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Observations placeholder

Sir Arthur Grimble - The spirits of the ancestors



Type of Spiritual Experience


A description of the experience

Sir Arthur Grimble - A Pattern of Islands

Most Europeans who believe in an after-life draw a clear horizon-line between the worlds of the living and the dead. The people of the Gilbert Islands, as I knew them, imagined no such comfortable partition. The seen and the unseen made but one world for them.

Their dead were helped overseas to a western paradise, it is true, but no known ritual could bind them there; only the lapse of generations could do that.

The belief was that the more recently departed could and did return.

They were jealous. They wanted to see what their descendants were doing. Their skeletons or skulls were preserved in village shrines mainly for them to re-enter as they liked. If skulls at least were not kept, their ghosts would come and scream reproach by night with the voices of crickets from the palm-leaves that overhung the dwellings. And so, whether a man was pious or impious to his fathers, his house was a house forever brooded over by unseen watchers.

Not that the older folk thought of their dead only as threatening ghosts. There was love as well as fear in the ancient cult of the ancestor, and mostly the love predominated. I was looking round the waterfront of a Tarawa village one day when I came upon an old, old man alone in a canoe shed nursing a skull in the crook of his elbow. He was blowing tobacco smoke between its jaws. As he puffed, he chuckled and talked aloud: 'The smoke is sweet, grandfather - ke-e-e?' he was saying. 'We like it - ke-e-e?' He told me he was loving the skull because his grand-father - who was inside it at that moment - had been very good to him in years gone by. 'Is it not suitable,' he asked, 'for me to be good to him in return?' and answered himself at once, 'Aongkoa! (of course!)'

He went on to say he had chosen tobacco as his offering of love because, as far as he knew, there was no supply of that particular luxury in the ancestral paradise. For his homely affection, at least, the skull was no grim reminder of death, but a cheerful token of man's and love's immortality.

The source of the experience


Concepts, symbols and science items



Science Items

Activities and commonsteps