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POLYNESIAN MYTHOLOGY

EASTER ISLAND

           

On Easter Island, as throughout Polynesia, the people maintain an oral tradition in the form of songs and stories about their mythical gods and heroes who had the strengths and weaknesses of men, and into tales of history about noble ancestors who bore the names and attributes of gods.

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A carved wooden ancestor figure

The oral traditions exist wherever the Polynesians settled. On every island, the poets, priests, and narrators drew from the same deep well of the mythological past which the Polynesians themselves called the night of tradition.

On far away Easter Island, the only great gods were Tangaroa and Rongo and these were merely mentioned in the lineage of Hotu-matua, the traditional founder of the community.

A local god, Makemake was regarded as the creator of mankind and was also patron of the Bird Cult, the principal festival of the island.

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A figure from Easter Island, made of tapa cloth stretched over bound bullrushes
and decorated with a tattoo pattern. Usually placed near the door of a house,
it was believed to offer protection against evil spirits.

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The upper part of a Janus-faced ceremonial paddle from
Easter Island. The carving is duplicated exactly on both sides.

Makemake first manifested himself in the form of a skull and the large-eyed rock-carvings or petroglyphs at the sacred village of Rongo are said to represent him. This village was built on the cliffs overlooking three small islets and it was to one of these, Motu-nui that Makemake was said to have driven the birds to protect them from egg gatherers.     

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Numerous carvings of the Bird-Man, some showing him
with egg in hand  on the cliff top at Orongo, Easter Island.

Each year in the nesting season, servants were sent to the island to await the appearance of the first egg, while their masters waited at Rongo. The man whose servants found the first egg became Bird Man, for one year. His hair and eyebrows were shaved and his eyelashes cut off and he carried the egg on the palm of his hand down the mountain to a place where he lived in seclusion for the rest of the year.

A wooden carving of a fish-man from Easter Island.
This ornament was worn around the neck of dancers
 during festivals. (British Museum)

Wooden effigy of a bird man.
(Peabody Museum, Harvard University)

Tantalisingly, little is known about Easter Island traditions, including the annual election of the Bird Man however it has been suggested that the Bird Man was the chosen representative of Makemake and that the contest for fetching the first egg determined his selection.

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(E-mail: jane@janeresture.com -- Rev. 6th December 2008)