Male Initiation in Aoriki

Man and the Spirits in the Eastern Solomon Islands

By: William H. Davenport

Originally Published in 1981

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Aoriki, or Santa Catalina Island as it is marked on charts of the southwest Pacific Ocean, is located at the eastern extremity of the Solomon Islands. It has a twin, Santa Catalina, which lies close by, and the two are separated from a much larger island, San Cristobal, by just a few miles of sea. The three names were given to these islands, along with others such as Guadal­canal (of World War II fame), by the Span­ish navigator Alvaro de Mendana de Neyra who encountered the Solomons in 1567. Aoriki has a population of less than 300 persons who live in a single village that is divided into several wards. The commu­nities of Aoriki, Santa Ana and adjacent shores of San Cristobal speak closely re­lated dialects and share the same culture. One of the major ceremonial observances of this culture is the initiation of young males, sometimes described as an initiation into a cult of the bonito. However, due to the progress of Christianity in the area, periodic initiations had ceased—for the time being at least—in all communities but that of Aoriki at the time the study reported here was made. The initiation is, as would be expected, a very religious one. The rite, as I shall attempt to show, also reveals the way humans stand in relation to the oceanic world, according to Aoriki modes of thought.

The object of the Aoriki initiation of boys is to prepare them for participation in an important ritual activity that all young men will be called upon to perform later, when they reach full physical maturity. The activ­ity is the fishing for species of bonito and tuna (collectively called by a single generic term, waiuu, which will be translated here as “bonito”) but principally for the skipjack (Katsuwonus pelamis), schools of which appear during the hot months of shifting winds from March to June. Thus, the initia­tion rite is called “initiation to bonito” (maraufu ni waiau), but also with a conno­tation of transformation and change which is one meaning of the lexical form mara-.

Bonito, however, are not classed as ordi­nary fishes. They are sacred, because they are controlled by and are manifestations of tutelary deities. One biological reason for this is that as a group the bonito have copious red blood that resembles that of humans. To fish for bonito is to enter directly into the realm of the supernatural and to come into the immediate presence of deities who also control the destinies of the living. In many ways the behavior of tutelary deities with respect to bonito is an index of their current attitudes toward humans: allowing the schools to appear and permitting humans to catch them is an indi­cation that the deities are feeling generous and pleased. Moreover, fishing for them is a duty—it must be done—and if successful, it also produces what is considered to be a most delectable food.

Bonito fishing from small canoes in the open seas is extremely arduous. Only younger men in top physical shapecan go out, from morning until dusk, sometimes many miles from shore, searching for the elusive and fickle schools. Thus, while the initiation of young boys constitutes spirit­ual transformation in anticipation of the sacred work ahead, it is also a rite that is directed toward the development of physi­cal strength and stamina. Put another way, however, to be an adult man in a minimal sense is to be able to engage in the search for bonito, first as a crewman in the special canoes, later as a sponsor of both the an­nual fishing quest and the initiations of the young males.

An initiation is held whenever there is a group of perhaps ten or so boys between the ages of six and twelve years whose fathers are eager for their sons to be put through the rite. Even though it is fathers who support the rite, it is an affair of the entire community; everyone becomes in­volved, for it is also a community-wide ritual propitiation to the deities. It is pre­dictable when an initiation will be sched­uled, because the existence of uninitiated boys dictates the need, but not every attempt to hold one is successful. For each initiate there must be caught a fish, and sometimes an entire season will pass with­out any being caught, or an initiation may he commenced but insufficient fish are caught to put all the potential initiates through the rite. Also, each initiation is a continuation of the last, for the final public episode in the rite is an offer and accept­ance of a pledge by one senior man to organize and be host for the next initiation.

The initiation that I recorded and is de­scribed here was held on Aoriki Island from April to September in 1966. In 1964 an initiation had been held, but not enough fish were caught to put all the boys through. A pledge to hold another the following year had been made, but the 1965 bonito season was a complete failure: not a single fish was caught. The 1966 initiation was another try, and as it turned out only enough fish for nine of the waiting fifteen were caught.

At the start of the 1966 season four bonito canoes with crews of three young men were readied, each under the direction of a senior influential man who owned the canoe. Such crews stay at the ready every day in case schools of bonito are sighted from shore, and for varying periods they go to sea regularly to search out schools that might be out of sight of land. The crews must remain sexually continent and also avoid certain foods and domestic activities that are considered to be contaminating and offensive to bonito.

In 1966 a special purification ritual was held over the four canoes. Two canoe owners had been notified, through dreams, by their tutelaries that the previous year’s failure had been due to pollution of the canoes and crews. Holding such a cere­mony might increase the chance of success in the current year. For this ritual, several pigs had to be contributed, enough to dis­tribute small portions to the entire Aoriki community.

Commencing the first week in April at least two of the four canoes went out each day, weather permitting. Schools were often sighted, but by the time the canoes reached them, they dispersed. By way of explanation, a school, or shoal, of skipjack bonito is an extraordinary phenomenon. One forms when a school of bait, clustered on the surface, is discovered by the bonito and also by several species of birds. If the bait holds, the school holds; if the bait dis­perses, the school collapses. Sometimes the school holds together only a few minutes, sometimes for hours. A fully developed school is a frenzy of predation: thousands of thrashing and leaping bonito and dozens of diving, swooping birds feeding on the bait; large groups of sharks closing in from the outside snapping at anything. The sea roils with fish, parts of fish and blood, true fishing birds plummet in for catches and dart out to contend with intimidations from the other species bent on robbing them. And there is the noise, a cacophonic blend of bird shrieks against the roar of a churning sea.

Each school of bonito has its own dis­tinctive markings and behavorial character­istics, which are reflections of the person­ality of the tutelary deity that controls it, Each school has its inaccessible home place in the sea where it comes from and retires to after feeding. Only the controlling deity brings his bonito school forth so the fisher­men can try to attract the treasured fish to their pearl shell lures. It is a game, but it is a very sacred game. (See cover drawing.)

After many days searching and trolling a single bonito was caught. At the canoe house from which the successful crew went nut, it was consumed, ritually, by the men who had sons awaiting initiation. In this way, the meal was dedicated to the tute­laries of those men, for at every ritual meal it is assumed a man’s tutelary is also pres­ent. There were individual, silent prayers for more bonito so the initiation could go forward.

During the month of April nine more bonito were caught: six on one day, two on another, one on still another. Two canoes were responsible for the nine landings. The deities were teasing the fishermen, yet it was encouraging compared with the season before.

As a bonito canoe returns to its passage and canoe house, the crew signals, first by a style of paddling, later by shouting, whether or not it has met with success and how much. If there is success word spreads immediately, and most people drop what they are doing to come to watch the land­ing. Men gather in front of the canoe houses, women view from other vantage points, for they are never permitted to come in front of the houses or close to the canoes. This is true of every successful bonito catch, but in the case of the initia­tion, a group equal to the number of fish caught is taken to the canoe houses for their ritual induction. The boy to receive the first initiation is usually the son of the most energetic sponsor who was also the first father to declare his support for an initiation at this time. Each boy is taken individually into one of the returning canoes and made to lie on his back amongst the fish in the bottom while clasping one fish, head up, to his chest. Women, standing on the adjacent beach and reef, wail and cry in protest to the taking of “their son” to the distant “places of the bonito.” They will not see the boy again for several months, because he will be isolated in the canoe house, and when he comes back to them he will no longer be a child. In a spiritual sense he will be a man.

While the initiate, as a fish actually, is paddled out to sea for the first time in the bonito canoe, his mother quickly roasts a yam. When the canoe returns to the canoe passage, the boy is fed a morsel of the staple in the canoe as a token meal in order to sustain him for the next and most crucial part of the initiation.

From the canoe the initiate is conducted to a platform, an altar, located to one side and in front of the canoe house, It is here that all bonito are first placed. The initiate’s father or another senior man carries the fish that the initiate clasped, cradled in both arms with the head to the left, from the canoe to another man who is standing by the platform. The latter is one who has hereditary powers to perform the most mystical part of the ritual. In this context he is a sacred person and treated with ap­propriate deference and respect, although in ordinary life he is an ordinary person. The transformation ritual may take nine of several forms: a few drops of blood from the bonito’s mouth are dropped into the initiate’s mouth, parts of the initiate’s body are touched with the snout of the fish, or the initiate may be simply annointed with salt­water taken from inside the canoe, which is mixed with the blood of caught fish. In each case, however, an appropriate spell must he spoken by the ritualist as he performs the act.

In 1966 the youngest boys were made to turn their backs to the ritualist and he touched each cheek, shoulder, arm, side of the body, hip, thigh and knee. Older boys received drops of blood in their mouths. It was felt that the effects of the latter are so potent that younger boys might not have the stamina to recover from them. Immedi­ately after receiving the mystical essence from the bonito (made potent by the ritual­ist’s spell] each initiate is assisted, as though he were so weakened he could not walk, to a prepared bed in the canoe house. Attendants see to it that those who were merely touched by the bonito remain abso­lutely still for several hours; those receiv­ing the blood had to remain quiet for much longer. To move around immediately after the ritual would he to prevent the body from recovering from the shock it received. It might even endanger the initiate’s life. The initiates now must remain in isolation from all women and the environs of the dwelling area for months and until prepa­rations have been completed for a major celebration which marks their return to their households and normal village life.

The period of isolation is seen as being analagous to an extended period of recup­eration, hut there is an explicit avoidance of any practices or foods associated with a woman’s recuperation from childbirth. For the first few days initiates are fed only liquids and soft foods, mainly water and grated meat from coconuts. There is a parallel here, too, with the first days of life duriag which the infant is fed only coconut not be seen by females, especially their heart and stomach regions, which are con­sidered to be in a critical and unstable con­dition following the initiation. If the initi­ates are conducted away from the canoe house for fishing or a diversion, they are given coconut fronds to carry, behind which they can hide, should a chance en­counter with females occur. In brief, the initiates are sealed off from all domestic life, from gardens, and even from ground (such as beneath coconut trees) where women congregate and work.

Even though there are constant attempts to amuse and entertain the initiates, the weeks and months of isolation are very bor­ing. Some cry for their mothers, and a few never stop trying to escape back to the familiar comforts of their households. Therefore, they are never left to themselves and are under constant surveillance. There is also an attempt to keep them amused by talking about the excitement and dangers of bonito fishing and going on trading voy­ages, myths and folktales are told, but there is no organized attempt to impart either special knowledge or moral precepts. Mostly, the older men who watch over the youngsters merely try to entertain them and ward off homesickness. One special regime only is followed: at night the boys are grouped around a hearth in which the fire is kept burning brightly enough to make their shadows dance on the walls of the canoe house. The initiates are urged to gaze into the flame, which is believed to strengthen their eyes and sharpen their night vision.

In 1966 the weeks of isolation dragged on for the nine initiates, while six more young­sters were waiting in the village for bonito to be caught for their initiations. However, the daily searches for fish were fruitless. In the middle of June it became clear that the strong southeast winds had returned and the bonito season was over. Steps were taKen to close the initiation and to move ahead with the remaining observances.

The initiation phase of the rite closes with a formal settling of accounts (pagopago). The recipients in the settlement are six: the ritualist who performed the rite of transformation, the three crewmen of a canoe that caught fish, the custodian or owner of the canoe, and the tutelary deity of the custodian and canoe. The principal contributors are the organizer of initiation, the fathers of the initiates who received fish from the successful canoes and male kin and friends of each of the fathers who wished to help.

At the canoe house where the initiates were isolated the successful canoes were brought outside and placed before the plat­form altar, Three removable thwarts were placed on a mat on the ground alongside. The entire male population of Aoriki was assembled to witness the transaction. The name of one of the canoes which caught bonito was called out, and all those making contributions dropped coins, fruit bat or dogs’ teeth currencies, or tobacco at loca­tions designated for the six recipients: on the altar for the ritualist, on the three thwarts for the crewmen, on the canoe at the stern for the custodian of the canoe, on the bow of the canoe for the tutelary. There is a distinction between those contributions made outside the canoe, which the recipi­ents may use in any way they wish, and those made on or inside the canoe which, as all things associated with the canoe, are sacred and cannot leave the sacred pre­cincts of the canoe house, that is, can be used only for sacred purposes.

The payment was repeated after the name of the second successful canoe was called. No recognition was made of the two canoes that did not provide fish. Their custodians and crews were suffering mild humiliation at not being able to catch any water until the mother’s milk is flowing. Spells must be spoken over these first feed­ings. “My coconut. Porokera (a tutelary deity) I grate it for your initiate.” “Make the body of your initiate grow large. stay healthy and gain lightness (agility).”

Before each initiate received his trans­forming ritual special preparations had been made for the period of isolation to fol­low. Each had a fine new sleeping mat, new baskets to hold food, a special pointed stick used to husk coconuts and a scraper for the meat, both of which are handed down from one initiate to another. Coco­nuts picked for the initiates’ consumption must be lowered down on lines, not dropped as is usual, so they never touch the ground.

At the initiates’ dwellings all food pre­pared for them is cooked separately, on dif­ferent hearths which are raised above the ground. Fire cannot be carried over from the domestic hearth to that for the initiates. Only a hard wood, used for adze handles and other men’s tools is to he used as fire­wood. Never may a woman light her smok­ing pipe from the initiate’s hearths. Most important of all, however, initiates must fish. Following the second round of pay­ments, the entire group sat down to a meal in front of the canoe house, (food supplied from the households of the sponsors) but not before sponsors and leading man hon­ored the deities present by first tasting their food at the place of honor of the canoe house, the front center kingpost, where offerings of betel and morsels of food had been hung.

Late in July another ritual was called, the “disposal of coconut husks” (slid rai gawona niu). This consisted of a community-wide celebration around the disposal of the ac­cumulated refuse left over from the initi­ates’ food. Since emphasis is placed upon consuming coconuts [which have a growth cycle that is likened to that of humans), all refuse from initiates’ food is referred to as “coconut husks,” of which there is an abundance. Food introduced and consumed at a canoe house becomes sacralized, and in the process it is moved in a defined se­quence across ritual spaces. Initially, all foodstuffs [bonito most of all are placed on the outside altar [raitau]. It is from here, too, that prepared foods are distributed to those eating in the vicinity. Unprocessed food is moved from the raitau to the front central kingpost (as mentioned before), the honored location for the deities. For exam­ple, all bonito must be hung by their tails from the post before cleaning and cooking. The ground directly below, where the bonito blood drips, is an especially hal­lowed spot on which no one may sit or stand, hut over which offerings to deities must be made. Prior to cooking in an earth oven in the canoe house, fish are cleaned and other food is prepared on an enclosed space just inside the left front of the house (raterate). This is the refuse accumulating area, where nothing can be disturbed or re­moved without attendant ritual, It is the cleaning out of the initiates’ refuse from the reiterate that is the concern of the “disposal of coconut husks.” All matter removed from the raterate must be taken to sea where it will not be disturbed by rats and dogs nor encountered by uninitiated boys and women.

The community feast accompanying the ritual of disposing coconut husks is entirely secular. It is a recognition of the secular efforts that the entire community has ex­pended on behalf of the initiation. In 1966 seven pigs were contributed by the fathers of the initiates which along with lavish por­tions of festive puddings were distributed to everyone, household by household, and to many guests who had come from neigh­boring communities. Each major contribu­tion of pork and prepared puddings [cooked staples mashed with coconut oil or canarium almonds) to the feast made by the father of one of the initiates was made up partly from his awn resources and partly from contributions of supporters. However, each contribution of a supporter is either a return for a similar favor done in the past or is a gesture that must be reciprocated in the future. Thus, feasts involve hundreds or debits and credits from the past and pro­jected into the future, the most minute details of which are indelibly remembered.

At the canoe house, a special distribution of food from one large container, filled with pudding and topped over with pork, was made to each initiate, his father and close male relatives. But the hulk of food was consumed by recipients at their own house­holds, and visitors carried away most of what they received in order to further re­distribute to others who did not attend.

At this juncture a decision had to be made as to whether or not preparations should commence for the return of the initiates to the community as soon as pos­sible or to wait until the following year after the harvest of new gardens which were about to be planted. The problem is an economic and social one and is not related to the condition of the initiates who, by now, are considered to be recovered from their ritual change.

The celebration around the initiates’ re­turn to secular Iife is linked with the har­vest of yams which by late July has been completed. IF the harvest has been good (but Aoriki never has a great one) the fes­tivities are memorable; if the harvest has been poor, the celebration is commensurate. That is the economic factor. The social factor is due to the fact that the man who pledged to organize the entire rite is under competitive pressure to produce a spectacle that will be a delight to all, If he succeeds he will be praised; if he fails, he will be ridiculed. If he goes ahead in the face of a bad harvest, he is expected to purchase what can’t be obtained locally, and that is a very praiseworthy effort. If he cannot call up the resources to put on a great display, he will he accused of assuming a respon­sibility he could not fulfill.

In 1906 the harvest had been only moder­ately good, hut it was decided to go ahead with the grand finale. Women immediately began to assemble at designated garden shelters all of the yams that were not needed as seed for the next year’s gardens. The sponsoring men went to work assem­bling other staples and necessities for a feast which would honor all the women of Aoriki for their hard work in the gardens and their support of the initiation effort, Many of the men visited other communities to purchase what was needed: betel nuts, coconuts and various kinds of staples other than yams. On July 22nd every household prepared feast foods while all the men fished. No pork is served at this celebration. On the next day women in relays carried baskets of yarns down to the village. Groups, led by single women, followed by younger girls and married women, sang and danced all the way hack to the outskirts of the village where each called out the quantity of yams she carried. With each call, someone in the village answered with a loud cry of affirma­tion. All the yams were collected at the houses of the sponsors, and a very careful accounting of the number from each donor was kept. In all, 1,060 were delivered (as compared with 2,140 in 1964).

With the delivery complete the women gathered in one part of the village to be served their feast by the men. The first and largest portions of soup, puddings, fish, and betel, went to the oldest married women, each of whom was presented her food indi­vidually. Next to receive were all other married women, and they too received indi­vidual presentations. Single women were served in groups. Children were fed from their mothers’ food: men officially did not receive anything, although they snacked out of sight in kitchens.

Work for the final ceremony falls exclu­sively on men, allowing the women to turn their attentions to new gardens. The task is to build a high platform which will be a stage for the initiates to mount and show themselves to everyone at their return from isolation. However, the platform (qea) and most observations connected with their re­turn are subject to much creative elabora­tion. In fact, each ceremony at the platform is supposed to be memorable for its novelty and cleverness.

As basic materials for the platform were cut and brought back to the village, one man had a dream, inspired by a tutuelary, named Wakio Ni Toro, Fishhawk of the Promontory. This was not his own tutelary, but two other men who were the clients of Wakio Ni Toro did receive favorable com­munications from the deity to be honored, so the idea was accepted. The bird’s body—the platform—about ten feet square and fifteen feet high, was supported by seven posts. Leading upward on two sides were constructed ascending and descending ramps, fashioned as wings. At the front a bird’s head was made of leaf panels, and at the back a tail was also constructed.

Convention, however, dictated that the posts of the platform be decorated by a dis­play of all the yams that were brought to the village, each hung individually. In addi­tion thousands of canarium almonds, an­other highly valued crop, were also used.

Almonds were hung by skewering each nut and clustering the skewers into bunches. In 1966 it was a difficult job to cover adequately the structure with the yarns and nuts available. As a last desperate measure sixty more yams were found to add to the inadequate number. When the decoration was finished, however,the sub­structure had been sufficiently covered, but only just. A number of sprouted cdconuts were finally placed on the ground. Thus, the covering of the structure represented the three ingredients for the best of feast puddings: mashed yam, crushed canarium, and coconut oil.

Other men had been busy carving sculp­tures with mythical relevance which were placed at the bottom of the ascending ramp. Still others fashioned snakes out of lianas, one of which was draped through the beak of the theme bird, to signify that tutelary deities are associated with the land too. Also, a young man painted a sign to put near the bird’s head: Manu ni Toro, “Bird of the Promontory.” This was a slight change of the proper name of the deity for whom it was named, but the precise proper name of a deity should not be proclaimed in public. The change from Fish Hawk of the Promontory to Bird of the Promontary was quite appropriate. Lastly, two fishing poles, one rigged to overhang the front and one to project over the tail, were rigged. Hung on the fish line of each was a bunch of areca palm nut, one ingredient for the narcotic chewed by everyone and called betel. Betel nut is a conventional sign of a feast, because it is given out following the distribution of food (chewing betel always follows eating). Here, the hanging of betel nut from the fishing poles was doubly appropriate, as a sign of a feast and as trolling lines that are streamed from bonito canoes. These bunches of betel nut will become the foci of the conclusion of the ceremony.

For each initiate new breech clouts of red cloth, fiber arm bands, and combs with red fiber streamers, were made by men. The comb and arm bands are the distinctive badges of initiates. Women who were the most skilled at plaiting made special bags for the initiates to carry, and each father put together, from his own hoard and by borrowing, as many heirloom shell orna­ments as he could. For each initiate, too, a thin board, about a foot long, was cut and incised to resemble the bow of a bonito canoe. Attached to the board is a leaf pouch filled with small tidbits—gum, candy, al­monds and such. The initiate will carry this board to shield his stomach and heart as he re-enters the village and will give it away as a present later.

As preparations were near completion, September 8th was designated as the cere­monial day. Rituals were performed to insure good weather. On the 6th and 7th mountains of pudding were prepared, and on the morning of the event eleven pigs were tied to the supporting posts of the platform. Atop the platform, piles of small gifts, such as almonds, tobacco and betel nuts, were assembled at designated places for each initiate. The ideal plan is to sta­tion each initiate at a place directly above a post covered with yams coming from his father and to which a pig contributed on his behalf is lied. Lastly, several sponsors tied clusters of yams to uprights reaching above the platform top as special offerings to their tutelaries.

At the canoe house each initiate was coiffed and dressed in the finery assembled for him. It was decided that two of the boys who were still waiting for bonito would join the re-entry procession; they would receive the actual bonito ritual sometime later. Hence, there were eleven initiates to participate in the re-entry instead of the nine who had actually been initiated.

For an opening of the ceremony, two men, armed and dressed for fighting, rushed to the platform brandishing their weapons and shouting threats. These men were van­guards who were driving away any “wild” or enemy deities who, from jealousy and malice, might be there to attack and injure the initiates. As this pantomime was going on, the initiates were being lined up for a processional return. In the lead was a senior man who signalled every movement made by the initiates by rattling a spatula against a gourd, the container for lime, an ingredi­ent for betel. The line of initiates made its way to the platform gradually. Progress was made by slowly placing the heel of one foot to the toes of the other; by pivoting on the heels, then on the toes; or by slow, small steps in the prints of the person ahead.

Along the path women began to shout salutations: the names of localities where the bonito schools reside, names of the many species and varieties of bonito, names of the birds that fish the bonito schools, poetic allusions to the returning initiates: “A boat is coming, full of men. Who knows about that boat?” “When is that big seabird going to alight with all its children?”

Finally, as the initiates neared the as­cending ramp of the platform, the women shouted compliments to the men who con­structed it, Only my brother-in-law could build such a platform; he has many tools and skills to work with,” “An important man is coming to kill those pigs.”

The initiates went up the ramp quickly and each took his assigned position. As the boys looked down from the platform, a roar of approval went up. The entire commu­nity, thronged below, shouted up at them to throw down their gifts. The initiates obliged, and the crowd scrambled to re­trieve the prizes. The excitement died quickly, and the initiates were directed to descend the opposite ramp which ended at the entrance of a dwelling. At the bottom of the ramp the ritualist, who performed the transformation ritual, was waiting with another spell: “Be like the osprey, be like the fish hawk, be beautiful, be agile.” He completed the spell by spewing the initiates with a mouthful of spittle.

The initiates were conducted, in pairs, inside the house where two older women waited. Another ritualist had just uttered a spell over their breasts, and each initiate was made to put his lips to one of the women’s nipples. Lastly, all the initiates were lined up outside where the bonito ritualists uttered a final spell, and blew heavily on each boy’s neck and back. This spell was to remove all restrictions and sacredness from the initiates. Immediately, the initiates were offered pudding which they sampled, and they went off from house to house to be given more bits of pudding. Finally they were served a large meal con­taining all the foods that had been for­bidden during their isolation.

As the initiates were making their rounds of the houses, men had killed the pigs and were butchering them for cooking during the night. And as the earth ovens were being fired the initiates were individually put through one last ritual, a mock marriage.

For each initiate a girl his age had been selected as a “bride,” to whom he was unobtrusively taken by an older woman, not his mother, in order to present the board with the pouch of presents as a wed­ding gift. The girl reciprocated with a token gift, such as a coin. She also took his comb with red streamers and broke it. That would be kept as a souvenir. The girl was instructed to get up and step across the boy’s outstretched legs, a gesture of in­timacy permitted only to husband and wife.

Next morning, as people arose and went to the lavatory areas of the beach they found the boards that were presented to the girls as wedding gifts hanging from trees. This signified that some girl had had an “affair” there the night before, and had left behind evidence of the present given to her by her lover.

The mock marriage is explained in this way: years ago the initiation ceremony was performed on young men who were physi­cally ready to commence bonito fishing. They were also sexually mature, and fol­lowing the initiation, they were permitted to have affairs, even urged to think about marriage, Over the past few generations the age of the initiates has gotten younger and younger, but the mock marriage has re­mained in the celebration. It was during this change, too, that the custom of build­ing a platform was introduced from another island. Before that, the re-entry of the initi­ates into village life was marked by only a processional dance from the canoe house to the dwelling area.

The following morning, the 9th of Sep­tember, before the cooked pork was readied for redistribution, the men who had at­tached special yam offerings to their tute­laries on uprights atop the platform, retrieved the tubers and hastily prepared a plain soup dish from the staples. Together, they held a simple votive meal around the platform. Most of the initiates, still dressed in their new loin cloths, watched but did not participate.

During the morning all the cooked pork from the eleven pigs and the great quan­tities of pudding which had been prepared several days before were assembled at the organizer’s house. Large, valuable cuts were set aside first for each person who had con­tributed work or wealth, the size reflecting the relative value of the contribution. Trim­mings and special morsels were set aside for the initiates. The rest of the pork and pudding was divided into equal portions, one for each household in the community.

Eventually, all yams and canarium al­monds used to decorate the platform would be retrieved and divided evenly among every household. Each household would re­tain a token portion, and pass the rest on to others, so that everyone who contributed got back an appropriate fraction of what had been originally contributed.

After all the distributions were com­pleted, most of the community drifted back to the platform in the late afternoon to watch the final episode. Two matters had to be concluded: acknowledgment that out­standing obligations had been satisfied and the determination of who would be respon­sible for the next initiation. Recall the two fishing lines with bunches of areca nut hanging from them: the forward bunch invites the organizer of the last initiation to take the lure and state his mind about the continuity from his initiation to the present one; the after bunch invites any senior man to accept the responsibility to carry the tradition onward and organize the next.

After several speeches which reviewed the major events of the current celebration, the organizer of the 1964 rite stepped up holding two small poles he had been work­ing on during the introductory formalities. One was shorter than the other. As he spoke, it was clear that he was agitated. “Do you see these stud poles which I am making for my son’s new house? Do you see that one is shorter than the other? My initiation was like the long one: this initi­ation is like the short one!” He retired with­out seizing the areca. The crowd was hushed. A debate ensued as to why it was that the 1966 initiation was smaller in every respect than the one of two years ago. However, everyone knew that there was a long-standing grudge between the two organizers, and that this carried over into many relations between the supporters of each who lived in different quarters of the village. Everyone also realized that nothing could be done about it, and the cur­rent aggravation was just one more episode in their hostile competition with each other. The matter was resolved, for the moment, when a man stepped up and seized the betel that pledged him to organize the next initiation. However, no one was greatly surprised that the person making the pledge was a supporter of the 1964 organizer, thus the rivalry would continue.

Later, it was revealed that at the begin­ning of the initiation, as some of the initi­ates were undergoing their transformation ritual, another challenge had been made, The father of an initiate and a supporter of the 1964 organizer presented the bonito with which his son had been initiated to another man, whose son was waiting to be initiated, and who was a supporter of the present organizer. This act signalled a competition between the two fathers to see who would contribute the more to the observance. As it turned out the man to whom the bonito was given did not get his son initiated, because no fish was caught for him. Nevertheless, it was incumbent upon him, at the next initiation, to equal or better his challenger’s contributions. This kind of competitive rivalry is basic to the society. It is also a factor that helps the continuation of such social observances as the initiation.

The Aoriki initiation would be incom­prehensible without some knowledge of the relationship between the tutelary deities and humans. It is the tutelaries who control the destinies of men by releasing and hold­ing back forces that control success and failure. However, there is another class of deities that are considered “wild,” that is, they are unattached and have no clients. They seek to interrupt good relations be­tween established tutelaries and their clients. These deities and some super-naturals are represented as sharks, the greatest of all the marine predators. All of this belief is readily explained and acknowledged by every traditionally devout Aorikian.

However, ask a very knowledgeable Aorikian, “What does this all have to do with shoals of bonito and the initiation of young males?” Those that I have queried in this way frankly confess they don’t know exactly: that is just the way it is! So, if we wish to bring the bonito and the initia­tion into closer relationship, we must make some guesses on our own.

An analogy seems to have been made between the human community and the shoal of bonito. Both respond to the powers and attractions provided by the tutelaries. The bonito (and some birds] come together in response to the schooling of bait, other­wise they reside quietly out of sight. Humans come together for collective work in response to religious goals, The predation in the animal world is like social direction and success in the human social world. Bonito (and the fishing birds) are similar to humans, and they are greatly admired be­cause of the seeming ease by which they attack their prey. Sharks around the fringe of the bonito shoal are like the “wild” deities: they move in to disrupt and destroy the relationship between bonito and birds on the one hand and the bait on the other, In the human scene, the “wild” deities seek to destroy the good relationships between tutelaries and clients. Recall the episode in the re-entry phase of the celebration when the armed fighters rushed up to the plat­form to clear it of wild spirits who might harm the initiates.

If this analogy fits, then it may be further suggested that one of the unstated purposes of the initiation and the attendant celebra­tion is to acknowledge this mystical parallel between the human and animal realms, and by identifying men with bonito it binds together the supernatural forces that ener­gize both systems.

Cite This Article

Davenport, William H.. "Male Initiation in Aoriki." Expedition Magazine 23, no. 2 (January, 1981): -. Accessed February 28, 2024. https://www.penn.museum/sites/expedition/male-initiation-in-aoriki/


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