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South Pacific travel websites last week marked the rollout of a new campaign to boost tourism in Tahiti by publicizing a branding approach called “Embraced by Mana.” The PR release gushed, “The iconic beauty of The Islands [sic] of Tahiti and the unique Tahitian culture are showcased in the new global brand ….”

Tahitians perform before an audience at the Intercontinental Resort on Tahiti

Tahitians perform before an audience at the Intercontinental Resort on Tahiti (from a video by Gloria Manna on Flickr.com, Creative Commons license)

Seeking to overcome the stereotypical image of Tahitians as people who perform for tourists, the publicity statement tried to say a bit more about the culture of the islands. It indicated that “Tahitians believe in Mana as a life force and spirit that connects all living things.” This cultural concept utilized by the branding campaign was designed to appeal to travelers who could learn to recognize Tahiti “as a destination of world-class, iconic beauty and diverse, cultural discovery.” At least, that is the way Paul Sloan, CEO and Director General of Tahiti Tourisme, promoted his campaign.

A search in news stories about the new campaign’s references to mana as an important Tahitian cultural construct yielded articles that repeated the fluff of the press releases. “Mana is a life force and spirit that connects all living things, and is an element that forms the basis of spirituality for many Polynesian peoples…Mana can be present in people, places, and objects…” wrote one news story. But it provided no further information about what mana really is—or was—to the Tahitians, and if or how it might relate to the traditional peacefulness of their society.

A recent psychological dictionary by Colman (1) defines mana as a Polynesian and Melanesian word that was brought into analytical psychology by Carl Jung. It denotes a “supernatural life force” originating in the spirit world, or the head, that can be focused on objects or other people. Transmitted from one person to another, it confers ritual power and social status.

A beach on Tahiti, the sun setting over the nearby island of Moorea

A beach on Tahiti, the sun setting over the nearby island of Moorea (photo by Jay Buangan on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

A more thorough 2005 reference article by Roy Wagner (2) provides a lot of additional information about mana, though it gets harder and harder to relate the concept to pristine Tahitian beaches and waving palm trees the farther one diverges from the tourism tropes. Wagner points out at the outset of his 2005 encyclopedic overview that the word mana is one of those vague words applied to concepts in the anthropological literature that are hard to explain in ordinary terms. For instance, mana means personal as well as impersonal power that is both sacred and secular.

Although mana may be used to describe specific tasks, such woodcarving or navigating at sea (or, perhaps, promoting tourism), Wagner writes that mana itself is not specifiable. It is better used to describe powers, such as that of leaders. The mana of a leader such as a U.S. president suggests an attribute of the personal qualities of the individual—the bravado of Theodore Roosevelt or the charisma of John F. Kennedy—more than it does the actual powers listed in the U.S. Constitution.

Wagner asks how mana affects morality, but his answer, like the entire concept, seems circular to a non-Polynesian. Mana is moral “to the extent that the morality in question has mana (p.5631).” But he goes on to explain that mana is the organizing force for human tasks, and the guarantor of social hierarchies. Leadership, he writes, has mana. Beyond that, mana has no limits. Along with their concept of tapu (taboo), to the Polynesians mana provides content and form to the world.

It becomes clear why the tourist people decided to simplify their campaign. But with all the differing possible connotations of mana in Polynesia, two critical questions remain: how the concept relates to social controls that lead (or, past tense, led) to peacefulness, and how those controls relate in particular to the Tahitians.

Raymond Firth, a pioneering anthropologist from New Zealand, did path breaking field work in Tikopia, located 4,500 km (2,800 miles) west of Tahiti in the Solomon Islands, but populated by Polynesian people. He first visited Tikopia in 1928 before the island was significantly westernized, where one of his interests was a careful study of mana.

Tikopia Ritual and BeliefFirth’s article on mana, originally published in 1940, was reprinted in his 1967 book Tikopia Ritual and Belief (3). Mana, he wrote, expresses phenomena that are socially approved. In essence, mana describes results that are attained thorough positive actions. If applied to a person, it is a mark of approval, a judgment in favor of the individual. One of Firth’s informants called a statement by someone that another person has mana as a “speech of praise (1967, p.185).”

While Robert I. Levy did his field work in Tahiti long after they were westernized, he did investigate the concept of mana. Levy (1973) related it to traditional Tahitian culture. He pointed out, as Wagner did more recently, that both mana and tapu (taboo) are closely inter-related, essential concepts for understanding objects, spirits and people—and the powers that infuse them. Tapu combines sacredness and prohibition. Mana and tapu, he wrote, “are related in that the magical or political principle which legitimatizes and enforces the tapu is based on mana (p.156).” In other words, the strictures that enforce the peaceful social order are based on an understanding and acceptance of both mana and tapu.

Levy expanded on that. He wrote that in traditional Tahitian society, the people developed their concepts of tapu and mana into a system of social and political controls. Those controls were essential for forming a nonviolent social order. As of the time of his field work in Tahiti, the terms were still being used and the Tahitians were still attaching traditional meanings to them. But mana had also acquired other meanings: personal power and authority, or secular power, such as that held by the territorial governor.

It is not clear from the scholarly literature how much the concepts of mana and tapu are relevant today, though an article on mana in the Wikipedia implies that it is still viewed in both Hawaiian and Tahitian cultures as an important form of healing power and spiritual energy. Perhaps the tourist promoters will foster a renaissance of traditional Tahitian values after all with their mana campaign.

(1) Colman, Andrew M. 2015. A Dictionary of Psychology, 4th ed. Oxford University Press

(2) Wagner, Roy. 2005. “Mana.” In Encyclopedia of Religion, 2nd ed. edited by Lindsay Jones, vol. 8, p.5631-5633. Gale

(3) Firth, Raymond. 1967. Tikopia Ritual and Belief. Boston: Beacon Press. Chapter 8, “The Analysis of Mana: An Empirical Approach,” p.174-194, a reprint of an article that originally appeared in the Journal of the Polynesian Society vol.49: 483-510, 1940.