“Noho Mana: To Wield Power” – Reexamining the concept of Mana

#172 in the Moʻolelo series

mana: ‘power, might, supernatural power, divine power’, ‘powerful, strong’, and as the verb ho‘omana, ‘to ascribe power, to worship, to render homage’

Lorrin Andrews 1836: 98.

For many years, I had taught that unlike other Hawaiian concepts (for example, pono), mana was a concept whose rendering in English was almost perfect. Mana could merely mean status or a kind of spiritual power – both ways of using the word “power” in English. This was important for my research because I used a methodology called “genealogy,” or, interchangeably, “moʻokūʻauhau.” And as Lilikalā Kameʻeleihiwa notes, the mana lies in the names.

New Mana, edited by Matt Tomlinson and Ty Kāwika Tengan (ANU Press)

But at my dissertation defense, Professor Ty Kāwika Tengan, a member of my dissertation committee, informed me that there was new scholarship on the concept of mana. I preliminarily examine that new scholarship here.

Tengan himself (an anthrologist, the second Hawaiian ever to gain a PhD from the UH Anthro department) along with Matt Tomlinson, assert that while:

discourse about mana thrives in many Oceanic societies. It also circulates outside of traditional Oceanic contexts—sometimes far outside, as in New Age movements, fantasy fiction and online gaming. [One] reason to focus on mana anew is that it can offer scholars fresh insights about relationships between aesthetics, ethics, and power and authority … [Another reason to reexamine mana is that] a new focus on mana has the potential to generate new forms of anthropological practice. By engaging collaboratively with Indigenous communities on this specific topic, anthropologists, Indigenous and otherwise, can actively take part in developing new understandings of mana that have practical consequences—the production of new mana, in effect.

Tomlinson and Tengan,Mana Anew,” in New Mana.

But mana has another, seemingly unrelated meaning, at least when a kahakō is placed over the first a: to masticate:

māna n.
1. A chewed mass, as of kava for drinking, coconut flakes or kukui nut for medicine. Māna pani (Kam. 76:74), food taken after drinking kava [lit., closing mouthful]. Māna ʻai, food chewed by adult for child; any mouthful of food.

2. Trait believed acquired from those who raise a child.
source: wehewehe.org

Is there a connection between mana and māna? It’s possible: masticated food gives a child strength. What are some other common uses of the term? When a Maori performing troop sings an action song, a common response might be that it has a lot of mana. A colleague of mine has a mana meter by which mana can be measured. He has demonstrated that when people in a room think bad thoughts of a person, their mana decreases according to the mana meter. Tengan and Tomlinson add to these uses of the word, quoting a researcher in the Melanesian context (suggesting that the concept is indeed pan-Pacific):

There is a belief in a force altogether distinct from physical power, which acts in all kinds of ways for good and evil, and which it is of the greatest advantage to possess or control. This is Mana. The word is common, I believe, to the whole Pacific, and people have tried very hard to describe what it is in different regions. I think I know what our people mean by it, and that meaning seems to me to cover all that I hear about it elsewhere. It is a power or influence, not physical, and in a way, supernatural; but it shows itself in physical force, or in any kind of power or excellence which a man possesses. This Mana is not fixed in anything, and can be conveyed in almost anything; but spirits, whether disembodied souls or supernatural beings, have it, and can impart it; and it essentially belongs to personal beings to originate it, though it may act through the medium of water, or a stone, or a bone.

Tomlinson and Tengan, “Mana Anew” in New Mana.

Or as my mother put it: if you kick a stone, you have the mana to do that, but your foot hurts so the stone has some mana as well. The Hawaiian Dictionary gives the following examples of the use of the word mana:

Mana loa, great power; almighty. Noho mana, to wield power, occupy a position of power. Ke kumu … i mana ai ka ʻaoʻao aliʻi, the reason for giving the chief’s side power.

Pīpī holo kaʻao [sprinkled, the tale runs] – to be continued…

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