An Account of the Gilbert Islands

Father Ernest Sabatier is part of the history of Kiribati. His book: Soux l'equateur du Pacifique was translated into English by Ursula Nixon and published by Oxford University Press in 1977, under the title: ASTRIDE THE EQUATOR - An Account of the Gilbert Islands.

I have taken the liberty of reproducing below, for the benefit of researchers and other interested parties, who would like to learn more about Kiribati, some interesting aspects of Kiribati life, along with some very important observations and recollections of Father Ernest Sabatier, a missionary in Kiribati for many years.

Also, I will be including some of my own comments below, in italics, on certain sections of the text that may need to be discussed and clarified a little further from an I-Kiribati perspective.


Cover of Astride of the Equator
depicting a Kiribati village scene


The Creator

There will be no attempt here to make a detailed expose of Gilbertese religion. that would be an enormous task. what follows is simply the giving of some facts, looking at some written material and offering a few comments. It would be useless to expect an organized and logical system. Local people don't form theories; they have their traditions and customs and the present generation is quite incapable of giving any explanations. but would one have been any better off with the previous generations ...? All we can do is make a fumbling attempt to clarify the maze of their beliefs and practices.

Gilbertese mythology retains the idea of God who is separate and removed from the world. A story from Maiana reveals this best and here we borrow from Grimble.

Na Areau sat alone in space as a cloud that floats in nothingness. He was not aware of hunger or of deep. so he remained for a great while until a thought came into his mind ... what if I make something? So he made water in his lefth and and dabbled it with his right hand until it was mud. Then he rolled the mud flat and sat on it. A great swelling grew on his forehead and on the third day it burst. From it a little man came forth. 'You are the picture of my thought,' said Na Areau. 'Your name is Na Areau the Younger. sit in my right eye or my left eye, as you wish.' The little man sat sometimes in his father's right eye and sometimes in his left and for a great while it was so. At last Na Areau the First-of-Things called out:

'Na Areau, come forth from my eye. go down and treat on the thing I have made ... Where are the ends of it?'
'It has no ends.'
'Where is the middle of it?'
'It has no middle.'

Then Na Areau the First-of-Things plucked out one of his teeth and thrust it into the thing he had made, saying 'here is the middle'.

Na Areau the Younger went down and he found the Darkness and the Cleaving Together which he began to separate. When the heavens were in their place he found that light streamed through the hole where Na Areau the Father had placed his tooth. thus the sun was created. the Abemama version is very close to the story from Maiana, but it does not include the origin of the second Na Areau. It does, however, introduce a third one, a contemporary of the other two, Na Areau te Ti (third). His nickname of Small or Deformed suits him to go down first through the opening made in the Darkness and the Cleaving together to explore the depths. soon all traces of him are lost for almost all the stories leave him out. For most Gilbertese the first being is Na Areau but of course thee are those who reject this belief (and very interesting they could become to an ethnologist). These people come from Nui (one of the Ellice Islands populated a good dozen generations ago by Gilbertese) and from Banaba, or Ocean Island, far away to the west. For them the first being is Tabakea, the turtle, and Na Areau is no more than his son. As for the person to organize the primeval chaos, that was Auriaria.

In a few of the southern islands Te Bakatibu-Taio (the Sun ancestor) was the first being and Na Areau came out of his forehead.

Na Areau the First-of-Things soon disappears from the scene. As he was above the Darkness and the Cleaving Together he became more and more removed as the sky, once freed from the earth, rose higher. His last gift to the world was the famous basket filled with all manner of evils. then he returned to his original isolation. thee is no special cult devoted to him. When he is occasionally invoked his name is mixed in with those of other Anti (Spirits). Moreover these two or three Na Areau lead to confusion. Nevertheless the island bard has clearly marked the existence and transcendant quality of a First Cause in the song which is so well known throughout the islands: 'I toutoua, I toutoua ...': 'I tread the heaves ... Spirits do not exist ... Nor are thee men or any things ... there is only myself, the giant Na Areau.'

In the most common tradition, it is Na Areau the younger, also known as te Kikinto or Kikiteia, whose task it is to create the world. The close-sticking and unbounded chaos is Matter. In the Maiana story it is Na Areau who has created it, but other Gilbertese see it as coexistent with him. all the same this matter was very, very old and it is emphasized that it was without form and required someone extremely powerful to organize it - none less than Na Areau the Younger who was as mighty as his Father.

Te 'Anti'

The appearance of various beings is most often explained in terms of procreation. the rock unites with the void, the sand weds the ocean wave ... and so on. From such unions come the beings who multiply on earth and in the sea. Even man was so created. Our local storytellers are every bit as bold as those who pose theories of evolution. they jump from the inanimate to the animal, from the mineral to man. some Gilbertese bravely put the sand and the waves down at the beginning of their family tree. In so doing they have been taken in by the poet's mania for personifying anything inanimate.

Others have taken a more dramatic view. They have looked upon te anti and the first men as wedged between a joined heaven and earth, struggling with all their might towards free-heaven and earth, struggling with all their might towards freedom and a life blossoming in the light. those who helped Na Areau to raise the sky were the Ancestral Deities and from them all men have descended. We may guess that limited human imagination has confused ideas which were once much more precise. Are the Anti a separate race? Or can we say that they are the souls of the first ancestors? This is not at all clear. The Gilbertese have two expressions: Te Anti (Spirits) and te Anti ma aomata (spirits and at the same time men). All these have offspring. it would appear that the Anti are those Spirits who have the power to change into men, rather like the gods of Greek mythology. Te Anti ma aomata on the other hand are the Ancestors or Heroes who become Anti only after their death.

Na Areau the Younger was one of the Anti. He certainly didn't lack children! He had no qualms about adultery and the thins he got up to show that he was not held in high esteem. Unlike Jupiter he paid very little attention to his dignity and was quite content to be known as a cunning rogue. It may be difficult to define the essential meaning of te Anti but it is quite certain that they do exist. They are powerful beings and can work for good or evil depending on the situation. Furthermore they are in contact with men. The oldest Anti helped to organize the primeval chaos and now, young or old, they rule the world. Men communicate with them through the practices of their cult or through magic.   

As far as men are concerned, each mortal has a soul which survives when his body dies and this survival of the soul is eternal. Let us recall what happened after death, when the soul made its journey to the land of the dead: a very important journey because of the place names mentioned which are so vital in determining the origin of the Gilbertese. We have also seen two explanations of how suffering came into the world: one story sees it as a free gift from Na Areau, the other lays the blame with Te Bong and Te Ngaina. In the latter story man lost earthly happiness through his own fault.

The main Anti are those named in the creation myth and also include the ancestors who were scattered when the tree Te Kai n tiku aba was destroyed: Tabakea, Riki, Auriaria, Taburimai, Tabuariki and Nei Tituabine. Others, whose origin is in legend or from history (and who can say ...) have come into the realm of Anti since the creation. The Gilbertese aren't exactly eager to burn their boats so that visible and invisible worlds are mixed. In order to ensure the survival of their Anti they put them right at the beginning of their family tree without laying claim to any gods for that. The Gilbertese are all too aware of suffering: helplessness and misery are ever present and death is a constant threat. Most men have an inner need to seek from on high the sort of aid which so often fails on earth. The Gilbertese have brought their gods close, as did the Greeks and Romans, but they have adopted a somewhat different attitude to them.

The Gilbertese do have a rational streak and they expect their Anti to prove their existence and their power through manifestations.

They want to see and touch them, so the Anti have to take on bodily form. The Greeks liked to represent their gods and goddesses in most attractive human form, but the Gilbertese have no knowledge of painting or sculpture - not even of ugly idols. They are quite happy if the Anti have some sort of body. Often an animal will offer its body if an Anti wants to make an appearance. The lovely Polynesian ancestress, Nei Tituabine, is represented on earth by the tropic-bird and in the sea by the giant ray. They say, of the tropic-bird, that sometimes it is her body and sometimes it is simply her bird. she doesn't inhabit the bird's body but simply makes use of it to do her work amongst men. When the red-tailed tropic-bird has flown over t village the people all say that it came to look for someone from Keaki's family to take off to Nei Tituabine's kingdom.

The cult of totems

Each Spirit-Ancestor, then, has a creature - or sometimes even two: one for land and the other for the sea. Tabakea has the turtle and the tern; Auriaria the giant clam and the rat; Taburimai has a large fish and a bird - a sort of sandpiper; Riki is represented by the eel; Nei Ati by the bonito, Bue and Rirongo by the porpoise and Tabuariki by the shark. If on occasion the Anti moves into an animal's body then it is only natural that the animal itself should become sacred to devotees of that particular Anti - in other words those descended from the Anti. They could not eat the flesh of the bird or fish concerned. Learned people have founded a whole system of totems on this practice.

The Worship of Apirits (Anti)

The totem system doesn't explain away the whole of Gilbertese pre-Christian religion, for a lot of Anti have no totem. It is not only those belonging to the Bue and Rirongo clan who pray to the moon. This prayer is said at evening on the shore on the third or seventh day and the person praying stands facing the crescent moon. The arms are outstretched and the person zigzags slowly forward as if dancing, up to the water's edge. there he stops and chants: O moon (there he claps his hands). O moon (again repeated thrice) give me a season; give me two, three, ten, a hundred seasons. O moon (thrice repeated) give me a year; give me two years, nine, a thousand years! this practice is generally either individual or a family affair. the family Spirit was invoked for everything; birth, puberty, marriage, death, work, fishing and games. he was particularly asked to defend the family and the individuals in it against enemy Spirits, especially if their threats were caused by hatred, jealousy or malevolence. left to themselves the Anti seemed idle and harmless enough but they could become formidable if provoked, above all if witch doctors spurned them on against someone through their spells.

Everyone was a priest in the religious sense of the word, but in particular this applied to the head of the family. there was no communal church, but near the house there was a small plot of land covered with white coral. sometimes there would be a little roof over this. In the centre was a pointed stone, three quarters buried and with a flat stone resting on top of it. On this, as an offering, there might be coconuts, scraps of food, a garland of lianas or little flowers, scented oil and, nowadays, a stick of tobacco. The time for worship varied for each Spirit, but was usually in the morning, the evening, or on the appearance of the new moon. such areas and stones and sacred trees were Kamaraia - evil - for those who had no business in the precincts. In order to ward off any large-scale disaster or to obtain some favour for the whole community, the people gathered together in these sacred places but didn't come too close.

If, for example, it was desired that Auriaria should remove the European ship from the island, then the people would hurry to his precinct with a good supply of food, but only the ibonga or sorcerer could go into the sacred enclosure to carry out the ceremonies of worship. When he had finished, all the people cried out 'Auriartia, protect your land. Let no stranger enter there.' Or the invocation might be: 'Give us good fi8shing.' The Anti Teitiewa had a lot of followers on Nui. When the Spirit asked for his precinct to be extended no one could cross that piece of land. Anyone who broke the taboo was hurled to the ground buy the Spirit. On the other hand, if some service was wanted of him, then the people approached him as they would Auriaria. Nei Tewenei is the Gibertese Venus. She is represented by the porpoise's head. This goddess is vain, flirtatious and curious. If you find anything new or attractive, such as a pearl or mother-of-pearl, you take it to her. if not, she becomes angry and the greedy person will be punished by illness or death. As is the case in Greek mythology, each Spirit has a particular specialty. Taburiki is the god of thunder and makes the lightning strike. He commands the winds and sends fine weather or rain. If this Spirit sees someone stealing pandanus fruit then he will kill the thief.

Te Titune or Buatoronteaba is not very easily handled. those who know how to approach him find him especially hardworking in cases of vengeance. they have only to trace a picture of the hated person on the ground and say 'Buatoronteaba, see this man ... eat him.' Then the man dies. He has a good side too, however. If a woman is beaten by her husband, she has only to seek refuge with the Te Mauri clan. If the members of this family take her side then she is saved. Fear of the Titune will make the brutal husband much more gentle. If he persists in his harsh behaviour, Te Titune or one of the other Anti Kaobunang will take a butu (a shark's tooth knife) and slash him. Any husband whose wife leaves him can also find help from this clan. The goddess Nei Tituabine is always very willing to help. On the ninth day of the new moon, you go off to se her, with two green coconuts - one for her, one for yourself. The ibonga carries out his rites and then goes down to the shore. Here he picks up a few fish and carries them into the middle of the crowd where he sprinkles them with magic oil. the fish are then thrown back into the sea and two or three days later you can be sure to find great shoals of them around the island.  

Magic and witchcraft

From religion we move on quite imperceptibly to magic. Very soon everything becomes confused. Even nowadays amongst non-Christians we find nothing but magic and superstition. those who are Christian usually fall into the mire these represent when they give up practising their new-found belief. They revert to what one might well call the practices of the devil: the tabunea or magic rites. These rites are used to obtain everything one desires, whether good or evil - the death of one's father as much as a nice fat fish at the end of the line! The tabunea is a mixture of formulae and ceremonies which vary for whatever is asked and for each Spirit. The system is very complicated and you need a good memory if you aren't to forget anything. In fact people blame their memories if the desired result is not achieved.

Specialists in performing the necessary ceremonies are legion and each one tries to boost his own abilities. Each specialist works for his own benefit and it is very difficult indeed to become initiated. In this, even your best friends would cheat you. You can never be sure, either, that everything has been carried out fully. Miss out one word or a single gesture and the whole ceremony is wasted. for this reason the people very often go to those splendid charlatans, the ibonga, for help. The ibonga is primarily a speculator in and monopolizer of things supernatural. He is a sort of unqualified priest who appears to have corrupted, through his magic, the simple old religion where the head of each family acted as priest - rather like a biblical patriarch. It is difficult to give an idea of the ibonga's business in one word. He is soothsayer, magician, divine, doctor, prophet, miracle-worker and also charlatan. His magic formulae are usually a family inheritance. In fact the ibonga is on friendly terms with the Anti and between the pair of them there is a great deal of familiarity. A word, a gesture, a stick of tobacco offered by the ibonga and the Anti arrives and you can hear his whistling. They chat and reach an understanding. Perhaps the Anti arrives of his own will, especially at night. Then they offer him a pipe. Respectful members of the public may attend these meetings; they will hear the hissings and whistlings but won't, usually, understand a word and the ibonga translates. The conversations are childish and the Anti revels tastes as low as those of the common people. There is nothing of the transcendent deity about him - he prefers to be a pal or mate. If it is Auriaria, then he will take on the form of a mouse and prance about on the mat nibbling at coconuts. Sometimes he moves into the ibonga's body and then the witch doctor will go into a trance. His muscles stiffen, his stomach swells and his eyes become as large as coconuts. People have seen this, so who can deny it? No one is afraid when it happens, least of all the ibonga. After all, his Anti is like a familiar dog. Because of these elevated relationships the ibonga becomes quite a person and a feared as well as honoured. what pleases him is the fame that comes his way and the chance to cut a dash and bask in the praise of the gods. Nor does he scorn the little profits, new mats and fine baskets of food. H manipulates the anti to his own advantage, rather like the trainer of a dancing-bear. It's taken for granted that the Anti will have a share of the tobacco and nuts, but he must do something to maintain his credit, even if it is only whistling.

Spirits with medicinal powers

There are some Anti who can cure ills. Te Kai, Na Rabenuwai and Kaoioti are healers. Even nowadays the ibonga hang around the hospitals, cocking a snook at the hospital attendants. In his own way the local person is eclectic; he turns to everything but has an instinctive preference for your quack. He will accept holy water, medicine and the mess of pottage concocted by the ibonga. We should never be surprised to see a sick person wearing a magic necklace as well as a religious medallion. there are even those who turn to the witch doctor after having received Extreme Unction! Na Rabenuwai was a brother of Auriaria's and set off for Fiji when Auriaria went to Samoa after the conquest of Ocean Island. It is the modern Fijians who have passed on to the Gilbertese various magic rites. Here is one formula, for example: dip your finger in a particular scented oil (which can be bought from traders) and on the diseased part you trace the St Andre's cross with four capital letters - SPMN - in the angles. S. Stands for Riki, the legendary eel. The other letters are the beginnings of Fijian words. If you have no oil, use a red pencil but after that you mustn't use the pencil again. This is a wairakau - a magic practice imported from Fiji, very widely used and combining Christian symbols with pagan rites.

During his stay on Abemama in 1889 R.L. Stevenson caught a cold. As he was curious about local remedies he asked to be treated by the local group of healers, namely King Binoka and two well-known doctors: Tamaiti and Teroutaki. Three huts near the royal palace scarcely held their patients. Tamaiti worked for the Anti Kaoioti and Teroutaki for Nei Tevenei. Tamaiti took Stevenson near a bay on the east coast of the island. There was a fairly large te uri tree there and from it were hung plaited palm-fronds and miniature canoes complete with all the gear. Recenbt votive offerings. A circle of stones around the tree marked the limits of the sacred place and a heap of coconuts lay there. Tamaiti made his patient sit facing the east on a stone against the tree. Before him, he lit a fire and produced thick smoke from it. He moved his lips rapidly, though he made no sound as he addressed his Anti. At the same time he waves a green twig and twice struck his patient on the chest with it. As soon as the leaves were all burned he buried the ashes, laid the twig in the gravel and the ceremony was over. As for Stevenson - he left no better, but certainly was no worse.

There was no need to despair, however, for the other renowned doctor was at hand. He worked on the west side of the island, near the palace, where a low fence enclosed a piece of land covered with chips of white coral. On a stone bench there were two boxes covered with a finely woven mat. Teroutaki made his patient sit facing the east on this bench and the boxes were moved away. The doctor stood behind Stevenson waving a palm frond and from time to time he touched the patient's hat or shoulders. Stevenson records that he felt heavily drowsy with the first tap against his hat - and he had tried to be hypnotized at least a dozen times previously without success. His nerves relaxed, eyelids shut and head numb he was about to lose consciousness, but a stern effort of will got him back on his feet again. he went hack home rather like a sleep-walker, had a good rest and woke up completely cured.   

Later Stevenson managed to acquire one of these mysterious boxes which were made out of pandanus roots. Inside was a simple white shell and a little mat. Nei Tevenei's followers swear that on a certain day of the month this shell oozes blood. The Gilbertese certainly have several natural remedies against illness. some of the locals were very good bone-setters too, but there was no religion attached to this knowledge so it was necessary to add a magic charm. When Stevenson asked Tem Binoka about this, the king replied that it made the cure more sure. This outlook has not disappeared completely yet.  

Signs and omens

There are certain omens which everyone is aware of - all you need are your eyes and ears. Others, however, are more subtle, and to interpret them you need to be an initiate. Nature is an open book but very few know how to read it well. No one is unaware that a falling star is the symbol of a death and that the pace where it falls shows which family will be struck. The heavens are divided in the same sort of way as the maneaba, where each clan has its own special place. A green fireball has been seen over south Aranuka. An old woman cooking in the open air cries out 'Oh what terrible luck. A man has died'. A little girl hears her and runs off to her mother shouting 'Abraham is dead'. In five minutes the news has gone all round th village from hut to hut. Abraham has had T.B. and could no longer leave his bed. Therefore he is dead. Relations and the curious all go off to the hospital helter-skelter. Soon there's s crowd of them talking to the hospital attendant. 'We want to come in to see the dead man' ... 'What dead man?' ... 'Abraham ... surely you know?' ... 'No, I had no idea.' A few feet away, there is Abraham under his mosquito net, his hut open, listening to the news of his death and sharing the emotion the news had produced in the village! He hears the people being sent away grumbling and he is as perplexed by all this as he is about the reason for this somewhat macabre and farcical situation.

Then of course particular ripples of sand that the tide sometimes leaves on the shore as it goes out are a dead person's pillow. The person's age is even marked by the height of the sand. Old people have a right to better stuffed pillows! The moon is digging a hole every time you see it with a red circle closely around it. If this phenomenon is seen at the same time as a large star then it means that a king is going to die. If the muscles in your hand or foot twitch then it means you are going to bury a dead person or that you are going to read on his grave. suppose you have had a dream in which all those fine teeth that you flash as you smile, fell out. Then you, or someone close to you, will go from this world.

Hospital attendants should keep an eye on certain screeching bhirds which come in a flock and make a noise over a sick person's hut. The person must be moved immediately if he is to get well. In fact it's almost a crime to leave someone to die in peace in his own home. When King Binoka was dying he was walekd about all over the forest. The witch doctors no longer knew which way to turn, for the devil was everywhere. Lightning is a sing of creation. The person who first shouts out 'my husband' or 'my wife' after a flash of lightning will not die unmarried or without children. Two shrill cries from the tanguoua - a sort of tern - announce to the islands that a child has been born. the curlew's harsh cry will make you look up and will stir your spirit. Be careful then, for it will be the devil's work if nothing unusual happens to you that day and when this is so you can say 'the curlew told me'.

We are surrounded by omens if we only knew how to interpret them. If we had the wit to look up at the night sky and its stars, or scrutinize the clouds we see in day time. Everything is written there. Take those streaks of cloud across the moon's face: a clear sign that you need some stout sticks across your shoulder to bring back the ikari (a bony lagoon fish) after the full moon when net-fishing is good. The shape and position of the clouds show where there are shoals of fish or may indicate the arrival of a ship or a death. you can see the dead person there and his face or the ship with its sails or plume of smoke. It is the same for everything. Long before the arrival of the courier you can foretell the outcome of a battle. Just look at the cloud stretching over the battlefield. It always starts off by being on the side of the defeated. In fact once the imagination has invented some link between to things, one's wishes see this link as a positive virtue.

Forbidden things

Many things are banned, especially where food is concerned. In order to ensure good luck, there is a custom which says you must leave some flesh on a fish's tail and some milk at the bottom of the coconut. Never exhaust the possibilities of pleasure: then it can continue the next day. Any man who wished to avoid having a head as polished and hairless as the mouth of a shell, must avoid eating certain shellfish, especially the giant clam and also the nautilus which is itself totally smooth.

Most magic rites involve some sort of abstinence. where they based on the principle that no one can have everything and that choice means abstention? Women in particular had to submit to many bans. There was a great fear that the faults in any animal eaten by the mother would be handed on to the child. The sole, for instance, has yes set at such a divergent angle that the child would have a beautiful squint! The baua has such a large head and tiny body that your son and heir would look really comical. And what if he should have a mouth like the koinawa which can't even take the hook? Imagine too if he was born with hair as stiff as the bristles on a lobster. Furthermore a warrior should not eat turtle-meat, for this is rather like a marine sheep, in that it has no way of defending itself and always runs away. Nor must he eat fish known to be particularly timid and given to darting away or he will suffer from sheer funk during battle and take to his heels. The witch doctor himself is subject to a whole host of precautions. Furthermore he is always afraid that someone will seize on his formula and that a counter movement will spoil his charms.

The present generation is by no means rid of all these superstitions, magic spells and diabolical arts. should they cease to practise Christian religion then the old go back to these ways and the young are initiated. There are three main temptations offered by these pagan rites: satisfaction from impure practices, plenty of opportunity to satisfy the urge to dance and the hope of deferring as long as possible the gloomy voyage to Naka's land. to achieve these ends any means will suffice. Other charms - for fishing, for journeys any canoe, for cock or dog fights, for help in finding food - and so on, are rather less in vogue.


The soothsayers use thirty-two round pebbles or else they make use of the ribs of palm-fronds. There are some very complicated combinations and the whole system is quite a science. it is very much valued, not only for finding out what is to happen in the distant future but, like Buridan's ass, for help in making up one's mind. This system urges men to think awhile before acting ... Heads or tails?! Some of the old charms are more like a form of prayer. 'This act of divination is for my son who is going far out to sea, fishing. He isn't going to die and will be safe. Life and peace for him. O life.' (Te Kaia te tara). Nowadays the Bible has to some extent replaced the thirty-two stones. You can find some Protestants who will forecast what is to happen. Everything is in the bible but even for that you have to have the gift of seeing clearly - so much so that the initiate will tell you your life story if you give him simply your date of birth. You can even uncover someone's guilt in this way.

The Gilbertese Muses

Now let us look at a strange example of the magic ceremonies used when preparing for important dances.

The people in olden days rarely began any significant poems without invoking the Muses. At present the Gilbertese poet and composer is no less devout. Only through lengthy rit4es and several invocations does he bring himself to the brink of composition or to the creation of a ballet including words, dancing and music. It is true that the thing at stake is not only the fame which excites you, but that on the islands and from school to school it may mean living a loser's existence, when you fail in a competition. It would certainly not mean less than that and there aren't the men who'll turn their hand to the art. Betrayed by their interpreter the Muses will take it upon themselves to gain revenge for the insult they have had to suffer. It isn't just a question any more of the family anti who will support his own people: all the competition invoke the same gods.

So it happened that at the end of one of these festivals of poetry and dance, the Catholic who had led the dancers from his island became seriously ill. He didn't blame this torment on overwork but thought it was certainly the vengeance of the Anti who had not been impressed by his willingness and near-heroic zeal in the dance - a zeal so great that the other dance-leaders from his island were put in the shade leaving him alone to face the somewhat dangerous honour of being in charge of all the dancers. to escape death he could do no better than to go back to the god he had betrayed for the sake of p0ersonal glory. this man was the source of information for the curious instructions which are to follow. What h imparted says much more than a heap of commentaries. The magic rites, handed on from father to son and still popular nowadays, come from distant times. To quieten the over-curious one could offer them a few bribes and also make sure that an important rite was not carried out properly, so that it would be ineffective.

Invocations were made to three Anti: Rurubene, Ningoningo and Na Areau the Elder. We already know about this last-named god. As for the others, we know only that they lived in Timuniman, in the sky. Invocations were made to them with one obvious aim: to obtain inspiration so that one might lead the field in poetry or music or dance arrangements. Imagine on Abemama: merely three groups wanting inspiration and all addressing their invocations to the same Muses - Tebuka nei Akang, Ubara and Kamatuatawa! Have we to do here with three grand masters who have taught men something? At any rate, let us look at the first rite. The first ceremony consists of moving the candidate's tongue towards a mastery of poetry. The rites take place before sunrise, so the poet is by no means the lazy creature he is often accused of being. He must get up as soon as the birds begin to sing. The instructor touches the candidate's tongue with his index finger and says: 'Touching the tongue that will crate, the tongue that will speak for the world, the tongue of a true son of Na Areau. A tongue for speaking, a; tongue for telling tales, a tongue that will capture sounds. You are going to speak, to tell stories, to say things like Na Areau himself. As for your heart, may it belong to Rurubene.' This incantation had to be repeated three times and the whole ceremony had to be done again on the next three days. Thee was no fixed day when this three-day rite had to begin.

The second ceremony concerns sharpening the lips. Fine slender lips are essential to the Gilbertese poet, for he is no scribbler on paper but is a bard, a teller of tales and a singer who must sand up in the centre of the maneaba. For the rites he took an empty coconut and poured into it a little of the oil he ordinarily used for perfuming his boy. At the bottom he placed a pretty red shell and the next morning there he was out to meet the incoming tide. He had to get some of the incoming sea-water which had not yet reached the shore, and thus become sullied. He looked at himself for a moment in the oil contained in the nut, which acted as a mirror, and then he filled up the nut with the water that was brushing his ankles, Then he took the pretty shell and made the gesture of sharpening his lips, while saying: 'Sharpening of the lips of the son of him who knows the world and who knows everything; he who knows all; having my countenance and my bearing. From whence does this triumph come? From my hands. From whence comes this triumph? From my feet. From whence does my triumph come? From may laughter. I am triumphant, O I am triumphant!' Again the incantation is said three times and the ceremony is repeated on the three following days.

If after these preparations you wish to obtain poetic inspiration some magic drink would not come amiss. Homer, Horace and Mistral were fortunate. If they couldn't quaff the cup of gold every day then they could often fill their goblets with the fine wine from the slopes around the Mediterranean. The Gilbertese bard has to be content with coconut milk. a good nut with a reddish husk is chosen so that it will taste sweet. it is not the chief instructor who carries out the ceremony. He sends his pupil to a colleague, male or female, whose task is to give the poet this special drink three days in succession.

The fourth ceremony is the trial by smoke. the devil is at work here and the test is used in several spells. It is carried out once only between four and five in the evening, when the sun has lost its force. Strong light seems to work against a fair number of magic rites. If the rite is to work there must be three men and no women. Each man takes a small basket for he must carry several handfuls of dry leaves picked up under the mao shrub. This is away from other vegetation. The men must form a triangle in front of the tree and utter the following chant as they pick up the leaves: 'We are picking up (repeated three times) the dry leaves. Behold we are on Rurubene's land.' In the same way they render homage to Ningoningo and to Na Areau. then they continue: 'May they come, may they direct me, for you they will come to enlighten me near my fire. Tuangai, Bo-rikai , Kaetai, instruct me, come to this place and guide me. The chant is very rhythmic and here we even have a threefold rhyme, which is rare. the rhythm comes especially from the repetition of a word or a short phrase. The point of this is to give the magic chant a certain strength and vigour and thus to make it more effective.

When the baskets are full of dry leaves they go back to the village to the initiate. thumb on the ground, he uses his fingers to trace a line on the earth and digs it out, saying: 'I am digging, I am digging, lo I am breaking the soil, I am breaking the soil on Rurubene's land here.' This is said three times, of course. They light the pile of dry leaves and they poke the fire with a green branch from the same shrub while they chant: 'Breath of his clear fire, breath of his good fire, breath of his noble fire.' They strike the would-be poet three times with a fan. Then the magic words are repeated three times and so is the entire ceremony. After all this preparation the young poet is ready to compose his first song. This will not be carried out in isolation for the social function of a poet means that he composes in public. he gathers his chorus together but doesn't forget to invoke his Muses. To do that he takes a young coconut and prepares it; it must be the sort hose fresh fibre can be sucked. In it he places the most tender leaf from a coconut tree. This he has chewed. then he begins to compose. the singers take up each verse as he utters it, in his inspiration. this is repeated and repeated until it is fixed in the memory. Once the poem is finished the poet sprinkles his singers with the contents of his coconut, while saying: 'Come, come; sprinkle. What is good in my song? the beginning. What is good in my song? the end. It is entirely good. come, come.' And so on. This too is said three times. Once the poem is completed it has to be corrected and perfected. He takes another coconut but this time the chewed leaf is omitted. 'Now I make my corrections, now I correct my poem; I look at it again, once more I consider it. there is no fault in my song. It is so-and-so's song that is full of mistakes. Now I make my corrections but my poem is on no way spoiled like so-and-so's song. I make my corrections.

The first performance is almost ready. the post and the performers are going to appear in the great maneaba. In order to encourage the chorus they resort to prepared coconuts again. this time three are required. the first sprinkling is done outside: 'Come, come ... (etc. etc.) ... What is good in my song? the end and the conclusion since Rurubene, Ningoningo and Na Areau gave it to me and inspired it. My poem surpasses all others, it sweeps everything over with its clarity, its illumination and its splendour.' Then thee are three sprinklings from the coconut. In the maneaba all this is repeated except that the sprinkling is done with a mixture of oil and sea-water. Everywhere around is sprinkled, beginning in the east and working round to the north.

It is not enough to do one's best: one must succeed. to avoid a flop, to manipulate opinion and to warm up the applause, some expense has to be gone to. the poet prepares a basket of cooked babai, some pandanus fruit - and so on. The leader of the chorus approaches the maneaba from the north, at the central support. he puts one hand on the edge of the roof and with the other he touches the basket, held on the other aide by a colleague; with his foot he scratches at the ground a little. 'here is the presentation of the song come from Na Areau. what must be avoided? Things forgotten. What must be avoided? Nonsensical speech. This is forbidden, forbidden, forbidden.' The basket is put west of the pillar for here the Anti who preside over the maneaba sit. The people can help themselves when they wish.

Any poet who has been granted lofty inspiration doesn't rest on his laurels. Before each composition and every dance he will remember to invoke the Muses. From time to time he will take his dancers to the eastern side of the island, in the morning. He then lines them up on the shore with their feet in the water and sprinkles them three times with sea-water, using the most tender coconut leaf he can find for the purpose. the singers share out this frond and make garlands, necklaces and sashes from it. The aim of this ceremony is to give life to the singing and vim to the dancing. When the poet composes by himself he looks for some piece of rising ground to the east of the village where he may gain inspiration. this is probably a heap of sand thrown up from the digging out of a taro (babai) pit. He stands there, head up, and calls on 'the assembly of inspired words'. Alternatively he stands in the middle of some clearing and then his invocation is rather different. Our early bards didn't know how to write even by scratching in the sand. to encourage their faltering memory they would make fun of themselves in this way: 'Oh what a glutton, what a greedy-guts! What more have I eaten? My first verse. What more have I eaten? I have swallowed my words. What more have I eaten? I have also eaten the end. O what a guzzler! What a greedy-guts!'

There is no going on stage without making a careful toilette. Just as the woman dancer does, the man who is to dance must wash and perfume himself. Nor is it a question of washing with water, which the Gilbertese does every day. he takes the highest coconut in a bunch and pours its liquid over himself saying: 'I am the most honoured. I surpass all others. I am the finest and the most noteworthy; like the tropic-bird who glides above the clouds in the sky. I am the best, I win over the woman whose name I pronounce. I am the best, I win. I have only to appear with my poem. I am utterly remarkable.' With similar faith in his lucky star success would appear to be a foregone conclusion. but  there is yet better to come! the best known ritual ablution is carried out on the top of the maneaba. Not everyone is given this honour, for it means first climbing the highest trees  to bring down the highest nut on it. the empty nut is placed on a pole atop the maneaba.

The poet's head is perfumed with coconut oil mixed with fragrant flowers or plants. His hands and his body are also scented. He combs his hair with a single tooth - taken from a sword-fish and as he does so he chants: 'This is to make me get up and walk forth. I go my way amongst those of my own age. No one pays any attention to them, for I appear and I am such that there is no one to equal me.' What is the aim of these magic rites from which such marvellous results are expected? Why is it that pagan people have such an obstinate insistence on signs and miracles? Were they given some measure of the tangible well-being they so ardently sought - something that they could actually weigh in the palm of their hand? The old people took their secrets with them to the grave. We can only consult those with us now and record what they have witnessed. 

Manifestation of the Anti

The most common phenomenon attributed to a Spirit is the manifestation of his presence by a whistling noise which is difficult to pin down precisely as it doesn't emerge from one area for very long. Sometimes distinct words can be heard in this whistling. If the people present at the ceremony can't mange to understand the words then the ibonga will act as interpreter. Many local people claim to have heard this whistling and some white people may so too. As witnesses here, we have Father Bontemps, Mgr Leray and several other missionaries.

Moreu is a convert to Catholicism who is now a teacher-catechist at Onotoa.

One of our Spirits is Teinamati. He is very powerful and he can have a conversation with a man. I have seen this happen. This Anti can also change into a rat. He becomes quite a domestic pet and can be made to dance in front of people much to their amazement. Na Rabenuwai is a Spirit imported from Fiji. those who belong to his cult are able to walk on fire, roll around in it, eat the half-burned bits of wood and then drink a bucketful of water.

Taitai is the Anti for my family. He speaks to us and and gives us news. he can also cause death. Once he was angry with my sister. I was called to her and found her moribund. Quickly I sprinkled her with holy water and when she cam back to life I asked her 'What's the matter?'

'Taitai came and sat on me and stopped me breathing'.

Bauro from Nikunau also saw Na Rubenuwai at work:

We had a very powerful Spirit, Na Rabenuwai, who used to manifest himself at a sorceress's house. She was Nei Tabaua from Rungata village on Nikunau. As a body this Spirit used oval white shells, a little bigger than a duck's egg. When anyone wanted to invoke te Anti then Nei Tabaua spread out a new mat, took a shell, coated it with perfumed oil and put it on the mat. She did the same thing with a second shell which she then placed on top of the other one. When the shells were thus balanced, Te Anti took possession of Nei Tabua. she went into a trance and shook from top to toe. then she asked to eat fire. This she ate without burning herself and then wanted sea water, swallowing a bucketful of this. Nest she changed appearance, seeming to be surrounded by steam. Then the steam vanished. I saw this with my own eyes and I wasn't alone; a lot of us were there to see her do it.

Joseph Karinaba from the same island has the missionary's confidence. He is hardly naive and is certainly no impostor. he swears that he actually saw what he recounted:

At the time I lived at Muribenua with my aunt, Nei Kitoua, I heard a whistling noise and looked round but no one was there. My aunt was asleep. the Anti whistled and called out 'Kitoua, Kitoua!' My aunt woke up but said nothing. Then the Spirit became angry: 'Hey you! Are your ears stopped up? Get up and light a pipe. I want to smoke.' Kitoua got up and filled a pipe. She handed it over without saying word. I was half dead with fear and didn't dare move. Thee was no more noise and eventually I went back to sleep.

One day Enoka came to see Kitoua. 'Ask your anti to compose a lament for me so I can mourn the death of my child.' 'This time the Anti manifested himself during the day. I thought: 'They say that the Anti only show themselves at night, yet here's one who operates by day.' With a lot of whistling noise the anti composed a lament and Enoka tried to remember the words. I heard this and so did Nei Kitoua as well as Enoka. We were in a little hut near the western shore. The anti said: 'Here I am, Tabaren Temrmang (the name of the anti). I call my little girl from her dwelling in Tebongrara. I am ready and I await the end of the days of the little girl Nei Tewanimone.' there was more but I ran away.

Another evening we were sitting in our house at Muribenua. it was about seven o'clock and Kitoua was with us. We we busy chatting when we heard a whistling noise. We were quiet and then I said: 'Who are you?'

'I am Temamang.'
'Oh you're the one who deceives people into being burnt with you.'
Then the anti became angry and said 'I don't burn. It is you who will be consumed by the flames.'

'Why should we burn?' There was no reply. I questioned Nei Kitoua and she said 'He's gone away.'

Tamaiti from Abemama who had tried to cure Stevenson's cold also claimed to have conversations with his Anti, Kaoioti. He kicked against it, however, when Tamaiti took him along to the church. 

'I can't go there with you,' said Kaoioti.
'Why not?'
'It stinks. I feel uncomfortable thee.'
'Are you afraid then?'
'Don't go there any more or I'll leave you.'
'Ha! You're no man - you're a chicken!'

'It's well known that the ibonga are completely familiar with their anti. Tamaiti in fact abandoned Kaoioti. He became a Catholic after seeing his Anti give way to the church. It had to be because thee was someone stronger than the Anti in the tabernacle. everyone has reasons for belief and that reason wasn't a bad one at all. An important person on another island had noticed that erotic charms had no effect over the Catholics whereas they bowled over the Protestants and non-believers at every attempt. This gave him food for thought before God's grace opened his eyes.

The caster of spells for women is supposedly Te Rakunene and Nei Karua is in charge of witchcraft for men. the two colleague Anti are very busy as they have many followers, who are forever harrying the Anti and are never satisfied. Every missionary has witnessed this troublesome and erotic madness. However, according to the old people these instances are growing fewer but used to be frequent - so one of them says - in the early Protestant meetings. suddenly, for example, a woman would start to shout and scream and roll round on the ground, her face burning, stomach swollen. Then she suddenly got up and rushed off into the bush or towards the lagoon, following Rakunene. She had to be watched and caught, to prevent her committing suicide. Nei Kaura was less violent towards her male devotees, simply giving them a headache.

Any girl who refused to marry was bombarded with spells until she gave in - unless she or her helpers were quick enough to launch a successful counter-attack, with the same means. It was the custom to conduct this struggle, that unfortunate mankind is so often afflicted by, with neither truce nor respite. Was this magic all quackery and illusion? We would like to find a few proofs that would keep the trusting faith of simple people intact, as well as guard the honour of the human spirit. The early people didn't know enough to be wary of coincidences, ventriloquism, quacks and people skilled at sleight of hand. they practised hypnotism and auto-suggestion with being aware of the mechanics of it. All unexplained events they attributed to invisible beings. Were they always wrong? Un less we take no heed of several pages from the Gospels and lives of the Saints, how can we simply deny the cases of diabolical possession amongst primitive people? If there were a great many cases of possession amongst the Jews, how can we be astonished by instances of this among people with many gods? the simple islander attributes all mysterious phenomena to his Anti. How can he make distinctions in this field when knowledge is power less? Can one catch the devil red-handed? He is cunning enough to escape whole academies of learned people right to the end of time. There isn't a hope of exposing him. What we must try to do is to understand the attitude of the simple person when faced with these fortuitous situations which so hold his imagination and which he persists in trying to create again through his own inventiveness, even if he should fail a thousand times in his attempt. Let us look at some recent happenings.

A dying man said that the person who dug his grave would die three days later. Father Leray presided at the cemetery but couldn't find anyone to dig the grave. He encouraged the men and he mocked them but both tactics were equally time wasting. so he had to take the shovel himself. At this, one sturdy fellow was ashamed. 'I can't see that happen,' he said, and dug the grave to the amazement of the onlookers. three days later he died. At Kiebu village on Makin the water became salty during the slightest drought. Ioane the Protestant schoolmaster, new to the village, said to his flock 'Why is there no well here? I'm going to dig one.'

'Be careful,' they told him/ 'the land is sacred to the Anti, Beia and Tekai. Any stranger who touches that land is digging his own grave.'

'What! Do you still believe those old superstitions?' the next day when he was digging two men again pointed out to him the danger he was running but they received the same answer. then Ioane's wife had a dream in which she saw a coffin in the well and her husband inside it. A little while later Ioane became ill and died. The following year Brother Charles began looking for water in order to stop people being deported by the government who wee worried about public health. He too began to dig on the sacred ground. 'Father, you will have very bad luck,' the Protestant congregation told him.

'Nothing will happen to a Catholic,' he replied, standing up. All that did happen, in fact, was that he found fresh water. Here is one more curious happening - and a theory to go with it. could it be a craze peculiar to the darker races? Mgr Leray and Father Lebeau admired a tree well laden with nuts on a plot of land where drought had killed off all the other trees. The tree was, of course, one of the Anti's. There was no apparent reason for this strange sight. could it be that the witch doctor had had the cunning to break up the rock under his tree?

The fire-eater

Two missionaries can bear further witness to the actions and deeds of Nei Tebaua of Nikunau. Here is a resume of the account one of them gave.

One day I learnt that one of my neighbours, a Protestant, had called in the sorceress to his son, who had gone mad. this woman had come back from Fiji, where she had been initiated into the practices of Na Rebenawai. she could eat fire, speak several languages and cure madness. she was to see the young man at about eight o'clock that evening. could I go along to see her at work? She gave me permission saying that the missionary wouldn't bother her. I put a flash of holy water in my pocket and stood amongst the large crowd who had come to see Nei Tabaua perform for the first time. She arrived accomplished by a servant. they came in by themselves to where the patient lay covered by a mat, a roof over him, but no walls around him. the surrounding crowd of people could see everything. her attendant lit a big fire and beside it she placed a coconut leaf torch, a ground full of sea-water and a pipe filled with tobacco. she withdrew some distance and the fire illuminated the scene. Tebaua, wearing a simple leaf lava-lava, sat down cross-legged near the sick man. From a little bag she took six white shells.

'Well, they are the same.'
'You're lying.'
'No, I'm not.'
'In the name of Our Lord Jesus Christ and of the Virgin Mary His Mother, tell the truth.'
'Very well, they are different.'
'Why is Babane sleeping so deeply that no one can wake her?'
'I've taken her soul away.'
'Where have you taken it?'
'To the east, so I can dance with her.'
'You're laying, Roeka.'

There was no reply. It was over. I heard the noise of footsteps on the gravel and then silence.

'Father, he's gone away,' said Baia.

A little later, just as the missionary had lain down on his bed, he felt two large hands trying to strangle him. He clearly heard a voice saying in French: 'This time you are the one'. He vainly tried to cry out. Then he made a swift mental appeal to Our Lord and to Our Lady of the Sacred Heart and he could breathe again. Brother C. was soon questioned but he had heard and seen nothing in the house. The next day after Mass, the Father asked for news of Babane. 'Listen Father,' said one women who had been at the seance the previous day, 'Babane got up just after you left. Baia was groaning and moaning and she said to him 'Father came. He prayed for me and sprinkled me with holy water so I couldn't sleep any more.' Then Baia asked Roeka who had called in the Father. 'It was your daughter, Tekina,' and then Roeka added, 'Baia, let's leave here, the Father made me suffer too much.' so the whole family went to live south of the village. Now where is the epilogue to the story.  shortly after, the Father went away on a journey and he had a letter from his assistant Brother. Baia had come back from the forest with a load of coconuts and gone to lie down on his mat. He had gone into convulsions, foam and gathered at his mouth and thee was a rattling in his throat. Just as the Brother arrived he saw his head fall back as Baia breathed his last.

The people said that Roeka had killed him. the previous day Baia had had a violent quarrel with his Anti. they were waiting for the arrival of the ship which recruited workers for the phosphate company on Ocean Island. Every day Roeka said the boat would come the next day. The people felt let down and began to mock Baia who then informed his Anti. The Father was intrigued by Roeka's saying that the came from Mexico. The learnt that Roeka was also the name of one of Baia's relations who had died at sea when the Montserrat went down off the Mexican coast. This boat had come to the Gilberts to recruit workers for Central America.

Now here is an account of a generous deed from a Spirit. The story comes from Marakei.

A very firm Catholic woman told it to the missionary. She and her husband, then non Christians, were visited by an Anti who helped them in many ways. One evening the woman was very worried about her husband. He had gone out fishing that morning with a group of canoes. A fierce storm had blown up and to get back they had to battle against the wind and the waves. it was night and they still hadn't returned. Suddenly she heard a familiar whistling. 'Why are you so sad?' asked the Anti. She explained her fears to him. 'Would you like me to go and look for your husband?' Of course she would and the Anti assured her that her husband would soon be home. Half an hour later in he came, loaded down with fish. He told her that he really didn't know what had happened. There they were, battling against the waves, still a long way from the island, when suddenly he felt his canoe being lifted and pulled to land, against the force of the wind. His friends in their canoes were still battling against the raging sea and goodness knows when they would get back. then his wife told him about the visit from the Anti. Something very odd was that the spirit urged them to be good and not to ge drunk or become angry and quarrelsome, or he would abandon them.

Before the arrival of the missionaries it was very hard for the local people to be aware of the devilish tricks behind some of these extraordinary happenings. Only the church possesses remedies to unmask the devil - namely the power Our Lord gave to his Apostles to drive out Satan through prayers, exorcism or the use of sacred objects. this power is one of the signs that substantiates the work of the Apostles. It is hardly surprising that God sometimes gives the missionary the chance to use it to open the eyes of simple pagan people. the missionaries didn't use this power indiscriminately, however, as the people were far from credulous. They rather kept to one side although human charity did oblige them to take action at times. On other occasions they had only to continue in their role as witnesses.

Exorcism on Aranuka

Now let us look at something that happened on Aranuka in 1914. The Catholic religion had only been installed on the island for five years. One evening a young thirteen-year-old girl left the catechism class complaining of a terrible headache and a severe pain in her stomach. The missionary found her in the middle of a hut full of people and he have her a few drops of medicine, which she happily took. The island witch doctors were laughing up their sleeves - they knew an Anti was at work. What showed this? A hard swollen stomach, together with her grimaces. She had a very funny laugh, too. Suddenly up she leapt and rushed off towards the sea. some young men caught her. 'Now what? asked the priest.

'It's the Anti taking her away to drown.'
'Can anyone with such a bad stomach be so lively?'
'We'll sprinkle her with holy water.'
'Very well. go ahead and do it.'

As the water fell on her the girl twisted, flailed her limbs and tried to bite. She shouted that the water had a horrible smell. Secretly the missionary had some well water brought in and alternated sprinklings of that with the scattering of the holy water. When ordinary water touched her the little girl didn't move. If it was holy water, however, she went into contortions. Not once did she make a mistake. It was the evening of Palm Sunday and the missionary had two palm-fronds brought. One was blessed, the other wasn't. Then he said to a loud voice: 'Chase away the mosquitoes which are devouring this child.' they held the blessed palm near her face but she grabbed hold of it and flung it away. Confronted with the other frond she didn't flinch. They tried to take her by surprise, but every time her reaction was the same, according to whether it was the blessed frond or the ordinary one. the blessed palm and the holy water could upset her, causing contortions, wild sarcastic laughter and a haggard look in her eyes. could this be case of diabolical possession or a cunning piece of trickery? The onlookers were very calm, as if accustomed to such seances. they weren't at all disturbed by the presence of the Anti. could it be that all these Catholics were playing a huge joke on the priest? Time went by. for his own peace of mind the missionary decided to try an exorcism. this he had never done before and now he didn't even have time to read the rubrics. The devil certainly knew them better than he did! Half a page before the end of the ritual the young girl seized her cover and pulled it over her head, though she had remained fairly calm so far during the exorcism. shortly the Father realized that he had to perform a further sprinkling with holy water. How had the young girl been aware of thi8s? It was very hard to move her clenched fingers and uncover her contorted face. As soon as the holy water touched her, however, there was an incredible relaxation. Her face became peaceful and she came back to her senses. She sat up on her mat, amazed to see all these people staring at her. Her headache had gone, she no longer had a stomach ache and was quite well. It was possible to take her home again.

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