Turning the Spirits into Witchcraft: Pentecostalism in Fijian Villages

By Newland, Lynda | Oceania, September 2004 | Go to article overview
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Turning the Spirits into Witchcraft: Pentecostalism in Fijian Villages


Newland, Lynda, Oceania


While I was living in Suva in 2001, a television news item reported that pre-colonial objects in the Fiji Museum were moving around at night. Many of these objects were associated with cannibalism and were thought to be moving by means of ancestral witchcraft. When I asked a museum employee about this, she explained that the report was actually a retelling of an occurrence that had happened in the 1980s and which had been verified by other museum employees:

   in the early '80s, two war clubs were fighting inside, you know,
   like ding-donging themselves on the head and a yaqona bowl (2)
   was moving and a cup that the chiefly priests used before and, you
   know, sounds, like you hear footsteps, doors opening and closing ...

The restlessness of these objects is indicative of the fact that, in the Suva region at least, they are associated with beliefs and practices that, far from belonging to an inert and harmless past, retain currency and potency within contemporary social life.

Moreover, if these artefacts were animated by an ancient witchcraft, the fact that this employee was working among pre-Christian objects was enough for locals to assume that a curse had passed to her, affecting her marriage and preventing her from having children. As a result, she lost friends who feared being tainted by the curse simply by being close to her. Although my informant was Methodist, this was not enough for others to accept her employment among the cursed artefacts. If culturally suppressed and sometimes repressed, the indigenous religion and its associations with cannibalism are perceived to be potent enough to contest the Methodist faith.

Notions that pre-Christian artefacts are cursed and that the curse is contagious are currently dominant representations of pre-Christian religion,' but they are problematic for indigenous Fijians because the objects at the museum also represent a history, indeed, a heritage, which, in other contexts, remains an intrinsic part of indigenous Fijian identity. How, then, has pre-Christian religion become demonised? Although in the colonial era, Christian ideas around cannibalism have played a large part in this process, in this paper I argue that it also has much to do with much more contemporary transformations of Christianity in Fiji.

The Methodist church is the oldest and most powerful Christian church in Fiji and it was due to Methodist influence that practices such as cannibalism were first outlawed (Garret 1985). (4) In Toren's words, Fijians incorporated Methodism in such a way as to:

   imply that Fijian chiefs were always inherently Christian: that
   even long ago 'in the time of the devils,' before 'the coming of
   the light,' the chiefs embodied a fundamental Christianity one that
   was obscured by the practices forced upon them by the ancestors in
   their malign aspect. The light that made them see that human
   sacrifice and cannibalism, war and wife capture, widow strangulation
   and polygamy were sins imposed upon them by their ignorance of the
   Christian God. But they only had to strip away these practices to
   stand revealed as true Christians, as people whose very tradition
   was at base Christian (Toren, 1988:712).

However, precisely because of its status as the chiefly religion, Methodism also incorporated many indigenous ideas and allowed other pre-Christian practices to continue alongside its teachings. As relative newcomers, Pentecostal denominations often represent their arrival in terms of a revival and purification of Christianity. In doing so, they openly demonise many traditional ideas and practices associated with ancestral worship--from yaqona drinking to firewalking--and thus constitute a second wave of Christian demonisation of indigenous religion. Moreover, because Pentecostal philosophy rejects many of the traditional communal practices that are led by the chief (such as drinking yaqona), the adherents do not engage in them, thus distancing themselves not only from the chief's authority but also from wider village sociality.

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