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Polynesian Researches


page 321


General view of Polynesian mythology—Ideas relative to the origin of the world—Polytheism—Traditionary theogony—Taaroa supreme deity—Different orders of gods—Oro, Hiro, &c. gods of the wind—Power of spirits to raise tempests—Gods of the ocean, &c.—Supposed cause of an eclipse.—Gods of artificers and fishermen—Oramatuas, or demons—Emblems—Images—Uru, or feathers—Temples—Worship—Prayers—The awakening of the gods—Offerings—Sacrifices—Occasional and stated festivals and worship—Rau-mata-vehi-raa Maui-fata—Rites for recovery from sickness—Offering of first-fruits—The pae atua—The ripening of the year, a religious ceremony—Singular rites attending its close.

Whatever attention the Tahitians paid to their occupations or amusements, and whatever energies have been devoted to the prosecution of their barbarous wars, the claims of all were regarded as inferior to those of their religion. On this every other pursuit was dependent, while each was alike made subservient to its support. In an account of the former state of the people, their system of religion requires therefore particular notice.

Like that of all the ancient idolatrous nations, the mythology of the South Sea Islanders is but an assemblage of obscure fables brought by the first settlers, or originated in remarkable facts of page 322 their own history, and handed down by tradition through successive generations. If so much that is mysterious and fabulous has been mingled with the history of those nations among whom hieroglyphics or the use of letters has prevailed, it might be expected to exist in a greater degree, where oral communication, and that often under the fantastic garb of rude poetry, is the only mode of preserving the traditional knowledge of former times.

Distinguished, however, as the Polynesian mythology is by confusion and absurdity, it is not more so than the systems of some of the most enlightened and cultivated pagan nations, of the past or present time. It was not more characterized by mystery and fable, than by its abominations and its cruelty. Its objects of worship were sometimes monsters of iniquity. The islanders had “lords many and gods many,” but seldom attributed to them any moral attributes. Among the multitude of their gods, there was no one whom they regarded as a supreme intelligence or presiding spiritual being, possessing any moral perfections, resembling those which are inseparable from every sentiment we entertain of the true God.

Like the most ancient nations, they ascribe the origin of all things to a state of chaos, or darkness, and even the first existence of their principal deities refer to this source. Taaroa, Oro, and Tane, with other deities of the highest order, are on this account said to be fanau po, born of Night. But the origin of the gods, and their priority of existence in comparison with the formation of the earth, being a matter of uncertainty even among the native priests, involves the whole in obscurity. page 323 Taaroa, the Tanaroa of the Hawaiians, and the Tangaroa of the Western Isles, is generally spoken of by the Tahitians as the first and principal god, uncreated, and existing from the beginning, or from the time he emerged from the po, or world of darkness.

Several of their taata-paari, or wise men, pretend that, according to other traditions, Taaroa was only a man who was deified after death. By some he is spoken of as the progenitor of the other gods, the creator of the heavens, the earth, the sea, man, beasts, fowls, fishes, &c.; while by others it is stated, that the existence of the land, or the universe, was anterior to that of the gods.

There does not appear to be any thing in the Tahitian mythology corresponding with the doctrine of the Trinity, or the Hindoo tradition of Brahma, Vishnou, and Siva. Taaroa was the former and father of the gods; Oro was his first son: but there were three classes or orders between Taaroa and Oro. As in the theogony of the ancients, a bird was a frequent emblem of deity; and in the body of a bird they supposed the god often approached the marae, where it left the bird, and entered the too, or image, through which it was supposed to communicate with the priest.

The inferior gods and men, the animals, the air, earth, and sea, were by some supposed to originate in the procreative power of the supreme god. One of the legends of their origin and descent, furnished to some of the Missionaries, by whom it has been recorded, states, that Taaroa was born of Night, or proceeded from Chaos, and was not made by any other god. His consort, Ofeufeumaiterai, also uncreated, proceeded from page 324 the po, or night. Oro, the great national idol of Raiatea, Tahiti, Eimeo, and some of the other Islands, was the son of Taaroa and Ofeufeumaiterai. Oro took a goddess to wife, who became the mother of two sons. These four male and two female deities constituted the whole of their highest rank of divinities, according to the traditions of the priests of Tahiti—though the late king informed Mr. Nott that there was another god, superior to them all, whose name was Rumia; he did not, however, meet with any of their priests or bards who knew any thing about him. The tradition most generally received in the Windward Islands, ascribed the origin of the world, and all that adorn or inhabit it, to the procreative power of Taaroa, who is said to have embraced a rock, the imagined foundation of all things, which afterwards brought forth the earth and sea. It states, that soon after this, the heralds of day, the dark and the light blue sky, appeared before Taaroa, and solicited a soul for his offspring; the then inanimate universe. The foundation of all replied, It is done, and directed his son, the Sky-producer, to accomplish his will. In obedience to the mandate of Taaroa, his son looked up into the heavens, and the heavens received the power of bringing forth new skies, and clouds, sun, moon, and stars, thunder and lightning, rain and wind. He then looked downwards, and the unformed mass received the power to bring forth earth, mountains, rocks, trees, herbs and flowers, beasts, birds and insects, fountains, rivers, and fish. Raitubu, or Sky-producer, then looked to the abyss, and imparted to it power to bring forth the purple water, rocks and corals, and all the inhabitants of the ocean. Some of the gods are said to have been produced in the same page 325 way, namely, by the god Taaroa looking at the goddess his wife, who afterwards became the mother of his children.

Raa was also ranked among the principal deities; although inferior to Taaroa and Oro, and he was supposed to be an independent being; but nothing of consequence is ascribed to him in the native fables. His wife, Otupapa, who was also a divinity, bore him three sons and two daughters. Tane, the tutelar idol of Huahine, was also numbered among the uncreated gods, considered as having proceeded from the state of Night, or Chaos. His goddess was called Taufairei. They were the parents of eight sons, who were all classed with the most powerful gods, and received the highest honours. Among the sons of Tane was Temeharo, the tutelar deity of Pomare's family.

The most popular traditions in the Leeward Islands differed in several minor points from the above, which prevailed in the Windward group. According to one, for which I am indebted to my friend Mr. Barff, Taaroa, who was supreme here as well as in Tahiti, was said to be Toivi, or without parents, and to have existed from eternity. He was supposed to have a body, but it was invisible to mortals. After innumerable seasons had passed away, he cast his paa, shell or body, as birds do their feathers, or serpents their skins; and by this means, after intervals of innumerable seasons, his body was renewed. In the reva, or highest heavens, he dwelt alone. His first act was the creation of Hina, who is also called his daughter. Countless ages passed away, when Taaroa and his daughter made the heavens, the earth, and the sea. The foundation of the world was a solid rock; which, with every part of the page 326 creation, Taaroa was supposed to sustain by his invisible power.—It is stated, that the Friendly Islanders suppose that the earth is supported on the shoulders of one of their gods, and that when an earthquake takes place, he is transferring it from one shoulder to the other.

Having, with the assistance of Hina, made the heavens, earth, and sea, Taaroa oriori, or created, the gods. The first was Rootane, the god of peace. The second was Toahitu, in shape like a dog; he saved such as were in danger of falling from rocks and trees. Te fatu (the lord) was the third. Te iria, (the indignant,) a god of war, was the fourth. The fifth, who was said to have had a bald head, was called Ruanuu. The sixth was a god of war. The seventh, Tuaraatai, Mr. Barff thinks was the Polynesian Neptune. The eighth was Rimaroa, (long arms,) a god of war. The ninth in order were the gods of idiots, who were always considered as inspired. The tenth was Tearii tabu tura, another Mars. These were created by Taaroa, and constituted the first order of divinities.

A second class were also created, inferior to these, and employed as heralds between the gods and men. The third order seems to have been the descendants of Raa; these were numerous and varied in their character, some being gods of war, others among the Esculapiuses of the nation.

Oro was the first of the fourth class, and seems to have been the medium of connexion between celestial and terrestrial beings. Taaroa was his father. The shadow of a bread-fruit leaf, shaken by the power of the arm of Taaroa, passed over Hina, and she afterwards became the mother of Oro. Hina, it is said, abode in Opoa at the time page 327 of his birth; hence that was honoured as the place of his nativity, and became celebrated for his worship. Taaroa afterwards created the wife of Oro, and their children were also gods.

After the birth of Oro, Taaroa had other sons, who were called brothers of Oro, among whom were the gods of the Areois. These were the four orders of celestial beings worshipped in the Leeward Islands. The different classes only have been mentioned; an enumeration of the individual deities, and their offices or attributes, would be tedious and useless.

These objects of fear and worship were exceedingly numerous, and may be termed the chief deities of the Polynesians. There was an intermediate class between the principal divinities and the gods of particular localities or professions, but they are not supposed to have existed from the beginning, or to have been born of Night. Their origin is veiled in obscurity, but they are often described as having been renowned men, who after death were deified by their descendants. Roo, Tane, Teiri, probably Tairi, the principal idol of the Sandwich Islanders, Tefatu, Ruanuu, Moe, Teepa, Puaua, Tefatuture, Opaevai, Haana, and Taumure. These all received the homage of the people, and were on all public occasions acknowledged among Tahiti's gods.

Their gods of the ocean were not less numerous; this was to be expected amongst a people almost amphibious in their habits, dwelling in islands, and deriving a great part of their sustenance from the sea. The names of fourteen principal marine divinities were communicated by the first Missionaries; others have been subsequently added, but it is unnecessary to enumerate them here. They page 328 are not supposed by the people to be of equal antiquity with the atua fauau po, or night-born gods.

They were probably men who had excelled their contemporaries in nautical adventure or exploit, and were deified by their descendants. Hiro is conspicuous amongst them, although not exclusively a god of the sea. The most romantic accounts are given in their aai, or tales, of his adventures, his voyages, his combat with the gods of the tempests, his descent to the depth of the ocean, and residence at the bottom of the abyss, his intercourse with the monsters there, by whom he was lulled to sleep in a cavern of the ocean, while the god of the winds raised a violent storm, to destroy a ship in which his friends were voyaging. Destruction seemed to them inevitable—they invoked his aid—a friendly spirit entered the cavern in which he was reposing, roused him from his slumbers, and informed him of their danger. He rose to the surface of the waters, rebuked the spirit of the storm, and his followers reached their destined port in safety.

The period of his adventures is probably the most recent of any thus preserved, as there are more places connected with his name in the Leeward Islands than with any other. A pile of rocks in Tahaa is called the Dogs of Hiro; a mountain ridge has received the appellation of the Pahi, or Ship of Hiro; and a large basaltic rock near the summit of a mountain in Huahine, is called the Hoe or Paddle of Hiro.

Tuaraatai and Ruahatu, however, appear to have been the principal marine deities. Whether this distinction resulted from any superiority they were supposed to possess, or from the conspicuous page 329 part the latter sustains in their tradition of the deluge, is not known; but their names are frequently mentioned. They were generally called atua mao, or shark gods; not that the shark was itself the god, but the natives supposed the marine gods employed the sharks as the agents of their vengeance.

The large blue shark was the only kind supposed to be engaged by the gods; and a variety of the most strange and fabulous accounts of the deeds they have performed are related by their priests. These voracious animals were said always to recognize a priest on board any canoe, to come at his call, retire at his bidding, and to spare him in the event of a wreck, though they might devour his companions, especially if they were not his maru, or worshippers. I have been repeatedly told by an intelligent man, formerly a priest of an atua mao, that the shark through which his god was manifested, swimming in the sea, carried either him or his father on its back from Raiatea to Huahine, a distance of twenty miles. The shark was not the only fish the Tahitians considered sacred. In addition to these, they had gods who were supposed to preside over the fisheries, and to direct to their coasts the various shoals by which they were periodically visited. Tahauru was the principal among these; but there were five or six others, whose aid the fishermen were accustomed to invoke, either before launching their canoes, or while engaged at sea. Matatini was the god of fishing-net makers.

Next in number and importance to the gods of the sea, were those of the aerial regions, sometimes worshipped under the figure of a bird. The chief of these were Veromatautoru and Tairibu, page 330 brother and sister to the children of Taaroa, their dwelling was near the great rock, which was the foundation of the world. Hurricanes, tempests, and all destructive winds, were supposed to be confined within them, and were employed by them to punish such as neglected the worship of the gods. In stormy weather their compassion was sought by the tempest-driven mariner at sea, or the friends of such on shore. Liberal presents, it was supposed, would at any time purchase a calm. If the first failed, subsequent ones were certain of success. The same means were resorted to for procuring a storm, but with less certainty. Whenever the inhabitants of one island heard of invasion from those of another, they immediately carried large offerings to these deities, and besought them to destroy by tempest the hostile fleet whenever it might put to sea. Some of the most intelligent people still think evil spirits had formerly great power over the winds, as they say there have been no such fearful storms since they abolished idolatry, as there were before. There were also gods of the peho te moua te pari e te faa, the valleys, the mountains, the precipices, and the dells or ravines. The names of twelve of the principal of these are preserved by the Missionaries; but as few of them are indicative of the character or attributes of these gods, their insertion is unnecessary.

I have often thought, when listening to their fabulous accounts of the adventures of their gods, which, when prosecuting our researches in their language, manners, customs, &c. we have sometimes with difficulty induced them to repeat, that, had they been acquainted with letters, these would have furnished ample materials for legends rivalling page 331 in splendour of machinery, and magnificence of achievement, the dazzling mythology of the eastern nations. Rude as their traditions were, in the gigantic exploits they detail, and the bold and varied imagery they employ, they are often invested with an air of romance, which shews that the people possessed no inferior powers of imagination.

By their rude mythology, each lovely island was made a sort of fairy-land, and the spells of enchantment were thrown over its varied scenes. The sentiment of the poet that—

“Millions of spiritual creatures walk the earth,
Unseen, both when we wake, and when we sleep,”

was one familiar to their minds; and it is impossible not to feel interested in a people who were accustomed to consider themselves surrounded by invisible intelligences, and who recognized in the rising sun—the mild and silver moon—the shooting star — the meteor's transient flame — the ocean's roar—the tempest's blast, or the evening breeze—the movements of mighty spirits. The mountain's summit, and the fleecy mists that hang upon its brows—the rocky defile—the foaming cataract — and the lonely dell — were all regarded as the abode or resort of these invisible beings.

An eclipse of the moon filled them with dismay; they supposed the planet was natua, or under the influence of the spell of some evil spirit that was destroying it. Hence they repaired to the temple, and offered prayers for the moon's release. Some imagined that on an eclipse, the sun and moon were swallowed by the god which they had by neglect offended. Liberal presents were offered, page 332 which were supposed to induce the god to abate his anger, and eject the luminaries of day and night from his stomach.

The shape and stability of their islands they regarded as depending on the influence of spirits. The high and rocky obelisks, and detached pieces of mountain, were viewed as monuments of their power. The large mountain on the left-hand side of the entrance to Opunohu, or Taloo harbour, which separates this bay from Cook's harbour, and is only united to the island by a narrow isthmus, was ascribed by tradition to the operations of those spirits, who, like the spirits in most other parts of the world, prefer the hours of darkness for their achievements. This mountain, it is stated, was formerly united with the mountains of the interior, and yielded in magnitude to none; but one night, the spirits of the place determined to remove it to the Leeward Islands, nearly one hundred miles distant, and accordingly began their operations, but had scarcely detached it from the main land, when the dawn of day discovered their proceedings, and obliged them to leave it where it now stands, forming the two bays already named. An aperture in the upper part of a mountain near Afareaitu, which appears from the lowland like a hole made by a cannon-ball, but which is eight or nine feet in diameter, is said to have been made by the passage of a spear, hurled by one of these supernatural beings.

Amusement was in part the business of a Tahitian's life; and with his games, as well as with every other institution, idolatry was connected. Five or six gods were imagined to preside over the upaupa, or games, of which Urataetae was one of the principal.

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The most benevolent of their gods were Roo or Tane, Temaru, Feimata, and Teruharuhatai. These were invoked by the tahua faatere, or expelling priests; and were supposed to be able to restrain the effects of sorcery, or expel the evil spirits, which, from the incantations of the sorcerer, had entered the sufferer. They had also patron deities of the healing art. Tama and Tetuahuruhuru were the gods of surgery; and their assistance was implored in reducing dislocations, healing fractures, bruises, &c.; while Oititi, or Rearea, was their Esculapius, or god of physic.

In addition to these, there were gods who presided over the mechanic arts. The first was Oihanu, or Ofanu, the god of husbandry; the chief of the others was Taneetehia, the god of carpenters, builders, canoe-wrights, and all who wrought in wood. Nenia and Topea, the gods of those who thatched houses, and especially of those who finished the angles where the thatch on each side joined. With these, others of a more repulsive character might be associated, but I shall only mention Heva, the god of ghosts and apparitions, and Hiro the god of thieves. To the list, from which the greater part of the above are taken, including nearly one hundred of the objects formerly worshipped by the nation, a number of the principal family idols of the king and chiefs might be added, as every family of any antiquity or rank had its tutelar idol.

The general name by which their objects of worship were designated was atua, which is perhaps most appropriately translated god. This word is totally different in its meaning, as well as sound, from the word varua, spirit, although that is sometimes applied to the gods: when the people page 334 were accustomed to speak disrespectfully of them, they called them varaua ino, bad or evil spirits. It is also different in its signification from the word which is used to designate an image, and the spirits of departed children or relations, and frequently those evil genii to whom the sorcerers addressed their incantations.

Atua, or akua, is the name for god, without any exception, throughout the whole of the eastern part of Polynesia. The first a appears to be a component part of the word, though in many sentences it is omitted, in consequence of the preceding word terminating in a vowel. It is then pronounced tua; and though but little light is thus thrown on the origin of the people, it is interesting to trace the correspondence between the taata or tangata, first man, in Polynesia, and tangatanga, a principal deity among the South Americans; the atua, or tua, of the South Sea islanders, and the tev, which is said to be the word for god in the Aztec or Mexican language, the deviyo of the Singhalese, and the deva of the Sanscrit.

The objects of worship among the Tahitians, next to the atua or gods, were the oramatuas tiis or spirits. These were supposed to reside in the po, or world of night, and were never invoked but by wizards or sorcerers, who implored their aid for the destruction of an enemy, or the injury of some person whom they were hired to destroy. They were considered a different order of beings from the gods, a kind of intermediate class between them and the human race, though in their prayers all the attributes of the gods were ascribed to them. The oramatuas were the spirits of departed fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, children, &c. The natives were greatly afraid of them, and page 335 presented offerings, to avoid being cursed or destroyed, when they were employed by the sorcerers.

They seem to have been regarded as a sort of demons. In the Leeward Islands, the chief oramatuas were spirits of departed warriors, who had distinguished themselves by ferocity and murder, attributes of character usually supposed to belong to these evil genii. Each celebrated tii was honoured with an image, through which it was supposed his influence was exerted. The spirits of the reigning chiefs were united to this class, and the skulls of deceased rulers, kept with the images, were honoured with the same worship. Some idea of what was regarded as their ruling passion, may be inferred from the fearful apprehensions constantly entertained by all classes. They were supposed to be exceedingly irritable and cruel, avenging with death the slightest insult or neglect, and were kept within the precinets of the temple. In the marae of Tane at Maeva, the ruins of their abode were still standing, when I last visited the place. It was a house built upon a number of large strong poles, which raised the floor ten or twelve feet from the ground. They were thus elevated, to keep them out of the way of men, as it was imagined they were constantly strangling, or otherwise destroying, the chiefs and people. To prevent this, they were also treated with great respect; men were appointed constantly to attend them, and to keep them wrapped in the choicest kinds of cloth, to take them out whenever there was a pae atua, or general exhibition of the gods; to anoint them frequently with fragrant oil; and to sleep in the house with them at night. All this was done, to keep them pacified. And though page 336 the office of calming the angry spirits was honourable, it was regarded as dangerous, for if, during the night or at any other time, these keepers were guilty of the least impropriety, it was supposed the spirits of the images, or the skulls, would hurl them headlong from their high abodes, and break their necks in the fall. The figures marked No. 5, in the engraving of the Idols, represent the images of two tiis or oramatuas; whose form and appearance convey no inappropriate exhibition of their imagined malignity of disposition.

Among the animate objects of their worship, they included a number of birds as well as fishes, especially a species of heron, a kingfisher, and one or two kinds of woodpecker, accustomed to frequent the sacred trees growing in the precincts of the temple. These birds were considered sacred, and usually fed upon the sacrifices. The natives imagined the god was imbodied in the bird, when it approached the temple to feast upon the offering; and hence they supposed their presents were grateful to their deities. The cries of those birds were also regarded as the responses of the gods to the prayers of the priests.

They supposed their gods were powerful spiritual beings, in some degree acquainted with the events of this world, and generally governing its affairs; never exercising any thing like benevolence towards even their most devoted followers, but requiring homage and obedience, with constant offerings; denouncing their anger, and dispensing destruction on all who either refused or hesitated to comply. But while the people supposed they were spiritual beings, they manufactured images either as representations of their form, and emblems of their character, or as the vehicle or instrument page 337 through which their communications might be made to the god, and his will revealed to them.

The idols were either rough unpolished logs of the aito, or casuarina tree, wrapped in numerous folds of sacred cloth; rudely carved wooden images; or shapeless pieces covered with curiously netted cinet, of finely braided cocoa-nut husk, and ornamented with red feathers. They varied in size, some being six or eight feet long, others not more than as many inches. These, representing the spirits they called tii; and those, representing the national or family gods, toos. Into these they supposed the god entered at certain seasons, or in answer to the prayers of the priests. During this indwelling of the gods, they imagined even the images were very powerful: but when the spirit had departed, though they were among the most sacred things, their extraordinary powers were gone.

I had repeated conversations with a tahua-tarai-too, a maker of gods, whom I met with on a visit to Raiatea. As he appeared a serious inquirer after truth, and I could place some confidence in what he related, I was anxious to know his own opinion as to the idols it had been his business to make,—whether he really believed they were the powerful beings which the natives supposed; and if so, what constituted their great power over the other parts of the tree from which they were hewn? He assured me, that although at times he thought it was all deception, and only practised his trade to obtain the payment he received for his work; yet at other times he really thought the gods he himself had made, were powerful beings. It was not, he said, from the alteration his tools had effected in the appearance of the wood, or the carving with which they were ornamented, but because they had page 338 been taken to the temple, and were filled with the atua, that they became so powerful. The images of aito-wood were only exceeded in durability by those of stone. Some of the latter were calcarious or silicious, but the greater part were rude, uncarved, angular columns of basalt, various in size, and destitute of carving or polish; they were clothed or ornamented with native cloth.

The sacred flag was also used in processions, and regarded as an emblem of their deities.

Throughout Polynesia, the ordinary medium of communicating or extending supernatural powers, was the red feather of a small bird found in many of the islands, and the beautiful long tail-feathers of the tropic, or man-of-war bird. For these feathers the gods were supposed to have a strong predilection; they were the most valuable offerings that could be presented; to them the power or influence of the god was imparted, and through them transferred to the objects to which they might be attached. Among the numerous ceremonies observed, the paeatua was conspicuous. On these occasions, the gods were all brought out of the temple, the sacred coverings removed, scented oils were applied to the images, and they were exposed to the sun. At these seasons, the parties who wished their emblems of deity to be impregnated with the essence of the gods, repaired to the ceremony with a number of red feathers, which they delivered to the officiating priest.

The wooden idols being generally hollow, the feathers were deposited in the inside of the image, which was filled with them. Many idols, however, were solid pieces of wood, bound or covered with finely-braided fibres of the cocoa-nut husk; page 339 to these the feathers were attached on the outside by small fibrous bands. In return for the feathers thus united to the god, the parties received two or three of the same kind, which had been deposited on a former festival in the inside of the wooden or inner fold of the cinet idol. These feathers were thought to possess all the properties of the images to which they had been attached, and a supernatural influence was supposed to be infused into them. They were carefully wound round with very fine cord, the extremities alone remaining visible. When this was done, the new-made gods were placed before the larger images from which they had been taken; and, lest their detachment should induce the god to withhold his power, the priest addressed a prayer to the principal deities, requesting them to abide in the red feathers before them. At the close of his ubu, or invocation, he declared that they were dwelt in or inhabited, (by the gods,) and delivered them to the parties who had brought the red feathers. The feathers, taken home, were deposited in small bamboo-canes, excepting when addressed in prayer. If prosperity attended their owner, it was attributed to their influence, and they were usually honoured with a too, or image, into which they were inwrought; and subsequently, perhaps, an altar and a rude temple were erected for them. In the event, however, of their being attached to an image, this must be taken to the large temple, that the supreme idols might sanction the transfer of their influence.

Polynesian temples were either national, local, or domestic. The former were depositories of their principal idols, and the scenes of all great festivals; the second were those belonging to the page 340 several districts; and the third, such as were appropriated to the worship of family gods. Marae was the name for temple, in the South Sea Islands. All were uncovered, and resembled oratories rather than temples. The national places of worship were designated by distinct appellations. Tabu-tabu-a-tea was the name of several in the South Sea Islands, especially of those belonging to the king: the word may mean wide-spread sacredness. The national temples consisted of a number of distinct maraes, altars, and sacred dormitories, appropriated to the chief pagan divinities, and included in one large stone enclosure of considerable extent. Several of the distinct temples contained smaller inner-courts, within which the gods were kept. The form of the interior or area of their temples was frequently that of a square or a parallelogram, the sides of which extended forty or fifty feet. Two sides of this space were enclosed by a high stone wall; the front was protected by a low fence; and opposite, a solid pyramidal structure was raised, in front of which the images were kept, and the altars fixed. These piles were often immense. That which formed one side of the square of the large temple in Atehuru, according to Mr. Wilson, by whom it was visited when in a state of preservation, was two hundred and seventy feet long, ninety-four wide at the base, and fifty feet high, being at the summit one hundred and eighty feet long, and six wide. A flight of steps led to its summit; the bottom step was six feet high. The outer stones of the pyramid, composed of coral and basalt, were laid with great care, and hewn or squared with immense labour, especially the tiavâ, or corner stones.

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Within the enclosure, the houses of the priests, and keepers of the idols, were erected. Ruins of temples are found in every situation: on the summit of a hill, as at Maeva, where Tane's temple, nearly one hundred and twenty feet square, enclosed with high walls, is still standing, almost entire; on the extremity of a point of land projecting into the sea; or in the recesses of an extensive and overshadowing grove. The trees growing within the walls, and around the temple, were sacred; these were the tall cypress-like casuarina, the tamanu, or callophyllum, miro, or thespesia, and the tou, or cordia. These were, excepting the casuarina-trees, of large foliage and exuberant growth, their interwoven and dark umbrageous branches frequently excluded the rays of the sun; and the contrast between the bright glare of a tropical day, and the sombre gloom in the depths of these groves, was peculiarly striking. The fantastic contortions in the trunks and tortuous page 342 branches of the aged trees, the plaintive and moaning sound of the wind passing through the leaves of the casuarina, often resembling the wild notes of the Eolian harp—and the dark walls of the temple, with the grotesque and horrific appearance of the idols—combined to inspire extraordinary emotions of superstitious terror, and to nurture that deep feeling of dread which characterized the worshippers of Tahiti's sanguinary deities.

The priests of the national temples were a distinct class; the office of the priesthood was hereditary in all its departments. In the family, according to the patriarchal usage, the father was the priest; in the village or district, the family of the priest was sacred, and his office was held by one who was also a chief. The king was sometimes the priest of the nation, and the highest sacerdotal dignity was often possessed by some member of the reigning family. The intimate connexion between their false religion and political despotism, is, however, most distinctly shown in the fact of the king's personifying the god, and receiving the offerings brought to the temple, and the prayers of the supplicants, which have been frequently presented to Tamatoa, the present king of Raiatea. The only motives by which they were influenced in their religious homage, or service, were, with very few exceptions, superstitious fear, revenge towards their enemies, a desire to avert the dreadful consequences of the anger of the gods, and to secure their sanction and aid in the commission of the grossest crimes.

Their worship consisted in preferring prayers, presenting offerings, and sacrificing victims. Their ubus, or prayers, though occasionally brief, were often exceedingly protracted, containing many page 343 repetitions, and appearing as if the suppliants thought they should be heard for their much speaking. The petitioner did not address the god standing or prostrate, but knelt on one knee, sat cross-legged, or in a crouching position, on a broad flat stone, leaning his back against an upright basaltic column, at the extremity of a smooth pavement, usually six or ten yards from the front of the idol. He threw down a branch of sacred miro on the pavement before the image or altar, and began his tarotaro, or invocation, preparatory to the offering of his prayer. Pure is the designation of prayer, and haamore that of praise, or worship.

Small pieces of niau, or cocoa-nut leaf, were suspended in different parts of the temple, to remind the priest of the order to be observed. They usually addressed the god in a shrill, unpleasant, or chanting tone of voice, though at times the worship was extremely boisterous. That which I have often heard in the northern islands was peculiarly so; and on these occasions, when we have induced the priest to repeat any of the prayers, they have always recited them in these tones.

I have several of their prayers, but they are vain and unmeaning recitations, or abound so much in expressions and images of licentiousness and crime, as to be unfit for translation. The following is an outline of one of the least exceptionable. It was the morning prayer, and is called the awaking, or awakening, of the gods.

“Awake Roo—awake Tane—awake unnumbered progeny of Tane—awake Tuu—awake Tuaratai.” Thus the gods, to the number of twenty, are called upon by name, and are directed to the birds page 344 and to Roo, the god of morning, and the parent of clouds—to the formation and increase of clouds—to the blue cloud, the red cloud, and the low hungry cloud, and the horned or pointed cloud. They are then directed to mark the progress of Roo, the property or offerings of Roo, the platted cocoa-nut leaf of Roo, the medium through which his influence or power was conveyed to his image, or through which he received the spirit of the offerings. All the gods are then invoked to enter their tapau or cocoa-nut leaves, and to open wide their mouths. Each one is addressed by name, and it is declared, “Here is the food and offering, in or from the land or the sea.” The gods are then invoked to take off the sacredness or restriction, and to hold it fast, probably that men may securely attend to their avocations. The gods are then supposed to be awakened, and the priest retires.

Their offerings included every kind of valuable property:—the fowls of the air, the fishes of the sea, the beasts of the field, and the fruits of the earth, together with their choicest manufactures, were presented. The sacrifice was frequently called Taraehara, a compound term, signifying disentangling from guilt; from tara, to untie or loosen, and hara, guilt. The animals were taken either in part or entire. The fruits and other eatables were generally, but not always, dressed. Portions of the fowls, pigs, or fish, considered sacred, dressed with sacred fire within the temple, were offered; the remainder furnished a banquet for the priests and other sacred persons, who were privileged to eat of the sacrifices. Those portions appropriated to the gods were deposited on the fata or altar, which was of wood. Domestic altars, page 345 or those erected near the corpse of a departed friend, were small square wicker structures; those in the public temple were large, and usually eight or ten feet high. The surface of the altar was supported by a number of wooden posts or pillars, often curiously carved, and polished. The altars were covered with sacred boughs, and ornamented with a border or fringe of rich yellow plantain leaves. Besides these, there were smaller altars connected with the temples; some resembling a small round table, supported by a single post fixed in the ground. Occasionally, the carcase of the hog presented in sacrifice, was placed on the large altar, while the heart and some other internal parts were laid on this smaller altar, which was called a fata aiai. The pigs, &c. when presented alive, received the sacred mark, and ranged the district at liberty; when slain, they were exceedingly anxious to avoid breaking a bone, or disfiguring the animal. One method of killing them was by holding the pig upright on its legs, placing a strong stick horizontally under its throat, and another across upon its neck, and then pressing them together until the animal was strangled. Another plan was, by bleeding the pig to death, washing the carcase with the blood, and then placing it in a crouching position on the altar. Offerings and sacrifices of every kind, whether dressed or not, were placed upon the altar, and remained there, until decomposed. The heat of the climate, and frequent rain, accelerated this process, yet the atmosphere in the vicinity of the maraes was frequently most offensive.

Animals, fruits, &c. were not the only articles presented to their idols; the most affecting part page 346 of their sacrificing was the frequent immolation of human victims. These, in the technical language of the priests, were called fish. They were offered in seasons of war, at great national festivals, during the illness of their rulers, and on the erection of their temples. I have been informed by several of the inhabitants of Maeva, that the foundation of some of the buildings, for the abode of their gods, was actually laid in human sacrifices; that at least the central pillar, supporting the roof of one of the sacred houses at Maeva, was planted upon the body of a man, who had been offered as a victim to the sanguinary deity afterwards to be deposited there. The unhappy wretches selected were either captives taken in war, or individuals who had rendered themselves obnoxious to the chiefs or the priests. When they were wanted, a stone was, at the request of the priest, sent by the king to the chief of the district from which the victims were required. If the stone was received, it was an indication of an intention to comply with the requisition. It is a singular fact, that the cruelty of the practice extended not only to individuals, but to families page 347 and districts. When an individual had been taken as a sacrifice, the family to which he belonged was regarded as tabu or devoted; and when another was required, it was more frequently taken from that family than any other: and a district from which sacrifices had been taken, was, in the same way, considered as devoted; and hence, when it was known that any ceremonies were near, on which human sacrifices were usually offered, the members of tabu families, or others who had reason to fear they were selected, fled to the mountains, and hid themselves in the caverns till the ceremony was over. At a public meeting in Raiatea, Paumoana, a native chieftain, alluded to this practice in terms resembling these:—How great our dread of our former gods! Are there not some here who have fled from their houses, to avoid being taken for sacrifices? Yes! I know the cave in which they were concealed.

Altar, and Offerings

Altar, and Offerings

In general, the victim was unconscious of his doom, until suddenly stunned by a blow from a club or a stone, sometimes from the hand of the very chief on whom he was depending as a guest for the rights of hospitality. He was usually murdered on the spot—his body placed in a long basket of cocoa-nut leaves, and carried to the temple. Here it was offered, not by consuming it with fire, but by placing it before the idol. The priest, in dedicating it, took out one of the eyes, placed it on a plantain leaf, and handed it to the king, who raised it to his mouth as if desirous to eat it, but passed it to one of the priests or attendants, stationed near him for the purpose of receiving it. At intervals during the prayers some of the hair was plucked off, and placed before the god; and when the ceremony was over, the body page 348 was wrapped in the basket of cocoa-nut leaves, and frequently deposited on the branches of an adjacent tree. After remaining a considerable time, it was taken down, and the bones were buried beneath the rude pavement of the marae. These horrid rites were not unfrequent, and the number offered at their great festivals was truly appalling.

The seasons of worship were both stated and occasional. The latter were those in which the gods were sought under national calamities, as the desolation of war, or the alarming illness of the king or chiefs. In addition to the rites connected with actual war, there were two that followed its termination. The principal of these, Rau mata vehi raa, was designed to purify the land from the defilement occasioned by the incursions or devastations of an enemy, who had perhaps ravaged the country, demolished the temples, destroyed or mutilated the idols, broken down the altars, and used as fuel the unus, or curiously carved pieces of wood marking the sacred places of interment, and emblematical of tiis or spirits. Preparatory to this ceremony, the temples were rebuilt, new altars reared, new images, inspired or inhabited by the gods, placed in the maraes, and fresh unus erected.

At the close of the rites in the new temples, the parties repaired to the sea-beach, where the chief priest offered a short prayer, and the people dragged a small net of cocoa-nut leaves through a shallow part of the sea, and usually detached small fragments of coral from the bottom, which were brought to the shore. These were denominated fish, and were delivered to the priest, who conveyed them to the temple, and deposited them on the altar, offering at the same time an ubu or page 349 prayer, to induce the gods to cleanse the land from pollution, that it might be pure as the coral fresh from the sea. It was now supposed safe to abide on the soil, and appropriate its produce to the purposes of support; but had not this ceremony been performed, death would have been anticipated.

The maui fata, altar-raising, was connected with the preceding rites. No human victim was slain, but numbers of pigs, with abundance of plantains, &c. were placed upon the altars, which were newly ornamented with branches of the sacred miro, and yellow leaves of the cocoa-nut tree. These rites extended to every marae in the island, and were designed to secure rain and fertility for the country gained by conquest, or recovered from invasion.

Besides these, the chief occasional services were those connected with the illness of their rulers, which was supposed to be inflicted by the gods for some offence of the chiefs or people. Long and frequent prayers were offered, to avert their anger, and prevent death. But, supposing the gods were always influenced by the same motives as themselves, they imagined that the efficacy of their prayers would be in exact proportion to the value of the offerings with which they were accompanied. Hence, when the symptoms of disease were violent and alarming, if the sufferer was a chief of rank, the fruits of whole fields of plantains, and a hundred or more pigs, have been taken to the marae, and frequently, besides these, a number of men, with ropes round their necks, have been also led to the temple, and presented before the idol. The prayers of the priests have often been interrupted by the ejaculatory addresses of the men, calling on page 350 the god by name, and exclaiming, “Be not angry, or let thy wrath be appeased; here we are: look on us, and be satisfied,” &c. It does not appear that these men were actually sacrificed, but probably they appeared in this humiliating manner with ropes about their necks, to propitiate the deity, and to shew their readiness to die, if it should be required.

While these ceremonies were observed, the progress of the disease was marked, by the friends of the afflicted, with intense anxiety. If recovery followed, it was attributed to the pacification of the deities; but if the disease increased, or terminated fatally, the god was regarded as inexorable, and was usually banished from the temple, and his image destroyed.

Religious rites were connected with almost every act of their lives. An ubu or prayer was offered before they ate their food, when they tilled their ground, planted their gardens, built their houses, launched their canoes, cast their nets, and commenced or concluded a journey. The first fish taken periodically on their shores, together with a number of kinds regarded as sacred, were conveyed to the altar. The first-fruits of their orchards and gardens were also taumaha, or offered, with a portion of their live-stock, which consisted of pigs, dogs, and fowls, as it was supposed death would be inflicted on the owner or the occupant of the land, from which the god should not receive such acknowledgment.

The bure arii, a ceremony in which the king acknowledged the supremacy of the gods, was attended with considerable pomp; but one of the principal stated festivals was the pae atua, which was held every three moons. On page 351 these occasions all the idols were brought from their sacred depository, and meheu, or exposed to the sun; the cloth in which they had been kept was removed, and the feathers in the inside of the hollow idols were taken out. The images were then anointed with fragrant oil; new feathers, brought by their worshippers, were deposited in the inside of the hollow idols, and folded in new sacred cloth; after a number of ceremonies, they were carried back to their dormitories in the temple. Large quantities of food were provided for the entertainment, which followed the religious rites of the pae atua.

The most singular of their stated ceremonies was the maoa raa matahiti, ripening or completing of the year. This festival was regularly observed in Huahine: although I do not know that it was universal, vast multitudes assembled. In general, the men only engaged in pagan festivals; but men, women, and children, attended at this: the females, however, were not allowed to enter the page 352 sacred enclosure. A sumptuous banquet was held annually at the time of its observance, which was regulated by the blossoming of reeds.

Their rites and worship were in many respects singular, but in none more so than in the ripening of the year, which was regarded as a kind of annual acknowledgment to the gods. When the prayers were finished at the marae, and the banquet ended, a usage prevailed much resembling the popish custom of mass for souls in purgatory. Each individual returned to his home, or to his family marae, there to offer special prayers for the spirits of departed relatives, that they might be liberated from the po, or state of night, and ascend to rohutunoanoa, the mount Miru of Polynesia, or return to this world, by entering into the body of one of its inhabitants.

They did not suppose, according to the generally received doctrine of transmigration, that the spirits who entered the body of some dweller upon earth, would permanently remain there, but only come and inspire the person to declare future events, or execute any other commission from the supernatural beings on whom they imagined they were constantly dependent.