Kato'aga: Rotuman Ceremonies

by Elizabeth K. Inia

Table of Contents


Part 1: Components of Ceremony

'Epa, Apei, and Päega: Ceremonial Mats
Koua: Earth Ovens
'Umefe: Chiefly Tables
Tefui: Garlands
Lolo: Anointing Oil
Mena: Turmeric
Mafua: Knowledgeable Elders
Fumarä'e: The Man in Charge
Etiquette and Manners
Numbers and Measurements

Part 2: Ceremonies

Death and Funerals
Birth Rituals
First Birthday
Hapagsu: Recurrence Prevention
Majau: The Power to Heal
Ag Forau: Farewell to Travellers
Mamasa: Welcoming Ceremonies
Installation of a Chief
Homage to Chiefs
Koua Puha
Ancient Marriage Rituals
Modern Marriage Customs

Rotuman Indigenous Spirituality

Hapagsu: Recurrence Prevention

Hapagsu is a ceremonial feast given for a person who has just recovered from a serious operation on any part of the body, or for a person who has been released from prison. Any accidental injury to the head, especially if blood flows, is an occasion for the ritual, although usually on a smaller scale.[1] The purpose of the ceremony is to end the ill fortune that befell the person, so that nothing similar will happen to him or her in the future.

In pre-Christian Rotuman culture, it was believed that angry or evil spirits caused ill fortune and most illnesses. This ceremony, and especially the sacrifice of a pig in a koua, was intended to placate such spirits. [Today, the ceremony is regarded more as a thanksgiving feast for the person's recovery or release from prison. A central part of contemporary hapagsu is the prayers of thanksgiving by a minister or priest. The feast is also a way of thanking those who showed concern for the injured person by their visits when he or she was confined to bed.]

The family of the afflicted person hosted the hapagsu. They were responsible for providing the mats for the päega and making the koua for the feast. The household head (pure) informed the village chief (fa 'es ho'aga) of the date on which the ceremony was to be held. Most people in the village were expected to come to the event, and friends or relatives from elsewhere often came as well.

The person who had recovered or been released from prison was the central figure in the ceremony. He or she sat on a päega inside the house and was presented with a tefui in the usual fashion (but was not anointed with oil). A released prisoner was also given an osi (new set of clothes) into which he changed.

The mafua announced the kava and food in the usual manner (either ordinary baskets ['af jarava] or la could be used to contain the food), except in announcing the food he began with, "Kalog! Te'eiate' täla usia'afua, hapagsu te' . . ." (Sirs, I am announcing the chiefly food; this is a hapagsu . . .) after which he announced the number of mats in the päega, the number of baskets of food, the number of animals baked in the koua, and so on, ending with the kava plant.

The kava ceremony proceeded in the usual way, with the person sitting on the päega being called and served first. Likewise with the food, the central figure was given the first fono. During the feast, this person was expected to make a speech thanking those who brought mats and made the food, as well as the guests who came. If he or she was too feeble or shy, an older family member could give the speech in his or her place. Several speeches could be given—by the host family members (who apologized for any shortcomings of food or inconveniences caused by the event), by visiting chiefs (who thanked the family in an apologetic way, deprecating their contributions), and by the village chief who made the final speech welcoming everyone and thanking those who contributed materially or by their labour to the feast. He also expressed his happiness that the person had recovered, or if the person had been released from prison, and the hope that he would turn over a new leaf.

Only the central person, the chiefs, the minister or priest, and others invited by the host family (such as the wives of chiefs) sat inside where the ceremony was being performed.[2] The other people had their meal outside and ate off banana leaves placed on the ground and laden with food. Because no chiefs were present outside, people had no restrictions on the way they sat. Members of the host family made speeches thanking these people for coming and for their contributions.

If a person had been injured as a result of falling from a tree or a horse, a ritual known as a'ofi was performed prior to the hapagsu. A group of the victim's male relatives went at night, usually in pairs, to the place where the injury occurred. They spread a mat or a cloth where the person had fallen to catch something (a leaf, a lizard, or whatever fell on the spread). The object represented the person's soul ('ata). The men folded the object into the mat or cloth and hurried back to the victim's house. If they met someone on the road, they were obliged to try again another night, because the people they met might have been 'atua come to capture the soul. When they arrived at the victim's bed, they shook out the object onto the victim. This restored the person's soul and hastened his or her recovery. It also provided insurance that the accident would not recur. Even if the person who fell died, an a'ofi still had to be done to protect the living. In this case, the mat was shaken on the victim's grave. It was a way of neutralizing any malicious spirits who might have been inhabiting the place and causing such injuries.

When a child suffered an injury to the head at the hands of another child, a smaller version of a hapagsu could be held. The offending child's father took a basket of food containing a chicken, three corms of taro or yam, two tins of corned beef, and two bundles of fekei to the home of the injured child. He carried the basket behind him on a shoulder pole ('ihauga); the basket was balanced by two pairs of husked coconuts hanging on the front of the pole to take the place of kava (fau mua). The parents of the injured child could perform the hapagsu by themselves. They made a simple päega of one mat for the child and the father (or other family elder) acted as mafua. He announced the ritual by saying, "Kalog! Te'eiate' täla usia'afua, hapagsu te', koua 'afat 'i'in sema 'e moat, niu asoa rua, ia' marie', marie', marie'!" (Sir, I am announcing the chiefly food; this is a hapagsu, a basket of food with a chicken, two pairs of coconuts; thank you, thank you, thank you!)

Hapagsu could be held for anything thought to bring persistent bad luck. For example, if a majau (expert; see next section) spilled his oil by accident, or a sarao (massage) patient disobeyed the instructions of a majau, a small-scale hapagsu was held. If a house brought ill fortune its residents, they made a hapagsu for the fuag ri (the house foundation, associated with the ancestors). Hapagsu varied in scale depending on the extent of ill fortune and the numbers of people affected.

Notes to Hapagsu

[1] In the past, a hapagsu was held following ear-piercing, which was done to allow flowers to be inserted for decoration, because some of the holes pierced were quite large at the lobes. Today, however, a hapagsu is no longer needed because the holes are tiny and hardly any blood is shed. back to text

[2] It is not traditional custom for the wives of chiefs to eat with their husbands. The practice was introduced during the 1950s by Fred Ieli, who was District Officer at the time. His wife, Katarina, insisted that all the chiefs' wives be brought inside the house or ri hapa, along with women who led a la'o and brought apei. The chiefs' wives are not given separate fono, but eat from their husbands' portions, because they sit together, husband and wife. The women who lead la'o are generally given fono, but they eat off banana leaves rather than an 'umefe. (An exception is the 'a su at a wedding, who does eat off an 'umefe.) back to text

To Majau: The Power to Heal