The social customs of Fiji are rarely peculiar to Fiji itself, but commonly show their relationship or identity with those of the Polynesians or Papuans. Curiously indeed, while the original stock of the Fijians was probably pure Papuan, their social and economic systems are now dominated by Polynesian ideas, and only among the mountain tribes do we find a clear expression of the crude Papuan systems of life and thought. This in itself shows that under stimulation the Fijians are capable of advancement in cultural ideals.
This superposition of a Polynesian admixture upon a barbarous negroid stock may account for the anomalous character of the Fijians, for in the arts they equalled or in some things excelled the other island peoples of the Pacific, and some of their customs approached closely to the cultural level of the Polynesians, but in certain fundamental things they remained the most fiendish savages upon earth. Indeed we should expect that contact with a somewhat high culture would introduce new wants, and thus affect their arts more profoundly than their customs.
In common with all primitive peoples, their names of men and women are descriptive of some peculiarity or circumstance associated with the person named. Indeed, names were often changed after important events in a person's life, thus our old friend Thakombau began life as Seru, then after the coup d'etat in which he slaughtered his father's enemies and reestablished Tanoa's rule in Mbau he was called Thakombau (evil to Mbau). At the time he also received another name Thikinovu (centipede) in allusion to his stealthiness in approaching to bite his enemy, but this designation, together with his "missionary" name "Ebenezer," did not survive the test of usage. Miss Gordon Cumming gives an interesting list of Fijian names translated into English. For women they were such as Spray of the Coral Reef, Queen of Parrot's Land, Queen of Strangers, Smooth Water, Wife of the Morning Star, Mother of Her Grandchildren, Ten Whale's Teeth, Mother of Cockroaches, Lady Nettle, Drinker of Blood, Waited For, Rose of Rewa, Lady Thakombau, Lady Flag, etc. The men's names were such as The Stone (eternal) God, Great Shark, Bad Earth, Bad Stranger, New Child, More Dead Man's Flesh, Abode of Treachery, Not Quite Cooked, Die Out of Doors, Empty Fire, Fire in the Bush, Eats Like a God, King of Gluttony, Ill Cooked, Dead Man, Revenge, etc.
In the religion of a people we have the most reliable clue to the history of their progress in culture and intelligence, for religions even when unwritten are potent to conserve old conceptions, and thus their followers advance beyond them, as does the intelligence of the twentieth century look pityingly upon the conception of the cruel and jealous God of the Old Testament, whose praises are nevertheless still sung in every Christian church. Thus in Tahiti the people were not cannibals, but the gods still appeared in the forms of birds that fed upon the bodies of the sacrificed. The eye of the victim was, indeed, offered to the chief, who raised it to his lips but did not eat it. In Samoa also where the practice of cannabalism was very rare and indulged in only under great provocation, some of the gods remained cannibals, and the surest way of appeasing any god was to be laid upon the stones of a cold oven. In Tahiti and Samoa, while most of the gods were malevolent, a few were kindly disposed towards mortals; in Fiji, however, they were all dreaded as the most powerful, sordid, cruel and vicious cannibal ghosts that have ever been conjured into being in the realm of thought.
All over the Pacific from New Zealand to Japan, and from New Guinea to Hawaii, ancestor-worship forms the backbone of every religion as clearly as it did in Greece or Rome. There are everywhere one or more very ancient gods who may always have existed and from whom all others are descended. Next in order of reverence, although not always in power, come their children, and finally the much more numerous grandchildren and remote descendants of these oldest and highest gods. Finally, after many generations, men of chieftain's rank were born to the gods. Thus a common man could never attain the rank of a high chief, for such were the descendants of the gods, while commoners were created out of other clay and designed to be servants to the chiefs.
But the process of god-making did not end with the appearance of men, for great chiefs and warriors after death became kalou yalo, or spirits, and often remained upon earth a menace to the unwary who might offend them. Curiously, these deified mortals might suffer a second death which would result in their utter annihilation, and while in Fiji we heard a tale of an old chief who had met with the ghost of his dead enemy and had killed him for the second and last time; the club which served in this miraculous victory having been hung up in the Mbure as an object of veneration.
Of a still lower order were the ghosts of common men or of animals, and most dreaded of all was the vengeful spirit of the man who had been devoured. The ghosts of savage Fiji appear all to have been malevolent and fearful beings, whereas those of the more cultured Polynesians were some of them benevolent. As Ellis says of the Tahitian mythology:
Each lovely island was made a sort of fairyland and the spells of enchantment were thrown over its varied scenes. The sentiment of the poet that
"Millions of spiritual creatures walk the earth,
Unseen, both when we wake, and when we sleep"
was one familiar to their minds, and it is impossible not to feel interested in a people who were accustomed to consider themselves surrounded by invisible intelligences
, and who recognized in the rising sun
, the mild and silver moon
, the shooting star
, the meteor's transient flame, the ocean's roar
, the tempest's blast, or the evening breeze the movements of mighty spirits.
The gods and ghosts of Fiji often entered into the bodies of animals or men, especially idiots.
Thus when the Carnegie Institution Expedition arrived at the Murray Islands in Torres Straits, the scientific staff were much pleased at the decided evidences of respect shown by the natives until it came out that the Islanders considered their white guests to be semi-idiots, and hence powerful sorcerers to be placated. Fijian religion had developed into the oracular stage, and the priest after receiving prayers and offerings would on occasions be entered into by the god. Tremors would overspread his body, the flesh of which would creep horribly. His veins would swell, his eyeballs protrude with excitement and his voice, becoming quavering and unnatural, would whine out strange words, words spoken by the god himself and unknown to the priest who as his unconscious agent was overcome by violent convulsions. Slowly the contortions grew less and with a start the priest would awaken, dash his club upon the ground and the god would leave him. It may well be imagined that the priests were the most powerful agents of the chiefs in forwarding the interests of their masters, for, as in ancient Greece or Rome, nothing of importance was undertaken without first consulting the oracle.
Surrounded by multitudes of demons, ghosts, and genii who were personified in everything about him, religion was the most powerful factor in controlling Fijian life and politics. In fact, it entered deeply into every act the native performed. The gods were more monstrous in every way than man, but in all attributes only the exaggerated counterparts of Fijian chiefs.
War was constantly occurring among these gods and spirits, and even high gods could die by accident or be killed by those of equal rank so that at least one god, Samu, was thus dropped out of the mythology in 1847.
Ndengei was the oldest and greatest, but not the most universally reverenced god. He lived in a cavern in the northeastern end of Viti Levu, and usually appeared as a snake, or as a snake's head with a body of stone symbolizing eternal life. Among the sons and grandsons of Ndengei were Roko Mbati-ndua, the one-toothed lord; a fiend with a huge tooth projecting from his lower jaw and curving over the top of his head. He had bat's wings armed with claws and was usually regarded as a harbinger of pestilence. The mechanic's god was eight-handed, gluttony had eighty stomachs, wisdom possessed eight eyes. Other gods were the adulterer, the abductor of women of rank and beauty, the rioter, the brain-eater, the killer of men, the slaughter god, the god of leprosy, the giant, the spitter of miracles, the gods of fishermen and of carpenters, etc. One god hated mosquitoes and drove them away from the place where he lived. The names and stations of the gods are described by Thomas Williams, who has given the most detailed account of the old religion.
As with all peoples whose religion is barbarous, there were ways of obtaining sanctuary and many a man has saved his life by taking advantage of the tabus which secured their operation. No matter how desirous your host might be of murdering you, as long as you remained a guest under his roof you were safe, although were you only a few yards away from his door he would eagerly attack you.
But not only did the Fijians live in a world peopled by witches, wizards, prophets, seers and fortune-tellers, but there was a perfect army of fairies which overran the whole land, and the myths concerning which would have filled volumes could they ever have been gathered. The gnome-like spirits of the mountains had peaked heads, and were of a vicious, impish disposition, but were powerless to injure any one who carried a fern leaf in his hand.
Sacred relics such as famous clubs, stones possessing miraculous powers, etc., were sometimes kept in Fijian temples, but there were no idols such as were prayed to by the Polynesians.
The fearful alternatives of heaven and hell were unknown to the Fijians. They believed in an eternal existence for men, animals, and even canoes and other inanimate things, but the future life held forth no prospect either of reward for virtues or punishment for evil acts committed while alive. So certain were they of a future life that they always referred to the dead as "the absent ones," and their land of shades (Mbulu) was not essentially different from the world they lived in. Indeed, their chief idea of death was that of rest, for as William's states, they have an adage: "Death is easy: Of what use is life? To die is rest."
There were, however, certain precautions the Fijian felt it advisable to take before entering the world to come. If he had been so unfortunate as not to have killed a man, woman or child, his duty would be the dismal one of pounding filth throughout eternity, and disgraceful careers awaited those whose ears were not bored or women who were not tatooed upon parts covered by the liku. Moreover, should a wife not accompany him (be strangled at the time of his death) his condition would be the dismal one of a spirit without a cook. Thirdly, as one was at the time of death so would the spirit be in the next world. It was therefore an advantage to die young, and people often preferred to be buried alive, or strangled, than to survive into old age. Lastly and most important, one must not die a bachelor, for such are invariably dashed to pieces by Nangganangga, even if they should succeed in eluding the grasp of the Great Woman, Lewa-levu, who flaunts the path of the departed spirits and searches for the ghosts of good-looking men. Let us imagine, however, that our shade departs this life in the best of form, young, married, with the lobes of his ears pierced, not dangerously handsome and a slayer of at least one human being. He starts upon the long journey to the Valhalla of Fiji. Soon he comes to a spiritual Pandanus at which he must throw the ghost of the whale's tooth which was placed in his hand at time of burial. If he succeeds in hitting the Pandanus, he may then wait until the spirit of his strangled wife comes to join him, after which he boards the canoe of the Fijian Charon and proceeds to Nambanggatai, where until 1847 there dwelt the god Samu, and after his death Samuyalo "the killer of souls."
This god remains in ambush in some spiritual mangrove bushes and thrusts a reed within the ground upon the path of the ghost as a warning not to pass the spot. Should the ghost be brave he raises his club in defiance, whereupon Samuyalo appears, club in hand, and gives battle. If killed in this combat, the ghost is cooked and eaten by the soul killer, and if wounded he must wander forever among the mountains, but if the ghost be victorious over the god he may pass on to be questioned by Ndengei, who may consign him either to Mburotu, the highest heaven, or drop him over a precipice into a somewhat inferior but still tolerable abode, Murimuria. This Ndengei does in accordance with the caprice of the moment and without reference either to the virtues or the faults of the deceased. Thus of those who die only a few can enter the higher heaven for the Great Woman and the Soul destroyer overcome the greater number of those who dare to face them. As for the victims of cannibal feasts, their souls are devoured by the gods when their bodies are eaten by man.