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Ethnology of Manihiki and Rakahanga

Minor Gods

Minor Gods

It was generally held that the tukuwhare (subtribes) had gods of their own in addition to those controlled by the priestly ariki. Much confusion, however, has been caused by the attitude of different families to certain foods page 211 which are prohibited. Thus the members of one family group or subtribe will not eat crayfish because, if they do, they break out in a rash or hard lumps, the abdomen swells up, and they become exceedingly ill. Another family group will not eat the koveu or tupa land crabs. Some prohibited the use of certain fish, such as the taeha, hue, hakura (sawfish), mango (shark), and patuki-whara-kawa, and also the honu (turtle). Others will not touch certain birds, as, for example, the kotaha (frigate bird) and tawake (Phaeton rubricauda). These foods are arai (to prohibit). The eating of the arai is supposed to bring on illness, generally urticarial skin rashes and digestive troubles. In native psychology there is no distinction in principle between such manifestations of illness and those of swelling of the feet or tongue caused by breaking the prohibitions associated with the major god, Hikahara. The symptoms of illness are not associated in the mind with such natural causes as indiscretions of diet but with some supernormal agency which is offended. Punishment follows, as revealed by a form of illness which may result in death. The term atua, usually applied to definite established gods, is also applied to anything malign or disagreeable. Thus, when a Rakahangan refers to the koura (crayfish) as his arai, we know that it is prohibited in his family, as it will cause urticaria and digestive troubles if eaten. When, however, he states that the koura is his atua, we are not sure whether he regards it merely as being disagreeable and malign as far as he is concerned or whether he actually regards it as a family god. Both views seem to be held.

Tupou-rahi stated that the family atua (gods) were fish, birds, or crabs. His own was the hue fish. Such gods had material forms in wood or stone, which might be shaped to represent them. These were wrapped in matting, tied up, and perhaps kept in a basket. They were kept in a fenced-off place near the dwelling house of the guardian, the whakamaru. Tupou-rahi seemed to imply that the term whakamaru applied to the heads of family groups who had charge of the family gods. The title would thus apply to the heads of subtribes, but some informants restricted it to the heads of tribes. When the people moved from one atoll to the other, the whakamaru had charge of the basket containing the god. On arrival at the other atoll, the gods were deposited in small inclosures, not maraes, which were tapu, so that no one went near them except the whakamaru. Another informant, Araipu, said that such minor gods as the kotaha (frigate bird) were tukuwhare (subtribe) gods. They had material representations which were kept on the loft (pahata) of special houses. It was on the loft of these special houses that the body of a chief was placed after death.

The whakamaru (guardians) consulted the gods before any family enterprise, such as fishing or sea voyages. He recited the appropriate incanta- page 212 tion (tarotaro) in order that success (manuia) might crown the undertaking. If success did not follow, it was held that the ritual had not been correctly conducted (kua he te tarotaro) or that something else was wrong.

This mechanism indicates clearly that there were family gods, definitely treated as such. The weak part in the system is that the gods had no definite personal names but were alluded to by the general name of their species. Some informants maintained that the prohibited foods were not treated or worshiped as gods but merely regarded as arai.

The prohibited foods, if regarded as gods by the affected families, were not so regarded by the others. Family groups could eat all prohibited foods except their own arai and in doing so gave no offence. A patient, Metutera, whom I treated on Rakahanga, had the crayfish as his family arai. A party of us was going out in the evening torching for crayfish. Metutera informed me that were it not for his illness he would accompany me to give me good luck. Crayfish, he said, were attracted to him and though he would not kill them himself he was quite willing to attract them toward me in order that I might spear them. Some of the older men supported Metutera's statement about the attraction he influenced over crayfish, saying that they had seen it demonstrated. Metutera could not eat crayfish without developing an urticarial rash and gastric disturbance. He was a member of the church and had no religious attitude toward the family arai. He maintained the family prohibition because he had suffered from breaking it in the past. His present illness he attributed to inadvertence. Another family had cooked a crayfish in an earth oven with other food. He was offered some of the other food, and not knowing that a crayfish had been cooked in the same oven, he partook of it. Afterwards he broke out in a rash and hard lumps formed under the skin on his back. When I saw him, the skin had sloughed off and formed an ulcer about 5 inches across. He probably had had a carbuncle, but the coincidence of eating the tainted food with the development of the urticaria had convinced him as to cause and effect. However, the ulcer cleared up and he was on the way to recovery when I left. His attitude toward crayfish in general was not that of a person with superstitious fear of a family god but that of a normal person who realizes that he cannot eat a particular food without suffering for it. On the other hand, he derived satisfaction from the idea that there was some mystical bond between crayfish and himself which attracted them to him.

A traditional origin is given to some of the prohibitions. The crayfish prohibition is attributed to an incident in the voyage of Tuahu and Waikohu to some distant island said to be Hawaiki. Off Hawaiki, Tuahu dropped anchor outside the reef, and Waikohu swam ashore to explore. Waikohu saw a coconut tree, climbed it, and dropped a nut to the ground. An old page 213 blind woman, guardian of the tree, heard the thud of the nut striking the ground and came to the foot of the tree just as Waikohu was descending. Feeling about the trunk for the thief, her hands encountered the descending legs, which she immediately seized. She raised an alarm; her stalwart sons appeared. Waikohu was taken prisoner and his arms were bound. Meanwhile Tuahu, tired of waiting, proceeded to pull up the anchor. This he was unable to do, as the crayfish had massed at the bottom of the sea and jammed the stone anchor in a cleft of the rock so that he could not raise it. Thereupon, Tuahu decided to wait longer. The blind woman's sons, under her direction, lighted a fire to cook Waikohu. Waikohu succeeded in loosening his arms, and as he was thrown onto the fire he called, “Whakahinga!” (to cause to fall). The magic word caused a smoke screen to arise and fall between him and his captors. Under cover of the smoke screen, Waikohu escaped to the reef, plunged off, and swam out to the canoe. The crayfish, evidently realizing that Waikohu had returned, freed the anchor so that when Tuahu again hauled on the rope, the anchor came up readily. The timely action of the crayfish, by delaying the canoe, thus saved Waikohu's life. In gratitude, Waikohu prohibited himself and his family ever to eat crayfish. Thus the crayfish became an arai in the family descended from Waikohu. Unfortunately, I did not get Waikohu placed in a pedigree and cannot locate the alleged origin in its chronological position.

Another tradition concerns the tavake (tropic bird). Ngaro-tara-maunga, in an adventurous spirit, decided to sail across some whirlpool known as the rua tai koko. It was far distant, so he told his family that he would send a messenger back. Some time after Ngaro-tara-maunga had gone, a tropic bird alighted near the house of the family. The bird made no attempt to fly away when approached. It was caught and put in the oven for cooking. When the oven was opened the bird was uncooked, so the oven was covered over again. A second time the bird was uncooked, but at the third uncovering of the oven the bird was not only uncooked but so much alive that it flew away. It was then realized that the bird was the expected messenger from Ngaro-tara-maunga who had lost his life in the whirling waters of the rua tai koko. Perhaps from the failure to cook it, the tavake was prohibited as a food to the descendants of Ngaro-tara-maunga.

A short song commemorates the unsuccessful culinary operations:

Taku manu kua umu tahitia,
Rua raki e he rire,
Rua raki e he rire to,
Taku manu he ri to.

Taku manu kua umuruatia
He rua rakie he ri to.

My bird has been cooked once,
(Refrain, repeated.)

My bird has been cooked twice,

page 214

Taku manu kua umu teru tia,
Taku manu kua rere, kua ngaro,
He rua raki e he ri to.
Taku manu kua rere.

My bird has been cooked thrice,
My bird has flown, is lost.
My bird has flown.

The words, though simple, are pleasing in the native language and they record a historical incident, though the song has a mythical ending.