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Anthropology and Religion

Later Elaboration in Ra'iatea

Later Elaboration in Ra'iatea

A study in Tahitian theology reveals the fact that, after the family of gods had radiated from Taputapu-atea with the colonizing ships, further elaboration took place at that center of religious teaching. The priests who supported Ta'aroa (Tangaroa) seemed to have gained the ascendancy, for the cult of Ta'aroa was spread from Ra'iatea to Tahiti and forced upon the followers of Tane in that island. An early stage of this cult spread as far as Rarotonga in the Cook Islands, for Tangaroa there was merely the principal god and not a creator. At Taputapu-atea, however, page 55Ta'aroa was elevated to the position of Creator, and the old pattern of mythology was changed accordingly. This is the new tale that the priestly scholars elaborated:

"Ta'aroa, the Creator, was self-begotten, for he had no father and no mother. He sat in a shell named Rumia, shaped like an egg, for countless ages in endless space in which there was no sky, land, sea, moon, nor stars. This was the period of continuous, countless darkness and thick impenetrable darkness. At long last Ta'aroa cracked the shell to hatch himself. He stood on the shell and called in various directions, but no sound answered from the void. He retired within Rumia into an inner shell termed Lesser-foundation, where he lay torpid for a further untold period. At last he determined to act. He emerged and made the inner shell of Rumia into a foundation for the rock and soil of the world, and the outer shell he made into the dome of the sky which was low and confined. He breathed into the rock foundation the essence of himself and personified it as Tumu-nui to be the husband; likewise he personified the rock stratum as Papa-raharaha to be the wife. . . . Then Ta'aroa created rock, sand, and Earth. He conjured up Tu, the great craftsman, to help him in the task of creation, and together they formed the myriad roots. The dome of Rumia was raised on pillars, and page 56thus space beneath was extended. The space was termed atea and pervaded with a spirit personified as Atea. Land and space were increased, and the underworld was set apart. Forest trees and food plants grew, and living things appeared on the land and in the sea. At the back were the mountains personified as Tu-mou'a, with land, springs, and rivers. In front was the ocean and its rocks ruled by the ocean lord Tino-rua. Above was Atea (Space) and below was Rua (Abyss). The land was Havai'i, the birthplace of other lands, gods, kings, and man.

"Darkness brooded under the confined dome of Rumia. The gods Tu, Atea, Uru, and others were created or conjured forth by Ta'aroa in darkness. From Ta'aroa and Atea (here a female) the god Tane was born. Rongo was born from a cloud and then Atea changed sex to become a male." *

This version of Ta'aroa's existing in a shell shaped like an egg and then emerging as a creator exists only in the Society Islands and was evidently composed at Taputapu-atea after the colonists had left for other islands. It places Ta'aroa at the beginning of the evolutionary period of natural phenomena to predate the Sky-father Atea. Atea is further demoted by changing his sex to female and making him the mother of Tane. The older myth is then reverted to by re-page 57storing his original sex. Competition from the powerful Tane is further disposed of by making him the son of Ta'aroa and Atea, while the other major gods, Tu and Rongo, are simply conjured forth by Ta'aroa. Thus did the priests of Opoa consolidate in heaven the victory they had won on earth.

A later elaboration was the creation of 'Oro as the son of Ta'aroa. Ta'aroa was retired as an emeritus, and his son 'Oro became the active functioning god at the temple of Taputapu-atea. Again the Ra'iatean fleets sailed to Tahiti to proselytize the people. After severe fighting, 'Oro was imposed on the Tahitians, and a new temple named Taputapu-atea was erected for his worship in the district of Tautira. In time, 'Oro became the principal god of the Society Islands but his worship spread no farther. The name of 'Oro as a son of Ta'aroa does not occur in the myths and genealogies of any island group but the Society Islands. This limited distribution supports my contention that 'Oro was a late addition to the Society Islands' pantheon.

The promotion of Ta'aroa as a creator did not do away with the worship of other gods. He was merely supreme among many, and the remade theology remained polytheistic.

We have seen that the early polytheistic pattern evolved at Ra'iatea was carried in its original sim-page 58plicity to New Zealand, but local additions were made to the family of the Sky-father and the Earth-mother. A notable addition was that of Haumea as the god of uncultivated food. The name of Haumea is present in other island myths but appears usually as a female who has no connection with uncultivated food. The new function of Haumea in New Zealand was due to certain local conditions that did not occur on the volcanic islands of the tropics. The New Zealand climate was so much colder than that of Polynesia that the coconut, breadfruit, plantain, and banana would not grow, and even the introduced sweet potato, taro, and yam were restricted to the warmer parts of the islands. This curtailment in cultivated food supplies rendered the endemic bracken fern (Pteris aquilina var. esculenta) very important. The underground rhizome of this plant was rich in carbohydrates, and, being widely spread, it became a more constant and a surer source of carbohydrate food than the introduced plants. The god of the introduced food plants was Rongo, but, as the bracken fern was recognized as growing wild in the new country, the care of this uncultivated food was given to Haumea. As Haumea was added to a male pantheon, the sex was apparently accepted as being male. Hence local conditions have had an influence on the personnel of the family of the gods.

* P. H. Buck (Te Rangi Hiroa), Vikings of the Sunrise, p. 69.