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In many areas of Fiji, chiefs and priests played equivalent roles, responsible for crop fertility and social well-being. Their authority was legitimised by their direct communication with ancestor gods. Some groups had a dual chiefship, divided between a spiritual leader and a temporal leader, the latter titled Vunivalu (war chief) in Bau and Rewa.

There was a plethora of gods, typically deified ancestors, who were worshipped as past leaders of founders (kalou vu) of particular clans. Spirit houses (bure kalou) were erected for the most significant ancestors. Miniature versions, constructed from plaited coir cord and a high roof and prominent ridgepole, served as portable shrines. As with other sacred objects, binding was an important means of containing and channeling spiritual essence.

An assortment of consecrated objects was kept in temples - ancestor images, trumpets, priest's dishes, weapons and flesh forks. Ancestor images were carved by Fijians from tropical hardwoods, typically vesi. Of particular note are the rare ivory figures beautifully carved in Tongan-style. Shell trumpets were used for communicating with fellow villagers as well as with the gods. A multiplicity of varied and elegant priest's dishes were used for the consumption of yaqona and to hold sanctified scented oil. 

Use the drop down menu below to explore the objects in this section. 

Dish, Daveniburau

Delta-winged dish of vesi wood on three legs. The rim along the straight edge is decorated with a line of zigzags (tavatava).

Fiji. Collected by A. Maudslay, 1875-80. 1931.213

Spirit house, Burekalou

Made from foundations of reeds wrapped in complex bindings of plaited coir cords. Miniature versions of Fijian spirit houses such as this one were used as portable shrines.

Fiji. Collected by A. von Hügel, 1875-77. Z 3975

Dish, Daveniburau

Small delta-winged dish of vesi wood on three legs. The decorated part of the rim shows zigzags (tavatava) and striated triangles. The darker and shinier surface of the upper part may indicate that the dish was used for coconut oil.

Fiji. Collected by A. Maudslay, 1875-80. Z 3343

Dish, Darivonu

Turtle-shaped oil dish, with stylised head and limbs. The outline of the body is reminiscent of leaf-shaped oil dishes and the rim of the dish is serrated, a feature often associated with sacred objects.

Fiji. Collected by Sir A. Gordon, 1875-80. Z 3801

Priest's dish, iBuburaunibete

Shallow yaqona dish carved from sacred vesi wood with a spiralling pedestal base. In use, the dish would have been placed on the ground in the spirit house and yaqona sipped by a kneeling priest through a straw.

Originally from Fiji. Acquired by A. von Hügel from W. D. Webster, 1896, London. Z 3422

Dish, Sedreniburau

Double oil dish carved from a solid piece of vesi wood. The two parts are leaf-shaped and of unequal size. In pre-Christian times, scented coconut oil was sacred and used by priests to anoint their bodies.

Fiji. Collected by A. Maudslay, 1875-80. 1931.215

Yaqona Dish, Daveniyaqona

This priestly yaqona dish of vesi wood takes its shape from two crescentic or delta-winged vessels connected along the curved edge. The rim is carved with a band of zigzags (tavatava).

Fiji. Collected by A. Maudslay, 1875-80. Z 3333

Trumpet, Davui

End-blown trumpet formed of a Bursa lampas shell with a finely woven handle of plaited coir. The hole near the mouth allows the sound to be modulated. This type of trumpet was particular to the Highlands and western Viti Levu.

Koroinasau, Nadroga, Viti Levu, Fiji. Collected by A. von Hügel, August 1876. Z 3311

Dish, Dedreniwai

Large leaf-shaped oil dish of vesi wood with a very elaborate handle. This dish was probably used to hold scented coconut oil.

Viti Levu Bay, Viti Levu, Fiji. Collected by A. von Hügel, September 1876. Z 3698


Smoked whale bone tapua, associated with Aloalo, the great weather and fertility god of Ha’apai and Vava’u in Tonga. Tapua, thought to be material embodiments of major gods, were highly tapu and kept secluded in the inner sanctum of a spirit-house.

Lifuka, Ha’apai, Tonga. Collected by Rev. D. Wheeler, 1836. Z 5887


The most venerated form of a tabua, made of whale ivory. It may have once embodied Tongan or Fijian gods. The crescentic form travelled from Tonga to Fiji from at least the 16th century. Originally bored with a central hanging point, holes were later drilled at each tip to allow for conventional suspension.

Fiji. Collected by A. Maudslay, 1875-80. 1931.219

Flesh fork

Used by ritual assistants to feed priests and other sanctified people who should not touch cooked food. Commonly referred to as ‘cannibal forks’, this name is a misnomer. They were used for any consecrated food, including human flesh, by someone in a tabu condition.

Fiji. Presented to C. Gordon Cumming by Rev. F. Langham, 1875-77. 1925.562

Whale ivory necklace

Human-shaped figures interspersed withpendants, attached to finely plaited coir cords. While the provenance of this necklace is unknown, the unusual, probably unique, composition and the weight of ivory suggest that this was an exceedingly prized object, most likely with spiritual connotations.

Fiji. Presented to Lady Gordon, 1875-80. Z 2752

Headband, Wakula

Red and blue kula bird feathers attached to a headband of pandanus leaf. These rare items were worn by chiefs and priests.

Fiji. Collected by A. von Hügel, 1875-77. Z 2839

Ancestor figures

A wide range of figures in wood and ivory were revered in pre-Christian times. Those with anthropomorphic features were generally female. Many were considered to be manifestations of ancestor gods. While some are distinctivelly Fijian in style, many ivory figures probably originated in Tonga.

Ancestor figure hook, iLilili


Female figure standing on a leba fruit-shaped base and carved with four hooks to hang baskets and coconut shell containers. Suspended from the rafters, the top of the hook would have been fitted with a circular disc of wood over which rats could not climb.

Serua, Viti Levu, Fiji. Collected by A. von Hügel, 19 August 1876. Z 3775.1

Ancestor figure, Matakau

Female figure of dark wood. Both male and female figures were kept in spirit houses and sometimes found on graves.

Possibly Narokorokoyawa, Viti Levu, Fiji. Collected by A. von Hügel, 1875-77. Z 2812

Twinned figure hook

Originally from Tonga, this twinned image travelled to Fiji where it became possessed by the spirit of Nalilavatu, wife of the principal Nadi god. It lived in its own miniature spirit house within the temple.

Fiji, Viti Levu. Presented to Sir A. Gordon by Ratu Tevita Madigibuli, 1876. 1955.247

Twinned figure hook

The two female figures have conjoined buttocks, which suggests that they may originally have represented Topokulu and Naufanua, the siamese-twinned rain goddesses from ‘Eua island in Tonga.

Fiji. Presented to Sir A. Gordon by J. B. Thurston, 1875-80. Z 2740

Priest's dishes

In pre-Christian times, a large variety of wooden vessels were used by priests to hold yaqona or scented coconut oil (waiwai). Kept in the spirit house (burekalou), the useand care of these dishes followed complex ritual procedures. When not in use, they would have been suspended inside the temple.

Priest's dish, Daveniyaqona



Rectangular priest dish of vesi wood supported by four short legs and carved with four cut-out rectangles. The rim is decorated with bands of zigzags (tavatava).

Fiji. Collected by A. Maudslay, 1875-80. Z 3321

Yaqona bowl, Sedreniyaqona


The light grey patina inside suggests that this small bowl was used for yaqona. It is carved with a lug for suspension when not in use and rests on four stubby anthropomorphic feet.

Fiji. Collected by Sir A. Gordon, 1875-80. Z 3389

Priest's dish, Darileba

Oil dish carved in the shape of a leba (Syzygium neurocalyx) fruit with longitudinal ridges at the back and a flower-like protuberance at the tip. The underside is serrated, a feature found on many sacred objects.

Wainimala, Viti Levu, Fiji. Collected by A. von Hügel, 1875-77. Z 3734