Kosrae's sacred site where 'powerful ghosts still roam'
By Raquel Bagnol
When it comes to architectural remains in Micronesia, popular monumental sites that continue to draw visitors from all over the world immediately come to mind, such as Nan Madol in Pohnpei, stone money of Yap, the Leluh site on Kosrae, the latte stones in the Marianas, and the sculpted hills in Palau.
But that’s not everything Micronesia has to offer. Hidden behind thick foliage and deep jungles, some forgotten by time, are smaller and often overshadowed sites that represent a wealth of history that links the present life of the people in the islands to the past. One of these monumental sites is the sacred site of Menka in Kosrae.
When the first wave of settlers arrived in Kosrae over two centuries ago, local deities were very important in their daily lives. The settlers looked up to the local gods and goddesses for everyday guidance, from building houses and canoes, breadfruit harvesting to weaving and gardening routines.
The village of Menka, located at the foot of Mt. Finkol, Kosrae’s tallest mountain, was the center for religious and spiritual center, even after the arrival of missionaries and explorers in the 18th and 19th centuries. It was Sinlaku’s place for worship. Menka’s unusual and isolated location proved to be an advantage because it remained untouched and shielded from development projects, as well as from the curiosity of people.
Menka was dedicated to Sinlaku, the most powerful Breadfruit Goddess and Prophet Spirit. She gave people knowledge about magic and medicine. She also held the power of nature, as well as life and death. She controlled when the breadfruit ripened and could create calamities like typhoons, droughts, and famines. When a punishment was needed, Sinlaku could also introduce a disease like the flu. But Sinlaku was also generous and provided for her people.
Access to Menka was ‘tapu’, or off limits to all except for a selected few. Only the most powerful chosen could come, like priests, sorcerers, magicians and healers during specific times in the year for special events, like the ascension of new paramount chief. During this time, the place of Menka would be rebuilt and repaired. Rituals would take place, and goddess Sinlaku would deliver her message to the Kosrae residents through her representatives.
However, change was coming. In 1852, Reverend Snow, the first Christian missionary and his followers came to Menka and started converting the population. It was not easy for them. Sinlaku was so powerful that Reverend Snow had to compete against her in his mission to Christianize the island.
Over the next decades the new religion spread, and churches were established across the island. Menka was no longer the center of spiritual power and authority. Sinlaku slowly faded and was forgotten as people embraced salvation and the church. When Sinlaku saw how the people embraced the new religion, she left Kosrae forever and fled to Yap.
In her publication entitled “Temple Architecture in the Sacred Site of Menka, Kosrae, Federated States of Micronesia,” archaeologist Felicia Beardsley, former professor of the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at the University of La Verne, USA, said that the demands of colonizers, traders, explorers, and missionaries affected the traditional culture of Kosrae.
In fact, Beardsley said Kosrae’s traditional culture has been reduced to fragments where nobody seems to remember anything at all. Stories about Sinlaku became very scarce, except fragments of oral histories drawn from whatever was left of diaries and journals of missionaries. Those fragments, along with architectural and material remains, indicated early occupation in Kosrae.
Even traditional rituals dedicated to Sinlaku were forgotten. No one remembers or knows how the priestly mediator called on Sinlaku, or how the ceremonial rites were conducted. Beardsley said research from Kosrae’s Historic Preservation Office resulted in no information on religious practices about Sinlaku and her priestly mediators.
Beardsley cited Berlin Sigrah's research about two of Sinlaku’s female servants, who were making predictions through World War 11. She said their predictions turned out right. However, both died in the 1990s and left no records of their duties, responsibilities and what they were doing with respect to the goddess Sinlaku.
What little information shared about Menka came from local landowners and pig and pigeon hunters who happened to pass through the area. They described the village as having over a hundred houses within its boundaries. It was considered the biggest among traditional villages during that time. About a thousand villages showed up at ceremonies and celebrations. It was believed that a temple and a secret meeting place were hidden behind the jungle, where Sinlaku’s mortal representatives met and performed rituals.
According to a story, Sinlaku revealed her temple location and throne to a passing hunter. It was as if the hunter was dreaming, and when he “woke up,” he couldn’t locate the place again. It was suggested that Sinlaku concealed her dwelling from people.
From 2010 to 2012, archaeologists documented two architectural structures in Menka that suggested the location of Sinlaku’s village. The structures included rock shelter platforms suggesting residential areas and statue fields. The two compounds which archaeologists called the upper and lower complex were identified as temple areas. They had features indicating they were used for ceremonial functions.
The survey showed that the upper or older temple showed a small, intimate setting with clan symbols, an altar oriented to Mt Finkol. The lower or younger temple is bigger and designed to accommodate a larger crowd.
Oo most Kosraeans, Menka is still a place to avoid, according to Beardsley.
It retains an aura of mystery and magic where powerful ghosts still roam.