The Spirit of the Dead Keeps Watch’ (1892) by Paul Gauguin.

Ghost Beliefs in Polynesia: When Spirits Return and Possess

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A belief in ghosts is held by many cultures (both modern and ancient) around the world. Some of these ghost beliefs are well-known, whilst others, such as those held by the Polynesians, are less so. In terms of geography, Polynesia covers a large area in the central and southern parts of the Pacific Ocean. In terms of ghost beliefs, it may be said that the Polynesians believe that a person’s spirit normally travels to the sky world or the Underworld after death. Nevertheless, there are also spirits which remain on earth, becoming ghosts.

Polynesian Perceptions on Spirits

Polynesia is a group of over 1000 islands spread across the central and southern parts of the Pacific Ocean. These islands are located within a triangle, the vertices of which are the Hawaiian Islands, New Zealand, and Easter Island. Apart from these three, other Polynesian islands include Samoa, Tonga, and Tuvalu.

Whilst these islands are distributed over a large geographical area in the Pacific Ocean, it may be said that their populations share certain common beliefs about ghosts. For instance, ghosts are believed to be material beings, though their bodies are lighter and finer than those of human beings. In addition, Polynesians often believe that a person’s spirit would normally leave the earth after death. Nevertheless, it is also possible that some spirits end up remaining in the mortal realm, thus becoming ghosts.

1899 image of ghost, produced by double exposure.

1899 image of ghost, produced by double exposure. ( The Commons ) Many Polynesians would say that ghosts are material beings, though their bodies are lighter and finer than those of human beings.

Polynesian Ghost Tales

Nevertheless, there are also differences amongst the Polynesians regarding the concept of ghosts. For instance, the people of the Society Islands (part of today’s French Polynesia) have several different words for ghosts. Hae, for example, denotes the spirit of a drowned person, whilst the spirit of a dead person, especially that of an infant, is known as riorio. As a comparison, the people of Tuamotus (also part of French Polynesia) also have different words for ghosts. Instead of denoting different types of ghosts, however, some of these words show a connection between the soul and the mind, thus revealing the way these people perceived the two entities.

‘A Shipwreck’ (c. 1806) by Charles Turner.

‘A Shipwreck’ (c. 1806) by Charles Turner. ( Public Domain ) The people of the Society Islands (part of today’s French Polynesia) use the word Hae to denote the spirit of a drowned person.

In addition, the different peoples of Polynesia have their own tales about ghosts. The Maoris of New Zealand, for example, believe that the spirits of the dead travel to Cape Reinga (the northwestern-most tip of the Aupouri Peninsula, at the northern end of New Zealand’s North Island), where they would leap from the rocks into the ocean, and leave the mortal realm. Still, there are tales of those whose spirits have returned from the realm of the dead. One of these, for example, tells of a dead chief by the name of Patito who returned from the dead as a spirit to test the prowess of his son, Toakai.

Like the Maoris, the Hawaiians also believe that in order to enter the Underworld, one has to jump off something, which in this case is a breadfruit tree. Additionally, the Hawaiians also believe that spirits could return from the dead. One of these tales is entitled ‘The Bride from the Underworld: A Legend of the Kalakaua Family’, which is the Hawaiian version of the Greek myth, ‘Orpheus and Eurydice’. In the Hawaiian tale, a woman by the name of Kewalu commits suicide, and her lover, Hiku, travels to the Underworld to retrieve Kewalu’s spirit. Unlike his Greek counterpart, Hiku succeeds in his task, and Kewalu is brought back to life.

‘Orpheus and Eurydice’ (1806) by Christian Gottlieb Kratzenstein-Stub.

‘Orpheus and Eurydice’ (1806) by Christian Gottlieb Kratzenstein-Stub. ( Public Domain ) ‘The Bride from the Underworld: A Legend of the Kalakaua Family’, is the Hawaiian version of the Greek myth, ‘Orpheus and Eurydice’, however it has a different ending.

A Polynesian Belief in Ghosts that Possess the Living

In some Polynesian cultures, ghosts are also believed to have the power to possess the living. The Samoans, for example, believe that if a person still harbors ill-feelings towards the deceased, or makes disrespectful comments about him / her, the spirit of the dead is able to punish the wrong-doer by possessing him / her. It is commonly believed that the spirit would enter a person through the armpit, and then remain there or in the lower abdomen, or in the back of the neck. A person about to be possessed may feel a sudden chill, or sense that the ghost is trying to take his / her body away. It is believed that these possessions may be cured by those practicing Samoan folk medicine.

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