Kato'aga: Rotuman Ceremonies

by Elizabeth K. Inia

Table of Contents


Part 1: Components of Ceremony

'Epa, Apei, and Päega: Ceremonial Mats
Koua: Earth Ovens
'Umefe: Chiefly Tables
Tefui: Garlands
Lolo: Anointing Oil
Mena: Turmeric
Mafua: Knowledgeable Elders
Fumarä'e: The Man in Charge
Etiquette and Manners
Numbers and Measurements

Part 2: Ceremonies

Death and Funerals
Birth Rituals
First Birthday
Hapagsu: Recurrence Prevention
Majau: The Power to Heal
Ag Forau: Farewell to Travellers
Mamasa: Welcoming Ceremonies
Installation of a Chief
Homage to Chiefs
Koua Puha
Ancient Marriage Rituals
Modern Marriage Customs

Rotuman Indigenous Spirituality

Ancient Marriage Customs

Child Betrothal

In the old days, marriages were sometimes contracted while the couple was very young (preadolescent). The boy's parents chose a certain girl to marry their son. They approached the girl's parents, and if the latter agreed, the boy's parents brought him to the girl's home so that they could meet. Parents initiated this kind of betrothal ('inos af'aki) in order to gain material benefits such as access to land.

The boy's parents made a hata (bier) and put over it three mats (agrua, 'eap ma 'on faua, apei) as a päega. They carried the boy to the girl's family with a koua. They had a feast with the girl's family, who also provided a koua. During the feast, the girl sat with the boy on a päega provided by her family.

The boy's family left the mats from the hata as a gift with the girl's family, who had to replace them with three comparable mats from the päega they had made for the couple. After the feast, the boy and girl were seated on the new päega on the hata and carried to the boy's home with two koua provided by the girl's family. The first koua was called a'aragi (to get fresh air). It was a provision for the travellers on their way to the boy's home in case they had to travel for a long distance. The second koua was the a'au or asi (to go after, to follow). It had to reach its destination because it created an obligation for the couple to return to the girl's home later on. They stayed at the boy's home for a period of time and were entertained by his relatives until his parents decided it was time to send them back.

They were returned to the girl's home on the hata, which again had to be furnished with a päega of three new mats and two koua, the a'aragi and a'au (or asi). The courtship process took place over a long period of time and involved numerous visits back and forth. On each excursion, the young couple sat on a päega of three mats atop the hata, and were accompanied by two koua. Only new mats could be used for these päega, so enough time had to be allotted between visits to allow new mats to be made. The boy and girl stayed together during this period, either at the girl's or boy's home, but always under supervision.

As the couple were carried from one place to another, those accompanying them sang the following song:

'Eue ue haisoroga te',

Oh! Oh! We are walking to and fro,

Sorsor ne mou se seia.

Wondering who will give up first.

As this song suggests, such courtships were often terminated before marriage, because the burden of providing mats and pigs was so great. Usually the boy's side gave up first, after which the girl's family sang this song:

'Alet ta noh ka 'äe sulea,

The serpent was sleeping peacefully, but you poked her,

Tak 'e sasaga ka 'äe täea.

She was lying on the beam but you touched her.

This was a way of teasing the boy's side for starting the whole affair and not following through.

If the courtship continued until the couple became of age, a proper marriage ceremony ('inos 'e 'on ava) was held. The boy's family presented a koua (mo' hani) to the girl's side to acknowledge their agreeing to the match. To lend dignity to the occasion, a chief from the boy's side might accompany the presentation.

In cases in which this kind of child betrothal had not taken place, the process of initiating a marriage began with sok fäega. A chief or any near relative of the boy went to the girl's parents to inform them that they wished the girl to be the wife of the boy they represented.

If her parents agreed, the süf hani followed. The chiefs from the boy's side went to the girl's home with a fia' he (small kava plant) or a koua. Ideally they did this early in the morning (about 6 or 7 am), to demonstrate their eagerness. If they came later, say about 10 am, the girl's family might think they were not very interested. On this occasion, unlike any other, the chiefs entered through the back door.

After conversing with the visiting chiefs the bride's family served them breakfast, which could include food from the süf hani party's koua. The girl came out to shake hands with the chiefs, giving them a chance to have a good look at her. The girl's parents and the chiefs discussed the date, partly dependent on the age of the girl and partly to allow time to plait mats. Besides the date, the boy's party were waiting to hear the parents of the girl say whether they planned to have a big formal wedding (re faksu) or just a simple one (kat re faksu ra).

Responsibilities of the Bride's and Groom's Parties

After the süf hani koua, if they decided to re faksu, each party met with their own relatives to assign work needed to prepare for the wedding. Men and women held separate meetings in this regard. The man who presided over the men's meeting was known as the fa puer su; the woman presiding over the women's meeting was the han puer su. For a proper wedding, nine koua were required from the boy's side and six from the girl's side. The men from the boy's side provided:

1. 'Amaho: breakfast on the wedding day.

2. Fakpou: the first koua taken to the girl's place, which meant they were going to get married.

3. Koua ne mose: the koua brought with the boy when he and the girl were to sleep together.

4. Fakasoko: a koua brought by the boy's side to the girl's side on the third day to acknowledge the consummation of the marriage.

5. 'Ofiag sope: a koua for the ceremonial cutting of the couple's hair.

6. Laloag ne su ta: the main meal at the wedding feast.

7. A'vahiag su ta: the last meal for the couple and relatives.

8. 'Omoe: the evening meal.

9. Paag ri: a koua for "putting up the walls."[1]

The men from the bride's side had to make six koua:

1. 'Amaho

2. Fakpou

3. 'Ofiag sope

4. Laloag ne su ta

5. A'vahiag su ta

6. 'Omoe

The women from the groom's side had to provide:

1. The mosega (marriage bed), composed of any number of agrua, 'eap ma 'on faua, and apei.

2. A kuruga (wooden pillow) for the mosega.

3. A mosquito net (of 'uha, the tapa cloth made from the bark of the mulberry tree, until cloth mosquito netting was introduced by Europeans).

4. Taga (a bag made from an apei, and filled with folded apei). All the apei brought from the groom's side were stuffed into the taga. Right in the middle was the best apei (tö'rere), to be given to the bride's 'a su (chiefly representative).

5. A päega made up of mats and apei that preceded the procession to the bride's home. It was added to the päega prepared by the bride's side.

6. Paag ri (apei and mats—putting the walls back up).

7. Osi (an apei to wrap around the bride as new clothing, plus other decorations such as lei [small whale's teeth, shaped to wear around the neck by women of high rank, or by young beautiful girls], tefui and flowers for the ears).

8. For the 'ofiag sope (hair-cutting ritual), the groom's sigoa provided an apei and 'eap ma 'on faua, and the sharp shells for cutting the bride's hair.

The women on the bride's side had to provide the following for the te fakhanisi (gifts):

1. Farao ta (10 agrua) for covering the floor.

2. 'Eap ma 'on faua (20).

3. 'Eap hapa (any number, the more the better, topped by all the rest of the apei and a tapa mosquito net).

4. The bride's moseag hoa'ho'a (travelling bed).

5. A kuruga.

6. 'Ofiag sope: The bride's sigoa provided an apei and 'eap ma 'on faua, and the sharp shells for cutting the groom's hair.

7. 'At fara: A small purse containing essentials for wedding night: potea (oil) in a pirorogo (small gourd), 'as hapa (half shell of the 'asi [cockle] in which the oil and mena were mixed), mena, reureu (bit of soft tapa cloth for cleaning up after intercourse), and maliha (very soft, cool piece of white lily stem on which the blood could be seen clearly).

8. Osi (an apei to wrap around the groom as new clothing, plus a tefui).

Preliminary Ceremonies

In the old days, the main wedding ceremonies were performed only after the couple had consummated the marriage. The ceremonies were performed over a five-day span, beginning with 'amaho (breakfast). Some of the groom's relatives brought a koua to the bride's side where another koua (also called 'amaho) had been prepared. On the first day the walls of the bride's home, where the wedding was to be held, were taken down.

Later in the day, a group of men from the groom's side arrived with another koua, the fakpou. The men in this party brought with them a hata (bier) topped by a päega (three mats: agrua, 'eap ma 'on faua, apei). A brother or other close male relative of the groom lifted the bride onto the hata (and later lifted her off it). While she was seated on the hata, the men carried her around the outside of her house, or perhaps around the village for a while. This was called fakpou (like the mast of a ship); it symbolized her special status as a bride, because only high chiefs and sau were carried in this fashion. Everyone present then partook of a feast from the fakpou koua.

On the second day, a party of men from the bride's side went to the groom's home to do the same with him. A brother or other close male relative of the bride lifted him onto and off of the hata. The men brought with them their own hata topped by a päega for the bridegroom to sit on, and a koua for the fakpou. After carrying the groom around for a while, those present shared in a feast, after which everyone went home.

On the third day the boy's relatives took him with the koua ne mose to the girl's side. The groom went with a contingent of men and women; the men brought the koua and the women took the mosega. When they arrived at the bride's side, the ag 'inoso took place. This involved people from neighbouring districts who had been invited to dance and sing for the bride and groom, who sat on a päega (ag 'inoso means facing the bride and groom and entertaining them). The entertainment, which the bride's side presented, continued all night long. While the entertainment was going on, the women from the men's side prepared the mosega inside the house. They made a curtain of tapa cloth or used an apei to screen off one end (roki) of the house in which they made the bridal bed. [2] First they spread the agrua, then the 'eap ma 'on faua, 'eap hapa, topped by an apei. They placed the kuruga on top of this, and hung the mosquito net. Finally, by the side of the bed, they placed a taga (a pile of rolled-up apei wrapped inside an apei), made from the apei that were left over from the la'o. They put the best apei right in the middle as tö'rere (tö' meaning to break, and rere signifying top). The girl's family took the best mat of the mosega to the 'a su of the bride soon after the couple went back to the groom's home (na 'inoso).

The bride, or her female elders, prepared a moseag hoa'hoa' heta (travelling bed) for the bride to take with her to the groom's home to use at night; she brought it back to her home when she returned there to stay. This moseag hoa'hoa' heta consisted of a small brown mat ('eap ma 'on faua), an apei, and a mosquito net. The couple slept on these mats, which the bride's attendants put on top of the bridal bed that the women from the groom's side had prepared earlier, before nightfall. The bride's attendants put aside the mosquito net that had been hung by the other women and used the one in the moseag hoa'hoa' heta.

At some point during the evening the couple were expected to take their leave and go to bed. One or two female elders from the groom's side went with the couple to advise the groom how to have intercourse with his wife. Because virginity was valued, the women looked for blood as proof that the bride's hymen had been intact. If the bride proved not to be a virgin, the groom was released from his obligation to marry her.

The Wedding Day

Early the next morning, on the fourth day, the bride's attendants folded the moseag hoa'hoa' heta and put it aside, together with the mosquito net the couple had used, hanging the former one back in place. Her attendants did the same every morning and evening, leaving the original bridal bed clean and unstained, because these mats, along with those that composed the bride's te fakhanisi to the groom, were to be given to the relatives who helped prepare for the wedding. The distribution of mats took place when the couple moved to the groom's home (see na 'inoso) and when they returned to the bride's home.

On the fourth morning, in preparation for their ritual bath, the bride and groom were wrapped in apei provided by bride's side. The bride's side made a päega on a hata and the couple were seated on it and carried down to the sea to bathe. They washed each other; the girl lay face up in the water and the boy face down. They were given new apei (osi) to put on and were carried back on a hata prepared by the groom's side to the päega inside the house where they had sat the night before. The mats from the groom's side's päega on the hata were added to the päega inside the house. These mats were placed underneath the bride's apei, which had to remain on top. The bride and groom sat on the päega flanked by their respective 'a su and chiefs.

A few men closely related to the groom brought their koua fakasoko (or kao filo'u, to break heads) and sat by waiting while a man from the bride's side came dancing with a club and hit them on the head sufficiently hard to draw blood. After bloodying the men from the groom's side, he bloodied himself with his club. This part of the ceremony was held only if the bride had been a virgin. The shedding of their blood was a form of reciprocation for the blood shed by the virgin bride at the hands of the groom. Each of the groom's close relatives whose heads had been bloodied was given an apei from those wrapped around the couple before they went into the sea to bathe, or from the päega of the hata that carried them down to the sea. All these white mats came from the bride's side.

This was the actual wedding day, the day of most rejoicing for both parties. It took place after the bride had been proven a virgin.

Nin Su: Anointing the Couple

A young woman from the bride's side then came forward to the päega where the couple were seated to anoint them (nin su) with oil mixed with turmeric. She smeared the mixture on their faces, making marks like half-moons on each cheek. The woman then garlanded the bride and groom with tefui. This marked the couple as husband and wife.

Fit'ak Te: Spreading the White Mats

The nin su was followed by fit'ak te, the spreading of white mats in front of the 'a su, the couple, and the chiefs. First the apei from the groom's side were brought to the front and piled up. These were the apei that had been wrapped in a taga and set aside near the bed. First, a woman brought the best apei (tö'rere), which had been in the middle of the taga, showed it (iat'ak) to the 'a su of the bride, then laid it down. Other women followed, bringing the rest of the white mats and piling them on top of the first one. Two women then started to unfold the apei, one on top of the other, for public inspection. The first one, the one shown to the bride's 'a su, topped the whole lot, and the 'a su saw for herself that the best of the white mats really would come to her afterwards. Then the two women started folding the white mats, which were taken away.

After the groom's side had displayed and taken back all its white mats, the bride's side brought and displayed its white mats in the same manner. Her relatives showed the tö'rere to the groom's 'a su, then presented it to the chief after the couple had slept on the bed and all the ceremonies were finished.

'Öf Sope: Hair-cutting Ritual

Next came the 'öf sope. The groom's sigoa[3] carried a folded apei on top of a folded 'eap ma 'on faua, along with a sharpened shell [in modern times, a pair of scissors with colourful ribbons tied to it]. She knelt in front of the bride and cut a lock of hair from each tugito, or sope (a plait of hair hanging on either side of her head as a sign that she was unmarried). [4] The hair that was cut fell onto the apei and 'epa that the woman was holding, and the mats with her hair were placed beside the bride. The bride's sigoa then came forward to cut the sope of the groom in the same way, except that the sope of the groom was a single plait on top of his head, which had not been cut since the time of his birth. The apei with his hair on it was placed next to him. This resulted in an exchange of apei between the two sigoa because they were entitled to take each other's apei home with them, but they might also decide to leave them as presents for the couple.

While the fit'ak te and 'öf sope were taking place, the group that was invited to entertain on the wedding day (ag su) performed a tautoga. They came well prepared to dance until late in the evening, with songs composed especially about the bride and groom. [5] The han mane'ak su (female clown; literally, the woman who plays the wedding) continued to entertain the crowd the whole day. She ordered everyone to do whatever she wanted; she even had the power to order the chiefs around. All the people had to do as she said, for instance, to kneel in the sun, to dance, to bring drinks. She carried a big stick as a sign of her authority; she used it to point at people when telling them what to do, and could even hit them if they were reluctant to act. Her antics made everyone laugh. [6]

'Ate Ta: Wedding Feast

After the two rituals, the fit'ak te and 'öf sope, the wedding feast was served. The koua from both parties were brought in front of the couple, the two 'a su, and the chiefs, for the mafua to announce in the usual manner. Five types of koua were involved.

1) The fakasoko, in honour of taking the bride's virginity, was eaten with the main meal.

2) The 'ofiag sope, from the sigoa of the bride and the sigoa of the groom, was also eaten with the main meal, the wedding feast.

3) The laloag ne su ta, from both parties, supplied most of the food for the wedding feast. Before the announcement of the feast, the mafua had to thank the entertainers and tell them that the end of their dancing had come, as evening was approaching.

The men served the feast in the chiefly way for the important people. The fumarä'e was in charge of food that was left after they took out the chiefly fono. The fumarä'e gave a portion of food to the parties of each of the two sigoa. On rows of coconut and banana leaves on the ground, the men placed the rest of the food for all the visitors: taro, yams, papai, pork, roast beef, corned beef, watermelon, pineapple, and sugar-cane.

4) Soon after the main feast was finished and the visitors were moving away, the groom's male relatives brought the next koua, called a'vahiag su. The mafua announced it, and the men served it. Then the kava makers, servers, and close relatives of the couple ate. The couple and the village chiefs who were still present joined in the feast.

5) The bride's and groom's parties prepared the 'omoe, or evening meal. The families of the bride and groom, the ag 'inoso or entertainers for the evening, and others who remained together with the newlywed couple, then ate. During the 'omoe, plans for the next day were confirmed.

On the fifth day, the groom's party arrived in the morning, bringing the paag ri koua with the a'au or asi. The latter was brought on the same day as the paag ri koua because otherwise it was hard to send the new couple to the groom's home. The men who brought these koua reconstructed the walls of the bride's family house.

On this day, the bride and groom were taken to the groom's home (na 'inoso). The bride's female relatives assembled the mats to be taken for the fau ceremony and as te fakhanisi (gifts) to the groom's side, along with two koua:a'aragi and a'au (asi). The a'aragi koua accompanied the bride and groom who were seated on a päega on a hata and carried by men from the bride's side. The a'au followed the a'aragi in procession and lent weight to the request to have the couple returned to the bride's home.

Before coming to the groom's home, at the compound of a nearby house, the women accompanying the bride laid an agrua mat on the ground, topped by an apei, ready for the fau ceremony. They left these two mats there as a present to whoever owned the ground where the fau was held. As the bride and groom stood on the mats, the bride's mother and her close relatives wrapped the couple in apei they had plaited. Men from the groom's party, who had come to meet them at the compound, carried the bride and groom to the groom's home. The bride's 'a su preceded the couple. At the groom's home, the groom's people laid down agrua topped by an apei in front of the house. They set the couple down on the mats and unwrapped them. The fau mats were shared among the groom's close relatives. The 'a su led the couple inside the house where a päega had been prepared for them by the groom's relatives and a welcome feast was served.

The te fakhanisi was the bride's present to the groom, including all the mats that were brought by the visiting bride's party. The mosquito net, pillow, and 'at fara were then brought inside and piled in front of the päega. The mats had to be brought in order: first the apei, then the 'eap hapa, 'eap ma 'on faua, and agrua last. Then the men brought the koua. The mafua from the groom's party announced the gifts and the koua. The women who brought the mats and other items then took them to the end of the house allocated to the couple, where they prepared the marital bed. The mats were quietly passed to the two women who were designated to make the bed. First came the farao (10 agrua topped by an apei and a mosquito net); then the women spread the mosega mats in this order: 'epa ma 'on faua, 'eap hapa, and all the remaining apei. They placed the pillow on the apei and hung a mosquito net over the bed. They hung the 'at fara at the foot of the bed.

The elderly women accompanying the bride brought with them the moseag hoa'ho'a (folded, unlike the display of the te fakhanisi), on which the couple had slept the night before, and placed it beside the newly made bed. When it was time to go to bed, they spread these mats on top of the mosega, took down the mosquito net, and replaced it with the one from the moseag hoa'ho'a.

Ever After

The newlyweds stayed at the groom's home for a couple of days, after which they returned to the bride's home, where they stayed indefinitely. The groom's parents might have said to him, "Or un" (Tie with sennit), metaphorically encouraging him to be patient and stick with his commitment. The groom brought his bush knife (the main tool for doing gardening) and his own clothes with him; the bride brought the mosegahoa'ho'a. The young people who had been entertaining the couple at the boy's place accompanied them to the girl's place, singing and dancing. An a'aragi koua was taken to the girl's house but not another a'au koua this time, because the couple were going to stay there permanently. The girl's family made a koua to welcome the couple home, together with the party of entertainers who took their leave after the feast.

Notes to Ancient Marriage Customs

[1] Weddings in the old days took place inside the bride's house. The walls of the girl's house were taken down prior to the ceremony and put back up later. back to text

[2] Traditional Rotuman houses had rounded ends. Both ends of the house were usually screened off as sleeping areas. The middle of the house was for entertaining, ceremonies, and other activities open to public view. back to text

[3] If the groom's sigoa is a man, a close female relative (such as a sister) of his performs this ceremony. back to text

[4] Nowadays, they merely pass the scissors over the head without cutting any hair. back to text

[5] The ag su dancers presented an apei and 'epa to the couple before the performance, and after the main meal (laloag ne su ta), they departed, having been given te fakhanisi (mats and food) by the bride's side. back to text

[6] For more about the han mane'ak su, see Vilsoni Hereniko's book, Woven Gods(University of Hawai'i Press, Honolulu, 1995). back to text

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