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

Appendix 1

Rotuman Indigenous Spirituality

Rotumans were, and are, great worshippers of spirits. Before Christianity arrived in Rotuma in 1839, they believed that when a person died, the spirit ('ata) separated from the body and went to live somewhere else. The spirit, one's immaterial intelligence, was thought to have supernatural power. Though the corpse was decayed or buried, the spirit became an 'atua and was able to travel about, visibly or invisibly. The spirits lived in 'Oroi ta (meaning 'hidden from view'), invisible spiritual villages under the sea off the reef that encircles Rotuma. Each district had one or more 'Oroi for its spirits, and our forefathers knew their names as follows:


(a) Hanua Ha' ta, at the bottom of the sea outside the reef off Kalvaka.

(b) A'tafi or Agfanua, behind 'Afgaha Island. Ramagkia'a, a female surne'aitu (Daughter of Garagsau, see Li'marž'e, below) was the chieftain of this 'Oroi.


Taftoua, at one end of Haua Mea'me'a. Ragioko was its second name. Taipo was the chief of this 'Oroi.


(a) Repuagaso, off Feavai side and Motusa.

(b) Ruahau, off Lau, Hapmafau

(c) Agfenua, off Fapufa.

(d) Li'marž'e, off Losa, land of Garagsau, king of the night. His two daughters were Ramagkia'a and Pareagkia'a. [1]

Malhaha and part of Hapmak


Juju and Hapmafau

(a) Vasere, the land of Ramagfono.

(b) Hanua 'on 'Apao, chief of Fag'uta 'Oroi.

(c) Faliagono (Six Ears), near the island of Juju; its chief was Fotagfuri.


Fatiagpeau, off Solroroa.

The 'Oroians seemed to depend largely on human flesh, so the spirits or 'atua who lived in the 'Oroi around Rotuma went out to steal the souls or lives of human beings and to feast on their bodies. Hungry 'atua returned to the land at night to waylay and steal the souls of friends from their lifetime who were roaming about. A portion of the 'atuaa manifestation—entered the body of the victim. This was not to'ak 'aitu (to utter messages from the spirit world) but sur'atua (to be entered by a spirit) while the 'atua took the soul of the victim to 'Oroi. Animated by its false spirit, the bereft man continued his daily activities, but his character was altered and resembled that of the soul-stealer, when he or she had been alive. Sooner or later the victim wasted away and died. After this, he too became an 'atua, and returned to entrap the souls of yet other people.

If a certain smell (pen tot mafa) came in with the tide at night it was believed that someone who was about to die, or had died, was being cut up for eating in the 'Oroi. Children used to run in terror to their homes. In the western end of Rotuma, between Itu'muta district and Losa, there is a place near Halafa, called Rakmatieri, where a rock by the name of Tukua Rotuam (Tukiag Rotuam) [2] was used as a test for spirits. Any person's spirit taken by 'atua was bumped against the rock. If the spirit hit the rock and bounced back, it had been stopped on its journey and the owner, though very sick at that time, would recover and live. If the spirit hit the rock and was not stopped, it continued its journey to the 'Oroi and the person would surely die; he went straight to Jopuga at Lulu reef, where he was plunged into the sea by Leklektau, a woman who stood waiting on the rock. As each soul came to her, she submerged it in a deep pool beside the rock, which can still be seen. When a soul was passing by at night on its way to the stone, villagers heard 'atuaho'a (moaning of the soul). Some souls of people from the west were taken to Haua 'Oroi, and people heard the 'atua ho'a going eastward.

People on shore at Lulu heard the souls when they were doused; on some nights when there were many, people heard a great roar like thunder. After a battle there was much noise at the rock as the souls were submerged, and after a great battle, blood appeared on the beach opposite the rock. People believed the blood was from the souls of the wounded on their way to 'Oroi. The location of the stone is haunted even to this day. A few years ago, men from Itu'muta tried to build a road over the place at Rakmatieri, but they encountered many difficulties and ultimately failed. This piece of land belongs to Tiugarea of Losa.

Spirits Who Roamed about in Companies

(a) The sa'aitu consisted of the spirits of chiefs and all men who were uncircumcised during their lifetime. Men who died in war also joined the company. This Big Company helped in wartime when they were summoned by men singing a ki to work up their fighting spirit. A ki was a chant supplicating the sa'aitu and the sun and moon. Armies that were victorious in battle were assisted by the sa'aitu.

The chiefly spirits who were called on in the ki varied by district: Ravaka of Noa'tau, Ragafuata of Fag'uta, Tokaniua of Oinafa, Moa ta and Fereitua'naki of Itu'ti'u, Ravaka, Sosoi'ak, and Mavai of Malhaha, Ravaka of Itu'muta.

Here are some sample ki:

Ki of Oinafa:    As to, hual to, moumou ki...ki...i...i

                           Tokaniua moumou ki...ki...i...i


                           Oro sio...o


                           E ho hei tua hi!

Ki of Tua'koi:

Taki (leader):      Fereitua'naki...io...o...o...o...


Men:                        Ki...i...i...i...i...i

Taki:                        Mou...u...Kou...u...io

Men:                        Io...o...o...o...o...o

Taki:                        Oro sio...o...o...o...io........o

Men:                        Io...o...o...o...o



                                   a........................hei tua! hi!

Taki:                       Hei tua hi! hei tua hi! hei tua hi!

Men join in this chorus, which in its rhythm sounds much like the starting of a locomotive. The accent falls on the hi.

(b) Sur'aitu was a company formed by spirits of women who died in childbirth. This company was called La'oag ta. They were stationed at Jönfuha where chief Tui Vao's daughter-in-law died in childbirth; she was the first such woman to be buried. Tui Vao said that all spirits of women to die like her in future were to keep her company. La'oag ta brought a boy named Kafetaufe from Sauhata, Oinafa, to live with them as a brother. The spirits gave him the name of Raumairo. This company roamed about looking for the souls of women approaching childbirth to recruit. Nataniela record-ed a song about them in the early 1900s:

Jonifuha Malumalu'ia

Jonifuha (Jönfuha) is shady

Sunua 'e vek saufa

Reddened by the leaves of dracaena

Raumairo ma hanit

Raumairo is with a woman

Ka 'äe ma sei hua'i?

But who is accompanying you?

(c) The surne'aitu were the reincarnated spirits or souls of men and women who were exceptionally beautiful and lived clean lives on earth. When they died, their bodies were not cut up and eaten by other 'atua. They were thought of as ever-living spirit-people. Surne'aitu continued to live in the 'Oroi Hanua Favi (Land hanging from the sky) with Tagroa (see below).

To go to Hanua Favi where Tagroa lived, surne'aitu travelled by means of a kokona (a hanging shelf that could be moved up and down). The kokona landed in certain places, like Marä'riro in Pephaua and Marä'riro in Savlei. Kori plants (Syzygium neurocalyx, a shrub with odiferous fruit), still in place today, mark those places.

(d) The uarepa were the spirits of prematurely born babies or miscarriages. The souls of such children had a particular dwelling place such as a cave. When they were seen by human eyes, they appeared to glow like rotten wood or a phosphorescent centipede. The lower surface of the uarepa was a mass of children's legs. The souls of the uarepa were considered the most potent spirits in the Rotuman pantheon.

In addition to the spirits of 'Oroi, the spirits on the land included Hanit e ma'usu (Sinatevao), Tuisavrar, and Tokaniua of Oinafa. The people of Oinafa, Itu'muta, and Malhaha worshipped Ravaka, the god of fishing.

Tagroa Siria: The God Above

Above all these spirits, the old people said, was Tagroa Siria, who lived at 'Oroi Hanua Favi. The other spirits, who communicated through the tu'ura (spirit medium; see below) of a village or a family, spoke of the great mana of Tagroa. Tagroa was the most powerful god in the days before Christianity arrived at our shores. Siria is the name of a star directly above Rotuma. It was wonderful how our ancestors used Siria as their steering star and connected it to their most powerful god. Tagroa sent rain, as illustrated in the following stories:

During a long drought people suffered because they had no fresh water. In Savlei there was a well, but little water was left in it. The chief of the village called on the men to clean the well and cover it with green coconut leaves, which they did. That very night rain began to fall and it continued until the well was full. The chief then told the men to remove the leaves and draw the water for a bowl of kava from which he drank in gratitude to Tagroa. Then the people could start drawing the water for their own use.

In ancient times two surne'aitu descended from Hanua Favi and asked the Tua'koi people for water. The surne'aitu were told that because the people had no well they could not provide any water. The surne'aitu told the people to go to a place in Tarsua and dig. At about three feet down they found water. The people were told that the water from that well was only to be used for mixing kava and for making mena. But on the day before any function, they were instructed to collect the ashes from their fires and beat them (jau rahu). Immediately after they beat the ashes the rain began to fall. However, on the day of the function the weather was fine. To this day, anytime a kato'aga is held in Tua'koi, rain falls beforehand, but stops on the day of the gathering.

All first-born male children were tossed to Tagroa to be blessed as soon as they were born. A woman carried the baby outside the house and tossed it in the air to receive the blessing: "to live long and be valiant and cool-headed in war."

Tupu'a: Petrified Spirits

Spirits could enter stones or other natural features of the landscape, such as the rooster (moa ta) and hen ('uaf ta) of Tarsua; tupua' mäeav hanisit 'e Ra'esea on Uea; and the two kings (sau he rua) on Hatana.

The rooster and the hen at Tarsua represent a couple who came on a canoe from a neighbouring island, bringing lei (small stones) to place on the top of the house foundation of Armanak and his wife Metfaksau. When they came past Savlei, their canoe was buffeted by waves and nearly capsized. Many lei fell off at Savfapu, and that is why the place came to be called Savlei. The couple went on past Tua'koi, heading for Tarsua to unload the lei. By the time the couple had brought their canoe to the rocky point at Tarsua, big waves dashed over it and it broke apart and the lei had to be picked out of the surf and carried to the house. The couple were said to be petrified into moa ta and 'uaf ta. These two stones are sacred to the people of Tarsua. Anyone who throws a stone and hits either of them will cause big waves to come right up to where they are.

The tupua' mäeav hanisit 'e Ra'esea is on the islet of Uea, off the western end of Rotuma. This tupu'a is honoured for the role it played in saving two children, '€eatos and Rakitefurusia, from a  10-headed monster at Lulu ('atua 'üsü' maj saghulu). The tupu'a advised them to collect all things that could cause loud noises, and to make a net to catch the 10-headed giant. Following this advice, the children were able to frighten away the heads as they came, one by one, to try to carry the children away. This tupu'a still stands, a remembrance of its kindness to the children.

The two kings are tupu'a brought to the islet of Hatana by Savetama, the sister of Gagaj Irao of Savlei, and her husband Gagaj Vakatua of Losa. The couple sailed to Tonga to fetch wood for Gagaj IraoÕs house at Savlei. In Tonga, Savetama found two stones, shaped like kings seated on thrones, which she intended to be her kings (instead of the current sau [king] at Rotuma). On their way back to Rotuma, they stopped at Hatana, where they placed the stones (called sau he rua) making the islet sacred. People who visit Hatana nowadays drop coins as offerings to the kings. If anyone fouls the island or makes a lot of noise by shouting, big waves come, making their departure dangerous.

Tu'ura: Animal Spirits

One meaning of tu'ura was the spirits that entered into animals such as dogs, cats, lizards, owls, turtles, frigate birds, and sharks. Tu'ura were seen as bringing omens. For instance, when someone died, people remembered that dogs had been barking or cats yowling—warning of impending death. A big black lizard moving around the house was sometimes seen as a guardian spirit, so children were told not to kill it. An owl that came and perched near a gathering of people was seen as a bad omen, because owls usually stayed away from people.

To'ak 'Aitu: Spirit Mediums

Another meaning of tu'ura was the priest or medium for the local god of a village or a family. The tu'ura had to be a beautiful, clean-living virgin. When the people wished to consult their family god or the god of their village (a chiefly ancestor), they went to the house of the medium where they prepared a päega for the tu'ura to sit on, and set out food on a low table in front. The family first served the tu'ura with kava and a feast. When their god arrived, the medium drank a small gourd (pirorogo) of coconut oil that had been placed on the table, went into a trance, and began to speak (to'ak 'aitu; to utter oracles or messages from the gods). The god used the voice of the tu'ura to speak to the family. In cases of sickness, the family asked their god to bring the soul of the sick person back from 'Oroi. If the ancestor spirit, on his return from 'Oroi, said through the medium, "I have brought back the soul," then the man would live. If the person was very sick, however, the spirit asked the family to bring in some food for the medium, and he made medicine. Sometimes their god could not carry out the wishes of the people because what they asked for was against a god who was more powerful, or had more mana. During to'ak 'aitu, the tu'ura sometimes prophesied about coming storms.

My family had two names from 'Oroi. 'Ufia-ma-mal (to shade and protect) was the name given to my aunt who was a virgin and served as a medium for the god Tagroa, who spoke to the people through her. It was prophesied that while she lived, no storm would rage over Rotuma, for that was the meaning of her name, and indeed during her lifetime there were no storms. After the Christian missionaries and colonial government banned to'ak 'aitu, my aunt converted and was a devout Christian until her death in 1945. After she died everyone said, "We must watch out for hurricanes now," because the protector of the island had died. The first hurricane came in 1948 and after that many more came. The worst of all was in 1972, Hurricane Bebe.

The second name, given to my eldest sister because of a dream of my aunt, was Manriafa (Mantiafa), one of the hanlep he rua or the spirit girls who came to Rotuma with Raho as the first 'atua from outside Rotuma. My sister was born in 1911 and died in 1987. She was one of the sweetest characters of our family, very kind-hearted. She did not act as tu'ura or to'ak 'aitu like my aunt. The name Manriafa had no mana at all; the hanlep he rua might have given mana to Raho, but not to the Rotumans. (Because they were spirit names, no one else could use these two names in generations to come.)

Sur'atua: Spirit Possession

Sur'atua differed from to'ak 'aitu in that it did not involve a medium; an 'atua just entered a sick person and spoke through him or her. The voice and mannerisms were those of the deceased person, who could readily be identified by onlookers. The messages concerned the reasons for sickness and what could be done about it, causes of death, disputes over land or titles, and other such matters.

Rotu: Christianity

When Christianity came to our shores, Tagroa in some way became associated with the power of the Christian God—probably because Tagroa had been considered the supreme god and was called 'Ait Mana. In Christian churches, God is now called 'Ait Manathe Almighty God, the all-powerful.

The old people told a story about Christianity coming to Rotuma through a woman's prayer to the 'Ait Mana:

It was believed that chiefly people who "wept in prayer" to Tagroa received what they asked for. A chiefly woman of Valse'se'e at Motusa, named Firoa, had two strong sons. The people of Savlei and Feavai (in Hapmafau) hated these two boys and came to Motusa and killed them both. The boys' mother prayed in grief to Tagroa, "May the 'Ait Mana from la ne lag ta (the horizon) burst through the pa farava (coconut-leaf wall) of heaven to pick up the blood of my two sons." It was not long after this that Christianity (rotu) came bursting through the coconut-leaf walls of the horizon. Motusa accepted Christianity but Hapmafau remained heathen. The people from Hapmafau waged a war on Motusa to wipe out the Christian chiefs, but they lost the war. Thus the deaths of the two boys were avenged and the prayer of their mother was answered.

The London Missionary Society introduced Christianity in Rotuma in 1839. Then came the Methodists in 1842, then the Catholics in 1846. The Rotuman people's belief in spirits assimilated the facts about God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. The saints and angels were similar to surne'aitu, heaven to Hanua Favi, and Hades under the earth was like the unseen region, 'Oroi.

The enmity between the Methodists and the Catholics was so great that they fought wars in 1871 and 1878. The English and French missionaries had a hand in this; like the sa'aitu and sur'aitu, they fought to capture souls. In recent years new missions—Seventh-Day Adventist, Jehovah's Witness, Assembly of God, Mormon—have come to capture souls for their own groups. Recently a Methodist superintendent minister on Rotuma said that the new religions are "hana' sip" (stealing sheep from the flock) because everyone on the island has already been baptized in either the Methodist or the Catholic Church.

Nowadays Rotumans think of themselves as Christians, attending services, singing and praying to God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Nevertheless, we still cling to our culture and customs. For example, after a burial, we still observe the fifth day kakau sasi and feast; at the funeral, we call out the he' 'atua. If a Christian minister is head of a funeral la'o (a visiting party), the mafua calls out, "'Aitu 'e rere kalog!" (God above) instead of the name of the traditional chiefly spirit.

People still talk about some superstitious beliefs, such as 'atua ho'a (moaning spirit) at night; the sur'aitu scaring cocks and hens, making them noisy at noon; the tu'ura dogs, lizards, owls, and sharks; and tupu'a like moa and 'ufa of Tarsua. Some people practise witchcraft, which did not originate in Rotuma but was imported from Fiji. It is hard to tell whether mediumship is still practised. There was a time when the law was very strongly enforced and people who practised shamanism were taken to court.

With the coming of the millennium, Rotuman (and Fijian) Methodists started to hold prayer meetings every day at 4:00 am. These fervent present-day prayers to the Holy Spirit are very much like the toftofoa or fakperperua mourning prayers of old. In both cases, people pray to the spirits for what they want.

The Future?

 I wonder what the future holds. Spirituality thrives on a sense of mystery. In the past we Rotumans associated spirits with the mysteries of nature: with the bush and the sea, with sunshine and rain, with birth and death. The spirits of our ancestors gave us comfort in this somewhat unpredictable world. But now we live in the age of technology, and confront the mystery of machines like computers that do marvelous things we do not understand. Is this where contemporary spirits reside—a modern-day 'Oroi? If so, can we rely on them to comfort us?

I don't think we can find a meaningful spirituality in the world of technology. Rather we must look within ourselves for spiritual meaning. Should we forget the past and just think about the future? Can we have a meaningful future without a meaningful past? I don't think so, because when the link between the past and the future is broken, we lose the spiritual sense that gives real meaning to our lives.

Notes to Rotuman Indigenous Spirituality

[1] In the past people talked of hearing cocks crowing at Li'marä'e; and drums beating off Pukoru and Ruahau. A man named Elaijia, from Losa, saw a mirage one day and wanted to jump out of the boat to go to the village of Li'marä'e. It was firmly believed that he saw the spirit place. There were other spirit dwellings, like the cave of Uarepa, and hills like Fuagesu in Noa'tau and Jönfuha near Ahau. The spirits of all women who died in childbirth were believed to live at Jönfuha. Gardeners working close to the place sometimes heard laughter. Should a woman about to give birth be in danger of dying, pools of blood appeared on the flat stone atop Jönfuha. back to text

[2] Tukiag means stopping; hence the rock's function was to stop the spirits of the people of Rotuma from being taken away by the 'atua. back to text

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