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Anthropology and Religion

Polynesian Social Pattern

Polynesian Social Pattern

The religion of the Polynesians was interwoven with a culture pattern that was developed in an oceanic environment. To understand the origin of the spiritual gods, it is necessary to discuss the origin of temporal leaders. The Polynesian voyages across the Pacific Ocean eastwards toward the rising sun were made in voyaging ships commanded by chiefs who exercised authority over crews composed of blood kinsmen and family retainers. The chiefs were advised by skilled navigators who by empirical study were enabled to interpret the natural phenomena that had a bearing on navigation. The appearance and movements of the heavenly bodies were studied as guides to season and direction. The annual lunar cycle had been established, and the seasons of the westerly winds and the southeast trades had been recorded in their minds. The months of the hurricane season were known, and the time for voluntary search expeditions for new lands were planned accordingly.

The chiefs inherited their rank and authority in page 2direct succession by primogeniture in the male line. When a voyaging ship landed on an unoccupied island and permanent occupation was decided upon, the chief as leader of his group superintended the scheme of settlement. He decided where his headquarters should be located on the land in relation to fresh water, fertile soil, and scenic attraction. He divided the land among family heads and, when the party was large, he established lesser chiefs to command districts which were given place names and definite boundaries. The people looked to him for guidance, and their faith was justified. Hereditary chiefs were born to leadership and they exercised their authority with wisdom.

The natural resources of the new land were explored for raw material in stone, wood, textile plants, and native foods on land and sea. The food plants that had been carried along in the voyaging canoes were planted and cultivated. These were the coconut, breadfruit, banana, plantain, arrowroot, taro, sweet potato, and yam. The introduced domestic animals, the pig, the dog, and the fowl were bred to increase the food supplies of the new land.

As the population increased, the people formed an extended family group claiming descent from common ancestors in the original family. The blood kinship was further strengthened by marriages ar-page 3ranged to cement the blood tie. The extended family sought a name which would include all its members, and hence they had recourse to a distinguished ancestor from whom all were descended. A prefix, such as Ati or Ngati, was used before the proper name, and thus the descendants of Awa or Tane became the tribes of Ati-awa or Ngati-tane. The tribal system of blood descent and naming after an eponymous ancestor was widely spread in Polynesia, but in some areas, such as Hawaii and Samoa, groupings were based more on district occupation. In the tribal system, the eponymous ancestor received high honor in legend, song, and story, and his various deeds and exploits were the emotional inheritance of his descendants grouped together under his name.

As the descent group grew in size through the natural increase of succeeding generations, the number became too great to dwell close together in one locality. Family groups budded off from the main body and sought cultivable lands in fertile valleys farther away from the original focus. These groups were led by their own chiefs who were automatically established from the senior family in the migrating group. In the course of time, the secondary groups also grew in size and, in their turn, selected an eponymous ancestor from whom the particular sub-group was descended. Hence the original group had page 4developed into a numerous tribe which the need for expansion into cultivable land had split up into a number of subtribes, each with its own name, territory, and ruling chiefs.

Although the newly developed subtribes occupied adjoining territory, the immediate family group of the original leader usually lived on in the first focus of settlement. Tradition and sentiment grew up about the earlier places of settlement, and a richer heritage of history was associated with the senior family in the tribe. Owing to the division of the tribe into subtribes, the family group remaining in the original settlement may be regarded also as a subtribe, but it was senior in precedence to the others. In many instances, this senior subtribe did not give itself a new subtribal name but merely retained its original designation which had become a tribal name. It was the people who moved out that required new names.

The senior line of descent from the original leader supplied chiefs who were senior in rank and prestige to the subtribal chiefs. They were chief of chiefs and received the special title of ariki. The subtribes had budded off from the senior family after the establishment of the senior chieftainship, and hence the titles of their chiefs were more recent in time as well as page 5junior in birth. Each subtribe was a separate unit tracing descent to its own eponymous ancestor of more recent date, but all the subtribes could trace their lineage back to the earlier ancestor who gave his name to the tribe. Each subtribe managed its own local affairs under the direction of its own chiefs, but questions of policy that affected the tribe as a whole were decided at gatherings of the subtribal chiefs meeting in conference with the tribal chief or ariki.

In tropical Polynesia, where fertile land was not so extensive as in New Zealand, the land was portioned out to meet the needs of the people. Theoretically the title to land rested with the chiefs whose ancestors had been given original grants. The chiefs apportioned their lands to the heads of families in their groups and were paid rent in the form of a share of the produce from the cultivations, fowls, and pigs raised on the land and manufactured goods, such as bark cloth. Fishermen brought choice fish to their chiefs. The lesser chiefs, in their turn, rendered food and goods to the tribal chief as acknowledgment of the fact that they had received their charter to the land from the original leader. In some islands, the chiefs rendered fealty to the high chief by rethatching his house when repairs were needed. page 6They supported him by providing food and goods on the marriage of his daughter and on such special occasions as he might command.

With a growing population and an increasing social development, individuals acquired expert knowledge in fishing, horticulture, building canoes and houses, war, and the various activities that made up the culture of the people. They became specialists and leaders in the local development of the arts and crafts.

In the general evolution that took place with an increasing population, social accretions grew up around the chiefs and, particularly, the senior or high chief. The position of the high chief was invested with those typical Polynesian attributes, mana and tapu (taboo). The mana, which means power and prestige, was derived from senior descent in the male line, and the increasing power of a growing tribe was symbolized in the person of the high chief. The tapu or sanctity of his person was also derived from his high descent and the awe and respect that accompanies increasing power. The mana and tapu of a high chief were not only hereditary but were increased by the allegiance and support of a powerful tribe. The status of the chief was enhanced by religious observances carried out at his birth, installation, and various social occasions during his life and page 7in the funeral ceremonies following his death. In Tahiti such observances were marked by human sacrifice. After death, the spirits of chiefs and commoners passed on to the spirit land, a mysterious region situated toward the setting sun, where the cradle of the race was to be found. Sometimes they returned in dreams and hallucinations, and so was sown the seed that grew into the belief in immortality.