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Polynesian Researches – Ellis – Death prayers and possession in the Sandwich Islands



Type of Spiritual Experience


A description of the experience

As described in Illustrations Of The Influence Of The Mind Upon The Body In Health And Disease, Designed To Elucidate The Action Of The Imagination - Daniel Hack Tuke, M.D., M.R.C.P.,

SECTION II. — Irregular and Excessive Muscular Contraction : Spasms and Convulsions.

We may fairly draw an illustration from the customs of the Sandwich Islanders, exhibiting; the remarkable influence of the emotions allied with imagination upon the bodily frame, in inducing epileptic-form convulsions. Mr. Ellis says that when a priest imagined that the god had entered his person, he became violently agitated, the muscles of the limbs were convulsed, the body swelled, the features were horribly distorted, and the eyes wild and strained. He often rolled on the ground, foaming at the mouth, and then in shrill cries made declarations which were regarded as the utterances of the divinity. Then the paroxysm usually subsided, and the priest became comparatively composed (" Polynesian Researches," vol. i, p. 373).

Mr. Ellis observes, in the same work, that if any native uses sorcery against another, whose destruction he desires, he employs a tahu- tahu (a charm), to obtain the co-operation of the demons, and to induce the tit, or spirit, to enter into the victim of their malice. The parings of the nail, a lock of hair, the saliva, or other secretions, or a piece of the food which he would eat, was the vehicle by which the demon was supposed to enter the person. The sorcerer performed incantations over it at his house; if food, it was then placed in the basket of the person for whom it was designed, and if eaten, inevitable destruction was expected to follow. When the incantation was performed only on a lock of the hair, &c, the effects appear to have been similar, and death speedy.

"The most acute agonies and terrific distortions of the body were often experienced ; the wretched sufferer appeared in a state of frantic madness, or as they expressed it, torn by the evil spirit, while he foamed and writhed under his dreadful power."

Two boys were sent to a man's house for arum-roots. He was from home, but the boys went to the field and procured them. The owner, who happened to be a sorcerer, returning before they had left, pronounced the most dreadful imprecations upon one or both of them, threatening them with the pifao or " agony of body from possession, equal to that arising from a barbed spear or hook." The boys returned. One of them was shortly afterwards taken ill, and his friends concluded it was the result of the malediction. The missionaries, who were sent for, found him lying on the ground, writhing in anguish, foaming at the mouth, his eyes starting from their sockets, his face distorted, his limbs violently convulsed. He soon after expired in dreadful agonies.

It is said that the boys " apparently took no notice of the threatening," but on this important point, more definite evidence would be required to prove that they did not. But whether they did or not at the time, their superstitious friends would not fail to impress them with their danger, and thus the most credulous or susceptible of them would be in danger of falling a victim to Fear.

The source of the experience


Concepts, symbols and science items



Science Items

Activities and commonsteps



Overwhelming fear and terror