Melanesian Gods of Olympus and Hades

The fancy of the Melanesians did not soar to such grand achievements in the decoration of their Elysian fields; but it furnished the road thither with many and various obstacles. The Fijian name Mbulu points to the TonganBolotu; and even the Hawaiian ball-game is reproduced in New Caledoniaas a game played with oranges by the souls at the bottom of the sea. The first thing on the road to Hades is a city through all the houses of which the souls roam, for which reason the doors all open the same way. Then they have to pass in front of a giant, who tries to get them all with his great stone axe. Those who are wounded have to haunt the mountains as ghosts for ever; those who escape the giant, after being acquitted by Ndengei, get permission to enjoy the odour of the human sacrifices. Souls of unmarried men come off worst. Nangga-Nangga lies in wait for them, and as soon as he has caught them, heaves them up in both hands and throws them down upon a rock, where they are broken in two. For this cause it was usual among the tribes in Fiji to strangle widows, because the god regards male ghosts, who come without women, as bachelors. If the wife is the first to die, the husband cuts off his beard, and lays it under the left armpit of the corpse as proof of his existence.

The fighter who guards the entrance to the next world is met with elsewhere in Melanesia. In the Hades of the Vate Islanders Salatau tries to hit those who enter on the head with a club. No doubt it is the same spirit who in Fiji, under the name of Samujal or Suma, and Ravujalo, lies in wait for souls to eat them with his brothers. The souls of common people succumb, those of nobles get to Mbulu. These go to the upper part of a mountain, and find at the top of a precipice a father and a son with a paddle in their hands. If they question them, they are thrown over, and have to reach the next world by swimming. Why the paddle, if the souls have to swim after all? The meaning of the ferryman of souls has been forgotten; though it is not so in Fiji, where the souls’ places of embarkation lie to the north-west, and where it is believed that the rustle of the west wind can be heard all the way from Galongalo, the place of the swimming. After the death of their king the three eldest men of the tribe go with cloths in their hands to the bank of the river to escort the soul. There they call aloud for the ferryman, and wait till they see an extra large wave roll in upon the shore, the token of the invisible canoe. Immediately they turn away their faces, and cry: “Go on board, lord.” Then they hasten thence with all speed, for no living eye may look on the embarkation. The corpse is buried in the usual way.

Human figure of shells and hermit-crabs,
used as a temple-ornament in New Ireland
Approx 1300mm height. (Berlin Museum)
[Click on picture for higher resolution]

Human figure of shells and hermit-crabs

Souls which are excluded from the next world, either perish or come back to wander restlessly about the earth, like those who were wounded in the fight mentioned above. The same fate awaits those who cannot hit the tree of Takivelajawa with the whale-tooth that is buried with them for the purpose, and according to Fijian legend, untattooed women also, and avaricious people. This dangerous way of souls is moreover divided into stations, at each of which the soul dies once again. In the belief of the Solomon Islanders, the avaricious, murderers, and other sinners undergo a purification by being turned into ugly reptiles, snakes, toads, and the like. Similar traces of dim notions about future rewards and punishments are to be found everywhere. But it was certainly no original conception of the Fijians that souls have to come before Ndengei’s judgment seat.

Usually souls go with the sun into the ocean, to reach the next world at his rising on the following day. This is why the promontories whence they venture their leap into the darkness, lie on the west of the islands.

Where two souls were distinguished in every man and every object, as was the case among the Fijians, namely the shadow and the reflection, it is the dark one only that goes to the lower world, while that which is compared to a reflection remains about the grave; in this way the return of the dead in dreams is explained. Another conception sets a limit to the soul even in the next world, since it makes annihilation follow upon the highest stage of the life in Mbulu. But this annihilation is personified, and in another tradition assumes the character of the chief of the souls in Mbulu, who is thus probably conceived as a soul-eating god. Others, however, make the souls remain in their place until the earth has been destroyed by fire and renewed.

The Melanesian doctrine of ghosts and gods is in its main features very like the Polynesian. It is not too much to say that the foundation of Melanesian mythology is woven of Polynesian threads; only peculiar features are woven in, and often rest upon a weakening-down of threads and colours already in existence. Considering the great variety of gods in the oceanic regions, little importance can be assigned to the pre-eminence of any one. Name and dignity of the supreme god change from one island to another. It is only in the tales of the creation and of the nether world that more stability is to be observed. In Fiji the recognised chief of all gods and men is Dengeh, Tengei, or Ndengei. He is said to have at first moved about freely, but then in the form of a snake to have grown into the earth with his ringed tail. In that he resembles the Tongan lord of the place of spirits and Dianua the lord of spirits in New Caledonia. Since then he has become the god of earthquakes, storms, and the seasons. They say that whenever Ndengei shakes himself fertilising rain will fall, delicious fruits hang on the trees, and the yam fields yield an excellent crop. But Ndengei is also a god of wrath who declares himself in terrible fashion. He punishes and chastens his people, now by destroying the crops, now by floods; he could indeed easily wipe out mankind from the earth, for since he has lived in the bowels of the earth he has been tormented with so insatiable hunger that he would like to take in and swallow the whole world.

The gods in Fiji fall into different classes according to the degree of their relationship to Ndengei. As in Polynesia, people speak of the divine family – father, son, and daughter. Mautu-Maui, Ndengei’s assistant in creation, is called the “bread fruit” and “the son of the supreme god.” Ndengei has several sons besides who receive prayers on his account; his grandchildren are territorial gods, his distant relations subordinate tribal gods. Among them are symbolisations of properties or endowments, reminding one in their crude luxuriance of India; mechanical dexterity with eight arms, wisdom with eight eyes, Waluwakatini with eighty stomachs. The two ferrymen of souls also, and Rokomutu, born from his elbow, are mentioned as Ndengei’s children, for whom the legend of creation and the deluge offer the more obvious foundation.