The Maraufo: An initiation rite of the Eastern Solomons.

 

The Pacific Bonito, a member of the tuna family, was elevated to a semi-divine status in the South Eastern Solon Islands

The bonito, a member of the tuna family, is common in Oceania and highly valued as a food fish.  It is eagerly fished for throughout Polynesia and in areas of Micronesia and Melanesia, including the Solomon Islands.

In the South East Solomon Islands, however, the  bonito was elevated from a food source to become the focus a  religious cult that dominated men’s lives. This cult existed within the triangle formed by three specks of land  Santa Ana (Owa-raha) and Santa Catalina (Owa-riki),  two small islands  opposite the  south-east peninsula of  the larger island of  San Cristoval (Makira), which was the third point.

The prow of a fast bonito fishing canoe features the head of a predatory Frigate Bird.

The Bonito used to migrate through this area annually in large  numbers, pursuing  vast schools of small bait fish varieties such as pilchards.

During  this annual migration, the bait fish were sometimes chased close to the surface and the water surface boiled with bait fish, bonito, sharks and sea birds. The natives, who regarded  bonito as human beings of the sea because they had no visible scales and red blood,  believed this annual visitation to be a gift from the gods  and proof of their benevolence and  a cult grew around the need to  placate the gods to ensure a plentiful harvest of fish

 

This detailed carving of a maraufo cult initiate shows him wearing all his woven and shell adornments and carrying a model of a bonito canoe stern board (maramaraitapa).

A complex ritual grew up around this annual event. As the bonito fishing season drew near, presentations of  food were made to the gods through the local shaman or priest, who had an altar for this purpose in the canoe house. Strict taboos were enforced and the first  bonito caught each season was ritually dedicated to the gods. On the rare occasions when the bonito did not make their annual appearance, this was blamed on the breach of a taboo by a member of the community. (Women, for example, were forbidden to touch the bonito canoes or even approach the canoe house).

The presence of a bonito school in the area was usually pinpointed by observing the large flocks  of predatory birds that followed it – watching either from land or from a canoe waiting at sea.  Once located, the bonito were approached in fast fishing canoes called againiwaiau, light enough to  be carried by two men, which paddled into the mass of bonito, sharks and birds to capture as many as bonito possible  using  long bamboo rods and composite hooks made of mother of pearl and turtle shell that  spun like a bait fish in the water.

 

The maraufo display platform or qua built at Star Harbour in 1974 incorporated two real fishing canoes. When the boys mounted the platform, they would appear to be traveling in the canoes.

The function of the Maraufo rituals was to initiate older boys into manhood by passing on the secret knowledge required to manage  the tripartite relationship between the gods,  the bonito fish and humankind during a period of seclusion that lasted several months.

To begin the maraufo rituals, a boy candidate  had to be paddled out to the bonito school in a canoe and allowed to   touch the rod while a bonito was landed . On his return to the canoe house, he would be blooded by his first bonito catch, hugging it to his body and even drinking its blood. From this point onwards, he became a maraufo boy, and lived in seclusion in the canoe house for several months, separated from his family and able to eat only a limited number of foods.

Maramaraitapa, or bonito canoe sterns, are usually carved with motifs of sea gods or frigate birds.

At the climax of the maraufo , the boys who had been transformed into men by the blood of the bonito and their months of seclusion paraded on a specially built qua or display platform in all their impressive finery, each carrying a woven bag of presents  to be thrown to the cheering  crowd  below and a lightweight replica of the distinctive prow of an againiwaiau bonito fishing canoe to symbolise the capture of their first fish. They could then be reunited with their families and the period of seclusion ended.

Finally, at the end of this special day, the newly initiated young men  entered into a symbolic marriage, presenting their canoe  stern posts and combs to a young “bride” to signify that they were now old enough to court and marry,

This 1960s photograph shows newly-minted maraufo graduates in all their finery carrying their maramaraitapa to the beach

Judith Woods, who witnessed the climax of a maraufo ceremony in Star Harbour, San Cristoval in September 1973, has vivid memories of the young men in all their finery, carrying bags of gifts and model canoe stern posts onto the display platform, which was a large open structure crowned with two life size bonito fishing canoes. It was on this occasion that she purchased the large figure of a maraufo boy with all his body adornments and accessories which is currently offered on my website as  http://tribalartbrokers.net/details.php?itemId=FIB

See more Solomon Islands art on my website, www.tribalartbrokers.net/products.asp
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