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Maori Religion and Mythology Part 1

Human Sacrifice for a New Canoe

Human Sacrifice for a New Canoe

The custom of sacrificing a human being at the completion, of a new superior canoe seems to have originated in the same belief as in the case of a new house—that is, that it insured the protection of the gods. No doubt the fact that the act enhanced the mana or prestige of the individual or clan would also be no slight consideration.

In vol. 8 of the Journal of the Polynesian Society, p. 208, occurs the following remark: "In former times, in the first launching of a canoe, the skids were the living bodies of slaves." This statement I must take exception to, for there is no proof that such a custom existed here, although common at Fiji. The slaying of a single person on such an occasion is quite a different matter. In vol. 13 of the above-mentioned Journal Colonel Gudgeon speaks of a small vassal tribe having to provide human sacrifices for the Arawa Tribe when needed. One of such occasions was the launching of a war-canoe, when one of the hapless vassals was bound and so utilized as a skid for the vessel, which was hauled over his body in the process of launching. This is the only case mentioned in tradition, so far as we know.

The slaying of a person to mark the completion of a new canoe was apparently practised only in connection with the superior type of vessel, the waka taua, or war-canoe, and was not a common custom; it was but occasionally practised.

Ellis tells us that at Tahiti canoes were hauled over the bodies of captives taken in war, but he does not make it clear as to whether or not the bodies were living or dead.

At Fiji human sacrifices far exceeded those of any Polynesian community. Williams, in his Fiji and Fijians, writes: "A chief has been known to kill several men for rollers, to facilitate the launching of his canoes, the 'rollers' being afterwards cooked and eaten." (For "rollers" read "skids.") He also states that a Fijian chief would kill a man, or men, on laying down a keel of a new canoe, and try to add one for each fresh plank. Other writers assert that the Fijians used the living bodies of men as skids in canoe-launching. In Gordon Cumming's At Home in Fiji we read, after an account of human sacrifice for a new house, the following statement: "The same idea prevailed with respect to launching a chief's canoe, when the bodies of living men were substituted for ordinary rollers." Then comes a page 236description of a scene witnessed by a European. "These people allowed their guests to be surprised in the night, when forty were captured, and each being bound hand and foot to the stems of banana-trees, were then laid as rollers, face uppermost, along the path by which the canoes were to be dragged across the isthmus. The shrieks of the victims were drowned by the hauling-songs of their captors, and, with one exception, all were crushed to death. One poor wretch lingered a while in torture till the ovens were made ready, in which all were cooked."

We read that Scandinavian vikings of old lashed human victims to the rollers over which a vessel was launched, and this savage blood christening has now degenerated into bathing the prow of a new vessel with red wine in place of red blood.