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Anthropology and Religion

The Creation of Gods

The Creation of Gods

Religion has been defined as a system of faith and worship. The Polynesians had supreme faith in their chiefs and they reverenced them to the point of worship. In Tonga, when people entered the house of the sacred Tui-tonga chief, they knelt before him and touched the soles of his feet with the backs of their hands, sometimes with their forehead. In offering this sign of respect, the very act of touching imbued them with some of the sacred chief's taboo. They repeated the act on leaving his presence and thus returned the taboo. If the chief were engaged in conversation at the time of leaving, they touched a small wooden bowl placed outside the door for the purpose. It was believed that if the act of returning the taboo were not done, the person became ill. In Tahiti, people stripped to the waist as the high chief went by. He was carried on the shoulders of bearers, page 8because, if he walked, the land touched by his feet became impregnated with his taboo and so could not be used by others. In Hawaii, people sat down or prostrated themselves on the ground according to the rank of the chief. These observances approached worship but they were made to living men. The chief came near to divinity but he was not a god.

The definition of religion quoted above is incomplete but it is rounded off by adding that religion includes the recognition of a superhuman controlling power. Any superhuman controlling power must come from beyond man himself. Man may act as a medium but a living man cannot be a god. To become a god, man must pass through the portals of death. Death may be the end of material life, but it is the beginning of a spiritual immortality.

The Polynesian leaders had full confidence in their ability to deal with mundane affairs but they recognized that there were some things beyond human power. Such were control of the elements, fertility of food plants, movements of fish, and assured success in war and other undertakings. Western civilization in comparatively recent times has solved many problems by means of applied science. In stoneage Polynesia, science remained empirical, and the Polynesians followed the ancient urge of seeking aid from some supernatural controlling power.

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The Christian concept of immortality is essentially selfish. The soul of the person who has acquired merit in this world passes on to its reward in another world and remains there. Shakespeare speaks of "The free and undiscovered country from whose bourne no traveller returns." The gates of death are shut and there is no possible return of the spirit. In the Polynesian concept, however, the gates remain open and the spirits of those who have passed on may return to this world. Their return was sometimes inconvenient. In order to establish some link with the supernatural, it seems natural that the Polynesians should have recalled the spirits, of certain of their illustrious ancestors to establish control over problems that were beyond the power of man. They had solved problems during their sojourn in this life and why should they not continue to exercise a supernatural power in the life beyond? The spirits recalled for aid were selected by man, and so the Polynesians created their gods.