other informants described companies of sa'aitu as composed of the spirits ('atua) of dead chiefs, or persons who died suddenly (MacGregor 1932, box 1).

A key to understanding the distinction between the two concepts for spirits lies in the fact that 'ait[u] is often used as a verb in such compounds as 'ait'aki ['aki = instrumental suffix] 'to deify, to treat as divine', and ro'aitu 'to pray' (Churchward 1940:349, 301), while 'atua is never used as a verb. This suggests that while 'atua is used as a generic term for spirits, including free-roaming malicious ones beyond human control, 'aitu is reserved for spirits who have been brought into the human moral order through various forms of binding, a point made by Vilsoni Hereniko (1994). Whereas Churchward glosses the sa' in sa'aitu as cognate with the Tongan ha'a and Samoan sa, meaning tribe, family or class (Titifanua and Churchward:123), Hereniko argues that it derives from sa'a 'to weave'. He thus glosses the term sa'aitu as 'woven gods.'

Hereniko derives his inspiration from a Rotuman myth entitled 'Äeatos, in which malicious 'atua are neutralized by being caught in woven nets. He points out that sa'aitu served human interests, albeit at their own discretion. Pushing his case further, he convincingly argues that apei 'fine white mats', which are central items of ritual exchange at weddings, funerals and other life-crisis events, are themselves given a god-like status in Rotuman culture. They can be thought of as containing (and constraining) spirits in their own right, a view supported by the fact that apei are consecrated through the ritual sacrifice of a pig.

Hereniko's analysis helps explain why the god of the sau and mua, Tagroa sir'ia, was an 'aitu. The sau was described as the 'king' of Rotuma by European visitors, while the mua was considered to be a 'high priest'; their main roles were to perform cyclical rituals designed to insure the prosperity of the island (see Howard 1985). Tagroa sir'ia was prayed to for food, for rain, and for success in island-wide enterprises. He could be called on to avert hurricanes or other calamities. Significantly, Gardiner was told that Tagroa "does not concern himself with the doings of the 'atua" (Gardiner 1898:467).

Whereas the phrase to'ak 'atua refers to circumstances in which the spirit of a deceased person speaks through the mouth of a medium, to'ak 'aitu refers to a condition in which an 'aitu speaks, unheard by others, to an entranced recipient who then relates the messages to a waiting audience (Elisapeti Inia, personal communication).

Tu'ura, Ape'aitu and Tupu'a

The term tu'ura was used to designate a being that hosted an 'atua. According to Titifanua, tu'ura

"really means what they [the ancestors] referred to when they said, 'Such and such a woman has become a tu'ura living in an owl [lit. The woman, she has tu'urad to an owl; note that tu'ura, though fundamentally a noun, is used also as a verb]; while such and such a man has become a tu'ura living in a cat.' [Thus] we sometimes use the expression 'an 'atua cat,' the reason being that, when we say this, we think of an 'atua as having entered into the cat....[Our] forefathers said that animals into which 'atuas had entered as tu'uras had a different shape from other animals, and they were able to distinguish an animal into which an 'atua had entered as a tu'ura (Titifanua, M. and C.M. Churchward 1995:125).

Several of MacGregor's informants considered human beings who hosted an 'atua (or an 'aitu) to be tu'ura as well. In fact some were unable to distinguish between tu'ura and ape'aitu, a term Churchward defines simply as 'priests' (1940:174). MacGregor speculates that ape'aitu may have been prophets, while tu'ura were mediums engaged by families to communicate with their deity. He comments that the terms were being used synonymously at the time of his visit to Rotuma in 1932.

Regarding the role of tu'ura, MacGregor cites an informant by the name of Varamua:

When the tu'ura has been asked to prophesy or tell of [the reason/outcome of someone's] sickness, he goes to his house...and beats his drum to call the god. Then when he feels 'very strong' or possessed with the god he eats uncooked taro and pig, even the head which is tabu to the chief, and takes kava, all of which is presented by the person who wished to consult the god. When he has eaten and had kava which are for the god (not the tu'ura) he becomes the mouthpiece of the god and answers questions as to sickness, prospects of a coming war (MacGregor 1932, box 1).

Like Churchward, Gardiner equated ape'aitu with priests (and priestesses) insofar as they officiated at invocations and acted as mediums for local gods.

Another term associated with spirits is tupu'a, which Churchward translates as 'immortal man; rock or stone reputed to be such a person petrified' (Churchward 1940:337). Certain rocks were thought to be tupu'a, and their spirits could be called upon by persons acting as mediums.

Spirit Abodes

Rotuman spirits were thought to occupy a wide variety of niches, according to type. Tagroa sir'ia was located in the sky, ancestral ghosts took up their abode in various off-shore locations under the sea, while other 'atua were said to dwell in trees, rocks, cemeteries, and isolated localities on the island. Some spirits were free-roaming and could appear anywhere in the form of animals or apparitions.

The most general term for the abode of spirits is 'oroi, which means 'to be hidden from view' or 'hidden from knowledge, mysterious, unknown, unknowable' (Churchward 1940:360). In contrast, the material world is referred to as ran te'isi 'this world.'

Every district but one had a named location offshore to which the souls of the dead migrated. The best known of these, or more accurately, the most talked about, was Li'marä'e [li'u = 'deep sea' + marä'e = 'open space within a village where gatherings are held'], off the west end of the island. The route to the 'oroi regions went westward, through the village of Losa (Russell 1942:249). Gardiner states that Li'marä'e was "full of cocoanuts, pigs, and all that man could wish for...[and that] Any things buried with the body would be taken by its ghost" (Gardiner 1898:469).

Bush areas were considered likely habitats for spirits, as were wells and certain kinds of trees (see Eagleston 1832:401-402 for an interesting example). One particular spirit, a legendary figure by the name of hanit e ma'us 'wild woman of the bush' sometimes appeared in the form of a succubus, a beautiful temptress who lured men into sexual liaisons in order to capture their souls. In general, it seems, the further removed one was from human habitats--from places under cultural control--the more likely one was to encounter spirits.

The Actions of the Spirits

Spirits were conceived to perform a wide range of activities, from malicious mischief to overseeing the prosperity of the island in Tagroa Sir'ia's case. Left to their own devices, most 'atua were considered to be wanton destroyers of human beings. They engaged in a constant effort to steal the souls of humans and to feast on their bodies. These were the beings to which the English term 'devils' was readily attached.

'Atua were said to lure human beings by presenting themselves as attractive paramours, particularly in dreams. Women were especially vulnerable to malicious spirits who sought to enter their vaginas when they were urinating, sometimes causing miscarriages. When outside, women were instructed never to urinate in an open space; instead they should relieve themselves near a rock or tree. If a woman is impregnated by an 'atua, she will give birth to something resembling fish instead of normal children and will likely die soon afterwards. Women who suspect they have been impregnated by an 'atua can go to a native healer in order to drive away malignant spirits. Pregnant women must be especially wary of female 'atua who try to capture the souls of unborn children.

Not all free-roaming spirits were evil, according to a recent account by Ieli Irava, a respected Rotuman educator. He contrasts 'atua in the form of dogs, cats and owls, all of which were associated with malignant spirits, with stingrays, sharks and turtles, which were benevolent toward humans. He states that all good spirits were sea creatures, and speculates that being seafarers, Rotumans "put great emphasis on the good sea spirits in the hope of receiving good weather during their sea journeying or fishing expeditions" (Irava 1991:10).

The souls of recently deceased individuals were said to make their presence known through the cries of birds, an owl's flying by, or other unusual events. In other instances they appeared in dreams. This indicated the spirit was restless, and it was common for relatives to go to the cemetery to implore it to rest (Russell 1942:251). The spirits of the newly dead were considered to linger in the vicinity for five days, after which a ceremony was held ending the death taboos.

Immanent Justice

Ancestral spirits presumably remain sensitive to the actions of their descendants, and use their powers to punish bad behavior, especially disobedience to chiefs (Russell 1942:251). They also rectify wrongs and invoke justice. Just about every Rotuman can tell a story about someone who had committed an egregious act, only to receive their just desserts soon thereafter. Land disputes between relatives are prototypical, the underlying assumption being that spirits who are common ancestors of the disputants will punish the party in the wrong, or perhaps both parties if they share the blame. Justice is distributed in the form of luck, with those in the right prospering, those in the wrong suffering ill-fortune. The consequences of wrongdoing may follow directly from the transgressions, or they may be called for by an aggrieved party in such forms as "the land has eyes," or "we shall see who is right."

The most feared curses are from the lips of chiefs, since they have channels to more powerful spirits. Chiefs usually call for immanent justice (pu'aki) when serious offenses have been committed within their domains and no one accepts responsibility. A number of cases have become classics and are told with relish, though often without explicit reference to intervention by spirits (see Howard 1990:270 for an example).

Unbound spirits

The most common way of dealing with unbound spirits was to avoid them. In 1960 Rotumans were reluctant to go out at night, or if out after dark, walked quickly past cemeteries, and stayed away from localities spirits were said to inhabit. Despite the tropical heat, windows were often closed at night to keep out marauding 'atua.

If avoiding malevolent spirits was impossible, making loud noises was a way of frightening them off. At other times spirits have to be mollified by ritual. For example, any incident in which blood is shed should be followed by a ceremony called hapagsu. The ceremony involves consumption of ritual foods, including a sacrificial pig prepared in in an earthen oven (koua). The goal is to placate the spirit or spirits who caused the event, so as to avoid a recurrence. Hapagsu are performed following surgical operations, as well as after accidents; in addition, they are held for prisoners returning from jail.

Bound spirits

Early commentators noted that each locality in Rotuma had spirits who were propitiated and were supposed to look after the interests of the local group. Such spirits generally took the form of animals and were treated with totemic respect. According to Gardiner:

The "hoag gods" were usually incarnated in the form of some animal, as the tanifa (the hammer-headed shark), juli (sandpiper), olusi (lizard), mafrop (gecko), etc. Should a man by any chance have happened to kill one of the particular animal which was his atua, he would have had to make a big feast, cut all his hair off and bury it, just in the same way as a man would be buried. (Gardiner 1898:467-468)

Gardiner states that in warfare each ho'aga would propitiate its own 'atua, rather than invoking Tagroa sir'ia, since "such small matters did not concern him and, as he was the god of both sides, it was quite unnecessary" (Gardiner 1898:471).

The most critical propitiation of spirits were rites performed in association with the sau and mua, for it was upon them that the welfare of the entire island depended. Such rites included a good deal of ceremonial feasting, kava drinking, and dancing. Dancing was an especially important means of communicating with the spirits, and of exercising a degree of control over their activity (see, for example, the myth of Kirkirsasa).

Post-contact changes

Missionization, followed by the establishment of a British colonial administration in 1881, resulted in the elimination of nearly all public contexts in which traditional spirits were propitiated. By 1874 the institution of the sau and mua had disappeared, and along with it ritual observances to Tagroa sir'ia and the spirits of dead chiefs. The missionaries taught that ancestral spirits were 'devils', but this did not eliminate pre-missionary beliefs. Even devout Christians continued to speak about 'atua as if their presence on the island were unquestioned, and Rotumans continued to perform rituals, such as kava ceremonies, pig sacrifices, and healing routines that presupposed the potency of spirits, in some instances invoking them directly through chants and prayers. Rotuman legends continued to be told, and were a source of knowledge about the antics of spirits. Furthermore, adults used children's fear of the spirits as a control mechanism (Irava 1991:10).

Currently on Rotuma talk about spirits has diminished considerably, but on occasion people still express anxiety about possible encounters, still explain events at times in terms of the actions of 'atua, and still retain a strong belief in immanant justice.


The first missionaries to Rotuma were left by the Reverend John Williams, of the London Missionary Society, in 1839. Williams was on his way to Erromanga, where he was killed. Although he had not intended to leave missionaries on Rotuma, Williams was persuaded to do so by Tokaniua, chief of Oinafa district and a subchief named Fursepaoa. In response, Williams left two Samoan teachers, Sa'u and Leiataua, from Manono. They had great difficulty with the language, however, and made few converts. The following year, during a visit by Rev. Thomas Heath, the Samoans were replaced by three other Samoan teachers, who were somewhat more successful. In 1941 the Rev. John Waterhouse arrived with some Tongan missionary teachers from Vava'u and a Rotuman convert who had been living in Tonga. The Tongan teachers made considerable progress, but the chiefs asked for a European missionary, and in 1864 the Rev. William Fletcher and his wife took up residence on the island. Fletcher was the first of a series of European Wesleyans to minister to the Rotumans; it was not until 1941 that indigenous ministers took control of the division.

French Catholics also took an interest in missionizing Rotuma. In 1846 a French warship brought Fr. Pierre Verne to Rotuma, and after performing mass on Christmas Day, he settled on the south side of the island, at Fag'uta. Verne managed to make a few converts, including a young chief named Uafta, who was sent to Rome and Paris for about five years before returning to Rotuma. He learned to speak French fluently and played an instrumental role in establishing Catholicism on the island. In 1853 the priests left Rotuma, with about 30 Rotumans, due to persecution of their converts by non-Christian chiefs. The French did not return until 1868, when Frs. Dezest and Trouillet arrived from Futuna with the Rotumans who had left in 1853. They were well received on Rotuma by Chief Riamkau of Fag'uta.

The division of the island between Methodists and Catholics reflected a prior political cleavage, and took place essentially along district lines. As it turned out, approximately two-thirds of the people converted to Wesleyanism, the remainder to Catholicism. Unfortunately, existant political rivalries were exacerbated by the rivalry between English ministers and French priests, resulting in a series of skirmishes between the sides led the chiefs to petition Great Britain for cession in 1879.

Antagonisms between Catholics and Methodists remained virulent well into the twentieth century. Indeed, it was not until 1978 that the two sides agreed to put aside their differences and support one another's efforts.

In recent years, Seventh Day Adventism has made inroads on Rotuma and has built a church in village of Motusa. And a small, but growing number of families now profess to be Jehovah's Witnesses. However, Methodism and Catholicism remain the dominant religions on the island and have been the focus of major celebrations, drawing visitors from around the globe. In November 1989 the Methodists celebrated the 150th anniversary of John Williams' arrival, and in August 1996 the Catholics celebrated the 150th anniversary of Fr. Verne's initial visit.

For extensive accounts of Methodist missionization on Rotuma see Langi 1971 and Wood 1978; for an account of Catholic missionization see Histoire de la Station Notre Dame de Victoires, Sumi, Rotuma 1868-1881, Notebook II, 2, Catholic Diocesan Office, Suva, Fiji [Pacific Manuscript Bureau (PMB) Reel 159]; for an account of the religious wars see Howard and Kjellgren 1994.


Bennett, George
1831 A Recent Visit to Several of the Polynesian Islands. United Service Journal 33:198-202, 473-482.

Churchward, C. Maxwell
1940 Rotuman Grammar and Dictionary. Sydney: Australasian Medical Publishing Co.

Eagleston, John Henry
1832 Log of the ship Emerald, Vol. 3. Peabody Museum, Salem, Mass.

Gardiner, J. Stanley
1898 Natives of Rotuma. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 27:396-435, 457-524.

Hereniko, Vilsoni
1995 Woven Gods: Female Clowns and Power in Rotuma. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.

Hocart, A.M
1915 On the Meaning of the Rotuman Word 'atua'. Man 15:129-131.

Howard, Alan
1985 History, Myth and Polynesian Chieftainship: The Case of Rotuman Kings. In Transformations of Polynesian Culture. Hooper, edited by Antony and Judith Huntsman. Auckland: Polynesian Society.

Howard, Alan
1990 Dispute Management in Rotuma. Journal of Anthropological Research 46:263-292.

Howard, Alan and Eric Kjellgren
1994 Martyrs, Progress and Political Ambition: Reexamining Rotuma's 'Religious Wars'. Journal of Pacific History 29:131-152.

Irava, Ieli
1991 History, Superstition and Religion. In Rotuma: Hanua Pumue (Precious Land), A. Fatiaki et al. Institute of Pacific Studies, University of the South Pacific.

Langi, Rev. Jione
1971 The History of the Church in its Rotuman Setting: An Introductory Outline. Thesis submitted to the Faculty of the Pacific Theological College, Suva.

Lesson, René
1838-9 Voyage Autour du Monde...sur..."La Coquille". Paris: Pourrat Fréres.

MacGregor, Gordon
1932 Rotuma field notes. Honolulu, Bishop Museum Archives. SC McGregor.

Russell, William E.
1942 Rotuma. Journal of the Polynesian Society 51:229-255.

Titifanua, Mesulama and C.M. Churchward
1995 Tales of a Lonely Island. Suva: Institute for Pacific Studies, University of the South Pacific (first published in Oceania 1938-39).

Wood, Rev. Alfred Harold
1978 Overseas Missions of the Australian Methodist Church; vol. III, Fiji-Indian and Rotuma, pp. 113-142. Melbourne: Aldersgate Press.

To Culture

To Aspects of Rotuman Myth