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Vikings of the Sunrise

13. South and Southeast

page 169

13. South and Southeast

How can you and I know what the heathen thought about?

I asked an old man with grey hair and a wrinkled face, a question about the Polynesian idea of creation. He gave me a modern version based on Genesis. I tried to lift him over the intervening years by saying, ‘Yes, that is what you and I think now, but what did your ancestors think before the Bible was introduced?’ With a deprecatory shrug of his shoulders, he replied, ‘How can you and I know what the heathen thought about?’

The early missionaries laboured to destroy belief in the Polynesian concepts of the world and the origin and power of the local gods. In this they were helped by the natives themselves who, eager to accept and adopt new ideas, broke almost completely with their old religion. Frequently when a chief accepted Christianity those who had opposed his temporal rule remained with their old faith. Bitter wars were waged for political as much as for religious reasons, and the converts took keen delight in destroying the temples and gods of their enemies. Priests and scholars who had accepted the new teaching refused to pass on the concepts and the legends of their old cult. Thus the continuity of oral transmission was broken. When questions were asked in after page 170 years, only scattered, dislocated fragments could be recalled.

Many European missionaries recorded the principles of the old religion, perhaps to show the church at home from what they were rescuing the heathen. Wherever white missionaries were stationed, a certain amount of information has been saved from the wreck. Ellis and Orsmond in Tahiti, Gill in Mangaia, and Laval in Mangareva are notable examples of missionaries who recorded invaluable information that would otherwise have been lost forever. However, native converts and pastors had no outside world to which to report and ruthlessly destroyed material objects and suppressed teachings which to them had no intrinsic interest. Hence it is that little information concerning the past has been preserved on islands which were converted by native missionaries and teachers. Extremely little is known of the myths and early traditional history of the Austral Islands, presumably because of the complete break in continuity that followed early proselytizing.

The Austral Islands—Rimatara, Rurutu, Tupua‘i (Tu-buai), and Raivavae—lie about 400 miles south of Tahiti. These islands are volcanic and continue the chain of the Cook Islands toward the southeast. Between Mangaia, the most easterly of the Cook Islands, and Rimatara is the small uninhabited atoll of Maria (Hull Island) which may have served as a landmark and resting place on voyages between the Austral and Cook groups. These volcanic islands with fairly high mountain ranges and fertile valleys were fit lands upon which the early settlers could develop the culture they brought with them. All the cultivable food plants, including the breadfruit and coconut, were introduced. From what little we know, it appears that the westerly islands, Rimatara and Rurutu, were influenced from the Cook Islands and that page 171 the easterly islands, Tupua‘i and Raivavae, had more contact with Tahiti in the north.

The European navigators who first visited these islands toward the end of the eighteenth century reported a large and healthy population. They saw large double canoes, as well as outrigger canoes, made of split planks sewn together, with raised sterns well carved and with the gunwale tier also carved. The canoes were decorated with sea-birds' feathers held under the lashings of the topstrake in apparently the same technique as in New Zealand war canoes. They also had streamers of feathers hanging from the stern and bow pieces.

The weapons were well made and better carved than those of Tahiti. The carved paddles, the polished clubs with lozenge-shaped blades, and the stone pounders of Raivavae were eagerly sought after by sailors as South Seas curios. Many of these have found their way into museums and are usually attributed to Raivavae (High Island). It is exasperating that we know nothing definite about the clubs and paddles of the other three islands.

The Raivavae paddles are often erroneously attributed to Mangaia in the Cook Islands because they have some decorative motifs that are similar to those on Mangaian ceremonial adzes. However, the Mangaian paddles are of quite different shape. Circles, curves, and female figures which occur on the Raivavae paddles were never used in Mangaian art.

Another extraordinary ‘curio’ that is common in museums is the fully carved object labelled as a food scoop. It is made from a single piece of wood with the body shaped like an elongated bowl and the long handle shaped and carved like a paddle shaft. The manufacture of these scoops is probably post-European, for in the old Polynesian culture there was no use for a food scoop and such objects are found nowhere page 172 else in Polynesia. The method of cooking in the earth oven did not permit of the making of soup or stews. A friend has suggested that the natives got the idea for a ladle from visiting foreign ships, and, by combining a bowl and a paddle handle, produced an article which was popular in the European market.

There is less recorded information about the Austral Islands than about any other inhabited group in Polynesia. In order to supply a serious want, the Bishop Museum's Bayard Dominick Expedition of 1920–22 included the Austral Islands and Rapa in its scope of investigation. Owing to irregularities of schooner service, the two western islands could not be visited but Robert T. Aitken was landed at Tupua‘i and J. F. G. Stokes at Raivavae. Though valuable information was obtained by both field workers, the material relating to myths of creation and early settlement was found to be meagre.

In Tupua‘i, Hiro, the navigator so well known in Tahiti, the Cook Islands, and New Zealand, is mentioned as a visitor and an ancestor. In Raivavae, Hiro is an ancestor called Hiro-mata-atua (Hiro-of-the-divine-face) who married a woman named Evari‘i, the daughter of the god Tane, by whom he had a son named Maui.

In order to trace the relationship of Austral Islands gods and heroes to those in other parts of Polynesia, it is necessary to digress for a moment to mention the changes in the language and the local use of glottals. In the Australs the k and ng are dropped as in Tahiti. In Rurutu the h also is dropped as in the Cook Islands. Evari‘i, through fusing two vowels and dropping a k, is really Eva-ariki (Eva-the-high-chiefess). Eva is the Austral Islands form of Eve, and I suspect that the name has been borrowed from Genesis to replace a Polynesian page 173 lady whose name had been forgotten. When the great demigod Maui can be given such a unique parentage, anything may have happened in the period of mental aphasia that followed the desertion of the Polynesian gods.

Maui, in spite of his new lineage, was credited with several deeds belonging to his full list of accomplishments. In Tu-pua‘i a fragment refers to Maui's building a temple, to his fishing up of various islands, and to his introduction of fire. He likewise snared the sun, but the tale is quaintly distorted.

Maui and his mother had no means of cooking their food so they put out their ration of taro for the sun to cook. The sun, however, travelled so quickly across the sky that when evening came the food was still uncooked. Maui and his mother ate it raw with the result that their mouths and throats were irritated. Chemists tell us now that taro contains crystals of oxalic acid which irritate the mucous membrane but which are broken down by cooking. Maui, irritated both mentally and physically, proposed to snare the sun with a strong rope and tether it until their food was cooked. His mother advised him to consult her father Tane, who lived somewhere in the upper spaces.

Maui visited his grandfather and retailed his grievance and his scheme of snaring the sun whereby their food might be cooked. It will be noted that in many myths the story has been composed backwards. We naturally wonder how Maui knew that their food would be rendered more palatable by cooking. Perhaps the food had been cooked by the sun in the long days of summer and had not been in the short days of winter. The ‘perhaps’ is mine, for the myth does not offer this suggestion.

Tane, who had usurped the invidious position of Mahuika, god of fire, said, ‘Your scheme is altogether impracticable page 174 because the sun cannot be snared. The solution to your problem may be solved by a way other than that of attempting the impossible. I will show you.’

He took a piece of dry wood and broke it into two pieces. Leaving one piece stationary on the ground as the ‘aunoti, he rubbed the sharp point of the other piece, termed ‘aurima, backwards and forwards on the power piece until a long groove was worn by the pressure. As the groove deepened the fine particles of wood were collected in a little heap at the forward end of the groove. The movements increased in rapidity and the heat caused by the friction made the heap of wood dust smoulder and smoke. Tane quickly turned the lighted dust onto a bunch of dry fibre that he had in readiness and, by waving the bunch to and fro, the fibre caught alight and blazed into flame. The lighted kindling was laid on the ground, small pieces of wood were deftly placed over it, and then larger pieces were added. Before Maui's startled eyes, the first fire he had ever seen blazed merrily. Tane took hold of his grandson's hand and placed it briefly over the flame to instruct him in the properties of the new element that had been stored in the growing trees by the sun. Thus by the ritual of ‘Burnt fingers’ Maui was instructed in the method of producing fire by means of the Polynesian fire plough.

Tane proceeded with his instructions. He dug a shallow hole in the ground, built a fire within it, and placed stones as large as a closed fist above the wood. By the time the wood had burned down, the heat had been relayed on to the stones which became red hot. The stones were levelled to form a bed for the uncooked food which was placed upon them, and the whole was covered over with leaves. After some time, the leaves were removed and the food was found to be cooked. page 175 Thus was demonstrated the simple form of cooking oven that spread throughout Polynesia. Maui's problem was solved.

Tane said, ‘Return to the lower world and tell your mother how fire may be made and how food may be cooked.’

Tane took pity upon Maui because of the long journey before him, so he placed Maui in a sacred coconut which he threw down from the upper sphere. The coconut sped swiftly through space and alighted at Te Mahara on the island of Raivavae. It split open, and Maui emerged safely and returned to his mother, to whom he imparted the knowledge he had gained. Somebody is bound to ask why Maui's mother had not learned how to make fire from her father, Tane. The answer is simply that in the disruption of the ancient culture, the names of certain legendary characters have been displaced. By analogy with other Maui legends, it is clear that Maui's mother was not the daughter of Tane and that Maui could not learn the secret of fire from the great god Tane.

Another fragment from Raivavae states that Tihauone married Hinahuone, the daughter of Toareva, a king of the Underworld. Tihauone is a confused form of Ti‘i-ahu-one (Tiki-ahu-one) and is a distorted memory of Tiki, who is associated in the richer myths with the creation of the first woman from earth. The first woman made from earth was Hina, and her name is usually qualified with the words ahu (to heap up) and one (earth). The Raivavaean name of the wife of Tiki is Hina-ahu-one, which is proof positive that the old myth of human creation was once known in a fuller and richer form than is indicated by the abbreviated records. The names of Ta‘aroa, Tane, and Ro‘o occur at the beginning of genealogy lists but Tu is curiously absent.

The temples of Raivavae, as described by Stokes, are numerous and unique in structure. They had the orthodox page 176 rectangular court, but the boundaries were marked by single lines of high basaltic slabs set close together. The middle slabs at the ends were ten to twelve feet high. On the outer side of the slab walls was a neat low curb formed usually of a red tuff. Between the curb and the wall, images of red tuff were set in the ground facing outward. Smaller subsidiary courts were built at the back of the main court. In the most elaborate temples, there was a long paved avenue, flanked on either side by basaltic pillars set at regular intervals, which led to the middle entrance at the front of the main court of the temple. When the temples were being used, they must have been an impressive sight, but unfortunately we have no information as to the form of ritual observed or even as to the names of the gods who were in residence.

In all the temples examined by Stokes there was no evidence of any raised platform altar such as we have come to regard as a necessary part of the Polynesian structures. There is one exception, however, at the reputed earliest temple of Te Mahara, the place which served as a landing field for Maui in his mythical flight. It may be that this oldest temple retains an element of an early technique which, in the course of time, was abandoned for what became a local pattern. If people could evolve a local form of paddle design and carvings, why shouldn't they change the architecture of their temples?

In the other three islands, the temples are not only fewer but they do not seem to have reached the standard attained at Raivavae. There are no stone images definitely recorded from the other islands, but on Raivavae several images of red tuff have been found. These are female forms, similar in technique to those carved on the paddles, and may have been more ornamental than religious. Macmillan Brown, in page 177 his work already quoted, figures two large images, one 11 to 12 feet and the other 8 to 9 feet high, standing on their original site. The French warship Zélée tried to remove them but failed. Later the images were carried to Tahiti and erected on either side of the path leading to the Papeete Museum. There, in 1935, I was studying them on the morning that the round-the-world tourist ship Stella Polaris berthed at the Papeete wharf. Two American women who had been to the Museum paused to look at the images.

One said, ‘They are similar to the Easter Island images.’

The other remarked, ‘I wonder where they are from?’

I volunteered the information though we had not been introduced.

The first lady transferred her attention from the images to me. With that admirable unconvention acquired by travel, she said, ‘You are a New Zealander.’

‘Guilty,’ I replied.

With growing conviction, she paused, ‘You are a Maori.’

‘Guilty again,’ I admitted.

She continued, ‘I heard a lecture in New York that was given by a New Zealander and he was a Maori.’

I ventured a guess and said, ‘At the English Speaking Union.’

‘Yes,’ she answered. ‘He was a doctor and his name was Doctor Buck.’

‘It still is,’ I apologized.

And so New York and the Antipodes were introduced to each other in Tahiti by a stone image that came from Raivavae.

The lack of images from Rimatara, Rurutu, and Tupua‘i does not mean that they never existed. In 1826, a mission boat from the London Missionary Society's headquarters in page 178 Ra‘iatea returned from Rurutu laden with ‘the gods of the heathen’. They were publicly exhibited from the pulpit. One, named Aa (Ha), was the chief god of Rurutu. It was carved from wood in human form, four feet high, and the body and head were hollowed out and provided with a lid at the back. The cavity was found to be full of small gods. The missionary, John Williams, stated that no less than twenty-four were taken out, one after another and exhibited to public view. What happened to these works of art may be readily guessed; the souls of the wicked were burned in the Underworld, and the wooden gods of the Polynesians were burned in the upper world. So far as I know, the large image of Aa was the only one saved, and it has now sanctuary in the British Museum under the name of Tangaroa-upao-vahu. The image is ornamented with small human figures cut in the solid on its face, body, limbs, and lid. Some of the figures have been carved with the head downward and present a somewhat ludicrous appearance. They remind me of the two tall panels in stone on either side of the entrance to Bath Abbey in England, which represent Jacob's ladder with the angels ascending and descending. The descending angels are upside-down like the inverted figures on Aa.

Rapa, on the southeast radial from the centre, is the most southerly island in tropical Polynesia and is sometimes included in the Austral Islands. Like the Austral Islands, Rapa had been so neglected that Stokes, who went there from Raivavae, found the myths and traditions scanty and confused. The few fragments that were gathered are interesting as remnants of a richer oral literature that was not committed to writing by the early native missionaries who were preoccupied with spreading the new theology.

The Reverend Davies, who visited the island in 1826, page 179 stated that the religion of Rapa was the same as that of Tahiti but without the parade and show. There were no regular religious structures, but a few stones were regarded as sacred shrines with magic power. No images in stone or wood were found, the the gods Paparua and Poere were represented by material objects. Paparua, neatly made of coconut fibre in the form of a miniature cask two to three inches long, was consulted in war and sickness and was appealed to for turtle. Poere, a stone about one foot long planted in the ground, promoted the fertility of food and the maintenance of spring-water supply. He was evidently the god of artisans, for he was invoked at the launching of canoes and the building of houses. Offerings of fish were made to him to promote recovery of the sick.

It may be that Paparua was reminiscent of Papa, the great Earth-mother, and that the Rapa people combined two Papas into the single god, Papa-rua (Papa-the-two). The Rapa dia-left differs from that of the other Austral Islands in retaining. the k and ng sounds but dropping the h. It has been so affected by late Tahitian contact that one wonders whether or not the god Poere should be Po-kere and thus mean ‘Dark-night’. If so, the name may be a memory of the Cosmic Night that occurs in the creation myths of other islands. Certain it is that Te Tumu, Atea, Fa‘ahotu, and the great major gods —Tane, Rongo, and Tangaroa—are missing in Rapa.

There were a number of minor family gods, and the expression of their wishes or, perhaps, of the wishes of their human mediums conforms to the regular Polynesian pattern. There was apparently no organized priesthood, which may account for the meagre mythology. The widely spread terms tohunga and taura, as applied to priests, are lacking in the dialect, and the local term of tangata-kai-pure (man-who-ate-prayers) seems an apology.

page 180

Human origin, though abbreviated, is interesting. The first man to appear on Rapa was Tiki who came from ‘Avaiki. He married a woman of Rapa, who gave birth to two daughters. In the Biblical story of human creation, we learn that the primary couple had two sons, Cain and Abel. When Cain slew his brother, Abel, it seemed that the end had come, but Cain took unto himself a wife from the land of Nod, whereby the human species was continued. I have no explanation for the presence of a woman on uninhabited Rapa, unless Rapa may be a Polynesian form for the land of Nod.

Tiki's two daughters, while stooping to gather clams, were touched by the burrowing organ of a clam, which represented the phallus of Tiki. They both became pregnant, and one gave birth to a son, the other to a daughter. The son, named Tama-tiki (Son-of-Tiki), married his cousin, and from them the people of Rapa were descended. In any creation myth that stops short at a single male and a single female, incest must occur. The Polynesians recognized this biological fact and, in the creation myths of most island groups, Tiki commits incest directly with a daughter. Rapa departs from the pattern in that the incest is cloaked through the medium of a clam.

On Rapa, as in Rarotonga and the Austral Islands, we might expect to find a mention of the great navigator, Hiro. Although the local form ‘Iro occurs, it is without clear detail. There seems little doubt, however, that Hiro was one of the outstanding navigators of the thirteenth century and that from the Society Islands he sailed to the various islands lying to the east, southeast, south, and southwest. Though he never reached New Zealand, his fame was carried to that far-off land by his descendants who emigrated from central Polynesia in the fourteenth century.

page 181

Though the myths and traditions of Rapa have been so poorly transmitted, it is comforting to find that Vancouver, who rediscovered Rapa in 1791, has a word of praise about material things. He was greatly struck with the canoes of that island, which carried crews of twenty-five to thirty men. They have carved stern pieces which were raised, and Vancouver wrote, ‘The mind is filled with admiration at their ingenuity and persevering industry’—rare words of praise to fall from the lips of a non-Polynesian.

Rapa is too cold for the breadfruit, coconut, and plantain to grow. The pig, dog, and fowl were somehow left behind by the early discoverers, but the ubiquitous rat managed to stow away in some early ship. The food plants present include the taro, banana, sweet potato, yam, and mountain apple. Taro, fermented in pits in a manner similar to that used for breadfruit in the Marquesas, is the staple food. The fermented taro is cooked in wrapped-leaf packages in the earth oven and then pounded into a paste with stone pounders. The smooth paste is wrapped in ti leaves in bundles that look very like Christmas puddings. The bundles are hung up in the native trees and are a familiar sight in the village landscape.

The women outnumber the men and do most of the hard work, tending the cultivations, carrying home the supplies of food, and cooking. They even wait on the men at meal times and put the food into their mouths. Macmillan Brown, on seeing this usage, came to the conclusion that the men were taboo and could not touch the food with their own hands. This interpretation was evidently influenced by his acquaintance with a New Zealand custom in which individuals, owing to religious sanctions, might place themselves under taboo for a certain time. During this time, the taboo person could not touch food with his hands, as food was common (noa). page 182 He, therefore, had to be hand-fed by a male or female attendant until the taboo period expired. In Rapa, however, the men were not taboo, as Brown stated, but were simply waited upon by their womenfolk, according to a usage that had been established locally. A similar usage existed in Mangareva.

Rapa has suffered as much, if possible, from European contact as have the Marquesas. The island is small, being but 5.7 miles from north to south and 5 miles from east to west. It is indented by fifteen bays, of which Tairirau Harbour, on the east, penetrates beyond the middle of the island. Vancouver, in 1791, estimated the population at 1500, and missionary Davies, in 1826, estimated it at 2000. But the ship that bore the gospel to Rapa in 1826 also carried the germs of epidemic diseases. Mcerenhout, who visited Rapa in 1834, stated that the population had been reduced to 300, as the result of introduced venereal and epidemic diseases. As if their cup was not full to overflowing, in 1863 smallpox and cholera broke out aboard a ship that had been chartered to return people taken from Tonga, Tokelau, and Manihiki by a Peruvian slaver. The captain, to save his own worthless life and that of his equally valueless crew, dumped his sick freight on Rapa. The Rapa people died like flies, and when Hall visited the island a year later, the surviving people of Rapa numbered only 130.

In the halcyon days before European contact, the people of Rapa had adjusted themselves successfully to their peculiar environment. The cultivable lands were fully utilized in the growing of taro, and by the system of preserving the taro in pits the people were enabled to provide reserve supplies. The early families had developed into groups which became tribes and subsequently divided into subtribes. The tribes were named after specific ancestors with the prefix Ngate (Ngati) page 183 and Ngai, on the same pattern as prevailed in New Zealand. As the population increased, conflicts occurred, as has happened the world over. The people built fortified villages on commanding ridges and mountain peaks, not only for defence but in order that they could overlook their cultivations and watch the neighbouring tribes. The razor-backed mountain ridges with steep subsidiary ridges leading up to them were ideal positions for defence, because they prevented a massed attack on a wide front. A ridge with a peak was selected and the summit was levelled off to form the topmost terrace. The sides were cut down with digging implements of pointed wood and rude adzes of dyke basalt, until a second terrace could be formed of sufficient width to accommodate houses. The military architects of the day continued the plan of successive terraces which necessitated high walls at the back. The razorback on the ridge leading to the peak was levelled off and the sides were cut to increase the steepness against assault. Deep ditches were cut across the main ridge on either side of the citadel to improve the defences. On the secondary ridges leading up to the main fort, further terraces were dug to provide house accommodation and outposts for defence. The back walls of the terraces, particularly near the citadel, were further reinforced with stone slabs carefully built in to protect the earth face against the detrition of wind and rain. Projecting stones formed footholds by which the defenders could retreat from terrace to terrace. Within the fort itself were hollows to catch rain as reserve water supply in event of attack. Each fort, however, had some near-by spring on the lower slopes, which were guarded.

On the topmost terrace of the citadel peak, the high chief resided. In war he was the commanding officer. An attacking party could advance by one ridge only, and from his vantage page 184 ground the chief could call up his forces to concentrate on the section attacked. Fighting was hand-to-hand, and thus the citadel which commanded all points of the compass was the ideal position for the commander of the defences.

The hill forts of Rapa, termed pare or pa, were qualified by maunga (mountain) or tamaki (war). It may be that the peculiar geographical formation of Rapa suggested this unique development of fortification. In principle the Rapan forts resemble the pa forts of New Zealand. Had it been my fortune to visit Rapa, I might, perchance, have sensed an affinity that personal contact may convey with more subtlety than the written words of others.

The hill forts of Rapa were the material expression of a warlike people. The highest fort of Karere was at an elevation of 1460 feet. A perfect model of defensive engineering was Te Vaitau at the height of 840 feet. I dreamed a dream about a stone stadium in the Marquesas, but I dare not dream again. Look at the picture of Te Vaitau, people its terraces with armed warriors, harken to the shell trumpets calling defiance, and dream of Rapa for yourselves.