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Vikings of the Sunrise

8. The Hub of Polynesia

page 87

8. The Hub of Polynesia

They sailed east to Mangareva, south to the parrakeet
islands, west to Samoa, and north to burning Vaihi.

Havai‘i, the mother of lands, became the hub of the Polynesian universe. The daring mariners who had steered their ships through the unpierced horizon into the heart of the Pacific received the highest honour from their descendants by being elevated to the rank of gods. The priests at Opoa gathered the warp of myth and the weft of history together and wove them into the textile of theology. The male parents of the gods were Atea (Space) or Te Tumu (Source), and their mothers were Papa (Earth foundations) or Fa‘ahotu (To-cause-to-take-form). Their children were given rule over special departments: Tane, forestry and craftsmanship; Tu, war; Ro‘o, peace and agriculture; Ta‘aroa, marine affairs and fishing; and Ra‘a, meteorology. However, there is evidence that Tane had the greatest sphere of influence. He was given the special function of forming the first female out of earth and procreating the first human beings. In the course of time, various islands of the Society group tended to pay deference to different gods. The general pattern of a Sky-father and an Earth-mother with their deified children ruling page 88 over various departments of life was carried abroad by adventurers who navigated their ships over new horizons to reach the remote bounds of Polynesia. The marginal areas have retained the main principles of the early theology and so enabled the descendants of a later age to envisage the early pattern.

A black and white ink image of Havai‘i as octopus (plan) showing spread of culture across Polynesia.

After the pattern had been carried to distant lands, the priests at Opoa elevated Ta‘aroa above his brothers and made him creator of all things, not only of his brother gods and men, but of natural phenomena that had existed before he page 89 came into being. I cannot help thinking that the highest ranking chief and his priestly advisers belonged to a lineage tracing descent directly from Ta‘aroa, and hence their selection of this particular god for promotion. The rising power of Ta‘aroa permeated to some of the near-by islands of the Cook group and the Tuamotu and, perhaps, Mangareva, but no farther. In the far lands of New Zealand and Hawai‘i he remained in his original place.

The priests at Opoa elaborated their theology still further when they created ‘Oro as the son of Ta‘aroa. This new god was established as the supreme deity in the great temple named Taputapu-atea. Ta‘aroa was then retired and ceased to take an active part in the mundane affairs of men. In order to spread their new cult in Tahiti, the astute priests of Opoa organized the ‘Arioi Society of strolling players, who took ‘Oro as their tutelary deity. This unique organization has been regarded as a secret society having a possible affinity with Melanesian secret societies. However, there was nothing secret about the ‘Arioi; they performed in the open and in public halls to which both men and women were admitted. It has been assumed that the ‘Arioi was an institution for birth control because the female members were not supposed to have children and were forced to kill those they had. European actresses cannot afford to have children if they are to fulfil their engagements. Similarly, the Tahitian actresses were frowned upon if they were unable to appear on the stage, and, when their methods of prevention failed, they destroyed their infants.

That the ‘Arioi Society was a powerful means of spreading propaganda and winning support for the new cult may be seen by analogy with the methods of certain Maori sects usually associated with some form of faith healing or herbal page 90 treatment. At the back of all these sects was the idea of mana (power) possessed by the leader through being the medium of a defunct ancestor. The leader and a band of followers, including good singers and dancers, travelled from village to village, not only to cure and win supporters, but to receive entertainment and rewards. The performances sponsored by members of the sect brought people into the fold more readily than would any other form of propaganda. The ‘Arioi Society, like these, was founded on an appreciation of Polynesian psychology.

However, the people of Tahiti were not to be easily proselytized again. They persisted in adhering to their own god Tane, and a violent war broke out between ‘Oro and Tane. In the end, ‘Oro conquered Tane and ultimately became the principal god of all the Society Islands. A new temple, named Taputapu-atea after the temple at Opoa, was built in Tahiti as the centre of the new theology. That ‘Oro was a late creation is amply proved by the fact that he is unknown in the marginal areas of Polynesia, even as a son of Ta‘aroa. The Rarotongans, however, had some faint knowledge of what had been happening in Opoa for, when the missionary John Williams arrived in Rarotonga from Ra‘iatea in 1823, he was asked if Koro (‘Oro) was in power. Some of the faithful followers of Tane, who refused to accept ‘Oro, left Tahiti and settled in the outer fringe of the Cook Islands. Thus in the Pacific, as well as in the Atlantic, religious intolerance played its part in causing the settlement of new lands.

Let us leave the priests and their intrigues on land and get back to the smack of the salt sea spray. The deified ancestors were succeeded by demigods, among whom are Maui and Ru. Maui we have met before and shall meet again on the various sea trails that radiate out from the centre. Ru as a page 91 navigator may be Ru who assisted in propping up the sky. He appears in Tahitian legends and chants as a deep-sea mariner who guided his ship Te Apori to the leeward islands of the Society group. His sister Hina, perched in the swing-bow above the foaming waves, peered into the lifting horizon. Ru, feeling that land was near, sang to his ship:

I am guiding thee,
I am drawing thee to land,
O my ship, Te Apori.

Hina, the lookout, called, ‘O Ru, what land is this rising upon the horizon?’ Ru replied, ‘It is Maurua, which will be great forever.’ Maurua (Maupiti) is a small island to the west of Vavau (Porapora).

Soon Hina sighted another island, and Ru sang:

It is Porapora; let its watchword be—
Porapora the great, the first-born,
Porapora with the fleet that strikes both ways,
Porapora of the silent, muffled paddles,
Porapora of the pink leaf,
Porapora, the destroyer of fleets.

Porapora was the first large volcanic island sighted on a southeast course from the Gilberts and hence earned the name of ‘the first-born’. In later times, its inhabitants raided the neighbouring islands in silent night attacks with their paddles muffled with bark cloth. In the period of Ru, the island bore the ancient name of Vavau, and it is evident that the poet has grouped later happenings around an earlier hero to enrich his composition.

Again Hina called and Ru, the deep-sea poet, sang:

It is Havai‘i; let its watchword be—
Havai‘i that rises in exceeding glory,
Havai‘i, ever ready to defend its honour.

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Let us leave Ru and Havai‘i and pass from the demigods to the heroes. The heroes belong to the period when central Polynesia was definitely settled and the priests at Opoa were weaving the first pattern of Polynesian theology. They are more human because they belong to a later period and, though miraculous elements still enshroud them, they were not deified. The heroes were deep-sea mariners who began to explore the horizons beyond central Polynesia. The great explorers of the heroic period are included in the cycle of the four generations of Hema, Tafa‘i, Vahieroa, and Rata. Space does not permit of our dealing with more than one and, as Rata has already been mentioned in connection with canoe building, let us take the Tahitian account of his great voyage and the incidents that led up to it.

In north Tahiti there lived King Tumu-nui, whose sister Mamae-a-rohi married Vahieroa and gave birth to a son named Rata. Tumu-nui had a daughter who married Tu-i-hiti, a chief who came from the distant land of Hiti-au-rereva, away to the east. In due course, Tu-i-hiti fitted up his ship Kare-roa and, with his wife, returned to his own land. Tumu-nui felt the loss of his daughter deeply and decided to visit her in order to persuade her to return to Tahiti with her husband. He built a voyaging ship named Matie-roa and a canoe named Matie-poto. After appointing his brother ‘Ioreroa regent, he sailed for the east with picked crews.

It is but natural that the deep-sea mariners of the time should have recounted to wondering audiences the many difficulties encountered on their voyages and that native story tellers should have personified them into monsters imbued with magic power. The monsters encountered on the distant seas to the east were eight in number:

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1. Pu‘a-tu-tahi Isolated-coral-rock.
2. Ahifa-tu-moana Sea-monster.
3. ‘Are-mata-roroa Long-wave.
4. ‘Are-mata-popoto Short-wave.
5. ‘Anae-moe-oho Fish-shoal.
6. Tupe-‘i‘o-ahu Animal-with-burning-flesh.
7. ‘Otu‘u-ha'amana-a-Ta‘aroa Crane-empowered-by-Ta‘aroa.
8. Pahua-nui-api-ta‘a-i-te-ra‘i Giant-tridacna-opening-on-the-horizon.

Tumu-nui, having performed his religious duties correctly as a protection against the various dangers, had supreme confidence in himself. He encountered Coral-rock, Sea-monster, Long-wave, and Short-wave successively in the daytime, and his gods, in answer to his appeals, rendered each of these enemies inert. On a cloudy night, however, he sailed into the open valves of the Giant-tridacna, and both ship and canoe were swallowed by the monster. Their fate was made known to the people of Tahiti by the gods.

The regent ‘Iore-roa decided to recover the bones of his brother and built a ship Tumu-nui-mate and a canoe Mei‘a-roa for the voyage. Accompanied by Vahieroa, father of Rata, and a picked crew of brave men, he sailed forth. He had sacrificed a pig to his god and, as he was challenged successively by Coral-rock, Sea-monster, Long-wave, Short-wave, Fish-shoal, and Crane-of-Ta‘aroa, he told them that their inimical powers, both above and below, had been overcome by his sacrifice of a pig. Coral-rock and Sea-monster let the ships pass safely, Long-wave and Short-wave subsided beneath their bows, Fish-shoal turned aside, and Crane-of-Ta‘aroa flew out of sight. The Giant-tridacna was next encountered and the ship was drawn by suction toward its gaping valves. ‘Iore-roa defied the Giant-tridacna too late to stay the way on his ship, and the vessel disappeared into the interior. The canoe Mei‘a-roa had fallen behind and so escaped to tell the tale of disaster in Tahiti.

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The three remaining brothers, ‘Iore-poto, ‘Iore-mumu, and ‘Iore-vava successively built ships and sailed forth to avenge the deaths of the king, the regent, and their crews, but all were swallowed by the Giant-tridacna. Rata thus became king of Tahiti but his mother, Maemae-a-rohi, served as regent and issued the edict, ‘Tread the earth, cultivate food, let people grow fat, and take care of your offspring that they may replace those who sleep on the pathways of the sea.’

The people prospered and Rata grew to giant stature. The Queen Regent decided that the time had arrived for her to retire in favour of her son. A feast was held and a wild boar hunt was organized to celebrate the assumption of power by the young king. The regent urged upon her son the necessity of remaining strictly neutral during the competition between the two parties, each composed of two of the four districts that comprised his kingdom. Rata, however, became excited and, dashing into the hunt on the side of one party, struck down competitors of the other side who got in his way. His strength was so great that some were killed and others badly injured. The sport ended on a tragic note. His mother bitterly upbraided Rata for killing his own subjects and, in spite of his shame and tears, she decided to go with her sister to the far land of Hiti-au-rereva to visit her sister's daughter. The great double canoe Tahiri-a-varovaro-i-te-ra‘i was launched and set sail through the long chain of atolls of the Tuamotu Archipelago. The crew evidently steered a course that avoided the monsters of the sea, for the canoe arrived safely at Hiti-au-rereva.

Rata, by his deep contrition, regained the favour of his people. He determined to recover the bones of the dead from the bowels of the Giant-tridacna. His artisans told him that the finest trees in the lowlands had been used for the page 95 previous ships and that he must seek suitable timber in the uplands. It was this scarcity that led Rata to trespass on the territory of the elves of the upper woodlands, the cliffs, and the mountain mists. Certain details of the adventures which befell him have been described in Chapter 4.

The fairy artisans who directed the building of Rata's ship were Tuoi-papapapa and Feufeu. On the completion of the ship, they made an offering of sennit braid to Ta‘aroa, and the god responded by sending a shower of rain for the ceremony of making the new ship drink water. The ship was named Va‘a-i-ama and, with the elves aboard, it was wafted by the mountain breeze into the air and deposited gently on the surface of the sea. Rata, early awakened by dreams of the promised ship, went down to the seashore. The rising sun threw a magnificent rainbow on the clouds facing him, and his magic ship under full sail appeared below the middle of the arch. Manned by its invisible crew, it sailed proudly into the waiting lagoon, furled its matting sails, and dropped anchor to await its human owner.

With such a ship, success was assured. Rata manned it with picked warriors and, before he sailed, made the necessary offerings of fish and coral rock on the altar of the gods of the land. Long strips of bark cloth were cast on the ocean billows to placate the gods of the sea, and large sharks immediately appeared to convey marine approbation. A skilled pilot took the steering paddle. He was termed the hoa pahi, friend of the ship, an apt term, for it was through his knowledge that the ship successfully avoided treacherous reefs and surmounted towering seas. The voyage went well until the pilot called, ‘Behold! There is the Giant-tridacna.’ It was a fearsome sight. The upper valve arched high over the horizon and, above the submerged lower valve, the purple fringe page 96 of the huge mollusc waved up and down on the surface of the rippling sea in dreadful expectancy. Nothing daunted, Rata and his armed warriors stood erect on the bow, for the sea trail had led them to the end of their quest.

As the ship glided over the edge of the lower valve, the purple fringe, like monster tentacles, undulated forward and lapped against the sides of the vessel. The shining inner surface of the upper valve, with its indented edge like huge teeth, loomed above them, poised for the downward plunge. Before it could fall, however, Rata and his men with one accord drove their spears below the purple fringe and along the inner surface of the lower valve toward the hinge; they completely severed the great muscle that held together the upper and the lower valves. The huge upper valve that towered above the mast of the ship remained poised on its locked hinge, motionless and impotent.

The body of the Giant-tridacna was cut open and in the interior were found the undigested bones of Tumu-nui and those who had followed after him. In addition, there were found the bodies of Rata's mother and her crew who, returning to Tahiti from Hiti-au-rereva, had been swallowed by the Giant-tridacna but a few hours before. Their bodies were still warm, and the priests with the aid of the god Ta‘aroa restored them to life. Thus the living and the dead met between the now impotent valves of the Giant-tridacna. The bones of the dead and the bodies of the living were transferred to Rata's ship, which stood off while the warriors with their spears pried the base of the great bivalve from its coral pedestal. With a gurgling sound, the lifeless Giant-tridacna sank to the bottom of the ocean, nevermore to menace the voyagers who sailed the eastern seas.

Rata returned to Tahiti, where he restored his mother to page 97 her people and the bones of the dead to their weeping relatives. He then set out to rid the seas of the remaining enemies of deep-sea mariners. He slew the Sea-monster that had its base at the Coral-rock, and the Coral-rock, robbed of its mate, become innocuous. Next he killed the Animal-with-burning-flesh, and the Fish-shoal. When the Crane-empowered-by-Ta‘aroa, which was inimical only to evil people, flew over Rata's ship, it greeted him kindly and flew to a quiet lagoon to be seen no more. The Long-wave and the Short-wave are essential dangers of the great ocean, and they remain alive today to test seamanship.

Coming back to land, we must mention the development that had been taking place in social organization. In Polynesian society the family was ruled by the senior male, who was succeeded by his eldest son. As the family extended into a wider group of kinsmen, the senior family head became a chief of increasing power according to the number of men he could control in peace or war. The extended family groups developed into tribes which claimed descent from early ancestors. History, prestige, and social ceremony developed around chiefs descended from the tribal ancestors. The ruling family at Opoa claimed seniority above all others in the Society Islands, and their claim was admitted. Ritual was built around them as around the gods. Human sacrifices were offered to the god ‘Oro, and human sacrifices were demanded for the chiefs on birth and through the varying periods of youth until they were invested with the famous red feather belt at the temple of Taputapu-atea. The red feathers of the parrakeet became the symbol of high chiefs and of the gods. Wooden images that represented the gods were abandoned in the course of time to sorcerers and were replaced by wood beautifully encased in twined coconut fibre. These were page 98 decorated with hanging cords of coconut fibre to the ends of which were attached red feathers. The symbol of the great ‘Oro rests unrespected in the British Museum. It is a beautiful example of technique but it is dead spiritually, for the red feathers which symbolized the divinity of ‘Oro have long since disappeared. The royal family of Porapora wore girdles of yellow feathers to denote that their line was junior to the royal house of Ra‘iatea. Through intermarriage both forms of girdle spread to the chiefly houses of Tahiti. With greater fertile lands and a greater population, Tahiti became increasingly powerful. It acquired prestige, and the poets changed its name from Plebeian Tahiti to Tahiti-nui-mare-‘are‘a, Great-Tahiti-of-the-golden-haze.

Coincident with the development and progress in theology and social organization, the arts and crafts expanded. The development of shipbuilding has been described in Chapter 4. The voyagers who succeeded Rata made explorations and returned to the homeland, not only with tales of their discoveries, but with the sailing directions by which the new lands might be reached. The explorers followed a star over a new horizon, but ever they looked back at the stars over the homeland and, when winds were favourable, returned to the centre from which they had set forth.

Among the voyagers of the later period were Hono‘ura and Hiro. Hiro was born in Havai‘i but was brought up in Tahiti, whither he was sent to be educated by his maternal grandfather, Ana. He was too young to be admitted immediately to the school, but his thirst for knowledge was so great that he climbed on the roof of the schoolhouse and learned all that his grandfather taught below. Apart from his adventures at sea, Hiro was said to be the first to make a ship constructed of planks instead of the usual dug-out hull.

The tales of discovery led to the peopling of the nearer page 99 islands and for a time communication was maintained between the new colonies and Havai‘i. Teuira Henry states that the various colonies were grouped into two divisions termed the Ao-tea (Light-world) and Ao-uri (Dark-world), and each division had a high priest termed respectively Pa‘oa-tea and Pa‘oa-uri. The two divisions formed the Friendly Alliance, and representatives from the different islands came to Opoa with offerings to the gods on the temple of Taputapu-atea. The great drum used in the temple ritual was named Ta‘i-moana (Sound-at-sea). During a convention, an altercation arose in which both the high priests were killed. The people returned home in disorder and the connection of the outlying colonies with the homeland ended. A memory of the Friendly Alliance is retained in Rarotonga for, when John Williams visited that island from Ra‘iatea, he was asked why the Ra‘iateans had killed the high priest, Pa‘oa-tea, and what had become of the great drum, Tangi-moana (Ta‘i-moana).

At some time following the period of discovery of lands within Polynesia, there occurred a dispersal from the central hub to permanently occupy the new lands. The dispersal was probably caused by conflict due to increasing population with the inevitable striving after power in the homeland. Organized expeditions were headed by junior members of chiefly families who saw no chance of advancement at home. Because of their social prestige they were able to have voyaging ships built and to command adventurous crews to man their vessels. They were accompanied by priests skilled not only in navigation but versed in the traditional lore that had been developed up to the time of departure. From our knowledge of the theology and traditional lore of the far-away colonies, such as Hawai‘i and New Zealand, we know that they left after the first pattern of theology had been evolved at page 100 Opoa and after the tales of Hema, Tafa‘i, Vahieroa, and Rata had been incorporated in the traditions of the homeland.

The period of greatest colonizing activity probably extended from the twelfth to the fourteenth century. Settlement was by a process of infiltration by individual canoes arriving at different times and not by a migration of large numbers at one time. It is certain that the Marquesas was settled at an early period, for it became a secondary centre for distribution from which adventurers set out to the east and colonized Mangareva and Easter Island. It is probable that the Marquesas was also used as a place of call by some, at least, of the colonists who made their way north to Hawai‘i. The emigrants who set out to the marginal areas took with them not only the myths, legends, and traditions of the central homeland but also a rich supply of food plants and domestic animals with which to stock their new homes. The later colonists found some of the islands already occupied by their kinsmen of an earlier infiltration. Though conflict ensued, time led to a blending of the two.

And so, from Havai‘i, the hub of the Polynesian universe, a more abundant life was carried to the outer isles by those brave navigators who directed their ships on the course of a star that led to a safe haven. Others there must have been, as daring and as trusting in their star, whose course led them into empty seas. Such unlucky ones sleep beneath the barren sea roads they so vainly followed. If the sea ever gives up its dead, what a parade of Polynesian mariners will rise from the depths when the call of the shell trumpet summons them to the last muster roll! Their numbers will bear witness to the courage of those who dared but failed to reach land which was not there. For them no human songs were sung, but the sea croons their requiem in a language that they understand.