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Arts and Crafts of the Cook Islands



First Period

The distribution of images in Hawaii, Easter Island, Mangareva, the Australs, the Marquesas, Society Islands, Cook Islands, New Zealand, and Tonga is strong evidence that the idea of representing the gods in some conventional human form in wood or stone belongs to the early period of settlement in the Pacific. The idea was carried to the Cook Islands by its first settlers, but its material expression varied with the development of local forms of art. This early form of religious expression was retained wholly in Rarotonga, partly in Aitutaki, and abandoned in favor of other forms in Atiu, Mauke, and Mitiaro. Mangaia also changed to new forms but retained a fragment of the past in the two stone images of Rongo.

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Non-human forms of religious symbol were made from stone, wood, shell, pandanus leaf, coconut leaf, coconut leaf stipule, coconut-husk fiber, bark, feathers, and human hair. Treated materials were sennit braid from coconut husk fiber, cords from oronga bark, and tapa cloth from paper mulberry bast. With such a range of material, simple and complex symbols were made of diverse forms in the different islands. As a general rule, the simpler objects represented minor gods reverenced by a family. The more complex objects that required expert skill in their construction represented the major gods worshipped by tribes or districts on temples with an organized ritual conducted by a hereditary priesthood.

Simple natural and manufactured objects were prominent in Samoa and Tonga. It is probable that the simpler Mangaian symbols such as a water-worn stone (fig. 231, a), palm leaf (fig. 231, b), sennit, tapa cloth, and shell trumpet, were direct descendants of ancient forms. The piece of palm leaf ornamented with a sennit bow and cones of bark cloth blessed by the priest, sought good luck for the days fishing and had to be renewed on subsequent occasions. The piece of sennit representing Tane-kio and the sennit roll representing Mokoiro were ordinary material until priestly ritual converted specific pieces into religious symbols. Tane-kio was a major god and he was later represented by a carved wooden symbol in the national god house. The representation of the national god Rongo in Mangaia by so simple an object as a shell trumpet may appear contradictory to the general rule of simple objects for minor gods but the particular shell trumpet was used by the king to call the warriors together for a campaign in the name of Rongo. Thus the sound of the trumpet was the voice of Rongo.

Second Period

Composite symbols composed of more than one material were developed during the period of occupation and are discussed apart from carved wooden symbols and images. Specimens have been preserved from Atiu and Mangaia. A few which share similar details of construction are attributed by museums to the Hervey Islands with no specific locality. The technique shared by Atiu and Mangaia is that of forming a foundation core with folds of sennit and decorating it with feathers. In Mangaia, this technique is an advance on the roll of sennit that represented the deified ancestor, Mokoiro. The two Mangaian gods (fig. 232) are small. The sennit folds are covered with tapa, both core and wrapping being arranged to roughly represent limbs. The decorative feathers are held in position by the spiral turns of the thread which keeps the tapa in position. The Atiu gods (figs. 218, 219) are much larger but the technique of folded sennit is similar. Variations consist of wrapping coconut leaf stipule and pandanus leaf around some of the inner folds of sennit page 465evidently to increase bulk economically. Red parakeet feathers were closely applied to the outer surface of the outer folds of sennit and so formed an advance on the Mangaian technique. Thin tapa was wrapped around the individual folds of one of the Atiu gods to form a smoother foundation for the red feathers. Thus it differed from the Mangaian technique of enclosing the whole bundle with one piece.

Further variation in the ornamentation of the sennit bundle is the arrangement of the feathers in a bunch at one end and covering the outside of the bundle with a lozenge design in sennit (fig. 250). Another bundle was composed entirely of tapa, and human hair took the place of feathers (fig. 251). Though a padding of sennit was used in Tahiti in conjunction with a wooden core, the use of folded sennit alone to form the body of a religious symbol seems to be confined to the Cook Islands.

The images made in Rarotonga and Aitutaki differed in appearance but shared some general details. The backs have a straight edge on the shoulder level, the arms are flexed with the hands clasped on the abdomen, the abdomen and navel project prominently, and the legs are flexed (fig. 274, a, b). The wooden images used by sorcerers in Tahiti (fig. 274, c) and the wooden gods of Raivavae in the Australs (fig. 274, d) also share these four characteristics. It may be assumed that these features were derived from early forms in central Polynesia. The clasped hands, prominent abdomen, and flexed legs were carried northeast to the Marquesas (fig. 274, e) and southwest to New Zealand (fig. 274, f). In the other island group, the arms are freed from the body. Mangareva occupies an intermediate position, for the freed arms of the images are flexed (fig. 274, g). The freed arms are pendent in Easter Island (fig. 274, h), Hawaii (fig. 274, i), and Tonga (fig. 274, j).

In the various islands, however, the development of local art pursued individual lines and led to diversity in the treatment of anatomical details. In Rarotonga, the figures became squat and massive, with a large head, big ears, flanged eyes, no nose, and a multiple notched mouth. These features in paired heads, reduced in size, became an art pattern in ornamenting secular articles such as staves, fan handles, short weapons, and perhaps other articles yet to be located. Aitutakian images show inferior work in the features of the face, though a nose is always present. The arms are thin and the legs so slender that a mesial vertical rod was provided to assist in supporting the body. Religious objects combining a human head or human figures with a carved slab (fig. 208) appear to be peculiar to Aitutaki. The human head or human figures are used to ornament the ends of paddle shafts. Staff gods of Rarotonga, with multiple small figures and with the middle section covered by a large tapa wrapping are confined to that island. The free use of the page 466
Figure 274.—Polynesian wooden images, front and side views. a, Rarotonga, fisherman's god (Peabody Mus., Cambridge, Mass., 53517). b, Aitutaki, goddess (British Mus., L.M.S.). c, Tahiti, sorcerer's image (ti'i) (British Mus., 7047). d, Raivavae, Austral Islands (British Mus., 54-12-29-120). e, Marquesas (Bishop Mus., 3020) f, New Zealand, carved figure with face tattooing pattern (Oldman coll., 14). g, Mangareva, god (La Rochelle Mus., H.498). h, Easter Island, carved figure (moai kava-kava) (Oldman coll., 343). i, Hawaii, goddess (Bishop Mus., 9072). j, Tonga, goddess (Oldman coll., 530).

Figure 274.—Polynesian wooden images, front and side views. a, Rarotonga, fisherman's god (Peabody Mus., Cambridge, Mass., 53517). b, Aitutaki, goddess (British Mus., L.M.S.). c, Tahiti, sorcerer's image (ti'i) (British Mus., 7047). d, Raivavae, Austral Islands (British Mus., 54-12-29-120). e, Marquesas (Bishop Mus., 3020) f, New Zealand, carved figure with face tattooing pattern (Oldman coll., 14). g, Mangareva, god (La Rochelle Mus., H.498). h, Easter Island, carved figure (moai kava-kava) (Oldman coll., 343). i, Hawaii, goddess (Bishop Mus., 9072). j, Tonga, goddess (Oldman coll., 530).

page 467 phallus with a large exposed glans as an art motif is characteristic of Rarotonga.

Wooden objects carved with geometrical motifs and having a religious significance may be divided into three classes which are associated with particular islands. They are keyed as follows:

1.Flat slabs carved on one or both sides with a lower spatulate end ornamented with free lengths of sennit or coir cord carrying tufts of coir fiber Aitutaki .
2.Round columns with an upper dome, middle radiating ridges carved into arches, and a lower spatulate end similar to those in 1 Atiu, Mitiaro .
3.Flat thick slabs carved into ridges which are formed into alternating pillars and arches, middle round stem decorated with sennit binding, feathers, and hair, and a lower rounded pedestal with radiating arches Mangaia .

The simplest of such objects is the Aitutakian slab. As images were also made in Aitutaki, the question arises as to whether these slabs really belonged to the class of temple ornament (unu) used in Rarotonga and the Society Islands. In spite of the catalog statement that they are gods, I incline to the belief that they are unu ornaments.

Though the flat slabs of Aitutaki and the arch bearing columns of Atiu and Mitiaro differ in appearance and in some important details, they have in common such features as the lower spatulate ends, the ornamentation of tufted coir cord or sennit, and the use of geometrical motifs such as the raised notched bar, the triangle chevron, and the lozenge chevron. These points of resemblance are the more important because they are not present in the carved slabs of Mangaia. An important connecting link between Aitutaki and Atiu-Mitiaro is the flat slab (fig. 206) which, while typically Aitutakian in most features, has three dome-shaped upper projections and arches ornamented with the lozenge-chevron motif in identically the same manner as in the Mitiaro columns. Atiu, Mauke, and Mitiaro occupy a middle position geographically between Aitutaki and Mangaia, but the carved symbols show that the middle group had a greater exchange in art technique with Aitutaki to the northwest than with Mangaia to the southeast.

Atiu and Mitiaro craftsmen, though retaining some of the features of the Aitutaki slabs, show a considerable advance in technique by making their objects on the round with a dome-shaped head and with neat arches on the regularly spaced radiating ridges. The advance in technique was probably due to the abandonment of images with a consequent concentration on a form of carved substitute. The formation of arches with cleats was an improvement on the perforations in some of the flat slabs and they were made to render the attachment of feathers easier and more effective.

Even between two islands so close together as Atiu and Mitiaro, differences arose in technique based on a common original pattern. Some of these were page 468details of the dome-shaped head, the removal of the central rod in Atiu, and the change of the lozenge-chevron motif at one end of the arch into two bent legs with a transverse hole below the bend. The hole provided a means of attaching feathers. The Atiu arch resembles a conventional human figure in which the lozenge-chevron figure forms the head, the arch, the body, and the other end the legs. However, this is an end result that cannot be accepted as an example of the degradation of an older human figure. The use of sennit pendants on the Atiu columns forms another difference with Mitiaro.

The wooden stands of Mangaia resemble the round columns of Atiu and Mitiaro in one important principle, the vertical ridges for the formation of small arches for the attachment of feathers. In Mangaia, however, the feathers were attached, in the inter-ridge spaces. In Mitiaro, the feathers were tied on top of the arches to the cleat projections of the lozenge-chevron motifs at each end of the arch. Thus, projecting cleats were unnecessary in the Mangaian arches and the K-motifs carved on both arches and columns were purely aesthetic. The Atiuan method of decorating the wooden column with feathers was evidently influenced by the technique of the large sennit bundles, for single lengths of this sennit covered with red feathers were fastened above to the crossbars in the dome-shaped head and hung down in the inter-ridge spaces. The arches were thus left uncovered, but the presence of lozenge-chevron cleats similar to those of Mitiaro indicates that they provided either original or additional means of fastening feathers. As I have stated, the lozenge-chevron motif was also present in Aitutaki, but absent in Mangaia and Rarotonga. The K-motif was confined to Mangaia.

The rounded shafts of the Mangaian gods were ornamented with fine braid in transverse turns or in the multiple lozenge pattern and with sennit wrapped with human hair. The Atiu and Mitiaro gods, being without a rounded shaft, were devoid of the Mangaian form of ornamentation. The pedestals of the Mangaian gods resembled the bodies of the Atiu and Mitiaro gods in being rounded with radiating arches, but they differed in the presence of short pillars and in the different form of carving. The Mangaian pedestals evidently served as stands, but the spatulate lower ends of the Atiu and Mitiaro gods may have been stuck into the ground because they differed from the Aitutaki slabs in having the long coir ornaments attached to the upper end of the spatula instead of the lower end as in Aitutaki.

Third Period

The early conversion of the islands to Christianity ended the manufacture of religious symbols, except the Mangaian ceremonial adz which lost its religious significance and became a purely art object.

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Origin of Change in Form of Symbols

It is fascinating to speculate on the reason why images were abandoned in favor of other symbols of the gods. This change which occurred in the Society Islands seems to have been connected with the value placed upon red feathers. Ellis (25, vol. 2, pp. 204, 205) states:

Throughout Polynesia, the ordinary medium of communicating or extending supernatural powers, was the red feather of a small bird found in many of the islands, and the beautiful long tail-feathers of the tropic, or man-of-war bird. For these feathers the gods were supposed to have a strong predilection; they were the most valuable offerings that could be presented; to them the power or influence of the god was imparted, and through them transferred to the objects to which they might be attached.

Ellis goes on to tell that in the paeatua ceremony of the temple, people brought red feathers and received in exchange other red feathers that had been impregnated with the essence of the gods having been deposited with a properly constituted god in the temple. He says (25, vol. 2, p. 206):

The feathers, taken home, were deposited in small bamboo-canes, excepting when addressed in prayer. If prosperity attended their owner, it was attributed to their influence, and they were usually honored with a too or image, into which they were inwrought; and subsequently, perhaps, an altar and a rude temple were erected for them.

In Tahiti, the image in human form, termed ti'i (tiki), was abandoned in favor of a non-human form termed to'o (toko). The abandoned image technique was seized upon by sorcerers as the form of symbol for the familiar spirits (orometua) that assisted them in their evil craft. Hence craftsmen continued to carve images to supply a demand that survived the change. The to'o (toko) symbols that replaced the images as gods were composite objects made of wood, coir, and feathers. In New Zealand, the term toko was applied to a stick or staff that was set upright on a mound to represent the god to whom chants were addressed to promote crop fertility. It is probable that the Tahitian term to'o was applied originally to some simple form of wooden staff. The increased value of feathers led to their being honoured with a to'o staff "into which they were inwrought." The technique of "inwroughting" devised by the Tahitian craftsmen was a coir wrapping around the staff to serve as a medium to which feathers could be attached more easily than to the wooden staff itself. Tahitian craftsmen developed individual methods of making these composite symbols. In some, the wooden part remained predominant and in others, the coir wrapping completely obscured the wooden element. However, instead of abandoning the simpler techniques, the various forms continued to be manufactured and all received the original name of to'o. As the process of change in Tahiti is interesting in view of the change that took place in some of the Cook Islands, a selected series of eight Tahitian to'o is described here and figured in plate 16.

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The first to'o (pl. 16, A) is a wooden object, 795 mm. long, with an expanded upper part 143 mm. wide, carved in open work with a median human figure at the top and with four lateral human figures facing outward. The lower shaft is round with cross diameters of 28 and 27 mm. in the middle and with the lower end, flared and pierced by two holes. The coir part is small and serves to lash two pointed sticks to the shaft. It is catalogued as the god Ta'aroa.

The second symbol (pl. 16, B) is the doubtful specimen attributed to Mauke and already described (fig. 229). Though the wooden element still dominates, the coir element has been enlarged into a long cuff, padded with lengths of sennit to round off the wrapped part.

The third symbol (pl. 16, C) was one of the household gods of King Pomare of Tahiti. It is a paddle-shaped piece of wood, 1,520 mm. long, and the widest part of the uncarved blade is 124 mm. The sennit cuff is composed of doubled lengths of sennit forming warps with close weft rows formed of a single length of sennit worked along the warps with a wrapped technique similar to that used in the god attributed to Mauke. Though the upper expanded end of the alleged Mauke specimen is carved in open work, it had an original paddle-shaped form that has some affinity in shape with the Tahitian god.

In the next symbol (pl. 16, D), the wooden element is 615 mm. long but its width at the top is only 37 mm. The coir wrapping is formed of sennit but the technique is single-pair twining which is continuous and departs from the cuff technique of the two preceding specimens. Before the winding was commenced, coir fiber was wrapped around the wooden element as padding to increase the diameter of the wrapped part at the middle to 78 mm. Two long crossed cords were attached for feather fixation.

An increase in the coir work is present in another of King Pomare's family gods named Temeharo (pl. 16, E). The wooden element, 825 mm. long, has become a mere core for the covering of single-pair twining which covers all but the extreme ends of the wooden part. The coir work was made as a separate cuff and then wrapped around the wooden core with some coir padding. It was kept in position by transverse bands of sennit lashing. A number of sennit holders for feathers is still in position but the feathers have disappeared.

In the next specimen (pl. 16, F), the wooden core is completely covered by a sennit cuff of single-pair twining, the edges of which are sewn together with a single length of sennit. The interior was padded with coir particularly at the upper end thus causing the two edges of the cuff to gape. Transverse lashings of sennit were also used to keep the cuff in position. The length of page 471the to'o is 305 mm. and the! maximum diameter toward the upper end is 60 mm. A loop of sennit is attached to the upper end.

The commonest form of to'o (pl. 16, G) resembles the preceding in shape and in the use of single-pair twining to cover the wooden core. It differs in that the wooden core is made to the exact shape required and the single-pair twining is applied directly over it in a continuous technique like the making of fish traps. Thus neither padding nor transverse bands of lashing were required. In addition, seized loops of coir are attached to represent eyes, nose, and navel and other pieces are attached to represent arms and three-fingered hands. The length is 400 mm. and the maximum diameter, 91 mm. The coir holders for the attachment of feathers have disappeared.

The last example (pl. 16, H) is a well-preserved specimen of the preceding type, with the coir holders and feather decoration still in position. Its length is 418 mm. and its maximum diameter is 84 mm.

In the variety of to'o described, all, except perhaps the first, were used as stands for the attachment of the all important feathers impregnated with the essence of divinity. The loss of the feathers in museum specimens has robbed them of the divine element in the symbolism they were meant to convey in religious ritual.

The change in the form of religious symbols that took place in some of the Cook Islands was probably influenced by an elevation in the value of feathers similar to that which took place in the Society Islands. In Rarotonga, the value of red feathers was recognized but their use was restricted to a few placed on the wood of the middle section of staff gods and covered by the tapa wrapping. This restricted use may have been due to the comparative scarcity of red feathers in Rarotonga, hence the older image form of symbol was perpetuated. In Atiu, where red feathers seem to have been plentiful, the most lavish display of red feathers is evident in the two sennit bundles (fig. 218 and pl. 14, B) and there is no doubt as to their great importance. Such a medium of display, however, probably required too many feathers to be accepted as a general pattern and a more economical form was also devised.

Influenced undoubtedly by the form of unu decorative slabs, the Aitutaki craftsmen met the urge for feather display by adding arches with cleats to a flat slab (pl. 14, A). The arch with its cleats and lozenge-chevron motif was adopted in Atiu and Mitiaro (pl. 14, C, D), but the local craftsmen arranged them on a round column in radiating vertical rows. Mangaia adopted the arch without cleats, and arranged them on a thick flat slab over the front, back, and sides (pl. 14, F-I).

The affinity between Aitutaki and Atiu-Mitiaro slabs is so close in the details of the arches that their common origin from a carved unu slab is probable. The Mangaian slabs, however, have so many differences that the ques-page 472tion of a different origin is raised. Mangaian traditional history is very definite in ascribing to the craftsman Rori the manufacture of the Mangaian gods saved from the national god house. According to genealogies, Rori lived in the latter part of the seventeenth century. He was the grandson of a master craftsman, who came to Mangaia from Tahiti bringing with him an expert knowledge of craftsmanship and some sacred red feathers. Both the knowledge and the feathers descended to Rori. During Rori's exile in the wilderness of the makatea after the defeat of the tribe with which his family was associated, the national god house with the contained symbols of the gods was accidentally burned. The chief Mana'une persuaded Rori to return from exile, as peace then prevailed, and commissioned him to carve a fresh set of gods for the new god house. Of the 13 gods, Rori carved 11 and they reposed in the new god house until the coming of the missionaries. The three gods (pl. 14, F-H) in the British Museum, sent to London by the missionaries, are definitely known to be some of those taken from the new god house before it was burned down by the zealous converts to Christianity. It is interesting to speculate that the gods that were burned in the old god house were perhaps in image form following an older technique that survived in the two stone images of Rongo that were also destroyed after the acceptance of Christianity. However, Rori evidently followed his own form of art, a form that we might assume was learned from his grandfather and hence introduced from Tahiti. If so, some of the carving details that Rori used on the Mangaian gods should have some affinity with Tahitian art. However, the Mangaian carved slabs differ in shape and construction from the Tahitian to'o and the narrow panels with the K-motif so characteristic of Rori's art are entirely absent from Tahitian carving. Thus the diffusion of Rori's art from Tahiti is not supported by any technical evidence.

In view of a certain similarity between Mangaian and Austral Islands carving, it might be thought that traditional history erred and Rori's grandfather may have come from the Austral Islands. However, comparison of the carving motifs on Mangaian ceremonial adz hafts and Austral Islands paddles and bowls shows that the only common motif is the multiple lozenge (fig. 247, f). This motif does not occur on the old carvings made by Rori and, as I have pointed out, it does not appear in Mangaia until post-missionary times on the hafts of the ceremonial adzes made for European trade. The form of Mangaian religious art is thus an independent development doubtless initiated by Rori.

The change from images to other forms took place in the northeastern fringe of the Cook Islands and not in Rarotonga. After first settlement, the islands on this fringe were visited by waves of emigrants from Tahiti who did not reach Rarotonga. It is possible that the newcomers influenced the page 473minds of the people among whom they settled in regard to the greater importance attached to feathers than to images in human form, an influence that did not reach Rarotonga. If this was so, the newcomers diffused the idea but not the technique by which the results were obtained in Tahiti.

It must be stressed that in the importance paid to the display of feathers, the Tahitians and the Cook Islanders obtained their ends by totally different methods. Apart from the form of the objects used, the important principle involved was the preparation of the object for the attachment of the feathers. In the Society Islands, a piece of wood was covered with coir material to which medium the feathers were attached. In the Cook Islands, the wood itself was carved to provide small arches so that the feathers were attached directly to the wood without any intervening medium. With these fundamental differences in mind, it would appear that an error was made in the London Missionary Society's records in attributing the god figured in plate 16, B to Mauke. The technique would be more correctly identified as Tahitian. Even if the god was actually collected in Mauke, it is possible that it was carried there or even made there by a late influx of Tahitians who are recorded in traditional history as having arrived in Mauke and Mitiaro a few years before the missionaries. Each Polynesian area developed a distinctive art and technique, and any sporadic instances of departure from a local pattern must be regarded with extreme caution.