Mana is the Polynesian and Melanesian concept of communicable supernatural power. This is a variant of a probably universal belief in a power that exists to varying degrees in things in nature. In most cultures, it is believed that the power is vital for the interactive participatory role of things in an interconnected cosmos, but in great concentrations it can be dangerous. It is stronger in animate things than in inanimate things, and it is stronger in higher order things than in simpler things; people have more mana than do animals; and in kings and spiritual beings, its intensity is dangerous to ordinary people. Mana is, indeed, the essence of sacredness or holiness.
It is because their communicable mana is so intense that Polynesian kings were veiled and carried, and because one’s shadow is an extension of oneself, care was taken that kings’ shadows did not fall on ordinary citizens. The personal attendants to Polynesian kings were obliged to submit to magical rituals to remove the potentially harmful royal mana from their hands when their services were ended. In Melanesia, the intensity and dynamism of mana may vary among members of the same class of things, so fishermen or hunters will treat carefully the particular fishhook, net, or spear that seems to be especially efficient, and if it loses its power, magical rituals will be enacted to strengthen it.
Mana-like Power Elsewhere
If supernatural beings are conceptualized as ranked hierarchically in a society, gods will have more power than other kinds of spirits and the Supreme Being will have the greatest concentration of power. The intensity of divine power is illustrated in the biblical concept of God’s “glory,” famous as the cause of the shepherds’ terror in the Christmas story. In Exodus, Moses asks God to reveal Himself, but God replies, “You cannot see my face, for no one can see me and live”; nevertheless, when Moses came down from the mountain, his people were frightened because his face was shining from being so close to God. Subsequently, after his talks with God, Moses veiled himself to protect his people from the contagious divine power.
Some well-described cultural concepts of mana-like power include Iroquois orenda, Algonquian manitou, Sioux wakan, Malay kramat, Indian brahma, Greek dynamis, Chinese qi, West African Yoruba àshé and its Caribbean derivatives (aché and axé), Islam baraka, Hindu and Buddhist healing systems’ karma and chakras, the alleged “energies” in Therapeutic Touch and Reiki, and ideas of flowing streams of power in the earth such as “leylines” in Britain and Europe and variants of qi as earth energies addressed in the Chinese geomantic system of feng shui. For reasons similar to those in Polynesian monarchies, some African kings were veiled, carried in public, and otherwise separated from commoners. In popular use today, the term mana sometimes means an inherent power to bring good luck or good health. New Age adherents to the health food movement of the 1970s and 1980s regarded some “natural” foods as containing mana, charged with a beneficial life force, whereas certain sugary or processed foods were taboo and harmful. In Melanesia, found rocks or other objects with unusual or suggestive shapes might be presumed to have beneficial mana and would be used magically. Similarly, the southern U.S. African American concept of mojo, as a beneficial power vested in certain things and behaviors, is a mana-like concept.
Mana in Anthropology
The mana concept seems to have been brought to the attention of anthropology by Robert H. Codrington, a missionary in Melanesia from 1883 to 1887, and it has been important during various stages of the history of the discipline. Continuing the late 19th-century inquiries into the development of religion, in his 1909 work The Threshold of Religion, R. R. Marett presented mana as a more basic concept than a belief in spiritual beings and thus was prompted to propose what he called “animatism” as a precursor to the “animism” proposed by E. B. Tylor as the earliest form of religious beliefs. Marcel Mauss and Henri Hubert used mana as the basis for their 1902-1903 construction of a “general theory” of magic and were later criticized by Claude Lévi-Strauss and others for generalizing from a culture-specific concept.
Herein lies a caution, indicated by various scholars over several decades: Generalizing about mana might violate a fundamental premise of anthropology. Anthropologists emphasize that culture-specific emic concepts might not be transferable to other cultural systems. As E. S. C. Handy’s ethnological research (e.g., Polynesian Religion in 1927) showed, the concept of mana is superficially similar across Melanesian and Polynesian cultures, but it differs in important ways. For example, in Melanesia people seek mana and work to increase it, whereas in Polynesia mana is more dangerous and unprotected commoners are wary of it. Moreover, within each area, it might not be identical from one culture to another. In some places mana is hereditary, in some it is conferred, in some it is acquired, and in some it occurs naturally and may or may not be ritually strengthened or weakened. In both culture areas, dangerous quantities of mana render something taboo (tabu, tapu, or kapu), that is, to be avoided lest one suffer injury or become polluted. But the nature of the danger and of its contagion, as well as protection against it and ritual remedies for it, may vary in different places.
And mana can be evil. Handy noted that mana may be intentionally used in destructive ways. By the same ritual process that beneficent mana is increased, the power of a “necromancer’s familiar” in Hawaii is “raised to the power of a malicious demon” that presumably can be sent to attack one’s enemies. Sorcerers are described as having “great mana for causing sickness and death…evil mana, diverted and at work against man’s life and well-being.” In Africa, it is often a corrupted form of the personal power that becomes witchcraft or purely evil; a well-known example is the Yoruba àshé, which is the basis for the dreaded witchcraft power àjé (no etymological connection).
In Polynesia, the system of mana and tabu correlated closely with and obviously helped to define the hierarchical social structure. Other social, political, or cosmological functions might be deduced elsewhere. Similarly, the mana-like concepts described earlier for other cultures are superficially similar, but in specific details they may vary importantly from one culture to another. Each culture’s concept should be described in its own terms before cross-cultural comparisons can legitimately be made; and even the phrase “mana-like” might be inappropriate.
- Codrington, R. H. (1891). The Melanesians: Studies in their anthropology and folklore. Oxford, UK: Clarendon.
- Dubisch, J. (1981). “You are what you eat”: Religious aspects of the health food movement. In S. P. Montague & W. Arens (Eds.), The American dimension: Culture myths and social realities (2nd ed., pp. 115-127). Palo Alto, CA: Mayfield.
- Hand, E. S. C. (1927). Polynesian religion (Bulletin No. 34). Honolulu, HI: Bernice P. Bishop Museum.
- Mauss, M. (1972). A general theory of magic (R. Brain, Trans.). London: Routledge & Kegan Paul. (Original work published 1902-1903)