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

Majau: The Power to Heal

In the olden days, the power to heal was a spiritual gift. This power was transmitted from generation to generation within families by way of a ceremony called sor majau. Rotuman custom had two methods for healing illnesses: receiving massage (sarao) and taking herbal medicines internally. In either case, the effectiveness of the treatment was believed to be a product of the mana of the healer rather than the nature of the treatment itself. If a person who did not have the spiritual gift of healing administered the treatment it was thought to be ineffective.

The mana to heal was initially communicated by spirit beings in dreams or through mediums (to'ak 'aitu). For example, in ancient times Futu'ah, the village chief of Tua'koi, was supernaturally given the mana to heal sick people by massaging them with oil, using the young leaves (rau tapariro) of parmea (a kind of banana plant) for swelling of the face, boils, and so on, and rau mairo (leaves from Alyxia stellata, a kind of bush) for swellings on arms and legs. He passed the mana on to Akata Fuata, the daughter of Irao from Savlei, who offered him her fau (an apei) along with an 'epa and fono (fau fono) to thank him. From then on, Akata Fuata and Futu'ah practised healing massage in their respective villages. Akata's name was later changed to Al'esasi when her daughter Irtotoka drowned in the sea. It is well known that the saraote was first practised in Tua'koi. Treatments ordinarily took place on a daily basis for at least five days, but after the third day the patient could decide to terminate the treatment or to change majau. [1] If the patient (or his or her family) decided to terminate the treatment (re muri) before the fifth day, the patient (or family) took a basket with food baked in an earth oven (koua 'afa) with a chicken, three corms of taro or yams, two cans of corned beef, two fekei, and four husked coconuts to the house of the majau to end her employment. If the treatment continued, on the fifth day the patient's family brought a koua 'afa to the majau to thank her for the treatment. Before she or her family partook of the food, she had to sit down like a mafua and announce the koua 'afa to the spirit who had given her the mana. She said, "Kalog! Te'eiate' täla usia'afua teran lime te', koua 'afat 'i'in sema 'e moat, poat kau he rua, fekei he rua, niu asoa rua; ia' marie', marie', marie'!" (Sirs, I am announcing this chiefly food. It is the fifth day, a basket of food with a chicken, two tins of corned beef, two fekei, two pairs of coconuts; thank you, thank you, thank you!)

After the fifth day, treatments became less frequent, especially if the patient showed definite signs of improvement. Koua 'afa were sent on the 10th day, and on the last day of treatment (re muri). In both instances, the majau announced the koua 'afa to her patron spirit as soon as it arrived. No one was supposed to touch the koua 'afa before the majau announced it, on threat of succumbing to the very illness the majau was treating.

 People believed that if they did not present a koua 'afa to terminate treatment, the condition would recur, perhaps in a more severe form.

In addition to treating the patient in her special way, the majau instructed the family how to dispose of her medicines (if she left them there and did not take them with her), what foods the patient should eat, and any other actions they should take, or prohibitions they should observe, to facilitate the healing process.

When people called a majau to heal a patient, they treated her like a chief. After administering the treatment, she was given a meal on an 'umefe. However, the meal was an ordinary one (chicken or corned beef substituted for pig) with no ritual.

Whenever a healer felt he or she was too old to perform any longer, the family made a koua and prepared a päega, tefui, and oil to ceremonially transfer the healing mana to a family member to carry on. The ceremony, called sor majau, was a family affair; outsiders did not attend. The person who was to receive the mana sat on the päega. A young woman from the family tied a tefui around the person's neck. Then the majau came with the oil and poured some on the person's head and some on the palms of her hands. While doing this, she said, "Gou soroa 'äe la 'ou si'u la man la sarao te'." (I am giving you the mana so your hands will have the power to heal.) An 'umefe was placed upside down in front of the person. The family mafua directed the preparation of the kava and a cup was served to the new majau. The mafua then called out the koua(sor majau) and the young woman serving the new majau turned over the 'umefe and served the food. After she had finished having her meal, the rest of the family ate in the ordinary way.

The same basic ceremony was performed whenever a skill requiring mana was passed from one person to another within a family. For example, skilled canoe makers, house builders, and head fishermen within districts (tautei) all passed on their spiritual powers in this ceremonial manner.

[Nowadays majau pass on the mana to any of their family interested in taking on the role by pouring oil on the palms of their hands and proclaiming their status as majau without the food ceremony. It is an incomplete form of sor majau and present-day majau realize that there is not as much mana in their work as in the olden days. Likewise, village mafua are installed in the same way with the same implications.]

Notes to Majau

[1] According to Rotuman belief, after three days a person could tell if the treatment was working, and at that point usually decided to continue or to terminate treatment by a particular majau. back to text

To Ag Forau: Farewell to Travellers