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POLYNESIAN MYTHOLOGY

The early missionaries laboured to destroy belief in the Polynesian concepts of the world and the origin and the power of the local gods. In this they were helped by the natives themselves who, eager to accept and adopt new ideas, broke almost completely with their old religion. Priests and scholars who had adopted and accepted the new teaching refused to pass on the concepts and the legends, and the continuity of oral transmission was broken. Many European missionaries however recorded or attempted to record the old religion, perhaps to show the church at home from what they were rescuing the heathen. Indeed, wherever the white missionaries were stationed, a certain amount of information has been saved from the wreck and it is this information that forms much of the basis of our present knowledge of Polynesian mythology.

           

Throughout Polynesia much of the creative energy of the people flow into words that were woven into songs and stories about 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. Words were spun by the bards into welcoming orations, love lyrics, laments and eulogies of praise for the great chiefs, warriors and navigators; particularly those who led the canoe parties to find new lands. Ritual words were guarded by priests, and the master/craftsman who acted as priests for the canoe-builders, house-builders, fishermen and the makers of images. Prayers summoned gods to the marae (temple) and shrines. Invocations, charms and spells use words in formula so powerful that if any were omitted or misplaced disaster and death follows.

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A characteristic figure from the Marquesas Islands,
of carved and decorated wood. Each foot is set firmly on a skull.
The figure was set in the prow of a canoe and the mooring
rope was attached to it. Hooper Collection.

These oral traditions exist wherever the Polynesians settled, within an area which extends from the Hawaiian islands in the far north to New Zealand in southern seas and to lonely Easter Island to the east. And on every island the poets, priests and narrators drew from the same deep well of the mythologican past which the Polynesians themselves called The Night of Tradition. For when their ancestors moved out from the Polynesian nucleus in the western islands, they carried with them the knowledge of the same great mythological events, the names of their gods and of their many demi gods and heroes.

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The Missionary John Williams told how an image of the fisherman's god was placed on the forepart of every fishing canoe, and prior to setting out offerings were made to him and his support invoked. This image would probably represent a fisherman's god called Taringa-Nui, "Great Ears", from Rarotonga. British Museum.

As time passed, the Polynesian imagination adapted and elaborated on old themes to suit fresh settings, and new characters and events were absorbed into the mythological systems. But on almost every island favourite stories have the same central characters: Hina the woman who beat tapa cloth in the moon; Maui who fished up the island and snared the sun; Tinirau whose pet whale was murdered by Kae; Tawhaki who visited the sky and Rata whose canoe was built by the little people of the forest.

The Polynesians lived in a world created by their gods and heroes and felt a close involvement with them. Mythological references like "as deceitful as Maui" were a part of everyone's conversation. The lullaby for the baby, the story for the curious child, the idle tale to pass the time, all drew on the familiar themes. Simple prayers acknowledge the ever-present gods.

Image available on request only

Image available on request only

On some islands Tangaroa was elevated to the role of creator. This image shows him producing other beings from his body. The image has a cavity in the back where other images are stored.

A carved wooden figure, probably of the god Rongo. It is one of seven images known to have survived a mass destruction of carvings which took place on the Gambier Islands on 16 April 1835 at the instigation of the missionaries.

Men also needed more specialised assistance to communicate with their gods. All labour was consecrated. The success of planting, fishing, canoe-making and house-building depended not only on correct technique but also correct ritual. The master-craftsman of every occupation therefore taught his successor both his technical skills and his correction of spells, invocations, genealogies and legends.

The highest mysteries of traditional lore were the province of the divine chief, the inspirational priest and the ceremonial priest. Every Polynesian chief traced his genealogy back to the gods and was therefore the living link with the mythological past. The inspirational priest was the mouthpiece of the gods, the oracle and diviner who was consulted before any event of importance. His revelations were probably the source of new myths and the basis for the re-interpretation of the old. The ceremonial priest presided over the public ceremonies associated with the birth, marriage, installation and death of a chief, as well as those which regulated man's association with nature.

Broadly speaking, this was the pattern on most islands, except of those of western Polynesia where true ceremonial priests do not exist. There, the talking chiefs, who were both bards and orators, were the repositories of the traditional laws of the group and simply passed it from generation to generation.

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CREATION OF THE COSMOS

Amongst the Polynesians genesis was conceived of either a process of growth or evolution from an intangible to a tangible state, or as the work of a pre-existent, omniscient creator who brought matter into existence, gave forms of the formless and set all in an established order. The primordial state in which the creator dwelt or from which all things emerged was described as a void, nothingness, chaos, immensity, space, night or darkness, and in an attempt to free the concept even more, it was qualified as limitless without light, without form or without motion.

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A carved wooden statuette, carefully patterned, from the island of Aitatuki in the Cook Archipelago.

A Rarotongan ironwood image of God collected by the London Missionary Society. British Museum.

The belief in a pre-existent creator called Tangaloa, who lived alone in the illimitable void and made all things, was found in the western Polynesian islands of the Samoan, Tongan and Ellice (Tuvalu) Groups and on Niue, Uvea and Rotuma. Tangaloa, some said, brooded over a vast expanse of waters while his messenger, the bird Tuli, flew over the never ending ocean searching for somewhere to rest. At last Tangaloa cast down a rock which became the island of Manu'a, the main island of the Samoan group. Next he made the other islands of the group, then Tonga and Fiji. Tuli complained of the lack of shade in these islands and Tangaloa gave him a vine to plant called the peopling vine, from which man was made.

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Marquesan carved stilt foot-rests. Stilt walking
was a sport indulged in on ceremonial occasions.

Other creation myths of the evolutionary type were completely personalised. The two elements became an earth mother and a sky father, who were the progenitors of the gods, the element, the lands and all living things. In myths of this type, the first-born sons of the primal pair played an active part in creation: separating their parents, raising the sky and creating lands, plants and man. The names and attributes of the greatest of these, the gods Tane, Tangaroa, Tu and Rongo were known throughout all of Polynesia except the west, where Tangaroa or Tangaloa alone was known, not as one of the pantheon of great gods, but as the sole creator.

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THE ORIGIN OF MANKIND

Tuli, the bird messenger of Tangaloa, flew down to earth with a creeping vine to clothe the bare land and provide shade. At first the vine spread; then it withered and decomposed and swarmed with a shapeless moving mass of maggots. Tangaloa took these and fashioned them into human shape. He straightened them out and moulded hands, legs and features. He gave each a heart and a soul and they came alive. This type of myth in which man appeared by a kind of primitive evolution, sometimes aided by a deity, was confined to the western Polynesians. In other islands to the east, it was believed that man came into being by a continuation of the process of creation, which had begun with Atea and Papa. The god Tane was most often considered to be the actual generative agent who impregnated a woman he formed from earth.

A Rarotongan staff god. These averaged about thirteen feet in length though some were longer. They consisted of an upper carved portion with a profile head surrounding a series of figures alternatively profile and full-face; a middle section wrapped round with tapa cloth until it was probably two or three yards in circumference; and a terminal phallus. The missionary John Williams reported seeing many torn to pieces before his eyes, but some were saved and sent to England. Usually only the upper portion has survived. Many of these images are thought to be of Oro, son of Tangaroa, but some investigators believe they represent Tangaroa himself. 

The unions between the gods and human beings which took place long ago in the mythological past tended to blur the line between the divine and human ancestors in the genealogy of men. Many men also counted amongst their ancestors the children of such union, the demi-gods and heroes whose adventures were performed when the world was young and the journey could still be made between the world of the living and the spirit lands, aided by the power of their divine relatives. Their deeds were eulogised in narrative, drama, poetry and song and the names of some were known almost more widely than those of the gods.

The need of every man of status for a famous ancestor resulted in the absorption of these characters into the genealogies of the ruling Polynesian families, and when more than one of them appeared in the same genealogy, brought them also into relationship with each other.  

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(E-mail: jane@janeresture.com -- Rev. 5th April 2012)