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From J. Stanley Gardiner (1898), "The Natives of Rotuma," Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 27:466-470.


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 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. To them only an evil influence is ascribed, and they were said to have been called up by Olili, who lived near Maftau, to assist him to conquer the Niuafoou people, and then to have got too powerful, so that they could not themselves be driven away (p. 402). Their dwelling-places were in trees, stones, and rocks; certain hifo trees in Itoteu and Itomotu were favourite dwelling-places for them, but some were said to enter into men, such as a man with a big belly, a matasiri, or with a crooked finger or cross-eyes. 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.

Over and above all these one finds a great deity, Tagaroa Siria. The term siri was applied to anything bigger than anything else, but for siria I had the meaning "acting wickedly" given to me by Father Chevreul. Among his attributes are the giving of the fruits of the earth and the forecasting and directing of the lives of men. He was prayed to for food, to make the trees fruitful, for rain, or in any great enterprise in which all were taking a part. He could avert a hurricane or any other great calamity, but all his attributes are great; he does not concern himself with the doings of the atua. "At one time Lagi and Otfiti, heaven and earth, were joined together and touched one another. But a man of Lagi, Lagatea, lay down with a woman of Otfiti, Papatea, and as they were lying a child was born, who, rising on his knee, pushed the heaven and the earth apart, and only on the prayers of his parents, who did not want to lose sight of one another, desisted from rising to his full height. "This child is called Tagaroa or Tagaloa.

Tagaloa had a son, Toiragoni, personified by a turtle, to whom, wherever he goes, all leaves come. To him in the sea the same attributes are ascribed as his father has on the land, but I could not find that he had any acts of worship.

Tagaloa was the god of the sou and the mua; to him and in his honour were probably all their feasts and dances. He was never called upon by name, but he was to them the indefinable something which directs and guards everything; he was never addressed directly, but usually by the term sonoiitu, which seems to have been applied generally to all gods. The mua's feast and dance on the top of Muasolo was a prayer to him for fruitfulness to the crops and trees; it was sung only by the old people, a singular mark of great reverence. His dwelling was above, and he was accordingly supposed to see everything. He was prayed to for a plentiful harvest by the old people at midday in the full sunshine. If a boy was born, all would rush out of the house and, with firing of guns, call out, "Su-ho-ho!" Tagaloa was supposed to hear, and accordingly direct the life of that boy, whether he was to become a warrior, a sailor, etc. He could thus be approached directly without the aid of priests.

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. Other animals, other than their own particular one, could be killed as they liked, as only their own atua in this class had power over them. To take the tanifa, the god of Maftau: for him there was a priest, termed an apioiitu, who officiated on all great occasions, and a priestess, called by the same name, whose business it was to cure sicknesses, and, indeed, to see to all minor troubles. For the apioiitu was a house of some sort, round which the people were forbidden to sing and dance. Should Maftau be in trouble or be going to war, a big feast would be held, and the best of everything would be placed in the sea for the tanifa: a root of kava, a pig, taro, yams, etc., and always a cocoanut leaf. Much, too, would be given to the apioiitu, but always uncooked. Presently sounds would be heard from the house in which the apioiitu was, and he would come out, smeared with paint, foaming at the mouth, quivering all over, and falling into the most horrible convulsions. He would perhaps seize a kava tanoa and drain its contents, tear a pig in pieces and eat it raw, or take great Mouthfuls of uncooked yam, the taste of which is exceedingly fiery. Presently he would fall down in convulsions and speak; he did not speak for himself, but the tanifa, who was in him, spoke, nor did he remember at all afterwards what he said. For the time he was all-powerful, and, what he told the people, they had to do; but when he recovered, he was simply one of themselves again. The priestess was, on the other hand, really more a doctress, called in by the present of a pig and a mat. She would get into a frenzy, and so drive the devil which was troubling the person away. At the same time she never failed to give them herbs and other remedies. These offices were held by families, and their mysteries, such as they were, passed on from parent to child. The god of Matusa was the hoie, a stinging ray, which is common on the reef flat. There is an old man there now, who comes of the family of its apioiitu, and claims that these fish used to come round him on the reef and follow him about. Curiously enough, there are several old people who profess, and evidently believe, that they have seen them following him.

The "devil spirits" are productive of evil. Thus, if people go and ease themselves near certain hifo trees, they will be caught by an atua, called Fotogfuru, and either die or meet with some accident. In front of Vailoga, Noatau, if you see the devil spirit there, a reef eel, called ia, you will be sure to die. Here, opposite two rocks outside the reef, no lights may be shown at night, and all doors towards the sea in the houses must be shut. No one, passing along, may have a lighted torch, or he will be sure to hear the drums sounding and die. On some nights, too, there is a fishy smell, when the atua have been cutting up some dead man to eat. Anhufhuf, the cave of many bats, [fn. Vide "Quart. Jour. Geo. Soc.," liv, 1898, pp. 7-9.] is their especial abode, but off Solkopi they have a land, called Falianogo, under the sea, from which cocoanuts with only two eyes are occasionally washed up on the beach. It is taboo to touch or eat these, and any one doing so would swell up and die. A particular shark here is a devil, and has the same power as the ia.

When a man died, he was supposed to go to Limari, leaving the island at Liuokoasta. This was supposed to be a land under the sea off Losa, full of cocoanuts, pigs, and all that man could wish for, and where all the ghosts of men dwell. Any things buried with the body would be taken by its ghost to Limari. On the grave food and kava were placed for a time, until the ghost should depart. Some ghosts were supposed to go to Houa, a small islet on the reef off Oinafa; they were however, only supposed to stay there for a time, subsequently passing straight into the sea.

Should a man be sick, the most powerful way of curing him was for the parents of a child, which had recently died, to go to its grave and call out for its soul to come out, saying that the kava is all finished. After a time their cries will be heard, and they will pray the child's ghost to go and prevent any other soul from interfering with the sick man's soul, this being in former times thoroughly believed to be the cause of all bad sicknesses and death. A man could likewise call on his dead people, if he quarrelled with any one, to take that one away. So ingrained are they with this idea that Albert, one of the most intelligent men on the island, gave me this as the cause of its great decrease in population: "You see, the people were always quarrelling with one another about their land and food. They had only to wish that their father and mother would come and take their opponents away, and they would he sure soon to die. They" (the ghosts) "watched over the chiefs especially. If any one took their food, they would cause their bellies to swell up, and they would die. It" (the decrease) "is stopped now, as the sou and atua were all driven away in the war at Matusa" (p. 475).

In 1894 a big wave came and washed out a number of bones from a new graveyard at Matusa, close to the beach. A great meeting was then held in the district of both Wesleyans and Roman Catholics, and a deputation was sent by it to request the white magistrate to let them remove the graveyard. On his inquiring the reason, they stated that it was because the atua of the sea were always angry, when anything red was put up near the sea, and that some one had put up red palings, so that the atua had sent these waves to wash them away.

I have one charm from the island (Plate XXV, Fig. 6); it is merely the end of a whale's tooth, turned in the fire, with a hole bored through it, and was worn round the neck. Of auguries I cannot find that any were ever taken, but omens were carefully observed and regarded. They always consisted of something connected with the person's atua. Dreams were much believed in, and charms were especially worn against their evil consequences.

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