Afterlife: Oceanic Concepts

  December 13, 2021   Read time 3 min
Afterlife: Oceanic Concepts
Those who meet their deaths through violent means, in warfare or accident, belong, in many Oceanic cultures, to a pecial category of after-death experience.

The idea of the temporal continuance of some aspect of the deceased is widespread, if not universal, in Oceanic cultures. In some cases, as with the Dreaming of Australia, or the redoubled “Sky World” of the Enga people of the New Guinea highlands, the condition of the dead is coeval with the life they had lived, though on a different plane of existence. More commonly, the “place” of the dead is identified with some remote or inaccessible location, beneath the ground, under the sea, or, as with the people of the Trobriand Islands, a haunted and little-visited island (Tuma).

Because death betokens an inevitable separation, never mind the “communication” that may follow, the answer to “what happens to the human essence after the body dies?” may run away with the question. It is often coincident with a more comprehensive cosmological vision. If the best one could do to describe this present life, here on earth, would be a matter of metaphors and analogies, then what difference if the condition of the dead were described in that way also? For many Oceanic peoples the condition of dying itself is considered to be a long, protracted process, intermingled with grieving and mortuary practices, and the bodies of the deceased, as well as their possessions, become highly charged social objects. For many Austronesian-speaking Melanesian societies, death has great power, and a highly articulated mortuary feasting complex serves as the focus for all social life.

It would be fair to say that for many Oceanic peoples the terminal condition of the deceased is coincident with social dismissal, postponed long after the body ceases to function, and that the “afterlife” is really a sort of “half-life,” analogous to the radioactive decay of an element. Living persons encounter the deceased in quasi-human form, or vice-versa, and there may be as much uncertainty and doubt among the indigenous folk as to what is actually going on as among those who study them. Death “takes prisoners,” as it were, and may take a long time letting them go. There are a great many peoples in Oceania who would rather not believe in ghosts.

Those who meet their deaths through violent means, in warfare or accident, belong, in many Oceanic cultures, to a pecial category of after-death experience. They are conceived as restless, mobile, angry spirits, eager to avenge their unfortunate plight back upon the living, and so very dangerous and threatening. The concept is similar to that of the preta in the Sanskritic tradition, and to other, analogous precepts found in India and Southeast Asia. It has a widespread distribution in the Pacific, in one form or another, from the divination for “happy” as against “unhappy” ghosts on the islands of Yap, in Micronesia, to the fabled (and often surprisingly real) “Night Marchers” of Hawai’i. One New Irelander, from the Bismarck archipelago, put it this way: “Just how many American and Japanese servicemen died out there in the Pacific? Some days you can see them fishing, in gigantic waterspouts, and you can see them up in the coconut trees during a thunderstorm, with fire flashing from their eyes and armpits. When the wind scoops up moisture from the sea, bring your children into the house!”

Found occasionally among non-Austronesian speakers as well, the idea is analogous to another, described among coastal Papuan and Torres Strait peoples and encountered by Captain Bligh in the Tahiti area. This is that those who are shipwrecked at sea become automatically strangers to the land, demons, no longer human, who must be killed, for reasons of safety, by anyone encountering them.

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