Other formats

    TEI XML file   ePub eBook file  


    mail icontwitter iconBlogspot iconrss icon

Anthropology and Religion



The Polynesian families created their household gods and then, under the guidance of the priesthood, the gods created the Polynesians. The loves, wars, and adventures of the gods would fill as many volumes as the similar activities of the gods of Greece, Rome, or Scandinavia. The priests composed a theology, but the textile was so interwoven with the threads of society that it was doomed to decay on contact with Western civilization.

The first foreigners to initiate outside change were the early voyagers and traders. They brought metal tools and loom-woven cloth to a stone-age people. The superiority of metals over stone was so obvious that the Polynesians were seized with the frantic desire to obtain the new trade goods at any cost. They stole and they bartered their own material goods, food, and even their women to satisfy the new needs that had been created. On the trail of the voyagers and traders came the missionaries of a new religion. They were more or less permanent settlers. Though they came primarily to convert the heathen, they brought West-page 64ern goods not only for their own use but to barter with the natives. It was the material goods of this world that appealed primarily to the natives and not the hope of reward after death. Material benefit was associated with the new religion and, if such benefits could be obtained more readily by adopting that religion, why not adopt it? The Polynesians deserted their gods and sold them for a mess of pottage.

The desertion of the Polynesian gods was not so difficult as it may seem. The people had created new family gods all down the ages and, as a consequence, had deserted and forgotten older creations. When sickness afflicted the worshipers of the god Tane in Tahiti, they blamed their god and upbraided him as the god with yellow fangs who was eating his followers. A priest of Tane placed the sennit symbol of the god in a coconut shell, plugged the opening, and set it afloat in the sea to seek a new home in a distant land. Later the priest set sail to seek his god. After visiting various islands unsuccessfully, he came to the island of Mangaia in the Cook group. Here he built a temple, and with a scoop net he sought a fish as an offering on the new temple. In addition to a small fish, he caught up the coconut shell that he had set adrift in Tahiti. He removed the plug, and the sennit symbol within announced its presence with a chirp—Kio. The evicted page 65 god was reëstablished on the new temple as Tane-kio, Tane-the-chirper.

Defeat in war was often attributed to lack of power of the war god, and sometimes the inadequate god was deposed and another set up in his place. The god of the victors was often imposed upon the conquered, as when the god 'Oro from the island of Ra'iatea was imposed upon the followers of Tane in Tahiti. The acceptance of a more powerful god as a means of obtaining temporal power was a common Polynesian characteristic.

In the proselytizing of Polynesia by the London Missionary Society, instances occur in which the desertion of the Polynesian gods was aided by events that occurred within the native culture itself. When the first representatives of the Society went to Tahiti in 1798, they stayed in the district ruled over by the chief Pomare. The selection of the district was influenced by the fact that the navigators Wallis and Cook had landed there and regarded Pomare as the king of Tahiti. In reality, Pomare was but chief of the district and there were more powerful chiefs in other districts. As first the missionaries had very little success in the conversion of the people, though the material goods they brought were much appreciated. The missionaries were opposed, and many of them left the island in page 66despair. When a fresh set of missionaries arrived some years later, Pomare was in a more chastened frame of mind. He had been defeated in battle and had taken refuge on the neighboring island of Mo'orea. The missionaries accompanied him there and began to make headway with him. Pomare had begun to distrust his gods because of his lack of success against his enemies. He began to flirt with the missionaries in the hope that their god was more powerful than his own and would bring him the military success he wanted. At the same time, he was chary of abandoning his own gods entirely. Thus, though the missionaries had hopes of converting Pomare, they could not get him to abandon his gods publicly. In view of the prospects, however, the missionaries ranged themselves on the side of Pomare and regarded his enemies as "heathen." In 1815, Pomare's enemies on the island of Tahiti invited him to attend a conference with them. Pomare, accompanied by his supporters and some of the missionaries, sailed over to Tahiti and, on a Sunday morning, he and his people attended a service conducted by the missionaries. During the service, the enemy was observed advancing with a large armed force, evidently to attack. The congregation became alarmed and the missionaries were prepared to break off the service. Pomare, however, ordered the service to be continued to its proper ending and stated that the page 67enemy could be attended to afterwards. The missionary writer, Reverend W. Ellis,* had praised Pomare's piety and faith in continuing the service in the face of the enemy. The truth is that any religious ritual that was broken off was regarded by the Polynesians as an ill omen for future success. The gods being invoked for assistance turned against their worshipers if the ritual was not properly completed. It was not Christian piety that induced Pomare to go on with the service but the Polynesian fear of a broken ritual. At the end of the service both Pomare and his followers had plucked up courage in the hope that the Christian god would assist them in gaining the victory.

From the outset of the battle which ensued, fortune smiled on Pomare. The opposing leader, whose rank was immeasurably superior to that of Pomare, was killed with a musket ball. On the death of their leader, the enemy retired and victory lay with Pomare and with the Christian god who had supported him. The power of Jehovah having been demonstrated, Christianity was accepted by the whole island of Tahiti, and Pomare became king of the group. Pomare handed over the material symbols of his native gods to the missionaries to be sent to England to show the people of that country what fools the Tahitians had been. A page 68lucky shot had done more than seventeen years of preaching had been able to accomplish.

The gospel was carried to the island of Aitutaki in 1823, and for two years the native missionaries from Tahiti made no headway. Then the favorite granddaughter of a high chief took seriously ill. The high chief made offerings on his temple to his gods, and the priests performed all the native ritual in invoking the gods to restore the child to health. All was to no avail, and the child died. The high chief was so enraged that he sent his son with a lighted torch to set fire to the gods and the sacred buildings on the temple. The high chief felt that his gods had deserted him in his hour of need, so he abandoned them with a drastic demonstration. He then turned to the gods of the missionaries. The native missionary was quick to take advantage of the incident, and he preached a powerful sermon showing the futility of the native gods. The native population was caught up in a wave of emotional reaction, and throughout the island the gods were destroyed and the temples defaced and desecrated. A few images and sacred objects, shorn of their divinity, were sent to London to demonstrate the success that was attending the missionary efforts.

To illustrate in more detail what happened to the native mores and culture after the Polynesian gods page 69were deserted, I am going to take the island of Mangaia in the Cook group as a concrete example of the collapse that occurred.

* Reverend W. Ellis, Polynesian Researches (London, 1829).