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Anthropology and Religion

I Man Creates his Gods

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I Man Creates his Gods

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.

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.


The first process involved in building up Polynesian religion was the deification of ancestors. All ancestors who figure in the lineages were respected by their descendants but they were not all worshiped. Only those that had been selected were deified as page 10gods. The method of deification was simple. A member of a family, not necessarily the chief but a person who was psychic, established communication with the ancestral spirit by means of invocations and offerings. He became the medium of the spirit and, when consultations were desired, the spirit took possession or entered the body of the medium and used the medium's voice to announce his presence.


I see little difference between this beginning and the spiritualistic séances that are still conducted in Western society. There is a vast difference however in subsequent development. In the civilized séances, the spirit remains a vague unit with nothing to communicate for the good of society, and the medium remains an individual who is treated with suspicion and disbelief by the great majority, who do not believe in spiritualism. The development in uncivilized society reached a loftier plane. The spirit became a god who conferred benefits upon his worshipers, and the medium became a priest of high standing.


Two fields existed in which the return of the spirits from the other world was not for the public good. Just as in this world there were good and evil per-page 11sons, so in the other world there were good and evil spirits. An evil-minded person conjured back an evil spirit to slay his enemies or the enemies of those who had paid him. The evil spirit became the familiar spirit of the person whose commands it obeyed and that person went into practice as a sorcerer. The familiar spirits were not worshiped as gods by the family or the people, and the sorcerer was both despised and feared. In Western society, of course, witches and sorcerers who were supposed to have a contract with the devil were believed in until recent times.

Disease Demons

The other field in which spirits were evil was that of sickness and disease. Just as the sorcerer sent his familiar spirit to attack the vitals of a victim, so the abnormal symptoms that marked a departure from normal health were believed to be caused by disease demons that were evil spirits from the other world. These disease demons were held to be derived from the spirits of those who had never reached maturity in this world: abortions and miscarriages. It would seem that such spirits, having been frustrated in this life by not reaching maturity, sought revenge on human beings by entering their bodies and bringing about the abnormal symptoms that are caused by disease. But even here there had to be some reason page 12for the attack, and the reason generally given was an infringement by the patient of one of the many taboos. The established pattern was that particular disease demons belonged to the family in which the abortion or miscarriage had occurred, and it was the infringement of the taboos of that family that the disease demon punished. The treatment consisted in identifying the disease demon that was present in the patient and then asking the leading member of the family owning the demon to remove it. The removal or casting out of the evil spirit was accomplished by exorcism, the recital of a command, or some ritual phrases. In civilized society, we have an example of exorcism where Christ cast out the evil spirits from a sick man. The evil spirits entered the bodies of swine which dashed over a cliff and so destroyed themselves. The Polynesians could not afford to waste their limited quantity of swine so, during the exorcism, a material object of no economic value, such as a reed or toy canoe, was provided; and, after the disease demon had entered this form of transport, it was floated away on a stream or the ocean back to the unknown. From its wide distribution in Polynesia, this simple form of bedside treatment seems to have been the earlier pattern, but later some of the disease demons were raised to the status of minor gods controlling disease by mediums, who, by a more page 13elaborate ritual, raised their own status to that of minor priests. The elevation of disease demons into minor gods is well exemplified in the religion of Mangareva.*


After this diversion, let us return to the real gods. The deified ancestors that were recalled by a psychic medium to assist the family in its earthly straggles became a family god, worshiped by all members of the family, and the family medium became the family priest. As the family expanded into a tribe, the god increased in influence to become a tribal god. If the tribe extended its influence by conquering neighboring tribes and absorbing the conquered, the prestige or mana of the god increased with the temporal power of its worshipers. Hence by a process of evolution, a god commencing as a family god could rise with its increasing number of worshipers into a tribal god and ultimately into a major god, worshiped over an island or an island group. The spiritual power of a god depended on the temporal power of its worshipers, consolidated and retained by success in war.


The Polynesians, however, were not content with one god, for the system of religion was influenced by page 14the native culture of the people. In the struggle for existence, they recognized that it was impossible for one person to be expert in all avenues of life. Hence experts arose in different vocations, such as fishing, horticulture, war, and the various arts and crafts. They studied the sun, moon, stars, winds, and natural phenomena that had a bearing on planting, fishing, and sea voyages. It is natural then that they should have created a god to preside over the various departments of life as they saw them. Hence Polynesian religion was polytheistic. A Polynesian once informed an early missionary that he could not understand how one god could possibly attend to all the varied demands made upon him. In his religion, a person consulted the god of his particular need and had more chance of receiving attention. Hence he considered that the Polynesian religion was superior to Christianity.

The Priesthood

The family medium, with the increase in power of his god and of his people, also shared the growth in importance. He became a tribal priest, and, when his god became a national or major god, he became a high priest with exceedingly great power. The position, like other social positions, became hereditary in the male line. He inherited not merely the page 15position but he learned and transmitted the correct ritual and observances that developed through successive generations. He became a scholar versed in the mythology of his culture, and he was responsible for making additions to the expanding theology. He built up taboos around his god and around himself. He made known the requirements of his god to the people through direct possession or by interpreting various omens that were manifestations of the divine will.

The Temple

Having established a god, it was necessary to set aside some place where the correct observances could be carried out in an appropriate manner. For a family god a simple shrine consisting of an erected stone or post was quite sufficient. The stone or post marked a locality which was imbued with taboo. These simple shrines are present in various islands, and in New Zealand this simple form was retained as the general pattern.

In central, northern, and eastern Polynesia, the tribal and national gods were worshiped on more complex structures. The simple stone upright developed into a raised stone platform, and a paved court was made before it for the accommodation of a multiple priesthood and chiefly worshipers. The page 16raised platform was termed ahu, and the court was the marae. Social as well as religious functions were conducted on the open court, and elaboration in structure took various forms in different island groups. In New Zealand, a divorce took place between the ahu altar and the marae court. Religious observances took place at the ahu shrine outside the village, and social gatherings took place on the open space before the village guest house. This social court retained the name of marae.

In the west in Samoa and Tonga, the temple took the form of a house on a raised platform made on the same plan as a dwelling house. It was surrounded by a fence, and both the building and the enclosed space were taboo.

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.

Animate Representatives

The inanimate symbols of the divinity could give no movement or sign to indicate his will to his followers. Man down the ages has seen omens and portents in the movements and action of birds and living things. The Polynesians shared this attitude and institutionalized matters by associating the various page 19gods with particular birds or animals. These animals were regarded as incarnations of the gods, for the gods manifested themselves through them. In Mangaia, the god Tane was incarnate in a black bird named mo'o (moho), and when a follower of Tane was being treacherously guided into an ambush, a mcto bird flew across his path making a scolding noise. This was the god Tane warning his follower not to go on. Various birds, fish, and lizards have been chosen as incarnations. There is generally a story or myth creating some connection between the deified ancestor and the animal that became incarnate. The deified ancestor Te A'ia of Mangaia was killed in a stream, and his blood was swallowed by an eel. Hence the eel became the incarnation of the god Te A'ia. The eel went out to sea and was swallowed by a shark. Hence the shark also became an incarnation of Te A'ia. Although individual worshipers could interpret some of the signs made by the incarnate animal, it was the priests who were the official interpreters and who established the particular meanings of the omens.


The temporal chief was given presents of food and material goods as a mark of respect and, in like manner, offerings of food or some material object page 20were made to the gods. The gods got their share and through such recognition they were amicably disposed toward their followers. One marked difference existed between the temporal presents and the religious offerings. Since the chiefs ate the food and used the goods, quantity was desirable. The offerings to the gods were purely symbolical, and the act of offering something was all that was needed to insure the favor of the gods. Hence a fisherman on his way to sea placed a coral pebble or a stone on the shrine of a tutelary deity of fish to promote a good catch. On his return, he might place a fish on the shrine as a mark of his gratitude. He shared his catch with his god as well as with his chief or neighbor, and the religious offering followed the pattern of social sharing of food when the occasion warranted. The unsuccessful fisherman placed a stone on the shrine on his return in the hope of better luck next time. In the atolls where vegetable foods were limited, the coconut was all important. The symbolic nature of the offering is exemplified in Tongareva, where a piece of coconut husk was the orthodox offering during the temple ritual. In Mangaia, there was a keeper of the tribal gods that were kept in a god house under his care. Every evening he fed each of the dozen gods with taro cooked in a fire used only for that purpose. The fire was small and only one tuber was page 21heated on the embers. The keeper broke off a small piece of the tuber and, holding it aloft in his hand toward the god house, he addressed one of the gods by name, saying, "O Motoro, here is your food. Eat!" He then threw the piece of taro into the bushes near the house. So, in turn, he fed all the gods with the one small taro. It was of no consequence that the taro was not properly cooked and the portions were small. The gods absorbed the spiritual essence of the food, and it was the symbolic action that satisfied them. In Mangareva, when the people cooked their meals, a small portion was set aside for the gods on a stone table before the family god house. A daily offering was made also in the atolls of Manihiki and Rakahanga but, in most islands, the offerings were made when the god was invoked for a specific purpose or on special occasions, such as the completion of a temple, the gathering of first fruits, the opening of fishing or hunting seasons, and the services that took place in the temples from time to time. In New Zealand, the first fish caught on a closed fishing ground was put back into the sea as an offering to the local god of fish or was taken ashore to hang on a tree or rock that formed the shrine of the deity. Similarly the first pigeon caught on the opening of the season was cast aside into the bushes with a ritual phrase as an offering to the god of the forests. The page 22first fish or bird having been offered to the gods, the people were at liberty to take as many as they could catch. When the Tahitian canoe builders killed a pig ceremonially before they engaged in building an important craft, the first tuft of hair removed in cleaning the pig was held aloft and offered to Tane, the god of canoe builders. When the pig was cooked, the tail was offered to Tane. It may seem that the selection of the parts offered to the god was influenced by economic reasons, and religious zeal did not obscure common sense. The gods enjoyed the spiritual symbol, and the builders enjoyed the material pork.

In the fertile soil of the Society Islands in central Polynesia, where both cultivable foods and animal food in the form of pork were abundant, the food offerings to the gods also became greater not only in variety but in quantity. We have seen that when the canoe builders of that area made their offerings to their tutelary god, they retained the simple pattern of older times. In the great celebrations on the national temples, however, ritual elaboration took place to a marked degree. This was primarily due to the growth of a powerful hereditary priesthood, who interpreted the wants of the gods in terms of their own human desires. The temple celebrations, like all social gatherings of importance, were marked page 23by the accumulation of large quantities of vegetables, fruit, fish, and pork to provide a feast for the congregation. The food, according to Polynesian custom, was divided into shares for the chiefs and family groups and, as the gathering was of a religious nature, a fitting share had to be set aside for the gods. On such occasions the gods, as represented by a numerous priesthood and their attendants, were no longer satisfied with the symbolism of a morsel of taro or a tuft of pig's hair. As interpreted by the priests, the gods required both quantity and quality. Hence the best vegetables, fruits, fish, and fattened pigs were brought in by the various family groups as their offerings to the gods. The priests took charge of the offerings and, with an elaborate ritual, presented them to the gods. The food was rendered taboo and could not be eaten by anyone outside of the priesthood. The gods, having partaken of the spiritual essence of the offerings, the food itself was eaten by the priests and their attendants on the temple courtyard. The congregation on the outside of the temple were then at liberty to feast on the secular food that had been allotted to them. Thus, just as man created god in his own image, so an organized priesthood interpreted, him in terms of their own human needs.

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Human Offerings

It is apparent from the history of various island groups that the Polynesians, like other early peoples, believed in sympathetic magic. As an offering of the first fruits would insure or increase the fertility of crops, so an offering of a person killed in war would promote success in future military campaigns. In New Zealand, where stress was laid on the first object killed or secured, as in the first fish or the first bird, so in war importance was laid on the first person killed in battle. The New Zealanders seem to have adhered to an early pattern of offering a part of the victim on the spot where the first person fell. There was no time to wait for a more elaborate ritual on temple ground. The priest of the party that slew the first man in battle immediately removed the victim's heart and held it aloft as an offering to the war god of his tribe. He also cut off a lock of hair, which was placed on the tribal shrine when the war party returned home. The first slain in battle was termed the "first fish" (mataika), which indicates that to a seafaring people the memory remains of fish being an early form of offering to the gods.

In Mangaia, the body of an enemy slain in battle was offered on the temple of the victors. In the growth of ritual that took place, a victim was se-page 25lected from a conquered tribe and killed as a special offering for the temple installation of the leader of the victorious forces who became dictator over the island. The human offering was also termed the "fish" (ika). It was held that the human offering to the god Rongo would insure a peaceful rule with plenteous seasons of food. The offering was not eaten but was cast into, the bushes behind the temple as food for Papa, who was paradoxically the mother of the gods.

Human offerings were common on the other island groups except on some of the atolls and in the west. Where cannibalism prevailed, they were eaten by the priests. In the Society Islands, where the eating of human flesh was not indulged in, a form of symbolic eating took place. The high priest handed an eye of the victim to the high chief, who passed it across his mouth and returned it to the priest. A human offering was the greatest of all offerings and was used only on important occasions. There is no doubt that at times the system was abused by chiefs and priests who indicated as an offering some person they wanted to have removed. On the other hand, in some ceremonies in the Society Islands a young banana plant was substituted for the human offering and was referred to as the "long banana man." The human offering was also termed a "fish." Hence it is evident page 26that, just as the young banana plant could on occasion be substituted for a human being, so the human being was originally a substitute for an offering of fish. The plant retained the term "man," and man retained the term "fish."

I have referred throughout to the human victim as an offering rather than a sacrifice. A sacrifice should involve a certain amount of acquiescence on the part of the person who formed the offering. The persons offered were unwilling victims of the despotism of chiefs and priests. When families from whom victims were likely to be selected learned of an impending ceremony that demanded a human offering, they hid themselves in the mountains and forests until the ceremony was over. Instances occurred in Mangaia, however, in which chiefs and priests offered themselves voluntarily as human sacrifices in order that the tribes to which they belonged might attain victory in an impending war. The sacrifice was made known to their tribal priests in order that they might make the spiritual offering to the gods. The self-appointed victim then exposed himself to death at the hands of the enemy. The killing completed the sacrifice and insured victory in the minds of the tribe for whom the sacrifice was made. Greater love hath no man than this, that he give up his life for his tribe.

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Temple Furnishings

With the growth of religious ritual, houses were built on the hitherto open court to accommodate the priests and their assistants during the temple ceremonies. It must be remembered, however, that the temples were not in constant use. Early European explorers, who wrote about the neglected state of some of the temples, saw them at a time when they were not being used for an actual ceremony. In the tropics, plants grow very quickly, of course, and the atmosphere of permanent disuse is deceptive. Before an important ceremony, the people were assembled by the priests, and the temple courtyard and surroundings were cleared and weeded. Any necessary repairs to the stonework and woodwork upon the court were made by the priests and their attendants.

In addition to the house or houses for accommodation, a sacred house was provided for the images or other material representatives of the gods. In the Society Islands, a wooden litter was provided for the national god, and during the ceremony the litter was carried by special attendants and placed on a low stone pavement in front of the large stone platform of the temple. Drums used during the ceremony were also kept on the court together with other temple regalia, such as the costumes of the priests. The in-page 28creased quantity of the offerings necessitated the building of raised wooden platforms to support the pigs and other offerings to be made to the gods and subsequently eaten by the priests.

In some temples stone pillars were erected on various parts of the temple. In the Society Islands, carved wooden slabs were placed upright in various parts for ornamentation. In Hawaii, an oracle tower in three tiers was built on the court and covered with bark cloth. Large wooden temple images were erected on the court in Hawaii, and large images of stone were similarly displayed in the Marquesas, Austral Islands, and Easter Island. Hence in the various groups, the place where religious ritual was conducted varied from a simple stone shrine to an open paved temple with various furnishings.


The ritual employed shared in the general growth and varied from simple phrases used by individuals to the intoned chants and invocations led by high priests in solo parts and joined in chorus by the body of lesser priests. It is evident that successive generations of priests added their compositions to what had been handed down to them orally. Words used in the incantations have become archaic and, though the page 29meanings are sometimes difficult to translate, they were believed to be effective purely from their sound and use. There was a magic in words. It is exemplified in the New Zealand phrase to avert disaster:

Kuruki, whakataha.
Evil, pass by.

A longer example is provided by the incantation used by a Maori warrior in tying on his war belt before engaging in battle. Though no mention is made of a war god, the words describing the feelings of the warrior were in themselves supposed to bring about supernatural assistance.

Homai taku maro,
Kia hurua,
Kia rawea,
Kia harapaki maua ko te riri,
Kia harapaki maua ko te nguha.
He maro riri te maro,
He maro nguha te maro,
He maro kai taua.

Give me my war belt,
To be girded,
To be fastened,
page 30 That I may join with wrath,
That I may unite with rage.
The belt is a belt of wrath,
The belt is a belt of rage,
A belt that destroys armies.

These examples from New Zealand belong to an early phase that relied on supernatural assistance by the magic of words.

In other areas, such as Tahiti and Hawaii, the chants used were invocations that appealed directly to a specific god for military success, food, and the various needs of the worshipers. When words in themselves were regarded as magical, the correct rendering of the words of the incantation became obligatory. Any mistake in the words or their sequence in the chant was regarded as an ill omen for the reciting priest. Sooner or later, he met death in some form or other, and the death was attributed to punishment by the gods for a broken ritual.


To summarize this chapter I have tried to picture the growth of a primitive religion in one ethnological area. I have endeavored to relate the historical sequence of events from the simple to the complex. Man, realizing from dreams perhaps that there was page 31a spiritual essence or soul that was not destroyed but merely freed from its material envelope, evolved the concept of immortality. The souls of the Polynesian ancestors lived on in the spirit land of Hawaiki. Their descendants called upon them for assistance in the problems of this life. They wished for a continuity of help and so deified specific ancestors as gods who could be consulted when occasion demanded. Thus man created his gods. The Polynesian created his gods in his own image because, after all, they had once been living persons with human desires and passions. They had had wives and begat children; they had had their loves and infidelities much like the gods on Mount Olympus. Like Jehovah, they were jealous gods, but they did not visit the sins of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generation. They were given the supernatural power that man desired but could not himself possess. With a belief in that power, man was inspired to accomplish many things that he might otherwise not have attempted. The religious beliefs of the Polynesians were founded on faith just as much as were the tenets of the better-known religions. By faith they were able to remove the mountains of doubt and fear. Faith in their gods supplemented by innate courage and supreme daring enabled them to cross the thou-page 32sands of leagues of the vast Pacific stretching between southeast Asia and South America and so to complete the most marvelous Odyssey the world has ever known.

* P. H. Buck (Te Rangi Hiroa), "Ethnology of Mangareva," Bishop Museum Bulletin 157 (Honolulu, 1938).