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Norfolk Island Melanesian Chapel
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Mana is a word found in Austronesian languages meaning "power, effectiveness, prestige," where in most cases the power is understood to be supernatural.[1] The exact semantics depends on the language. The concept is a major one in Polynesian cultures. It is part of contemporary Pacific Islander culture. The term came to the attention of western anthropologists through the reports of missionaries in the islands. Its study was included in the topic of cultural anthropology, specifically in the anthropology of religion. Links were seen between it and an earlier phase of western religion, animism at first, then pre-animism.


Mana on the sea in Melanesia, 1846.

In recent decades the staple method of reconstructing a proto-language, or ancestor of a group of languages that seem related because of their similarities, in the tree model of historical linguistics; that is, the comparative method, has been enhanced by the application of phylogenetic method. In it, as applied to linguistics, linguistic features take the place of molecular sequences. In biology, the goal of comparing genetic sequences is to determine a percentage of similarity between the chromosomes of two species, which may then be hypothesized to have branched from each other in the tree at a time that is consistent with the rate of change of each. In linguistic "phylogenetic" comparisons (which have nothing to do with genes), the desired result is percentages of similarity between languages, from which a tree structure may be reconstructed. Each branch may be termed a "level" and represents a proto-language.

The method begins with a database of features to be compared. Software exists to make various types of comparisons. The results depend to a large degree of the type of data selected and the method of comparison. The Polynesian Lexicon (POLLEX) Project, "initiated in 1965 by Bruce Biggs"[2] uses mainly lexical data. By comparison of words from the oceanic languages collected in the lexicon, it assesses levels of proto-language in the phylogenetic tree.

According to the POLLEX project, a protoform (ancestral form of a word) for mana, noted in historical linguistic convention as *mana-, existed in a Proto-Oceanic language, precursor to many contemporary Pacific languages. The exact path through the tree from Proto-Oceanic to any specific language of the group is not always clear. The word and concept, however, about as they are today, are thousands of years old. The linguist Robert Blust has pointed out that mana means "thunder, storm, or wind" in some languages, and has hypothesized that the term originally meant "powerful forces of nature such as thunder and storm winds that were conceived as the expression of an unseen supernatural agency. As Oceanic-speaking peoples spread eastward, the notion of an unseen supernatural agency became detached from the physical forces of nature that had inspired it and assumed a life of its own."[3]

The academic study of mana[edit]

The Southern Cross of 1891, one of the ships of the Melanesian Mission on Norfolk Island, where Codrington taught and worked on his Melanesian studies. The ship provided him and the other missionaries with transportation around the islands.

Robert Codrington, a missionary, traveled widely in Melanesia, publishing several studies of the language and culture of its population. His 1891 book The Melanesians: Studies in their Anthropology and Folk-Lore contains the first sustained description of mana, which Codrington defines as "a force altogether distinct from physical power, which acts in all kinds of ways for good and evil, and which it is of the greatest advantage to possess or control".[4]

This idea was arriving in a milieu that had already defined animism, the concept that the energy, or life, in an object comes from a spiritual component, the anima. Georg Ernst Stahl’s animismus of the 18th century had been adopted by the founder of cultural anthropology, Edward Burnett Tylor. He had presented his initial ideas on the history of religion in ‘’Researches into the Early History of Mankind’’, 1865.[5] He developed them more fully in ‘’Primitive Culture’’, Volume I (1871) and Volume II (1874),[6] The use of the term 'primitive' in that Eurocentric era has to be historically contextualised; cultures which have evolved independently, through geographical separation, would not now be described as presumptively.

Evolution in Tylor’s time[edit]

In Tylor’s time, the major themes of evolution were rapidly replacing earlier views based on Biblical scholarship. Biological evolution , proposed by Darwin and Wallace, hypothesized a gradual modification of species to form new species. By the methods of comparative anatomy it concluded to a general progression from simpler and generally less capable forms to more complex and more capable forms. At the top of the progression were the mammals, led by man. The projected starting point must be an Earth of no life forms at all, which was supported by the contemporaneous views of the birth and death of heavenly bodies. A chemical pre-adaptation on early Earth was required for a starting point, an abiogenesis, or spontaneous generation of replicating molecules.

Concomitant with the idea of biological evolution is that of behavioral evolution. Artifacts also evidence a rise from simple to complex. This progression had been anticipated and foreshadowed by ancient concepts of the three-age system. Innovative evolutionists such as Christian Jürgensen Thomsen in Denmark and John Lubbock, 1st Baron Avebury, produced concepts of the Stone Age, the Bronze Age, and the Iron Age, based on the major materials used by man.

Concomitant with the evolution of behavior was the evolution of the forms of society, which archaeological data was beginning to suggest. Associated with the rudest artifacts were rude shelters of stone and hide, or natural shelters, such as caves. The very latest are the various types of civilization, which contemporaries of Tylor, such as Lewis Henry Morgan, were struggling to define. Definitions were needed. In the evolution of materials and civilization, exactly what was evolving?

Tylor’s cultural evolution[edit]

Tylor’s answer was culture, with which he founded cultural anthropology. As the other primates, from whose ancestors the evolutionists hypothesized man had evolved, did not appear to evidence any culture,[7] then all memeplexes must have evolved from some pre-adaptive behavior in the earliest of the human line. One is justified therefore in conceiving an evolution of mythology, religion, and philosophy, which is the development of these cultural complexes, by whatever path, from a hypothetical zero state.

Tylor recused himself from trying to find evidence of a non-cultural state of man on the grounds that it is unreachable. He described it as “a condition not far removed from that of the lower animals,” and “savage life as in some sort representing an early known state.”[8] Being careful to point out that all previous portrayals of examples of acultural life proved to be, on closer examination, inaccurate, he perhaps outdid himself by using the phraseology: “the human savage naked in both mind and body, and destitute of laws, or arts, or ideas, and almost of language.”[9] Currently no languages are considered to be part-way between not speaking and any languages we know, although such views were common in Tylor’s time. The origin of language is in the domain of physical anthropology, hundreds of thousands of years ago.

Tylor freely admits that speculations of the acultural state are vain. Following the method of comparative culture, similar to comparative anatomy and the comparative method of historical linguistics, he arrives at a twofold classification of cultural traits (which have been called today memes and memeplexes): savage and civilized. In this he follows Sir John Lubbock. The savage is not to be separated entirely from the civilized. It exists in civilized societies, but without the civilized in savage societies. Tylor says: “From an ideal point of view, civilization may be looked upon as the general improvement of mankind by higher organization of the individual and of society....”[10] He calls his model an instance of the “progression-theory of civilization.”[11]

Within historical grasp, society progresses from simple to complex, but not entirely. Memes and memeplexes remain from different phases. These are to be identified by comparison with their equivalents in savage societies. If equivalents cannot be found, there is no basis for assuming an earlier phase. This view is responsible for the rush to find and describe savage societies before they mime the memes of civilization. However, the very presence of the civilized observers alters the savage society. In some countries, the society is protected from intrusion by law; the spread of culture, however, like that of genes, is not basically in the jurisdiction of law. The Melanesians studied by Codrington on Norfolk Island and elsewhere lived in ways that were much altered from when the missionaries first arrived.

Evolution of religion[edit]

Tylor defines religion as “the belief in Spiritual Beings,” which he terms a “minimum definition.”[12] Again noting that no savage societies lack religion, and that the supposed initial state of a religious man is beyond reach, Tylor perceives two stages in the evolution of religion, a simple belief in individual animae, or Doctrine of Souls, and the elaboration of dogmas. The dogmas elaborate souls into systems of higher spirits commanding phases of nature. In Volume II, he calls this phase the Doctrine of Spirits.[13] He uses the word animism in two different senses.[14] The first is religion itself; that is, a belief in the spiritual as an effective energy, shared by every specific religion. In the progression-theory an undogmatic version preceded the rational theological systems of civilization. Animism is then used for the unelaborate Theory of the Soul, which comparative religion attempts to reconstruct.

Tylor’s work was before Codrington’s, nor was Tylor familiar with Codrington. When the concept of mana became known, it occasioned a revision of Tylor’s view of the evolution of religion. The earliest anthropologist to formulate a revision, which he termed “pre-animistic religion, was ” Robert Ranulph Marett, in a series of papers, collected and published under the name ‘’Threshold of Religion’’. In the “Preface” he takes credit for the adjective, pre-animistic, but not the noun, pre-animism, although he assigns no attribution for it.[15]

In Marett’s view, “Animism will not suffice as a minimum definition of religion.” Tylor had used the term “natural religion” referring to the topic of his definition,[16] which was consistent with Stahl’s concept of a natural spiritual energy. For example, the soul of an animal is its vital principle. Marett observed, “one must dig deeper” to find the “roots of religion.”

The concept of mana for Marett represents this deeper phase. Mana is a power above and beyond any natural cause either physical or animistic. For example, in an athletic contest, all the contenders may be equally matched in physical and mental factors. One wears an amulet. He wins consistently. The power of victory, which we would call “luck,” is considered to reside in the mana present in his amulet.

Pre-animistic phase of religion[edit]

When describing the pre-animistic phase of religion, Marett chooses to abstract from the Melanesian mana, having Codrington’s work primarily before him. He takes a few liberties of abstraction, he freely admits: “When the science of Comparative Religion employs a native expression such as mana ... it is obliged to disregard to some extent its original or local meaning .... Science, then, may adopt mana as a general category ....”[17] Mana is possessed and granted by animae, no doubt. In Melanesia, the animae are the souls of living men, the ghosts of deceased men, and spirits appearing either as those “of ghost-like appearance” or those imitating ordinary corporeal men. Spirits of ghosts can inhabit other objects, such as animals or stones.[18]

The most significant property of mana is that it is distinct from, and exists independently of, its source. Animae act, but only through mana. It is impersonal, undistinguished, and like energy, transmissible between objects. Objects can have more or less of it. Mana is not imperceptible. It appears as a “Power of awfulness” associated with awe or wonder.[19] The objects that possess it impress the observer with “respect, veneration, propitiation, service.” These feelings, though subjective, stem from the power of the mana. Marett lists a number of objects habitually possessing mana: “startling manifestations of nature,” “curious stones,” animals, “human remains,” blood,[20] thunderstorms, eclipses, eruptions, glaciers, and especially the sound of the bullroarer.[21]

If the mana is a distinct power, it can be treated distinctly. Marett separates spells, which treat the mana quasi-objectively, and prayers, which address the animae. The anima might have moved on long since, but he might have left some mana in the form of a spell, which can be addressed by magic. Since mana comes from the animae, and those are the topic of religion, the most logical place for the topic is under religion. Marett postulates an earlier pre-animistic phase, a “rudimentary religion” or “magico-religious” phase, in which the mana is believed without the animae. Like Tylor, he recuses himself from the purely initial phase: “no island of pure ‘pre-animism’ is to be found.”[22] Instead such a phase is to be inferred by comparative religion.

Taking the same approach as Tylor, he presupposes a thread of commonality between animism and pre-animism. This is to be identified with the supernatural, the “mysterious” as opposed to the reasonable.[23] The mysterious defies explanation. Animism might be natural, and as such might be included in a course in physics. Divinity has never been known for its physical predictability. It is characterized by mystery, unaccountability, and unpredictability. It has a revelatory character, not a scientific one.


In 1936, Ian Hogbin opened a campaign against the universality of Marett's pre-animistic phase, writing "mana is by no means universal and, consequently, to adopt it as a basis on which to build up a general theory of primitive religion is not only erroneous but indeed fallacious".[24] Marett never meant that the word mana as it is in Melanesia was to be found in instances across the world. He asserts his liberty of abstraction.[17] As is generally true in cultural anthropology, he is not bound to the precise nuances of any local use; moreover, mana is only an instance from Oceanic cultures. Spells, for example, that evidence the abstract mana may be found "from Central Australia to Scotland."[25] Hogbin's injunction against abstraction beyond the local use of local words removes the comparative method from both anthropology and historical linguistics.

In the early twentieth century scholars also attempted to see mana as universal concept, found in all human cultures, which expressed a fundamental human awareness of a sacred life-energy. Marcel Mauss, for instance, made this argument in his 1904 essay "Outline of a General Theory of Magic". Mauss drew on the writings of Codrington and others to paint a picture of mana as "power, par excellence, the genuine effectiveness of things which corroborates their practical actions without annihilating them".[26] Mauss then went on to demonstrate the similarities of mana to concepts found in other parts of the world such as orenda (Iriquois) and manitou (Ojibway). He was convinced of the "universality of the institution"[27] and argued that "a concept, encompassing the idea of magical power, was once found everywhere".[28]

Mauss and his collaborator Henri Hubert were criticized for this position when the book first appeared. "No one questioned the existence of the notion of mana," writes Mauss's biographer Marcel Fournier, "but Hubert and Mauss were criticized for giving it a universal dimension".[29] Criticism of the idea of mana as a universal archetype of life-energy continued to mount. Mircea Eliade has pointed out that the idea of mana is not universal, in places where people do believe in it they do not believe that everyone has it, and "even among the varying formulae (mana, wakan, orenda, etc.) there are, if not glaring differences, certainly nuances not sufficiently observed in the early studies".[30] He writes, "with regard to these theories founded upon the primordial and universal character of mana, we must say without delay that they have been invalidated by later research".[31]

In Polynesian culture[edit]

In Polynesian culture, mana is a spiritual quality considered to have supernatural origin—a sacred impersonal force existing in the universe. Therefore, to have mana is to have influence and authority, and efficacy—the power to perform in a given situation. This essential quality of mana is not limited to persons—peoples, governments, places and inanimate objects can possess mana. There are two ways to obtain mana: through birth and through warfare. People or objects that possess mana are accorded respect because their possession of mana gives them authority, power, and prestige. The word’s meaning is complex because mana is a basic foundation of the Polynesian worldview.

In Hawaiian & Tahitian culture[edit]

In Hawaiian & Tahitian culture, Mana is a form of a spiritual energy and also healing power which can exist in places, objects and persons. It is the Hawaiian belief that there is a chance to gain mana and lose mana in everything that a person does. It is also the Hawaiian/Tahitian belief that mana is an external as well as an internal thing. Certain sites in the Hawaiian Islands and the archipelagoes of French Polynesia (Tahiti) are believed to possess strong mana. For example, the top rim of the Haleakala volcano on the island of Maui is believed to be a location of strong mana as well as the ancient temple site (marae) of Taputapuatea on the island of Raiatea in French Polynesia is considered to have palpable mana.

Hawaiian ancestors also believed that the entire island of Moloka‘i possesses strong mana, as compared to the neighboring islands. Many ancient battles among the Hawaiians, prior to the unification by King Kamehameha I, were fought over possession of Moloka‘i Island, partly for this reason (and possession of the numerous ancient fish ponds that existed along the southern shore prior to the late-19th century).

In people, mana is often possessed or gained through pono (balance) actions, reflecting the balance that exists in the world and humanity's responsibility toward maintaining that balance.

In traditional Hawaii, there were always two paths to mana. A person could gain mana through sexual means or through violence. The Hawaiian way of thinking is that nature has a dualistic relationship and that everything in the world has a counterpart. Over time, a delicate balance between the Gods Ku and Lono were formed, and through them are the two paths to mana. Hawaiians often refer to this as "imihaku", or the search of mana or the search of a source. Ku, being the Hawaiian God of war and politics, offers mana through violence and this is how Kamehameha the Great gained his mana. Lono is the Hawaiian God of peace and fertility, and offers mana through sexual relationships. If a commoner was able to sleep with an Alii Nui Wahine, then he gains the mana of that chief. Mana in Hawaiian culture is a popular topic of everyday discourse. It is not to be mistaken, however, for the same mana term used in the Huna religion, which is primarily practiced by non-Hawaiians and is often considered by ethnic Hawaiians to be an exploitation of Hawaiian ancestral beliefs.[citation needed]

For a Mo'i (supreme ruler) to fail on either path to mana was to prove himself out of the state of pono (righteousness). When a pono Mo'i was devoted to the Akua and the Aina, the whole society prospered. When disaster struck, these were signs that the Mo'i had ceased to be religious and in turn would be killed and replaced by another Alii Nui (high ranking chief). Alii Nui had a great passion for war because it was a great avenue to mana. Those victorious in war sacrificed the defeated upon an altar for Ku, thereby collecting that person's mana. In modern society, certain behavioral patterns are still repeated today. However, the path of Ku has eluded us.[citation needed]

Apart from the dualistic paths to mana, there was also another path to mana often practiced by the high ranking chiefs and especially the Mo'i. This practice is called a Ni'aupi'o relationship. To Hawaiians, the offspring of a brother sister mating was an Akua (God). If one was truly the Mo'i, he should seek out a Ni'aupi'o relationship (Ex: Kauikeaouli and Nāhiʻenaʻena). It is the Hawaiian way of thinking that the only way to ensure divinity and the protection of the family's mana is through an incestual mating. Uncle-niece and Aunt-nephew pairings were also desirable for the bridge in the generation gap.[citation needed]

In New Zealand culture[edit]

In Māori usage[edit]

In Māori, a tribe that has mana whenua must have demonstrated their authority over a piece of land or territory.

In the Māori culture, there are two essential aspects to a person's mana: mana tangata, authority derived from whakapapa connections, and mana huaanga, defined as "authority derived from having a wealth of resources to gift to others to bind them into reciprocal obligations".[32]

The indigenous word reflects a non-Western view of reality, complicating translation.[33] To quote the New Zealand Ministry of Justice:

Mana and tapu are concepts which have both been attributed single-worded definitions by contemporary writers. As concepts, especially Maori concepts they can not easily be translated into a single English definition. Both mana and tapu take on a whole range of related meanings depending on their association and the context in which they are being used.[34]

In general usage[edit]

In contemporary New Zealand English, the word "mana", taken from the Māori, refers to a person or organisation of people of great personal prestige and character.[35] Sir Edmund Hillary is considered to have great mana both because of his accomplishments and of how he gave his life to service. Perceived egotism can diminish mana because New Zealand culture tends to shun personal display (see Tall poppy syndrome). A New Zealander might say, "Sir Ed has a lot of mana" even though he is deceased. Also, a New Zealander might say, "Sir Ed brought a lot of mana to the Sir Edmund Hillary Outdoor Pursuit Centre" (OPC) meaning that it has mana because of its association with a man of great mana. However, if the OPC did something that was not respected by New Zealanders, it could lose mana.

In Melanesian culture[edit]

Melanesian mana is thought to be a sacred impersonal force existing in the universe. Mana can be in people, animals, plants and objects. Similar to the idea of efficacy, or luck, the Melanesians thought all success traced back to mana. Magic is a typical way to acquire or manipulate this luck.

Objects that have mana can change a person’s luck. Examples of such objects are charms or amulets. For instance if a prosperous hunter gave a charm that had mana to another person the prosperous hunter’s luck would go with it.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Simon J. Greenhill; Ross Clark; Bruce Biggs (2010). "Protoform: MANA.1 [OC] Power, effectiveness, prestige". Polynesian Lexicon Project Online. 
  2. ^ Greenhill, SJ; Clark, R (2011). "POLLEX-Online: The Polynesian Lexicon Project Online." (PDF). Oceanic Linguistics 50 (2): 551–559. 
  3. ^ Blust, Robert (2007). "Proto-Oceanic *mana Revisited". Oceanic Linguistics 36 (2): 404–422. doi:10.1353/ol.2008.0005. 
  4. ^ Codrington, R. H. (1891). The Melanesians: Studies in Their Anthropology and Folklore. Oxford: Clarendon Press. p. 118. 
  5. ^ Tylor 1871, p. vi
  6. ^ Tylor 1871, Volume I, Chapter XI, “Animism”
  7. ^ The discovery that primates and the other mammals do have some culture; that is, practical knowledge taught by the parents, who learned it from their parents, does not substantially affect the argument, as the complexity of man’s learned behavior, which characterizes him, is unique.
  8. ^ Tylor 1871, p. 33
  9. ^ Tylor 1871, p. 30
  10. ^ Tylor 1871, p. 24
  11. ^ Tylor 1871, p. 81
  12. ^ Tylor 1871, p. 383
  13. ^ Tylor 1874, pp. 108–110
  14. ^ Tylor 1871, p. 385
  15. ^ Marett 1914, p. xxi
  16. ^ Tylor 1871, p. 386
  17. ^ a b Marett 1914, p. 99
  18. ^ Marett 1914, pp. 115–120
  19. ^ Marett 1914, pp. 12–13
  20. ^ Marett 1914, p. 2
  21. ^ Marett 1914, pp. 14–17
  22. ^ Marett 1914, p. xxvi
  23. ^ Marett 1914, p. 22
  24. ^ Hogbin, Ian (1936). "Mana". Oceania 6 (3): 241–274. JSTOR 40327556. 
  25. ^ Marett & 1914, p. 55
  26. ^ Mauss, Marcel (2007). A General Theory of Magic (Reprint. ed.). London [u.a.]: Routledge. p. 111. ISBN 9780415253963. 
  27. ^ Mauss, Marcel (2007). A General Theory of Magic (Reprint. ed.). London [u.a.]: Routledge. p. 116. ISBN 9780415253963. 
  28. ^ Mauss, Marcel (2007). A General Theory of Magic (Reprint. ed.). London [u.a.]: Routledge. p. 117. ISBN 9780415253963. 
  29. ^ Fournier, Marcel (2006). Marcel Mauss: A Biography. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press. p. 138. ISBN 9780691117775. 
  30. ^ Eliade, Mircea (1996). Patterns in Comparative Religion (2. print. ed.). Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press. p. 22. ISBN 9780803267336. 
  31. ^ Eliade, Mircea (1992). Myths, Dreams and Mysteries: The Encounter Between Contemporary Faiths and Archaic Realities. [Magnolia, Mass.]: Peter Smith. p. 127. ISBN 9780844666259. 
  32. ^ [1] Archived January 14, 2015 at the Wayback Machine
  33. ^ "Waitangi Tribunal". Waitangi Tribunal. Retrieved 2015-01-26. 
  34. ^ "Mana and Tapu—Ministry of Justice, New Zealand". Retrieved 2015-01-26. 
  35. ^ "Kiwi (NZ) to English Dictionary". New Zealand A to Z. Retrieved 2015-01-26. 

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]