- Summoning the Powers Beyond: Traditional Religions in Micronesia by Jay Dobbin
Jay Dobbin, who passed away the year this book was published, identified the goal of his study as a descriptive reconstruction of preindustrial Micronesian religions. It was a formidable task, given the dynamic and varied nature of those belief systems prior to contact, their replacement or diminishment resulting from the widespread adoption of Christianity, and the fragmentary nature of the sources available. Dobbin opted for an older anthropological approach to his topic. He employed a Geertzian understanding of religion as a symbolic meaning system that provides explanation and guidance to human beings. In short, Dobbin sought to understand the religious symbols and accompanying beliefs and practices that gave meaning to Micronesians’ world. The value of this study lies in its presentation of the dynamism, fluidity, and complexity of Micronesian spirituality before and at the time of engagement with continental voyagers, missionaries, researchers, and colonial officials.
The book begins with an introductory chapter that provides definitions; identifies and critiques the ethnographic, linguistic, and archaeological sources on which it draws; and offers an overview of Micronesian religions. There follow individual chapters on the Chuukic-speaking islands, Pohnpei, Kosrae, the Marshalls, Yap, Palau, [End Page 566] and Kiribati and Nauru. As is so often the case with studies of Micronesian histories and cultures, the Mariana Islands are largely omitted because of their earlier, extensive, prolonged, and assumedly fatal exposure to Spanish colonialism. A concluding chapter provides a summary of the similarities and variations that characterize Micronesian religions. According to Dobbin, what made Micronesian religions “Micronesian” were shared or similar beliefs in a hierarchy of deities and spirits; the order and organization of varying cosmological schemes; common ritual patterns that infuse the practices of divination, healing, and curing; an understanding of death as a rite of passage to another place; and a general wariness regarding the spirits of the dead.
Dobbin’s chapter on the Chuukicspeaking islands that stretch from Tobi in the west to the Mortlocks in the east is his most detailed and compelling. These islands evidence what anthropologist Mac Marshall has termed the essence of “Micronesianness.” The genealogy of this region’s gods is remarkably consistent. The sky god Wonofáát or Olofat is found across this arc of islands, though his personality and actions vary. The prevalence of sacred places and the classes of people, often priests, who inhabited or served these places constitute two other common features of Micronesian religions. Dobbin, himself a Roman Catholic priest, concluded that Micronesian religions were not ones of excessive ritual or religiously sanctioned taboos. He understood them as religions of life that focused on the practicalities and necessities of daily living and that possessed a devotion to a variety of art forms ranging from canoe building to dance, tattooing, and weaving. Dobbin believed that “the gentle nature of Micronesian religion is a considerable achievement in a world that has sacralized torture, death, cannibalism, and mass human sacrifice” (221).
Dobbin was very much a believer in Micronesia. He made clear at the outset of his study that there exists a sufficient degree of cultural similarity among the islands to speak confidently of a Micronesia and its religions. The assertion ultimately comes across as strained, at least to this reader. Differences tend to be minimized as variations in an attempt to maintain the integrity and viability of the term “Micronesia.” The linguistic and cultural differences that separate Yap, Palau, and the Marianas from the rest of the region are largely muted. The distinctiveness of Palau’s precontact religion, with its emphasis on the wealth and advantage to be derived from ancestral spirits, is too quickly put aside in favor of features that resemble those of other islands.
Other differences are examined but without challenging the thematic concept of a Micronesia. There are the very particular political roles assumed by Pohnpeian priests at such prominent religious sites as Salapwuk, Wone, and...