#4 Tikopian Attitudes Towards Suicide
     (Raymond Firth, 1967)

Tikopia attitudes toward suicide are closely connected with their attitudes toward death in general. Summarily stated, these attitudes express regret concerning death rather than fear of it; . . .the timing of the moment of cessation of bodily functioning is not necessarily treated as a matter of critical importance. To take one’s own life is merely to anticipate the inevitable end. In some circumstances, death has an aesthetic attraction. . . .[T]he normal Tikopia ways of committing suicide are three, differentiated broadly according to age and sex; hanging (mainly by middle-aged and elderly people); swimming out to sea (women only, especially young women); putting off to sea by canoe (men only, especially young men). Hanging (noa na, tying the neck) is usually fatal.. . . . . .In swimming out to sea (kau ki moana), the women, though good swimmers, soon seem to be overcome by heavy seas or by sharks that are common off the coast, and mortality from such suicide attempts appears frequent. … the fate of many unmarried young women. . . .But resort to putting off to sea in a canoe (forau) is more difficult to interpret. The Tikopia term in general indicates a sea voyage, and any canoe voyage from Tikopia is a hazardous undertaking. Tikopia is a mere dot in 40,000 square miles of ocean, with the nearest land, Anuta, equally isolated—only half a mile across and 70 miles away; larger land is more than 100 miles away and in some directions many hundreds of miles. With the alternation of storm and calm, especially in the monsoon season, to try to make landfall from Tikopia is a great risk. . . .In many cases it is difficult to separate an attempt to escape from Tikopia to see the world, with a serious chance of not surviving, from an attempt to escape from Tikopia society with an intent to perish or an attitude of not caring whether one perishes or not.

. . .social factors are clearly apparent both in the choice of method and in the attendant circumstances. In suicide at sea, an almost complete sex differential is manifested: a woman swims to her death, a man takes a canoe. Yet Tikopia men in ordinary circumstances swim as well and as freely as do women. Again, by report a curious fastidiousness is sometimes displayed in committing suicide. A person dying by hanging, it is said, excretes freely. If the deed is committed without premeditation, the interior of the house is in a mess: in the person’s dying struggles mats and the interior of the house become covered with excrement. People coming to release him are disgusted, and before mourning begins women must clean up the disorder. For this reason, I was told, a person who is thinking of suicide by hanging may refrain from food for a day or so, in order “that his excrement may not be laughed at’. It may seem to us unnecessary to be so finicky about the manner of dying, yet this has a crude logic. If part of the reason for destroying the body is to preserve the social personality intact—by safeguarding it from disintegrating despair or shame—then the person does not want his reputation to suffer by his death. Suicide in Tikopia is thought to merit certain dignity.


[#4] Raymond Firth, “Tikopian Attitudes Towards Suicide,” Tikopia Ritual and Belief (Boston: Beacon Press, 1967), pp. 120-124.

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