Cosmologies Encyclopedia of Religion

Since over a quarter of the world’s discrete religions are found in Oceania or on the islands of the Pacific Ocean, generalizations about their worldviews do not come easily. Because the languages of Polynesia, and virtually all Micronesia, belong to the Austronesian (formerly Malayo-Polynesian) phylum, it is easier to detect a certain culturo-religious homogeneity across these regions, astoundingly scattered though their isolated protrusions of land may be. In the southwest Pacific, on the other hand, Melanesia harbors the most complex mix of languages on earth, concentrated in larger islands, and reflecting a great variety of small-scale traditional pictures of the cosmos. One may safely concede a common social structure pertains in Polynesia and Micronesia; their peoples are governed by chiefs, with chiefly seniority usually being established through tracing one’s ancestry to the leader of the first canoe arriving on a given island.

Distinctly hierarchical societies have arisen from this arrangement, with Hawai’i, Tahiti, New Zealand, and especially Tonga, being known for their monarchs ruling over nobles (including priests) and commoners. In Melanesia, by comparison, chieftain societies are in the minority (albeit a significant one), and more common is a competition between skillful “managers” of exchanges and war, one among the other contenders rising to the top as a clan leader or “big-man.” In this more characteristically Melanesian situation no one ever secures supreme power over a whole culturo-linguistic complex, which therefore remains acephalous and unstable. Only rarely in Melanesian chiefly societies, moreover, as in Viti Levu, Fiji, and in the Trobriand Islands, did one chief achieve virtual paramountcy over various others.

As a rule of thumb (while also being wary of sociological reductionism), Oceanic cosmologies tend to reflect this relative contrast in social structure. The Austronesian world pictures of the wider Pacific tend to be more “vertical,” tending more to differentiate the upper from the lower world and often distinguishing the land inhabited by humans from an underworld. In southwest Pacific Melanesia the outlook is more “horizontal,” with most of the nonhuman powers that matter seen to surround settlements in the visible and proximate environment. Starting from two extreme points will help our orientation. In Tonga one finds two kinds of grave, one for commoners known as fonua, with burials under plain mounds of coral sand, and the other langi, for royals and nobles, more impressive for being hedged about by blocks of rock.

Significantly, fonua denotes land and the earth, which commoners have served and to which they return, becoming vermin under the ground. Langi, in contrast, means heaven (and its great beings), to which sovereigns and those of noble blood are destined, a vertical cosmic picturing and a hierarchical power structure thus reinforcing each other. Taking a well-known Papua New Guinea Highlands case, in stark contrast, the Wahgi recognize no major deities like the Tongans—though the powers behind prehistorically polished round stones were taken as war gods—and their cosmology is defined exclusively by the ancestors. The dead were deposited high in the mountains, and it is the departed who were thought to push the clouds backwards and forwards across the sides of the great Wahgi Valley, allowing for the sun and moon to be seen, or not. The spirit powers, in any case, including harmful place spirits (Tok Pisin: masalai) were basically environal, or largely horizontal in relation to humans, being “out there” rather than above or below.CustomCat: Official Website – Print-On Demand FulfillmentMake Money with Your E-Commerce Store. 14 Day Free Trial. Sign Up Now! | Sponsored▼

In the Austronesian Weltanschauungen of Polynesia and Micronesia, therefore, one may expect cosmogonic narratives in which levels of the universe are given their places. In Maori myth (of Aotearoa/New Zealand), to illustrate, Rangi (heaven) and Papa (earth) were in an inextricable embrace until Tanemahuta, god of forests, birds, and insects, and one of the primal pair’s six children, raised up his father to the skies with his strong back and limbs, his feet firmly grounded in his mother the earth. Here we find a cosmic Trennung, a common motif of cosmogenesis around the globe, one underscored by recognition of an underworld, supervised by the formidable Hine-nui-te-po, Goddess of the Dead. On Rarotonga (Cook Islands), the cosmos was conceived as arising out of an enormous coconut shell. It grew up from “Ancient Dirt” (that betokened the netherworld and the ancestral base of humanity, as well as earth) and reached its completion in the heavens. In the Micronesian Gilbertese (now Kiribati) genesis, the young hero Naareau Riiki snares the cosmic eel so as to uproot the sky, propping it up as separate from the sinking land and sea below.

Common in the wider (non-Melanesian) Pacific is the sense of the surface of both earth and sea lying between two major spirit realms of sky and the undersea depths. This imaging pertains rather naturally to an island context, in which upthrusts of land sit under a vast sky that reaches down to distant watery horizons like a huge upturned bowl. The most vital sources of positive power typically lay above; the middle arena usually contained spirit powers along with humans, and strategies were taught as to the best means of interaction because forces were a mixture of the well disposed and the difficult; while the netherworld was most often a domain of uncertainty, if not anxiety. The sky realm could be conceived as having compartments (of the four directions), as well as layers, with the lowest “brow of heaven” (as the Micronesian Chuukese of the Caroline Islands put it) peopled by deities connected to everyday activities—fishing, weaving, lovemaking, and the like. Debate surrounds the authenticity of Maori traditions of a deity called Io, who sits above all the layers of heavens like the removed ultimate mystery of the ancient Gnostics; but the picturing remains consistent with Austronesian vertical orientations and is commensurate with the insistence that chiefs become stars after death and still influence earthly affairs from afar.ATLANTA Rack & Pinions – World Leader in Rack & PinionsWidest Range of Standard Racks & Pinions in the World! | Sponsored▼

In Melanesia such socio-cosmological correlations are more uneven. The mixture of Austronesian and many non-Austronesian groups, and the greater number of inland-based cultures, make it hard to spot patterns. Most typical is the preconceptual “feel” of an environment that decreases in security the further one is away from a home base. What Peter Lawrence (1984) has described as the “security circle” usually consists of a cluster of hamlets, or lineages dwelling close enough to constitute a clan. Each clan worked inherited land available for gardening, in proximity to blood-related clans that made up an acephalous tribal complex. The jural group and the political executive were at the clan level, and religious ceremonies were put on by clans, albeit sometimes simultaneously, even together with others. Security diminished as one passed into bushland that separated tribes, into tribal areas that were neighboring and often hostile to one’s own, and then on into swamps, deep forests, and across rivers and mountains where powerful spirits dwelt or where one became a truly vulnerable stranger.

The spirit world generally manifested at “ground level,” and encounters with problematic masalai and ghosts were expected if wild areas were traversed. Fears of such encounters often relate to assumptions about defensible territory. Ghosts connected to other tribal areas would be presumed to be highly inimical to outsiders. In the case of the Papuan Highland Fuyughe, notions of any roundabout raids on enemy hamlets were forestalled by beliefs that each tribe was protected by sila (place spirits in the form of huge serpents), beings who dwelt in the mountain overshadowing each tribal territory and who were ready to destroy any trespassers.

It is not that the sense of transcendence was completely absent from Melanesian traditional religions. Among the Enga, for instance, to the west of the New Guinea Highland Wahgi and in a society comparably preoccupied with the aid of the ancestors, one finds talk of an apparent “high god” Aitawe. While Aitawe sustains all things, however, he receives barely any ritual attention and does not figure in the religious foreground—in the Tee festival (for the ceremonial prestation of pigs), initiations, even rites to avert crises. This relative inattention to “overarching” deities is typical of Melanesia. If there are creator gods, they often put the basic environment in place and let other beings—often “culture heroes”—show creativity thereon (as with Anut of the Sor, Sengam, and related coastal Madang peoples), or, like the bisexual sky deity Ugatame of the Irian Jayan Kapauka, they set a “predetermining scheme of things” (ebijata ) but do nothing to police it. On the other hand, creative deities’ original acts can be forgotten so that instead what comes to the fore is their role of bringing succor in war or their close-to-hand sanctions against delicts—as with Yabowahine for Goodenough and Bonarua Islanders respectively (in the East Papuan Massim cultural complex).

Powers that are high above are likely to be “brought down” in Melanesia to have special connections to a people’s very ground, and any conceived high planes of existence were made quite comparable to the human one. Thus, among the Southern (Papua New Guinea) Highland Huli, the sun is Ni, one of two cosmic brothers, but it is more important that he looks over Huli territory (from the Huli point of view not staying long to watch anywhere else) and that he laid his “eggs,” shiny smooth black stones revealed in ritual and signifying the protection of tribes. At the same time the most powerful spirits for the Huli dwelt in caves, and certain sacred cave sites (gebeanda ) became the focus of more than one tribe. Whereas in the wider Pacific places of worship suggest “open spaces,” with stone platforms and fenced arenas more than impressive temples being the key architectural feature, Melanesia is famous for preoccupation with eerie “natural” shrines (such as caves and crevices), to which offerings will be brought with the utmost caution, or with temples that bear darkened interiors and contain hidden, awesome paraphernalia of a cult deity or else the trophies (oftentimes skulls) of the ancestors’ previous victories.

What of planes of existence? In a strange, broken line from mountainous Enga country down to the swamplands of the Fly River Delta, there are notions of the sky people and sky villages. Among the Enga a special class of beings (the yalyakali) are thought to occupy the sky realm, yet their appearance in the lives of humans is almost always connected to a change in material existence—a special opportunity in hunting, for instance. In the Roku (western Trans-Fly) area, the dead are supposed to live in the sky, yet again their capacity to act as conduits of material blessing on earth is the paramount point. Rocks, for example, are not found in Roku terrain, yet the Roku dead are imagined to create them and then send them to the beginning of those trade routes in the West, whence they arrive to fulfil a material need.

In Melanesia, indeed, one even finds such concrete interactions with spirit beings that some of them can only be brought into being by human actions and others are discarded when their purpose has been served. The war god called Kakar among the Murik Lakes tribes (at the mouth of the Sepik), for example, is only brought to life when the carved war clubs that “constitute” him are put in a line. The accoutrements signifying the ancestral being known as the Sir Ghost among the Manus (New GuineaIslands) are taken from rafters and thrown into the sea once the head of a household dies and takes on the role of a new Sir. Whereas in the wider Pacific, spiritual presences tend to be more confined to worship areas or open-faced meeting houses (such as the elaborately carved whare whakairo among the Maori), in Melanesia such presences extend to the poles and rafters of houses’ interiors (whether communal or familial). The spiritual energy in these poles is in various cultures conceived as a protective shield against sorcery, the fear of which is more prevalent in Melanesia than elsewhere in Oceania. Moreover, whereas in Austronesian languages terms for spirits are more indicative than symbolic, many non-Austronesian languages nuance the natural environment in highly subtle ways. The Southern Highland Foi, for example, “feel” damp places and valleys as feminine, while dry spots and high, airy terrain intimate masculinity (a dichotomy familiar in Chinese sensibilities).

Cosmological differences can be expected to bear implications for pictures of afterlife states. In the main, admittedly, the other world is expected to be an extension of the living community and to hold all of those who are deceased, whether good or bad, so long as their “soul” or “spirit” is released in funerary rites or their journey to the place of the dead made without mishap. Thus, for the coastal Papuan Roro those whose spirits reach the eastern horizon have been individuals escaping some traumatic, sudden death. A surprise attack from behind by an enemy, or being taken to one’s death by a crocodile, prevented this blessing, condemning the deceased to the state of an angry wandering ghost near the place of the sad incident. In the belief of the Raiateans of Tahiti, for a Polynesian case, whether the dead went to the realm of Light (Ao ) or Darkness (Po ) simply depended on whether the soul perched itself on the right rock of final departure or not. Culturally between, on the (Austronesian) Papuan Muju Island, admission to “the Isle of the Blest” (Tum) came only through precariously balancing on the great serpent Motetutau who took one there and by showing two special lines of tattooing to get around the hag guarding this (horizontally placed) “heaven.”

Only occasionally do ethical dimensions show up in visions of post-mortem conditions. The Micronesian Wuvulu hold that each hamlet is guarded by puala -spirits whose reactions to human behavior are interpreted by priests. The puala send bad people down to Mani Pino Pino directly below each settlement, where waste drips down and evildoers live in agony eating snakes and lizards, until the pualagrant mercy and bring them up to the wonderful villages of the dead. If cases like this in Melanesia have horizontally placed purgatories—the Papua coastal Motu naming two islands where malefactors have to work off the punishments they deserve—a few of them project more vertical images. The Southern Highland Erave, for instance, speak of a red place in the sky—a kind of Valhalla—receiving those who die on the field of battle (and those women supporting them), while a brown place of estrangement on earth level awaits the rest.

The general cosmological polarity suggested in the above survey can be accepted only as a useful heuristic devise, certainly not as a watertight generalization. The honoring of the (sculptured) ancestor chiefs of Polynesia’s Easter Island, or Rapanui, for example, and the Orongo bird cult that developed more recently in the island’s history, did not intimate transcendental or vertical conceptions; while some groups of Melanesia’s north Papuan Orokaiva conceived of Asisi as a God high above humans, with the ancestors mediating in between. On the balance of the evidence, moreover, the smaller the scale of the culture in the Pacific, the less likely social hierarchy and a tiering of the cosmos will appear reinforcing each other, and the more special features of the landscape will call for sacralization or beckon ritual attention. One litmus test here would be caves, which are not uniformly doors to the underworld in Polynesia and Austronesian cultures. In Melanesia, however, whether on land or under water, they are most likely to be entrances to mysterious treasure or material blessing. Famous stories in this latter connection concern Manamakeri, of the Biak-Numfor cultural complex (Irian Jaya), a hero who reveals that the access to eternal life and permanent material blessing (koreri) is under the ground; and also Edai Siabo, who found the secrets to generate the Hiri trade expeditions (of coastal Papua) when diving into the depths of the sea.

Islander movements in response to outside intrusions and colonialism have reflected the tendencies here being plotted. Among the most famous new religious movements in the colonized world are the Melanesian cargo cults. In these, the followers of “prophet-visionaries” are convinced that European-style commodities—from tinned meat to automobiles—will arrive in abundance at the hands of returning ancestors, even Jesus in his Second Coming (as inferred from mission teaching). The stress in such cults is on material prosperity and tangible riches, reflecting Melanesian horizontal cosmologies. Prophets (konoors ) among the Biakese, to illustrate, proclaimed access to Koreri, and in the context of the Second World War members of a makeshift army protesting against the Japanese believed that the magical touch of eternity made them invulnerable to foreigners’ bullets. Other, comparable protest actions in Melanesian occurred in the hope that guns would be included in the cargo to drive colonial intruders from their land.

In new religious movements of the wider Pacific, by comparison, we find prophets presenting themselves as mediators between heaven and earth, even if the same Protestant and cargoist themes can also be found. In the context of the second Maori War (1864–1865), for example, with so-called Hauhau “extremists” also taking themselves to be impervious to British firepower, the prophet Marire reassured his followers of Gabriel’s message that fallen fighters would be “glorified” and “stand on the roof of clouds.” The message of the freelance missionary Siovili of Eva on Samoa (1840s) was that he had direct access to the “Great Spirit” above and that a cargo ship would arrive, not over an ordinary horizon, but from “the King of the Skies.” In the following century, when a new sect sprang up on Onotoa in the southern Gilberts (Kiribati), the leader Ten Naewa promised that God himself would descend directly to the island, and later announced himself to be “father of God” and his close protectors, “Swords of Gabriel.” The contrasting cosmological tendencies detectable in such movements now continue behind different ecclesiastical and theological styles as Christianity consolidates in the region.

See Also



Bennardo, Giovanni, ed. Representing Space in Oceania: Culture in Language and Mind. Canberra, 2002.

Goldman, Irving. Ancient Polynesian Society. London, 1970.

Goodenough, Ward. Under Heaven’s Brow: Pre-Christian Religious Tradition in Chuuk. Memoirs of the American Philosophical Society 246. Philadelphia, 2000.

Handy, Craighill. Polynesian Religion. Bernice P. Bishop Museum Bulletin 34. Honolulu, 1927.

Lawrence, Peter. The Garia: An Ethnography of a Traditional Cosmic System in Papua New Guinea. Melbourne, 1984.

Moore, Albert. Arts in the Religions of the Pacific. London, 1997.

Swain, Tony, and Garry Trompf. Religions of Oceania. Library of Religious Beliefs and Practices. London, 1995.

Trompf, Garry. Melanesian Religion. Cambridge, U.K., 1991.

Garry W. Trompf (2005)