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Ethnology of Tongareva

Religious Procedure

Religious Procedure

Communication with the Gods

The four invisible gods were seen (kitea) by the taura priests, but the idea conveyed by the word kitea (seen or found) is that the priests officially established communication with the gods. The priests made material representations of the particular gods which the people could see, and which the priests could use in ceremonial procedure.

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Though the priests controlled the means of approach to the gods on the more important occasions, there were times when a small group, or an individual, had to deal directly with the unseen powers without awaiting the mediation of a priest. For such occasions certain incantations had been composed, and it was a part of the general education to learn the correct observances with regard to the particular gods, and to commit the appropriate incantations to memory. The incantation, having been established as the correct approach, had mana (favor) in itself to obtain the desired end, in that its recitation acknowledged the authority of the god, and by pleasing him, inclined him to regard his devotee with favor. Individual procedure took the form of requests and propitiations, for example, the warrior's direct approach to Kaveau by means of the incantation, “O Kaveau, sweep away the heart of —–.” My informants did not know whether or not a particular posture accompanied the words, and that they did not mention an offering may be taken as an indication that no offering was made.

In the propitiation, offerings accompanied the necessary incantation. Lamont (15, p. 218) describes the procedure after a successful catch of flying fish:

A certain quantity are laid aside as a sacrifice to the Spirit, and over them a lengthy prayer is said in a low voice, with the hand raised and the head bent. As the Spirit, however, does not appear to claim them, the captors dispose of them as they think proper, the women only not being permitted to eat them. A similar prayer is always said over one or more of every lot of fish caught, and a piece of the tail is generally bitten off to mark the “hiue atuas.”

The ceremonial pattern here contains three elements, the incantation, the offering of a share of the catch, and a set posture while repeating the ritual. On some occasions there was the additional element of marking the fish. The significance of the laying aside of a portion of fish for the god may be interpreted through comparison with the psychological attitude toward the giving of presents in social life. Hospitality was based on reciprocity, and giving was followed in due time by receiving. After the giving of a share of fish to the god, the god would be expected to reciprocate by making future fishing operations successful. Also, the gods were angered by obvious neglect, and the failure to render a share of the fish would cause the god to render future fishing operations fruitless, and might even precipitate disaster and misfortune in other undertakings.

The services of the priest were required when the active services of the god were needed, as in sickness. The patients were treated in the priest's house or on the marae, where the assistance of the god was invoked by incantations. On the marae the ceremonial consisted of incantations, the patient prostrating himself before the sacred house of the marae and being struck on the back with the material representation of the god by the priest.

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For the community ceremonials on the marae at which the priests officiated the only details now available are from Lamont's descriptions (15, pp. 120–121). Lamont was ceremonially received into the community on the maraes at Mangarongaro, Omoka, and Motuunga. The Mangarongaro ceremony is described in detail.

The whole community escorted the shipwrecked mariners to the marae, but the women and children stopped a little distance away. Four young men, armed with spears, rushed to the edge of the marae, and, facing each other, recited an incantation called a hai which was accompanied by movement and contortion of the features. After this preliminary the men entered the marae, but evidently remained in the front half while two priests, girded with coconut leaves, seated themselves on either side farther up toward the back of the marae, in which there was an altar made of “a heap of rude stones.” Three young coconuts were placed on a flat stone before the visitors. Near the stone stood four young men decked with wreaths of green leaves. At a signal from the priests each of the two young men stripped two pieces of husk from the coconuts and ran speedily to a given point, where he deposited one piece of husk, and immediately darted back. Each got behind a marae upright near the priests. They then advanced slowly and decorously toward the priests, and after raising the other pieces of husk high above their heads, laid them down before the priests. The priests took the pieces without looking up, bent over them, and, after reciting a low hurried incantation, threw the husk with the right hand over the left shoulder. The husking of the nuts was repeated in different parts of the marae.

The whole party then moved up toward the altar. It was at this ceremony that the plaited coconut leaf representations of the god were used. Three were freshly made by a young man and handed to Opaka, the ariki of Mangarongaro and Hakasusa, who evidently acted as high priest. Opaka ascended the altar and seated himself before a large stone, holding the plaited coconut representation in his hands. In this position, he “… began to glance wildly round in every direction, his eyes wandering over the crowd of bowed figures before him. A trembling motion, commencing in his hands, extended through his body till every limb shook in the most violent manner, the muscles working and the veins swelling almost to bursting—a sign, as these ignorant creatures believed, that he was possessed by a spirit. After uttering a few incoherent sentences, which subsided to a low prayer, he lifted his leafy god and struck him violently against the stone before him, repeating the same process with all three. The idols, having thus done their part in the ceremony, were unceremoniously thrown aside amongst a heap of rubbish.”

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The three coconuts, which had been placed on the altar, were removed, and the people marched out of the marae, but seated themselves near its boundary. After further incantations the three coconuts were broken and handed to Lamont and two of his companions with signs that they were to eat them. This concluded the marae ceremony, but the whole concourse moved on to a fresh-water pool, where they splashed water on themselves with a peculiar motion of the arms, like ducks make with their wings. They then joined the women at a clear place near the beach, where the welcoming ceremony with dances and the pehu wailing took place. (See p. 75.)

The ceremony performed for Lamont at Omoka (15, p. 175) was similar to that at Mangarongaro except that the pehu wailing had been gone through the previous day. From this it must be concluded that the coconuts and the leaf representation of the gods were also used. Lamont remained behind looking at the marae stones while the men were performing their ablutions. As he went toward the beach to do likewise a woman came forward to greet him, not knowing that he had not washed, but when those who followed Lamont called, “hui atua,” she fled in horror.

The Motuunga ceremony (15, p. 180) differed in that Lamont had to move the coconuts from place to place and in that the feather representation of the god was used instead of plaited coconut leaves. The feather mop was struck against the back of the other officiating priest instead of against stones.

Ceremonial Pattern

From these accounts by Lamont the following ceremonial pattern may be distinguished:

1. The introductory incantation or hai before entering the sacred precincts of the marae.

2. The people were in the front half of the marae, and two officiating priests at the back. This supports the statement of an informant that the arongamana (people with authority) occupied the part near the altar (raukava).

3. Coconut offerings took the place of pigs and human sacrifices used in some parts of Polynesia. The casting of pieces of coconut husk with the right hand over the left shoulder by the priests, after the appropriate incantation, was without doubt a propitiatory offering to the gods. The gesture was known in New Zealand as koropana. I was told by a middle-aged Maori that while he was having a glass of ale with a practising tohunga (taula), the alleged priest, before drinking, dipped his right finger and thumb into the ale and flicked them over his left shoulder. The tohunga admitted page 91 that he was giving a share to his familiar spirits in order that they might continue to impart power to him in the treatment of sickness. The gods thus received their recognition in the share of coconuts as symbolized by the pieces of husks, although the useful part was retained for human consumption.

4. The exhibition of the gods on the altar with incantations and appropriate procedure by the chief officiating priest was accompanied by a seizure or physical manifestation, showing that while the priest held the material representation of the god in his hands the spirit of the god had entered into the human medium. The priest spoke incoherently. In some parts of Polynesia the words uttered by the priest in this state were supposed to be the words of the god speaking from within the medium. The emotional state in the Tongarevan priest was evidently worked up voluntarily, no doubt assisted by the atmosphere of the marae ritual. In Mangaia the priest took a drink of strong kava beforehand to intensify the emotional condition of possession by the god.

5. The eating of the coconuts, rendered tapu on the marae, conferred status on those who partook of them and formed part of the ceremony of receiving people into the Mangarongaro community. Coconuts were the primary food of the atoll and thus formed the symbolic material used in the ceremony.

6. Ablutions to remove the tapu of the marae were necessary before those who participated in the marae ceremony could become normal and mix again with their fellows. It was because Lamont was still tapu that the women at Omoka fled from him.

The Turtle Ceremony

According to Tupou Isaia, part of the turtle eating ceremony was conducted on the marae. The turtle was cooked in an oven that was situated close to, but outside, the marae precincts. These ovens, marked by broken heated coral, had by successive use in the same place become elevated and formed impressive mounds such as those seen at Hangarei (p. 174) and Motuunga (p. 159). Lamont (15, p. 182) again supplies details from first-hand observation. The turtle eating, at which he was the honored guest, took place at Motuunga. The procedure is outlined as follows:

1. Preliminary incantations. The turtle was turned over on its back on the seashore. A priest repeated some words over it which may be taken to be the preliminary incantation. The chief, Turua, then stepped forward to the edge of the water “and, in a menacing attitude, seemed to denounce someone, throwing up his arms, and vociferating at the top of his voice, as if threatening an imaginary being at sea.” Lamont explains the action by page 92 saying that the turtle had a spirit which had been driven out by the priest and was threatened with vengeance by the warrior if it attempted to return. Such an explanation does not seem compatible with the usual Polynesian attitude toward food. In New Zealand, before preserved pigeons were partaken of, a chant was recited in a loud voice to return the life-principle (mauri) of the birds to the forests from whence they came and thus to protect the supply of birds from depletion. It therefore seems from analogy with custom in another branch of the Polynesian race that the life-principle of the turtle was being returned to the sea that the supply of turtles might continue undepleted.

2. Marae ceremony. The turtle was conveyed to the marae and, after a few ceremonies, was beheaded and disemboweled. The “few ceremonies” are not described, but it may be assumed that they consisted of appropriate incantations and the subsequent offering of some useless part of the turtle to the gods.

3. Cooking. The cooking took place on an elevation of stones, probably the raised oven outside the Kirihuri marae on Motuunga. Lamont states that the turtle was sacrificed to the gods, but this interpretation is based on a foreign concept of burnt sacrifices. The turtle was cooked for human consumption, as the gods had already received their share in the offering which, it may be assumed from comparison with the coconut ceremony, had been made on the marae.

4. Eating. The turtle cooked in its shell was placed on a mat in the gravelled space which served as the community meeting place. The turtle was cut up into small pieces within the shell.

Lamont and three chiefs sat upon the mat for the turtle eating, while not far away the people formed a large circle around them. The three chiefs selected the most tempting pieces of turtle and tried to feed Lamont, who objected and was allowed to help himself. Noting that the chiefs watched him hungrily, Lamont offered them pieces which were accepted and devoured while the people made flattering comments on his action of sharing with others. Thus encouraged, Lamont extended his generosity by throwing pieces to the wives of two of the chiefs. The women, however, sprang up and fled, shouting “hui atua” (prohibited). The husbands of the women held Lamont's hands, shaking their heads and repeating the words “hui atua.”

The turtle was regarded as of great importance and, in some parts of Polynesia, was monopolized as food by the high chiefs. In Tongareva its importance was recognized by the special marae ceremony, which not only rendered it hui atua to women but probably restricted its use to the priests and chiefs. When there were large catches the circle of men who received shares was no doubt increased.