Tattooing in the Marshall Islands

The Social Context of Tattooing

The land area of the atolls of the Marshall Islands is very limited, with much of the land not useful for settlement and intensive horticulture. The limited amount of land coupled with occurrence of natural desasters, such as typhoon, implied not only tight controls of the population size, but also of the use of the avialable resources. The chiefs exerted control over the use of the resource and determined which was harvested when and where, etc. Most of the chiefs had linkeages beyond the atoll of residence, commonly due to family and clanship ties. This allowed to offset the effects of disasters on ones own atoll by calling upon the resources of others.

These linkeages made long distance voyaging necessary. As most Micronesian atoll populations, the Marshallese were superb seafarers who ventured far. They were as much and probably even more at home at sea than they were on the thin strips of land making up their atolls. [337]

The Marshallese koine, the world in which they sailed, ranged from at least Kosrae [338] and Pohnpei in the west, [339] to central Kiribati and Banaba (Ocean I.) in the south, Eneen-Kio in the north and Johnston and probably Hawaii in the east. [340] The world they knew about, however, was considerably larger, as they had been in contact with the people they had visited, as well as with the people who had visited them either intentionally or accidentally, namely Central and Western Carolineans (Yapese) [341] and i-Kiribati, [342] both of which had extensive contacts of their own. In addition, their own accidental dispersals carried the Marshallese far afield. [343]

Why tattooing?
The Marshallese view

The reasons given by the Marshallese for why they were tattooed range from social and societal distinction to the aim to avoid ageing skin showing folds and wrinkles. [344] At the turn of the century, tattooing was described by many Marshallese as something permanent, some reminder (muaga) of being Marshallese. [345] In the literature the religious component of tattooing is often downplayed, [346] and this opinion is perpetuated by authors of Christian (missionary) background. [347] Other authors equally strongly disagree. [348] According to the authors downplaying the religeous context, the main aim of the tattoo, is said to have been the decoration of the body for artistic purposes. This statement, however, needs some discussion and analysis. Tattooing documented that the person could endure pain and thus prove himself/herself worthy. It also visually documented a certain economic wealth and standing, as the tattoo had to be paid for with food and mats. If the person was not wealthy enough, a professionally executed tattoo could either not be afforded [349] or the execution was conducted by relatives, such as ones mother. [350]

Kr¥mer mentions that the face tattoo in the Marshall Islands is "not as artistic by far as the spiral facial design of the Maori of New Zealand. It fulfills the same purpose, however, here as well as there, which is to impart a demonical and terrifying aspect to its wearer and also to make him seem rich, in short to give him more prestige". [351] It needs to be noted that while the irooj had by definition both wealth (i.e. access to resources) and prestige, the latter could be increased by appropriate tattoos. However, tattooing is also reported to have increased the desireability of the tattooed person by the other sex. Some tattooes, both among men and women, were commonly concealed by clothing and could only seen at close contact.

Origin of Marshallese tattooing

Tattooing is found throughout Oceania and in such a variety, with such a diversity of patterns and motifs that it is futile to seek a hypothetical origin. [352] There are some data on the Marshallese conception of a divine origin of tattooing, which indicates some of the spiritual connections it has. Let us review these.

In contrast to other kinds of body decoration, tattooing was considered by the Marshallese as something lasting, imperishable, and a gift of the gods. [353] The origin of tattooing in the Marshall Islands is of divine command. The main gods of tattooing were Lewáj and Lanij. [354] Lowa sent two of his sons, Lanij and Lewáj to Ailinglaplap. The two gods were said to have lived on Bouj (”ne-piÀ) on Ailinglaplap Atoll for a while, where they taught the irooj the spiritual and social lore which made up the traditional fabric of Marshallese society. They tattooed all the living creatures, [355] thus giving them special colours and markings. These two gods are said to have come to the people and said

"You must become tattooed, so that you become beautiful, and that your skin does not shrink [and thus become wrinkly] with age. The fish in the ocean are striped and have lines, and because of this the people must also have such lines. Everything will pass after death, only the tattoos will remain; they will outlive you. A human will leave all and everything behind on earth, all his/her belongings; only the tattoo will be taken into the grave." [356]

Thus only the tattooes will be taken to the spritual island Eb, the land of the dead. Traditionally, after death all belongings were distributed among relatives and the bodies of commoners were cast to sea. Irooj were comonly buried on land with little in terma of grave goods.

In other oral traditions all people, lizard people, and rat people [357] and all animals congregate on Bouj to become tattooed. [358] All animals [of Bikini] came to this tattooing ceremony in the first canoe, but the canoe sank. [359] This tradition again documents the predominance of Ailinglaplap at the time of its recording. [360]

Lewáj and Lanij are gods/heroes who appear often in the mythology of the Marshall Islands, and who are responsible for many good things, such as planting stars in the sky, [361]

The anthropogeny differs for the Ralik and the Ratak Chains (figures 87 and 88). In both interpretations Lanij and Lewoj are brothers, either direct decendenats of Wullep or his sister. The Marshallese cosmogeny sees for main gods (figure 89), located at each corner of the world, together with the god Laidekjet, who resided at the bottom of the sea. The middle ground and the sky were the realm of Lanej and Lewáj. Both were regarded as the highest gods as they watched when all other gods slept. [362]

Figure 87. Anthropogeny of the Ralik Chain.

Figure 88. Anthropogeny of the Ratak Chain

The anidj Rebokota learnt tattooing on ”ne-piÀ and took it with him to Rongelap. [363] In addition, the god Ludjiru¥we played a major role in some traditions on tattooing, though at the time of his fieldwork, Kr¥mer stated in his treatise on Marshallese tattooing, that tattooing had already become almost extinct and he could not elicit any further details on their relationship.

Figure 89. Cosmogeny of the Marshall Islands

The spiritual nature of tattooing

It has been mentioned earlier on that sacrifices were made to the gods related to tattooing. In addition, the gods were asked for good omens to commence and execute the tattooing. Failure to do so, or execution of a tattoo without divine assent, was believed to cause the sea to come over the land and to cause the destruction of the island(s). [364] The gods punishment brought in the form of a transgression of the sea, the single-most destructive event that could befall the people, was used as a threat to enforce a number of social rules and taboos.

The main body of knowledge on tattooing was in the hands of the irooj, who had the skills of divination and the like. In view of the numerous restrictions, mainly of sexual nature, connected with the exercise of these skills, the irooj maintained sorcerers or magicians (ri-bubu, ri-joubwe) who forecast the future, and acted as general advisors. [365] The body of traditional knowledge kept by the irooj and the ri-bubu was originally imparted by the two gods Lewoj and Lanij, who had also brought the skills of tattooing to the Marshall Islands. These ri-bubu then, were in charge of the tattooing ceremony, although the physical execution of the tattoos, the craftsmanship, was not restricted to them. The chiefs, however, were the authorities who whould approve of or who would deny the tattooing of a person. [366]

Who is tattooed?

The question of who was and who was not tattooed is very complicated to answer, as many authors appear to be confused. In many cases short term observations from one island or atoll were generalised for the entire group. An example of this is the observation by the German sailor Eisenhardt, who stated for the mid 1880s that the women on Ailuk Atoll were not tattooed. [367]

Tattoing was apparently governed by rank, gender and age. Curtis, based on oral traditions collected on Lae, asserts that men of both low and high rank were tattoed, while among women tattoes were restricted to those of chiefly rank. [368]

Observations among the tattooed men showed that

"All the men adopted pretty nearly the same design and only four lines, with which he cheek is decorated from the temple to the jaw bone are the exclusive design of the high chiefs." [369]

Kotzebue and Chamisso, writing for Wotje and some atolls of the northern Ratak Chain state:

"the artistically delicate tattooing is different according to sex, otherwise uniform for everyone. Besides [a] regular design, which is executed only on adults and is lacking in a few, they all have groups of symbols or lines tattooed on them as children on loins, arms, or more rarely, on the face." [370]

Chamisso mentions a young chief who was more richly and more elegantly decorated than a lower ranking individual. [371] In the same vein, Erdland mentions that tattooing was not restricted to, but most common among chiefly people. [372] The acquisition of tattoos seems also to have been related to the age of the individual. Choris, artist on the Kotzebue expedition, claims in his account that all men over 20 years of age are tattooed, while all women over 17 years have a tattoo of some kind. [373] Kotzebue mentions that a young chief (from Airok, Maloleap Atoll) and his sister had not been tattooed. He speculated that the fact that the entire tattoo is applied in one prolonged session (which was not the case) may have mitigated against tattooing at an early age. [374] Children may have some of their arms and legs tattooed. [375]

The age factor is highlighted by the following observation: The Marshallese distinguished a number of age stages a human being would go through: Jodikdik Childhood Jokanekan Adolescence Jolaplap Adulthood Jomij Age of the complete tattoo Jobidodo Old age. [376] Although elaborate tattoos seem to be a mark of greater age, younger individuals would wear small tattoos, mainly in form of ornament bands around their upper arms and thighs. [377]

The different tattoo designs are differentiated according to gender. For example, generally speaking, men have no tattooing on the leg, other than, at most, a zigzag diagonal line on the thigh or a couple of crossêbars on the calf. [378] Women may have a more elaborate design. Cheek and face tattoos, on the other hand, were a societal marker, and restricted to chiefly men. [379] Tattooing of irooj was generally also distributed "over parts of the body that are spared on the common man: sides, loins, neck, or arms." [380] Erdland points out that half-caste women were also tattooed, [381] which indicates that tattooing was not limited to pure blooded Marshallese. On the other hand the Msrshallese inheritance is matrilineal and thus women play(ed) a greater role, half-caste or not.

Who is not tattooed?

It is also interesting to observe who is not tattooed and as such is clearly distinguished from the rest. Tattooing does not seem to have been compulsory, as in the last quarter of the 19th century chiefly women could be seen without any tattoo on their arms or shoulders. [382] It is unclear, however, whether these women had a "secret" tattoo. [383]

According to Kotzebue [384} the people of Utirik and Taka Atoll, in the north of the Ratak Chain, were not tattooed at the begining of the 19th century. Whether this is an observation based on a selctive sample of people then present or whether it is an accurate statement of the stuation remains unclear.

Who tattooes ?

In traditional times, it seems, professional tattooing was executed by tattoo master craftsmen (ri-eo), [385] who were possibly also sourcerers or performers of other religious rites or medicinal people. In former times the investiture of this form of ornamentation was accompanied by detailed ceremonies and the cost was so excessive that the person had to work all year to pay the priest. [386] Hernsheim wrote
"Elaborate tattooing covers almost the entire body. In former times times tattooing had been connected with a whole series of complicated rituals, and the fee which the priest received for it was so high that a poor man had to work for years before he could afford to have a desired ornament." [387]

There seems to have been a cult which tattooed and practised magic. The term el is known for this cult. [388] It is interesting to note that the term also applies to a canoe part, the place where one sits, just behind the middle. Hernsheim asserts for the 1870s that there were still special people who did the tattooes. [389] According to Finsch, writing ten years later, there were no professional tattooers, and a number of people of both sexes perform tattooing, such as Kabua tattooing himself and intending to tattoo his own son Lailing [390], or being tattooed by someones mother to cut down the costs involved. [391] Finsch mentions that both genders tattoo, and that women have been known to have tattooed men. According to Erdland, chiefs insisted on their women being tattooed to raise their attractiveness. Often, this tattoo was executed by the husbands themselves. [392]

Importance of tattooing in the eyes of the Marshallese

According to Erdland of all ornaments, the Marshallese placed the greatest pride and ambition into their tattoos. [393] Tattooing, therefore, was not something which the Marshallese easily bestowed upon nonêMarshallese, even if they were received warmly and with friendship by the Marshallese. In the early 19th century, Chamisso, as well as some other Russian sailors apparently attempted very persistently to receive a tattoo. The Marshallese ostensibly agreed, only to put off the tattooing by a variety of arguments, ranging from pain to be endured to medical reasons, such as potential inflammation, until it was to late and the Europeans had to leave. [394]

Because all traditional customs were being given up, tattooing had also become also a dying art in the mid of last century. [395] Tattooing was connected to "strength," i.e. personal valor during the operation. Since the social values changed in the 1870s and tattooing has lost its significance "much to the regret of the chiefs and soothsayers, who formerly received much return for it." [396] Yet, still in the 1910s, according to Father Erdland, tattooing was regarded by the (older?) Marshallese as the single most important heritage handed down from their ancestors. [397] This is indicative of the social value which had been attached to tattooing.

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Bibliographic citation for this document

Spennemann, Dirk H.R. (1998). Tattooing in the Marshall Islands Second edition. Albury:

Dirk H.R. Spennemann, Institute of Land, Water and Society, Charles Sturt University, P.O.Box 789, Albury NSW 2640, Australia.

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