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Anthropology and Religion

Material Representatives

Material Representatives

It would appear that the Polynesians, having created unseen spiritual gods, followed a human need in desiring some material objects to represent them. Here again, there was great variation in the objects selected. In Samoa and Tonga, simple objects, such as stones, whales' teeth, a bowl, or a weapon were used to represent the god. They were wrapped in bark cloth and kept in a basket in the religious structure and only exposed by the priest to worshipers when they needed the god's assistance. In other re-page 17gions, images were made in wood and stone. Some very large images in stone were made in the Marquesas, Austral Islands, and Easter Island. These were set up in the open temples as permanent fixtures and, as such, it is doubtful whether they were regarded as gods or ornaments. The smaller images that represented gods were wrapped up in bark cloth and kept in charge of the priests. They were treated with reverence and exposed to the public eye only during temple ceremonies. The carving of images was purely conventional and differed markedly in the different island groups. There was no attempt to follow closely the anatomical proportions of the human body.

In central Polynesia, an increasing importance was attached to red feathers as a symbol of the divine. In the Society Islands, images in human form were abandoned as symbols of the gods, and they were taken up by sorcerers as habitats, for their familiar spirits. The priests adopted a new technique by covering cylindrical pieces of wood with a fine twine in coconut-husk fiber. Eyes, nose, mouth, hands, and the navel were depicted by pieces of sennit cord attached to the twined work. Beautiful red feathers of the native parakeet tied to sennit carriers were attached to the front surface of the covered cylinder. Some of these gods had the wood exposed at the page 18ends, and there was no attempt to add human features. In all, however, the presence of red feathers was essential. They were first consecrated by the high priest, who kept them for a period with the temple image of the district god. In the Cook Islands, wooden images were made in Rarotonga and Aitu-taki, but carved wooden stands with small arches for the attachment of feathers were used in the other islands of the group. Not all gods were materially represented. It would appear that the older gods, who had become classical and academic and were no longer invoked for creature benefits, were not represented symbolically in wood or stone. The material symbols were for those gods that were invoked for material assistance. All these various forms were in-animate symbols of the gods, and though regarded as taboo, they were not worshiped in themselves. Hence the term idolatry applied to Polynesian religion by rival theologians is not quite accurate.