Mana is a word in several Austronesian languages which has many meanings. The concept is especially important in Polynesian cultures, and is a major part of contemporary Pacific Islander culture. The term has also entered the Western academy, where scholars of anthropology and comparative religion have written about it extensively.
In Polynesian culture
In Polynesian culture, mana is a spiritual quality considered to have supernatural origin—a sacred impersonal force existing in the universe. Therefore to have mana is to have influence and authority, and efficacy—the power to perform in a given situation. This essential quality of mana is not limited to persons—peoples, governments, places and inanimate objects can possess mana. There are two ways to obtain mana: through birth and through warfare. People or objects that possess mana are accorded respect because their possession of mana gives them authority, power, and prestige. The word’s meaning is complex because mana is a basic foundation of the Polynesian worldview.
In Hawaiian culture
In Hawaiian culture, Mana is a form of a spiritual energy and also healing power which can exist in places, objects and persons. It is the Hawaiian belief that there is a chance to gain mana and lose mana in everything that you do. It is also the Hawaiian belief that mana is an external as well as an internal thing. Certain sites in the Hawaiian Islands are believed to possess strong mana. For example, the top rim of the Haleakala volcano on the island of Maui is believed to be a location of strong mana.
Hawaiian ancestors also believed that the entire island of Molokai possesses strong mana, as compared to the neighboring islands. Many ancient battles among the Hawaiians, prior to the unification by King Kamehameha I, were fought over possession of Molokai Island, partly for this reason (and possession of the numerous ancient fish ponds that existed along the southern shore prior to the late-19th century).
In people, mana is often possessed or gained through pono (balance) actions, reflecting the balance that exists in the world and humanity’s responsibility toward maintaining that balance.
In traditional Hawaii, there were always two paths to mana. A person could gain mana through sexual means or through violence. The Hawaiian way of thinking is that nature has a dualistic relationship and that everything in the world has a counterpart. Over time, a delicate balance between the Gods Ku and Lono were formed, and through them are the two paths to mana. Hawaiians often refer to this as “imihaku”, or the search of mana or the search of a source. Ku, being the Hawaiian God of war and politics, offers mana through violence and this is how Kamehameha the Great gained his mana. Lono is the Hawaiian God of peace and fertility, and offers mana through sexual relationships. If a commoner was able to sleep with an Alii Nui Wahine, then he gains the mana of that chief. Mana in Hawaiian culture is a popular topic of everyday discourse. It is not to be mistaken, however, for the same mana term used in the Huna religion, which is primarily practiced by non-Hawaiians and is often considered by ethnic Hawaiians to be an exploitation of Hawaiian ancestral beliefs.
For a Mo’i (supreme ruler) to fail on either path to mana was to prove himself out of the state of pono (righteousness). When a pono Mo’i was devoted to the Akua and the Aina, the whole society prospered. When disaster struck, these were signs that the Mo’i had ceased to be religious and in turn would be killed and replaced by another Alii Nui (high ranking chief). Alii Nui had a great passion for war because it was a great avenue to mana. Those victorious in war sacrificed the defeated upon an altar for Ku, thereby collecting that person’s mana. In modern society, certain behavioral patterns are still repeated today. However, the path of Ku has eluded us.
Apart from the dualistic paths to mana, there was also another path to mana often practiced by the high ranking chiefs and especially the Mo’i. This practice is called a Ni’aupi’o relationship. To Hawaiians, the offspring of a brother sister mating was an Akua (God). If one was truly the Mo’i, he should seek out a Ni’aupi’o relationship (Ex: Kauikeaouli and Nāhiʻenaʻena). It is the Hawaiian way of thinking that the only way to ensure divinity and the protection of the family’s mana is through an incestual mating. Uncle-niece and Aunt-nephew pairings were also desirable for the bridge in the generation gap.
In New Zealand culture
In Māori, a tribe that has mana whenua must have demonstrated their authority over a piece of land or territory.
In the Māori culture, there are two essential aspects to a person’s mana: mana tangata, authority derived from whakapapa connections, and mana huaanga, defined as “authority derived from having a wealth of resources to gift to others to bind them into reciprocal obligations”.
The indigenous word reflects a non-Western view of reality, complicating translation. To quote the New Zealand Ministry of Justice:
Mana and tapu are concepts which have both been attributed single-worded definitions by contemporary writers. As concepts, especially Maori concepts they can not easily be translated into a single English definition. Both mana and tapu take on a whole range of related meanings depending on their association and the context in which they are being used.
Melanesian mana is thought to be a sacred impersonal force existing in the universe. Mana can be in people, animals, plants and objects. Similar to the idea of efficacy, or luck, the Melanesians thought all success traced back to mana. Magic is a typical way to acquire or manipulate this luck.
Objects that have mana can change a person’s luck. Examples of such objects are charms or amulets. For instance if a prosperous hunter gave a charm that had mana to another person the prosperous hunter’s luck would go with it.