The Book of Human Emotions: From Ambiguphobia to Umpty - 154 Words from Around the World for How We Feel - Tiffany Watt Smith 2016


Western psychologists have argued that fear is a universal emotion, that it boils down to a single response shared by all people across the globe. Tahitians, however, distinguish between two varieties of fear, each with its own physical response. The first is ordinary, heart-thumping, stomach-knotting fear for your life, which they call ri’ari’a. The second is the uncanny sensation experienced in the presence of spirits, ghosts and other dangerous supernatural phenomena. They call this feeling mehameha (pronounced may-ha-may-ha).

A Tahitian named Tano described mehameha to the anthropologist Robert Levy: “There are times when you go into the bush and suddenly your head begins to swell, and your body feels changed, and you hear something, a rustling, a noise.… You get gooseflesh, and you think ’there is a spirit’.” An altered state, which often occurs while walking alone, at twilight, beyond the confines of the village, mehameha causes the head to expand as if being blown up like a balloon, the hair to stand on end and the skin to prickle. Like “getting spooked” or inexplicably shivering in a warm room, mehameha leaves those who feel it twitchy and unnerved.

Mehameha may snowball into terror, though it is quickly diffused if the strange noise is discovered to be merely a gecko scurrying after its dinner. However, if you must walk out at dusk, the safest remedy is to take a friend along with you: as the Tahitians well know, mehameha only ever strikes when we are alone…