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The Coming of the Maori

Shrines and Temples

Shrines and Temples

A religious structure of some kind would appear to be necessary as a place where priests could conduct their ritual. It would also seem necessary to have some such place where images or other religious symbols could be displayed to invite the gods to take up residence during religious ceremonies. The presence and importance of religious temples throughout tropical Polynesia makes their absence in New Zealand all the more remarkable.

Temple, as derived from the Latin word templum, a space marked out, is an appropriate enough term to apply to the Polynesian religious structures. In Samoa and Tonga, the temples were well-made houses built on raised earth foundations and surrounded by fences to mark out the sacred page 478precincts. In the rest of Polynesia, however, the temples were open spaces sometimes marked out by curbings or low stone walls. In Hawaii, where they were termed heiau, the walled court usually had a raised terrace at one end, or even a raised platform. So many were built by successive chiefs for varying purposes connected with the gods that expert temple architects developed different designs, many of them copied from previous temples which had brought about good results. In Easter Island the stone structures consisting of a paved court with a high platform at one end were termed ahu. Upon the platform was placed the large stone images so characteristic of the local art.

In central Polynesia and as far east as Mangareva, the temples were termed marae and their main features consisted of an open rectangular court, at one end of which was a raised stone platform termed ahu or tuahu. They corresponded, in principle, with the ground plan of a church with an altar at one end. In Tuamotu and Tongareva, the open court was usually defined by boundaries of a low curbing of flat coral pieces set on edge in the earth. The raised platform, which was a constant feature, was formed of limestone slabs set on edge to enclose a rectangular space which was filled in with coral. The height of the platform was about two feet, and limestone slabs up to six or seven feet in height were set on end at intervals in the back wall of the platform in the Tuamotu marae and along the four borders of the Tongareva structures.

In the Society Islands, the marae architecture reached its highest development. Emory (34) has described the various types of marae, ranging from simple inland temples to the more elaborate coastal marae. Many of the inland temples were without boundary walls and the end platforms were low but resembled the atoll temples in having spaced stone pillars at the back of the platform. In the coastal marae of the Leeward group, elaboration took place in the increase in size and height of the platforms. The platform of the famous Taputapuatea marae in Raiatea was 141 feet long, 24 feet wide, and some of the imbedded limestone slabs forming the side walls rose 12 feet above ground. Some of the tall slabs had fallen, thereby revealing the side walls of a lower and older structure. In spite of its ruinous condition, Taputapuatea is an awe-inspiring sight to anyone with Polynesian blood (98, p. 81).

In the coastal marae of the Windward group, increase in the size of the ahu has been achieved by adding one or two tiers to the ground platform, thus resulting in stepped platforms. The courts in these marae were defined by four low stone walls, and the ground tier of the platform was made flush with the inner sides of one end wall and the corresponding parts of the side walls. As the ground tier was higher than the walls, the walls formed an extra outer step to the stepped platform. The average measurement of the Tahitian ahu platforms was 60 feet long, 15 feet wide, page 47910 to 12 feet high, and the average number of ahu steps, according to Emory (34, p. 28), was three inner and four outer. However, the exceptional marae of Mahaiatea, which had a court 377 feet long and 267 feet wide, had an ahu platform 267 feet long, 87 feet wide at the base, and its successive tiers with 10 inner steps and 11 outer steps rose to the impressive height of between 45 and 50 feet. This magnificent structure has been completely demolished, but a drawing of the complete structure was made by Captain Wilson in 1798 and included in his work on the missionary voyage of the Duff. This illustration has led to theories of the diffusion of stepped pyramids from ancient Egypt in the west and ancient Peru in the east. However, Emory's work on the stone structures of the Society Islands should dispel such illusions and lead to an appreciation of the great local development which took place.

The Cook Islands marae were very important in traditional narratives. When an early voyager landed, one of the first things he did was to erect a marae to give thanks to his gods and to establish his claim to the land occupied. The building of a marae was equivalent to the raising of a flag when foreign powers took possession. The Rarotongan ancestor Tangiia is credited with having established 40 marae, the names and sites of which were handed down in local traditions. He appointed priestly guardians (purapura) over most of them. As population increased and new chiefly titles were created, additional marae were established. In spite of the large number created, they have been so thoroughly demolished that little visual evidence remains to aid in the reconstruction of their original form. However, they consisted of an open court with a raised platform termed an a'u-tu (ahu-tu) at one end. A low rectangular platform of loose rocks is preserved at the chiefly court (koutu) of Araitetonga in Rarotonga. A low rectangular platform with sustaining walls of limestone slabs is still evident in the marae of Mokoero in Atiu. Hence the a'u-tu platform was probably a constant feature. Apparently, stone uprights were lacking, but the chiefly court of Araitetonga had a tall pillar of investiture named Taumakeva, and there were stone seats on the court for the high-ranking chiefs. Probably the carved wooden slabs, also termed unu, replaced the stone uprights as in the coastal marae of the Society Islands.

The marae, in addition to the ahu platform of stone with upright stone slabs or carved wooden unu, had wooden platforms raised on posts for holding pigs and other food offerings. They were termed fata in Tahiti, 'ata (hata) in the Cook Islands. Usually, there was a house on the courtyard for storing the temple drums, images or symbols, and any material used in religious ceremonies. In the Society Islands, special wooden receptacles or god houses were set on posts for housing images or symbols of the gods other accessories—such as stone backrests, extra houses, and oracle towers (Hawaii)—varied in the different island groups.

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Turning to New Zealand, it is a curious fact that the two fundamental features of the central Polynesian temples were not combined but remained as distinct entities. Thus the open court, distinguished by the term marae, is retained as a secular feature in front of the tribal or family meeting houses. Every village has one or more marae, according to the number of important meeting houses in the village. Usually there is one main marae on which the whole tribe welcomes its guests or conducts matters of tribal importance. The meeting house is an indispensable adjunct to the marae, for it serves as a lodging house for the guests who have been welcomed on the marae and as the council house in which matters discussed on the marae in the daytime may be continued and concluded at night.

New Zealand retained the ahu part of the Polynesian marae with its religious significance, as well as the term ahu in the variant form of tuahu. It had no association with the secular marae and was rarely located within the village. The presence of a spot charged with high-power tapu would have been a constant source of danger to children and others. The tuahu was, therefore, established usually in a secluded spot at some distance from the village and away from beaten tracks. The tuahu retained the character of simple shrines, and Best (15, p. 171) states that they took the form of a heap of rough unworked stone sometimes with one or more blocks of stone set upright in the earth. A tuahu on the shores of Lake Rotorua was distinguished by four upright stones spaced a little apart. other shrines took the form of a post (pou) erected on tapu ground and were termed pou-ahu, which was a synonym for tuahu. Sometimes the post was surrounded by a fence; and the enclosure, which only the priest could enter, was then termed a tuahu tapatai. The crudest form of shrine consisted of some natural feature, such as an outcrop of rock, which became a tuahu merely because a priest used it as a place to commune with his god. On some tuahu, a small platform of sticks termed a tiepa was erected for the reception of offerings, or a larger elevated platform (whata) was constructed for a similar purpose. The whata also had the names whata puaroa and whata roa applied to it.

Best (15, p. 170) gives the following terms as denoting forms of tuahu: ahu-rewa, ahu-rangi, ahu-mairangi, and ahu-puke. The first three terms probably refer to the high status of the shrines, for the highest priests were termed tohunga ahurewa. Ahu-rangi was another name for ahu-rewa, and ahu-mairangi was simply a variant of ahu-rangi. The term ahu-puke is significant, because puke means a hillock or mound of earth and because, combined with ahu, it indicates that the shrine was formed of a mound of earth. In some divination rites, mounds of earth were made and various accessories, such as sticks or leafy twigs, were used in connection with them. In making a new tuahu, earth was sometimes taken from an old shrine; and it may be assumed that it was mixed with local soil to form page 481a mound on the new site. A similar procedure was observed in central Polynesia, where a stone from a celebrated marae was incorporated in the ahu of the new temple. The term ahu in the Maori dialect means to heap into a mound; and while it applied primarily to earth, it could also be applied to heaping up stones.

In addition to the tuahu shrine, religious observances were carried out at three other fixed places and some at varying localities.

Village pouahu. When the tuahu with an enclosed post was located in the village, it was usually situated near the main gateway. A wooden box, termed a waka (receptacle), for containing the symbol of the tribal god was kept in the enclosure. Sometimes a small carved house termed a kawiu was set on top of a high post and used as a container for the waka of the god. The priest could perform his ritual within the sacred enclosure. The shrine did not differ in name or function from the tuahu tapatai erected outside the village.

Village latrines (turuma or paepae). Protective guardians imbued the latrines with the potential qualities of a sacred shrine which were utilized by the priest in the ngau paepae rite to protect warriors from any magic spells by enemy priests on the field of battle. The war party paraded and each warrior bit (ngau) the cross-bar of the latrines as the priest pronounced the protective formula over him.

Sanctified water (te wai tapu). In some rites, water was a necessary medium for sprinkling or immersion and some part of a stream or a pond was devoted to the purpose. When the priest entered the water and conducted the ritual, the water was rendered tapu, hence the term wai tapu became associated with the particular locality. Each village had its wai tapu established by usage, and though it may not have had the same degree of tapu as the tuahu shrine, it was avoided by the people. Children were dedicated to the gods by sprinkling, sick people were cleansed of their errors by ablution, and warriors going out to battle were put under the war tapu and freed from it on their return by immersion in the sanctified water.

Other sites. Some rites were conducted on the sites where divine aid was required. In ritual connected with crop fertility, the images of the gods or other religious symbols were set up temporarily on the edge of the cultivation. The local shrine so established was tapu for the time being, but the tapu evaporated when the symbols were taken away. For divination in the field, the seer or priest made a temporary shrine at any convenient place, and it is probable that any tapu atmosphere associated with the rite simply disappeared on the ending of the ceremony. In battle, the priest could make an offering over the body of the corpse first slain, but he needed no shrine.

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Polynesian affinities. In central Polynesia, the verb ahu means to heap up earth; and the heaps so formed were also termed ahu. The verb ahu was applied to the heaping up of earth to form the first woman, Hine-ahu-one, to heap up mounds for the planting of sweet potato; and for constructing a temple as in the phrase "i ahua te marae" which means, literally, "the marae was mounded". It is not reasonable to expect that the marae constructed by voyagers on first landing were the same as the elaborate structures which later stood on some of those historical sites. In Aitutaki, I was taken to the place where the ancestor Ruatapu first landed and was shown the site of the first marae he was said to have built. I looked in vain for some traces of an ancient structure. However, the old men with me explained their absence by saying that it was a temporary marae made perhaps by heaping up some earth or stones as a shrine where the immediate ritual could be conducted. The shrine was probably an ahu, but later historians, in the current language of their period, have referred to it as a marae. Ruatapu moved on to another part of the island and his regular marae was established near his settlement.

The evidence in favour of the early structures being termed ahu is supported by Emory (34, p. 41), who states that the temples now termed "maraes" were probably anciently called ahu, for many marae in the Society Islands have ahu in their names, such as Ahu-rai, Ahu-roa, Ahu-taa-i-te-rai, Ahu-toru, Te-ahu-o-Ruatama, and Ahu-tapu. Of these, Ahu-rai has the glottal stop for ng in rai (ra'i = rangi) and is thus identical with Maori ahu-rangi. In the Tuamotus (35, p. 16), a number of maraehave ahu in their names and two of them, Ahu-reva and Ahu-rangi, are the same as the terms applied to a form of Maori tuahu. In the Marquesas, the religious structures of the southern group were termed me'ae (merae); but in the northern group, they retained the name of ahu. In Easter Island, the various forms of stone structures, including the ones with large stone images mounted on a stone platform, were termed ahu. Some of them included the term in their names, such as Ahu-roa and Ahu-kinokino. The tuahu built by the voyagers of the Tainui canoe at Kawhia in New Zealand was named Ahu-rei.

It appears certain from the distribution of the term ahu that it was the ancient name given to early religious shrines which, as the name implies, were originally simple mounds of earth, sand, coral, or stones. The ahu mound underwent development, being enlarged into a rectangular raised platform of stone or coral and having spaced stone or limestone uprights added to the mound or platform. At an early stage of development in the Society Islands, the ahu was carried by early settlers northeast to the Marquesas, east as far as Easter Island, and southwest to the Cook Islands and New Zealand. In New Zealand, the shrine never developed beyond a heap of stones and a few upright rocks, but the name changed to the page 483variant of tuahu. In Easter Island, a remarkable development took place in platform construction and the replacement of upright stone slabs by large images, but the term ahu was not changed. In the Marquesas, built-up stone courts were influenced by the sloping terrain, but in the northern islands the original name of ahu remained unchanged.

In the Society Islands, considerable change took place both in the construction of the pantheon and in the architecture of the religious structures. Change in the Leeward group was probably initiated and stimulated by the priests of the religious centre at Opoa in Raiatea. The priests were seized with a form of megalomania, and successive generations built increasingly larger and higher ahu. At Opoa, the first shrine, named Feoro, was supplanted by the longer structure of Vai'otaha, which in turn was enclosed within the vast ahu of Taputapuatea. Growth in the ahu was accompanied by elaboration in ritual observances. Births, deaths, marriages, installations of high chiefs, and various activities were interwoven with religion, and all were centralized at the religious structure. A larger court was provided before the ahu to accommodate a god house for the material symbols, raised wooden platforms termed fata for the numerous offerings of food, and houses for the officiating priests, their assistants, temple drums, and other accessories. The simple shrine had developed into a neolithic cathedral with its sacred ahu altar at one end of a spacious court of assembly.

The Polynesian term for an assembly court requires consideration. In New Zealand, the term marae meant an open space in the village where people assembled on social occasions. However, it became permanently associated with a meeting house so that without a meeting house there could be no marae. In Samoa and Tonga, the malae was an open space in the village or its outskirts where the people assembled to carry out social functions which would not be possible in the restricted space of a guest house. There can be little doubt that in central Polynesia, marae had a similar social significance and originally had nothing whatever to do with religion. However, in the Society Islands, the word tahua was also used to designate an assembly place where social activities could take place. When a more spacious court was added to the religious ahu, the Society Islanders had the choice of two terms to apply to it, and they choose marae. Thus marae became restricted to the religious court and the secular courts retained the name of tahua. The tahua remained in the free atmosphere of the village but the marae was removed to the sacred locality of the ahu. Originally the term marae applied to the court only but, in the course of time, it came to include the ahu as a general term for the Whole structure. The ahu, however, retained its individual name as the religious part or altar of the temple.

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Religious devotees led war parties from Raiatea to proselytize the people of Tahiti to the faith of their new god, Oro, and they finally succeeded. The defeated people, who were forced inland, retained the simple form of temple with a low platform and some stone uprights. The conquerors, who settled along the coast, developed their own form of religious structure. The Raiateans and their neighbours obtained height by using huge blocks of coral limestone set on end, but the Tahitians attained height by building with smaller rocks in ascending tiers. The Raiateans but rarely defined the boundaries of the court with a low stone curb, whereas the Tahitians built low stone walls on all four borders of the marae. The two schools coincided, however, in replacing the stone uprights of the ahu with carved wooden slabs termed unu. The new term of marae for the temples diffused to the nearer groups of the Cook Islands, Australs, Tuamotu, Mangareva, and the southern isles of the Marquesas, but the old term of ahu for the altar platform was retained in most of them. The new usage failed to reach the marginal islands, for both New Zealand and Easter Island retained the older term ahu and its variant, tuahu. Hawaii adopted the entirely different term of heiau.

The marae temples of the Society Islands have been described at some length to indicate the great development which took place in religious structures. A comparison between the simple Maori tuahu and the highly developed marae of Raiatea and Tahiti might lead to the false conclusion that degeneration had taken place in New Zealand. However, the 12-foot walls of Taputapuatea and the 10-stepped altar of Mahaiatea were the end results of over four centuries of gradual development after the Maori colonizing canoes sailed from Hawaiki. The Mahaiatea ahu, rising to the height of 50 feet, was a freak construction erected to the order of an ambitious chieftainess, named Purea, who sought to raise the status of her son by building a marae for his investiture that would surpass in size anything hitherto constructed. It had been but recently completed when Cook visited Tahiti in 1769. A simple style of ahu probably prevailed throughout the group when the Maori ancestors left in approximately 1350 A.D. In the subsequent religious development in the Society Islands, the priests added the marae court to the ahu shrine outside the village and the marae became a religious institution. In the social development in New Zealand, the Maori left the introduced form of tuahu shrine outside the village and added a carved meeting house to the social marae within the village, thereby retaining the marae as a social institution.