Once seen as protectors, Sāmoa’s spirit women, Teine Sā, were considered powerful female deities.
But with colonisation and the arrival of missionaries, their reputation took a turn and also changed how women were viewed in Sāmoan society.
Ashley Vaotuua reflects on Teine Sā, how they are viewed today and how to juggle two belief systems that seem at odds with each other.
This is part of Re:’s Belief Week. From young people who are celibate, to New Zealand’s first Wicca church, we take a look at what belief, religion and spirituality mean today. Check out the rest of the stories here.
Growing up, I had always been told to cover my mirror, tie up my hair and to be careful. Fa’aete’ete.
And if I didn’t do those things? Then I’d be at the mercy of Teine Sā, Sāmoan spirit women who have the powers to bless and curse those who trample the vā - seen and unseen spaces within the realm of being.
In Sāmoan society, Teine Sā can curse you - leading to sickness, injury, possession or even death.
But, before colonisation, spirits in Sāmoa - like Teine Sā - were seen as helpers to guide, heal and protect those in the physical world.
Sāmoa had multiple gods and goddesses. Nafanua, the goddess of war, held four paramount chiefly titles. These titles are rare to receive - however, Nafanua was given them because of how highly respected she was by her family and village.
When missionaries first arrived in Sāmoa, they couldn’t comprehend how these female deities held such power - to them, this type of power could only come from the Christian God.
They didn’t understand the esteemed and sacred role of women in Sāmoan society, and they looked to dismantle it by framing the Christian God as good and everything else as evil.
Teine Sā took on a new meaning - they became a mechanism of control against women from expressing their femininity.
This changed the narrative of their existence and also changed how women were viewed in Sāmoan society.
Victorian ideals of domesticity, modesty and being seen as inferior to men were placed on Sāmoan women.
Feagaiga, which was once a term offered to women to recognise their sacredness, was reassigned to pastors.
I have always wondered about the drastic changes in our understanding of indigenous beliefs because of colonisation.
Like other Pacific scholars, I personally see a great need to find meaning and purpose in the beliefs and ideas of our ancestors.
If we don’t attempt to do this, then we are undermining our own ancestors and placing Western beliefs at the forefront.
A lot of people don’t openly talk about these spirit women, so I was eager to hear Moana’s perspective on these female deities.
Glancing over at my phone, I could see the battery was at 100 percent.
I pressed record and we began our talanoa.
For 23-year-old Moana, who is Sāmoan and Japanese, and grew up in Aotearoa, Teine Sā wasn’t something her family openly talked about.
But Moana was aware that there were rules that needed to be followed and consequences if those weren’t.
Growing up, Moana didn’t think Teine Sā had an impact on her or her family because they lived in Aotearoa.
“It was kind of like that whole Bloody Mary thing. You don't talk about it but you know that it’s a bad thing,” Moana, who asked for her last name not to be included due to privacy reasons, said.
Twenty minutes into our conversation, I glanced at my phone.
The screen had blacked out without me noticing and when the phone revived itself, it was on 1 percent battery.
The recording wasn’t there.
We’d both heard of stories about people diving too deep into the topic and being hurt or prevented from going any further.
We looked at each other with a sense of uneasiness.
Considering the fact that we were talking about Teine Sā, we took this as a sign - the rest of our talanoa needed to be navigated with caution and respect.
Continuing with our talanoa, Moana said she hoped that in the future, the narrative surrounding Teine Sā would change.
She hoped they would be seen as what they once were seen as - protectors.
“I don’t believe they’ll always be featured as demonic.”
The recording reappeared some time later.
Was this a sign or merely a lag?
Later in that same week, I met a friend who gave me a bouquet of flowers. They were red hibiscuses.
This was a literal red flag.
Red is associated with Telesa and Sauma’iafe, the most known and feared spirit women.
They became demonised and were later seen as evil figures who cursed beautiful women out of jealousy.
They often appear with unrestrained hair, a red hibiscus tucked behind their ears.
Wearing a red hibiscus in Sāmoa is seen as putting yourself at risk of possession.
If there’s one thing I’ve learnt through my own research and experiences as a Samoan woman, it’s to not disregard these signs and to be careful.
‘I never look in the mirror past a certain hour’
University of Auckland student, April Taito, moved to Aotearoa from Samoa in 2011.
“I’ve heard some stories of how Teine Sā come in disguises. They seem pretty, and then they attract people then lead them to their death.” the 19-year-old said.
These stories instil fear into Samoan women and this fear brings about compliance with unwritten rules.
“When I go back to Sāmoa,” April said, “I never look in the mirror past a certain hour.”
“Even though I’ve never encountered them before, I'm still very cautious. I keep my hair up and I only comb my hair at certain hours.”
Although she is fearful of these spirits, April acknowledges their sacred role as protectors of the village and of the family.
‘The rules are to protect the village, family and women’
Telesa comes from the village of Lepea.
Moving to Aotearoa in 2016, Faiesea Ah-Chee speaks passionately about her ancestral connection to Telesa as she is also from Lepea.
She grew up hearing stories from her uncles and grandparents and would stay up late to listen to these stories.
Behind Faiesea’s great grandmother’s home is a waterfall.
People often hear these female spirits screaming and laughing, Faiesa said.
“That’s where they comb their hair and all that. I heard that they bathe there at midnight every night,”she says.
“It’s a thing in Lepea. Every night once the clock strikes 10pm, girls are not allowed on the road. When all the dogs bark we know that Teine Sā are around.”
They walk freely between the physical and spiritual world.
“Telesa set out those rules to protect.”
These rules set out by Telesa are in place to protect the village, family and especially women, Faiesa said.
Faiesea said the view of Teine Sā as being monstrous is new to her - it wasn’t something she was aware of until she moved to Aotearoa.
Telesa continues to play a significant traditional role in Lepea acting as a point of guidance, healing, and connection to their past.
Believing in God and Sāmoan spirituality equally
Hollyanna Ainea tutors students at the University of Auckland in Pacific Studies including topics on indigenous spirituality. She is completing a Master of Arts in Pacific Studies.
“The way missionaries have painted Teine Sā or the way papalagi (Europeans) have created this image of this evil spirit has been projected in multiple different ways, including discipline for young Samoan women.” Hollyanna says.
She connects this discipline with how a Samoan woman are told to uphold their mana.
Through rules like not brushing your hair at night, this reflects how beauty is seen as something that can be empowering but also bring danger.
It also conditions women to feel as though they not only have to protect themselves from Teine Sā but also from the wider dangers within society.
The idea that women are responsible for protecting themselves from danger is connected to the Victorian and Christian beliefs brought by missionaries to Sāmoa.
Men, on the other hand, do not have spiritual figures that restrict their behaviour or influence how they should present themselves.
It also seemed easier for missionaries to demonise these spirits because they were female, pushing people towards a belief system that is heavily structured on centring male superiority.
Hollyanna says “when women are demonised in this way, then that becomes the perpetuated image that you see when you see Teine Sā”.
So where does this leave indigenous beliefs?
Hollyanna says: “I truly believe in God. But I also truly do believe in Samoan spirituality and I treat both as equal.”
“If I value one over the other, then it's like, I don't feel like that can encapsulate my true self.”
However the question remains: If they are protectors, why are people still fearful of them?
For me, my fear is driven by respect in knowing how sacred and powerful these spirit women are.
But also this is a fear that has been instilled across generations and passed on through stories and instructions.
As a Catholic, incorporating Sāmoan spirituality has required a lot of unpacking and unlearning.
Believing in Teine Sā is problematic for many Sāmoans because in Christianity, it is sinful to believe that spirits exist.
Although my journey is still beginning, one of the ways that I ground myself in both Christianity and Sāmoan spirituality is unpacking those dominant narratives.
Exposing myself to more works by Pacific scholars and seeing the lack of it has been a big contributor to my worldview.
Most stories that are recorded are not written by us so it always makes me wonder just how much we are missing out on.
It encourages me to constantly try to find meaning and purpose in the beliefs of my ancestors, because in my mind, if I don’t, I have let colonisation win.
I am a Catholic but I am also a Sāmoan.
While I may never be able to hold the two together and be at peace, I think I have a responsibility to at least try.
Ashley Vaotuua was born and raised in South Auckland hailing from Afega, Matatufu, Fasitootai, and Vailuutai in Sāmoa. She studies Pacific Studies and Communications at the University of Auckland.
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