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Micronesian culture steeped in custom, magic

by Ctystal Silva, Etcetera editor


“One thing all Micronesian cultures share is superstition. All Micronesians are superstitious, (and) they believe in ghosts.” So says Dr. Dirk Anthony Ballendorf, who taught history in Micronesian schools.

A Web site for Pacific Resources for Education and Learning quotes the organization: “Tradition has long played a major role in the lives of Chamorros (native people of the Mariana Islands) . . . Superstition also plays an important role, especially when dealing with the supernatural and unexplainable occurrences.”

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Why are superstition and custom such a big part of daily life? “I don’t really know,” said Jessie Tumpap, a native Chamorro. “They just are.” Many of the others interviewed had the same response.

Micronesia, like many other islands in the Pacific, came in to contact with European missionaries and is now predominantly Christian. Protestant and Catholic religions can be found in Micronesia. The old customs are still alive, however, and sometimes are integrated with the new religion.

“Magic” was important to the Yapese of old, and many still believe in it. There is “good” and “bad” magic, and there are magicians which specialize in certain types of magic. One magician specializes in sickness, kind of a kahuna la‘au lapa‘au. He can use his powers to cure individuals or even a whole village of sickness.

Of the various magicians, there are five main magicians. The Ganiniy brings rain. Trur brings fishermen good luck. Dafngoch increases population. Plaw brings successful navigation. Yaw can bring victory in war.

Pohnpeians believe ghosts desire the souls of pregnant women because they are among the strongest. If ghosts take pregnant women, their spirits will kill others. Therefore, much superstition surrounds pregnancy.

An islet in Namonuito Atoll in Truk is called Unanu, “Daughters of the Ghost.” The following story circulated throughout the western islands of Truk, and is still widely known today. The islet of Unanu was once unnamed and uninhabited. A group of ghosts had been moving from place to place, searching for somewhere they could settle down, when they finally found Namonuito and decided to live on there.

The people in the Western Islands all knew that Namonuito was the island inhabited by ghosts, and avoided it completely, except for a curious man named Olofat. Like the Hawaiians’ demigod Maui, Olofat possessed supernatural powers. One night he decided to visit the island. Olofat set out during the day, when it was known ghosts would be sleeping. Olofat soon came upon the house of the chief and saw the ghost-chief’s beautiful daughter sleeping. He went inside, awakened the woman, and they had a conversation. The two fell in love shortly after that.

The pair decided to leave the island before the chief awoke. He would surely object to his daughter marrying the young man. They sailed to Olofat’s island of Weniot. When the ghosts awakened, they found the chief’s daughter was missing. They realized someone had taken her away and began to search all the islands in the area.

The ghosts searched the islands, but they never found Olofat and his wife. Olofat used his powers to turn the island upside down and hide its surface in the ocean. When the ghosts were gone, Olofat turned the island back over.

The lovers lived in Wenuit for two years until the girl became pregnant. She then asked to go back to her island to give birth among her people. When they arrived, however, no one could be found because all the ghosts were searching for Olofat’s wife.

Soon, she delivered twin girls, whom they named Un and Anu. The girls became the first to settle down on the island permanently. Even today, on a map of Namonuito Atoll, Unanu is visible in the east as a reminder of Olofat, his wife, and the twin daughters of a ghost.


Micronesian Superstitions
Drinking water just before going fishing will cause a lot of rain to fall.
If a fisherman dreams of blood, he will catch many fish.
The first fish that bites on a fisherman’s line must be caught, or few fish will be caught.
It is bad luck to yawn while fishing.
A dog howling at night means that someone has died.
A rat running across your path will bring bad luck.
A gecko crackling at your back door means a friend is coming.
A spider abandoning its web means that a typhoon is coming.
If you get a boil on your leg you will travel soon.
It is bad luck for a pregnant woman to wear flowers.
If someone dreams about mangoes, a relative is pregnant.
It is bad luck for a woman to eat while holding a baby.
If you have more than five long lines on your palm, you will have many children.
If a man combs his wife’s hair, they will soon divorce.
If a girl accidentally chews on a lock of her hair while eating, someone will ask her to marry.
If a star is seen close to the moon, someone will soon be asked to marry.
If you take back a gift you have given, your father will die at sea.
If you name a child after yourself, you are calling for a replacement and death may come.
If you feel like scratching the sole of your foot with a knife, someone in your family has died.


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