The Wayback Machine -
Kiribati Cultural Traditions


Traditional Culture

There was often a shortage of water in the southern Gilberts (Kiribati) - especially towards the end of the dry season. About October, Butaritari atoll in the north had a more conventional tropical climate, with 100-120 in. of rain a year, and Tarawa (the capital of the Republic of Kiribati), could usually count on 60-70 in., but at the southern end of the group, the average was less than 50 in.; on Beru atoll, it was 45 in., almost all of it between November and March.

From May to September the main sources of fresh water, apart from a few brackish wells, were squalls which from time to time came stalking over the east4ernh horizon, trailing great curtains of rain. When a squall was seen approaching, the islanders had other preoccupations. there was always great excitement - due partly to a natural awe (for the Gilbertese (I-Kiribati) a rain cloud, like everything else, had a life and purpose of its own), partly to speculation about which end of the lagoon it would cross and whether there was time to reach it before the rain passed. there would be a rush to load canoes with nuts, gourds, tins, clam shells and old sails to catch water in. Often a whole village would set off down the lagoon to intercept a squall, and then sail with it out to sea for as long as they could keep up. In the fastest canoes this might be for half an hour or more, and afterwards a long beat home against the Trades with their 'catch', when inevitably some would be spilled and some would be spoiled, but always a little would be saved to give some meaning to the day's endeavour. The Gilbertese rainclouds, though awesome, were nevertheless benign: they were messengers of the Gods, sent to catch up the souls of dying people and carry them to Paradise:

If a small sudden shower of rain came over a village, it was believed that a soul had just passed. The shower was called wa-n-te-mate, the canoe of the dead. If such a shower came when a man lay dying, and passed on leaving him still alive, the people beside him would say to each other, 'Ai Kawa-ra ngke e aki oa wa-na' (How unfortunate when he not catch his canoe). And if another cloud was expected to arrive soon, the sick man would be encouraged to release his ghost quickly, so that it might pass easily with the rain.

A concrete example of this happened in Tarawa, the capital of Kiribati, early in 1916, just after the completion of the gruesome office of hanging a murderer. As the people quitted the gallows chamber, a tiny shower passed over the building. One of the native officials, who had been particularly depressed by the distressing business, immediately recovered his spirits and said cheerfully, 'Akea te bai iai, ba e bon roko-raoi wa-na'. (It's quite all-right, for it certainly arrives-well his canoe).    

Bonesetting (From Tem M'aere of Marakei: sone of Ereata, son of Teruruai).

The art of bonesetting as practised by the Gilbertese is free from magic or ritual of any kind. The splints used for broken bones are made of coconut slithers and the strong outer skin of the babai stalk. Bandages are of babai bark cut to the same length as the splints. For injuries to the trunk a bed is made of the spathes of coconut blossom, stripped and flattened.

Diagnosis: If there is a burning sensation in the skin over the fracture, it is a pain caused by the flesh and the blood. If you feel an itching and smarting pain, it is caused by flesh and vein. If you feel maraki ae waewaerake (aching and throbbing) it is pain of bone and flesh. Before applying a splint the blood is always driven towards the fracture by three massages a day - just after sunrise, at noon and just before sunset. for complicated fractures, massage is applied about every two hours for the first three days, three times on the fourth day and after. For longstanding disability caused by an old imperfectly mended fracture, the patient is taken out into the lagoon and massaged there, floating in warm sea water. Gentle pressure is applied, sometimes for many weeks, to straighten the limb. the patient is taught to walk first in the sea and then gradually on shore. Splints are bound on to a fracture for three days. some fractures like splints, others do not. If a fracture is uncomfortable in splints you hold the fracture in place and press gently on the part which is painful. The splints are intended not so much to support the fractured bone as to relieve pain. At your first visit to a man with a fractured bone, you massage his stomach. The following is the usual timetable, regulated by the sun:

At sunrise: Massage of te iriko (flesh), te rara (blood), te ia (veins).
About 9 a.m.: Gentle rubbing along the limb, from each side in towards the fracture (te torotorobi).
At noon: Te tai ni kaokiri (the time to put back the bone). All the manipulation of the fractured bone is made at this hour.
About 3 p.m.: Te torotorobi again.
At sunset: Massage of flesh, blood and veins.
About 9 p.m.: Massage of flesh, blood and veins.
At midnight: Manipulation of bone.
About 3 a.m.: Massage of flesh, blood and veins.

This treatment lasts for three days. After the third day the healer visits at sunrise, noon, sunset and midnight, working on the bone at noon and midnight only, massaging at the other hours. On rainy days no massage is performed, in case of pain on those days, the healer exerts gentle pressure on the injured part to reduce the pain.

If the patient has had no motion for three days since injury, he is given a copious drink of boiled coconut toddy very hot with water. If constipation continues he is given molasses with hot water and cream of coconut flesh.

A cure for Riki-ni-biroto (distended stomach i.e. dyspepsia) from Nui, Ellice Islands (now Tuvalu). Choose a kiaou (triumfetta procumbena) creeper that grows a short distance from the house; it must have three branches. then go back to your house and draw a deep breath: run without breathing to the kiaou and pluck one of its branches. Hold this in the right hand and, still without breathing, run three times round the plant. You may then draw breath again and walk slowly back to the house with the branch you have picked. 

Pick a nut in the moi stage, before it has fallen from the tree. Grate the flesh and mix the gratings with the curd-like substance contained in the moi. Put the mixture into a kumete (wooden bowl) and pound it up with the stalk, leaves, flowers and seeds of the kiaou plant, until it makes a soft mach. Turn the mash out upon a piece of the fibrous material that grows at the base of the coconut leaf; wrap it up in this and wring it dry of juice into a coconut shell. Boil the juice in its shell, and let the patient drink it as hot as possible.

Drought for an expectant mother, who thinks that her child is moving too much in the uterus or that a fall or blow may have injured it. Ingrediest: Take one nut in the moi stage and two in the ura stage. (Te moi is the freshly fallen nut. At the ura stage the nut is ripe, and its flesh is brown throughout). Grate their flesh and mix it. Wring out the gratings in the fibrous 'cloth' of the coconut and allow the cream to drip into a wooden bowl. Heat the cream over a fire in half a coconut shell. Skim off and throw away the frothy scum which arises. After more heating, the coconut-oil appears. Remove from the fire at the point and mix with an equal quantity of water. The mixture is then re-heated and given to the patient to drink. Immediately afterwards, she must drink the water of as many coconuts as she can manage, and then eat their flesh.

Next day the physician gathers from the bush one handful each of tips of young kanawa shoots (cordia subcordata); flowers of the bingibing (thespesia procumbena). these are first pounded together and then 'wrung' of their juice into the water of five drinking coconuts. The mixture is given to the patient, to be finished at a single sitting. The treatment continues if necessary.

Feverishness (te kabuoki-te-mariri--the-burning-the-cold). All sweet-smelling trees are considered good by native practitioners, i.e. any part of a tree may be used for fever-medicine if it produces a sweet-smelling flower or leaf. The auri (ghettardo speciosa) and the ango (premna taitensis) are chiefly favoured, while the kianga-ni-makin (polypodium) and kaura (wedelia stringulosaa) are used when procurable. The bark, roots, flowers and tips of young branches are gathered, a handful of each. These are chopped up fine and boiled in a giant clam-shell with well water, one coconut shell full for each handful of ingredients. When it is cold, the patient both drinks it and washes his body with it.

Piecing the ears. The earlobes of a boy or girl are not pierced until the subject is twelve to fourteen years old. The operator is normally a member of the family, but this is not essential. The instrument used is a skewer-like piece of wood, called Kangeri (make-curl) because it is also used for teasing the hair into curls. It is generally made of pemphis-wood and so can be sharpened to a very fine, hard point. Each morning is the time for the operation. the operator sits facing the subject; as a pad to support the lobe of the ear, he uses the half of a nimoimoi, a very young coconut, just developed, and not more than an inch in diameter. He begins on the right ear. Holding he 'pad' in his left hand, he inserts it behind the lobe so that the latter lies on its flat surface and is turned towards him. then he pierces the flesh with the kangeri. Immediately withdrawing the instrument, he introduces a stalk of smooth grass into the puncture, and leaves it there. The same process is repeated on the left ear, the pad being held now in the right hand of the operator.

In the evening, the stalks of grass are removed, hot water being used to soften the clotted blood. When the grass has been taken out, it is replaced by slightly thicker stalks. On the following morning, exactly the same thing happens; and so on, morning and evening every day, the grass being thickened at each sitting. When the largest size of grass has been reached, the stalks of the leaves of the bingbing in ascending thickness are inserted; and when the limit of these is arrived at, young babai stalks are employed. this process gradually distends the lobe until in about three weeks' time the aperture will accept a stalk about as thick as the thumb. This is the size generally recognized as the normal standard by the Gilbertese.

By now the lobes of the patient's ears are probably sore and festering; healing methods are therefore used. Leaves of the mao are picked and their midribs removed; they are then rolled into cylinders of the requisite size, i.e. a thumb's thickness, heated at the fire and inserted in the apertures. Fomentations of hot water are continued morning and evening, when new rolls of mao leaf are inserted. When the outside edges of the wounds become clean, but still a little rawness remains within the ring, the cylinders of mao leaf are replaced by rolls of manibwebwe, which is he glossy sun-dried skin taken from the underside of a pandanus leaf. A week or so after this the ear will be healed. Those who wish to leave larger apertures can proceed from this point, further distension being effected by inserting articles of increasing size. The limit of size is normally considered to have been reached when the loop of the lobe can just be taken over the top of the ear. In this way it is carried when not in use.

No magico-religious rituals or beliefs appear to be connected with the piercing of earlobes. The old men of today, most of whom have this personal adornment, consider it simply as a practical means of beautifying the person. Any object which appeals to the aesthetic taste of the individual may be more in the aperture. On Butaritari (in 1933) an old man carrying in one lobe his pipe and in another a small red fish. Most generally seen as ear ornaments among the older people are rolls of golden-yellow pandanus leaf burnished with scented oil, and the sweet-smelling sheath of the pandanus bloom Rosettes and ornaments made of the pith (uto) of the scaevola shrub were commonly used in the past.


(a) Used in fishing

For stupefying fish in pools on the reef, the seed of a tree called baireati is used in the northern islands. One or two baireati trees grow in Butaritari and Little Makin, but the supply of seed is mainly obtained from the western beach of any island, where it is sometimes washed ashore in considerable numbers during the season of westerly gales. Its thick envelope of husk renders it capable of travelling great distances oversea. The baireati is conjecturally identified as Barringtonia butonica. The seed is taken out of the husk and grated on a rasp of cured sting-ray skin; the gratings are then scattered in the pool as desired. A very small quantity suffices to poison a large sheet of water; on a calm day, fragments allowed to sink into five-fathom water off the edge of a reef will stupefy fish in the near neighbourhood.

Another stupefying agent used in both the north and the south is the ntabanin, a small thin variety of sea-slug. The creature is taken alive and shredded on a grater, and the fragments are thrown into the water of a pool, where their effect is almost immediate. Some of the fish float in a comatose condition to the surface, others continue to swim lethargically below water; it is noticeable that the latter become quite blind, making no attempt to avoid any rocks that may stand in their way, or to escape the hand of the fisher. Fish stupefied with te baireati or te ntabanin are eaten with no further precaution than gutting before being cooked. 

(b) For homicidal purposes

Neither of these poisons appears ever to have been used against human beings, their respective smells being considered to convey too clear a warning of their presence; the Gilbert Islander uses that sensitive organ, his nose, to an extent undreamed of by Europeans. The buni, or trigger-fish (Tetradon), formerly provided the most effective human poison known to the Gilbertese (I-Kiribati). The flesh of the buni may be eaten with perfect safety (in these waters) if the gall-sac (ari), liver (ato), alimentary canals (ninika) and roe (bia) be first removed without rupture, but these parts, and above all the gall-sac, contain a virulent poison, which is swiftly absorbed by the flesh if rupture takes place before the fish be gutted. The usual trick of the native poisoner apparently was to spill the contents of the gall-sac into the abdominal cavity during the removal of the viscera. this was sufficient to secure the death of any who ate the flesh.

The symptoms of buni-poisoning are well known to the modern race, as accidental cases still occur from time to time. The sense of balance is first affected, the knees give way, the legs become paralysed and death quickly supervenes. The poison appears to be of a neurotoxic order. The native treatment is to administer copious draughts of sea-water as soon as possible, in order to induce vomiting.

Te bwatua, a little teleost fish of the order Plectognathi, probably the small fry of one of the globe-fish, was also used by the poisoner of old days, the viscera being ruptured and inserted into the abdominal cavity of any other fish being cooked for food-purposes. As described by an old man of Marakei, the symptoms produced in the victim seem to have been similar to those of buni-poisoning.

Te kaweana, a crab with a light carapace and very long legs was known and used on Banaba and in the Northern Gilberts. All parts of this creature are said to be poisonous. the meat was shredded and cooked inside the food intended for the victim. The symptoms are described as 'sleepiness, heaviness of the senses (te aawa) increasing quickly to extreme lethargy, and final unconsciousness followed by death'. No pain appears to have been caused by the poison.

A horrible method of killing was used in Butaritari, Little Makin, Marakei and perhaps other islands. A great number of cantharides beetles were first collected by the poisoner and 'wrung out' in a piece of ing (the fibrous material at the base of the coconut-leaf); the juice thus obtained was mixed with kamaimai, and the drink offered to the victim. the fluid secreted by the cantharides beetle being a powerful vesicatory, causes inflammation throughout the uro-genital tract. In some cases acute membraneous cystitis may occur, as many Europeans know to their cost after having drunk coconut-toddy into which a few cantharides beetles have accidentally fallen. The victim of a draught containing the juice of some hundreds of these creatures must have died a terrible, lingering death.

A poison rarely used, because seldom obtainable at the right moment, was the liver of a shark. Under normal conditions, this is perfectly safe food, but individuals of the blue-shark species are said by natives to have a liver of aberrant shape, one lobe of which is recurved like a hook; in this condition it is stated to be very poisonous. the symptoms are those of neurotoxaemia.


Ancestor Cult

Stone columns

All through the Gilberts, stone monoliths (boua) ranging from eighteen inches in height were erected to the various spiritual 'powers'. Generally thee powers were considered to be gods, and they were the gods of the fair-skinned race, for their names were Taburimai, Auriaria, Tituaabine and so on. On Bairiki, an islet of Tarawa, there was a stone which was considered to be the 'rabata' of the goddess Tituabine. This deity was the 'atua' (family ghost) of the Bairiki family group, which treated her as a guardian spirit, abstained from eating the flesh of her creature, the Stingray, and made offerings of coconuts and food at full-moon every month to her stone.

The stone was set in a small square of broken coral slabs. Beside it were strews the bones and skulls of other ancestors in the Bairiki family group. In October 1922 they included the following:

7 Skulls
5 Scapulae
1 Atlas
5 Humeri
5 Radii
2 Ulnae
1 Sacrum
56 Ribs
12 Phalanges
 1 Inferior Maxillary
 2 Superior Maxillaries
22 Vertebrae
1 Femur

These bones were anointed with oil when offerings were made to the stone around which they lay. The necessity to pay them reverence and to make offerings of food to them was recognized to be as pressing as the need to offer at Tituaabine's 'rabata' (body - here it seems to be something between a shrine and an oracle) - the real men. Teitirere of Marakei, an old man of over eighty, described the cult of his ancestor Teweia. the utu (family group) descended from Teweia had a stone, about half a man's height, set up as a post in the ground on the east side of the island. This stone was called the body of Teweia: nevertheless, it was not considered to be the actual atua or spiritual power, which was the ghost of Teweia, but it was the medium through which the ghost was approached, and was so inalienably connected with the ghost, that whosoever did it an insult caused pain to the spiritual power, and was liable to sudden death or illness. On top of the monolith were perched three lumps of red coral: each was about as big as two fists. these were said to be the head of Teweia. A flat stone was laid on the ground at the western side of the base of the monolith. On this stone were laid all offerings of food brought to the ghost.

On occasions of stress or danger, the senior member of the utu would signify that a general assembly (te toa) would be made at the stone for the purpose of offering gifts of food to the ghost and tataro or prayers for his help. On the appointed day, the utu would rise at cock-crow and gather by the stone before sunrise, squatting in a semicircle on its west side and facing east towards it. They brought with them food, whose first portions - and later also sticks of tobacco and a filled pipe - were laid on the flat offering-stone. then the utu would eat the remainder in silence. When the meal was done, the people put on their heads each a fillet made of a single pinnule from the crest of a coconut-tree, knotted in front. Then the senior male of the utu would squat before the stone and address to it, in his own words, the request which they had come to make. After this, the people dispersed, leaving the offerings on the stone of offering.

Also on Marakei was a stone bearing he name of Uaakeia, leader of the Beruan conquerors who had invaded and settled Marakei nine generations before. At this stone the utu descendants through the male and female line from Uaakeia made their tataro in time of need. The stone was broad and flat, being set in a recumbent position, not standing. Beneath it were buried the skulls of ancestors descended from Uaakeia, and also the skull of Uaakeia himself. Near the village of Temotu was a boua erected to Kaieti, another great fighter and voyager. In times of stress his descendants gathered to offer this prayer beside his stone at dawn:

Aora te amarake, Kaieti-o! Buoki-ra;
Our offering of food, Kaieti-o! Help us;
Tautau mauri-ra; toutoua nake te buaka;
Kee hold on our safety; tread away the war;
oro-ia, bakarere-ia itui matia;
strike them, pierce them, string their eyes together; *
ti aki bua ti aki taro; te mauri
we are not lost, we are not deserted; safety
ao te raoi, te mauri.
and peace; safety.

*As fish are strong together by the eyes to carry them home.

Tabakea the Ancestor

As a rule, each separate Gilbertese totem-group practised the cult of its own ancestral deities independently of all others; but in time of famine, a form of ritual meal in which all groups united, with the senior male of Karongoa-n-uea as the officiating priest, was practised at a stone pillar representing the body of a being named Tabakea, within a maneaba of particular style called Maunga-tabu. The being Tabake, upon whom the ritual to be described was centred, is associated with four totems: (1) A mythical beast called te kekenu, described as 'a lizard as big as two men' -no doubt a crocodile or alligator; (2) the common noddy; (3) a small tree called te ibi, which bears a scarlet almond-like fruit; (4) th3 turtle. Of these, the last is the most important, the name Tabakea itself meaning parrot-bill turtle. In a widespr4ead series of traditions Tabakea is represented as the Eldest of All Beings, the First of Things, and in all the tales which deal with the adventures and voyages of Auriaria, he appears as Auriaria's father. This doubtless explains why Auriaria's name is linked with Tabakea's in the formula which will presently be exhibited.

When famine threatened the community, the elder of Karongoa-n-uea would fix a day when food offerings and tataro (supplication) should be made to Tabakea; and a stone monolith six to nine feet high, representing the body of the god, would be erected for that purpose up against the Karongoa Sun-stone of the maneaba. The monolith was wreathed with coconut leaves by the acolyte group, Karongoa-raereke. Just before dawn on the appointed day, the community would enter the building, bringing with them offerings of food, and sit in their respective clan-places. Exactly at sunrise a watcher posted to observe the eastern horizon would call, 'E oti Taai (the sun appears)' and a portion of food would be laid by the elder of the Karongoa-n-uea before the stone of the god, to the accompaniment of the following tataro:

Ao-ra te amarake, ngkoe, Tabakea.
Ao-ra te amarake, ngkoe, Auriaria,
  Nei Tevenei, Riiki.
Tautaua mauri-ra, toutoua-nake te
  rongo, te baki, te mate.
Kakamauri-ia ataei aikai;
Karerekea kara-ra.
Taai-o, Namakaina-o!
Karerekea kara-ra!
Te mauri ma te raoi.
Our offering the food, thou, Tabakea.
Our offering the food, thou, Auriaria,
  Nei Tevenei, Riiki
Uphold our prosperity, tread away
  the drought, the hunger, the death.
Continue to prosper their children,
Continue to get our food.
Sun-o, Moon-o!
Continue to get our food!
Prosperity and peace.


During this ceremony, all present, whether of the clan of Karongoa or not, wore the fillet of coconut leaf known as 'the fillet of the sun' (buna-n taai). The formula having been recited three times, the fillets were put off, and the remaining food was eaten by the assemblage, which then dispersed. Tabakea in myth was the father of Na Areau as well as Auriaria, and throughout the Gilbert Islands he is closely associated with the origin of fire, There is also evidence to show that he was one of the gods of the aboriginal race - the dark-skinned people who were settled in the Gilberts before the fairer people from the West invaded them. 

Tabakea in myth was the father of Na Areau as well as Auriaria, and throughout the Gilbert Islands he is closely associated with the origin of fire. there is also evidence to show that he was one of the gods of the aboriginal race - the dark-skinned people who were settled in the Gilberts before the fairer people from the West invaded them. The invocation of Tabakea came nearer to the idea of a tribal cult than any other. It was resorted to on occasions of stress, disease or necessity, when not only a single utu, but a group of utu allied for political or warlike purposes, felt the approach of common danger.

The Kabubu first-fruits ritual

After the pandanus harvest which, in a normal season, occurs during September-October, it was formerly forbidden to partake of any product of the new crop until first-fruits had been offered up and ritual meal eaten at the boua of the ancestral deity of the totem-group. The clans of Karongoa, Ababou and Maerua made the offering to the Sun and Moon, but included the names of Auriaria and other ancestral deities in the dedicatory formula. Other social group offered the first-fruits direct to their ancestral deities. The boua of the Karongoa group on Marakei - now, most its kind, unhappily destroyed by Christian inconoclasts - was an upstanding monolith of coral rock hewn from the reef and planted in the ground to eastward of the village of Rawanaaui. As described by elders who, in pre-Christian days, actually performed the clan-rituals, it 'stood as high as a man's shoulder' and was about as 'broad and thick as a man'; it was, moreover, waisted like a man in the middle, though it seems to have had no definitely marked head. this monolith stood in the centre of a circle of flat stones set edgewise in the ground, so as to form a kerb about a hand's breadth high. The diameter of the circle was, according to the account, 'three or four paces'; its exact size was not, as it would seem, a matter of importance. The space within the circle was dressed with white shingle, and therein were buried the skulls of successive generations of clan elders, all males. The crania of the skulls remained uncovered by shingle, so that they might be anointed with oil on occasions when the cult of the ancestral deity was being observed. Care was taken to avoid burying any skulls due west of the boua, as this portion of the circle was reserved for food offerings.

For all everyday and overt purposes, including the normal cult of the ancestor, the boua represented the body of an ancestral being named Teweia. But for the particular and secret purpose of the first-fruits ritual, it represent4ed no longer Teweia, but the spirit Auriaria. Upon its crest were then perched three red coral blocks, each about the size of two fists, one on top of the other. This addition was known as the bara (hat) of Auriaria.

The date of the first-fruits offering was the second day of the next new moons after the pandanus harvest had been gathered.

The hour of the ritual was sunset, when both luminaries were seen together in the sky, the moon setting almost together with the sun.

The material of the offering was a ball of the sweet food called te korokoro made of boiled coconut toddy and that desiccated pandanus product called te kabubu. The kabubu used for the purpose was, of course, manufactured from the newly harvested crop.

The ball of korokoro was carried tot eh boua by the senior male of the Karongoa clan, all the other men and women of the group following him. The leader wore upon his head a fillet of coconut leaf. Arrived at the place of offering, the whole company assumed the sitting posture adopted by the performer of the fructification ritual; with backs to the sunset and faces to the stone. The leader took his place a little in advance of the others, right up against the kerb of the circular enclosure. Being seated in the ritual posture, he leaned forward and set the ball of korokoro at arm's length before him on the shingle near the base of the stone. Throwing back his head to gaze into the sky immediately above the boua, and laying his open hands palms upward on the ground by his knees, he intoned:

Kana-mi aei, Taai ma Namakaina,
Ba ana moan nati Nei Kaina-bongibong.
Auriaria, ma Nei Tewenei, ma Riiki, ma anti-n
rabaraba-ni karawa,
Kana-mi aei
Ba moan tabaa-n te bita-bongibong.
Te mauri ao te raoi. Te mauri naba Ngaira-o-o-o!
This is your food, Sun and Moon,
Even the first child of the Woman
Pandanus-in the twilight.
Auriaria and Nei Tewenei and Riiki, and spirits of the hidden places of heaven,
This is your food,
Even the first young bloom of the magic tree in the twilight.
Prosperity and peace. The prosperous indeed are we-o-o-o!

The formula was recited three times. Through the entire ritual that followed, the leader never for a moment ceased to look up into the sky above the stone. Leaning forward, he first groped for the ball of korokoro and, having taken it upon the palm of his left hand, returned to an upright posture. Still sitting, he plucked out with his right finger-tips a piece of the sticky ball and moulded it into a pellet, which he then laid on the shingle before the stone as 'the portion of the Sun and Moon and Auriaria'. This was called the taarika. The first portion having thus been given, the proceeded to mould a series of similar pellets, passing each one as it was made back over his right shoulder, where it was taken by the man behind him, and sent along the ranks of sitting people, until every member of the company had a portion. Absolute silence was observed until the bai-ia' ('There hands are all full'_. thereupon the leader made for himself a pellet of the food, and raised it in his right hand above his still upturned face, boua, and lifted their right arms in a similar attitude. Having allowed time enough for everyone to adopt this posture, the performer dropped the pellet into his mouth and swallowed it whole. The company followed suit. It was essential to the ritual that the bolus should not be bitten.

After a short pause with arm still uplifted, the leader, imitated by the whole assembly, dropped hand to side and turned his face to the ground. The 'looking downward' lasted for a few seconds only. Finally, the leader arose and, without special ceremony, placed whatever remained of the ball of korokoro up against the boua, beside the small taarika, for the remnant (nikira) was also the 'portion of the Sun, the Moon and Auriaria'. In a lesser degree also, this nikira belonged to the other ancestral spirits, Riiki, Nei Tewenei, Nei Tituaabine, together with the ghosts of those clan elders whose skulls were buried by the boua.

Before leaving the spot, the leader anointed with oil and crania of the buried skulls and, after he had performed this rite, any other member of the group might do likewise, choosing at the pleasure any or all of the skulls for anointment.

Fellowship of Skulls

The removal of the skull from the grave, mother, grandfather or grandmother was universal in the Gilberts. The skull was kept on a little mat specially woven for the occasion and was placed on a shelf in the house of the owner. It was considered liable to affront, and was therefore never put on the floor of the house, for fear that in standing above it, a member of the household might insult it with a view of his secret parts. Some households would every day lay a small portion of food on the shelf beside the skull: it was the duty of the closest or the most beloved relative of the deceased to eat this food on his behalf at the day's end. when tobacco was introduced, it became the custom in every island of the Group to allow the skull to share the household pipe. The skull was held between the palms before the face of the smoker, who inserted the bowl of the pipe into his own mouth and the stem into the jaws of the skull. He then blew down the bowl so that the smoke was driven back through the stem into the gaping jaws. While thus occupied he would address affectionate familiarities to the skull: 'E uara? E kangkang?' ('How is that? Is it tasty?') and so on. 

This sort of conversation was typical of all the relations of the household with the skull. It was a member of the family, as susceptible to offence or pleasure, and as alive to conversations and events beneath the roof, as any human being. It was their friend. while busy about the house a man might throw it an occasional remark as naturally as to his father or brother; or at any time of the day hemight take a little oil on his palm and rub it on the cranium of the skull, just as he would perform such an office with smiling yet deferential kindness for one of his living senior relations. When a particular need made itself felt in the household the help of the deceased ancestor was enlisted through the medium of the skull. The senior living descendant would anoint the cranium with scented oil, and wreaths of flowers would be hung about it. Food would be laid beside it as a karea or propitiatory offering and probably a pipe and a stick of tobacco would accompany the food. Just after noon the senior member would lift the skull from its shell and elevate it above his face between his palms: then drawing it close to his cheek he would whisper into its ear the special request that he wished to make on behalf of his people.

A whole utu might be gathered together in the maneaba to appeal for the ancestor's protection, or a single individual might go informally and without its ear whatever small request he had to make. Sometimes the ancestor would appear in a dream to one of the descendants and would tell him a form of words with which his ghost might be made to converse in whistling noises. The owner of such a charm would generally keep it needed by the household, he would consent to call on the ancestral ghost and ask it the desired question. The skull was the intermediary through which the ghost was called. Offerings were made to it by the ibonga or medium, and it was anointed by him with oil in the usual manner. Then he lifted it from its place and whispered into its ear:

O-o! N na wewete-ia Toaakai
O-o! I shall call him, Toaakai
mai aba-na, mai aba-na; e a roko, ba
from his land, from his land, he arrives, for
e a roko ni maneaba-ra aio, be a roko!
he arrives in our maneaba, here, for he arrives!

Soon the ghost would make his presence known by a gentle whistling under the ridge pole of the maneaba. It was the function of the ibonga to interpret the sounds made to the onlookers. The ghost would answer in this musical language all the questions put to him - the belief being that if an answer proved afterwards to be wrong, it was certainly the fault of the ibonga and not the ghost.

Sometimes this species of oracle became so famous for its infallibility that people of other households and utu came to consult it. They would bring propitiatory offerings of food and tobacco to the ibonga, who after giving the moan tiba (the first share) to the skull would keep the rest as payment. In this way an ancestral ghost would obtain prestige and reverence outside the circle of his own utu.

Te Binekua

There is an utu of Kuma on Butaritari which claims the power of Te Binekua - calling the porpoises. This utu belongs to Mone, the land under the sea. When a member dies, he does not go to the land of Bouru or Matang, to which other people go, but to Mone, his spiritual home. the magic connected with Te Binekua, as that concerning navigation, may be inherited by women as well as men. those who have the power can bring porpoises to shore at any season of the year. Having been asked by the High Chief to call a shoal, the 'caller' lies down in his hut with feet to westward and passes into a natural sleep. While he is asleep his spirit is said to quit his body and go westward to the islet of Bikaati, where it dives under the sea, straight down to the spiritual replica of Bikaati in Mone. Here live the porpoises. When the caller's spirit comes among them, they are men in the bodies of men, and wear men's clothing. They greet him kindly, and their King receives him as one of that utu. After feasting and talking with the people, he begs the King that some of them may accompany him ashore to the maie (game or dance). The King permits this, and those who will, arise from the assembly, go to a sandspit a little distance apart, and doff all their clothes. Immediately their garments fall from them they are transformed into porpoises. 

All set out together for the village of Kuma, the 'caller' leading them with dancing movements. When they are well on their way, the 'caller' leaves them and hurries back to his sleeping body. His eyes open, he awakes from sleep and says to the people who await him: 'Ea tau, a roko raomi, nako ni katauraoa te maie.' The whole village, both members and non-members of the utu, then goes and decks itself out with mats, garlands and scented oils, exactly as if a dance were toward. The whole company then repairs to the beach. While awaiting the porpoises it is strictly forbidden to talk or even think of food. The porpoises must be referred to as 'our friends', their visit is alluded to as a gathering to the 'dance'. If there is any mention of a killing, the porpoises will hear and turn away in fear.

The animals swim straight to the beach, the 'caller' standing knee deep in the shoal water to welcome them. He goes through the gesture of the dance and repeats the invitation of Te Binekua, then entreats 'his brothers' the porpoises to come and 'dance' ashore. When the creatures are in close, the whole population descends into the sea. Each one chooses a porpoise and standing beside it fondles it, then leads it ashore.

This is the legend first heard from Kitiona of Butaritari and . 'Whatever may be the truth of the caller's descent into Mone,' he continues, 'there is no doubt at all that if you ask one of this utu to call the porpoises, they can be made to arrive that very day.'


The Gilbertese (I-Kiribati) maneaba is the centre of communal life, the council chamber, the dance hall, the feasting place of the gathered totem groups comprising any local population. As such, it is sacrosanct; no brawling or dispute may take place under its roof, or upon the marae (open space) of which it is the centre; its supporting pillars may not be struck; and only games of a definitely religious or social significance (including above all the dance) may be played within its precincts. The building is susceptible of offence, and may not be spoken of in jest; he who offends it becomes maraia and liable to sudden death or sickness. It consists of an enormous thatched roof, whereof the eaves descend to within six feet or less of the ground, supported upon studs or monoliths of dressed coral rock. The largest of these buildings in existence (early 20th century), has an interior length of 120 ft. a breadth of 75 ft., and a height from floor to ridge-pole of 45 ft. There are three main types of maneaba: that called Tabiang, whereof the breadth if equal to about half the length; that called Tabontebike, or Te Tabanin which is four-square; and that called Maunga-tabu, whose breadth is to its length in the proportion of about 2.5. All have hipped or gabled, not conical, roofs.


Each totem-group has its hereditary boti (sitting-place) in the maneaba, and its peculiar functions or privileges in connection with the building of the edifice, or its maintenance, or the ceremonials which take place beneath its roof. To usurp the boti, privilege or function of another group is to become maraia.  Te Maunga-tabu maneaba is called by the Karongoa group 'the enclosure of the Sun and Moon', and the Sun is believed to take vengeance upon any who violate or offend its precincts. Supporting the roof-plate in the middle of the eastern side of this building is a stud named 'Sun', against which the people of Karongoa-n-uea (Karongoa-of-Kings) have their hereditary sitting place. Opposite the 'Sun', in the middle of the western side, is the stud named 'Moon', against which the clans of Ababou and Maerua are seated. Karongoa, Ababou and Marua have the Sun-totem in common and share the monopoly of the Sun-Moon fructification ritual. 

All ceremonial and all speech in the Maunga-tabu maneaba are subservient to the will of Karongoa-n-uea, as enunciated by the senior male of the group. this individual is called 'Sun in the maneaba', and it is believed that the Sun will pierce the navel of any who contradicts him, questions his judgment, expresses the least doubt about his rendering of a tradition, or attempts to usurp any of his privileges within the sacred building. The Karongoa-n-uea spokesman wears privileges within the sacred building. The Karongoa-n-uea spokesman wears on his head a fillet of coconut leaf called buna-n Taai (the fillet of the Sun). On ceremonial occasions he sits alone,slightly in advance of his fellow clansmen, and opens proceedings - after silence has been called - by muttering the magico-religious formula called te taemataao, 'to clean the path of his words', and so protect him from interruption or contradiction. The formula is recited three times with the head bowed, while the hands are slowly rubbed together, palm on palm; after three repetitions, the performer thrown his hands forward, palms up, elbows against body, and raising his head exclaims, 'E oti Taai' ('the sun appears') or 'Aria-ia ba ti na ongo' ('take it up for we will hear'), after which the ceremonial or debate proceeds.

The sib of Karongoa-raereke is the companion and acolyte of Karongoa-n-uea in the Maunga-tabu building; its members carry messages from the sacred clan to other groups and, in the Northern Gilberts, its elder 'lifts the word from the mouth of Karongoa-n-uea', i.e., announces to the assembly the whispered oration or judgment of the Karongoa-n-uea spokesman. The privilege of Karongoa-raereke is to take a share of the first portion of any feast, which is the perquisite of Karongoa-n-yuea. Itws duty is to supervise the laying and maintenance of the coconut-leaf mats (inaai) with which the floor of the maneaba is covered, and to perform magico-religious rituals for preventing dissension in the sacred edifice. The time for such rituals is the hour when the Sun is approaching his zenith; and among the material used is a kuo-n-aine - a cup made of half a coconut shell wherein oil has been boiled. This vessel is said to have formed the magic boat of the Sun-child Bue, ancestor of the Ababou clan, on the voyage to the Sun.

Ababou and Maerua

The Ababou and Maerua groups claim both the Sun and the Moon as their totems, and are seated about the stud called 'Moon' in the middle of the western side of the maneaba. The ceremonial function of Ababou is to separate the first portion of Karongoa-n-uea from any food brought to the maneaba for the purpose of a feast, and to hand it over to Karongoa-raereke for conveyance to the sacred clan. 

The clan of Te Wiwi claims the function of blowing the conch (bu) which announces a gathering in the maneaba. Members of the Keaki group have the right to prior entry into the building, in the sense that when one or more of them arrives in a crowd at the marae upon which the maneabea stands, their companions of other clans (excepting Karongoa-n-uea) will stand aside to let them pass. 

The elder of the Tabukaokao group supervises the collection of food for any feast, in the middle of the maneaba, and shares with the elder of Ababou the right of dividing it into two equal portions - one for the northern the other for the southern half of the building. Ababou then separates from the northern half the first portion of Karongoa-n-uea,, which is issued before any further distribution is made. Karongoa-raereke carries the first portion to Karongoa-n-uea, and other specific groups have the right of dividing and distributing the remainder.

Outside the maneaba, Ababou and Maerua claim the power of making and unmaking eclipses of the sun or Moon, of rain-making, and raising or stilling the wind. These powers are said to be inherited from the hero Bue who was a child of the Sun by a virgin mother. But the Sun's greatest gift to Bue was the craft of building maneabas: 'The maneaba of Kings, which is called Te Namakaina (Moon); and that called Te Tabanin (The Foursquare); and the maneaba whereof the breadth is greater than the length, called Te Ketoa'. It is by virtue of this gift that the clans of Ababou and Maerua lay claim to what is their pre-eminent function, namely that of being, on behalf of Karongoa-n-uea, the master-architects of the Maunga-tabu building.

Their duties in this direction are to find a suitable site for the edifice, to lay out its ground plan, to order the position of all its timbers, and with their hands to cap its ridge with a covering of plaited leaf or matting. Their acolytes in these works are the Eel=totem group of Nukumauea and the Crab-totem group of Tabukaokao. In all their building rituals, the names of Sun and Moon are pre-eminent; they believe that the Sun dwells in the Maunga-tabu maneaba because he was the originator of that style of building, and that he will take vengeance upon any person who either offends the edifice or attempts to usurp the functions of imitate the rituals of the builder-clans.

The posts of dressed coral which support the roof of the Maunga-tabu are not up to the accompaniment of a Sun formula. The first timbers to be cut and dressed are the tatanga (roof-plates). The heavy work is done by the acolyte Eel and Crab totem groups, but before the dressing of the rough logs begins they are heaped in a pile for ritual treatment by the master-architect of Ababou. Before noon, on a day when the sun and moon are seen together in the sky, the master mounts the pile and, facing east, taps one of the logs lightly with an adze, intoning:

Ba N nangi tiba koroi-a, tatanga-ni maneaba-ia Taai, Namakaina;
Ba maneaba-ia Auriaria, Nei Tewenei, Riiki, Nei Tituaabine.
E toki tera? E toki te bakarere.
E toki tera? E toki te kai-n-anti.
E toki tera? E toki te maraia.
E toki tera? E toki te tiringaki.
Etoki-i-i, e toki-e-e-e,
Te mauri ao te raoi.
For the time has come for me to cut the roof-plate of the maneaba of the sun and Moon;
Even the maneaba of Auriaria, Nei Tewenei, Riikii, Nei Tituaabine.
What ceases? Violence ceases.
What ceases? Evil magic ceases.
What ceases? Being under a curse ceases.
What ceases? Being smitten ceases.
It ceases, it ceases, it ceases, it ceases.
Prosperity and peace.

The cutting of the rafters and other scantlings is precluded by exactly the same ritual and formula, the word tatanga (roof-plate) being replaced by the appropriate term. When the thatch is complete, the ridge capping is laid in position and, again before noon, both sun and moon being seen in the sky, the master-architect mounts the roof armed with a thatching awl. Sitting on the ridge facing east, midway between the gable ends, he stabs the capping with his awl on either side of him and intones:

Ba N nangi tiba ewari-a,
Taubuki-n uma-ia Auriaria, Nei Tewenei, Riiki ma Nei Tituaabine.
Ririka-n uma-u tera? Te karau.
Ririka-n uma-u te buaka;
Ririka-n uma-u karawa;
Ba rokiroki-n uma-ia Taai ma Namakaina.
Te ririka-e-e, te ririka-o-o!
For I am in the act of piercing it,
The ridge of their dwelling, Auriaria, Nei Tewenei, Riiki and Nei Tituaabine.
The covering of my dwelling from what? From rain.
The covering of my dwelling from storm (or strife),
The covering of my dwelling from heaven;
Even the screening in the house of the Sun and the Moon.
The covering-e-=e, the covering-o-o!

This formula having been recited three times, the master architect descends, and the ridge-capping is sewn in place by workers of Ababou and Maerua. When the work is complete, the officiator again mounts to the ridge, carrying with him four coconuts in their husks. For the purposes of the ceremony these nuts are secretly known as ata (human heads). Straddling the north end of the ridge, facing south, he strikes off the proximal end of one nut and, sprinkling its liquor over the capping, mutters in a low voice the following formula three times over:

Bubu-n ai i Aba, bubu-n ai i Abaiti,
Bubu-n ai i Maunga-tabu, bubu-n ai i Ababou,
Bubu-n ai irou.
Timtim te rara:
Taai, Namakaina-o-o, ko kaakangi kana-m te rara!
Matu, matu, anti ni kamaamate;
Matu, matuy, anti ni kaaoraki;
Matu, matu, anti ni kamibuaka;
Matu, matu!
Baraaki te unene,
B'e bung te aba.
Smoke of fire at Aba, smoke of fire at Abaiti,
Smoke of fire at the Sacred Mountain, smoke of fire at Ababou,
Smoke of fire with me.
Drip-drip the blood:
Sun, Moon-o-o, thou eatest thy food, the blood!
Sleep sleep, spirits of killing;
Sleep, sleep, spirits of sickness;
Sleep, sleep, spirits of evil dreamings;
Sleep, sleep!
Overturned is the ...
For the land gives birth.

Proceeding now to the middle of the ridge, he repeats the same ritual, facing first east and then west, using his second and third 'heads'. He finishes at the south end, facing north, using the fourth head.

As each head is emptied of its blood, it is allowed to roll down the thatch of the maneaba to the ground below, where its position is anxiously noted. If the majority of ata lie with the open end (corresponding to the neck of a human head) pointing towards the maneaba, it is a sign of good fortune; but war, sickness or famine are prognosticated if the distal ends are presented to the building.

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