Volume 109 2000 > Volume 109, No. 4 > 'Inedible' to 'edible': Firewalking and the ti plant [Cordyline fruticosa (L.) A. Chev.], by Celia Ehrlich, p 371-400
“INEDIBLE” TO “EDIBLE”: FIREWALKING AND THE TI PLANT [CORDYLINE FRUTICOSA (L.) A. CHEV.]
The species presently named Cordyline fruticosa (L.) A. Chev. has been known by many other botanical names, most recently Cordyline terminalis (Ehrlich 1999, Fosberg 1985). Vernacular names for it are many: si in Tonga, ti in Samoa, Tahiti and New Zealand, ki in Hawai'i, and there are hundreds of other names in languages of Island Southeast Asia, China and Japan, the Philippines, New Guinea, Island Melanesia and other parts of Oceania, I will refer to it simply as ti. Like others who have cultivated this plant, Polynesians have planted ti on their sacred grounds and around their homes but, unlike the others, Polynesians have eaten the ti rhizome (underground stem). This was a daring innovation (Barrau 1965:289-90, Leenhardt 1946:192-93). In Polynesia, as almost everywhere this plant has been grown, ti has been treated as if it had supernatural affinities, in particular as a means of communication. A specific form of firewalking, known in detail from parts of Fiji and the Cook and Society Islands, appears to have removed the taboo on eating the ti rhizome. The widespread use of the same species in similar symbolic capacities speaks of an ancient tradition being transmitted and adapted along with the vegetative matter of the ti plant (Ehrlich 1999).
From the Malay Peninsula to Hawai'i, ti is a cultivated plant; its origin as a species is unknown. Ti was probably introduced to Hawai'i, as to other parts of Polynesia, by the earliest settlers who brought it along with their major food plants (Abbott 1992:42). The leaves of the “Hawaiian ki plant” are large and green, but leaves of other varieties are red, yellow, striped, dark purplish or almost black. They are more or less sword shaped, thick or thin, long or short, but none are as large and scoop-ended as “Hawaiian ki”, which does not ordinarily set seeds. It is significant that red ti, conspicuous in rituals elsewhere, has no traditional importance in Hawai'i.
Wherever people have grown it, ti has been useful, marking field boundaries and providing leaves for wrapping and garments like hula skirts or capes. Healers have made extensive use of it, seldom as a medicine but often as a tool for warding off or conveying supernatural entities. Some rituals, formerly related to fighting, headhunting and sacrifice, have been transformed into healing rituals and initiations. Ti has also been part of peace and marriage ceremonies. Ti plants have stood (and still stand) at - 372 altars and field shrines, beside men's houses and other houses, at borders, at graves. People have used ti as a metaphorical boundary between humans and spirits and adapted it differently to their different societies. It has often been treated as if it had generalised efficacy for groups larger than local residential groups or sub-groups.
In cataloguing the uses of ti as a ceremonial plant, roughly from west to east, I use the ethnographic present to suggest uncertainty about whether or not the activity continues into the present. For each distinct area described, I add, in parentheses, words that characterise ti use there. The reporting of plant uses is extremely uneven so the picture of ti, complex as it appears, is necessarily incomplete. Short summaries follow the discussion of each major geographical area.
ISLAND SOUTHEAST ASIA
Ngaju people of southern Borneo, Kalimantan, speakers of an Austronesian language, have used ti to symbolise “the sacred grove of the ancestors” (Schärer 1966:343). They have planted ti when they “promised with the living” and thrown it into the river when they “promised with the dead” (Schiller 1986:235). Ngaju couples have held picked ti “so that their marriage vows would reach the high god”; relatives have swept with it to purify houses where a dead person has been lying, and, to purify them, showered visitors as they arrived and left with water shaken from ti leaves. In the past, the Ngaju planted ti after the final sacrifice of a secondary mortuary ritual, after the departure of the supernaturals who had been invited to receive the sacrifice (Schiller 1987). Ti represents a Tree of Life in a drawing with childish faces at the ends of its leaves (Schärer 1963: Frontispiece). There is a separation of supernatural realms, the lower being controlled by a crocodilian creature and the upper by a bird. Ngaju mention another tree, a Ficus species, as the Tree that “guarantees eternal life to the dead, for the Water of Life flows from it”. Its name, lunuk, also means “woman” (pp.77,178). The Ficus is the feminine, otherworld counterpart of the masculine ti in the land of the living that, in turn, refers to a supernatural Tree.
A small construction called the patahu ‘village guardian’ always has ti (and sometimes other plants) growing beside it; ti is the most important plant there (Schärer 1966:249). The Ngaju set up patahu either in the centre of the village or in front of the headman's house. They used to place human bones and skulls on its platform as offerings (Schärer 1963:Plates XXV and XXVI). The guardian “rested” underneath the platform, “lightly sleeping but in full accoutrements of war”, ready to warn and protect the people from approaching enemies. Beside him stood an upright stone or large jar. - 373 Other names for the patahu are “guardian of the village gate” and “stone defender of the palisade” (p.249).
Red ti has also been an important ritual plant for other Island Southeast Asian people. The Iban of Sarawak have used red and green ti as binary symbols, planting the former beside the path to the river after rituals “for war”, the latter after rituals “for peace”. In head-hunting days, the Iban said that ti plants could speak and warn of coming attacks; chants mention them as messengers to gods (Richards 1981:316). Kayans and Kenyah planted reddish ti at house altars and wielded it during initiations, some now held in modified form with green ti. The egg offerings at Berawan “prayer stations” (containing red ti) are always raw, the assumption being that the prayers cook the eggs (Metcalf 1989:79). “Prayer stations” with red ti may stand either beside the longhouse or at the edge of a lake (p.78). Bare'e Toraja of Sulawesi regard red ti as “the heavenly plant par excellence” (Adriani and Kruyt 1951, IV: 160). Sa'dan Toraja planted ti in front of the triangular facades of noble houses that had sponsored Ma'Bua rituals, performed to improve relations with ancestral spirits and with allies. They used picked red ti to restore life in their Ma'Bugi ritual; the bugi to which they offered raw foods on red ti leaves was said to live at the edge of the upperworld in a hut thatched with red ti leaves (Nooy-Palm 1986:143). Hindu, Buddhist and Christian influences have obscured the basic animism of many Island Southeast Asian religions, but where rituals with ti plants have persisted, the habitus of actions with the plant has been similar.
In Island Southeast Asia, Cordyline fruticosa has been treated as a sacred plant. Red ti, primarily, was central to altars that stood for solidarity between the living and the dead, especially the ancestral elite. Human sacrifice was once part of a final scene in a secondary mortuary ritual that ended with planting ti. Green ti was used more often than red in ceremonies for healing. In art, in chants and in ritual acts, ti was treated as a Tree of Life. Ti leaves were used to placate and exorcise dragon-like supernaturals and achieve unity with the spirits of ancestors.
Among many of the diverse populations of New Guinea, the ti plant has also been conspicuous in ritual. The character of the plant as a supernatural adjunct is pervasive, although its applications vary in the different societies.
In West Papua, the Kapauku treat the ti plant as active in itself, with power to control spirits, unlike other magical plants, which they say are - 374 themselves controlled by particular supernaturals. Both red and green ti are said to have “… a generalized power which controls most of the supernatural beings and compels them to help with white magic in case the first plant is used, and with black magic if one uses the second” (Pospisil 1964:34). Kapauku usually associate plants with evil, disease-causing spirits that have to be induced to leave, but green ti is said to repel most evil spirits (pp.25-6). Both red and green ti varieties have been used in ceremonies to protect groups (p. 157). Diviners tie knots into the ends of green ti stalks and shake them; if the knot comes loose, it means that a disease-causing supernatural has gone away, and that the patient will get well (Pospisil 1966:80-1). Formerly, before a fight, an important archer would give a feast for which people stayed up late and talked about previous fighting experiences. A shaman performed magic with a ti “broom” to protect the archer from attacks by enemy supernaturals, “departed shadows”. The feast was called “to eat a man”, but Pospisil did not see evidence of anthropophagy among the Kapauku (p.92). When a Kapauku man was about to give a feast, he built a dance house, planting a tall tree and a green ti where the front post would stand (Pospisil 1964:28).
Among Ok language speakers, who live near the border of Indonesia and Papua New Guinea, ti has rarely been a clan totem but has served as “megatotem” of the domestic arena in the same sense that the “Rainbow Serpent” of Australia and New Guinea served as “megatotems” of wild places (Ehrlich 1999). The Mianmin build a shrine shaped like a men's house that has red ti (kasak) plants (and also Codiaeum and Coleus) planted near it. Mianmin use these plants to aid them in battle, gardening and hunting. Ti is one of the plants they use when healing, the others being betel, ginger and fern (Morren 1986:210-11). Young male initiates gradually learn the significance of the creation myth for the living and the dead in a ceremony called Kasak (p.232). The kasak or tangit (Cordyline sp.) ceremony provides the initiates with ritual knowledge intended to protect them from dangerous “hot” and “cold” spirits. They are given the secret name of the kasak and told about the hidden role of Fitipkanip in making it red. Other secrets are also conveyed at this time (p.232). Fitipkanip is a mythical founder who followed “smoke rising” and found a man eating fruit in a tree. She killed the man and wrapped his blood in ti leaves near the earth oven where she planned to cook him. The fire spread from the oven to the leaves, then to the ceremonial hut, but with her fighting club Fitipkanip beat out the flames and saved the territory.
This is how kasak leaves got their colour (p.206). The Mianmin say that cooking a wild pig in an earth oven at this time (and painting it white) pacifies the tangit (kasak) demon, who causes illnesses in which the - 375 symptoms are those of old age (p.232). The Mianmin have a myth about a huge snake whose spirit enters men and makes them want to kill (Morren 1986:210-11). So do other groups of Ok language speakers, Feranmin and Telefolmin, their traditional enemies.
The Feranmin plant red ti around their men's cult houses. To them, ti represents blood “in a powerful state”, causing heating to the extent that women who even brush it in passing must cool themselves by throwing a little of their own blood into the Sepik River. Red Pandanus is also a symbol of men's blood and unity, but it is red ti that is the Feranmin's “elder brother”, giving them courage for fighting. Both plants are said to be the blood of the huge snake [dragon's blood?], a wild creature of shifting disguises (Brumbaugh 1986:26-31).
The Baktaman of Papua New Guinea's Western Province also use red ti in their initiation rites; another species of red plant would not be acceptable (Barth 1975:67,69,113, Plate 12). The Baktaman use green ti for healing ceremonies (pp. 140-41).
In Papua New Guinea's East Sepik Province, there is an indirect link between ti and territorial boundaries and crocodilian generative spirits. The link is mysterious and comes out in both songs and behaviour. In Iatmul villages ti is planted on mounds, along with “crotons” and “short palms” (possibly a Cycas sp.). Central to these mounds are tall Borassus palm trees and large stones. The Iatmul ceremonial houses contain elaborate carved stools that speakers strike with bunches of ti while making claims to personal names and addressing ancestral spirits (Bateson 1932:260). The name of the stool itself means “ti + one who crouches” (Stanek 1983:454 n.21).
Song texts of Nyaura, another east Sepik group, often mention ti plants and Wassmann (1990) has reconstructed the mythology behind Nyaura use of public and private names, about which men also debate over a stool. Each clan has a knotted cord that represents the paths taken by supernatural crocodiles and the places where they stopped on their way from the common origin place.
In the Middle Sepik village of Tambunum, debaters also hold ti leaves while claiming ancestral names and holding sacra (Silverman 1996:40). Knowledge of totemic names is a source of power; a man passes on the names of his line to his children, using those of the grandfather's generation; children are said to possess the souls their grandfathers used to own (p.35). The mythology that supports this goes back to the behaviour of crocodile spirits, said to impregnate women. Men take responsibility for reproduction through ritual and politics about names (p.37).
A totemic symbol for one Avatip lineage, also of the East Sepik, is red ti, but there are many other symbols for other lineages (Harrison 1990:55). - 376 Flowers and leaves used in ritual, some of them totemic plants, grow on a mound in front of the sub-clan ceremonial houses. Names and ritual sacra used there are important because they embody ancestral spirits from particular villages of origin, and in rituals men “become” those beings (p.91). Names are seen in hierarchies, and men try to identify themselves with powerful ones, possibly to expropriate additional names. Moieties are also in hierarchies of “elder” and “younger brothers” (p. 105). Avatip orators from opposing sub-clans (whatever their totem plants) hold ti leaves while speaking; the process is “cordyline speaking/hitting” (p. 146). Each speaker picks up a bunch of ti leaves, lying at his feet, and has the floor as long as he holds the ti branches (pp. 162-63).
For Melpa people of the Papua New Guinea Highlands, ti as a species represents mi—‘the creative power of the origin place’ — and while other things may be totem-like symbols of particular clans, ti has generalised import. Melpa men, like Maring, take hold of a ti plant while initiating an agreement with allies who will attend a large feast and then assist them in taking revenge for a killing. Melpa plant ti in a central place, adding a stick when they bury the umbilical cord of a newborn child. The place where the first mi was “laid down” they say, is the source of life-spirits (min) and the centre from which all power comes, its “navel-place” (Strauss 1990:52,99). Melpa use ti as a message plant, for leaf kilts and for many other specific purposes. Mi “demands sacrifice” and Melpa say that sacrifice is essential to their well-being: “Sacrifice is the source of power, of the ability to beget children and multiply, of vitality, health and peace” (p.4). The mi also has the ability to warn; in retrospect, people might say that the reason their group had suffered a rout was that it had failed to heed such a warning in the form of a pile of mi-leaves or a dream about them (p.209).
There is a vast amount of information about the ways in which Chimbu groups use the many ti varieties they cultivate. Many sub-groups build small altars containing them (Aufenanger 1961). Chimbu also plant ti on graves. There is a rare story about a man who eats ti leaves during a ceremony designed to get revenge on a wife who has insulted him. He kills and cooks one of her pigs and eats it along with the leaves. If he did not eat the leaves, these people (Kunanagu) said, he would become a crippled old man (p.395).
The Fore of Eastern Highlands Province plant red ti beside men's houses, following the example of the human founders and of the supernatural creators, Jugumishanta and Morofonu. Sacred stones are also present. The myth of Jugumishanta and Morofuno justifies continuing warfare: “The special red croton, symbolising blood, is used extensively in the rituals and age-grading ceremonies. It is planted over garden-graves and in other parts of the gardens, and also in a village, to signify an unavenged death” (Berndt - 377 1962:49). Another name for Jugumishanta is Kabito and kabito is also the name for the “special red croton” (almost certainly the ti plant since “croton” is a popular catch-all for colourful tropical vegetation, and the plant is unlikely to be a Croton species). The Fore say Kabito gave birth to humans in a garden, which had to be broken and have sacrificial blood poured on it to become fertile. She is an earth goddess. After planting ti and building men's houses in Fore, Usurufa, Kamano and Jate territories, the myth continues, the creator spirits left the earth for the land of the dead in Agarabe country, where they are said to rule (pp.40-46).
Daribi people of Southern Highlands Province plant ti fences in front of their houses and between gardens and bush. Two dark green ti varieties, used for fixing boundaries and establishing taboos, are the ones “respected by ghosts” (Wagner 1972:129):
Whether planted simply as a fence or perimeter for ghosts, or metaphorically to denote the finality of a prohibition, Cordyline always marks the point where the control of human beings ends and that of ghosts begins. The idiom invoked here is that of spatial separation, of ghosts and the implications of death. When a man plants a stalk of Cordyline, he fixes a limit and renders any transgression “beyond” that point unto the trusteeship of ghosts.
Red ti is conspicuous in the Habu “anti-funerals”, which the Daribi say they perform to rejoice in enemy deaths and ward off ghosts, said to dislike red things (p. 132). Red ti decorates houses and serves the men and boys as rear-coverings and hair ornaments (pp. 150-51). The Daribi sometimes expose corpses of their important people on platforms, later extracting the bones (cf. Maring practice). It is important that the body fluids should go into the earth pit beneath the platform (pp. 147-48). The platforms have posts of ti plants in the four corners and the body itself has ti leaves put onto it before men carry it to the exposure place. After two more mortuary rituals, the Daribi take the exhumed bones to a rock-shelter (pp. 148-50). They plant ti at funerals as precautions against ghostly revenge (p. 133).
Maring people of Papua New Guinea have used ti (rumbim) in their Kaiko cycle; men entrusted their life spirits to it before going out with their allies to protect their ancestral homelands (Rappaport 1968). While finding ecological factors to be primary determinants of the Kaiko, Rappaport also noted that rumbim was associated with “Red Spirits” of those who had died in warfare, not just with the living. For the Maring, planting this rumbim asserted their spirituality, strength, health, agnation, territoriality, continuity and something like immortality. Rappaport (1979:90-91,109) wrote of rumbim planting as conveying the sense of identity, unity or integration - 378 that comes from participating in ritual, being the “yes/no signal” that was part of a cybernetic package. LiPuma (1988:62ff.) learned that rumbim and its feminine counterpart aname, a Coleus species, expressed the relationship between the living, male and female ancestral spirits, and continued fertility of the land and the people. Planting rumbim and aname around graves and at borders affirmed this relationship.
The Pidgin word for ti, spelled tangkets, tankets or tangets in various Melanesian Pidgins, is said to have originated on the Gazelle Peninsula of New Britain (Mihalic 1971:192). It has been used in many areas of Papua New Guinea and usually refers to ti leaves sent as messages. For instance, a leaf with knots tied into it might encode the number of days to elapse before a feast would be held. I should note at this point that all the groups whose use of ti I document hereafter speak Austronesian languages.
Maenge groups of East New Britain recognise about 52 ti varieties. They classify them according to colour, size and other criteria, and reserve them for particular uses (Panoff 1969:23,26). Ritual experts, who have inherited their knowledge from either their fathers' or their mothers' side (i.e., from mothers' brothers), are referred to as “Fathers-of-the-Village”. These men are in charge of entertaining visitors and decide the appropriate time for the performance of garden rituals (Panoff 1970:21 n. 11). One duty is to take charge of a small altar, a savasanga, which is set up immediately after a group names a new village. The altar contains a stone, several kinds of ti plants and Alocasia macrorhiza, a kind of taro. It is the “warrant of village prosperity” and rituals there promote fertility, especially for food plants and pigs (Panoff 1972:383). Maenge associate some ti varieties with snake-like Creators.
The ti growing near the doors of Dobu houses is green, whereas in the Massim Islands it is coloured (Fortune 1963:114-15). Dobuan graveyards are elevated mounds raised in the middle of villages, enclosed with stone and planted with red ti (pp.1,115,250). The graves are those of maternal relatives; graves of paternal relatives are scattered in other villages (p.2). Dobuans attribute protective power against malignant spirits of the dead to ti (p. 114). The living derive their rights to individual land and palm trees from the spirits of those buried there. The system gives rise to rivalry between a “boundary man”, a son who is forbidden to enter his father's village or get any food from it, and the “owner”, a cross-cousin who is allowed to enter and eat the food but does not share garden magic with the planter (p. 14). Garden magic involves ti planting (pp. 112-116).
Each Kalauna clan of Goodenough Island has a named ti variety, associated with exclusive war magic, which they grow within clan “sitting - 379 circles”. Men chew the leaves to work themselves up before fights or political confrontations (Young 1971: 68, 245).
In the island of Santa Ysabel (Western Solomons), a ti variety with long red leaves grows mainly in burial places and forbidden areas. A sacred altar, formerly the site of human sacrifice, is a pile of stones, human bones, long-leaved red ti and (unidentified) glagobe plants within a stone circle. Old people still believe there is mana at such altars. On Santa Ysabel, ti is dili and red ti is nahogle (Lagusu 1986:49). The priest who leads a Fafara ceremony (at an altar containing stones, bones and ti plants) wears a costume made of red ti leaves as well as a number of other leaves. He enters the sacred site, waving a branch of ti with long, red leaves. Since he crosses the boundary between the profane and the sacred when he enters, the priest first has to purify himself. He cremates a pig there, saying he will dispel bad spirits that might be near the place. Formerly, people staged this ceremony before and after wars, before fishing or hunting trips, and after bad harvests or other setbacks they attributed to hostile spirits. Women could not go anywhere near the altar. The men all sat in a circle around the central stone. After the pig cremation, dancers performed wearing leaves and strips of tapa (bark cloth) (Vilasa 1986:56-57). Priests used to conduct human sacrifice there, each warrior taking part in the killing (as Ngaju did before planting ti at the end of their secondary mortuary ritual). “It was believed that the most valued object should be offered as a sacrifice to the spirits.” People called this altar “the burial place of our fathers” and “the land of our existence” (Lagasu 1986:49).
Ti plants are important to several groups of Malaita, including the Kwaio, who use them in several ceremonies when unseen beings are asked for protection, divination and fertility. Red and green varieties have different roles. Kwaio plant ti at crematory altars (Keesing 1982).
The Arosi of San Cristoval have used red ti leaves and a member of the Amaranthaceae (probably red, like coxcombs) on many occasions to drive off and overcome the mena (mana, see Fox 1924:253-54) of spirits and ghosts (p.366). The Arosi associate mena with red things like blood (p.278). They plant ti at altars and graves (pp.279,375). In their first-fruits ceremony, the Arosi addressed their androgynous dual deity, Arguna/Hatuibwari. Everybody who attended the ceremony carried sticks of ti, which they planted in a sacred grove just outside the village (pp.81,332).
Leenhardt (1946:192-3) provides the following general remarks about the use of ti by the indigenous peoples of New Caledonia. The mound where they dance and hold feasts is rectangular, having a stone altar at its head, and is planted with reddish ti, associated with males. The trees at the other end of the grassy expanse are coral trees, Erythrina, which have red flowers - 380 and feminine connotations. Plantings at the sides are not permanent like those at the ends. Ti is said to be necessary at an altar because it ensures the efficacy of the sacrifice. It also purifies the ground in places where blood has been shed in battle. Further, New Caledonians plant red ti near the ovens in which they prepare offerings for the dead and beside men's houses. The place behind the clubhouse is especially taboo, and ti represents the male element and symbolises the perennial life of the clan. Most particularly, these people do not eat ti. Leenhardt was the first to remark that Polynesians ate ti rhizome, while indigenous peoples of New Caledonians did not (Barrau 1965:289-90).
Leenhardt's summing up of the role of ti in New Caledonia works well for many other Melanesian societies, diverse as they are. It is striking that some groups treat this plant very much as Island Southeast Asians do. The differences suggest different applications of a traditional material thought to foster contact with supernaturals.
TI IN THE ISLES OF FIJI
In Fiji, ti grows as if it was wild, but it is an introduced plant. It grows in hedges, often at the sides of yam beds. Fijians use ti rhizomes for food, ti leaves for skirts for ceremonial wear and for wrapping food before baking it (Smith 1979, I:149-51, Williams 1982:28,61-62). Every few years, Fijians of one district used to hold initiations in special enclosures surrounded by stone walls, red ti and candlenuts, and hold feasts dedicated to spirits of the dead (Fison 1884:16). During the investment of a new Mata, the distributor of tribute or food, Bau Islanders put a red ti leaf around his arm (Williams 1982:26). Fijian healers have used ti leaves to treat various ailments. Both ti canes and the juices of red ti leaves have been used to induce abortion (Blyth 1887:182, Seemann 1862:342, Williams 1982:180).
Fijians bake rhizomes weighing from 10 to 40 pounds in earth ovens and eat them like candy or make them into syrup for sweetening puddings. At least they did this before refined sugar became available. The rhizomes were not made into alcoholic drink in Fiji (Seemann 1862:306). Much larger than ordinary earth ovens, ti ovens were made only for special communal feasts. Volcanic stones had to be heated all night before the cooking could take place (p.107). The cooking itself took a long time (Roth 1936:172) and no other food might be cooked in a ti oven; According to Fijians, any other type of food would not cook (Roth 1933:46). An earth oven is a lovo or revo, and firewalking is vilavila i revo, “the jumping into the oven” (Roth 1936:172).- 381
Ti grows in villages and in fields in the Lau Islands (Hocart 1929:107). Coloured plants (including pink ti) grow around god-houses and graves (Thompson 1940:222). Lau Islanders fold a ti leaf in two, place a ball of pudding on it, draw the leaf in to make a bag and wrap a midrib strand around the package before steaming it. They use syrup from mashed, cooked ti rhizomes, to sweeten starchy puddings (Hocart 1929:138-39, Thompson 1940:154-57). A ti oven is a lovo ningai [ngai' qai, a ti name] (Hocart 1929:118). It is large like a cannibal oven, a lovo ni mbakola (Thompson 1940:223, Ehrlich 1999:437,435). On Lakeba, in the Lau Islands, people called one pond “the Dracaena [ti] oven” of a goddess, one of a pair whom they said “controlled sickness and war”. A long, flat fish lived in her pond. Another pond was home to two “Matangi women”, goddesses of the area of Waitambu, and ti was said to grow near it (Hocart 1929:118). (This plant, in association with these goddesses, is like the red ti of the Tikopian Kura ceremony [see below].) Hocart also notes (p.49) that in Rotuma, there is a legend about a woman (or demon) who helped to repel Tongan invaders by luring them on and disappearing into a spring from which they could not find their way back. To go into such a pond or spring would be to die. Red ti continues to be a plant of choice in connecting the living to the sacred dead. There is a symbolic contrast between earth ovens as sites of heating (and in Fiji, cannibalism) and ponds that are sources of life.
The distribution of ti names among Fijian islands provides support for Seemann's (1862) claim that the sweetening variety was introduced to Fiji from Tonga by way of the Lau Islands. The ti name qai is generic in Lau and Vanualevu, but specific to the rhizome in northern Tailevu, where qai seems to have replaced yakoto as a name for the whole plant. The variety called tikula, definitely a Tongan name, is red with small rhizomes (Geraghty pers. comm. 1989). The name for the rhizome in Beqa is masawe; some good descriptions of firewalking come from Beqa (Allardyce 1904; Hocken 1898; Jackson 1899; Roth 1933, 1936).
TI IN POLYNESIA.
Firewalking on hot stones and eating ti rhizomes were related Polynesian innovations adopted in response to the exigencies of life in a resource poor island world. This involved a ritual reversal that eliminated the taboo on eating the rhizome. It is not known where, specifically, the firewalking ritual originated. In proposing the connection between these two innovations, I will first note familiar non-food uses of the ti plant, then describe the firewalking ceremony, and finally attempt to reconstruct its meaning.- 382
In the Polynesian Outlier of Tikopia, no one chief has jurisdiction over ti, although each of the four principal ones is said to control one of the four main crops. This generality of supernatural affinity is typical of ti, which seldom appears to be the exclusive property of a single group. Each Tikopia chief does follow slightly different canoe rituals and use particular leaves for decorations. One uses Cycas leaves, and another pinkish ti and light coconut leaves (Firth 1967:117,132). Wearing the ti necklet is usually the prerogative of elders performing sacred tasks; wearing the coconut necklet is the prerogative of chiefs, though a young Tikopia girl might be given a ti necklet in a ceremony marking her maturity (p.86). It was said to ensure her health and prosperity (Firth 1966:465). Formerly, an elder might have sponsored a ceremony called Kura, placing a red ti necklet on his daughter's head. She then represented Nau Taufiti, the goddess whom Tikopia said escorted dead souls to the upperworld after they had been cleaned in a spring by her twin, Kume, who stripped away flesh from the bodies as an eel might do (Firth 1970:116). Reddish ti is Nau Taufiti's plant emblem. The young woman was not allowed to marry, but was said to go directly to the upperworld when she died. One chant compares the penis of Nau Taufiti's husband Rata to a cooked ti rhizome (Firth 1967:93).
Tikopians roasted ti rhizomes in a special large oven at times when other foods were scarce, asking a goddess to “pierce the oven with power” before removing the earth that covered it (Firth 1985:521). Firth notes (1966:29-30) that Tikopian traditions tell of “a Tongan invasion about eight generations ago”, as well as arrivals of Tikopia ancestors from other Polynesian places. Several of these, or indeed the traditional Tongan invaders, could have introduced ti cooking to Tikopia. Tongan influence is evident far outside Tonga, not only did Tikopians have a ti oven but also some Fijians ate the rhizome, usually taboo to the west of them.
Ti leaves are necessary for making the kilts Tongan dancers wear in the dance called lakalaka. Farm workers used to wear ti kilts. Special costumes ornamented with triangles of ti leaf, an unusual garland made with ti, and foods sweetened with ti syrup are “chiefly”, although the plant is “common” on most occasions. Ti leaves are used for massage. A rare survival of ti usage in Christian Tonga is the custom of luluku in which an officiant sweeps the room in which a dead person has been lying “to remove the devils”. One ti variety is si matale'a (Churchward 1959:427), which is perhaps cognate to mata alea, an important ti variety in nearby Niue. Tongans have eaten ti rhizomes, especially in times of famine and as provisions for voyages. There - 383 are old ti ovens in Tonga, as there are in Samoa, but no firewalking is documented. In Western Polynesian mythology, the most important deities were androgynous, cannibalistic demons with tails, watchmen who consulted “talking trees”. They controlled Water of Life and the Tree of Life in a paradise full of red plants.
In nearby Futuna, ti leaf costumes might be both red and green. Now the “kilts” for festivals are of Hibiscus bark, but formerly they were of ti leaves (Burrows 1936:192). Islanders use ti as well as banana, fern and breadfruit leaves to wrap food for cooking on oven stones (McClatchey 1996:151, Burrows 1936:136).
There are five names for ti varieties in Niue (Smith 1902:90, Sykes 1970:255, Yuncker 1943:33; Smith noted that the Niueans pronounce /ti/ as [tsi]). One of these, ti mata-alea, is said to be the parent of humankind (Loeb 1971:70,164). Niueans have cooked and eaten the other varieties, but only pregnant women might eat ti-mata-alea (Smith 1902:203). Niuean tradition explains why this is so.
Living man was born from a tree—the tree which is named Ti-mata-alea…. Thus: when a married woman is pregnant she longs for the Ti, with its root or stalk; then the husband and the parents prepare an umu-ti, or native oven of hot stones for cooking the roots, in order to cause the child to grow. After the woman has eaten of this, the child becomes hard… from the effects of the Ti. This is the ancient custom of Niue from the time the island was made" (Smith 1902:203, see also Smith 1903:85 for Niuean text).
The name mata-alea may refer to “voice” or “speaking”, and ideas of voice and speaking by supernaturals are implied in association with ti in several places. “Voice” (leo or lea) suggests a supernatural watchman as in the names of the Tongan deity, Hiku'leo, and the Samoan Tree of Life, Leosia (Tregear 1891:58). (The ti plant has also been treated as if it were a watchman by Ngaju, Iban, Melpa and others.) Krämer calls the Samoan tree's owner, Savea Si'uleo, “the watchman” and describes him as a “cannibalistic demon” (1994, II: 115,184). Hawaiian 'ulaleo is “supernatural voice or sound; the hearing of such a voice or sound”, 'ula being “spirit or ghost; sacred” and leo “voice or sound” (Pukui et al. 1972, I:10-11). The name for paradise, “the sacred land of Kane”, Hawaiian Paliuli or Paliula, may refer to the visually liminal condition suggested by liula ‘twilight or mirage’ rather than an aural one (Beckwith 1940:72). Mata in the name mata-alea might mean, as it does in Maori, ‘raw, uncooked’ or ‘fresh, green’, - 384 but as a noun it is a “medium of communication with a spirit” (Williams 1971:185-86).
Niuean illustrations show a god named Limaua, said to represent an ancient toa ‘warrior’, wearing a ti leaf kilt (Loeb 1971: Plate XIIC). Loeb deduced that Niuean warriors had also worn ti leaf kilts.
Samoans plant red ti as an ornamental around houses (Hiroa 1930:250) and what looks like green ti beside council houses (Barrau 1961:61, Fig. 23). They cultivate some kinds as crops (Setchell 1924:196), using the leaves as kilts and the rhizomes for food. In a normal dry season (July to December), families would bring in their ti for a communal oven, marking their bunches for retrieval after they were cooked (Hiroa 1930:136-37). Some ti ovens in Samoa date back to ancient times (Davidson et al. 1967:225-27). Cox (1982) has fired a ti oven in Samoa and reported his procedure in detail. Samoans also use ti leaves for wrapping food and for massage (Turner 1879:118, Whistler 1984:483). They smear the leaves with coconut oil when wearing them as dance kilts, neckbands and anklets (Setchell 1924:200,204,218). Healers use juice from ti leaves with coconut to treat inflammation and rhizome juice to treat “captain's leg” (unidentified), fever, earache, aching limbs and cuts from rusty objects (Uhe 1974:4-5). They also use the rhizome (in an unidentified way) to treat diarrhea (Krämer 1994:384). This is odd because, in a Hawaiian saying, eating the rhizome to excess causes diarrhea (Handy, Pukui and Livermore 1934:20).
In Mangaia, bunches of yellow ti leaves worked into kite-tails stood for the stars in specific constellations, six for the Pleiades, three for Orion's belt, etc. Each tail also included two bunches of feathers, at the top and bottom (Gill 1880:122, cited in Chadwick 1931:458). Cook Islanders mix crushed ti leaves with castor oil as a purgative (Whistler 1985:253). Ti leaves are used in treatment for “possession”—perhaps because of their “…aboriginal status as a plant sacred to the gods”(p.271). Healers may put ti leaves around the neck of a patient suffering from sore throat and pain, and rub burns with an infusion of young ti leaves (p.264).
Ti was one of the principal food crops on Rarotonga (Crocombe 1964:16). It grew from sea level to the tops of the mountains (Wilder 1931:29). Rarotongans used to make ti ovens in the winter months, cooking the rhizomes for 24 hours or more. The sweet juice mixed with coconut milk was delicious, tasting something like butterscotch toffee. “In some cases, according to many accounts, many an unfortunate person served to provide - 385 a relish takea for the feast that followed” (Savage 1962:376). A conquered people might subsist on ti rhizomes and there too, “…many a wretched victim was treacherously thrust in to perish miserably in the flames…” of a ti oven (Large 1911:1). Firewalking used to precede ti cooking on Rarotonga (Gudgeon 1899).
On the island of Atiu, priests from Tahiti conducted firewalking ceremonies, which they said had originated on Ra'iatea (Large 1911:1). A “Dramatic Song of Miru, Mistress of the Spirit-World”, recorded by the missionary W. W. Gill, indicates that the people of Aitutaki connected ti cooking with human souls, those of the “mean and cowardly” being obliterated after death. Miru ate the souls as if they were ti rhizomes after cooking them in her ti oven (Gill 1876:175ff.).
Green ti grows on the slopes of the larger islands of Central Polynesia as if wild. Tahitians used to grow 13 varieties. The preferred variety for planting on sacred grounds was green and yellow ti 'uti (Henry 1928:37). Ti 'ura (red) grew in one precinct called Ma'a-tea in Tahiti (p.90). For festive occasions, Tahitians also decorated buildings with plaited coconut leaves and ti. Long sheds were built on a lawn, generally near the chief's house (p.625). The large temple called Taputapuatea of Raiatea, whose major god was 'Oro, had a roof thatched with ti, an unusual feature for a Tahitian temple although in the old days all houses had ti leaf thatch. Only men, including the chief, several warriors and a priest, lived in this house (Handy 1930:88-89).
Ti kilts used to be the working garment for both men and women, and ti leaves were the strings for Pandanus-fruit wreaths (Petard 1946:197). Both male and female members of the secret society called Arioi, performing followers of the war god 'Oro, wore fine fringes, garlands and wreaths of ti leaves (Henry 1928:231). One division of the Arioi was called “Eight Ti” (pp.101,234). Before going on tour, the Arioi decked the ti plants on the temple grounds with strips of white bark cloth and asked for a successful journey (p.237). These ti leaves were yellowish green (Ellis 1831:234).
Ti was among the Tahitians' ritual natural objects; others being feathers, blood, plantain shoots, Tahitian rosewood, and sea water (Oliver 1974,I:107). Planting a branch of ti on national or royal ceremonial grounds was ti patia “ti-stuck-in” and showed that religious restrictions were in effect. Nobody might kill pigs or fowls or go fishing before the preparations for building were complete (Henry 1928:131). As a sign that an engagement was arranged, Tahitians planted a stick of ti on the house floor,“…thus making the promise sacred”, and thereafter they held a betrothal feast (pp.281-82). In legend, ti - 386 grew from human thigh- and shinbones and other plants grew from other parts of a human body (p.421). (The stalk of the Hawaiian kahili was sometimes a human shinbone and ti was the original kahili of kings [Brigham 1898:14, Neal 1965:203-04]; Maori tahiri is cognate with Hawaiian kahili [Tregear 1891:499].)
Tahitian war orators called rau-ti held bunches of ti with stingray tail bones in the centre (Henry 1928:312). If one of the orators collapsed on the field during a battle, his fellow warriors would carry him back to prevent his being captured (pp.309-10). One or more rau-ti also stood on the war canoe platforms along with the commander. In war, the rau-ti sometimes held a spear in the left hand, but always ti leaves in the right (Ellis 1931:287, Henry 1928:316).
Messengers to hostile parties carried young banana shoots and ti branches as emblems of peace (Ellis 1969:274). A “wreath of peace”, made by both sides to confirm a peace agreement, consisted of intertwined sacred maile and ti leaves (Henry 1928:319). Studies in schools for priests included “war songs and enchantments with the ti leaf” and priests wore “long glossy leaves of green and brilliant-yellow” ti as neckties and turbans (Henry 1928:37,155, Petard 1946:205). While building a new boat under a chief's direction, men from different clans wore ti leaf turbans (Henry 1928:482). At other times, turbans might be made of tapa (bark) cloth or other plants (p.286).
Tahitians also carried ti branches when they went on canoe voyages, planting the branches when they disembarked (Petard 1946:205). When someone died, priests went out in canoes, hunting for signs that might indicate that the person had been the victim of sorcerers or the victim of revenge for ill-treatment of some god. As they buried the person, they invoked the gods and planted a ti branch beside it “to conduct the soul to the spirit world” (Henry 1928:291). Society Islanders said sweet-smelling ti leaves would enable fugitives to fly over cliffs and ravines while trying to escape (p. 105). There is a Tahitian story in which Hina, a king's wife, tries to save a pet eel by putting it into a puddle of water on top of a large stone in her family's religious precinct. Sorcerers brush the eel with a ti branch, which quiets it to make it swim down into the depths of a lake and stay there (pp.619-20).
Vauvaumahi is a kind of ti used for wrapping fermented “bread”, known in Tahiti as mahi, made out of chopped-up, raw starchy foods, often breadfruit. Mahi is preserved in pits lined and covered with ti leaves. There it kept well for three or four months (Ellis 1831:42). (Marquesans did this too. They pinned two ti leaves together as mats for lining and covering the pits. The mats covered the earthen sides like overlapping shingles. Because they do not rot quickly, ti leaves were uniquely suitable for this purpose - 387 [Brown 1931: 144-45] and remained in good condition for three years [Linton 1923:189, quoted in Handy 1923:189].)
From sailors, Tahitians learned the technique of distilling ti beer, which they called ava (Petard 1946:202-04, Ellis 1831, I:107, II: 131). Ellis describes and illustrates the apparatus for making ava from ti beer. Sometimes whole districts got together to make the liquor. Tahitian chiefs reserved ti plantations to make it. Common people were strictly prohibited from using ti from these plantations (Ellis 1831:107). The Bounty mutineers took ti to Pitcairn Island, where the alcoholic drink caused trouble among them (Henry 1928:26).
Six different ti varieties grow in the Marquesas including red ones, treated as sacred in ancient times and still worn on ceremonial occasions. For kilts, people preferred older leaves of a green variety that turn bright chrome-yellow. Bunches of shredded ti leaves, tied together, made crowns for heads or shoulder capelets (Brown 1931:141-45). Before placing bodies in coffins, Marquesans used to wrap them in tapa cloth and lay banana or ti leaves on top (Linton 1923:58). It is still customary on Nuku Hiva for a visitor to another family's house to present a ti-leaf packet containing hala (a fragrant Pandanus) or some other flowers. Marquesans call the giving ho'kopu. A lei of two ti leaves tied together, hung around someone's neck or placed upon a canoe in blessing it, is “full of mana”. The leaves should remain untied “so the mana can flow out” (Taupu pers. comm.).
Cooking ti in the Marquesas was a tribal affair, done as a general feast. The earth ovens were again much larger than ordinary earth ovens; such ovens formerly had been used to cook humans (Taupu, pers. comm. 1993). The fires burned for as many as four days to cook the rhizomes properly. Like Tahitians, Marquesans made a drink from fermented, baked ti rhizome (Brown 1931:145-46). James Savage and Edward Robarts, two sailors who left ship in the Marquesas, made liquor out of ti to trade with ships' captains and with the island's royals. They cut up the cooked rhizomes, pounding them and soaking them in hot water for 24 hours before pressing or wringing them to express the juice, and then covering this with a blanket to ferment for several days. They then distilled gallons of it in an improvised apparatus (Dening 1974:167ff.). Even earlier (around 1807), missionaries distilled small quantities, but kept their method a secret from the natives (p. 171 n. 18).
Mangareva and Rapa.
When initiating new priests on Mangareva, the head priest used to throw ti stalks at the young men's knees (Hiroa 1938:431). Possibly Mangarevans used ti stalks as javelin shafts as Easter Islanders did (Metraux 1940:155). - 388 Priests tried to exorcise spirits that caused sickness by going to the sea in the early morning with an assistant, each holding a ti leaf and beating the sea while chanting. Later, they would go to the patient's house and throw three ti leaves at him or her, calling “'ai, 'ai, 'ai, 'u”. When they sacrificed a human, priests struck the corpse with staves, chanting about a “…chin wrapped in ti leaves” (Hiroa 1938:475-76). People on Mangareva have cultivated ti as a food crop, but specimens also grow semi-wild. The rhizome is about two feet long and as thick as a man's arm (p. 211). Mangarevans often ate ti rhizome syrup with fermented breadfruit paste, especially in the months when the breadfruit was not producing, September and October (pp.211-12). When preparing for sea voyages, they cooked quantities of ti root and packages of fermented breadfruit (p.89). They cooked the rhizomes in huge ovens (umu ti or tau'abatoga) as a community project and held a feast afterwards; the ovens were like those into which Mangarevans used to put human bodies after sacrifice (p.458). Ti rhizomes belonged to the families that uprooted them, each one claiming its own marked baskets of cooked rhizome. The bundles cooked for about 24 hours. Mangarevans split the cooked rhizomes into smaller pieces, bit off pieces, and chewed them like sugarcane, spitting out the fibers as round balls. “Cooked ti was used as sea stores by the people who left Mangareva after defeat or disaffection” (p.211). Ti sugar was an important food on Tubuai and Rapa, too far south for either coconut or sugarcane to do well. People wrapped food in ti leaves before cooking it (Hiroa 1959:181).
Ti was one of the most important economic plants in Rapanui (Safford 1921:184). It grew in crevices between the volcanic rocks (Yen 1974:147), and, though formerly plentiful, ti has become extremely rare (Metraux 1940:155). Easter Islanders used to mix soot from burned ti leaves with either sugarcane juice or juice of a tomato-like plant to use as blackening in tattoos (pp.237-38). The Easter Islanders' creation myth mentions a goddess named “Ta” as the mother of ti, apparently because ta is “tattooing” (p.323). Ti leaves were also used in wattling for grass houses (p. 155).
Ti grew near forts and settlements on the North Island, but the South Island was too cold for it (Best 1976:135ff.). Maori used cooked ti to sweeten puddings and boiled it to make a syrup, the latter probably being a recent innovation (Brown 1931:145). Ti rhizome was food for feasts, not for lesser occasions (Shawcross 1967:346). Rituals used to accompany ti cooking in New Zealand but the details have been lost (Best 1924:204-6). Maori offered - 389 the first cooked ti rhizomes to the gods and set some aside in a storehouse, rua ti, for a ceremonial feast later. Making such a storehouse gave a man status (Best 1924:396). After a battle (parekura), a priest of the victorious tribe walked on “the oven long in cooking”, kindled with “sacred fire”, speaking words to prevent the defeated one from gaining revenge (Best 1897:51).
Maori used the word ti for Cordyline fruticosa and also for C. australis and other wild Cordyline varieties. They used native flax in many of the same ways Tahitians had used ti leaves. They used both rhizomes and tender shoots of their native ti species (except Cordyline kaspar) as well as imported ti for food and fibre (Fankhauser 1986:6). Rather than baking the whole rhizome, Maori chopped it up as they did fern root and then steamed it in the earth oven for 12-24 hours. The variety ti pore was for communal feasts. Maori cooked ti to keep in forts as emergency food and to carry with them on warlike expeditions (Walsh 1900:304).
The variety of Cordyline fructicosa called ti pare (para or pore) had unusually large, soft rhizomes (Best 1974:136). It needed only 12-24 hours to cook. There used to be a song about ti pore, but it has been lost (Walsh 1900:303-05). Cheeseman (1925:304) suggests that ti pore might be the same variety as ti tawhiti, but the question cannot be settled now since ti pore/para is extinct. A Cordyline now known as C. kirkii may be the same as the old ti tawhiti (Harris and Heenan 1991). The fern, Marattia fraxinia, whose rhizome is starchy but not very tasty, is also para (Best 1942:109-10); the word seems to have meant “the edible matter in such rhizomes” (Best 1924:394).
Vowel changes like those between para, pare, pore are frequent and casual between Tahitian and Maori (Tregear 1891:xiv). Ti pore was probably developed in Tahiti before the Maoris left, since the names are similar and the Maori plant never set fruit. Tahitians grew a ti pure (=ti pore) that had unusually soft, sweet rhizomes (Petard 1946:195). It was probably imported in the first voyage from Tahiti (Cheeseman 1901:306, 1925:706; Walsh 1900:306). Best (1976:135-39) equates ti pore with ti tawhiti and ti kowhiti, but treats ti para as a smaller variety, used for its stems as well as its rhizomes. There is still controversy over the classifications (Harris and Heenan 1991).
When Hokule'a, the voyaging canoe, landed in Tahiti, the crowd welcomed it with green ti branches (Lewis 1976:534-35). Hawaiians still use ti to protect themselves from harm and invoke protection of the gods. They prefer it to other leaves for massage. Sometimes they wrap stones in ti leaves for good luck; a wooden bin in Waimea State Park holds such stones. They use ti for - 390 many household purposes as well as for healing. Not only was ti the prototype of the prestigious kahili, but also it was known as kaniwai akua ‘law of the gods’ and was obligatory in certain ceremonies (Pukui, Haertig and Lee 1972, I:192).
Ti has also always been sacred to the goddess of the hula, Laka, and ti plants decorate her platforms and dress her dancers to this day. Laka is generally benign, but is also the goddess of poison and sorcery (Pukui, Haertig and Lee 1972, II: 122). But while ti is an offering to Laka, it provides protection from Pele, the volcano goddess; it “repels her”. Handy (1927:119, citing Smith 1913) concludes that Hawaiian Pele is the same as Tahitian Pare or Para who, in Maori mythology, was a heroine who returned from death to life (Beckwith 1940:147-50).
Ti leaves were necessary in old Hawai'i as thatch for the roof of a mapele temple, sacred to Lono. Ti was often present during rituals for him (Degener 1930:97, Malo 1951:160). Lono was the god of the Makahiki ritual, an event of many rites including first-fruits offerings and pig feasts, held during a three-month period of peace (pp.200-33). Any chief might build a mapele temple in the interests of good crops and peace, but he would have to sacrifice a pig at its dedication. The thatch of a luakini ‘war temple’, which required human sacrifice, was of palm or a grass called uki, not ti (Malo 1951:159). Offerings at shrines were particular to each deity and even the ti serving mats were differently plaited for each one (Valeri 1985:354 n18). Lono was preeminently the god of growth, of horticulture and rain, associated with the clouds (p. 177). He was also concerned with medicine (pp. 185-86). There are some questions about Lono's temples and the days for their use, which seem to overlap with Kane's (p.178). His temples were not “for war”.
Hawaiian paradise was “the hidden land of Tane, where the Water of Life flowed and the Tree of Life grew” (Tregear 1891:56-58,72). A Pohaku o Kane ‘Stone of Kane ('Tane)’ is a common little shrine that often marks places of transition, boundaries, or passes among cliffs. Hawaiians leave small offerings there. Surrounded by green ti and other plants, it consists of an erect stone, sometimes phallic, and an offering-platform. (Except for the colour of the plant, it bears a striking resemblance to the red ti altar of Borneo and Sumatra, parts of New Guinea, Santa Ysabel, Sa'a and Ulawa, San Cristobal, and New Caledonia.) Such shrines used to stand near fishing temples also. Men used to set them up near their eating-houses in the family compound, where men and boys offered food to the gods and asked blessings of all sorts. Each family might have its own Pohaku o Kane (Pukui et al. 1972, II:125-26). Valeri (1985:173-79) classifies the Pohaku o Kane as a “functional” or “architectural” temple, not reserved for the king. It stands - 391 for the event in which Kane gave healing powers to Lono (Malo 1951:111 n.10).
Firewalking is said to have been introduced to Hawai'i by a priest from the Society Islands. This took place on special large earth ovens like those Hawaiians had once used to roast enemies: “great elliptical pits” (Fornander 1916-20, IV:564,594,598; Lang 1901:292; Tregear 1891:575). Hawaiians have carried ti leaves to provide protection from Pele, the volcano goddess. There are credible accounts of people walking over hot lava with impunity, carrying ti leaves (Pukui, et al. 1972, I:190-91).
The fact that Hawaiian ti is male-sterile, failing to produce viable seeds, suggests that somebody selected ti cultivars for large rhizomes before setting out on a voyage of migration, incidentally producing a green variety with large leaves and rhizomes (Yen 1987). That similar selection for a variety with good rhizomes took place before the Maoris left Central Polynesia for New Zealand is suggested by the fact that a sterile variety with soft rhizomes, now extinct, used to grow there too.
An aura of sacredness continued to accompany the ti plant in Polynesia, where it also had many practical uses. There are variations, ti being associated with priestly power in Tahiti and kingly power and the law in Hawai'i. In Hawai'i, ti was for Lono, fertility and peace, not for Ku and human sacrifice; thus it is puzzling that ti cooking took place on the same kind of earth ovens that had been used to cook humans. The sacredness had to do with sacrifices for supernaturals who might either help or harm the living.
THE ACT OF FIREWALKING AND ITS RATIONALE
Accounts of firewalking and the invocations that went with it have been offered in the Journal of the Polynesian Society (Henry 1893, 1901; Gudgeon 1899; Young 1925), but the popular focus has been on the event itself, on firewalking as a curiosity and a marvel, not on the purpose of the walk or its religious context. The interest to the public has been: “How could people walk on red hot lava stones and remain unscathed?”, not “Why should they go to all this trouble and do it in this particular way?” I have no intention of addressing the first question—how did they do it?, for all I know it might have a physiological explanation. Rather I turn to perhaps the more interesting question, asking: Why did Polynesians walk on hot earth ovens?
Polynesian firewalking is different in several respects from Indian firewalking, which in Fiji follows a South Indian tradition. Tamils introduced the practice, perhaps no longer than 60 years ago (Brown 1984:224). Until recently, Tamil firewalking has been increasing in popularity in Fiji, not - 392 only because tourists pay to see it but because Indo-Fijians from other Indian groups have been participating in the ritual as an expression of ethnic solidarity (p.223). It requires no ti plants. As presented to tourists and foreign dignitaries, the firewalk on large earth ovens by Fijians has been performed more or less according Polynesian pattern although no ti rhizomes are in evidence. This is understandable because, in the feral condition where most large plants grow, ti rhizomes need many years to grow and are difficult to dig up.
In Fiji, as in Tahiti, the firewalkers and those who prepare the oven, the operators who level the stones with vines and place the fern trunk across them, wear ti leaves and garlands. Those who arrange the fire are not the walkers, who are supposed to follow ritual prohibitions beforehand (i.e., refraining from sexual intercourse). The costumed firewalkers, wearing green and yellow ti leaves, wait at the side of the oven until it is prepared and the stones are uncovered. Before proceeding, their leader formerly invoked the spirits of ancestors and gods (with words never recorded and no longer known). One after the other, without looking back, the barefoot walkers go straight through the middle of the oven to the other side, around the perimeter and out again just short of the place where they entered. As they start out, one of the operators shouts “a vutu!” Sometimes, they walk around three or four times (Roth 1936:172). After firewalking, Fijians used to deploy ti rhizomes around the earth oven, cover them with leaves and earth, and wait four days before taking them out. The wait might not really have been that long, but four days is the period that Fijians often specify for magic to work. Formerly, the people of Beqa firewalked only once a year, when the ti was “ripe” (Jackson 1899:190, Roth 1933:45-9).
There is a Fijian legend of the origin of firewalking that members of one clan on the island of Beqa claim as theirs. One version comes from the former Commissioner of Native Affairs in Fiji, Allardyce (1904:72-73), and another from a young Beqan chief who spoke to Kingsley Roth (1933). A summary of the legend, drawn from several sources follows:
A commoner called Na Qalita, delegated to bring in food as the customary reward for a storyteller called Dredre, took his digging stick to a spring where he had seen a huge eel. (Na Qalita means ‘Ruler of buttress roots’ [Geraghty pers. comm. 1990].) The eel was a spirit-chief named Tui Namoliwai. The spring was the home of luveniwai ‘water babies’ who Fijians said came from the aborted fetuses of high ranking ladies. Tui Namoliwai had assistants: Kubou ‘Smoke’, Qilaiso ‘Charcoal’, Yameyame ‘Tongue of fire’ and a Spirit of deafness, whose name has been lost (Roth 1933:48,48 n.2). As he begged for his release, the spirit offered several magical rewards: to protect Na Qalita in war, to help him win at a throwing game, to be his - 393 god of property, to be his sailing god, and to help him acquire women. Na Qalita refused. As to the latter, he protested that he was not a chief (permitted to have many women). But when the eel-spirit offered to help his people to walk over a ti oven without being hurt and cook ti rhizomes afterwards, Na Qalita did release it. The spirit suggested that he and Na Qalita should stay in the oven for four nights together with the ti rhizomes. In one version of the story, Na Qalita agreed to the last proposition (Allardyce 1904:72), but in another, he agreed only to accept the right to walk on hot ovens and bake ti rhizomes. The fern log set across the diameter of the oven (its root-end at the place from which the walkers set forth) is for Tui Namoliwai and the other spirit-walkers (Roth 1933:48).
Tahitians, like Fijians, walked on the ti oven before any food went into it and cooked ti rhizomes afterwards. Firewalkers wore garlands and girdles of green and yellow ti leaves and worked under the direction of priests. Wands of green ti were indispensible to the performance (Henry 1928:214). J. L. Young points to Huahine rather than Ra'iatea as the place of origin for firewalking on ti ovens (1925:219,221); the priest who directed firewalking in Hawai'i and the Marquesas did come from Huahine (Henry 1901:54, 1928:219). Douglas Oliver knows of no accounts of firewalking by early visitors to Tahiti and suggests that the practice may have been introduced in the 19th century; however, he affirms that the ceremonies are “…thoroughly pagan in inspiration and performance, and specifically Tahitian (even Ra'iatean) in cosmographic reference” (1974, I:94). (There is linguistic evidence for a Western Polynesian origin of the ritual [Geraghty pers. comm. 1990], but as yet no detailed study of this possible origin.)
The walk began in the coldest part of winter, at sunrise. The priest tied the ti leaves into a wand and took them to the oven, carefully holding them upright “so that the spirit enclosed within them would not fall out” (Henry 1893:105ff.). The night before the walk, a priest would have spoken to the ti leaves to be used next day, asking “hosts of gods” to awake and “come to the ti oven” as he picked them, wrapped them in Hibiscus leaves, and placed them in the marae, the sacred precinct. The fire on the oven burned overnight. Not every priest was entitled to supervise firewalking; only two were still so entitled when Henry recorded the ceremony (Henry 1928:216).
Early next morning, the people followed the leader onto, around and out of the hot oven, holding the ti branches downwards. The chanter asked the “hosts of gods”, “fresh water and salt water”, “light earthworms and dark earthworms”, “the redness and the shades of the fire” to come with the walkers. He asked a “cold host” to let the walkers linger in the midst of the oven (Henry 1928:215). Like Orpheus, the walkers were enjoined not to look back.- 394
The priest addressed two “high priestesses”, or “heroines of ancient times”, Vahine-nui-tahu-ra'i, whose name Henry translates as ‘Great-woman-who-set-fire-to-the-skies’, and Hina-nui-te-'ara'ara, ‘Great-Gray of scented herbs’, she who became the goddess of the moon (1928:214). Hina-nui-tahu-ra'i “held the fan” and made it possible for the people to walk on the hot stones. She and the walkers, both men and women, were asked to “fan (tahiri) away the heat of the atmosphere” with their ti leaves, counting their steps out loud. They walked onto, around and out of the oven, holding their ti branches down as if they were releasing a protective spirit onto the stones (Young 1925:218-20).
One way to frame this in terms of Maori mythology would be to say the following: the walkers went down into that place in Cosmic Darkness where Hina-nui-te-Po was the controller of paths. The subject of countless myths, she had charge of Te Reinga, the third level of the underworld of which Miru's land was the lowest (Tregear 1891:315). Elite souls might travel sidewise from there, through the sea and up to Hawaiki, to paradise. Hina-nui-te-Po was the daughter (and wife) of Tane (p.461). Through her influence, the fiery path became a liminal spring; Hina was a moon goddess (Henry 1928:462-4). The firewalk in Fiji, Tonga or Samoa would have been a trip to Pulotu, the ‘Afterworld’. Using ti leaves as fans to ward off the god Whiro, whose domain was immediately above Hina's, common people walked on the hot lava stones. Their souls and the words of the priest were generous and brave, not mean and cowardly like the souls Miru was said to cook in her ti oven. By their sacrifice, they earned permission to cook ti rhizomes on the earth oven. After this, the sacredness of the red variety was lost and only green ti retained supernatural strength.
Cooking reduced sacredness in a Fijian exchange-cycle described by Sahlins (1983:74,82-83). A chief might give a daughter to the leader of potential allies; after victory, the allies would join in the feasting on their cooked enemies. Then allies gave “raw” commoner women to the chief. Before she was given, the chief's daughter was ritually “cooked”, a concept that may have inspired the idea of firewalking before eating ti rhizome.
The ti plant has been treated, over all its range, as if it had generalised power for communicating with supernaturals, often reputed to be renowned ancestors. In the eastern Polynesian Pacific, where resources were limited and unusually severe conditions of drought, tsunamis and cyclones were not uncommon, Polynesians conceived a strategy to desacralise the ti rhizome that had not elsewhere been a food. The means they used to reverse the - 395 taboo were consistent with the belief that the plant could be eaten. Green and yellowish ti plants continued to be treated as if they had supernatural efficacy, but red ti lost out. The continuous tradition associating efficacy with supernaturals and ti plants was not destroyed after the reversal, but green varieties with large rhizomes became paramount, both in Tahiti and in Hawai'i. Firewalking on ti ovens appears to have simulated a trip through the oven/spring that was the gateway to death, removing the taboo on eating ti but maintaining the species as a cultural resource. It is green, not red, ti that stands at the small altars Hawaiians call “Pohaku o Kane”.