Tahitian Folk Medicine

Antony Hooper


1This paper is an ethnographic account of the Tahitian concept of ma’i’sickness’, and is based on field research in the Iles sous-le-vent. The first section outlines the four major categories of ma’i commonly distinguished by Tahitians – Injury, True sickness, Ghost sickness and Retribution sickness – and the principles which underlie these distinctions. This Is followed by a description of the diagnostic and curing practices commonly used in the rural areas ; the role of tahu’a and its place in the diagnostic process is described, together with the preparation and use of herbal remedies. It is suggested that Tahitian diagnostic procedures ore in practice similar to those used by Western medical practitioners, although they begin from wholly different premises. The final section is concerned with the part which ma’i ploys in providing a public commentary and judgements upon the morality of the social relationships which are characteristic of Tahitian rural communities. The Appendix gives a glossary of scientific names for Tahitian herbs and the recipes for the herbal remedies used to treat 32 subvarieties of 7 varieties of True sickness.

Cet article est un rapport ethnographique sur les recherches faites aux Iles Sous-le-Vent sur le concept tahitien de la ma’i (maladie). Dans la première partie sont décrites les quatre plus importantes catégories de ma’ireconnues par les Tahitiens : la blessure, la vraie maladie, la maladie provoquée par les fantômes, et celle qui est un châtiment – ainsi ce qu’a servi de base pour ces distinctions. Ensuite vient la description du diagnostic et des pratiques de guérison employées généralement dans les régions rurales : du rôle du tahu’a et sa place dans l’établissement du diagnostique, puis la préparation et l’utilisation des herbes comme remèdes. Il est suggéré que les procédés pour diagnostiquer une maladie employés par les Tahitiens sont semblables à ceux utilisés par les médecins occidentaux, bien que partant de bases entièrement différentes. La partie finale traite du rôle joué par la ma’i en provoquant des commentaires et jugements publics sur la moralité et les relations sociales caractéristisant des communautés rurales tahitiennes. Un lexique des noms scientifiques des herbes tahitiennes et les recettes pour la préparation des plantes médicinales utilisées pour soigner 32 sous-variétés et 7 formes de ma’isont donnés en appendice.

3Several of the earliest European voyagers in Tahiti, in spite of their difficulties with the local language and the many distractions which attended their visits, made observations of the common sicknesses and some of the local methods used for their treatment. Banks, who was on Tahiti and several islands of the neighbouring Leeward group for nearly four months in 1769, mentions priestly “ceremonies for the cure of sick people” and was impressed by the apparent skill of local surgeons and the Tahitians’ use of both “vulnerary herbs” and medicinal plants (Beaglehole 1962 : I, 374-6). James Morrison, who enjoyed a longer and much more intimate contact with the people a decade or so later, wrote a fairly extensive account of the practices of mediums and the ideas on which their activities were based. He also mentions the Tahitians’ surgical skills, although he had a poor opinion of the medicines which were used. He wrote that ” for any mixed Complaint they have no remedy except it is applyd by Chance tho they always administer Some Medicine with their prayers…” (1935 : 228).

4European contact intensified during the closing decades of the eighteenth century and led to the extensive transformation of Tahitian society during the next twenty years. But whatever else the Tahitians took from Europeans (and they took over much in the way of both ideas and material goods) it is evident that they did not abandon the use of their own medical techniques – in spite of Ellis’ somewhat rosy statement that such heathen practices had “entirely ceased” (1853 : III, 44). Brodie was to note a few years later the people’s “strange superstition that almost any of their wild herbs is preferable to European physic” (n.d. : x, 11), and there are numerous references in missionary journals and letters to the activities of native mediums and curers. Pearse’s account of events in his Leeward Islands parish during 1878 is particularly vivid and full.

5We expelled nine members one month for involving themselves in superstitious practices. One of them was a deacon of the church and the others were relatives. There had been much sickness in the family and several had died. Through the leaven of heathen superstition still lurking in them, they were possessed of the idea that evil spirits still residing in the bones of their ancestors, were the cause of their afflictions. They resolved to burn the bones in order to destroy the power of the spirits. They also consulted the native sorcerer who confirmed them in their determination. But there was the difficulty of knowing the place where the bones were interred. They suspected that they were interred in the vicinity of their old marae, but the sorcerer told them he could discover the place. On the day appointed the relatives were conducted by him to the heathen marae of their ancestors, and after certain preliminaries he told them the place to dig. They at once set to work at the place indicated, and about a foot below the ground discovered a stone receptacle containing human bones, stones cut to the shape of human skulls stone images, one like a dog, another a fowl, another a rat, another a lizard, another a fish etc. These were all taken out by the sorcerer who after performing certain incantations cast them into a large fire… While speaking of superstition I will give you another form of it which is very common among certain families. It came to my knowledge as a case of church discipline at Tahaa. A member of a family was taken very ill native medicine failed to cure. in their distress they sent for the native sorcerer or diviner. On his arrival, after repeating certain formulae, he asked the relatives to confess to him for whose sin the sufferer was possessed by an evil spirit. One after another denied having sinned against him. At last one confessed having thought ill of him in his heart. This was considered to be the cause of the illness. Upon this confession the sorcerer based his conjurations and prayers, in order that the evil spirit may be exorcised. Certain ceremonies were also performed in pressing upon the body to know the position of the demon within, this being found, a gradual pressure of the hands on that part force the demon downward to the leg and forward to the foot so that he may escape. Thus being expelled from the sufferer, he is supposed to be cured and is expected to recover. As a rule medicine is also given, but if the recovery is effected, the cure is credited to the sorcery and not to the medicine. There is no doubt that the very faith in the enchantments often helps to restore. If the patient does not recover, the sorcerer is not blamed, for he avows that the cause whereby the sufferer became possessed was not revealed to him, for had it been, he would certainly have recovered. Thus often ill feeling is produced in the family, one accusing the other of being the cause of his affliction and death. When I was at Huahine some few months since we expelled several members for applying to the sorcerers, rather than trusting to God.

6It is strange that so much faith is placed in these superstitions. Pearse appeared to be resigned to the view that only “true knowledge of the gospel” would overturn the power of these superstitions and “lead the people to trust in God and to the proper treatment of medicine …” (1878).

7This has not been the case. Both the Gospel and the Tahitians’ belief in their local methods of curing have flourished during the century since Pearse wrote. Far from one having driven out the other, both are now an integral part of the distinctively Tahitian way of life. This has been pointed out by several writers, and in the scattered, uneven descriptive literature on the twentieth century Society Islands there are a number of brief accounts of indigenous medical practices. For the most part, these either describe various herbal remedies (Goupil 1926 ; Petard 1948 ; Salmon 1955) or recount exploits of well-known local healers (R.V. 1925 ; Sasportas 1924 ; Walker 1925). A recent article by Panoff (1966) is made up mostly of recipes for herbal remedies, making only a brief mention of what he terms maladies surnaturelles. Levy, on the other hand, has written perceptively (1967, 1973) about Tahitian concepts of the supernatural and the techniques used for the treatment of “supernatural maladies”, making only passing reference to the use of herbal remedies.

8In this paper I take a somewhat different perspective on these topics. Although I describe several herbal remedies in some detail I am not here concerned with their possible pharmacological properties or physiological effects ; and although I give several accounts of the treatment of ‘ghost sicknesses’ I cannot, as Levy does, point up the psychodynamic principles which might be involved. My perspective here is more directly ethnographic, beginning with the Tahitian concept of ma’i ‘sickness’, and attempting to describe the associated ideas and practices. I begin with an account of the Tahitian cultural system for labelling and classifying disorders, together with some of the explanatory principles which are involved. I then describe the therapeutic practices in common use. The final section suggests some relationships between these ideas and practices and certain features of rural Tahitian social structure.

  • 1 Two periods of field research, of eighteen months and two months, were sponsored by the U.S. Natio (…)

9This account is based upon data gathered during field research in two rural communities in the lles sous-le-vent1, a group of five high islands and four atolls to the north-west of Tahiti, the largest island and metropolitan centre of French Polynesia. in these islands, outside of one small urban centre on the island of Raiatea, the population is dominantly Polynesian, living in small communities on the coastal fringes of the larger volcanic islands. They speak of themselves as mā’ohi ‘indigenous’ or ta’ata Tahiti’Tahitians’, and see themselves and their way of life as distinct from that of the other ethnic groups, metropolitan French, demi and Chinese who make up the population of the Territory. This distinctiveness is made of many elements – race, language, religious affiliation as well as a whole body of customs and practices relating to land, kinship, preferred foods and the life cycle. Among these we may also place the system of folk medicine which is described here, which exists alongside the fairly good facilities – small hospitals, and dressing-stations staffed by government trained medical personnel – which are located within reach of the rural people and freely available to them. Rural Tahitians have a mixed attitude toward these services, regarding them with abhorrence, envy and fear of their injections and surgical procedures. Generally only the most serious cases are taken for this sort of treatment.

10There is no vestige remaining of the elaborate nineteenth century Tahitian polity or the ideas of inherited rank on which it was based. There are neither titles nor “chiefs” apart from those who are elected to serve as minor administrative officials in the districts into which the rural areas are divided. Executive government is under the direction of an appointed French governor, although the local Territorial Assembly (elected by universal suffrage) has for the past twenty years given strong expression to local as against metropolitan French interests. All Tahitians are highly involved in the market economy of the Territory ; on Tahiti itself many are engaged in wage labour, and even in the most remote rural areas the money gained from the sale of cash crops forms an essential part of domestic household economies.


11The Tahitian term which I gloss as ‘sickness’ is ma’i. All forms of plant and animal life may be ma’i ‘sick’, or pohe ma’i ‘overcome with sickness’, although it is only the ma’i suffered by human beings which is the subject of any conceptual elaboration. Tahitians speak of injuries to animals by the same terms as are used to refer to human injuries, and while they do not discount the possibility that domestic and other animals may suffer from ‘ghost sickness’ I did not learn of any specific examples. Sick animals are seldom cared for in any way, and there are no specialists for their treatment ; those suffering from anything more obscure than the most obvious injury are passed off as merely having ‘dog sickness’ or ‘chicken sickness’ and are left to recuperate, or to die.

12Tahitians commonly distinguish four major kinds of ma’i, three of which are labeled by separate parau rahi, or ‘general terms’. At this level of generality the contrasts are based on the different presumed causes of the sicknesses. In many instances, however, an explicit distinction is made between an immediate or effective cause and the underlying or final cause. In general discourse, these levels and contrasts are clear from the particular contexts. Tahitians in general, even those who specialise to some extent as curers, are not given to elaborating taxonomic or typological niceties at this level.

13The first major category of ma’i includes all those events which would be classified in English as “injuries” – sprains, breaks, cuts, burns and so forth. Each specific type of injury may be labeled by a specific term, as is the case in English, although there is no single Tahitian term for the category as a whole. When speaking of particular cases, people will ordinarily use the appropriate term for the specific type of in juty, and the question of a category corresponding to the English “injury” does not arise. in discussing the taxonomic status of particular injuries (such as mutu ‘cut’ or pa’apa’a’burn’) however, informants would not accept them as belonging in any of the other three major categories, preferring to speak of them all together as a separate category which they defined by straightforward listing of the component items – “bruises, cuts and that sort of thing…”

14I shall use, then, the English term “Injury” for this unlabeled category. For Tahitians, as for ourselves, the immediate cause of any injury is usually seen as either obvious, or readily inferred without any diagnostic skill. It is this feature which sets off the category from other categories such as ‘true sickness’ and ‘ghost sickness’. At the level of ultimate causes, however, a particular injury may be readily accepted as being also an instance of ‘ghost sickness’.

15The crucial issue here is the notion of “accident”. Tahitians have the notion that many things happen simply by chance, and that some injuries may be caused simply by misadventure, and lack of adequate care or supervision. But they are, at the same time, also very ready to try and discern behind the apparently fortuitous circumstances of an injury, some underlying meaning or cause. It is the classic question of what brought about the particular set of circumstances surrounding the “accident”. The answer may, in appropriate circumstances, be provided by beliefs about the actions and propensities of ‘ghosts’. The tendency to seek for such underlying meanings and causes seems to be most marked when either the injury or the surrounding circumstances are at all unusual. There was, for example, a lame youth in the community whose disability was due to a complex fracture of a femur which he had suffered as a child when he fell through a hole in a wooden house-floor. I was told that people were at the time surprised by the seriousness of the break when the child had suffered such a comparatively short fall ; and when the local treatments did not work as expected, the injury was interpreted as the work of a ‘ghost’ which had pulled his leg through the hole with particular viciousness and force.

16Again, it is very commonly believed that certain activities, such as fishing, are particularly dangerous if they are undertaken on a Sunday or other Holy day ; such activities are liable to be punished with attack by sharks or other misadventures, and appropriate cases seem to be always readily available to support this contention. The punishment in these cases seems to be conceived as taking place automatically, without the intervention of any active being or agency, but when pressed for further explanation most people will say that they suppose that it must be God’s doing.

17This kind of explanation derives its particular force from some very basic, widely held, and apparently deep-seated Tahitian ideas about the nature of sickness and health in general, which I shall discuss in the concluding section.

18Ma’i mau ‘true sickness’, is a second major category, which may be distinguished from “injury” both by intrinsic nature and the lack of any obviously identifiable effective cause. ‘True sickness’ may tupu noa ‘just grow’ upon a person who has formerly enjoyed good health, and is seen as being due to something which comes from outside the body rather than arising from within the body itself. The intrinsic nature and immediate effective cause of ma’i mau is not a topic on which Tahitians are prone to speculate in any serious way. They see it as a world-wide phenomenon which has been present at least since Biblical times, and having no special manifestations among Tahitians as distinct from other peoples. For this reason, they will readily offer what French disease-names they may know as being exact translations of Tahitian terms, and they see their own herbal remedies as working in precisely the same way as the potions, pills and injections which are available from the French pharmacies and hospital services. It is believed, however, that people who are puta to’eto’e (literally, ‘pierced by cold’ or ‘chilled’) or puta mahana ‘pierced by the sun’ have a weakened bodily resistance and are prone to succumb to any variety of ‘true sickness’. Diet is also seen to play a part in resistance to this category of sickness. The general feeling of satiety and well-being denoted by the term pa’ia is said by adults to be only truly attained from meals of fish, coconut sauce and local vegetable foods. Canned foods, in spite of the extent to which they are in fact used in the rural areas, are held to be unsatisfying ; there is even speculation that they are the cause of cancer. And many Tahitians will argue that their ancestors in the days before they ate “foreign” foods extensively, were much healthier than the people are at the present time. As evidence for this fact they point to the skulls which are secreted in well-known rock crevices, which all have well-preserved teeth.

19‘Ghosts’ and ghostly influences are not seen as causing ‘true sickness’ in any way. A ‘ghost sickness’ may, however, be mistaken for one of the varieties of ‘true sickness’ and its real nature thus not discovered until it is seen that herbal treatments are having no effect, and a specialist in the treatment of ‘ghost sickness’ has been consulted. A diagnosis of ‘ghost sickness’ by a specialist then leads to a complete reclassification of the sickness and a radical change in the method of treatment.

20‘Ghosts’ may, however, be involved in other ways with those who are inflicted with one of the varieties of ‘true sickness’. A young man who was said to have been chilled by an extensive period spent spear-fishing in deep waters off the barrier reef, fell quite severely sick ; it was thought that he had a ‘true sickness’ and several kinds of herbal remedies were tried over a period of several days. As the youth’s condition worsened, a specialist was called upon. He confirmed the original diagnosis of a ‘true sickness’ as being correct, but stated that there were special subsequent complications due to the fact that the ‘ghost’ of the patient’s dead mother had great aroha ‘compassion’ and wanted him to rest with her in death so that he could be relieved of his suffering. For these circumstances there seemed to be little that could be done. Herbal treatments were continued, and the boy’s father visited the grave of his dead wife to plead with her ‘ghost’ to allow a recovery to take place. Only when the patient was very severely ill was he taken to hospital, where he died a day later – probably of pneumonia.

21‘True sickness’ is the only major category of ma’i which embraces an extensive number of named varieties, each of which may in turn be composed of a number of named sub-varieties. The principles of classification at this level are both elusive and obscure, and I shall deal with them in greater detail in the following section.

22The Tahitian term which I translate as ‘ghost’ is tūpāpa’u, and an understanding of the nature of ma’i tūpāpa’u ‘ghost sickness’ involves a description of some distinctively Tahitian concepts. The great majority of Tahitians are Christian, and have been for generations. The Christian concepts of “soul” and “spirit” are translated in the Tahitian Bible as vārua, and, invariably, the nature of vārua is seen in more or less strictly Biblical terms. The vārua is seen as being given to each child, by God, either at birth or at some point during its gestation, and is taken by God again at death – usually to Heaven. (Most Tahitians say that they believe in Hell in fairly literal terms, but they seem to doubt whether there are in fact many Tahitians there).

23It is widely believed that each person has “within” him a tūpāpa’u – an incorporeal mea ‘thing’ which can leave the body during dreams and which survives the body’s death, going neither to Heaven nor Hell. As informants explain it, the tūpāpa’u is “without a body, like the air or a shadow”. The relationship between these two concepts, the Christian notion of vārua and the local one of tūpāpa’u, is an interesting one. in discussing the nature of “life” and “death” Tahitians use a fairly literal Biblical idiom, seeing ora “life” and the vārua as coming ultimately from God, whereas the tūpāpa’u on the other hand are seen as “just there”. When talking about these matters once with me, an elderly Protestant deacon who took pleasure in toying with such ideas carefully explained the nature of both concepts. Then, in reply to my question as to whether he had both a vārūa and a tūpāpa’u “inside” him, he replied with a laugh, “Perhaps I do, but perhaps there is only one thing, and sometimes it is a vārūa and sometimes it is a tūpāpa’u. How can we know such things ?” For him, as for most other Tahitians, there is no real conflict between the two sets of belief. The concepts simply belong to different universes of discourse. While I never heard any Tahitian be sceptical about vārūa, a few people (in my experience usually men) would voice some scepticism about the reality of tūpāpa’u, saying that they were the creation of one’s thoughts only, and that if you didn’t believe in them you would never see them. Such statements did not, however, seem to blunten in any way their fascination for stories about tūpāpa’u.

24In spite of this occasional vein of scepticism, most of the Tahitian explanations which I heard about the nature of tūpāpa’u, as well as stories about their exploits, showed that there is a widely-shared and consistent body of beliefs about them. Tūpāpa’u have the physical and personality characteristics of the living person, being either male or female, aggressive or retiring and so forth. Although they leave a living body at, or shortly after the body’s death, they will tend to remain in the vicinity of where the body is buried. They are capable of instant movement and have been known to make journeys to distant lands. Tūpāpa’u watch over the affairs of the living, especially those of their living kismen. For most Tahitians, the ‘ghost’ of a kinsman is looked upon as being generally protective and not nearly so anxiety-provoking as an unrelated or unknown ‘ghost’. Tūpāpa’uare, however, vengeful, and occasionally capricious and playful in their relations with the living. Unlike vārūa, which are never visible, tūpāpa’u may be seen by living people, to whom they appear to walk a few inches above the surface of the ground, often making a characteristic whistling sound. Dogs and other animals can often see or be aware of them even when humans remain oblivious to their presence. They are generally held to dislike sweet scents and perfumes, and, according to some informants, are afraid of bamboo.

25Although Tahitians feel especially aware and afraid of tūpāpa’u when they are alone or in isolated, unfrequented places, it is not often that they will appear, quite unprovoked, in such circumstances. The most common and important manifestation of tūpāpa’u is when they cause sickness. A tūpāpa’u may be the ultimate cause of an injury, and they may be implicated in some instances of ‘true sickness’, as explained above. But there are also numerous occasions of sickness which are seen as due to direct tūpāpa’u influence and intervention. These sickness usually have a bizarre or frightening quality to them, and they can be cured only by specialist curers.

26A fourth major category of sickness is known as ma’i fa’autu’a, literally ‘retribution sickness’. From one point of view this may be seen as being a special variety of ‘ghost sickness’ since it is also due to “supernatural” causes.

27In contrast to ‘ghost sickness’ though, the supernatural agency at work is not a definite tūpāpa’u but is seen as a more abstract entity still, almost as a principle of Justice. Some informants state simply that it is the work of God. The essential feature of a ma’i fa’autu’a is that it is a punishment for wrongdoing – not an automatic punishment, since many wrongs are seen as never being punished, but one that is inherently just and proper.

28It is in terms of these four major categories that rural Tahitians commonly speak about ma’i in general, and organise their perceptions and theories about particular instances of sickness. Both specialists and layman may, however, disagree in their diagnoses, or change them according to circumstances. Diagnosis, and the social relationships involved in sickness and the curing process, form the subject of the following section.


29Ma’i is a subject of obvious and direct concern to all rural Tahitians, the most obvious reason for this being that their very livelihoods depend upon physical activity in gardening, tree-climbing and fishing. Ill-health is not only personally inconvenient or distressing. It can tax, in a very rapid and direct manner, the livelihood and well-being of whole families. The state of health of community members is a constant and persistent item of everyday conversation, and even the most minor indisposition is closely watched and its progress enquired after, until it should become serious or else clear up completely. There is considerably more to this than idle curiosity or decent neighbourly concern.

30Injuries of one sort or another, although they may be alarming when they happen, are coped with in a fairly matter-of-fact and straightforward way. Cuts are generally tightly bound with piece of ripped-up clothing to stop the flow of blood, occasionally with the addition of a few crushed leaves believed to have the property of making blood congeal. Scalds and superficial burns may be rubbed with butter, or, if none is immediately available, smeared with a soft mud which is allowed to dry in place. For scalds, many people recommend pressing a rotten leaf of ‘ape (a taro-like plant which grows wild, Colocasia macrorrhisa Schott) onto the affected area. This is said to bring about a cure overnight, although it does have the unfortunate effect of irritating the surrounding unscalded skin. The widely-known treatment for a child taken unconscious and drowning from the water is to place him head down over an adult’s back with his legs over the adult’s shoulders ; the adult then runs with the child until the water “breaks” and consciousness returns. Broken bones are set (often rather approximately) in place and the limb or surrounding area coated with sticky breadfruit sap and bound with either cloth or more, a cloth-like substance made from the bast of breadfruit bark. Practically all adults seem to know of straightforward first aid remedies of this kind, although many may be unwilling to take the responsibility of carrying them out. Whenever possible, the injured person is taken as quickly as possible to his or her home, where members of the family can take the decisions as to what should be done. Others may be sympathetic, but Tahitians are not effusive about shows of concern in such matters.

31With ma’i mau ‘true sickness’, the onset is usually defined by the individual concerned. The adoption of a “sick role” in Tahiti involves a voluntary withdrawal from all or most ongoing activities – work, visiting, meetings, household duties, church, sport – and the patient retiring to his usual house and resting. An individual is not expected to continue with normal activities at the cost of personal discomfort if he has declared himself as ma’i, and accusations of malingering are not common. At the early stages of ‘sickness’ the responsibility for care and treatment is wholly on family and household members. It is not customary for anyone other than these people to visit the sick person, inquire directly about symptoms, or to offer advice of any kind. Members of the immediate family, especially parents, may prepare a herbal remedy that they happen to know, or if the indisposition seems likely to be more than a passing one, to seek out the advice of a semi-specialist in such treatments.

32Most adult women who have cared for small children know several recipes for “small medicines” or “children’s medicines” which they will make up and give to their children when they are indisposed, without feeling that they should consult anyone else on the matter. Many have considerable trust in their “own” remedies as being clearly the most suitable for their own children, and one woman told me that she had used only one remedy to cure all of the ills which her son had suffered from in childhood.

33The treatment of sickness in adults is seen as a somewhat more complex and serious matter, and the advice of a tahu’a is more readily sought. Tahu’a is a term with a fairly wide range of referents. in its widest sense it refers to a person with specialist skills of any sort, particularly when that person is performing a directive role in some undertaking. The term is still occasionally used in this wider sense in the rural areas (I have heard it used to refer to both a boatbuilder and a Protestant pastor) but it is a somewhat archaic usage. More commonly, a tahu’a is a ‘curer’ and the term may be used with or without qualifiers to designate a special field of competence. A tahu’a rā’au is one who specialises in the use of rā’au ‘medicines’ for curing, ra’au being the generic Tahitian term for “plants” and also for “medicines” of both European or local origin. Tahu’a rā’au is, however, never used to refer to a European-trained doctor, who is always known as a taote, a 19th century Tahitian rendering of the English “doctor”.

34A person who simply knows a few ‘medicines’ and even uses them freely to aid both members of the family and neighbours, is not referred to as a tahu’a for that reason. The term is reserved for those who make something of a specialty of diagnosis and have recourse to a number of ‘medicines’ as well as the ability to concoct new ones. in the small community of about 200 people which I knew best there were three people, two women and a man, who were known as tahu’a rā’au. Of these three, the man was held to be much more skilled and effective than the other two – who had, in fact, learned some of their recipes from him. One of the women specialised somewhat in the treatment of children’s complaints, and knew by heart perhaps a dozen recipes. The other, who was not very frequently consulted, had a special exercise book in which she had written down the recipes for 69 named ‘medicines’. These were not ordered in any way, but represented notes which she had made over a period of years as she learned the medicines from various sources, both inside and outside the community. The man, who was widely held to be the only person in community who really knew about rā’au, had never committed his knowledge to writing. During the period of nearly three weeks which he devoted to instructing me about rā’au, and during which we would work for three to four hours together every day, he did not refer at all to written notes. Other people in the community agreed with his own statement that the considerable body of recipes which he knew was held entirely in his memory. He was at the time a widower, living with his adopted children and their families, and was a mainstay of the community’s Protestant church group, although he was not a deacon. The study of the Bible, together with a little of the less demanding garden work of the household and his work as a tahu’a, were his main occupations. His knowledge of medicines was gained mostly from his father, who had also been something of a tahu’a in his lifetime. But he also experimented with new recipes of his own, keeping those which proved to be effective.

35During our daily sessions, he was confident and organised in his approach, patiently answering during the initial sessions all my questions concerning technical terms, and the names of plant-parts which were new to me. We worked, at his direction, sysmetatically through seven varieties of common ma’i mau, together with the 32 sub-varieties which he distinguished, with his giving me first a cursory description of the symptoms, followed by a list of ingredients for the appropriate rā’au, their method of preparation and the dosage to be followed .

36The following is a verbatim account of his instructions for the rā’au for tuihotete, a variety of ‘true sickness’, and is a fair example of the way in which instructions for making rā’au are communicated orally between adults when it is presumed that the listener is familiar with the plants employed and the common techniques of preparation.

  1. E piti rau’ere nono para, piti mea pu’u, ‘aūte e piti rau’ere.
  2. Tāpū i te hō’ē ha’ari, vaiho te pape i rotote ‘au’a, va’u te ha’ari i roto i te pape.
  3. Pāpāhia ‘āmui, pū’ohu.
  4. Taviri i roto te ha’ari.
  5. Tunu te ‘ōfa’i ‘ia ‘ama, tu’u i roto i te ‘au’a.
  6. Tāpo’i, e ia to’eto’e fa’ainu pauroa, hō’ēnoa inura’a.

37A fairly free translation of the six sections follows.

  1. Two mature nono leaves, two immature ones, two ‘aute leaves.
  2. Cut a (fully mature) coconut, put the liquid into a bowl, grate the meat of the coconut into this liquid.
  3. Pound up (the leaves) together, wrap them in cloth.
  4. Wring (the bundle of leaves so that the liquid runs out) into the coconut water.
  5. Heat (a small) stone until hot, place it in the bowl.
  6. Cover, and when it is cold give it to be drunk, all at once.

38When treating patients, a process which might last several weeks and involve daily visits, the medicines would always be made under the direction of the tahu’a, either by his adopted daughter or by a member of the patient’s family, with any willing hands being pressed into the collection of the plant ingredients. The plants used in ‘medicines’ are generally of no commercial value ; many, in fact, are regarded otherwise as weeds and they are taken freely from anyone’s land.

39Ra’au, however, are regarded as personal property. Even though the recipe may be a simple one, learned and committed to memory within a matter of minutes, it remains the property of an owner, whether that person is a tahu’a or not, and should not be made except under his or her direction. Failure to do so is widely believed to result in the ‘medicine’ being ma’au’spoiled’ and rendered ineffectual. There appears to be no clear doctrine as to the way in which the injury takes place, but most people believe it is due to the action of ‘ghosts’. For what are apparently very similar reasons, there should be direct and continuing contact between patient and tahu’a during the process of treatment since medicines made in one place and taken to a patient some distance away are liable to be ‘īāhia ‘stolen’ by ‘ghosts’ in transit. As it was explained to me, “One opens the bundle with the crushed medicine in it, and there is nothing there at all !”

40Recipes for medicines may, however, be hōro’ahia ‘given’ by one person to another. This appears to be done quite frequently by people who have no pretensions to being tahu’a when they simply get weary of the business of making up a ‘medicine’ for a particular patient. Tahu’a do not commonly give recipes in this fashion, maintaining that they become ma’au simply by the transaction, and they are then put to the trouble of having to concoct new recipes as replacements.

41It is clear that these beliefs all serve to define tahu’a as a distinct social role. The only other kind of special knowledge which is regarded in a somewhat similar light by rural Tahitians is that having to do with the traditional songs and dances, which are regarded as being the property of the individuals or groups who created them. But there is here no explicit connection with ‘ghosts’ or ideas of ‘spoilage’. Most other kinds of special knowledge, particularly those having to do with fishing and gardening, are very jealously guarded against others who try, either openly or by trickery, to find it out.

42‘Medicines’ are never bought and sold among Tahitians and the tahu’a who use them maintain an ideology of completely free services to all who should ask for them. There is no ethic that they should be given gifts in appreciation of their services, although they are in fact sometimes given, even in the form of money. In general, the attitude to ‘true sickness’ and the various remedies available is strictly pragmatic. If the ‘medicines’ known by one person fail to bring about a cure it is expected that others, whether tahu’a or not, will be asked to help.

43There are no particular herbal ingredients of rā’au which are regarded as being specific in their effects, or as being especially indicated by certain symptoms. The commonly held view is that there are some plants which have “always” been known by Tahitians to have curative properties, as distinct from others which have no particular effects. Some thoughtful informants put forward the view that all plants may well have useful curing properties, but many of them are not known simply because they have not been tried. It is generally thought that the curing plants are there by God’s good grace, for Tahitians to learn about and to use. Most of them are thought to be rā’au mā’ohi ‘native plants’, although they may be used to cure the ailments of anyone, not only Tahitians. Popa’ā ‘Europeans’ have their plants and their ‘medicines’ as well, which are held to be no better or worse on the whole than rā’au Tahiti ‘Tahitian medicines’.

44However, in spite of the lack of any doctrine concerning the specific properties of curing plants, Tahitians do not regard it as proper to simply make a recipe containing extracts from all the curing plants and administering it to a patient. When I raised this possibility I was firmly told that “it simply wasn’t done that way”. Yet, in certain unusual circumstances, this is precisely what is done. Before leaving the community on a six-month labour contract in the Tuamotu group, a young man took the precaution of asking the tahu’a rā’au to supply him with a bottle of rā’aurahi, literally a ‘large medicine’, but as he described it to me “one with a lot of different things in it”. He wanted it, he said, because he didn’t know if there would be a good tahu’a where he would be working, or even if the necessary plants would be available ; and he used the ‘medicine’ something like a tonic, drinking a little at regular intervals or whenever he felt indisposed in any way.

45In marked contrast to the complexity and precision of the recipes for Tahitian ‘medicines’, the recognised symptoms and the syndromes indicating particular named ‘true sickness’ appear relatively vague and imprecise. Consider, for example, my informant’s description of the indications for the eight named sub-varieties of the ‘true sickness’ known as ira :

  1. Ira miti. Found characteristically in children, who feel sick and have a fever at 10 in the morning and feel better at 2 in the afternoon ; miti in Tahitian means ‘sea water’, and there is held to be a connection between these symptoms and the diurnal movements of the tide. (Lunar tidal movements are barely noticeable in the Society Islands).
  2. Ira vaeha’a. A pain on one side of the face only, which may occur in both children and adults.
  3. Ira ‘āhure. inflamation and breaking of the skin around the urethra of female children.
  4. Ira tui. A discharge of pus and matter from the ears, and a lot of matter in the eyes.
  5. Ira ‘ute. Red, painful lips in children.
  6. Ira ninamu. Occurs only in children, the symptoms being darkened lips and eyes, fever, headache, and desire for sleep.
  7. Ira hitirere. Known also as ira hui. Startling in young children. The same medicine is used as for ira ninamu.
  8. Hua ira. A swelling of a child’s penis, associated with inflamation, and, sometimes, a darkening of the skin.

46Two features of this description might seem puzzling – to both medical specialists and those who, like myself, are innocent of any specialised medical knowledge. The first is the recognition of some unusual and apparently bizarre symptoms, such as the waning and waxing of a fever which is held to indicate ira miti. My informant maintained that he did not know the precise way in which the tides influenced the course of this particular illness, although he had seen several cases of it, all of which he had been able to cure. The qualifying terms used to indicate the other sub-categories of ira are all comparatively straightforward and descriptive. Vaeha’a ‘side’ refers to the characteristic location of the pain ; ‘ahure ‘turned inside out’ refers to the exposure of the urethra ; tui is somewhat more complex since it refers in this instance to another category of ‘true sickness’ which is characterised by swellings due to accumulations of pus and matter ; and this category is, in turn, related to tui meaning a boil located in the neck region ; ‘ute is a shortened form of ‘ute’ute ‘red’ and in this case simply describes the condition of the lips ; nīnamu ‘dark blue’ again describes the characteristic symptom, as does hitirere ‘to start, move suddenly, as by surprise’ ; hua ‘genitals’ refers to the location of the malady.

47The second and somewhat more puzzling question is what features these separate sicknesses are believed to share in common. What makes them all instances of the category ira ? The term ira has two somewhat distinct meanings in Tahitian. Besides the category of ‘true sickness’ it refers to a mole or some sort of permanent discolouration such as birthmark, on the skin. Most informants see these as homonyms ; others are not prepared to be so definite, pleading ignorance of the old (and, by implication “true”) meanings. No informant, however, considered either moles or birthmarks to be any sort of sickness, ‘true’ or otherwise ; they are regarded as being things that are “just there”, I was never able to obtain a satisfactory or coherent account, from tahu’a ra’āu or others, of the “true nature” of ira, or even what they saw as the features common to all its manifestations. My informants came to share my puzzlement, but not my concern. They regarded the question as valid enough, but hardly saw it as an absorbing one. None of the other categories of ‘true sickness’ present quite the same difficulties. My tahu’a informant was explicit about the fact that fever, red swellings and discolouration were characteristic of all manifestations of the category of māriri, and also that all varieties of tui were due to accumulations of pus and matter in the head region. Similarly, he’a appears to have connotations of dryness associated with all of its manifestations.

  • 2 Lemaitre 1973. Lemaitre’s Information, gathered mainly I think on Tahiti, is completely independen (…)

48Ira is apparently more obscure than any of these other categories of ‘true sickness’, but I am reluctant to see it as being an entirely miscellaneous category – especially as it has been defined in a recent dictionary2 as a “catégorie de maladie qui comprend entre autres des maux de tête et des convulsions”. Ira appears to have the following distinctive features. It is found characteristically in children, and affects both the head and the external urinary organs. If we overlook for the moment the enigmatic symptoms of ira miti, and accept that ira hitirere ‘startling’ could be readily associated with a disorder of the eyes (since the startling movement might be interpreted as the child “seeing” something which is in fact not there) then the manifestations of ira in the head all involve either headaches or disorders of the eyes or lips. This feature of ira would then explain the sub-category ira tui, which is unusual in that the qualifying term tui also refers to a separate category of ‘true sickness’ associated with swellings and discharges of pus, but not usually with matter in the eyes as is the case with ira tui. The special features of ira miti remain unexplained. Tahitians do not to my knowledge see any other special influences of the tide on either human beings or the natural world, although it is known to influence the movements of fish, particularly on reefs and in the lagoons.

49In the light of this brief description of some diagnostic criteria, it is hardly surprising that Tahitians should hold the view that the diagnosis of sickness is a difficult and imprecise matter, in which even specialists are liable to make mistakes. Although ma’i is a very frequent topic of conversation (like crops, fishing, weather and the movements of other people) in the daily round of gossip and casual encounter, the interest is always in individual cases and the particular people called upon to help. Questions of prognosis and etiology and etiology are the dominant concerns ; diagnosis is left to the tahu’a.

50Tahu’a rā’au, and also any others who might be called upon to make up a ‘medicine’ which they know, are guided in only a very general way by the visible symptoms and the patient’s statements about feeling states. A few minutes of enquiry and conversation is all that is taken in most cases, before a particular ‘medicine’ has been decided upon and helpers instructed to gather the necessary ingredients. Even at this point, people do not commonly either enquire about or discuss an appropriate name for the sickness. If, after a day or so of treatment with a particular ‘medicine’ there has been no improvement, the ‘medicine’ may be changed – and this process may be repeated over a period of several weeks with a half dozen or so different treatments, until one is found that is associated with some recovery. This ‘medicine’ may then be used to define the sickness.

51When I commented on the apparent arbitrariness of this procedure I was told by my tahu’a informant that it was really no different from that followed by European taote ‘doctors’, and he went on to describe several instances he knew of where Tahitian hospital patients had been treated with various medicines until the right was found which could effect a cure. Although his knowledge of these cases could have been only partial and based on inferences from very incomplete information his statement nevertheless probably contains a certain element of truth. What Western medical practitioner has not in fact modified his initial diagnosis on the grounds of the effectiveness, or lack of effect, of the remedies prescribed ? However, while the observations may be true enough of the practices actually followed in many instances by Western physicians, they hardly describe the procedures of the scientific “biologistic” tradition of Western medicine which seek to define diseases strictly in terms of indicators of biological discontinuity and change.

  • 3 I had thought this to be an original observation, but Mr Nigel Baumber has since drawn my attentio (…)

52This being so, there is an obvious contrast in the most basic procedures of the two systems of medical practice. in general terms the Western biologistic medical tradition may be said to seek precise definitions of the nature of various diseases, and their appropriate cures. in the Tahitian system it is the cures and remedies which are the starting point, and the knowledge of how to concoct them which is organised, written down in many instances, and passed on. The two systems thus start from opposite poles, though they may find a common middle ground. Western medicine attempts to define diseases precisely and seeks cures. Tahitian medical specialists start with the cures but are necessarily vague about the nature of the diseases, which can, in fact, be defined only by the cures which are found to be effective3.

  • 4 Hi’ohi’o is the reduplicative of hi’o ‘to look, examine’ and ta’ata hi’ohi’o is a ‘ clairvoyant’.

53A somewhat similar process of elimination may lead to suspicions that a particular case might not be one of ‘true sickness’ at all. If ‘medicines’ fail to effect any improvements in a patient’s condition within the expected time, or if an illness should take any dramatic, severe or unexpected turn, this is commonly held to be an indication of ma’i tūpāpa’u ‘ghost sickness’. The diagnosis of ma’i tūpapa’u cannot, however, be confirmed without consultation with a specialist tahu’a who commands techniques for communicating with ‘ghosts’. Such tahu’a may be distinguished by various terms, of which tahu’a hi’ohi’o4 is probably the most general.

54At the time I did my field research there were no active tahu’a hi’ohi’o in either of two communities in which I lived. There was, however, one elderly man, whom I shall call Fatu, who had a reputation of having been a powerful tahu’a in the recent past, before he became paruparu ‘weak’ and, as others said of him fa’aruehia e tona tūpāpa’u ‘abandoned by his ghost (familiar)’. Fatu’s description of how he acquired his powers is an interesting one. He was born on a neighbouring island and adopted to his father’s kin in a community a short distance away from his present house. While he was a young man, when he and his wife were working as share croppers on land owned by another, several of their children died in infancy. No tahu’a seemed to be able to save them. After the death of their fifth infant. Faty went off by himself one evening to a corner of his house and privately asked his parents and his grandparents to come and help him cure his children. He described this act as not a pure ‘prayer’ but just an “asking in his thoughts”. He then heard the noise of a cricket (an omen commonly associated with messages from absent kinsmen) before he fell into a light sleep and felt a hand laid on his arm. He woke and saw before his eyes a whole group of tūpāpa’u – his parents, grandparents and many others, all of whom were feti’i ‘cognatic kin’. He asked who among them was their leader and was told that it was the grandfather of his adoptive mother whom he remembered as having been a very old man when he was a young child. So he asked this tūpāpa’u to “come inside him” and help him save his children. At this stage Fatu did not want the power to cure people generally, and was concerned only for his own children, but when people round about learned of his new powers they started bringing sick people to him for diagnosis and cure. Since his wife was an accomplished tahu’a rā’authey had between them a flourishing practice for many years. Fatu was brought to his present home by the father of a girl patient whom he had cured of a ‘ghost sickness’, and then sought to adopt. When I knew him he was a widower who lived alone in a small house on the inland borders of the community, cared for by neighbours, the adopted daughter and her parents and by his own children who would visit from time to time from a neighbouring community. He was an industrious gardener, quiet and humourous in manner, though given to displays of dancing and shouting on the very rare occasions he could obtain enough liquor to get drunk. Most people in the community had been somewhat in awe of him, and slightly afraid, when he was in full possession of his powers, but they now could regard him with a friendly affection, and were rather proud to be able to tell of his exploits. As a somewhat frail old man, he was pleased to be left in peace and declared himself relieved that his tūpāpa’u did not visit him any more. He would still give medical advice, however, to close associates who sought his help.

55In describing the acquisition and nature of his powers, Fatu emphasised that they came from the tūpāpa’u of his own ancestor working inside him, and were not mea ho’o or ‘bought things’ like the powers of some other tahu’a who were, as he put it, fa’aau matahiti or ‘on a yearly arrangement’. The distinction which he drew is a common one in Tahitian thought. Some tahu’a are held to derive their powers from an ancestral ‘ghost’ who can be called upon to offer advice and to do supernatural deeds without any demands for repayment. Others, however, are said to have obtained their powers through a voluntary contract with a tūpāpa’u who is not a kinsman, and may be not even a Tahitian ; these tūpāpa’u are of people who were, in real life, very powerful and influential. These tahu’a are believed to acquire their power to command the tūpāpa’u by rituals performed at disused pagan religious centres and involve a definite contract by which the tahu’aundertakes to pay for the power he has acquired by supernaturally killing one of his own close kinsmen. It is held that the death of “just anyone” will not do ; the person killed in settlement of the contract must be a close kinsman. Tahu’a of this kind, naturally enough, are considered to be very dangerous, and very powerful. Over the course of the last generation there has been at least one violent murder in the Leeward Islands which could be laid to these beliefs. in this case a tahu’a was murdered by a close relative who believed that he had been made sick by the tahu’a and would eventually die. Probably most tahu’a, like Fatu, are at pains to claim that their powers come from a kinsman and involve no malevolent contracts. in describing to me some of Fatu’s accomplishments several people were sceptical of his claims to have only an ancestral familiar.

56Since Fatu’s powers had failed the people of the community had recourse to two other well known tahu’a hi’hi’o who lived some distance away in other communities. Both these tahu’a were middle-aged men, one of them a deacon in his parish. Accounts of the cures which they had made were well known to practically every adult in the community, although the majority had never seen either of these men actually exercising his special powers. During the nine months I lived in the community there were no occasions for either of these tahu’a to be called in, and Fatu himself advised only one man about a sickness in a way which did not involve him communicating with his spirit familiar. For this reason I did not ever see a tahu’a hi’ohi’o in consultation with a patient, and the following account is based on the observations and testimony of others.

57Fatu, whom most adults of the community had seen in action, preferred to work with a patient when only a few of the patient’s closest associates and relatives were present. His procedure was to run his fingers lightly over a patient’s body until he detected the precise location of the sickness by what he described as “little pecking sensations” in his fingertips. This also gave him some indication as to whether the sickness was a ‘true sickness’ or a ma’i tūpāpa’u ‘ghost sickness’. If it was decided that the patient had a ‘ghost sickness’ Fatu might pronounce immediately on the cause, or else call upon his familiar to speak through his mouth, telling of what he saw. To accomplish this, Fatu would seat himself on the floor, remain quiet for a short period before going into a trance-like state associated, according to eyewitnesses, with some involuntary body movements and laboured breathing. While in this state his lips moved and his tūpāpa’u would speak with the voice of a very old man, telling of what he saw in connection with the illness. These statements were elliptical and their meanings sometimes difficult to fathom, although the tūpāpa’u would answer questions from those who sought clarification of various points. After one of these sessions, which might last five minutes or so, Fatu would appear to return to consciousness very weak and exhausted, to be restored by a young couple of the community who were his usual helpers on these occasions, with massage and refreshments of coconut water or coffee. He would have no knowledge of what his familiar had said through his mouth and would be told by his helpers and others present about what had taken place. They would then work out together the meaning and implications of what had been said.

58The procedures followed by other tahu’a hi’ohi’o are various. One from a nearby community on the same island would come only if sent for and escorted by his kinsmen who lived in the village, and instead of Fatu’s light touching of the patient’s body, used limes as an aid in diagnosis. He would place a lime on a board on the ground, step on it with his full weight and then observe the pattern made by the juice which was squashed out. Another tahu’a hi’ohi’o on the island had as his familiar the tūpāpa’u of a man who, when alive, was very fond of wine and spirits, and this man was said to expect wine to be served whenever he was called to see a patient. Both of these tahu’a could achieve the same trance state as Fatu had been able to, and would use it on occasions.

59The most obvious occurrences of ‘ghost sickness’ occur when a foreign tūpāpa’u “enters into the body” of a living person, causing the person to behave in unusual and often bizarre ways. An example of this, witnessed by a number of people, had occurred in the community some years previously. A man in his thirties, whom I shall call A., was cutting copra with two companions a short distance from the village. Out of curiosity, and seeking a brief diversion from their work, they got down several old skulls from their well-known resting place in a nearby cliff. A. treated one of these skulls irreverently, putting a cigarette between its teeth and laughing at it. That evening, as it got dark, he fell into violent convulsions and was incoherent and hysterical – possessed, as his companions at once knew, by the tūpāpa’u of the skull. Fatu was immediately sent for, and as he was paddled quickly across the bay to the patient he could, he said, see the tūpāpa’u of the skull moving along the shoreline in the darkness, arousing the dogs of each successive house which he passed. The tūpāpa’u was an old man dressed in a loin cloth made of white flour sack and was hurrying back to the vicinity where the skull rested because he was aware that Fatu was coming to drive him away. When Fatu arrived, the patient was serene though unconscious, and was quietly restored by Fatu.

60According to informants, women are generally more liable to possession by tūpāpa’u than men, and some women of a weak and nervous nature are particularly prone, having been possessed on several occasions. The man possessed by the tūpāpa’u of the skull was ordinarily of a shy and retiring disposition and had previously had no untoward experiences with ‘ghosts’. After this episode, however, both he and his wife became close associates of Fatu and used to restore him after his sessions with his familiar. For a period it was believed that he might become a tahu’a himself.

61Visitations by a tūpāpa’u of the opposite sex appear to be a relatively common form of ‘ghost sickness’, and I learned of cases which had occurred in both communities. Erotic dreams are commonly described as being due to a ‘ghost’ sexual partner, and are not usually spoken of as being moemoeā ‘dreams’ at all. Such experiences are generally held to be of no particular significance if they occur only infrequently and do not always involve the same ‘ghost’. Some people, though, appear to become obsessed by a particular ‘ghost’ of the opposite sex, grow weak and thin, refrain from sexual intercourse with their spouses, and are given to lying around and having conversations with the tūpāpa’u. In such cases the tūpāpa’u must be driven away by a tahu’a. One such case involving a married woman whom I shall term B. was described to me in the following terms. B. had several young children at the time, and the first sign that something was wrong was when she declared herself no longer attracted to her husband and attempted to chase him from their bed at nights. She would bathe in the evenings, put on scented oil and special clothes, and lie on a separate bed, talking and laughing with a tūpāpa’u tane ‘male ghost’. The husband sought Fatu’s help, and they went together to the house one evening when B. was going through her unusual routines. Fatu and the husband sat down at a table in the room while B. continued to “laugh and chatter”. Fatu sat on the bed, touched her arm and asked her the meaning of what she was doing, whereupon she simply turned to face the wall and lay still. Fatu then commanded the tūpāpa’u in his normal voice, to leave and never return. B. then slept soundly for the rest of the night and had no more dealings with the ‘male ghost’ again. According to Fatu, the ‘ghost’ was “ripped up” by his familiar.

62One further example will serve to illustrate the nature of ‘ghost sickness’ and the way in which they are diagnosed and dealt with. A man, C., on his return to the shore from his plantations one afternoon, stopped to talk with his cousin’s husband, D. As they talked, he drove his long bush-knife into a nearby tree to keep it out of the way. When he reached his home he found that he had forgotten his knife and returned to the tree to retrieve it, only to find that it was no longer there. D. denied all knowledge of its whereabouts, but C., convinced that he had taken it, swore at D. in the stylised accepted form, wishing upon D. “the wrong that D. had committed on him”. A month or so later, D. fell sick. He would not eat, and complained of vague pains all over his body, which extensive treatment with ‘medicines’ of various kinds could not remedy. Eventually, Fatu took him to live in his house. According to Fatu, one day after D. had been with him a week a knife flew through the air past his head and stuck in the house thatch, just as he was stooping to go in the door. He knew then the meaning of the sickness. D. readily confessed his theft of the knife. Fatu and the local deacon took him to C., to whom he made his apology, and the deacon prayed together with them both. From that time onwards D. began to eat more substantially, and he made a rapid recovery.

63Informants described this as an instance of ‘ghost sickness’, even though no ‘ghost’ had been directly involved in causing D.’s sickness. It was also described as a ma’i fa’autu’a ‘retribution sickness’ and some of the more pious saw the sickness and the sign of the flying knife as having been sent directly by God. I learned of numerous other incidents involving the same stylised cursing as a form of confrontation between people involved in disputes, with subsequent sicknesses and eventual reconciliations.


64The account which I have given of the nature of ‘sickness’ and methods of diagnosis and curing is based almost exclusively on information gathered in one relatively small rural community, and the classification of different kinds of ‘true sicknesses’ represents the knowledge and practices of only one man in that community. Although he was generally acknowledged to be the best informed and most skilled of the local tahu’a rā’au, there were also two others in the community who were called upon to make ‘medicines’ of various kinds. When their help was sought, they made their own independent diagnoses, and each of them was credited with having made successful treatments of what seemed to be minor ailments. There was no apparent rivalry between the three, and, significantly, their diagnoses of particular cases, their classifications of various ‘true sicknesses’ and the ‘medicines’ which they used all differed markedly in most instances. They never consulted together on particular cases, since the accepted etiquette demanded that a patient should try the resources of one tahu’a at a time before moving on, if necessary, to ask another for help.

65Given this range of variation in the very fundamentals of classification, diagnosis and treatment between three semi-specialists from the one small community who were, in most other matters, in close social contact with one another, it is hardly surprising that there should be considerable variations in these matters between semi-specialist tahu’a rā’au in different rural communities and on different islands.

66Some indication of the range of this variation may be gathered from a comparison of the materiel presented here with that described by, for example, Panoff (1966) and Petard (1972). It may be accounted for by the conventions of the tahu’a rā’au role and by the very nature of the reality which the tahu’a and other participants seek to construct. For, as Fabrega has correctly pointed out, “Strictly speaking, there is no object or concrete thing that is a disease, although there are tissues, hearts, livers, and respiratory passages that may demonstrate or reflect the manifestations and characteristics that we would attribute to disease (1972 : 585)”. There is also some variation between Levy’s (1973) and my accounts of the Tahitian concepts of vārua and tūpāpa’u and of the nature and derivation of the powers attributed to various kinds of tahu’a. But these are, on the whole, minor, and relate less to “nuclear beliefs” than to the more “ancillary” ones where there is scope for individual speculation and some elaboration of the “furniture of the other world (Firth 1948 : 27)”.

67It would, I think, be wrong to see these variations as due to the beliefs, classifications, recipes and so forth being but decadent, imperfect remnants of what was once a more coherent, unified body of beliefs and practices. in his authoritative account of late eighteenth and early ninteenth century Tahitian culture Oliver observes that :

68…among those who dealt with human ailments there was wide variation both in fundamental approach and in procedural detail. Some specialists acted primarily as priests, others as shamans, others as magicians, and still others as physicians or surgeons or bone setters, with only slight dependence on spirit aid. Moreover, within each of these “specialties” there had developed individualized techniques and skills, and there were probably many practitioners who combined, in varying proportions, the elements of several specialties. It is more than likely that in addition to the presence of such specialists in this society, every man and woman was something of a practitioner himself, with his own little stock of remedies and skills (1974 : 476).

69The priests, shamans, and other specialists of Oliver’s account have long since disappeared from Tahitian life, along with much of the rest of the complex traditional Polynesian culture which he describes. But although Tahitian curing practices might have been transformed over two centuries of intensive European contact, there are also some striking continuities of both ideology and technique. The “vulnerary herbs” which Banks mentioned are still used, and Tahitians still maintain, as they did to Brodie, a preference for them over “European physic”. The procedures followed by Pearse’s “native sorcerer or diviner” are in essence strikingty similar to those which are still practiced today. These continuities are probably not due entirely to the efficacy of the ‘medicines’ as this would be construed in Western pharmoco- logical terms, or even to the so-called psychosomatic nature of the ‘ghost sicknesses’ and their stylised cures. Like other medical systems, Tahitian folk medicine is involved with considerably more than curing in these terms. It is based on distinctive ideas about the fundamental nature and meaning of sickness and a particular context and style of social relationships.

70In my view all instances of ma’i tūpāpa’u, and not only those which might be labeled by Tahitians as ma’i fa’autua ‘retribution sickness’, involve an element of social conflict or other disturbances of the moral order. in the case of the stolen knife the element of conflict is clear, and was brought into public view by the very process of treatment. The man possessed by the ‘ghost’ of the skull which he had mistreated had behaved in a sacriligious manner in a semi-public situation, and given the Tahitian views about how human remains should be treated he might well have expected some sort of punishment for his foolhardiness. The case of the ‘male ghost’ is somewhat less clear, since I did not learn anything of the personal relationship between the woman and her husband prior to her involvement with the tūpāpa’u. When I knew them there was nothing in their calm, apparently placid relationship which called for comment of any kind from others in the community, and I neglected to pursue the matter any further. I would be surprised, however, if their relationship had been entirely serene prior to the incident.

71Although the moral element is most evident in instances of ‘ghost sickness’ it is also not entirely absent from Tahitian views of their other categories of sickness. Although ma’i mau ‘true sickness’ may sometimes just happen for unknown reasons, freedom from sicknesses of any kind may be held up as a sign of virtue and a blameless life. This was brought out by several informants, always in relation to themselves or their families, when discussing the misfortunes of others. The same ideas are clearly expressed about those instances of ma’i which I have classed together as injuries. injuries, like ‘true sicknesses’ may at times just happen, but under some circumstances are held to be virtually certain to occur. Tahitians maintain that fishing on the Sabbath or any other Holy day renders one liable to attack by sharks or other fish – “even quite small ones” which usually flee at the sight of humans. Similar injuries are likely to happen to men who go to sea after a domestic quarrel which has not been made up.

72The proposition that sickness of any kind may well be a punishment has a clear latent function in the field of social control. But it also has more subtle implications which go beyond the possibility that some people may be simply deterred from wrongdoing by their fear that they might get sick as a consequence. One of the striking features of rural Tahitian life is the manner in which people gossip about the indispositions of others. News of this sort travels rapidly through the usual networks and through casual encounters, characteristically accompanied by laconic comment and discussion of possible causes. For example, a man fell from his bicycle one day, injuring his wrist, and the news of this came to be spread with the embellishment that it only served him right for having beaten his daughter unjustly several days previously. Again, a woman died with dramatic suddeness from an internal haemorrhage, and in the many ensuing discussions about this there was a general consensus that her death was a punishment on her husband for laziness ; she had done much of the work of the household, which he would now have to undertake himself. And the tragedy in which an interisland launch swamped, drowning a number of the party of Mormon converts on board, was universally acknowledged to be a punishment, albeit a rather drastic one, for their abandoning the Protestant faith.

73It is apparent that this constant moral commentary on ma’i of all kinds taps a whole hidden vein of local conflicts, tensions and rivalries, and that it can serve to crystalise and provide a focus for public opinion about the sick person and his or her associates. If the sickness should then warrant consultation with a tahu’a hi’ohi’o there is ready-made consensus of opinion and approbation which he may, if he chooses, draw upon in making a diagnosis. The process of diagnosis and treatment is thus a means of mobilising the consensus and putting it into effect to redress some moral wrong. If this is so, the question arises as to why the process of effectively sanctioning public opinion should be so apparently haphazard (depending on sickness to focus attention on the issues) and so laboriously indirect and circuitous. I do not wish to suggest that Tahitians do not settle local differences and disputes by other more direct and straightforward means, but it is nevertheless true that there is no office or group in the rural communities which has the authority to arbitrate disputes and resolve deep-seated differences.

74The conversion of the Tahitians by the London Missionary Society missionaries in the earlier part of the nineteenth century and the subsequent annexation of the islands by France brought about the downfall of the indigenous authority system, which in the rural areas has never been effectively replaced. The introduction of French law provided a framework for Tahitian society to develop according to a European model of individual tenure and small peasant holdings, but Tahitians have generally chosen instead to hold their land rights in common, transmitting them by the cognatic French laws of succession. Rural economic life involves intricate strategies of cooperation and compromise among bodies of coowners, for whom the law provides no really clear-cut organisational structure. The rural communities, made up basically of people who have simply inherited land rights in the vicinity are de facto entities, neither traditionally Polynesian in organisation nor French, and lack a stable, clear-cut and explicit authority structure. Local government is minimal and largely ineffectual.

  • 5 A number of these ideas are set out in more detail in Hooper 1975.

75Within these communities social relationships are egalitarian and intensely multiplex in nature. individuals are bound to one another by relations based on propinquity, religious associations, land ownership and its associated economic enterprises, kinship, marriage, friendship, sex and broad age divisions ; and, most importantly, these relations are always with the same relatively restricted set of other people. Factions, cliques and shifting coalitions are evident in all local affairs, colouring nearly all social relationships. in my view, these facts are related to some of the distinctive qualities of Tahitian interaction, which have been noticed and commented on by numerous writers. Given the relatively fluid unformalised role structure and the multiplex character of community relationships, interactions have a tentative, cautious aspect, as though highly attuned to the complex social implications of every move. A gentle, subtle indirection is far more appropriate to Tahitian social style and sensitivities than open confrontations or direct persuasion5.

  • 6 The only exception to this is the ‘ghost sickness’ which is believed to affect any person who viol (…)

76Seen in this context, Tahitian doctrines about sickness and curing take on an added dimension. Not only do they provide a set of explanatory principles for sickness itself and a device for social control and the delivery of psychological support for those who are sick. They also play a part in maintaining the morality of social relationships within Tahitian communities, by invoking the authority of both the Christian God and Polynesian spirits to pronounce indirectly the judgement of neighbours and peers. This aspect of Tahitian folk medicine may even be partly recognised by Tahitians themselves, who commonly maintain that ‘ghost sicknesses’ are essentially Tahitian sicknesses, to which Europeans (who are rarely involved and implicated in the intimate tangle of community affairs in the same way as Tahitians) are expected to be immune6.



77This appendix contains the recipes of ‘medicines’ for various ma’i mau ‘true sicknesses’ known to one tahu’a rā’au, who dictated them to me on various occasions over a period of several weeks. The varieties of ‘true sickness’ distinguished are his own, and they are given here in the order in which he gave them, together with his brief remarks on the relevant symptoms. I have attempted to follow closely the order and style of his presentation and the result is in fact close to the sort of written record which is made by Tahitians when they commit recipes to personal and family notebooks. This man did not, however, have his own written record of recipes and worked entirely from memory. He repeated several complex recipes for me in exactly the same form that he had given up to ten days previously.

78As the term rā’au implies, most of the ingredients used are plant material, but two of them included in the glossary below are common echinoderms. I have used local names in the recipes, as they were used by the tahu’a and commonly understood by others in the Iles sous-le-vent. As with fish names, these occasionally differ from those commonly used in Tahiti. Through the kindness and interest of Mme. Aurora Natua of the Papeete Museum I was able to record many of these differences, which are noted in the glossary below. I collected specimens of many of the plants used, which have been identified by Dr A. Orchard, Botanist at the Auckland War Memorial Museum. I am most grateful to Dr Orchard for his help. The ingredients marked in the glossary with an asterisk were made by him and are deposited at the Museum. Notes on the other identifications are given in the glossary.

Glossary of Ingredient Names

79‘a’eho : Erianthus floridulus (Schut. Mant) acc. to Nadeaud 1873.

80‘aero fai : *Achyranthes aspera L. ahi : Santalum insulare (Bertero Mss.) acc. to Nadeaud 1873.

81‘ahi’a : Eugenia malaccensis acc. to Chabouis n.d. Vol. 1

82‘ahi’a ‘ava’ava : *Oxalis corniculata L. According to Mme. Natua, this is known in Tahiti as patoa ‘ava’ava.

83‘aito ha’ari : *Psilotum nudum (L.) Palisot ‘anani tahiti : Citrus spp.

84‘ape : Alocasia macrorrhiza L. acc. to Barrau 1961 and Papy 1954.

85‘ati : Calophyllum inophyllum L.

86‘aua : *Terminalia cattapa L. = T. glabrata Forst. According to both local informants and Mme Natua, this is known as ‘autara’a in Tahiti.

87’aute : *Broussonetia papyrifera (L.) Vent.

88‘aute ‘u’umu : *Hibiscus rosa-sinensis L. au fenua : A river slime.

89fara : Pandanus spp.

90fe’e : Ophiocoma scolopendrina Lmk. acc. to Chabouis n.d. Vol. II Known in Tahiti as ma’ama’atai according to Mme Natua.

91hoi : Dioscorea bulbifera L. acc. to Barrau 1961 and Papy 1954.

92mape : Inocarpus edulis Forster acc. to Barrau 1961.

93mata’ura : *Cyathula prostrata Blume. According to informants this is known in Tahiti as toro’ura.

94mati : Ficus tinctoria Forst. acc. to Nadeaud 1873 and Papy 1954.

95matie : *EchinochIoa colonum ( ?)

96mei’a : Musa spp.

97metuapua’a : Polypodium nigrescens Bl. acc. to Lemaitre 1973.

98miro : Thespesia populnea (D.C.) acc. to Nadeaud 1873.

99moahau’aino : *Cardamine sarmentosa Forst.

100In Tahiti, according to Mme Natua this is known as pātoapurahi.

101moemoe : *PhylIanthus nirari L.

102mō’u upo’o hina : *KyIlinga monocephela Rottb.

103According to Mme. Natua this is known in

104Tahiti as matie upo’o ‘uo’uo.

105niu : *Leucas flaccida R. Br. According to local informants this is known as niuhiti in Tahiti.

106nono : Morinda citrifolia.L. acc. to Barrau 1961.

107‘ofe’ofe : *Centotheca lappacea (L.) Desv.

108pāpati : *Ipomea spp. Informants said that this name was not known in Tahiti.

109pia or pia mutu : Tacca leontopetaloides (L.) Kuntze (T. pinnatifida Forster) acc. to Barrau 1961.

110piri’ate : *Vandellia crustacea Benth. According to both Mme. Natua and local informants this plant is known as ha’eha’a in Tahiti. piripapa : *Portulacca oleracea. This may be known in Tahiti as ‘aturi.

111piripiri : *Cenchrus echinatus L.

112pito : *Ophioglossum reticulatum L. According to Mme. Natua this is known as ti’apito in Tahiti.

113pitorea : *Polygonum glabrum Willd. Known in Tahiti as tamore acc. to Mme. Natua.

114pua’a veoveo : *Crateva religiosa Forst.

115purau : Hibiscus tileaceous acc. to Chabouis n. d.I.

116ta’ata’ahiara : Dichrocephala latifolia acc. to Nadeaud 1873.

117taino’a : *Cassytha filiformis L.

118ti’a’iri : Aleurites moluccana Wildenow (A. triloba J.R. and G. Forster) acc. to Barrau 1961.

119tiare tahiti : Gardenia tahitiensis acc. to Chabouis n.d.I.

120titi : *Davallia solida (Forst.) SW. Known in Tahiti as ti’ati’amoua.

121tō patu : tō is Saccharum officinarum L. acc. to Barrau 1961. patu refers to a variety which which is distinguished.

122tōhetupou : *Geophila repens (L.) I. M .

123Johnston = G. herbacea etc ?

124toro’e’a : *Canthium barbatum (Forst.) Seem.

125In Tahiti, according to Mme Natua this is known as torotea.

126tou : Cordia subcordata Lamarck acc. to Barrau 1961.

127tuava : Psidium guajava L. acc. to Barrau 1961.

128‘uru : Artocarpus altilis (Parkinson) Fosberg.

129acc. to Barrau 1961.

130vai’anu : *Adenostemma lavenia (L.) Kuntze = A. viscosum.

131vana : An Echinoderm. Hechinoxtrix ( ?) acc.

132to Chabouis n .d. II.

133vi ‘ohurepi’o : *Mangifera indica L. ‘ohurepi’o is a variety name.



1341. Ira miti : Found characteristically in children, who feel sick and have a fever at 10 a. m. and feel better at 2 p.m. ; miti in Tahitian means ‘sea water’ and there is held to be a connection between the symptoms and the diurnal movements of the tide.

13540 fresh leaves of tiare tahiti

13640 fresh leaves of ‘aute the water of one ‘black’ coconut

137Pound the leaves with a stone, wrap in a cloth and pour the coconut water through it. Boil the wrapped leaves in the coconut water.

138Bathe the whole body of the child in the liquid and also give it two soupspoonsful to drink.

1392. Ira vaeha’a : A pain on one side of the face only, which may occur in both children and adults.

140Ingredients used are the same as those for Ira miti. If the pain affects the right side of the face then use only the right side of the leaves ; if the left side of the face, then only the left side of the leaves. When the medicine is made, divide it equally between two bowls. Heat 2 fist-sized stones in an earth-oven until very hot, and drop them into a bowl. Cover the patient’s head with a sheet and have him breathe the steam and vapours as an inhalation. Then use the other half of the medicine. Some may also be drunk.

1413. Ira ‘ahure : inflammation and breaking of the skin around the urethra of female children.

1421 handful of red taino’a

1431 handful of white taino’a

1441 handful of piri’ate

1451 handful of pāpati

1464 drinking coconuts.

147Pound the plant matter to a pulp and divide it into two equal portions. Wrap each portion in a piece of cloth, and using the water of 2 coconuts for each portion, wring the juices from the portion into the coconut water. Use one portion of the medicine (consisting of the coconut water and expressed juices) to bathe the affected part ; if possible, have the patient sit in it. The other portion should be drunk.

1484. Ira tui : A discharge of pus and matter from the ears, and a lot of matter in the eyes.

14930 fresh leaves of tiare tahiti

15030 leaves of ‘aute ‘u’umu

1511 handful of niu

1521 handful of vai’anu

1531 handful of mata’ura

1541 handful of moemoe

1551 handful of moahau’a’ino

1562 red leaves of mape

1572 black leaves of mape

1581 handful of leaves of vi ‘ava’ava (a kind of vi).

159Pound these ingredients to a pulp and wrap in a cloth. Express the juices into the water of 6 green drinking coconuts, and heat. The eyes and ears should be bathed with the medicine, and some given to the patient to drink.

1605. Ira ‘ute : Red, painful lips of children.

1613 opened flowers of tiare tahiti

1623 terminal shoots of tiare tahiti

16330 terminal shoots of ‘aute

1641 coffee bowl of fresh water.

165Pound the ingredients to a pulp, wrap in a cloth and express the juices into the water. Bathe the lips and give some of the medicine to be drunk, adding a little sugar.

1666. Ira nīnamu : Occurs only in children, the symptoms being dark lips and eyes, fever, headache, and desire for sleep.

1672 handfuls of leaves of tiati’a mou’a

1682 handfuls of leaves of toro’e’a

1691 banana leaf, of the variety known as meia ‘ore’a

170Only the stalk of the leaf is used.

1711 young shoot of a variety of pandanus known as pae’ore.

172Discard the stalk, taking only the leaf part.

1731 branch of fara nīnamu, as long as a forearm. Discard the outside bark, taking only the inside bark to be scraped into the medicine.

174Pound the ingredients to a pulp, wrap in a cloth and express the juices into the water of 4 drinking coconuts. Boil, and while it is still hot, sprinkle it with the fingers over the whole body. Two teaspoons may be given to drink, three times daily.

1757. Ira hitirere : Known also as Ira hui. Startling in young children. The same medicine is used as for Ira nīnamu.

1768. Hua ira : A swelling of a child’s penis, associated with inflammation, and, sometimes, a black colour.

17712 opened flowers of tiare tahiti

1781 handful of piripiri totetō (a kind of piripiri)

1791 section of tō tore (a kind of tō)

180Crush the tō to a pulp. Crush the other ingredients to a pulp separately. Mix the pulps, wrap in a cloth and express the juices. Give to the patient to drink.

181Another medicine for the same sickness is as follows :

1821 handful of pito

1831 handful of piri’ate

1841 handful of vai’anu

1851 handful of mata’ura

1861 handful of niu

187Pound the ingredients to a pulp, wrap in a cloth and express the juices into the water of 3 blacks drinking coconuts. Boil, and bathe the affected parts, also giving some of the medicine to be drunk.


1881. Māriri ‘otu’i ate : Symptoms are a fever and a pain inside any part of the trunk of the body – not in any part of the leg or on the outside of the body. The patient characteristically wants to drink a lot of water.

1891 handful of flower buds of matie

1901 handful of flower buds of piripiri

1911 handful of flower buds of ‘ofe’ofe

1921 kernel of a sprouting coconut.

193Pound the ingredients to a pulp, wrap in a cloth and express the juices into water of one ‘black’ drinking coconut. To be given to the patient to drink. Then take the ‘dross’ from which the juice has been expressed, dampen it and bind it as a poultice over the painful region.

1942. Māriri fati : Fever, with periods of chills, and a continual cough.

1954 pieces, about 4 inches long, of titi

1964 pieces, about 4 inches long, of metua pua’a

1974 terminal shoots of tiare tahiti

1984 flower buds of ta’ata’ahiara

1991 handful of flower buds of ‘ofe’ofe

2001 handful of flower buds of moupo’ohina

201Pound the ingredients to a pulp, wrap and express juices into a litre of fresh water, adding some sugar. Give some to drink, and also bathe the whole body with it. Massage is also helpful while body is bathed.

2023. Māriri ‘ai ta’ata : A swelling which has no matter in it, which may appear both inside and outside the body. For one inside the body, there is no medicine – but there is one for the outside. The informant identified this as cancer.

203For external application, the following medicine is used.

2042 roots of pia mutu

2051 red tuber of wild hoi

2061 white tuber of wild hoi

2071 handful of both the leaves and vine of pāpati.

208Pound these ingredients together, adding no water, and wrap in a cloth. Bind some of the pounded matter onto the swollen region.

209The following medicine is given to be drunk.

210A piece, four finger-widths square, of the bark of ti’a’iri

211The water of one ‘black’ drinking coconut

2121 handful of the white roots of pūrau which can be found in water beside a pūrau tree. Pound the roots and bark, wrap and express juices into the coconut water. Put the medicine back into the coconut and leave it for a while. This may be rubbed on the body and also drunk – one lot of medicine per day.

2134 . Māriri fefera : A red mottled colour appearing over the whole body, associated with fever. The informant suggested that it is Rubella.

2142 tubers of nūmera

215Pound to a pulp, wrap, and express juice into water of one ‘black’ coconut. Give to drink and bathe the body with it.

2165. Māriri ‘ere’ere : This sickness has no symptoms more specific than high fever, pain all over the body and thirst. If it is fatal, the body turns black after death.

21710 green fruits of vi ‘ohurepi’o. Cut off the skin and grate the fruits onto a plate.

2188 pieces of titi 4 inches long.

2198 pieces of metua pua’a, 4 inches long.

2208 opened flowers of tiare tahiti

22140 terminal shoots of tiare tahiti

22240 leaves of ‘aua. Discard the leafy parts, taking only the stalks.

22340 leaves of ‘ahi’a

2241 handful of pito

2251 handful of piri’ate

2268 flower buds of ta’ata’ahiara

227Pound these ingredients together and mix in the grated vī. Wrap and express the juice into the water of 40 omoto drinking coconuts to which has been added 1 kilo of brown sugar, and the juice of 8 limes (taporo). Pour the whole mixture into a demijohn and use it to – bathe the patient and for the patient to drink.

2286. Māriri pu’upu’u : Pimples on the surface of the body and legs, which have no matter in them.

229The kernels of 4 opa’a coconuts, grated

2301 piece, four finger-widths square of the bark of ‘ati

2311 piece, four finger-widths square of the bark of ‘ahi’a mā’ohi

2321 piece, four finger-widths square of the bark of tou

2331 piece, four finger-widths square of the bark of miro

2341 piece, four finger-widths square of the bark of vī ‘ava’ava

2355 plants of mō’u upo’o hina

236Express the milk from the grated coconut and put the mou upo’o hina into it. Put in a frying pan and cook slowly, adding two tea-spoonsful (one at a time) of pia (the flour made from pia mutu). When it is cooked, put about 2 inches of the liquid into a glass to be drunk. It has a very laxative effect. The remainder of the medicine may be spread on the affected parts. Patient should not drink cold water, only warm water or coconut water.

2377. Hua māriri : A red swelling of the male genitalia.

23820 leaves of ‘aua

23920 terminal shoots of tiare tahiti

2401 handful of piripiri

2411 handful of matie

242Pound these ingredients together to a pulp ; wrap, and express the juices into the water of six ‘black’ drinking coconuts. This may be poured or sprinked on the genitals three times daily.

2438. Māriri pūfe’efe’e : A redness and swelling of either or both arms and legs. The redness not confined to one spot but spread over the whole limb. It is associated with pain and fever. Fe’efe’e is the Tahitian term for elephantiasis and this sickness is probably filarial.

2441 six inch square of the bark of tou

2451 six inch square of the bark of a ‘black’ coconut

2461 six inch square of the bark of miro

2471 six inch square of the bark of pūrau

248All these should be pounded together and the as possible, then water added and the mixture sprinkled on the affected limb (s).

249A drinking medicine for this same sickness uses all the above ingredients, but of the size of four square inches and the addition of the following :

2501 handful of flower buds of piripiri

2511 handful of flower buds of matie

25220 terminal shoots of tiare tahiti

253All these should be pounded together and the juices extracted by pressing into the water of one ‘black’ coconut. Add a gallon of water. Add sugar. Drink.

254Another medicine is as follows :

2552 mature fruits of nono

2562 immature fruits of nono

2572 mature leaves of nono

2582 immature leaves of nono

2591 handful of mata’ura

260Pound together to a pulp. Add no water, but spread the pulp on the affected limb.

261Yet another treatment is to wet a cloth with the medicine for Māriri ‘ere’ereand press it on the limb.


2621. Tui hotete : A swelling, or swellings, on the lower jaw and throat and below the ears on the side of the neck. The swellings have matter in them.

2632 fully mature leaves of nono

2642 immature leaves of nono

2652 leaves of ‘aute

266Pound these ingredients to a pulp and express the juice into the water of one mature coconut into which the kernel has been grated. Heat this liquid with a hot stone, cover it with a cloth and when it is cold give it to be drunk all at once. If the swelling should break, scorch a leaf of tafaie on a fire, spread monoi ‘scented coconut oil’ on it, and put on the broken head of the swelling.

2672. Papā tui : A swelling, inside only, of the neck region. No matter in the swelling and it is highly infectious. “If one child gets it, all children get it”.

2685 opened flowers of tiare tahiti

269The inside bark of one stalk of nono

270Pound these ingredients into a pulp, wrap and express the juices into water. Mix into this water a kind of store-bought soap known as pu’anātura, stirring it until it becomes thick and hard. The stirring should be done in one direction only (either clockwise or anti-clockwise) with no reversal. Spread over the neck.

2713. Tui houhou : Little pimples over the body and scalp, with matter in them.

2721 handful of flower buds of niu

2731 handful of leaves and flower buds of mata’ura

2741 handful of ti’apito 1 handful of piri’ate

2753 terminal shoots of tiare atatea

2761 inch of the tuber of a nūmera

2773 sections of tō patu (a variety called tō piavere in Tahiti)

278Pound the to tō a pulp. Pound the other ingredients together into a pulp and mix with the tō pulp. This juice tō be drunk three times daily.

2794. Tui he’a : Yellow fluid and matter discharging from the ears.

2803 seeds of ti’a’iri. Discard the skin and take only the kernel

2811 handful of pito

2821 handful of piri’ate

2831 small branch of tiare tahiti

2841 small branch of pua’a veoveo

2853 mature leaves of tou

2863 immature leaves of tou

287Fruit of mati

288Take the tou leaves and express the juice from mati fruit onto them until they are thoroughly wet. Pound, wrap and put to one side. Scrape the inside bark from the tiare tahiti and pua’a veoveo branches and pulp them together with the other ingredients.

289Crush some tō to get about one litre of juice. Express the juice from the two lots of pulp to this juice and give it to be drunk.

2905. Tui topa i roto i te ‘ ōuma : This is a tui a swelling from the head which has fallen inside the body.

2917 leaves of vī ‘ava’ava

2927 flower buds of niu

2932 fruits of miro, one mature and the other immature.

294Use only the kernels, discarding the skins. Pound these ingredients together, wrap and express the juice into a little fresh water. Grate a pinch of ‘ahi wood into the mixture and add a level teaspoonful of brown sugar. Stir, and give to be drunk. Some may be massaged onto the chest.

2956. Tui ‘ai roro : Symptoms are matter from the nose and in the eyes, and headache. Most frequently in children. If not treated it forms a “bag” on the side of the brain – according to the informant, like cancer.

2962 mature leaves of tou

2972 immature leaves of tou

2982 terminal shoots of tiare tahiti

2992 opened flowers of tiare tahiti

3004 flower buds of ‘aute, taking only the central parts of the buds

301Pound these ingredients to a pulp, wrap.

302Take one coffee bowl of fresh water and add to it one level teaspoon of brown sugar. Express the juices into this water and divide the resultant mixture in half. One half to be drunk, a soupspoonful at a time ; the other to be bathed on the head.


3031. He’a pa’a : Dry, cracked lips, may affect both children and adults.

3043 plants of piri’ate ‘ōtāne (‘ōtāne is the term for male plants and animals, and the ōtāne in this case is red in colour).

3053 plants of piri’ate ‘ ōvahine (ōvahine is the female, in this case white in colour)

30612 plants of ti’apito ‘ ōtāne (the ‘ ōtāne in this case is the one which flowers)

3072 sections of tō

308Pound these ingredients to a pulp, wrap and express juices into a bowl. To be drunk only, not bathed on the lips. The patient should then he purged.

3092. He’a ha’amae : Occurs only in children, who are thin and don’t eat well, having appetite for only charred foods or raw food like banana.

3101 large bundle of ti’apito

3111 large bundle of piri’ate

3124 mature leaves of tou

3134 immature leaves of tou

3141 section, four finger-widths square, of bark of tou

3151 handful of leaves of autara’a mou’a. Discard the leafy parts, taking only the leaf stalks.

3164 “pimpled, rough” leaves of ahi’a

3174 smooth leaves of ahi’a

3182 flower buds of fara. Use only the inside portions

3192 young ‘ ā’eho, at the stage where it just appears above ground, with two leaves only.

320Fruit of mati

321Express the juice from mati fruit over the leaves of tou until they are well wetted.

322Pound the leaves to a pulp, together with the other ingredients. Wrap, and express the juices into the water of four ‘black’ drinking coconuts. Put about a soupspoonful of au fenua into the mixture. Stir and drink. When well made, this medicine froths a lot.

323A second medicine for this same sickness is as follows :

3248 mature leaves of tou

3258 immature leaves of tou

32612 opened flowers of tiare tahiti. (If there are no flowers, then the terminal shoots will do)

327Fruit of mati

328Express the mati juice onto the tou leaves and when they are wet pound the leaves and other ingredients together into a pulp. Wrap, and express the juice into a gallon of water until it is red in colour. Add a half kilo of brown sugar. To be bathed on the body and also drunk.

3293 . He’a tupito : A pain in the navel and the surrounding region, especially when eating. Occurs in both children and adults.

3304 flower buds of ‘uru pae’a (a variety of ‘uru)

3312 flower buds of tō patu

3324 sections of tō

333Pound the tō until pulpy. Pound the other ingredients and add to the tō. Wrap and express juices into a bowl. Some to be poured into the navel three times daily and some to be drunk.

334A second medicine for this is as follows :

3354 flower buds of ‘uru pae’a

3364 sections of tō

337Pound the tō. Pound the buds and add to the to juice. Some to be poured into the navel 3 times daily and the rest drunk.

338The following is a third medicine :

3391 basketful (‘o’ini) of pito

3401 basketful (‘o’ini) of piri’ate

341Pound to a pulp and wrap and express juices into a gallon of tō juice. To be drunk only.

3424. He’a tupē : Small, very itchy pimples on body, face and legs.

3433 black ‘ina (sea urchins)

3443 white ‘ina (sea urchins)

3453 red fe’e

3463 black fe’e

3471 handful of pito

3481 handful of piri’ate

3491 coffee bowl of fruit of tōhetupou

3504 opa’a coconuts

3515 mō ‘u upo’o hina

352Cut the coconuts, saving the water from only one of them. Grate the four coconuts into the mō’u upo’o hina. Pound the other ingredients into a pulp, wrap and express juices into the mō’u upo’o hina. Add 1 handful of corn starch (available at local store) and stir.

353Boil this all in some water and add one soupspoon of sugar. About 1 inch of this mixture to be drunk and the rest to be put aside in a bottle for annointing on the body.


355There is only one variety of this sickness. According to the informant it is not indigenous to Tahiti, but was brought by the Chinese. Urination is very painful, and there is matter and blood in the urine, which smells badly.

35620 seeds of ti’a’iri

35720 terminal shoots of tiare tahiti

358Pound together to a pulp, wrap, and express the juices into the water of one ‘black’ coconut. The patient should drink it all and will be cured unless the sickness is very severe.


359Only one variety of this sickness as well. Symptoms are sores on the penis, with matter in them, and open sores around the mouth.

360The eyebrows fall out. The informant maintains that European doctors now have a good cure for this sickness, though in former days they did not.

3611 four finger-width square of the bark of ‘ati

3621 four finger-width square of the bark of tou

3631 four finger-width square of the bark of miro,

3641 four finger-width square of the bark of vi ‘ava’ava

3651 four finger-width square of the bark of ‘ānani tahiti

3661 four finger-width square of the bark of ‘ahi’a

3671 four finger-width square of the bark of tiare tahiti

3685 plants of mō ‘u upo’o hina

369Grate 4 mature coconuts and place the 5 mō ‘u upo’o hina in it. Pound the other ingredients as much as possible and add them to the gratings and cook with a handful of corn starch from the store. Drink two inches of the oily liquid in a glass, and leave the rest to be rubbed on affected parts. The patient should be told to bathe his sores in sea water out on the barrier reef.


3701. ‘O fāura : Swellings which “creep” down from inside the anus. Are itchy and “eat” the anus. The several “eyes” of the swellings should be pricked with a needle to release blood so that the swellings collapse. There are two medicines, one for application and the other for drinking.

3711 plant of moa hau’a’ino

372Pound the plant to a pulp. Squeeze the juice from part of the pulp onto the anus. The remaining pulp should be bound by cloths onto the anus.

3731 plant of moahau’a’ino

3743 opened flowers of tiare tahiti

3752 terminal shoots of tiare tahiti

3763 pieces of young root of ‘black’ coconut

3773 pieces of young root of ‘red’ coconut

3783 pieces, about 4 inches long, of titi

3793 pieces, about 4 inches long, of metua pua’a

380Pound these ingredients to a pulp, wrap and express the juices into about two inches of water in a bowl. To be drunk three times daily until used up.

3812. ‘O ‘ua’a : The same sickness as ‘O fāura but one which has progressed to a further stage. If not treated, the patient dies, eaten from the anus up into the interior. It cannot be cured by lancing or cutting out.

3823 plants of moa hau’a’ino

3833 plants of piri’ate

384Pound to a pulp and add monoi ‘scented coconut oil’. Squeeze onto the swellings.

3853. ‘O ‘amu : Swellings inside the lower bowel which do not appear outside. May also grow in other parts of inside of body.

3862 fully mature fruits of nono

3872 fruits from a nono which also has flowers on it.

3882 plants of moahau’a’ino

3892 small roots, 2 inches long, of ‘black’ coconut

3902 small roots, 2 inches long, of ‘red’ coconut

3912 terminal shoots of tiare tahiti

392Pound these ingredients together into a pulp. Squeeze the juices from the pulp onto the anus and if possible pour some into the rectum. Some juice may also be drunk.

393A drinking medicine for the same complaint is as follows :

3941 piece, four finger-widths square of bark of tou

39512 pieces, 4 inches long, of metua pua’a Fruit of mati

396Express the mati juice onto the tou bark until it is thoroughly wet. Pound the bark until a pulp. Pound the metua pua’a to a pulp. Express the juices from both pulps into a bowl, add a teaspoon of sugar and then drink this liquid.

3974. ‘O pararī : A sickness found only in women who have given birth, and especially when they are old. The patient coughs a great deal.

3988 pieces, 4 inches long, of titi

3998 pieces, 4 inches long, of metua pua’a

4008 terminal shoots of tiare tahiti

4011 handful of moahau’a’ino

4021 handful of ‘ofe’ofe

4031 handful of flower buds of tuava

4041 handful of ‘aito ha’ari

405Pound the ingredients to a pulp, wrap and express the juices into two handfuls of fresh water. Divide this into three parts and drink one part at a time over the course of one day. Another treatment for this sickness is to take 2 handfuls of flower buds of tuava and heat them in a pan of water. The patient should sit with her feet in the water and with her legs and thighs covered by a cloth, so that the steam goes up between her legs.

4065. ‘O fati : This kind of ‘o is caused by an old broken bone which has “come back” to give trouble. The patient coughs a great deal.

4074 pieces, 4 inches long, of titi

4084 pieces, 4 inches long, of metua pua’a

4094 roots, 4 inches long, of ‘black’ coconut

4104 roots, 4 inches long, of ‘red’ coconut

4114 terminal shoots of tiare tahiti

4121 handful of moahau’a’ino

413Pound to a pulp, wrap and express juices into 2 inches of fresh water in a bowl. Add no sugar. Should be drunk three times.

4146. ‘O ‘ouma : Pain in the chest and constant coughing.

415The soft kernel of one ‘black’ coconut at the stage known as ‘ōuo

4161 handful of moahau’a’ino

4171 handful of piri’ate

4181 handful of flower buds of ta’ata’ahiara

4198 pieces of tō, about 6 inches long

420Pound the tō to a pulp, then add the pulped other ingredients. To be drunk in three sessions.


DOI are automaticaly added to references by Bilbo, OpenEdition’s Bibliographic Annotation Tool.
Users of institutions which have subscribed to one of OpenEdition freemium programs can download references for which Bilbo found a DOI in standard formats using the buttons available on the right.

BARRAU, Jacques, 1961. SubsistenceAgricultureinPolynesia&Micronesia. Honolulu. Bernice P. Bishop Museum Bulletin No. 223.

BEAGLEHOLE, J.C. 1962. TheEndeavourJournalofJosephBanks, 1768-1771. 2 Vols. Sydney, Angus & Robertson.

BRODIE, Walter. n.d. TheBrodiePapers : ExtractsfromJournals. Typescript in Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington.

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ELLIS, William. 1853. PolynesianResearchesduringaResidenceofNearlyEightYearsintheSocietyandSandwichIslands. 2nd edition. 4 Vols. London. Henry G. Bohn.

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HOCART, A.M. 1929. LauIslands, Fiji. Honolulu. Bernice P. Bishop Museum Bulletin No. 62.

HOOPER, Antony. 1975. “Review Article, of Robert I. Levy’s Tahitians” JournalofthePolynesianSociety 84 : 369-378.

LEMAITRE, Y. 1973. LexiqueduTahitienContemporain. Paris O.R.S.T.O.M.

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1973. Tahitians. MindExperienceintheSocietyIslands. Chicago. University of Chicago Press.

MORRISON, James. 1935. TheJournalofJamesMorrison, Boatswain’sMateoftheBounty. Edited Owen Rutter. London, Golden Cockerel Press.

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OLIVER, Douglas L. 1974. AncientTahitianSociety. 3 Vols. Honolulu. University Press of Hawaii.

PANOFF, Michel. 1966. “Recettes de la pharmocopée tahitienne traditionnelle” Journald’AgricultureTropicaleetdeBotaniqueAppliquée 13 : 619-640.

PAPY, H. René. 1954. Tahitietlesîlesvoisines. Travaux du Laboratoire Forestier de Toulouse. 2 Vols.

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1972. RaauTahiti. Plantesmédicinalespolynésiennesetremèdestahitiens. Noumea. South Pacific Commission Technical Document No. 167.

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1 Two periods of field research, of eighteen months and two months, were sponsored by the U.S. National Institute of Mental Health and the University of Auckland respectively. An earlier version of this paper was presented at an Anthropology Department seminar at the Research School of Pacific Studies, Canberra in January 1975 and I am most grateful to Dr John B. Haviland for the helpful comments which he made on that version. I am also grateful to Professor Ralph Bulmer of Auckland University for his useful criticisms of an earlier draft.

2 Lemaitre 1973. Lemaitre’s Information, gathered mainly I think on Tahiti, is completely independent of my own.

3 I had thought this to be an original observation, but Mr Nigel Baumber has since drawn my attention to Hocart’s statement (1929 : 62) about Lau medicines : “Diseases are not diagnosed by symptoms but by the cure that happens to succeed”.

4 Hi’ohi’o is the reduplicative of hi’o ‘to look, examine’ and ta’ata hi’ohi’o is a ‘ clairvoyant’.

5 A number of these ideas are set out in more detail in Hooper 1975.

6 The only exception to this is the ‘ghost sickness’ which is believed to affect any person who violates the site of a Tahitian marae.


University of Auckland

© Société des Océanistes, 1978

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