Culture, Medicine and Psychiatry

, Volume 27, Issue 1, pp 29–48

A View from the Other Side: The Place of Spirits in the Tongan Social Field

  • Barbara Burns McGrath


Spirits are part of everyday life in the Kingdom of Tonga. This study explores beliefs about the supernatural by analyzing discourse on spirits and death and by examining two examples of contemporary cultural practice related to spirits and death. The anthropological concepts of the body and its cultural construction and of thirdspace as a landscape of the Tongan islands that emerges out of the physical and the perceived provide the framework for this investigation. Research findings suggest that spirits participate in the natural order of Tongan society and thus serve to help maintain cultural identity in the face of uncertain social change and a popular but contested prodemocracy movement. Spirits also function as a system of representation, mirroring an image of an ideal self, something that is continually under negotiation. Encounters between spirits of ancestors and their living descendants suggest an uneasy acceptance of death and a sense of irony about its inevitability.

body culture change death healing Polynesia religion spirits Tonga 


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Copyright information

© Kluwer Academic Publishers 2003

Authors and Affiliations

  • Barbara Burns McGrath
    • 1
  1. 1.School of NursingUniversity of WashingtonSeattle

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