Tikopia, a remnant of an extinct volcano, is a small and remote island with a tiny pollution spread out across a handful of villages. It is considered part of the Solomon Islands (1).
One learns much about the Tikopian people from scholar Raymond Firth (1901-2002), a New Zealand anthropologist who lived on Tikopia in 1928 and 1929, and returned later in 1952 and for a shorter time in 1966. His 1967 book, Tikopia Ritual and Belief, is an important text for studying Tikopian culture although he authored dozens more on Tikopian culture, and even conducted a census of the island’s population. In his books and chapters, Firth touched on many features of Tikopian society from its clans, deities, ariki (chiefs), rituals, symbols, the social roles of men and women, and many other other societal features.
The Tikopians believed in many gods such as the the creators gods Atua Fafine and Atua I Raropuka and the sky god Atua I Kafika. They believed that spiritual beings (atua) existed and that they somehow controlled nature and the lives of human beings. The atua consisted of the spirits of dead chiefs and several major gods, such as those gods of each clan. Some of these gods had ominous motives, for example, the goddess Nau Fiora had the power to steal the souls of children, thus killing them.
The four main chiefs on the island function as ritual elders, and were believed to have access to the gods and ancestor spirits through the use of prayers and offerings on behalf of the people. The chiefs had the responsibility of performing the rituals (2).
Prior to the arrival of Christianity in the 1950s, the Tikopians engaged in rituals for two weeks twice a year. This was referred to as the “Work of the Gods,” a form of worship expressed as a system of trade between human and spirit beings. For the Tikopians, preforming rituals was of a great significance. It was deemed a privilege and it brought status and reputation to individuals within the community.
The goal was to perform duties to propitiate the spirits or gods who they believed would, in turn, ensure them plentiful harvests and the necessities of life. The religion was also structured in such a way that many of the activities were undertaken to please the gods (such as repairing canoes, planting and harvesting, and the ritual production of turmeric) and were of economic value to the Tikopians themselves. Offerings were made to the gods, which included food and kava (a drink) although these offerings were made only in essence which left the food and drink available for the people to consume. For the Tikopians, the “Work of the Gods” rituals underpinned key social and economic structures, thus held society together.
Conversion to Christianity of the Tikopia’s population only occurred in the 1950s. During that time many of the Tikopian chiefs converted to Christianity, and some even ventured a great distance off the island to share the gospel. Today the island is considered a part of the Anglican Church of Melanesia. Tikopian life still exists and many of its people still yet possess an intensive system of agriculture, while the people remain proud of their history, traditions, and customs.
1. Solomon Islands Historical Encyclopedia 1893-1978. Available.
2. Ambalu, S. et al. The Religions Book