Volume 49 1940 > Volume 49, No. 196 > The analysis of Mana: an empirical approach, by Raymond Firth, p 482-510
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DESPITE sixty years of discussion and a bulky literature the controversies that have raged round the meaning of the Oceanic term mana and its related concepts are still far from settled. Much of the obscurity and confusion has arisen through the fact that elaborate theoretical discussions have been constructed on the basis of inadequate factual data.

In examining the meaning of the native term the investigators have tried to arrive at their results by varying combinations of the following three methods:

  • (a) By attempting an exact “translation” of the word concerned and trying to get a precise verbal equivalent for the native idea.
  • (b) By examining the relationship in native thought between the “mana-idea” and other concepts of the same native community;—that is, by obtaining linguistic explanations of the “mana-concept” from the natives themselves.
  • (c) By studying the actual usage of the word as employed in the course of normal behaviour and activities, and obtaining native linguistic comments on such usages.

The difficulty of obtaining any reliable empirical data in the last two categories makes it inevitable that nearly all armchair discussion has centred round the dictionary definitions supplied by the first category. The results have been unfortunate.

Certainly in past discussions concerning mana nearly all the initial emphasis has been laid on trying to find some European verbal equivalent for the Oceanic concept. The diversity of the resulting translations may be an indication - 484 of the confusion that has arisen in fixing the meaning of the term. But it may also be a reflex of the assumption that there is in fact any general mana-concept that is common to all Oceanic commuities. Such an assumption may be quite unjustified; there may be genuine significant differences of connotation between different communities.

The following selection from the various meanings (not all exclusive) that have been attributed to mana shows the confusion; it also illustrates the theoretical preconceptions of the various authors. Mana has been translated as:

Supernatural power; influence (Codrington).
Magical power; psychic force (Marett).
Impersonal religious force; totemic principle (Durkheim).
Divine force (Handy).
Effective; miracle; authority; prestige, etc. (Tregear).
True (Hocart).
Lehmann in his useful collection of material on the subject gives numerous other examples. More recently, Handy and Driberg have sought an analogy for mana in electricity, 1 while Hogbin has compared it with luck. 2

The difficulty of describing the concept exactly is brought out by Hubert and Mauss, 3 who characterize it as “not only a force, a being; it is also an action, a quality, and a state. In other words the term is at once a noun, an adjective and a verb.” This seeming grammatical confusion has been responsible for much laborious theorizing. The - 485 elaborate arguments that seek to determine whether the nature of mana is “personal” or “impersonal” seem to turn largely on the question as to whether is is more nearly correct to say that an object “is mana” or “has mana,” though as Lehmann has pointed out this distinction is not material in many Oceanic languages. By some writers the notion of mana as “a vague and impersonal fluid” has been represented as in opposition to assertions that it is derived from spirit entities.

The type of inference drawn for anthropological theory from the material on mana has been almost as varied as the differences in translation. A. M. Hocart has made an important contribution to the study of mana by stressing that the Polynesian conception is a practical one connoting prosperity and success, and he has also drawn attention to the fact that mana tends to be attributed particularly to the leaders of the community, their chiefs and priests. His inferences, however, are essentially of an ethnological order. He is concerned to show the archaic character of the Polynesian idea and its place in the history of religion as intimately connected with the doctrine of the divinity of kings. 4 A. Capell, again, in a recent article has attempted to trace the linguistic history of the word, taking its primary meaning as “effective,” with the general implication that the efficacy goes beyond that encountered in everyday life. With this one agrees. His conclusion is that mana is a - 486 prevailing Polynesian concept, but that “exactly similar ideas prevail amongst the American Indians, but naturally under a different name.” He holds that the Polynesians brought the word manan with them from Indonesia, its incidence in Borneo and the Celebes being of particular significance here. He agrees also with Pater Schmidt that mana had its origin in and with mythology, developing in dependence upon an ancestor cult. 5

R. R. Marett, who by his own statement is entitled to rank among the “prophets of the gospel of mana,” has stressed the view that mana and allied notions constitute the category that most nearly expresses the essence of rudimentary religion. His thesis that mana is the nearest expression of the positive emotional value which is the raw material of religion is too well known to need further discussion. 6

Recently Ruth Benedict has revived this view in another form by stating that mana, wakanda, etc., have as their fundamental concept the idea of the existence of “wonderful power, a voltage with which the universe is believed to be charged,” and always the manipulation of this wonderful power and the beliefs that grow out of it are Religion. 7

In contrast to these latter views is that of B. Malinowski. He argues cogently that on the empirical material the mana-concept is too narrow to stand as the basis of Magic and Religion, and holds that the concepts of wakan, orenda, and mana are simply “an example of an early generalisation of a crude metaphysical concept, such as is found in several other savage words also.” He adds the very necessary warning that we have hardly any data at all showing just how this conception in Melanesia enters into religious or magical cult and belief. 8 As will be seen, the argument of this article agrees in essentials with Malinowski's position. Controversy over the meaning of the term started soon after Codrington had published his somewhat abstract rendering of Melanesian ideas on the subject. This was a set of statements which - 487 he might never have given in this form if he had known that they would be treated as a classical text by distant scholars, subjected to microscopic analysis, and made the foundation of a system of primitive philosophy. The theoretical structures of Marett, Durkheim, Hubert and Mauss on this basis have in fact added much more to our understanding of primitive religion in general than to the clarification of the concept of mana itself.

Indeed, treated in this manner, the word mana becomes something of a technical term describing a specialized abstraction of the theoretical anthropologist and, as such, may have little in common with the same term as used in native phraseology. This fact indeed is appreciated 9 but it is still assumed without serious enquiry, even by the latest writers on the subject (e.g., Radin “Primitive Religion,” p. 13), that, quite apart from the technical usages of Anthropology there is in fact a mana-concept that is common to all parts of Oceania.

Scientifically speaking, any such general connotation of the term could only arise by inference as the result of the careful comparison of material from different communities; but in point of fact little adequate material exists. It is true that the term mana had been known from Polynesia long before it had received attention from the neighbouring Melanesian area. 10

In the Maori literature in particular there are some data available which have received less than their due. 11 F. R. Lehmann and E. S. C. Handy have analyzed the concept of mana from the available literary material on Polynesia. 12 But while this material is important, it is - 488 unfortunate that specific research into this problem was not carried further in the original field-work. Moreover, too often it is the Euopean's own conception of the meaning of the term that has been placed on record and not an exact translation of texts spoken by the natives themselves. Again, the observation and analysis of actual native behaviour in situations where mana has been used as an explanatory concept is at a minimum. It is particularly to be regretted that Codrington, who knew his Mota people well, did not base his exposition on the analysis of examples which he actually recorded or observed, but instead composed some of them for his purpose. There always remains a doubt whether a native would really have thought out and performed an experiment in the way he describes.

The aim of the present article is to supply a body of empirical material from one particular area, Tikopia. By giving a contextualized description of the native usage of the mana-concept I hope to clarify its precise meaning at least for this particular community. By implication the material here put forward will also set certain negative limitations to the mana-concept in its more general connotation.

To my mind the proper understanding of the general notion can only emerge out of a careful consideration of particular usages such as are here recorded, and I would add that for our final appreciation of this general notion, if it exists, particular factual details may be irrelevant. 13 Thus for example the elaborate discussions that have been carried on by Codrington, Lehmann, Hocart and others as to whether or not mana is in the last resort dependent upon a spirit agency appears to me to be marginal to our understanding of the concept of mana itself.

I am concerned here first with the problem of definition of the term, and then with some other problems of the relation of the concept of mana to the economic and religious structure of the Tikopia.

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In defining the meaning of the term I present material of three kinds: formulations obtained from men with whom I was specifically discussing the term, and to whom I put questions about it; citation of ritual formulae in which the term mana appeared incidentally as a standardized item in another context; and examples of the exercise of mana given in discussion of the behaviour and qualities of chiefs, comparison of past and present prosperity, illness, or other events in the life of individuals.

In presenting this material I give in translation the statements of my informants, as recorded in my notebooks in the original, and in addition, three long texts and several short ones as samples of the original material. Comparison of the translations with the texts will allow the accuracy of my rendering to be judged. It will be obvious that definition of such a term as mana, which is not the direct description of an act of behaviour or of a material object, must rely primarily on linguistic data. But it is important to note that this linguistic material is of varying value for interpretation. Statements given in response to direct questions of the order of “What is mana?” are acceptable only when reinforced, as in this case, by material of the other types mentioned above, where the formulation arises from the interest of the native himself in explaining or discussing another topic, and so is much more part of a standardized attitude than an abstraction.


It may be noted in the first place that the Tikopia use two words, mana and manu, for the one idea. The problem of definition is complicated by the fact that the sets of phonetic combinations giving mana and manu in Tikopia have a number of different equivalents according to the context in which they are used.

Mana may mean:

  • 1. Thunder.
  • 2. Father (a short for tamana).
  • 3. For him, her, or it (pronounced with first vowel long).
  • 4. Efficacious (equivalent to manu in the sense discussed in this article).
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Manu may mean:

  • 1. An animal, particularly a bird (the first vowel being stressed but short).
  • 2. Efficacious, etc. (as here discussed the stress on the second vowel).
  • 3. The name of an atua, a spirit-being resident in the heavens, identified with a star, and forming the subject of an important myth-cycle concerning storms.

As a preliminary explanation it may be pointed out that most of the Tikopia explanations of mana or manu are given by reference to the behaviour of their chief, and to prosperity, success, and welfare. A Tikopia chief is regarded as having a peculiar responsibility toward his people. He is considered to be able through his relations with his ancestors and gods to control natural fertility, health, and economic conditions, in the interests of his dependants. 14 Material evidence of his powers is given in native belief by the condition of the weather, of crops, of fish, and of sick persons whom he attempts to cure. Success or failure in these spheres are symptoms of his mana.

I give now a series of statements in detail from natives to illustrate the empirical presentation of the idea by Tikopia. The views expressed by Pa Rangifuri, eldest son of the chief of Tafua, may be first considered. The subject arose between us during our discussion of initiation-ritual prompted by a case then in progress. He said that initiation originated with the god of his clan and that in olden times if the sun had shone fiercely for a long time then the rite was performed to induce rain to fall—“to seek manu.” I enquired “what is this manu that is sought for?”

He replied, “If something is to be done indeed for the seeking of manu (for example) you speak for the rain to fall; the rain falls you sought manu by it; great is your manu; speech of praise is that, praise for the man (to have it said ‘great is your manu’); he (the man seeking manu) speaks to his deity as my father is used to speaking to the deity of Tafua, thus:

‘I eat ten times your excrement, Rakiteua,
Drench down upon the land.’
- 491 That means the rain to fall; thereupon when we see that the rain has come we say: ‘the manu chief.’ If we say also ‘the chief is manu’ it is correct. If he asks for the breadfruit to come, for it to fruit, and then it fruits, we say ‘he has been manu’; the asking of the chief has been made manu.’ If no breadfruits fruit it is mara. He is termed a manu chief, a manu man. He asks for different things, manu!

“When we look at the land to which food comes constantly then we say ‘the land is manu.’ But when we see that no food comes that is the mara.”

I wished to find out if my informant regarded manu as something generally distributed, and inquired if it were to be found in rocks and trees everywhere. He answered, “O! It is not there in stones. It is not there in trees. It is there only in food and in fish. We who dwell here, when we desire food, the chief requests the god to give hither food for us. When we look upon the taro and the yam which are living, and the breadfruit which has fruited there, it has become manu, the fakamanu has come. It is not there in all things, it is only in food and fish. When the fleet goes to sea and brings hither fish that is the reef has risen (figurative expression for the rising shoals of fish), it has risen and is fakamanu.”

Somewhat lated Pa Rangifuri and I returned to the subject of manu and he began by discussing it in relation to the position of a newly-elected chief. He said, (Text 1) “The new chief beseeches the chief who has gone for some manu for himself, that he may crawl to the gods and the assemblage of ancestors. Indeed it is! That manu may come for him whatever may be done for him, the orphaned person cast down on that spot.” (This is a technical phrase used of himself by a chief in addressing the gods to signify his humility and need.) “The chief who has departed, listens to the new chief, beseeching him indeed, calling out to him:

‘I eat ten times your excrement
You crawl to the gods
For some manu for me
My hand which touches a sick person may it heal
(When he touches, that his hand may be manu)
When I wail for anything that it may be manu
- 492 Then the chief who has departed goes, performs his crawling to the god, and stretches out his hand to him ‘Here! Give me some manu that I may go and give it to my next-in-line (successor).’ It is given him by the god, whatever it may be, a bundle of leafage or the fruit of the coconut or a fish, or whatever be the desire of the chief who is beseeching him. Thereupon he comes again to sit in his place. He stretches out his hand to the new chief who is sitting among men (in the world of men). ‘Here! There is your manu.’ The manu is given hither after the fashion of gods; not a man looks upon it; he observes only the food which has become good, the taro, the yam, the coconut, all food has fruited well indeed.”

Pa Rangifuri stated that when an old chief dies his manu goes with him—the sun shines, water dries up, food is scarce, and so on. This is the “parting of a chief.” Hence the new chief whose vegetable resources have been cut off sends a request for manu for himself.

I put a question as to whether there could be manu alone independent of these material things. He said, “there is no manu alone of itself, there is manu of the rain, manu of the food, but no manu only. We look at the rain which has fallen, that is the manu which will come, come to the new chief. “Siei se manu mosokoia, te manu o te ua, te manu o te kai, kae siei se manu fuere. Ono ko tatou ki te ua ka to, tera te manu ka u, au ki te ariki fou.”

Some other explanatory material, obtained in other contexts, shows also this essential pragmatic aspect of the concept. Pa Rangifuri on another occasion gave me a formula used in a net-rite which I had just seen. It appealed to a spirit, Kere-tapuna, to turn to the net, to act as sea-expert, that the net might be filled with fish, and ended “Ke manu ko te kupenga.” When I asked for the meaning of the term manu he said “The manu canoe, the manu net, are those which catch fish. The canoe which has no fish for it, is not manu.” “Te vaka manu, te kupenga manu, e au te ika ki ei; te vaka sise ni ika mana, sise manu.”

Pa Motuangi, of Kafika, said of his mother's brother the Ariki Tafua “Toku tuatina, matea na mana; ka fai te kava, ka to te ua; ka fai te kava ki te ika, ka tari mai; tari - 493 mai te ika.” “My uncle, great is his mana; if he makes the kava, the rain will fall; if he makes the kava for fish, they will be carried hither; carried hither are the fish.”

Again, I was discussing with Pa Tarairaki of Kafika the canoe-rites of the Work of the Gods, and the celebration of what is termed “Evil Things,” and offering to the gods of the fish secured. He said, “Ka tu te vaka i te toki, au mai te ika e toto i te tunga te toki; ena na tunga toki. Tena e manu. Ko te toki e tu e manu, kae siei se tunga toki, e manu foki; te ika fuere e au mai te atua ke kai.”

“When the canoe is cut with the adze, the fish comes hither bleeding from the cut of the adze; there is its adze-cut. Now (it) is manu. The adze which cuts is manu, but if there is no adze-cut, it is also manu; the spirit simply brings hither the fish for food.”

On another occasion, at a yam-rite in the Work of the Gods, I heard the Ariki Kafika ask for manu from the gods Pu-ma, that the breadfruit might “run,” that is, that the fruit might be properly formed.

The term manu is used in a variety of ritual formulae in which spiritual beings are asked for practical results. Pa Rangifau gave the formula recited when the noose-method of fishing for para is used; in this he is an acknowledged expert.

Tou soa Ariki tautai
Fatia tou mangai
Ke rere o kai manu
I tou raro vaka
Inu tau poa
Thy friend, sea expert chief,
Let thy tail be broken
To dash and eat in manu (fashion)
Below thy canoe
Eat thy bait
To explain here the significance of “friend,” used in a special context implying that damage is sought, or the identification of spirit and fish, would demand a lengthy discussion. But the significance of the term manu is clearly the production of a practical result of securing the fish.

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Again from Pa Vainunu I received the formula recited by a chief in investing a person with a cordyline-leaf necklet to secure his welfare

Te rau ti ka tutaki atu
Ki a ke, Pa e!
Tutaki manu
Motusia ki atea ko te fefea
Ma te urungaruru…
The cordyline leaf is being joined
To you, Father (his ancestor)
Join with manu
Be parted away things of whatever kind
And headaches …
“Things of whatever kind” refer here to the various types of illness or misfortune that might afflict a person. Karakiua of Taumako gave me the formula used by a chief to cure sickness. The chief calls on his father
Au o fakamana i oku rima Pa e,
Ma te tauru rakau
Takina ki atea
Ko te kafo …
“Come and make effective my hands, Father,
And the bunch of leaves
Be dragged away
The fever …”
Pa Fenuatara, eldest son of the Ariki Kafika explained manu as follows (Text 2): “In this land manu is there in the lips of the chief. In his speech whatever he may ask for, if a chief is manu then when he asks for fish, they will come; when he speaks requesting a calm it falls. That is a mana chief. But a chief who is mara there is no mana for him. The chief whose kava is wrong is mara. There is no manu for him. If he asks for a calm, no calm falls; if he asks for rain, no rain arrives; that is because his things (rites) are wrong.”

I asked if mana lay simply in the chief as a man. My question made him laugh. He replied:

“No, friend. His manu is given hither by the spirits. When he asks it of the spirits, if the spirits wish to give it hither, they give it, and therefore I say that the chief is manu. A chief who is manu—the spirits just continually rejoice in their desire towards the chief.”

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I asked also if mana lay simply in the words recited. He replied:

“There is no manu in speech, it is simply asking. Now if I bewitch a man, I sit and look as to what may be his day upon which he may fall. If he is not ill that is the spirits are not turning to him, they do not wish my speech that I uttered. I am not manu.” This too shows the dependence of manu on the will of the gods.

Several problems of definition are raised by these texts. The first is that of linguistic usage, as to whether manu and mana represent the same or different ideas. It will be seen in the texts above manu is used more frequently, but that mana sometimes occurs side by side with it. I asked Pa Rangifuri about this, and his reply was “A manu man, a mana man; a manu chief, a mana chief; great is his mana and great is his manu—such speech goes just the same; it is praising speech indeed.” And Pa Fenuatara and Pa Motuangi also said that the two words meant the same thing.

A simple native assertion about the identity in meaning of the words could not be accepted without question. But I found that in actual usage by my range of informants, as can be seen from the texts, that either term is uttered with apparent indifference. The speaker switches from one to the other, obviously using them as synonyms.

A word closely allied in meaning to manu is mairo, though I heard it used mostly in reference to the healing of the sick. In discussing the “laying-on of hands” on a sick person the Ariki Kafika said “The hand of a chief is mairo; it touches and it heals. Mairo is mana. He is a mana man.” He explained further that if the invalid rallied at the touch of the chief but then died when the chief had gone, the people would say, “Indeed, the hand of the chief, of course, was fakamairo,” meaning that it was this touch alone which had given the invalid sustaining power for the time being. Another statement points also to the equivalence of mairo with mana. “The hand of a chief is mairo; it touches a sick person, he gets well. He (the chief) calls to the gods to fakamairo his hand since he is going to the sick person.”

Further material on the linguistic usage was obtained from Pae Sao. Our discussion began on the kava-ritual, which as an important elder he himself regularly performed. - 496 He spoke of chiefs and elders making appeals in set phraseology to their gods and ancestors to give them manu. He then proceeded to explain “The manu—that calm may come and rain may come, that the kava made to the gods may be mairo. The fakamairo indeed of the kava are the tokens of the kava. That is, it has become calm and it has rained.” Later he added, “A ritual elder, a chief, is mana, is manu; the name of a chief is manu and mana.”

The position in Tikopia thus is that manu is the general term with mana as a synonym of it and mairo used less commonly, mostly in connection with healing. The usage of manu in Tikopia instead of or additional to the common Polynesian mana is puzzling. It is possible that the use of manu, in the sense we are discussing, is due to the fact that in this island mana is the ordinary abbreviation for tamana, father, with equal stresses also. This is speculation and I have no native opinion to support it.

Both manu and mana are quite flexible in syntax. Either can stand as a substantive or an adjunct, and can suffer some verbal modification. Some simple examples of the usage of manu may be given, extracted from the material quoted in this chapter.

Te manu ena i te ngutu te ariki.
The manu is there in the lips (of) the chief.
Na manu e sori mai i nga atua.
His manu is given hither from the gods.
Muna atu kuou te ariki e manu.
Speak away I the chief is manu (I say that…)
E faia toku mana ne manu, ne nofo ko ia, manu rei.
Because my father was manu, did live he, manu then.
Ku manutia ko te kaisianga a te ariki.
The request by the chief has been manu.
Ono tatou ki te mei kua fua, tera ku manu, ku au te fakamanu.
When we look on the breadfruit which has borne fruit, there it has become manu, the making-manu has come.
An interesting verbal modification of the term mana, which has a similar range, came from the spirit medium Pa Tekaumata, who after giving me a formula he was in the habit of using said: “Tena tenea nokofakamana ki oku nea.” (“That is the thing used to give mana to my affairs.”) Here both frequentative and causative prefixes have been attached to the word.

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To students of Oceanic dialects this flexibility of the grammatical function of the word will be no novelty.

There has been some discussion as to whether it can be properly said that a man “has mana” or he “is mana.” In Tikopia both types of translation would be valid. If the flexibility of the word in syntax be borne in mind an analagous situation in English would be of a man “having” success and “being” successful.

From the descriptive statements given above it can be seen that manu covers a category of socially approved phenomena. It signifies positive results attained. So when a man is said to possess or to be manu, this is a judgment in his favour. As Pa Rangifuri said, this is “speech of praise.”

Standing in opposition to this active and socially-welcomed sphere of interest is the term mara which connotes absence of visible results and is not a judgment of approval. A chief who is manu is regarded as fulfilling his duty to his people and deserving their praise. A chief who is mara incurs their tacit censure because the visible lack of fertility reacts upon their wellbeing, which is his charge, and this is regarded as being due to some defect in his relations with his ancestors and gods. No action of any kind is taken against such a chief; his people merely grumble and speculate among themselves.

The alignment of manu with these positive effects might seem as if manu signifies the activity-principle in nature. But it is correlated always with concrete situations, falling of rain, growth of food, advent of calms, relief of sickness. In fact its very existence is inferred by such concrete results. Again and again I hammered away at my informants trying to find what was the meaning of manu itself apart from the evidence of it in crops, fish, and the like. But all my inquiries for the Ding an Sich came to nothing. Always it was insisted that the crops and the fish were manu. Now obviously my informants were not facing the logical and metaphysical issues squarely here, but their indifference to the existence of such issues is extremely significant. To the Tikopia, manu I am sure has not the connotation of an isolatable principle, a force, a power, or any other metaphysical - 498 abstraction—though it may be conceived of as a specific quality. The interpretation in terms of such abstraction can only be the work of the anthropologist. The Tikopia is content with concrete description of the results of activity and does not pursue the intellectual problem as to the nature of that activity.

It is well to reinforce this point by consideration of more material obtained not as the result of questions about manu but volunteered in an entirely different context.

When the seasonal dances were being performed in Marae, I participated in them. The songs chanted dealt mostly with the gods. When I asked why the dances were performed, the answer was given: “They are performed for the manu of the gods. All the chiefs sing to the gods that they may perform hither the manu for the land to be well.” It might seem here that we are dealing with a native concept of the physical activity of man giving a stimulus to the activity of nature and using the theme of appeal to the gods as a medium of expression. But reference to the tradition of origins of the dances and to the beliefs about the gods show that though this be true as a sociological abstraction it is unjustifiable if put forward as a native idea. In Tikopia belief the gods give manu when the dances are performed because they see that the traditional ways of behaviour which they instituted are being faithfully followed; and they are pleased. Moreover, dancing is their primary amusement in the heavens and they are moved to interest and approval—and even to active participation when they see this practice being observed on earth. 15

Another linkage of the idea of manu with physical activity is given in the formula which is recited when a sacred adze is being used on a new canoe being built by a chief. From the Ariki Taumako and from a number of other people at different times, I was given texts of the formula and the explanation of it.

  • Manu! for your marie
  • Manu! for your para
  • Manu! for your varu
  • Manu! for your bonito
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  • Manu! for your flying fish
  • Manu! for all your fish on the starboard side
  • Manu! may an orchard stand for you on the reef
  • Manu! let them rise from the foam of the ocean
  • Manu! flick behind harmful things.”

Here again the pragmatic context of the term manu comes out very forcibly. The primary function of the canoe is to be an aid in securing fish and the kinds of most important fish are mentioned. The marie is a species of shark, while the para and varu are also types of highly prized large fish. The ‘orchard’ is a metaphor for the fishing bank, and again it is fish which are adjured to rise from the ocean foam. The last line is an exhortation to ward off those spirits of the ocean which are evilly disposed. Although it is not stated in the formula, this is an invocation to the tutelary deities of the vessel and of the sacred adze. The best translation of manu here is “be effective' or “be efficacious.” This example illustrates the use of the term manu in practical association with the citation of its material manifestation, the belief in the spiritual beings who vouchsafe it and a manual act of canoe-making—all this in a ritual context.

Another manual act believed to be accompanied by manu was described to me by Pa Fenuatara in connection with the initiation of a boy of rank. The chief of his clan pours some oil into his hand, announces it to one of his deities and then rubs it on the boy's chest. This is to take away his fear of the approaching operation. Pa Fenuatara said of his own case “I felt his hand strike my vitals. I was frightened but I felt as though he had given me food and that I was full. Great is his mana. Then my fear quite left me.” In this case the Kafika chief was a very old man and so did not attend the lad's initiation. The ceremony was performed by the Ariki Fangarere instead.

Other material was obtained in discussing traditional events. Pa Torokinga, an old man, was telling me about his ancestors, the chief of the ancient group of Na Faea, who were driven off to sea by their enemies. He said, (Text 3): “Great was the weight of my ancestor the chief. His hand pointed to a man, the man slept down below (in death). His god indeed abode in his hand. He was manu. When he went down to the reef-waters and called to the fish - 500 to come to land they came—the ature (mackerel, which are netted on the reef). Long was the abiding of the fish; the land ate and ate and ate. He went and waved his hand at them to go; they went. Great was his weight. He spoke to a tree, the tree died. He spoke to the breadfruit, it came, it fruited.” Pa Torokinga told me that this ancestor, on the day he went out to sea (driven away) loaded his canoe with food, took down a length of bark-cloth, beat the sea with it, and tied it trailing to the stern of his canoe. “The drawing away of the fish to go out to sea. The fish went completely. The reef was bare, there were no fish.”

From Pa Motuangi of Marinoa I was told of the time when two rivals both occupied the ritual position of elder of the house at the one time. In this dual reign both performed their own kava-ceremonies and both sacralized their canoes for sea-fishing. When the rival fleets went to sea, fish were caught by the vessels of one elder named Vaiangafuru (my informant's ancestor) while those of the other caught nothing. “He made fish for his own fleet but not for the fleet of Pu Fangatafea which came in bare from the ocean. That is, Vaiangafuru was manu.” I asked what was this manu and got the answer “A man who is not slept upon by the gods, that is a man who is not manu. It is exactly alike (tau fangatasi), the mana, the manu.”

Pa Vainunu of Kafika was one day describing to me various types of ritual-chant, and gave as example one composed by his father, a former chief. The song referred to the ‘making bitter’ of the lake. At certain times, apparently, the lake-waters became affected so that the fish rose to the surface in large numbers, died, and were collected by the people who carried them home to cook. Pa Vainunu with filial loyalty maintained that this did not happen nowadays, whereas in former times it occurred, because his father was manu. “The lake which stands there is not bitter in these after days because another chief has dwelt. When my father used to live it was bitter, from time to time it was bitter, because my father was manu as he dwelt, he was manu then. When he disappeared among the gods he disappeared with his own manu, and the land which stands here has become different. Because he called to his god; but they who dwell here do not know. The two of them, he and his god, - 501 have the same name. The name of the god is Mourongo, and my father has Mourongo as his second name. My ancestor Mourongo sat at the kava bowl as an atua, and prepared the kava. He listened to my father calling out among men but he himself heard him from the realm of spirits. My father called out:

‘You Mourongo,
I eat your excrement
Turn hither to me who am calling out
Shake the kava pith into the lake
To be bitter that the land may eat.’
Then the kava-bowl was prepared and shaken into the lake; it was shaken in the realm of spirits. And my father the chief called upon the god and therefore his calling was manu. The fish went and sucked the kava-pith, went to drink of it, sucked, were poisoned, and died.”

Pa Vainunu gave another incident after this to illustrate his father's mana. He said, “My father, great was his manu. He called out to the gods and his words were true. Look you upon me; I will tell you. It was his building of the sacred canoe which is drawn up there, Tafurufuru. As his building was going on the people went to hew out the vessel and he called for the fish to run hither. They ran then on the day on which the vessel was hewn out. The fish ran hither and the canoe was hewn while people went to bring hither the fish from the sea. They awoke on another day and brought them hither, awoke on another day and brought them hither, while the vessel continued to be hewn. The canoe was finished, but the fish continued still to stand. But when the chief who dwells here stood in his place he did not act thus and the fish did not run hither.”

Here we have the recital of a miracle performed as an accompaniment to an important act of a chief—for the hewing of one of his sacred vessels is one of the marks of his career.

In the above text reference is made to the truth of the words of a chief when he called upon the god. The meaning of this is that his appeals to them were validated by results, not falsified by lack of results. The association hinted at here is between correctness of the formulae used, influence with the gods, and validity of one's case. Such association - 502 was illustrated by a discussion I had with Pa Motuata and Kavakiua who spoke of their father's brother the late chief of Taumako. They said: “Great was his mana, because he did not speak in lying fashion. He used to speak truly only; he spoke for calm—it fell; he spoke for rain—it rained at that moment.” From the first part of the sentence it seems as if the possession and exercise of mana were contingent upon the practice of truth and the leading of a virtuous life. From the remainder, however, the actual position is clear that the truth is an inference from the results of the appeal and not a prior condition to those results.

This series of examples, drawn from a range of informants in different social groups, show how any Tikopia explanation of mana is presented in concrete terms, and on the other hand how concrete results which are more than those produced by ordinary efforts are interpreted in terms of mana. In all these examples as mentioned already the reference to manu was introduced in the course of explanation of the particular circumstances.

One question which arises is that of the origin of manu. From some remarks of the Tikopia it might appear that they believe that it was essentially an attribute of human beings. Pa Rangifuri said “The manu is there in you, there in your hand which touches and your outer lips.” And, as mentioned earlier, Pa Fenuatara said “in this land the manu is there in the lips of the chief.”

The statement that manu resides in the lips and hands is an explanation of its immediate location. It is there for the time being because these are the agencies through which it is liberated. It is the lips which utter the formulae, the hand which is laid upon a sick person.

To the Tikopia the only real source of manu is in the spirit world. Manu does not mean the exercise of human powers but the use of something derived from gods or ancestors. One further example is the case of an ancestor of the Fangarere people named Rakeimaitafua. He was a tama tapu, sacred child, of Tafua clan, that is, his mother was of that group. One of his descendants Pa Fenumera described him to me thus: “The coconuts came through him, his manu; the breadfruit and the chestnut. Things of the earth, the taro and yam, rose up above by his manu. - 503 He was manu, he sprang hither from Tafua, therefore the breadfruit and the coconut rose through the atua of Tafua; he made mana for his sacred child.” This point of the origin of mana from the gods was made over and over again in different ways by my informant. Pa Porima, for instance, asked the question, “Kafika is mana through what?” And answered himself immediately, “It is mana through Tafaki and Karisi who used to be chiefs among men, who used to be chiefs formerly in Kafika.” These two are the principal deities of the clan. The statement of Pa Rangifuri about manu being handed over by a dead chief to his successor has already been quoted. Pae Sao discussing the same point from another angle, that of the relation between a dead elder and his son, said that sometimes the father out of pique would withhold his mana. “It is clenched in his fist, the manu of the kava is denied to his son. The manu is clasped by his father and diverted away by him that it may not enter to his son.” This, Pae Sao pointed out, is proven by the fact that no rain falls and the sea remains rough, hence the son knows that his father is displeased with him and so addresses him in deprecatory fashion to induce him to relent. The manu of the kava may be affected in other ways, as by some imperfection in the form of the invitation or in the list of names invoked. It is held that an ancestor or deity whose name is omitted turns his back in anger upon the performer of the kava which is thus rendered ineffective. In other words he refuses manu to it. Pa Rarovi complained to me that when his father died he was only a child. He got his kava from the Ariki Taumako and Pae Avakofe. But he was not sure if he received it rightly or not. He imagined that certain names were hidden from him because at first his kava was not satisfactory. Later, on the advice of Pae Sao he inserted other names into his lists and received good results in the shape of rain, or clear skies, when he demanded them.

When we were discussing the relation of a chief's activities to the state of the wind and of the weather Pa Fenuatara said “A chief who is wrong in his kava is mara; there is no manu for him. He requests a calm, but none falls; he requests rain but no rain arrives. That is because his things are wrong.” The expression “to be wrong in the - 504 kava” means to omit from the list of deities invoked some important names, or to use expressions incorrectly. A reason given for this is that before his election the future chief has not listened properly to the instruction given him by the reigning chief or other elders. He may have been too intent on fishing, or on work in the cultivations. Then, when he performs his kava and omits a name, the spirit concerned is offended, turns his back and refuses to hand on manu to him—that is, to give any practical results to his invocations.

An example of a chief calling upon his dead father for mana arose when Pa Rangifuri gave me a formula used by the Ariki Tafua in cases of illness:

Koke ono mai ki toku rima,
Ke fakamana i toku rima,
Ka po ki te naenae
Ke tu fakamaroi
Ke laui ki te naenae.”
You look on my hand
To give mana from my hand
When it touches the sick person
That he may stand firmly
That the sick person may be well.”

The method whereby mana is conveyed to a chief is described thus: “The gods take and place it on the head of him who has asked for the mana to be given to him.” Hence according to this theory the mana lodges in the top of the head of the man. According to the Tikopia it never resides in the belly.

But the native ideas are not very clear on the matter of the relation of manu to the spoken word. On the one hand it is said that manu resides in the lips and might thus be expected to go out in speech, to exercise its effect. On the other hand, as just stated, it is held that the spoken word which invokes the gods is only a request for them to give manu.

This position can be resolved by the thesis that a man first asks his gods for manu which, vouchsafed to him, he then emits on other occasions to do its work.

- 505

A summary of the native statements quoted will help to bring the Tikopia concept of manu into relation with the points discussed in anthropological theory. To the Tikopia nature does not work independently of man; fertility is not merely a concatenation of physical factors but depends on the maintenance of a relationship between man and spiritual beings. Manu is discussed largely in terms of concrete results, natural phenomena such as crops, fish, and recovery from disease. Not only is its presence judged by material tokens, but at times it is represented as being in itself a material object—as when a dead chief hands it over to his successor or keeps it clenched in his fist. On the other side manu is connected with the personality of human beings, and is exercised through human agencies. It is not spoken of as a universal force inhering in all natural objects. The native view of manu may be regarded as an element in a theory of human achievement. Its thesis is that success above a certain point, the “normal,” is spirit-given. It connects an end-product empirically observed with a set of human desires by a theory of spirit-mediation and a technique of verbal utterance. To the Tikopia the end-product is frequently equated in summary statements with the means whereby that product is obtained. “We look at the rain which is about to fall, that is, the manu which will come.” But the separation of means from ends is also done. “The manu of the rain,” “the manu is given after the fashion of gods; no man sees it,” “one observes only that the food has become good.”

The difficulty of rendering a term such as manu in translation is that of comprising under one head a number of categories which we ordinarily separate. Uncertainty in natural phenomena, differential human ability, dependence upon spirit entities, are the three primary factors in the manu situation. A possible translation of manu or mana in Tikopia would then appear to be “success” or “successful,” which can embody reference both to the ability of man and to tangible results. This term is valid only if it be remembered that for the Tikopia success is not merely a matter of human effort. It is essentially success in certain spheres, those which affect human interests most vitally—food, health, and weather-control, but in ways with which - 506 ordinary technique cannot cope. Another possible translation of manu is “efficacy” or “to be efficacious.” 16 Here the emphasis again is on the fact that the activity works, that it performs the function for which it was intended. But since the efficacy is believed to be only partly due to human endeavour, any translation must also by implication embody a reference to the extra-human causes of the result. The difficulty lies in comprising in the one term both the result of activity and the native theory of the reason for it. Any single word in English cannot therefore express the fullness of the native concept.

Most of the translations proposed for mana fail to give the reality of the native attitude, because of their abstract nature, and their introduction of categories which may have no counterpart in the native system. “Supernatural power” for instance does represent one aspect of the concept but it leaves out of account the essentially material evidence of such power, and directs attention to the means rather than to the end-product. It ignores also the vital factor that such power does not exist in vacuo but is exercised by human beings or personified material objects, for human benefit. “Psychic force” is a highly intellectualized rendering of the same idea and neglects the native theory of origins.

I could not find in Tikopia any secular connotation of mana as “authority” or “influence.” Where this meaning occurs, as it apparently does among the Maori, it appears to be secondary, an inference from the more basic significance already discussed. The possible difference of meaning of mana in the various Polynesian communities may lead some critics to the conclusion that the mana or manu of Tikopia is a typical concept. But this is not a justifiable view until a body of empirical evidence comparable with that here presented has been analyzed for these other communities. From the material already available it seems to me that the same factual definition of mana of Tikopia probably could be applied elsewhere in Polynesia, though in some cultures there is an extension of meaning into the social sphere. However this be, it is clearly inappropriate to talk - 507 of mana at this stage as if it represented an identical system of ideas for the Oceanic field. 17 So far as Tikopia is concerned however, we have now arrived at a factual definition of mana (manu) in terms of the following characteristics.

  • 1. Material events, e.g., crops, fish, death of bewitched persons, cure of sickness, relief from fear.
  • 2. As a personal attribute of chiefs; though by way of illustration an informant may refer to himself.
  • 3. The volition of spiritual beings who grant to or withhold the manu from the chiefs.
  • 4. Value. In contrast to mara, manu and mana always have a positive connotation.

The concept of manu as being a personal attribute only of chiefs raises the problem of the relation of the concept to political and religious organization. To what extent does currency of this concept tend to maintain the organization and in particular the role and status of chiefs?

Viewed from one angle the linguistic concept of manu is a means of formulating the responsibilities and privileges of chiefs; it gathers into a single concept a series of disparate occurrences:—material events, and the acts and influence of chiefs. The manu-theme is thus part of the definition of a chief's job.

But the metaphysical control said to be exercised by the chief over goods and production by virtue of his manu must be correlated with the factual control exemplified by the chief's receipt of first-fruits and baskets of food, and with the ritual-control exemplified in his priestly functions.

On the one hand the concept of manu tends to sustain the role and status of chiefs and to exaggerate their actual power:—it is associated essentially with chiefs, it is there in his lips and in his hands, it is gven to him (and not to others) - 508 by his chiefs and ancestors. In this manner economic and social results which in a great part at least arise from natural phenomena—(e.g., seasonal change, recuperative powers of the human body, etc.)—are concentrated upon the person of the chief and thus redound to his credit.

But on the other hand, in contrast to this, material failure as well as success is projected on to the person of the chief and his reputation may suffer through events entirely outside his control. Thus though a man may be, from the outsider's point of view, an effective chief, with a sense of responsibility to his people, hard working and keen to give a lead to the economic affairs of the clan, and assiduous in the performance of ritual, yet so far as the possession of manu is concerned he may be put at a disadvantage merely through a succession of bad seasons. Thus from the practical point of view the manu of a chief is no thorough test of his efficiency. I say no thorough test because, as with the Ariki Tafua, attribution of manu to him by reason of large catches of fish may well be based in reality on his better powers of organization, or his superior judgment of place and time for fishing.

It may be noted also that even where a chief is rated low in mana this value-judgment is not implemented in economic terms; there is no refusal, for instance, to give him the customary first-fruits or other food-acknowledgments. One reason for this is that his condition is not necessarily permanent; he may become manu again soon. Another reason is undoubtedly the social repercussions which any such refusal would involve. Thus projection of failure on to the person of a chief does not endanger the institution of chieftainship as a whole; all chiefs are not suspect because one is mara. It may be postulated that a breakdown of chieftainship in Tikopia from this angle would need a fairly thorough demonstration that success in agriculture, fishing, and medicine could be obtained on a wide scale in the face of resort to gods and ancestors.

- 509

“Te ariki fou e tangi ki ni manu mona ki te ariki ko ia ne lavaki, ke nai torofia ko nga atua ma te kau firifiri. So ko ia! ke au ko se mana mona, pe nia ko ia ke faia mai ki tenea fakaarofa ne peia ki te ngangea na. Fakarongo ko te ariki ku lavaki ki te ariki fou e tangi atu ki ei, so ko ia, o karanga atu ki ei

‘Kau kaina fakaangafuru ko ou tae
Koke totoro atu ki nga atua
Ki ni manu moku
Toku rima ka po ki te ngaengae ke maroro’
(… ke po atu ke mana ko na rima)
‘Kau tangi atu kuou ki nia, ke manu.’
Tera poi ko te ariki ku lavaki, fai torofanga ki te atua, kae ropa atu ko tona rima ki ei. ‘Ia! Sori mai ko ni manu moku kau poi o sori ki toku tau tafanga.’ Sori mai e te atua, pe sea, te tauru rakau, pe te fua o te niu, pe tefea te fifia o te ariki e tangi ki ei. Tera au foki o nofo i tona ngangea. Ropa atu ko na rima ki te ariki fou o nofo i a tangata: ‘Ia! ou manu kora.’ Te manu e sori fakangatua mai; sise ono se tangata ki ei; mataki fuere ki te kai ku laui, te taro, te ufi, te niu, te kai katoa ku fua laui ko ia.”


“I fenua nei te manu ena i te ngutu te ariki. Tana taranga ka muna pe ki nia, te ariki e manu, tera kaisi ki te ika, au; muna rei kaisi ki te ngaio, to rei. Tera te ariki mana. Ka te ariki mara, siei se mana mona.

Te ariki e sara tana kava e mara; siei ni manu mona; kaisi ki te ngaio, siei se ngaio ke to; kaisi ki te ua, siei se ua ke oko; tera e faia e sara ko ana nea.”

(In laughing answer to the question whether mana lay simply in the chief as a man) “Siei, soa soa e! Na mana e sori mai e nga atua. Kaisi ki nga atua, fifia nga atua ka sori mai, sori mai; tera muna atu kuou te ariki e manu. Te ariki ka manu, nga atua e vakai mau fuere fifia ki te ariki.”

(In answer to the question if mana could lie simply in the words recited) “Siei se manu ena i te taranga, te kaisi fuere. Tera ka tautuku kuou ki te tangata, nofo o ono pe tefea na aso ka to, sise e ngaengae, tera nga atua sise tafuri mai, sise e fifia ki toku taranga ne fai. Kuou sise manu.”

- 510

“Matea te mafa toku puna te ariki. Na rima e tusi ki te tangata, ku moe ki raro ko te tangata. Na atua tonu e fare i tana rima. E manu.

E fakato ki roto tai, karanga ki te ika ke au ma te fenua, au rei—te ature. E roa te nofo o te ika; ka kai, kai, kai ko te fenua. Ka poi o pui atu ki tana rima ke poi, poi rei.

Matea na palasu; e muna ki te rakau, maro ko te rakau; e muna ki te mei, au, fua rei ko te mei.”

1   Handy, Polynesian Religion, 28; J. H. Driberg, “The Secular Aspect of Ancestor-Worship in Africa,” Journal of the Royal African Society, vol. 35, no. 138, January, 1936, 4, 8.
Driberg likens mana to “an abstract Power of natural potency, formless as ether… It has been likened in its manifestations to electricity (though perhaps radium would provide a better analogy)…” “Like radium it gives out energy indefinitely without diminishing its own extent or potency, and each spark is capable no less of infinite sub-division without loss of potency.” This sounds like a denial of the second law of thermodynamics, but even if the proposition could be defended by modern physics I doubt if it very much helps us to appreciate the meaning of mana.
2   H. Ian Hogbin, Oceania, 6, 265.
3   H. Hubert and M. Mauss, “Theorie generale de la Magic,” L'Annee Sociologique, 1902-3, 108 et seq. Their otherwise excellent analysis is, however, obscured by a mystical element which they bring into it, thus:
“L'idée de mana est une de ces idées troublés, dont nous croyons être débarrassés, et que, par consequent, nous avons peine à concevoir. Elle est obscure et vague et pourtant d'un emploi étrangement déterminé. Elle est abstraite et générale et pourtant pleine de concret. Sa nature primitive, c'est à dire complexe et confuse, nous inderdit d'en faire une analyse logigue; nous devons nous contender de la décrire…” (p. 109); and again:
“L'idée de mana se compose d'une série d'idées instables qui se confondent les unes dans les autres. Il est tour à tour et à la fois qualité, substance et activité.” The confusion and instability, however, seems to be the result of the anthropologists' analysis rather than a property of the native idea; indeed as this article will show the concept in Tikopia at least is entirely non-mystical, has always a concrete referent and is quite capable of being handled in a non-intellectual way. The complexity of the concept only begins to arise when anthropologists insist that mana—“c'est également une sorte d'éther, impondérable, communicable, et qui se répand de lui meme” (op. cit. p. 112).
4   Mana Again, Man, 1922, 79. It may be remarked that such attempts at recovery of the “original notion” from which others have been derived rests implicitly upon a projection of a sequence in the mind of the analyst into the phenomena analyzed. This sequence may or may not have been followed historically.
5   “The Word Mana: A linguistic study.” Oceania, 9, 1938, 89-96.
6   The Threshold of Religion, 2nd Ed., 1914, xxiii-xxvii, xxxi et passim.
7   In General Anthropology (ed. by F. Boas) 1938, 630.
8   “Magic Science & Religion,” in Science, Religion and Reality (ed. by J. A. Needham) 1926, 72-73.
9   Marett, Threshold, p. 99; Hocart, Progress of Man, 185.
10   W. Williams, Dictionary of the New Zealand Language. Paihia, 1844, where it is translated as “power, influence.” A later edition by Bishop H. W. Williams (1917) gives “authority, control, influence, prestige, power, psychic force,” and verbally “to take effect”; the causative whakamana, “to give effect to, to give prestige to.”
11   For example see W. E. Gudgeon, “Mana Tangata,” J.P.S., 14, 1905, pp. 49-66.
12   Lehmann, Mana, Leipzig, 1922; Handy Polynesian Religion, 1927, pp. 26-34. Some pertinent observations are also given in R. W. Williamson's “Religion and Social Organisation in Central Polynesia,” edited by R. Piddington, p. 110.
13   Note… “…if it exists”; Hogbin's material from Ontong Java and Wogeo suggests that the mana-concept is far from being common to the whole of Oceania, and hence he questions the validity of attempting to build up any general theory of primitive religion on concepts of the mana type. (Oceania 6, p. 274.)
14   See my We, The Tikopia and Primitive Polynesian Economy, passim.
15   See my Work of the Gods in Tikopia, vol. 2, London School of Economics Monographs in Social Anthropology, no. 2, 1940.
16   The translation given by Bishop Williams (Maori Dictionary) “to take effect” appears to be an appropriate one: his whakamana is also apt.
17   My recent research in Kelantan, Unfederated Malay States, has shown that a very similar factual definition can be given to the Malay word keramat, translated by R. J. Wilkinson as “saintly; working miracles …” (A Malay-English Dictionary, Mytilene, 1932). That it also can bear meaning akin to mana is shown from the remark of a Malay friend of mine to me “I think Tuan must be keramat—Tuan said ‘tomorrow you will get fish’; and I did.”