The name Polynesia means ‘‘region of many islands,’’ and
Polynesia comprises a group of central Pacific islands, including
the Hawaiian, Rotuma, Uved, Tokelau, Samoan, Cook, and
Easter Islands as well as Tuvalu, Tonga, Niue, and New Zealand.
Many traditions were also shared with Melanesians of the
central and western Pacific islands. Under the impact of their
discovery by the Europeans in the nineteenth century and their
subsequently being drawn into affairs of the larger world, including
World War II, customs, beliefs, and lifestyles have undergone
radical change.
Traditional Magic and Sorcery
Magic in Polynesia used to be the preserve of the priestly
and upper classes, although lesser sorcery was practiced by individuals
not of these castes. There was a prevailing belief in
what was known as mana, or supernatural power in certain individuals.
The method of using this power was twofold. One of
these was practiced by a society known as the Iniat, where certain
rites were carried out that were supposed to bring calamity
upon the enemies of the tribe.
The ability to exercise magic was known as agagara, and the
magician or wizard was termed tena agagura. If the wizard desired
to cast magic upon another man, he usually tried to secure
something that the person had touched with his mouth,
and to guard against this, the natives were careful to destroy all
food that they did not consume. They carefully gathered up
even a single drop of blood when they received a cut or scratch,
and burned it or threw it into the sea, so that the wizard might
not obtain it.
The wizard, having obtained something belonging to the
person whom he wished to injure, buried it in a deep hole with
leaves of poisonous plants and sharp-pointed pieces of bamboo,
accompanying the action by suitable incantations. If he
chanced to be a member of the Iniat society, he would place on
the top of this package one of the sacred stones. The Iniat believed
that as long as the stone was pressing down on the article
that had been buried in the hole, the man to whom it belonged
would remain sick.
Because of this, as soon as a man fell sick he sent to find out
who had bewitched him, and there was usually someone who
did not deny it. If the victim did not succeed in having the spell
removed he would almost certainly die, but if he succeeded in
having it taken away, he began to recover almost immediately.
The strange thing was that he showed no enmity toward the
person or persons who bewitched him—indeed it was taken as
a matter of course, and he quietly waited until the time when
he could return the ‘‘compliment.’’
These practices applied mostly to New Britain, now Papua
New Guinea, but its system of magic was practically the same
as that known in Fiji as vakadraunikau, about which very little
is known. In his book Melanesians and Polynesians (1910) the
Reverend Dr. George Brown, pioneer missionary and explorer,
gives an interesting account of the magic systems of these people,
in which he incorporated several informative letters from
brother missionaries. For example, the Rev. W. E. Bromilow
gives the following account of the magic system at Dobu, in
southeastern New Guinea
’’Werabana (evil spirits) are those which inhabit dark places,
and wander in the night, and gave witches their power to smite
all round. Barau is the wizardry of men, who look with angry
eyes out of dark places, and throw small stones, first spitting on
them, at men, women, and even children, thus causing death.
A tree falls, it is a witch who caused it to do so, though the tree
may be quite rotten, or a gust of wind may break it off. A man
meets with an accident, it is the werabana. He is getting better
through the influence of the medicine-man, but has a relapse;
this is the barau at work, as we have ascertained from the terrified
shouts of our workmen, as some sleeper has called out in
a horrid dream. These medicine-men, too, have great power,
and no wonder, when one of our girls gets a little dust in her
eye, and the doctor takes a big stone out of it; and when a chief
has a pain in the chest, and to obaoba takes therefrom a two-inch
‘‘The people here will have it that all evil spirits are female.
Werabana is the great word, but the term is applied to witches
as well, who are called the vesses of the werabana, but more often
the single word is used. I have the names of spirits inhabiting
the glens and forests, but they are all women or enter into
women, giving them terrible powers. Whenever any one is sick,
Encyclopedia of Occultism & Parapsychology • 5th Ed. POLYNESIA
it is the werabana who has caused the illness, and any old woman
who happened to be at enmity with the sick person is set down
as the cause. A child died the other day, and the friends were
quite angry because the witches had not heeded the words of
the lotu, i.e., the Christian religion Taparoro, and given up smiting
the little ones. ‘These are times of peace,’ said they, ‘why
should the child die then’ We, of course, took the opportunity
and tried to teach them that sickness caused death without the
influence of poor old women.
‘‘Sorcerers are barau, men whose powers are more terrible
than those of all the witches. I was talking to a to obaoba—
medicine-man—the other day, and I asked him why his taking
a stone out of a man’s chest did not cure him. ‘Oh,’ said he, ‘he
must have been smitten by a barau.’ A very logical statement
this. Cases the to obaoba cannot cure are under the fell stroke
of the barau, from which there is no escape, except by the sorcerer’s
own incantations.
‘‘The Fijian sorcery of drau-ni-kau appears here in another
form called sumana or rubbish. The sorcerer obtains possession
of a small portion of his victim’s hair, or skin, or food left after
a meal, and carefully wraps it up in a parcel, which he sends off
to as great a distance as is possible. In the meantime he very
cunningly causes a report of the sumana to be made known to
the man whom he wishes to kill, and the poor fellow is put into
a great fright and dies.’’
The Rev. S. B. Fellows gives the following account of the beliefs
of the people of Kiriwina (Trobiand Islands group)
‘‘The sorcerers, who are very numerous, are credited with
the power of creating the wind and rain, of making the gardens
to be either fruitful or barren, and of causing sickness which
leads to death. Their methods of operation are legion. The
great chief, who is also the principal sorcerer, claims the sole
right to secure a bountiful harvest every year. This function is
considered of transcendent importance by the people.
‘‘Our big chief, Bulitara, was asking me one day if I had
these occult powers. When I told him that I made no such
claim, he said, ‘Who makes the wind and the rain and the harvest
in your land’ I answered, ‘God.’ ‘Ah,’ said he, ‘that’s it.
God does this work for your people, and I do it for our people.
God and I are equal.’ He delivered this dictum very quietly, and
with the air of a man who had given a most satisfactory explanation.
‘‘But the one great dread that darkens the life of every native
is the fear of the bogau, the sorcerer who has the power to
cause sickness and death, who, in the darkness of the night,
steals to the house of his unsuspecting victim, and places near
the doorstep a few leaves from a certain tree, containing the
mystic power which he, by his evil arts, has imparted to them.
The doomed man, on going out of his house next morning, unwittingly
steps over the fatal leaves and is at once stricken down
by a mortal sickness. Internal disease of every kind is set down
to this agency. Bulitara told me the mode of his witchcraft. He
boils his decoctions, containing numerous ingredients, in a
special cooking-pot on a small fire, in the secret recesses of his
own house, at the dead of night; and while the pot is boiling
he speaks into it an incantation known only to a few persons.
The bunch of leaves dipped in this is at once ready for use.
Passing through the villages the other day, I came across a
woman, apparently middle-aged, who was evidently suffering
from a wasting disease, she was so thin and worn. I asked if she
had any pain, and her friends said ‘No.’ Then they explained
that some bogau was sucking her blood. I said, ‘How does he do
it’ ‘Oh,’ they said, ‘that is known only to herself. He manages
to get her blood which makes him strong, while she gets weaker
every day, and if he goes on much longer she will die.’
‘‘Deformities at birth, and being born dumb or blind, are attributed
to the evil influence of disembodied spirits, who inhabit
a lower region called Tuma. Once a year the spirits of the ancestors
visit their native village in a body after the harvest is
gathered. At this time the men perform special dances, the
people openly display their valuables, spread out on platforms,
and great feasts are made for the spirits. On a certain night,
when the moon named Namarama is at the full, all the people—
men, women and children—join in raising a great shout, and
so drive the spirits back to Tuma.
‘‘A peculiar custom prevails of wearing, as charms, various
parts of the body of a deceased relative. On her breast, suspended
by a piece of string round her neck, a widow wears her
late husband’s lower jaw, the full set of teeth looking ghastly
and grim. The small bones of the arms and legs are taken out
soon after death, and formed into spoons, which are used to
put lime into the mouth when eating betel-nut. Only this week
a chief died in a village three miles from us, and a leg and an
arm, for the above purpose, were brought to our village by
some relatives as their portion of their dead friend.’’
Some of the unusual magic traditions of Polynesia were also
noticed by the ethnologists working in the area. In New Guinea
and Fiji the custom prevailed of cutting off a finger joint in
mourning a dead relative, as did the bushmen of South Africa.
They firmly believed in mermaids, tailed men, and dwarfs.
One group of natives in fact declared to a missionary that they
had caught a mermaid, who had married a certain native, and
that the pair had several children. ‘‘But unfortunately,’’ stated
the storyteller, ‘‘I could never get to see them.’’ Another tradition
connected to the Polynesian belief in magic, noted by the
Europeans, was the practice of tattooing. The practice is represented
widely in bodies of mythology, as being connected to the
people’s process of migration.
Like many other races, the Polynesians used to work themselves
into a great state of terror whenever an eclipse took
place, and during the phenomenon they beat drums, shouted,
and invoked their gods.
In Samoa, magic was not practiced to such an extent as in
other Melanesian groups, the magician being much more sophisticated.
Instead of asking for any trifling object connected
with the person he desired to bewitch, he demanded property,
such as valuable mats and other things of use to him.
His method of working magic was to get into communication
with his god, through his body, which became violently
contorted and convulsed. The assembled residents of the village
would then hear a voice speaking from behind a screen
(possibly through ventriloquism), which indicated the presence
of the god invoked.
Sickness was generally believed to be caused by the anger of
some god, who could thus be concealed by the priest or wizard
and duly placated. The ‘‘god’’ invariably required some present
of substantial value, such as a piece of land, a canoe, or other
property, and if the priest happened to know of a particularly
valuable object belonging to the person who supposed himself
bewitched, he stipulated that the property should be given up
to the ‘‘god.’’ This caste of priests was known as taula-aitu, and
they also acted as physicians.
Lost Secrets of Polynesian Magic
In 1917 Max Freedom Long went as a teacher to rural Hawaii
and subsequently became fascinated by the idea of discovering
the lost secrets of the kahuna magician priests, whose
leadership role in the social order had been disrupted in the
nineteenth century. Long obtained valuable information on
the fire walk ceremony from Dr. William Tufts Brigham, who
had taken part in a fire walk 40 years earlier. Brigham had also
investigated the ancient kahuna practice of charging wooden
sticks with some vital energy, the sticks being used in combat
and giving opponents some kind of electric shock that rendered
them unconscious.
It was difficult for Long to obtain precise information on
kahuna magic, since the laws of Hawaii had, many years earlier,
outlawed it through strictures against what was termed sorcery
and witchcraft, but Long continued to investigate the subject
even after leaving Hawaii in the 1930s. He found his most valuable
clues in the Hawaiian language, describing kahuna magic
and the use of mana, or vital force.
POLYNESIA Encyclopedia of Occultism & Parapsychology • 5th Ed.
Eventually Long believed that he had rediscovered the secrets
of Polynesian magic, and the concepts of a high, low, and
middle self or aka body through which power, mana, was generated
and applied for magic purposes. He collated his discoveries
with the information on psychic phenomena in the literature
of psychical research and published his finding initially in
a short work, Recovering the Ancient Magic, in 1936. In 1945 he
founded the Huna Fellowship and soon issued several more
substantive summaries of his conclusions, The Secret Science Behind
Miracles (1948) and The Secret Science at Work (1953). The
Huna Fellowship grew into Huna Research Associates for research
and experiment in Polynesian magic, now continued by
Huna Research, Inc.
Hawaiianists continue their efforts to recover as much of the
Hawaiian magical teachings as possible before all traces of
them disappear. The sacred sites of the old religion are protected
by the state, and still occasionally show signs of private
use. Several healing kahunas have survived and pass on the
teachings to a select few.
Long’s theories of huna and mana make interesting comparison
with the researches of Baron Karl von Reichenbach into
a vital force that he named ‘‘od,’’ and parallels can also be
found in the nineteenth-century concepts of animal magnetism.
In 1952 George Sandwith, a British exponent of radiesthesia
(dowsing with pendulums) who was familiar with Long’s
work, visited the South Sea islands and made his own investigation
of magic practices. In Fiji he investigated fire walking (see
fire immunity) firsthand and discussed with local priests the
concept of mana or vital energy involved. He also studied the
atua or ancient phallic stones of Fiji, regarded as shrines of ancestral
spirits, and their activation for magic purposes. Sandwith
tested the magical charge of these stones by radiesthesia,
using a pendulum. He experienced firsthand the way in which
mana is used in magic when he was bewitched by a local chief.
In sharp contrast to the European accounts of the Polynesian
practices and myths, today, these rich cultural tales are
used as a tool to expand children’s creativity, especially American
children’s creativity. The creation tales, specifically, are
short and vivid enough to attach in a child’s mind and therefore
aid in their creativity. Today, the religious make-up of
Polynesia is largely Catholic and Protestant, with some traditional
beliefs and myths incorporated into the Christian ideology.
Black, Sharon. ‘‘Using Polynesian Legends and Folktales to
Encourage Culture Vision and Creativity.’’ Childhood Education
75 (September 1, 1999) 332–35.
Gall, Timothy, ed. ‘‘Polynesia.’’ Worldmark Encyclopedia of
Cultures and Daily Life. Vol. 3. Farmington Hills, Mich. The
Gale Group, 1998.
Guerreiro, Antonio. ‘‘The Pacific The Coming of the Ancestors.’’
UNESCO Courier (December 1997) 14.
Long, Max Freedom. Recovering the Ancient Magic. London,
1936. Cape Girardeau, Mo. Huna Press, 1978.
———. The Secret Science Behind Miracles. Kosmon Press,
1948. Reprint. Vista, Calif. Huna Research Publications, 1954.
———. The Secret Science at Work. Vista, Calif. Huna Research
Publications, 1953.
Sandwith, George, and Helen Sandwith. Research in Fiji,
Tonga, and Samoa. Reigate, England Omega Press, 1954.
Wingo, E. Otha. The Story of the Huna Work. Cape Girardeau,
Mo. Huna Research, Inc., 1981.