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Anthropology and Religion

The Parents of the Gods

The Parents of the Gods

Having created major gods, placed them in one family, and given them departments to rule over, the priests were faced with the problem of creating parents for them. Here they entered the realm of meta-physics. No ordinary living persons could be given the posts of parents of gods, so the priesthood personified natural phenomena to fill the positions. The male parent was Atea, the personification of space which lies above the surface of land and sea; the female parent was Papa, the personification of the earth stratum, or land. It is interesting here to theorize on the symbolism of the Sky-father and the Earth-mother. It seems natural that a seafaring people who voyaged over open spaces and wide expanses of ocean in search of land should personify space and earth. However, the concept of the Sky-father and the Earth-mother occurs back in Indonesia, whence the Polynesians came. The concept appears to be too old to have originated in Polynesia itself, and apparently it is one of the myths that was carried along from an ancient homeland. Though it occurs in various forms along seven radials, it is not present in the west. Granted a ready-made Sky-father and Earth-mother, what the priests at Opoa did was to con-page 40nect the newly created major gods to an older myth.

In some islands, two other mythical characters were associated with Atea and Papa. They were Te Tumu (Cause), a male, and Hakahotu (To-take-form), a female. In Penrhyn atoll, Atea married Hakahotu and produced the gods. In Rarotonga, Te Tumu married Papa and produced the gods. In Hawaii, Wakea (Atea) married both Papa and Ho'ohoku (Hakahotu) and produced islands. In the revised mythology of Tahiti, Atea was first a female and then changed sexes with Fa'ahotu (Hakahotu) to become a male. It is evident that different schools in personifying the ideas of a primary cause and material form have mixed them up with the clear-cut concept of Atea and Papa, who gave birth to the gods.

Space having been personified as the Sky-father, some explanation had to be given of why he was so far removed from the Earth-mother. The Sky-father was termed Atea, Vatea, and Wakea in various islands. In the Marquesas, he had the double name of Atea-Rangi, and in New Zealand, the word Atea was dropped and Rangi retained, so that the Sky-father became Rangi (Sky). In order to carry out the theme of the primary parents giving birth to the gods, the human method of reproduction was followed. The Sky-father was materialized as a male page 41who originally embraced the Earth-mother and remained in close touch with her. Their children—Tane, Rongo, Tu, Tangaroa, and others—were born and lay between them in a circumscribed world of darkness. In the New Zealand version, the children complained of darkness and lack of space. Some, led by Tane, determined to separate their parents in order to obtain light and space, but a conservative party, led by Whiro, opposed the plan. However, the iconoclasts prevailed, and Tane took the principal part in effecting the separation. At first he tried to push the Sky-parent upwards with his arms but failed. He then inverted himself and, standing on his head, pushed upwards with his feet. This form of leverage was more successful and so Rangi, the Sky-father, was separated from the Earth-mother and relegated to his present position. Trees, which are the children of Tane, are figuratively held to represent the position of Tane during this great feat. The roots represent the hair of the head, which is down in the ground, and the branches are the feet which pushed upwards.

In some island groups, Ru is credited with the task of pushing up the sky. In the Cook Islands, Ru was successful without any bodily ill effect. In Tahiti, however, he failed and contracted an inguinal hernia through the muscular strain. In Tuamotu, he bent page 42his spine and was termed Ru-the-humpback. Raising the sky was a wonderful theme to which various details were added. In the tropical islands where arrowroot grew, the Sky was raised in stages. In the first, low stage, it rested on the leaves of the arrowroot which thus became permanently flattened. In New Zealand, where there was no arrowroot, the arrowroot stage of elevation does not occur.

The Sky having been raised on high, light came into their world and the gods were enabled to assume the erect position. The god Tane attached the sun, moon, and stars to the breast of the Sky-father, and day was divided from night. The god Whiro, who had led the opposition, retired into the underworld to live in the darkness that he preferred.