Friday, January 31, 2014

Burning the gods: a letter to Visesio Siasau


Maile Sio,
it was 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.
Of course, 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.
The 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 destroy.
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.

Thomas wrote 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 taking.
Since I 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 substances.
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.
What I 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 realm?
If scholars 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.

Claiming that 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 situ.
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.

Drawing on 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.
Lewis-Williams' 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.

Niel 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 and anger.
What would 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?
If your 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 liked.

Cheers,
Scott  

11 Comments:

Anonymous Real Tongan Satanist said...

Jayson Hopkins was born September 20th, 1977 in Holbrook Arizona, Navajo County. The son of a Polynesian (tongan) Father, and a Native American (Sioux, or Lakota) Mother, he grew up in southern california, in the beautiful city of Santa Barbara. In 1997, he moved with his mother and his sister (his only family) to Bountiful, Utah, and then to North Salt Lake, before Settling in Salt Lake City. Through his teen years, Jayson got involved in the occult, beginning with satanism, then branching into wicca, paganism and witchcraft. As he matured in age, his beliefs in the occult also matured, and he returned to satanism at the age of 24.

Please feel free to join our email group: http://group.yahoo.com/group/order_of_absu

11:50 am  
Anonymous Real Tongan Satanist said...

the Order Of Absu will be performing a summoning ritual, to bring the Ancient Ones into this world, and begin a cataclysm of destruction and chaos to mankind. We believe mankind itself, and the society he has created has become too sick to continue to exist the way it is, and needs a serious wake up call on a cataclysmic level. our so called leaders must be removed from power, and the christians must be destroyed. The Ancient Ones will do this. These are they who should not be named:

Cthulhu

Tiamat

Absu

Kingu

Ancient Gods who once ruled this world in chaos and destruction.

11:51 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

some are saying they like this on facebook...ok...how many are

a Tongans
b Christians?

None? wow what a surprise. because this is a palangi 'discourse'.

12:35 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

No it's not a "palangi" discourse as Scott is (albeit rather rhetorically) "talking" to the Tongan artist. So de facto it is an implicit implication for anyone, palangi or Polynesian, to debate.

Very interesting way to "introduce" this artist.

Some interesting points. What is Visesio Siasau's view of all this? Or has it got nothing to do with his art?

I somewhat prefer the pre-Christian beliefs. I find it a bit sad and pathetic that people who had a fascinating and sometimes atavistic past with mysterious rituals and beliefs (we all have such things, I think they are related to the way we are - e.g. I always touch wood if I say something to myself that could go badly) and in fact I don't think Christianity has given anyone any benefits - look at these insane satanists and the psychos who live in the US, and in fact the rather insane extremism encountered in almost every religion...

I'm with Nietzsche as regards Christianity...and yet the culture has some bizarre but wonderful culture that arose from it. The extraordinary great music of Bach arose from a kind of certainty - perhaps it is necessary to "fool the mind" into belief (in the bizarre if not insane legend of Christ and the killing of a man (God's) son and so on - but these have their origins in Greek and many other religions. It is a pity the rather wooden, tedious stuff has been adopted by Polynesians while in the West for better or worse there is a general dismissal of it all.

I'm interested in de Quincy though (I bought his book recently) but I don't support Burroughs (although I like his way of talking about things) or the Beats etc in their glorification of dangerous drugs (but I do appreciate their contribution, and things such as 'Gerard's Vision' and the historical-literary place of books such as 'On the Road'.

The cave Art historian sounds as if he's an interesting old flog.

But some good stuff here as usual.

10:28 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

some of the fb cokmenters are tongan and Christian anyway

not all Christians hate sio...

11:19 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I read a lot of the comments following the article. I was shocked at how many people seem to prefer satan over God.

Those who don’t believe in a deity because they utilize their critical thinking abilities instead of believing in faith; will not believe in anything. They will believe in what is logical and rational. What has a logical basis to be believed. Chesterton’s quote is on of those quotes that are often cited but it lacks any real world foundation and evidence behind it.

11:46 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Also FYI this is going around this is how some ppl operate

One of the most chilling moments in The Passion was during the Lord’s scourging, when Satan appears cradling a baby who slowly turns to reveal a hideous face. Here Satan is mocking Jesus and Mary by presenting himself as a twisted sort of “anti” Madonna and Child, as if to proclaim that he and his offspring have won, and not the woman and her offspring as foretold in Genesis 3:15. This is how the Evil One loves to work—Satan loves to mock God by imitating the holy and twisting it in a sick way. This past summer I was struck with this truth in a totally new way.

Nicolas had been a part of the prayer group all year long, but this was the first time that he had talked about his life before his conversion. Catholics believe have been miraculously transformed by the Holy Spirit into the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ—and desecrate them with spit, bodily waste, and other such unimaginable blasphemies. Before your conversion, I asked Nicolas, did you and your fellow Satanists steal consecrated hosts for this purpose? “Yes,” Nicolas answered, “we did.”

The poor guy probably felt like he was being interrogated by the CIA by this point, but knowing that I might never have this opportunity again, I asked Nicolas one final question. I told him that I had also heard that those who were very deep in Satanism could actually tell whether a communion host had been consecrated or not. For example, they will not steal communion bread from Protestant communion meals, nor will they steal unblessed communion bread for desecration at these “Black Masses.” It would not work because some of the Satanists would immediately recognize that it was just ordinary bread. They would be able to tell that Jesus Christ was not sacramentally present there.

I asked Nicolas whether this also was true. He again replied that it is, and he told us that he could do this himself before his conversion from Satanism. A chill went down my spine. If someone were to put ten identical communion hosts in front of him, nine unconsecrated and one consecrated, he would have been able to point directly and immediately to the host that had been consecrated. I asked him in amazement, “But how were you able to know?!?” He looked at me and the words he spoke are forever burned in my memory: “Because of the hate,” he said. “Because of the burning hate I would feel toward that host, apart from all the others.”

His words hit me like a baseball bat. Some of the saints also had this mystical knowledge of the Lord’s Eucharistic presence, but this knowledge flowed from their deep union with Christ. Nicolas, on the other hand, knew Christ’s presence because his worship of Satan had worked the opposite mystical connection to the Eucharist—he knew Jesus was there not because of his love for Jesus, but because of his deep hate. It makes my skin crawl just to think about such hatred.

This is how Satan operates. He loves to mock whatever is holy and sacred, to imitate the truth and twist it in a perverse way. The Mass is the most sacred prayer on earth, the most awesome way for us Christians to offer worship to our Lord, so Satan has his followers worship him through a mockery of that prayer. Instead of lifting the Eucharist high with adoration and loving reverence, the Eucharist is thrown to the ground with loathing and derision. Rather than knowing Christ’s true presence in the sacrament through their love, they perversely recognize Christ’s presence through their hatred.

11:50 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Chuck Berry

Incarceration: Four years (1944-1947), Kansas City, MO; three years (1961-1963); Springfield, MO, four months (1979), Lompoc, CA
Crimes: armed robbery, Mann Act violation, tax evasion
Details: In 1944, Berry was accused of robbing a bakery, a barber shop and a clothing store, though he later claimed he merely carjacked a man so he could have a ride home. In 1961 Berry transported a 14-year-old across state lines to work as a "hat-check girl" in his St. Louis club; she was later found to be prostituting herself. In 1979, Berry served more time for federal income tax evasion.
Gary U.S. Bonds

Incarceration: Six days (1967), Norfolk, VA
Crimes: reckless driving
Details: Bonds once claimed to have been wrongly sent to a local work farm for running over a neighbor's dog; he claims the charges were trumped-up for living in a non-segregated neighborhood and being "sort of cocky." Soon after, he moved to New York, where he lives today.
James Brown

Incarceration: Three years (1949), Toccoa, GA; three years (1988-1991), Columbia, SC
Crimes: Robbery (1949), possession of illegal drugs, resisting arrest, assaulting a police officer, numerous traffic violations (1988)
Details: In 1949, at the age of 17, Brown was accused of stealing clothes from parked cars. In 1988, in the most notorious of his eight arrests, Brown led police on a two-state car chase after bursting into his office complex, waving a loaded pistol, and demanding the public gathering there stop using his restrooms. He was later found to be on PCP at the time.
David Crosby

Incarceration: Eleven months (1985), Huntsville, TX
Crimes: possession of cocaine, illegal weapons
Details: The former Byrds and CSNY member had already run afoul of the law when he was discovered with cocaine residue and unlicensed handguns twice in 1982, and later, still on parole, was accused by two females of assault and battery.
Gary Glitter

Incarceration: Two months (1999), Bristol, England; Three years (2006-2008), Binh Thuan, Vietnam
Crimes: possession of child pornography; sex with minors
Details: The English glam hero of the 70s was found to have child porn on his laptop when he took it in for repair in 1997; Glitter escaped charges by moving to Spain and then Vietnam, where he was later charged with having sex with two underage girls. Upon release, he was eventually extradited to the UK, where he lives in anonymity to avoid angry citizens.
Ronald Isley

Incarceration: 37 months (2008-present), Terre Haute, IN
Crimes: tax evasion
Details: The founder and leader of the seminal funk and soul group The Isley Brothers was convicted of five counts of tax evasion (with fines totaling $3.1 million) and one count of willful failure to file a tax return in 2007.
Rick James

Incarceration: Two years (1993-1995), Folsom, CA
Crimes: kidnapping, assault, drug possession
Details: Funkster Rick James was already awaiting sentencing for allegeldy kidnapping and assaulting music executive Mary Sauger at Hollywood's St. James Club and Hotel when he was arrested for holding another woman hostage and assaulting and raping her for the better part of a week while smoking crack cocaine.
Jonathan King

1:52 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2013/09/20/1308825110

some real dickheads in this thread...this link is more interesting...apply to tonga...and to gunson?

6:08 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

ROME – Chances are one out of ten that the guy next door is a Satanist!

That’s the shocking conclusion of researcher Dr. James Phillips of Birmingham, England, a British expert in the occult. He says that millions of ordinary citizens are, in fact, Devil worshipers – and they represent a danger to every God-fearing man, woman and child!

“I’m quite certain that it’s at least 10 percent of the population – maybe more,” said Dr. Phillips. “We’re talking about men and women from all walks of life – it’s everywhere.

“I have treated victims of these people and if you listen to what they have to say you will see this is a major problem.

“The terror of the victims is incredible. They are too frightened to speak out, and if they do they’re written off as cranks.”

Phillips’ astounding estimate indicates that as many as 25 million Americans are worshiping Satan, and that means that most of us come into contact with Satanists every day without knowing it.

The good news is that there are ways to identify a Devil worshiper, so you can avoid them and protect your family.

Here, according to experts in the occult, are some of the surefire signs of Satanists:

1. They come and go at odd hours, especially late at night and just before dawn.

2. They never attend church or celebrate religious holidays.

3. They often have no visible means of support, yet live well.

4. They carry strange bags and bundles, never revealing the contents.

5. They rarely laugh, or laugh under the wrong circumstances – for example, when a child is hit by a car.

6. They are often openly interested in magic tricks or the occult.

7. They may excite instinctual fear in children and animals.

8. They are not afraid of blood – in fact, they seem attracted by it.

9. They collect weird things, such as animal skeletons or fingernail clippings.

10. They tend to dress warmly even in hot weather, as if they constantly feel chilled.

8:43 pm  
Blogger vabna islam said...

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11:25 pm  

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