exciting to meet you again recently, in the cottage at the edge of Hamilton
that has served as your headquarters-in-exile this summer, and to watch you
unwrap, tenderly but also gleefully, the new gods, with their erect penises and
sharply pointed breasts, that you have cast and carved over these past few
months, using the industrial materials and technology that are so scarce and
expensive in Tonga.
As you talked about cooking the gods, along with a
steak-sized Tongan bible, on a barbeque fitted to the pulpit of a church, and
about building a bonfire of gods and broken crucifixes, I worried again about
the clause in Tonga’s constitution forbidding blasphemy against the Christian
faith. I remembered the complaints by some conservative Tongans, including
members of your own family, after you showed sculptures of a crucified Tangaloa,
and tapa portraying a Jesus branded with a dollar sign.
your art is not blasphemous. As you explained, while I admired the deities you
had lain out on the table, you seek not to denigrate Tongan Christianity, but
rather to put it on the same level – the same ontological level, the same
epistemological level – as the country’s older, obscurer religious traditions.
When you crucify Tangaloa, or throw Bibles onto the sort of bonfire that
consumed so many pagan statues during the religious wars of the nineteenth
century, you are demanding that we look evenly at the whole three thousand
years of Tongan history, instead of dichotomising that history into ‘Christian’
and ‘pre-Christian’ periods.
historiography of the Free Wesleyan Church is like a house with only two rooms,
one damp and cramped and dimly-lit and malodorous, and the other bright and
high-ceilinged and air conditioned. The door between the room called the Age of
Darkness and the room called the Age of Enlightenment was fashioned, of course,
by Taufa’ahau and his earnest advisor, the Reverend John Thomas. They were the
architects of the Free Wesleyan Church and the modern Tongan monarchy, and it
is not surprising that the publication of Thomas’ History of Tonga last year in Nuku’alofa was hailed by the church
and the royal family alike.
Copies of Thomas’ tome flew out the door of the
Friendly Islands Bookshop, but I wondered how any Tongans bought the book out
of a sense of religious and political obligation, rather than out of genuine
curiosity. I wonder, as well, whether Thomas would appreciate the way that many
scholars, Tongan and palangi alike, will inevitably read his text.
The title of
Thomas’ book is, of course, absurd: after a short account of Tongan creation
myths and geography, he devotes himself almost entirely to an alternately pious
and splenetic narrative of his work as a missionary in the 1820s and ‘30s, when
Taufa’ahau was fighting and besting pagans and Papists. For Thomas, the ‘20s
and ‘30s are the doorway between the Age of Darkness and the Age of
Enlightenment, and Taufa’ahau is the man holding open the door.
And yet a
paradox afflicts the writings of other nineteenth century missionaries like Thomas. These men
devoted their lives to the destruction of the teeming gods and spirits of the
pagan Pacific, and their letters and diaries and memoirs celebrate this long
work of extermination. Today, though, historians and anthropologists and ethnobotanists
value the missionaries because of the
information they left behind about the societies and creeds they helped
As you know,
Thomas’ book is full of scornful yet informative descriptions of the old, pagan
Tongan culture that dominated Western Polynesia for hundreds of years, and
raised stone monuments to its kings and queens at the sacred city of Mu’a. We
skip the pages the reverend devoted to glories of John Wesley and the
exposition of Christian doctrine, and linger instead over a description of the
wooden goddess who presided over a godhouse in Mu’a, or an account of a visit
to the persistently pagan village of Pe’a, where tapa makers refused Thomas’
demand that they cease their pounding on the Sabbath.
to justify his cause, but the text he produced has ended up betraying his
cause. He may have helped Taufa’ahau destroy important parts of Tonga’s
pre-Christian culture, but his History of
Tonga helps us to recover some of that culture.
We spent a
lot of time last year talking about the theory, advanced so controversially by
Niel Gunson and his disciples, that ancient Tongan religion was shamanic, and
that the Tu’i Tonga who fascinated Captain Cook was a sort of shaman-king. We
drove around Tongatapu, looking amongst coconut groves for the scorched foundations of the godhouses
where priests drank green kava, shook with terror or delight, and channelled
the voices of the dead and immortal. We used Thomas’ book, with its almost
lascivious accounts of the mutilation of goddesses, the burning of godhouses,
and the running of pigs through sacred groves and enclosures, to guide us.
But I wanted
to talk about a couple of other books I encountered last year, books which help
me to understand your art.
I remember us
poring over a copy of Sadie Plant’s Writing
on Drugs, as we drank a few cups of our favourite narcotic. Plant’s
discussions of shamanism endeared her book to us, because we were looking for
some general account of the history of shamanism and its relation to drug
returned to the land of fast internet connections and libraries I’ve been
reading some of the reviews and discussions that Plant’s book prompted. I’ve
been amused to note how many potheads and acid freaks – the type of people who turn
the solemn ceremonies of shamanic cultures into a dissipated, enervated
lifestyle – have sought out Writing on Drugs,
hoping for tips about peyote cultivation or analyses of Grateful Dead lyrics,
and found instead a dense collage of quotations from Coleridge, De Quincey,
Benjamin, Michaux, and other tough-minded investigators of mind-altering
As one piqued stoner complained, Plant often seems more interested
in literary highs – in the dreamy lift of De Quincey’s endless sentences, or
the hallucinatory flares of Michaux’s metaphors – than in chemical pleasures.
thought most provocative about Plant's book, and most relevant to your own art,
was her claim that imagery and rituals associated with shamanism lie behind many features of contemporary popular culture. Do you remember the
way that she insists that Santa Claus is a stand-in for a spirit summouned by
Siberian shamans? Why else, Plant asks, would he dress in red and white, the
colours of the agaric mushroom, and drive reindeer, animals associated with the
spirits of the dead, through the sky, and bring gifts from a faraway magical
like Gunson and Plant are correct, and places as distant as Tonga, Siberia, and
Africa once practiced the same shamanic religion, then questions about the
origins and dispersal of that religion must be asked. In his fascinating but
ultimately whimsical essay ‘Understanding Traditional Polynesian History’,
Gunson seems, disappointingly, to answer questions about the widespread nature
of shamanism by disinterring the doctrine of hyper-diffusionism.
Hinduism and Polynesian religions have deep similarities, Gunson suggests that
Malay traders who bowed to Shiva and Vishnu introduced Vedic cosmology to
the Pacific. It’s curious how they didn’t also introduce their language and
material culture. As critics of Thor Heyerdahl showed decades ago,
hyper-diffusionism is a busted flush. Ideas and rituals and technological
discoveries don’t occur in one, blessed locale and then spread miraculously
around the globe. Innovation occurs everywhere, and most cultures develop in
I want to
mention David Lewis-Williams' book The Mind
in the Cave because it offers another, and much more credible, explanation
for the apparent similarities between the ancient religions of distant parts of
the world. Lewis is an art historian who has spent decades stooped in the
caves, grottoes, and canyons of southern Africa, studying the paintings the San
people made there hundreds or thousands of years ago. The Mind in the Cave compares these African images to the much more
famous paintings found in Neolithic European galleries like Lascaux, and argues
that both are the products of a shamanic religion.
the labours of archaeologists and ethnographers, Lewis-Williams suggests that the
ancient inhabitants of Europe and Africa drugged or danced themselves into
trances and went on journeys through hallucinated land and seascapes. Turning
abruptly to neuroscience, he claims that the architecture of the human brain means
that we will all experience roughly similar visions, should we choose to dance
ourselves to exhaustion around a campfire or swallow magic mushrooms. The
cavemen of both Europe and Africa imagined flying over water, watching their
limbs expand vastly, and wandering with spirit-versions of beasts familiar to them,
like the deer or the gnu. According to Lewis-Williams, they left descriptions of their
visions on those cave walls.
arguments have attracted a lot of attention, and have even been the subject of
a documentary film that was playing for a while on Sky TV’s Discovery channel.
It seems to me that, whether or not he is correct, he does at least offer an
explanation for the alleged ubiquity of shamanic religion in ancient times that does not rely on
implausible theories of cultural contact and influence across vast distances.
I’d like to see a scholar explore Lewis-Williams' ideas by comparing the visionary journeys
recorded in Tongan songs and legends – the journey of Lo’au, that Odysseus of
Polynesia, to the roaring water at the end of the world, for instance – with
the imagery on the cave walls of Europe and Africa.
As you know,
the claim that ancient Tongan culture was shamanic is unpopular with many
Tongan scholars. I think there is good reason for this hostility: the notion that Tonga’s traditional religion was
similar to those found in many different parts of the world troubles the
presuppositions of two important schools of Tongan historiography. On the one
hand, it contradicts conservative Christian historians like Sione Latukefu, who
assume that it was Christianity in general, and the Thomas-Taufa’ahau double
act in particular, that brought Tonga out of darkness and isolation and gave
it a global culture.
On the other hand, the shamanism thesis upsets
aggressively localist scholars like Linita Manu’atu, who consider that
Christianity and modernity destroyed a very idiosyncratic Tongan culture, and
want to reconstruct that ‘pure’ pre-contact culture.
Gunson’s arguments have not been broadcast to the general Tongan population,
but if they were I think they would be greeted with a mixture of incredulity
we find, though, if we followed Sadie Plant’s sly example, and looked for
remnants of a shamanic religion in the culture of contemporary, supposedly
Christian Tonga? I have sat in Tongan churches and seen worshippers shake, and
writhe, and speak in voices that are not their own: were these performances
inspired by the American Pentecostal evangelists whose rituals are broadcast on
Tongan television, or do they owe something to the paroxysms of possessed
priests in ancient godhouses?
What of the widespread Tongan belief that
illness, whether mental or physical, is caused by malign or mischievous
spirits, and the flourishing trade of folk healers, who use massages and canes
to try to force unwanted visitors from the bodies of the ill? What about the ui
ui tevolo craze, which sees young people in the villages operating homemade
ouja boards at night, in an effort to summoun the spirits of ancestors?
art, with its implicit claim that Tongan’s Christian and pre-Christian cultures
should be treated as equals, causes anger, then that anger might come from a
recognition that, in the twenty-first century, the place of Christianity in
Tongan society is not so simple and not so secure as John Thomas would have