An Annual Renewal Rite in the Eastern Solomon Islands

By: William H. Davenport

Originally Published in 1996

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Each year on the small island of Santa Catalina (locally called Aorilei) in the eastern Solomon Islands, a religious ceremony called Wogosia is observed sometime in June or July. Wogosia literally means “The Worship” and it is, as tbe name would suggest, tbe biggest religious observance that this community of 350 persons celebrates. I call the Wogosia a “renewal rite” because it recognizes the beginning of a new year, but it also includes the last of a series of smaller first fruit ceremonies held during the year as various important species of trees and tubers, sucb as the Malay apple, tbe Tabitian chestnut, the Indian and canarium almonds, and the common Dioscorea yam, commence bearing. 

The main purpose of Wogosia, however, is to petition a certain class of supernatural entities, called the Supernatural of the Inhabited Land (Ataro si Fenua), for security from invasion, social harmony, good health, abundant food, and general pros­perity during the coming year. In 1964 and again in 1966, 1 was privileged to observe and participate in the Wogosia observance on Santa Catalina Island (Figs. 1, 2), and this is the first report of it I have written.

To a European observer, one of the most com­pelling aspects of the religious event called Wogosia is that it is a community performance or enter­tainment in several episodes, performed primarily for and with unseen supernatural entities which are physi­cally present and, in a sense, participating right along with the human celebrants. These Supernaturals of the Inhabited Land can never be perceived directly by human senses, but their existence is assumed because it is also believed that no life, including human life, would exist were it not for some kind of supernatural life-giving and life-sustaining forces. These supernatural forces that underlie life—sometimes understood as impersonal energy, sometimes as sensible beings—are responsive to human entreaties. In short, the celebration of Wogosia is concerned with the mystical qualities of life and their continuity.

At the turn of this century, before European and Asian diseases had decimated many Solomon Islands populations and before Christian teaching had met with much success, Wogosia was celebrated throughout a part of the eastern Solomons, namely San Cristobal Island and the smaller islands, Santa Ana (locally, Oaraha), Santa Catalina, and possibly others. There was considerable variation among the traditional cultures of the eastern Solomons, where dialects of five languages were, and still are, spoken. Yet, Wogosia transcended these local cultural and linguistic differences and appears to have been celebrated, in some form or anoth­er, by all societies in the area. Since the end of World War II, however, the people of Santa Catalina Island, including the few Christians among them, have been the only ones to continue the Wogosia tradition, which they do with sincerity, enthusiasm, and pride.

In earlier times one of the notable features of the Wogosia was that it was a moving or progressive cel­ebration. The ceremony commenced in the community of Haununu on the south coast of San Cristobal Island from where it traveled to other communities in the east­ern Solomons, each some distance removed, in a gener­ally easterly direction. Traditionally, Santa Catalina Island received Wogosia from Makorukorn, a communi­ty (no longer extant) located on the southeastern coast of San Cristobal. After its celebration on Santa Catalina Island, the rite was, and still is, passed on to nearby Santa Ana Island, even though the latter no longer cele­brates Wogosia. The observances on Santa Catalina and Santa Ana Islands were the final ones in the annual cycle. On Santa Catalina Island itself this west-to-east movement is still an important directional aspect of the celebration.

Given the fact that one segment of the rite is devoted to cleansing and purifying the population and the dwelling areas, Wogosia in its former geographic entirety was a ritualized, eastward-moving sweeping-up, so to speak, of the whole region. It was as if all the accu­mulated pollution and contamination of the previous year were being swept into the vast emptiness of the south Pacific Ocean. East is also the direction of the ris­ing sun and, metaphorically, of birth and renewal.

The underlying myth of the Santa Catalina Wogosia is that when the island was physically formed (for which there is no detailed description or mythical explanation), it was totally barren, incapable of support­ing life of any kind. But then the Supernaturals of the Inhabited Land transformed the bareness by endowing soils with fertility for gardens and orchards, infusing the dwelling areas with life-sustaining power for humans to live and reproduce, and stock­ing the fringing reefs and adja­cent ocean areas with an abundance of marine life. Humans were created else­where by separate and unrelat­ed supernatural processes, and in due course they came to dwell on Santa Catalina as they did on other islands in the region. Through Wogosia the life-giving and life-sustain­ing powers of land and sea on Santa Catalina are renewed each year by ritually cleansing the island and its populace of the accumulated contaminants that diminish and inhibit the forces of fecundity. So, this rite of renewal could also well be termed a rite of purification.

Another explicit theme in Wogosia is that of restoring communal amity. Still another purposive theme incorporated within the Wogosia on Santa Catalina is a first-fruit ritual for the canarium almond, which comes into bearing at just this time of year.

The lunar month in which Wogosia is celebrat­ed also has that name, and it usually begins around the middle of our month of May. At the beginning of the month, there is a prologue of sorts which, in effect, is an announcement to the honored supernaturals that prepa­rations for the main event are underway. The main Wogosia observance takes place two or three weeks later in one long day, beginning about midnight and continu­ing until the following evening.

The Wogosia supernatural are myriad in num­ber, and while they are assumed to be sentient, they are not seen as actual supernatural beings, gods, or deities. They are more like unseen mystical forces. Yet, a very few have personal names and are perceived as possessing very specific powers. Even when the few personal names are called out, it is assumed that the myriad as a whole is being invoked.

The main places of veneration are the sacred canoe houses (oft), especially one named Vaisigini, which are located on the beach at some distance from the dwelling areas, and several old walled cemeteries which are no longer used for burials. The Waisigini canoe house is the oldest of several, and it stands next to the main path which leads from the seashore inland through the orchards and into the main garden area located on the high ground at the center of the island. The Vaisigini path, as it is called, is the main portal for the island. It is also seen as more or less bisecting the island, each half being associated with one of the two matrilineal descent categories (called moieties by ethnolo­gists) into which the popula­tion of Santa Catalina is divided. These hereditary moi­eties are named Atawa and Amwea. Atawa persons are supposed to be oriented toward activities of the sea, Amwea persons, toward the land; appropriately, the main responsibility for the Wogosia is supposed to rest with the latter. It is a fact that all of the ritual leaders are Amwea men, but both moieties share equal­ly in providing  the labor and food for the celebration.

Vaisigini canoe house, the old walled cemeter­ies, and the main path leading to the agricultural heart of the island all signify the original settlement of humans on the island those who were able to live here only because the Supernaturals of the Inhabited Land made it possible for them to do so. Thus, the Wogosia also recognizes the pioneer forebears, whose names are not remembered now, but whose former existence is represented by the stone walled enclosures where they were interred.

Prologue to Wogosia

Some weeks before the main event the prologue takes place. An offering of either of two common species of reef fish (notable not because they are good to eat, but because they are always abundant) is burned at an altar in the Vaisigini canoe house. A new fire must be made for the burning. During the offering the man per­forming the ritual not only calls the deities’ attention to it, but also asks them to make fair weather and good fishing until Wogosia is completed. The interval between the initiating offering and the main celebration is called The Reef Fishing (Roroa). This offering is repeated at the other canoe houses, although these repe­titions are not considered to be required.

The fish for the offering and enough fish for a small ritual meal for men only are obtained the day before in a communal fish drive along the fringing reef. Following the offering, all men congregate at their respective canoe houses, and yam soup, prepared by the women in the dwellings, is delivered to the back entries. (Women are never permitted to enter a canoe house or pass along the beach in front of one.) First, a small offering of soup is made to the deities by pouring it on the hot coals in a sacred hearth, which has also been lighted with new fire. All offerings to the supernaturals must be burned or vaporized, in contrast to food for humans which is cooked, either steamed in earth ovens or roasted over coals.

Fish for the men are roasted on a secular hearth in each canoe house. Coconut cream, which is not suit­able for the deities, is then added to the yam soup, and the men squat down around a single pot in front of the canoe house and drink it. Following this ritual meal for both supernatural and men, all dip nets are brought from the dwellings to the canoe houses as another signal to the supernaturals that preparations for the main cele­bration are underway. At this time, too, the canoe houses, always sacred and hedged in with many restrictions, become even more tightly enveloped in an aura of restricted sanctity.

The main celebration, which should be held during the last phase of the moon of the Wogosia month, is still about ten days away. During this period there is a crescendo of preparatory activities and the fes­tive mood of the people heightens. The tone and mood of Wogosia is supposed to be happy, joyous, lightheart­ed. Men fish; coconuts are picked; firewood is gathered and stacked to dry; and women remove from storage the remnants of last year’s canarium almond harvest. The nuts are shelled and macerated for mixing into the spe­cial festive puddings. These are the usual preliminaries for any major feast at which special puddings are served. The puddings are served along with some form of ani­mal protein. At Wogosia only fish are consumed because pigs are thought to be like humans: residents that depend upon the fertility of the soil, and beneficiaries of the rite. Fish, on the other hand, are like fruits and tubers: they depend directly upon the forces of fertility.

On the last day before the Wogosia observances the special yam tubers, which are just ripening (ordinary staple yams have already matured), are dug up and brought down to the dwellings where they are cooked in earth ovens (Fig. 3). Late in the day the feast puddings will be made by mashing the cooked yam tubers with coconut cream and macerated canarium almonds.

During the day a deputation of boys is sent to the orchards to pick large amounts of areca nut and pep­per leaves, the two botanical ingredients for the stimu­lant/intoxicant called betel. Betel in this region consists of three basic ingredients: the nut of the areca palm (Areca catecbu), leaves of a pepper (Piper betel), and slaked lime. (In other regions, such as India, betel includes var­ious spices.) The areca nut and pepper leaf are chewed together (or mixed with a special mortar and pestle if the preparer has no teeth) into a quid, then lime is grad­ually added. The lime releases the active ingredients of the mixture (hence it is called an alkaloid) which are absorbed into the blood through the inner tissues of the mouth. During Wogosia more betel will be consumed than on any other day of the year.

Late in the afternoon, the leaders order two more important ritual preparations to be made. A group of young boys is directed to retrieve a collection of ten or so shell trumpets from their storage place at Waisigini, wash them, try them out (Fig. 4), and then place them on a stone platform near the canoe house. At the same time a group of about a dozen young women is sum­moned. A leader whispers a spell over a bush knife (Fig. 5) and hands it to one of the women who cuts a beater about three feet long out of the stem of a dead coconut frond. Each of the other women proceeds to make a pair of such beaters for herself. The finished beaters are also stacked neatly near Waisigini canoe house. The woman who was singled out first carries one beater to the beach and amidst shouts of encouragement throws it into the sea (Fig. 6). The beater will float back to shore in a short time, and this symbolizes the arrival of Wogosia rite (some say the deities themselves) from the island of San Cristobal. The beaters will be used in the opening episode of the rite. After sunset, the island goes to sleep early, or tries to, knowing the day of the Wogosia will be long and arduous, albeit exhilarating and just plain fun.

Episode One and First Intermission

In the middle of the night some young men quietly arise, go to where the shell trumpets were placed, remove the largest one, and take it to one of the ritual leaders who utters a spell over it. Meanwhile, other young men have awakened and are gathered at Vaisigini canoe house, each with one of the other shell trumpets. All of a sudden, the midnight silence is shat­tered as the group commences to play (Fig. 7). This is the signal that Wogosia has begun. The largest trumpet, with the deepest tone, blasts off with a short motif; the other trumpets answer. This call-and-answer refrain sig­nifies the actual presence of the Wogosia supernatu­rals—they are present, they are participating, and the notes of the trumpet choir are their evanescent manifes­tation.

A few people come to Vaisigini to watch, but most remain in their dwellings. Meanwhile, the young women have picked up their beaters and, kneeling with bowed heads, they form a silent line near the beach, fac­ing inland (Fig. 8). At a signal the line rushes forward beating the ground all around, through all the dwelling areas, up the connecting paths to the next village, and so throughout all the living spaces of the island. The choir of shell trumpets leisurely follows. As the beaters pass each house, smelly slop (representing pollution) and hot coals (representing last year’s fire) are tossed out on them. All the while, the choir of trumpets continues its call-and-answer motif, and the blowers also receive some of the filth and embers that are being hurled from the houses. If someone is ill, he or she is seated on the ground outside, so the beaters can flail the earth around the person. All the living areas of Santa Catalina are thus thrashed, as the movement, referred to as “up island,” continues in a generally easterly direction which the rite traditionally would have traversed from its start­ing point at Haununu.

The beating ends on a sandy beach above the last settlement, which normally is a women’s latrine area and deemed to be a suitable place for the filth and con­tamination to be driven out to sea. Here the young women throw their beaters into the water, seize the shell trumpets from the men, and rush out into the shallows, blowing the trumpets out across the strait that separates Santa Catalina from Santa Ana. This switch occurs without loss of a single note or beat. This is the end of episode one, the purification of the living areas.

In the dwellings all fires have been extin­guished, and new fires have been kindled. Some do this with matches, while others insist on making new fire with a traditional fire plough (from which “rubbing two sticks together” is derived). During the next few hours the entire population gradually drifts to a stretch of clean sandy beach way up island. Adults are dressed in their newest and best. They have brought snacks, car­ried in the ceremonial baskets saved from boys’ initia­tion ceremonies (see Davenport 1981), and drinking coconuts, because water is forbidden (it might cause rain). Young children carry toys appropriate to their gender—miniature shields and spears by boys, fancy baskets and plaited work by girls. Small fires are lit, chil­dren sing ditties sung only on this occasion, and gener­ous amounts of the materials for betel are handed around among the adults (Fig. 9). As the community waits for dawn, the atmosphere is gay, convivial, even hilarious. This is the first intermission.

Episode Two

Near dawn older men ready javelins, clubs, and shields they have brought for episode two, a mock inva­sion of the island. Spells are spoken into the weapons, into mixes of water and ashes or sand which are smeared on faces, into leaves which are tucked in the back of their belts (Fig. 10). The leaders divide the men evenly into two groups, one to move up the beach and play the invaders, the other to stay nearby and defend the inhab­ited portion of the island. A line is drawn in the sand to indicate where the close fighting should occur and sev­eral of the leaders take up positions by it as referees.

As the first light of dawn appears the invaders come into sight. They taunt, posture, and gesture. Out on the exposed reef representatives from each side move along as if they were scouting the situation. Inshore, in the shallow water, two groups of young boys begin to imitate their elders on the beach. Ally this evokes memo­ries of thirty years and more before, when the danger of attack from across the water was a real and constant threat. In the Wogosia, however, the mock invasion and defense is also supposed to be an opportunity for the participants to vent pent-up hostilities, to clear the mind of grudges. So, any fighter who does harbor a grudge against someone will try his best to get even now.

Gradually, the two forces engage, first by throwing their javelins, which are parried and thrown back with flourish (Fig. 11). In the shallow water the young boys, who closed their encounter first, tussle with each other. Ashore, the good fighters move warily, qui­etly, and efficiently, while the poor fighters rush around noisily and in all directions. There are whoops and yelps as fighters think they have scored or suffered a near miss. The referees watch the action carefully, but at a safe distance. (One of the referees was severely wounded several years before.) Finally, one young man falls (Fig. 12). He has not been wounded, however, but is uncon­scious—fainted from excitement and exhaustion. The referees step in and call the fight finished.

By the time the men have caught their wind, it is daylight. Some young women, wearing gardenias over their ears, have stretched a vine, high as they can hold it, where the fighting line had been drawn in the sand. All the assembled people, fighters and observers, pass under the vine, two by two or alternately, Amwea and Atawa. Obviously, this lighthearted ending of episode two signi­fies not only a successful defense of the island, but the establishment of harmony and unity between individuals and the moieties that should prevail during the remain­der of Wogosia. As with the first episode, women are the principals in the finale of the second episode.

Soon the trumpet choir starts up again at Waisigini, but with a different call-and-answer motif (one for night, another for day). Relays of players will keep the choir playing all day long, until Wogosia is over. This period is also a second intermission during which each household enjoys a sumptuous holiday meal and preparations for the final ritual episodes of Wogosia are made. After eating with their individual households, the young women who were conspicuous in the initial cleansing ritual and the amity ceremony leave for the main garden area. On the way, they drop the gardenias they had put over their ears at a special stone, as an indi­cation that their roles have changed, but they are still under the taboo against drinking water. They work leisurely all day cutting banana leaves, fringing them, and collecting small amounts of fine orange clay. Later, costumes will be made of these materials for use in the grand finale of the rite.

Two young men, one Amwea and one Atawa, go off to the orchards where they will climb in tandem up a straight canarium tree that has some early nuts. The nut-bearing branches are carefully, one might say respectfully, lowered to the ground, which is not the way the crop is normally harvested. These nuts will be added to special puddings that will be burned at the canoe houses as first-fruit offerings to the Wogosia supernaturals. This ritual will release the crop for pick­ing as it matures.

As the men look for a likely tree to climb, the young women gathering banana leaves, out of sight but within hearing, shout rude insults and sing bawdy songs that mock the young men. This kind of behavior would never be tolerated in normal social contexts.

Episode Three

Later, at Waisigini, men gather a short distance inland with weapons. The shell trumpet choir intensifies its call-and-answer refrain (Fig. 13), and the armed men attack each other as if an internal feud had erupted. This is the first scene of the third and final episode of Wogosia. In the course of the melee the feuders encounter the young women who are returning to the villages with banana leaves and clay, and they scatter them with ugly threats. All the women around take cover, which was the traditional way when fighting broke out within a village. There is another brief, vigor­ous encounter on the beach in front of Waisigini canoe house as more armed men join the mock fray (Fig. 14). Tempers begin to flare, and the ritual leaders stop the mock fight. To mark the end of this scene, the trumpet choir picks up the tempo and plays with great vigor and spirit, the players swinging their bodies and hips to the beat.

Meanwhile, in the privacy of a nearby women’s beach area, the young women who had gathered banana leaves and clay strip off their clothes, and older women smear them evenly with the clay and help them put on their banana leaf costumes (Fig. 15). These costumes are really disguises since they cover the head and face, as well as the body. The women are deliberately covering all parts of their bodies which might be recognized. Up until only a few years earlier, females of all ages wore virtually no clothing at all, so the covering of the entire body was a much more salient ritual reversal of normali­ty than it is nowadays when most woman wear skins most of the time.

While this exercised cacophony is developing, the young girls in their leaf disguises have assembled in a line a short distance away, facing the rear of the canoe house. Each young woman carries a pebble, and at a sig­nal they all pelt the leaders who have been calling out the various deities (Fig. 18). This is supposed to attract the attention of the supernatural away from the ritual leaders. On signal again, the young women break and run up island, shouting and screaming. The supernaturals are supposed to pursue them. The assembled crowd of observers follows, some running, some walking. Bringing up the rear is the trumpet choir, blasting with all its might, the players swinging their bodies to the beat. At the uppermost women’s latrine area again, the young women plunge into the shallow sea, throw off their banana leaf costumes, quickly wash the clay off their bodies, and put on cloth skins which are carried out to them by older women. Bringing the clay down from the garden areas and washing it off in the sea rep­resents ridding the garden areas of pollution, especially pollution that was introduced into the garden areas from the seashore areas. By the timed the trumpet choir has arrived, the young women have cleansed themselves and dressed. They rush ashore and seize the shell trumpets from the male players, and go back out into the shal­lows, without missing a beat. The young women blow the trumpets toward Santa Ana island which, in the warm fading light is clearly visible across the separating strait (Fig. 19).

Observers on the beach commence shouting things like “Go Wogosia, go off to Nafinuatogo [the former receiving village on Santa Ana], go to the Santa Cruz Islands [located a hundred miles further east], and take the sickness, the filth, and the pollution with you.”

Near sunset there is a noticeable increase in anticipation as everyone congregates near the Vaisigini canoe house. Suddenly, two of the ritual leaders rush into the canoe house from the beach, and two more mount a low wall outside the back of the sacred struc­ture. The two pairs begin to vigorously rap on the rear thatch wall with poles to attract the attention of the onlookers (Fig. 16). They start shouting, but not in uni­son, “Wogosia goes; Wogosia comes back; Miss Wild (referring to bonito fish); Miss Changing Octopus; The Ship’s Wake (referring to valuable flotsam); Mr. Fiber (as for making fishing lines and nets); Mr. Greens (food that restores health and vigor); Big Man Rapani (one of the few named supernaturals who looks after all fruit trees); Mr. Tuber (referring to all yams); Ten (indicating the garfish, a delicious eating fish which is counted by tens); Big Man Maupa (a named supernatural who is supposed to cause good weather for crops); Firewood (which is as necessary for preparing food as foodstuffs).” Again they shout, Wogosia goes, Wogosia comes back. Wogosia iaqara” (thought to come from an ancient lan­guage; the meaning is lost, hut suggests a magical spell) (Fig. 17). Other men jump up on a nearby wall, shout a few names, then jump down. The trumpet choir continues to play as loudly and vigorously as it can. Onlookers call out deity names or just shout.

With this, Wogosia is over.

Cite This Article

Davenport, William H.. "Wogosia." Expedition Magazine 38, no. 3 (November, 1996): -. Accessed April 12, 2024. https://www.penn.museum/sites/expedition/wogosia/

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