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Mangaian Society

Lower Spirit Realm

Lower Spirit Realm

The wide distribution in Polynesia of an underworld as an abode for the spirits of the dead shows that the concept was in existence before the island of Mangaia was peopled. This realm of the spirits is widely referred to as po (night) in contrast to ao (day), and the name carries not only the antithesis between night and day, but between darkness and light, a nether world and an upper world, and death and life.

Associated with the po is the realm of a spiritual Avaiki. The place name Avaiki under various dialectical forms indicates one or more lands or islands at which the ancestors of the Polynesians sojourned in their voyages from west to east. They carried the name along with them and reapplied it to various islands, and it became in time a sentimental term applied to a previous homeland with which the living had lost contact. The restrictions that apply to the living do not bind the spirits of the dead, however. In some areas, including New Zealand, the spirits of the dead return to the ancient homeland of Avaiki. Smith (19, p. 47) has propounded the feasible theory that in Polynesia the departing places of spirits were on the west coast because they formed the nearest point of departure for the ancient homeland which lay to the west. The west is termed raro, which also means "below." The two meanings have become associated in the path taken by the spirit, so that when it goes west it also goes below. By going below the surface, the spirit enters the po or underworld. Hence the spiritual Avaiki and the po have become associated and interchangeable as terms for the region occupied by the spirits of the dead.

Mangaia has departed from the standard Polynesian pattern by making the spiritual Avaiki in the underworld ('Avaiki-i-te-po) the Avaiki from which their human ancestors came. As Avaiki lies beneath the island of Mangaia, it is of considerable extent, for it must extend beyond the western and eastern horizons where are situated the openings through which the sun enters and emerges on its nightly passage through Avaiki. The passage of the sun through Avaiki conflicts with the concept of po, but where local rationalizations have taken place the maintenance of strict logic cannot be expected.

The Mangaian underworld must be regarded as unorthodox in its extent and content. Somewhere near the upper part is Paparairai, the land of Vatea. Evidently connected with it in some way is Auau, the land occupied by Rongo. page 201Rongo is the one god who functions in the lower world. Of his brothers, Tangaroa left the underworld, but the others remain there. Except for swallowing the spirits of warriors occasionally, Rongo did not interfere with the spirits of the dead. Besides the mythical children of Vari and their named lands, other mythical and historical characters were conveniently localized in the underworld. Among them was a group of people with single eyes, and others were cannibals known as "the army of Marama." The underworld or po was that part of Avaiki immediately below Mangaia which was reached originally through the chasm known as Tiki's hole and on its closure by means of the vanishing houses and pua tree which sank straight down. The part immediately below was the spiritual Auau, the home of Rongo.

The denizen of the underworld interested in the spirits of the dead was Miru, in Mangaian myth an ugly old woman and a confirmed cannibal. Her husband is not recorded, but she had five children, as follows:

Tautiti, the son of Miru, was the patron of dancing, and, in human form, he visited the upper world when festivities and dancing were being carried on at night. The four daughters were women of high rank (tapairu). Owing to their great beauty and fairy origin, the term tapairu in Mangaia has come to mean fairies of peerless beauty. The four fairy daughters of Miru also attended night dances in the upper world. According to Gill (6, pp. 256-257), if the dances were in the northern part of the island they appeared at sunset and, after bathing in the stream of Auparu, dried and arranged their hair on a neighboring hill before viewing the dances. If in the southern part of the island, they appeared at the streams of Vaipau and Vaikaute for their ablutions. They would even join in the dance if one end of the dancing ground was covered with freshly cut banana leaves to be reserved to them. At the appearance of the morning star, they returned to the underworld. The names of the son and daughters of Miru appear in many of the songs composed for festivals.

Akaanga, a male, provided with a large net with strong meshes, together with assistants, lived in the underworld and assisted Miru in her dealings with the spirits of the dead.

The giant pua tree that rose to receive the spirits grew up from the territory occupied by Miru. Near its base was a fresh-water lake named Vairoto-ariki (Chiefly-fresh-water-lake).

page 202

Miru grew the kava named Te-voo and was equipped with an oven referred to in song as follows:

Na Miru 'oki te umu ka roa. To Miru belongs the ever-burning oven.
I raro e! Down below!

Miru was alluded to as Miru-kura (kura, "red, ruddy") owing to the ruddiness of her face from her ever-burning oven.

The fate of all spirits of the dead which entered the underworld was to be eaten by Miru. When the spirits took their places on the pua tree, the tree sank down to Avaiki. The spirits looking down saw a vast net spread around the foot of the tree held by Akaanga and his assistants. From the net there was no escape, hence the saying concerning the dying, "Ka 'ei i roto i te kupenga tini mata varu." (To be caught in a net with a myriad meshes.) The net with its catch was submerged in the lake of Vai-roto-ariki until the spirits were almost drowned. They were then hauled up and ushered into the presence of Miru. Miru followed the human etiquette of giving food to her unwilling guests, but the food of the dead consisted of earthworms, black beetles, crabs, and blackbirds, as enumerated in Koroa's lament (6, pp. 204, 205):

Putunga kai e, na Tiki 'oki ē, A share of a feast, derived from Tiki,
Na Tiki 'oki na Ura. From Tiki to Ura.
Te porea mai i te toketoke kura,— Red earthworms are handed to him,
I te toketoke kura i, i te vi'ivi'i ta'ae. Red earthworms and frightful things.
Kua o koe i te takanga o te ueue, Thou hast made thy farewell meal on prepared black beetles,
Na manga a te tangata mate. The food of the dead.
Kua roia i te kara'i ma te tnomo'o. It is supplemented with landcrabs and blackbirds.

A bowl of kava was prepared from the root of Te-voo by Miru's daughters. The draught was so potent that it stupefied the guests, who were borne off unresisting to be cooked in Miru's oven. Miru and her family fed on the cooked spirits, and the remains were tossed aside for Akaanga and his assistants.

In the tale of the culture hero Ngaru, Kumutonga and Karaia came up from Avaiki to request Ngaru to accompany them home to their husband:

Ngaru was bundled up in wrappings of bark cloth and carried on a pole symbolic of death as the means of entering the spirit land. In a song are the following lines:

Takina o Ngaru-tai, Ngaru-tai was conducted,
Na Kumutonga i 'apai, Kumutonga carried him,
E 'apai ki 'Avaiki, Carried him to Avaiki,
Ei kai na Miru-kura, To be eaten by Miru-the-ruddy.
Ei tane Ngaru-tai, Ngaru-tai was to be a husband.
'Aki'akia tute, 'aki'akia kava, Pluck off the branches, break off the kava,
Te manava ia Te-vo'o. The main root of Te-voo.
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Ngaru was given kava to chew but it had no effect upon him. He advanced to Mini's blazing oven and, in answer to his query, Miru frankly told him that the oven had been prepared for him. Ngaru admonished her, saying that in the upper world his grandfather Moko-roa did not have an oven for human flesh but that he fed his visitors and allowed them to depart in peace. As he touched the oven with his foot, a deluge came down and a flood not only extinguished the fire but carried away Miru and her two youngest daughters. Ngaru-tai clung to a nono tree, and the two eldest daughters of Miru, who were to marry him, saved their lives by clinging to his legs. After other adventures, Ngaru-tai returned to the upper world by means of ropes lowered by two karakerake birds which had been sent by his grandfather Moko. Though the fire was extinguished and Miru presumably drowned, the victory was a wish consummation to add fame to the culture hero in the myth recital. Miru lived on and her fire continued burning.

All spirits that entered the Po, even those which went down by the sun's entrance, were sooner or later caught by Akaanga and handed over to Miru to be cooked in her oven after the draught of kava. In a song very badly translated by Gill, a doubt which expresses a hope is present (6, p. 176):

E nunumi atu, [They] disappear,
Ka 'aere paa i te umu tao, oven, [They] pass perhaps into the cooking
I te umu kai na Miru e -. The food oven of Miru.
No'ea Miru? Where does Miru belong?
No 'Avaiki, i te po 'anga noa e. To Avaiki, in the night self-created.

Note: The first two lines are translated by Gill: "She devours All who approach the blazing oven." He translates "i te po 'anga noa" in the last line as "out of horrid darkness." Gill was evidently influenced in his translations by his European concept of Hades, which he gives as the equivalent of po and the spiritual Avaiki.

The use of the words "hades" or "hell" to represent the Polynesian conception of po is to be deprecated. These words convey the concepts of Christian fundamentalists, which consist of a complex in which everlasting torment in hell-fire is meted out as a punishment for sins committed during life on earth. The Polynesion po is a region to which the spirits of the dead pass on as a matter of course. The individual is punished in this world, and the continuance of unceasing punishment in the next world is not a Polynesian concept. In some Polynesian areas the po is a region where the spirit simply exists without any hostile interference. The Mangaian idea of the ever-burning oven of Miru from which there was no escape, probably approaches the Christian concept more nearly than that of most Polynesian areas. The quotations from songs composed before the arrival of missionaries show that Miru's oven was not borrowed from European sources. It must be stressed that being cooked was not a punishment for earthly sins, but simply the fate of those who entered the Mangaian po. The oven was the means by which a spiritual ogress cooked the food she particularly relished. A Polynesian po need not necessarily be an evil place, but the Mangaian po was bad because there was no escape from Miru. Hence the poet Koroa in a page 204lament says (6, p. 217): " 'Ua tau 'ua i e te 'enua kino i raro." ([You have] arrived at the bad land below.)

The term kino, as the Polynesian sees it, is difficult to express in English. The word "evil" may convey to some the idea of bad from a moral point of view, which is not the Polynesian concept. If a normal condition is good, then any departure from normal is kino. Life is good; therefore death is kino. The spirits did not wish to enter the underworld while there was a chance of returning to life. Even up to the last moment of departure the spirit would return to its body if it heard a friendly voice calling it to return. Both the pua tree and the house on poles had actually to tempt the spirits with fragrant flowers and new calabashes before they took the final step. The train of spirits departing for the setting sun is represented in laments as a sorrowful band. They were about to enter a realm which forever parted them from those they loved. The underworld was therefore kino or bad. In addition to the general idea of kino, the growth of the hostile activities of Miru and Akaanga made the Mangaian underworld particularly undesirable. Probably "undesirable" or "bad" expresses kino as applied to the underworld better than "evil."

Though the usual opinion was that the spirits were destroyed by Miru, some learned men held that the spirits simply passed through those who ate them. This theory accords with that concerning the spirits of slain warriors who had been swallowed by Rongo in the upper world. After Rongo's return to the underworld these spirits were liberated by passing through Rongo's digestive tract. Owing to the manner of their death, the liberated spirits were exempted from Miru's oven and made their escape to the warrior's paradise.

In Rarotonga, Miru appears as Muru, a male. Muru, however, lived in the upper world, for he spread a net in a hollow in the rocks at Tuoro on the west coast between the villages of Avarua and Arorangi. The spirit ascended a pua tree and, if the branch on which it rested broke, it was immediately caught in Muru's net. If the spirit escaped it was caught in the net of Akaanga set nearer the reef. The spirits of the Ngatangiia tribe rested on the ironwood tree, but they were caught in the same way. Muru and Akaanga dashed out the brains of their victims against the coral and carried them off to be eaten in the underworld (6, p. 169).

In Aitutaki, Miru was a deformed hag of repulsive countenance dwelling in the underworld. She fed her victims with live centipedes, which caused them to dive into a near-by lake where they were drowned. Miru then cooked and ate them.