Mana (Anthropology)

The word mana and its cognates exist in a number of languages within the Oceanic branch of the Austronesian language family, most of these within the Eastern Oceanic subgroup that includes languages of Northern Vanuatu, Fiji, Rotuma, Polynesia and Central Micronesia. Social evolutionary theorists of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries worried over the defining characteristics of the various evolutionary stages, and vigorously debated the exact sequencing of those putative stages of human progress. Argument about the evolution of religion fixated partly upon the Austronesian word mana, and this term has since been a staple of anthropological and comparative religious analytics.

Robert Marett, drawing on the work of missionary ethnographer Robert Codrington (1891) who had lived in Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands, borrowed mana to describe the ‘supernatural in its positive capacity’ (Marett 1909: 128). He paired mana with a second Aus-tronesian word, tabu (taboo), which would label the supernatural’s negative mode. Marett disputed Edward Tylor’s claim that the simplest form of human religion was animism, or the belief in spiritual beings. Marett, rather, advocated an even more primitive stage — belief in an impersonal supernatural force that he split into positive mana and negative tabu. Emile Durkheim also borrowed mana to describe his ‘totemic principle’ — an indefinite sacred power, an anonymous force which is ‘the source of all religiosity’ (1915: 229).


This mana is an incorporeal supernatural force that energizes people and things, conferring efficacy upon them. Codrington’s original examples of people and things with mana included magical stones that govern the fertility of fruit trees; effective spells and charms; influential chiefs; skilful warriors; and celebrated gardeners (1891: 118-20). Mana, as a powerful substance that people can acquire and that serves to explain their abilities and accomplishments, thus has much in common with another comparative religious term, charisma.

The concept of mana has facilitated comparative religious analysis but it mistranslates Pacific religious sensibilities. fRoger Keesing (1984) assayed Eastern Oceanic linguistic data and established that mana is almost always a stative verb (which expresses a state or condition), not a noun. People and things, accordingly, are mana; they do not have mana. Keesing suggests that mana might be translated as ‘be efficacious, be successful, be realized, work’ (1984: 137). Mana is not a universal supernatural force that animates a miscellany of people and things, but rather the quality of efficacy. This explains odd, secular usages in which Islanders may characterize ancient but still functional outboard canoe motors as mana.

Notions of power as a substance or thing reflect European, rather than Pacific, cosmology. They similarly underlie European metaphors of electrical energy as a sort of tangible ‘power’, metaphors whose development paralleled that of the comparative religious discourse of mana in the nineteenth century. It is not surprising, for example, that Marett wrote of mana’s relative ‘voltage’ (1909: 138).


Anthropological interest in mana, however, has boosted that term’s modest popularity beyond the discipline, particularly in the urbanized Pacific where Western understandings of mana as a substance may now have overwritten more traditional Pacific notions of mana as a quality. The Polynesian Cultural Centre in Hawaii billed one of its flamboyant stage shows as ‘Mana’; and a glance through the Honolulu telephone directory discovers Mana Productions, Mana Publishing and Mana Trucking.

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