Chamorro cosmology

The Chamorro word mo’na points to the idea that the Chamorro cosmology, in particular during the ancient period of history, was a circular one rather than linear.

A linear interpretation of time means that as we move through history, things happen one after the other, in a forward progression. As we move in time things change and never return to a previous point, but are like steps on an endless staircase. It is for this reason that most ideas of linear time assume a positivistic dimension to history, or that as things change, they are always getting better.

A circular interpretation however sees time and history as never moving forward, but always returning to the same points, always moving in a grand circle. The diverse uses and meanings of the term mo’na indicate that the Chamorro worldview was a circular one, or one in which the past, the present and the future were not discrete units or blocks on a straight timeline, but rather points that linked together in a circle.

Front or before

The term “mo’na” can mean the “front” or used to described something which is in front or “before” something in space. If something is “gi me’na’-mu” it is “in front of you.” The word sanme’na is used to describe the front of something. “Gi me’nan Yu’os” is a common phrase which translates to “before God.” Mo’na and another form of it, fo’na, can also be used as directional terms to indicate the direction in front of you, or a command to move forward.

But mo’na is also used as a temporal term to describe things “before” you in time and history, and it is here where the cyclical elements emerge. Mo’na and fo’na capture the meaning of “before” in both senses temporally. They refer to the time and that which is before us (or in front of us) in time, that which lies ahead of us, but also that which is behind us, that which came before we did.

There are certain explicit ways in which term fo’na takes on both the sense of something being before in time and in space. For instance when it is combined with the causative na’– prefix, it becomes na’fo’na which means to “send ahead” or “push to the front” and can carry the meaning of letting someone cut ahead of you in line, or letting someone do something before you in time. Fo’naigue is another form, which means to “do something ahead of someone else,” such as Ha fonaigue yu’ gi che’cho, which translates to “He did the work before me.”

But mo’na can also take on a strictly future sense. “Para mo’na” for example is the Chamorro phrase meaning “from now on” or “from this point forward.” Mo’na is also attached to words in order to indicate this sort of transitioning point and the permanence of the statement or action into the future. When used with a verb, the terms gains the extra significance of something that will be carried on into the future and is not only for this moment.

At the same time, mo’na and fo’na are both used to also articulate that which is from the past, that which came before us. They are both used to talk about something which has come before, or something which happened before the present moment. For instance, if two friends are talking about who graduated from high school first, they might say “Mo’na hao,” meaning you were in front or you came first.

Fo’na, when using the nominalizing infix –in-, becomes fine’nina and is regularly used in Chamorro to indicate something being “first.” In this sense the term is used to describe what happened first or who was the first to do something. Incidentally, fine’nina can also be used to reference the first of something to be done in the future. As when talking about what will happen, fine’nina also means what will happen or be accomplished first.

The two words in which the cosmological elements of mo’na are perhaps the most clear are in taotaomo’na and manmofo’na, both terms used to refer to the ancestors of Chamorros. Taotaomo’na is a word so commonly used that even it is well known amongst non-Chamorros and non-Chamorro speakers on Guam. Taotaomo’na literally means “the people from before” or “the front people,” and was most likely used by ancient Chamorros when speaking of their ancestors. Due to the influence of Spanish Catholic colonialism the term came to mean devils, spirits or other creatures that haunt Guam and trick its residents. Manmofo’na, which means “those who came before” or “those who are in the front” is a more recently developed term. It has risen to prominence as an alternative to taotaomo’na, a term which invokes the same ancestral idea, but does not carry all the negative connotations. Manmofo’na is even used in the title of history book written by Scott Russell, I Tiempon I Manmofo’na which is a history of the Ancient Marianas Islands.

Although the use of mo’na in these words most explicitly refers to their being from the past, or coming before the present, they still carry with them the future and forward in time implications of the term. They intimate to the ancestral spirits of Chamorros not only being behind us, but also before us. According to Chamorro historian Anne Perez Hattori, the key to understanding the Chamorro world view is found in the multiple meanings of mo’na.

This multiple meaning is intriguing because it reveals a unique aspect of the Chamorro world view, what would be called the Chamorro epistemology .  In this definition of mo’na as both the front and the past, what is revealed is the Chamorro cultural perspective that history is not what is behind us, but rather, history is in front of us.

Circle of time

This dual meaning of the term was probably derived from the world view of Chamorros and their beliefs about where the spirits of those went after someone died. Rather than moving to a higher (or lower) plane of existence, whether heaven or hell, Chamorros believed that the spirits of their ancestors returned to the same world as manganiti or taotaomo’na. These spirits would be treated like members of the family and could be expected to provide favors or protection for their descendants.

Life was thus not a linear progression, but instead a constant return, a circle, where those who passed on, return to us, and those who came before, are still with us. This circle of time and history required that constant respect be shown to one’s living and deceased relatives. It is for this reason that ancestral veneration or core societal respect for your ancestors was central to how Chamorros understood themselves as a people.

By Michael Lujan Bevacqua, PhD

For further reading

Cunningham, Lawrence. Ancient Chamorro Society. The Bess Press, Honolulu, 1992.

Scott, Russell. Tiempon I Manmofo’na: Ancient Chamorro Culture and History of the Northern Mariana Islands. Saipan, CNMI: Division of Historic Preservation, Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, 1998.