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Mana, in Austronesian languages, means "power", "effectiveness", and "prestige". In most cases, this power and its source are understood to be supernatural and inexplicable.[1] Its semantics are language-dependent. The concept is significant in Polynesian culture and is part of contemporary Pacific Islander culture; it came to the attention of Western anthropologists through reports from island missionaries. Its study was included in cultural anthropology—specifically, the anthropology of religion.


According to the POLLEX Project,[2] a protoform (an ancestral form of a word) for "mana"—noted in historical-linguistic convention as *mana-"—existed in Proto-Oceanic, the precursor of many Pacific languages. Although the path through the tree from Proto-Oceanic to a specific language is not always clear, the word and concept are thousands of years old. According to linguist Robert Blust, "mana" means "thunder, storm, or wind" in some languages. Blust hypothesized that the term originally meant "powerful forces of nature such as thunder and storm winds" that were conceived as the expression of an unseen supernatural agency. As Oceanic-speaking peoples spread eastward, the notion of an unseen supernatural agency became detached from the physical forces of nature that had inspired it and assumed a life of its own.[3]

Polynesian cultureEdit

Mana is a foundation of the Polynesian worldview, a spiritual quality with a supernatural origin and a sacred, impersonal force. To have mana implies influence, authority, and efficacy—the ability to perform in a given situation. The quality of mana is not limited to individuals; peoples, governments, places and inanimate objects may also possess mana, and its possessors are accorded respect.

Hawaiian and Tahitian cultureEdit

In Hawaiian and Tahitian culture, mana is a spiritual energy and healing power which can exist in places, objects and persons. Hawaiians believe that mana may be gained or lost by actions, and Hawaiians and Tahitians believe that mana is both external and internal. Sites on the Hawaiian Islands and in French Polynesia are believed to possess mana—for example, the top rim of the Haleakalā volcano on the island of Maui and the Taputapuatea marae on the island of Raiatea in the Society Islands.

Ancient Hawaiian believed that the island of Molokaʻi possesses mana, compared with its neighboring islands. Before the unification of Hawaii by King Kamehameha I, battles were fought for possession of the island and its south-shore fish ponds which existed until the late 19th century.

A person may gain mana by pono (right actions). In ancient Hawaii, there were two paths to mana: sexual means or violence. Nature is dualistic, and everything has a counterpart. A balance between the gods and Lono formed, through whom are the two paths to mana (ʻimihaku, or the search for mana). Kū, the god of war and politics, offers mana through violence; this was how Kamehameha gained his mana. Lono, the god of peace and fertility, offers mana through sexuality.[citation needed]

Māori (New Zealand) cultureEdit

Māori useEdit

In Māori, a tribe with mana whenua must have demonstrated their authority over a territory. In Māori culture, there are two essential aspects of a person's mana: mana tangata, authority derived from whakapapa (genealogy) and mana huaanga, defined as "authority derived from having a wealth of resources to gift to others to bind them into reciprocal obligations".[4] Hemopereki Simon, from Ngāti Tūwharetoa, asserts that there are many forms of mana in Maori culture.[5] The indigenous word reflects a non-Western view of reality, complicating translation. [6] This is confirmed by the definition of mana provided by Maori Marsden who states that mana is:

Spiritual power and authority as opposed to the purely psychic and natural force — ihi.[7]

According to Prof. Margaret Mutu mana in its traditional sense means:

Power, authority, ownership, status, influence, dignity, respect derived from the god[/atua].[8][5]

In terms of leadership Ngāti Kahungunu legal scholar Carwyn Jones comments that, "mana is the central concept that underlies Māori leadership and accountability." He also considers mana as a fundamental aspect of the constitutional traditions of Māori society.[9]

According to 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.[10]

General useEdit

In contemporary New Zealand English, the word "mana", taken from the Māori, refers to a person or organisation of people of great personal prestige and character.[11] The increased use of the term mana in New Zealand society is as a result of the politicisation of Maori issues stemming from the Māori Renaissance.

Academic studyEdit

The 1891 Southern Cross, one of the ships at Norfolk Island's Melanesian Mission where Codrington taught and worked

Missionary Robert Henry Codrington traveled widely in Melanesia, publishing several studies of its language and culture. His 1891 book The Melanesians: Studies in their Anthropology and Folk-Lore contains the first detailed description of mana. Codrington defines it as "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".[12]

His era had already defined animism, the concept that the energy (or life) in an object derives from a spiritual component. Georg Ernst Stahl's 18th-century animism was adopted by Edward Burnett Tylor, the founder of cultural anthropology, who presented his initial ideas about the history of religion in his 1865 Researches into the Early History of Mankind[13]:vi and developed them in volumes one (1871) and two (1874) of Primitive Culture.[13]:1

Tylor's cultural evolutionEdit

In Tylor's cultural anthropology, other primates did not appear to possess culture.[note 1]

Tylor did not try to find evidence of a non-cultural human state because he considered it unreachable, "a condition not far removed from that of the lower animals" and "savage life as in some sort representing an early known state."[13]:33 He described such a hypothetical state as "the human savage naked in both mind and body, and destitute of laws, or arts, or ideas, and almost of language".[13]:30 According to Tylor, speculation about an acultural state is impossible. Using the method of comparative culture, similar to comparative anatomy and the comparative method of historical linguistics and following John Lubbock, he drew up a dual classification of cultural traits (memes and memeplexes): savage and civilised. Tylor wrote, "From an ideal point of view, civilization may be looked upon as the general improvement of mankind by higher organization of the individual and of society ... "[13]:24 and identified his model with the "progression-theory of civilization".[13]:81

Evolution of religionEdit

Tylor cited a "minimum definition" of religion as "the belief in Spiritual Beings".[13]:383 Noting that no savage societies lack religion and that the initial state of a religious man is beyond reach, he enumerated two stages in the evolution of religion: a simple belief in individual animae (or Doctrine of Souls) and the elaboration of dogmas. The dogmas are systems of higher spirits commanding phases of nature. In volume two of Primitive Culture, Tylor called this stage the Doctrine of Spirits.[13]:108–110 He used the word "animism" in two different senses.[13]:385 The first is religion itself: a belief in the spiritual as an effective energy, shared by every specific religion. In his progression theory, an undogmatic version preceded rational theological systems. Animism is the simple Theory of the Soul, which comparative religion attempts to reconstruct.

Tylor's work predated Codrington's, and he was unfamiliar with the latter. The concept of mana occasioned a revision of Tylor's view of the evolution of religion. The first anthropologist to formulate a revision (which he called "pre-animistic religion") was Robert Ranulph Marett, in a series of papers collected and published as Threshold of Religion. In its preface he takes credit for the adjective "pre-animistic" but not the noun "pre-animism", although he does not attribute it.[14]:xxi

According to Marett, "Animism will not suffice as a minimum definition of religion." Tylor had used the term "natural religion",[13]:386 consistent with Georg Ernst Stahl's concept of a natural spiritual energy. The soul of an animal, for example, is its vital principle. Marett wrote, "One must dig deeper" to find the "roots of religion".[citation needed]


Describing pre-animism, Marett cited the Melanesian mana (primarily with Codrington's work): "When the science of Comparative Religion employs a native expression such as mana ... it is obliged to disregard to some extent its original or local meaning ... Science, then, may adopt mana as a general category ... ".[14]:99 In Melanesia the animae are the souls of living men, the ghosts of deceased men, and spirits "of ghost-like appearance" or imitating living people. Spirits can inhabit other objects, such as animals or stones.[14]:115–120

The most significant property of mana is that it is distinct from, and exists independently of, its source. Animae act only through mana. It is impersonal, undistinguished, and (like energy) transmissible between objects, which can have more or less of it. Mana is perceptible, appearing as a "Power of awfulness" (in the sense of awe or wonder).[14]:12–13 Objects possessing it impress an observer with "respect, veneration, propitiation, service" emanating from the mana's power. Marett lists a number of objects habitually possessing mana: "startling manifestations of nature", "curious stones", animals, "human remains", blood,[14]:2 thunderstorms, eclipses, eruptions, glaciers, and the sound of a bullroarer.[14]:14–17

If mana is a distinct power, it may be treated distinctly. Marett distinguishes spells, which treat mana quasi-objectively, and prayers (which address the anima). An anima may have departed, leaving mana in the form of a spell which can be addressed by magic. Although Marett postulates an earlier pre-animistic phase, a "rudimentary religion" or "magico-religious" phase in which the mana figures without animae, "no island of pure 'pre-animism' is to be found."[14]:xxvi Like Tylor, he theorizes a thread of commonality between animism and pre-animism identified with the supernatural—the "mysterious", as opposed to the reasonable.[14]:22


In 1936, Ian Hogbin criticised the universality of Marett's pre-animism: "Mana is by no means universal and, consequently, to adopt it as a basis on which to build up a general theory of primitive religion is not only erroneous but indeed fallacious".[15] However, Marett intended the concept as an abstraction.[14]:99 Spells, for example, may be found "from Central Australia to Scotland."[14]:55

Early 20th-century scholars also saw mana as a universal concept, found in all human cultures and expressing fundamental human awareness of a sacred life energy. In his 1904 essay, "Outline of a General Theory of Magic", Marcel Mauss drew on the writings of Codrington and others to paint a picture of mana as "power par excellence, the genuine effectiveness of things which corroborates their practical actions without annihilating them".[16]:111 Mauss pointed out the similarity of mana to the Iroquois orenda and the Algonquian manitou, convinced of the "universality of the institution";[16]:116 "a concept, encompassing the idea of magical power, was once found everywhere".[16]:117

Mauss and his collaborator, Henri Hubert, were criticised for this position when their 1904 Outline of a General Theory of Magic was published. "No one questioned the existence of the notion of mana", wrote Mauss's biographer Marcel Fournier, "but Hubert and Mauss were criticized for giving it a universal dimension".[17] Criticism of mana as an archetype of life energy increased. According to Mircea Eliade, the idea of mana is not universal; in places where it is believed, not everyone has it, and "even among the varying formulae (mana, wakan, orenda, etc.) there are, if not glaring differences, certainly nuances not sufficiently observed in the early studies".[18] "With regard to these theories founded upon the primordial and universal character of mana, we must say without delay that they have been invalidated by later research".[19]

Use in fantasy literature and gamingEdit

Because of the Christian influence on Western fantasy, it is often assumed that its widespread use of the "mana" concept first derived from biblical manna, an edible substance provided by God to the Israelites, which is false.[citation needed] Larry Niven first adopted the Polynesian term in his 1969 short story, "Not Long Before the End". In this and subsequent stories, mana is the magical fuel used to cast spells, and is a non-renewable environmental resource; heavy use of magic could deplete the mana in an area.

Following on from the idea of mana as something that could be "used up", fantasy role-playing games and video games adopted the term to quantify "magical power."[20] Magic points (MPs) were used by Ultima III: Exodus and games influenced by it, and for example the 1987 video game Dungeon Master replaced "magic points" with "mana points" as the definition of MPs.

Mana was used in a number of early role-playing board games.[21][page needed] In 1993, the collectible card game Magic: The Gathering used mana terminology.[22] Blizzard Entertainment's Warcraft II: Tides of Darkness called its MPs "mana", influenced by Magic: The Gathering.[20] Diablo (1996) also used mana terminology; the two games' sequels and spin-offs, including World of Warcraft, popularized the term "mana".[20]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ The discovery that primates and other mammals have some culture (practical knowledge taught by parents who learned it from their parents) does not substantially affect the argument, since humanity's characteristically complex learned behaviour is unique.


  1. ^ "Entries for MANA.1 [OC] Power, effectiveness, prestige". Retrieved 3 February 2017.
  2. ^ Greenhill, Simon J.; Clark, Ross (2011). "POLLEX-Online: The Polynesian Lexicon Project Online" (PDF). Oceanic Linguistics. 50 (2): 551–559. doi:10.1353/ol.2011.0014.
  3. ^ Blust, R. A (2007). "Proto-Oceanic *mana Revisited". Oceanic Linguistics. 46 (2): 404–423. doi:10.1353/ol.2008.0005.
  4. ^ The Whanganui River report (Wai 167) (PDF). Wellington, New Zealand: GP Publications. 1999. p. 35. ISBN 186956250X. Retrieved 31 December 2016.
  5. ^ a b "View of Te Arewhana Kei Roto i Te Rūma: An Indigenous Neo-Disputatio on Settler Society, Nullifying Te Tiriti, 'Natural Resources' and Our Collective Future in New Zealand". Retrieved 11 October 2018.
  6. ^ "Waitangi Tribunal". Waitangi Tribunal. Archived from the original on 20 October 2007. Retrieved 26 January 2015.
  7. ^ Marsden, Māori (1975). "God, Man, and the Universe". In King, Micheal (ed.). Te Ao Hurihuri: The World Moves. Wellington: Hicks Smith. p. 145.
  8. ^ Mutu, Margaret (2011). State of Māori Rights. Wellington: Huia. p. 213.
  9. ^ Jones, Carwyn (2014). "A Māori Constitutional Tradition" (PDF). New Zealand Journal of Public and International Law. 11:3: 187–204.
  10. ^ "Mana and Tapu". Ministry of Justice, New Zealand. Archived from the original on 22 May 2010. Retrieved 26 January 2015.
  11. ^ "Kiwi (NZ) to English Dictionary". New Zealand A to Z. Retrieved 26 January 2015.
  12. ^ Codrington, Robert Henry (1891). The Melanesians: Studies in Their Anthropology and Folk-lore. New York: Clarendon Press. p. 118. ISBN 9780486202587.
  13. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Tylor, Edward B. (2010). Primitive Culture: Researches Into the Development of Mythology, Philosophy, Religion, Art, and Custom. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 1108017517.
  14. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Marett, Robert Randolph (2013). Threshold of Religion. Hardpress Ltd. ISBN 1313151963.
  15. ^ Hogbin, H. Ian (March 1936). "MANA". Oceania. 6 (3): 241–274. doi:10.1002/j.1834-4461.1936.tb00187.x.
  16. ^ a b c Mauss, Marcel (2007). A General Theory of Magic (Reprint ed.). London: Routledge. ISBN 9780415253963.
  17. ^ Fournier, Marcel (2006). Marcel Mauss: A Biography. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press. p. 138. ISBN 9780691117775.
  18. ^ Eliade, Mircea (1996). Patterns in Comparative Religion (2nd ed.). Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press. p. 22. ISBN 9780803267336.
  19. ^ Eliade, Mircea (1992). Myths, Dreams and Mysteries: The Encounter Between Contemporary Faiths and Archaic Realities. Magnolia, Massachusetts: Peter Smith. p. 127. ISBN 9780844666259.
  20. ^ a b c Golub, Alex. "The History of Mana: How an Austronesian Concept Became a Video Game Mechanic". The Appendix. Archived from the original on 20 June 2014. Retrieved 4 September 2016.
  21. ^ Tomlinson, Matt; P. Kawika Tengan, Ty (2016). New Mana: Transformations of a Classic Concept in Pacific Languages and Cultures. ANU Press. ISBN 1760460087. Retrieved 4 September 2016.
  22. ^ "The Original Magic Rulebook". MAGIC: THE GATHERING. Retrieved 10 February 2018.

Further readingEdit

  • Keesing, Roger. 1984. "Rethinking mana". Journal of Anthropological Research 40:137–156.
  • Lévi-Strauss, Claude; Baker, Felicity (translator). 1987. Introduction to the Work of Marcel Mauss. ISBN 0-415-15158-9.
  • Mauss, Marcel. 1924. Essai sur le don.
  • Meylan, Nicolas, Mana: A History of a Western Category, Leiden, Brill, 2017.
  • Mondragón, Carlos (June 2004). "Of Winds, Worms and Mana: The Traditional Calendar of the Torres Islands, Vanuatu". Oceania. 74 (4): 289–308. JSTOR 40332069.
  • van der Grijp, Paul. 2014. Manifestations of Mana: Power and Divine Inspiration in the Pacific. Berlin: LIT Verlag.

External linksEdit