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Polynesian Researches


page 382


Tahitian prophets—Ancient predictions relative to the arrival of ships—Traditions of the Deluge corresponding with the accounts in sacred and profane writings—General ideas of the people relative to death and a future state—Death the consequence of Divine displeasure—State of spirits—Miru, or heaven—Religious ceremonies for ascertaining the causes of death—Embalming—The burying of the sins of the departed—Singular religious ceremony—Offerings to the dead—Occupation of the spirits of the deceased—Superstitions of the people—Otohaa, or lamentation—Wailing—Outrages committed under the paroxysms of grief—Use of sharks' teeth—Elegies—The heva—Absurdity and barbarism of the practice.

Besides the priests who made known the will of the gods, and pretended to foretell the issue of those enterprises in which the people might be engaged, or were about to commence, there have been at different periods individuals who have foretold events that were to take place in periods yet more remote, but which at the time appeared incomprehensible. There are some which regarded the destiny of the people, but the most remarkable (because, according to the interpretation of the natives themselves, they have received a partial fulfilment) were those referring to the strange ships that should arrive. Among the native prophets of former times, there appear to have been several of the name of Maui. One of the most page 383 celebrated of this name resided at Raiatea, and on one occasion, when supposed to be under the inspiration of the god, he predicted that in future ages a vaa ama ore, literally an “outriggerless canoe,” would arrive at the islands from some foreign land. Accustomed to attach that appendage to their single canoes, whatever might be their size or quality, they considered an outrigger essential to their remaining upright on the water, and consequently could not believe that a canoe without one would live at sea. The absence of this has ever appeared to the South Sea Islanders as one of the greatest wonders connected with the visits of the first European vessels. At one of the Hervey Islands, where they had never seen a vessel until recently visited by a Missionary, when the boat was lowered down to the water, and pushed off by the rowers from the ship's side, the natives simultaneously and involuntarily exclaimed—“It will overturn and sink, it has no outrigger.”

The chiefs and others, to whom Maui delivered his prophecy, were also convinced in their own minds, that a canoe would not swim without this necessary balance, and charged him with foretelling an impossibility. He persisted in his predictions, and, in order to remove their scepticism as to its practicability, launched his umete, or oval wooden dish, upon the surface of a pool of water near which he was sitting, and declared that in the same manner would the vessel swim that should arrive.

We have not been able to ascertain the period when this prediction was delivered. It was preserved among the people by oral tradition, until the arrival of Captain Wallis's and page 384 Cook's vessels. When the natives first saw these, they were astonished at their gigantic size, imposing aspect, and the tremendous engines on board. These appearances induced them first to suppose the ships were islands inhabited by a supernatural order of beings, at whose direction lightnings flashed, thunders roared, and the destroying demon slew, with instantaneous but invisible strokes, the most daring and valiant of their warriors. But when they afterwards went alongside, or ventured on board, and saw that they were floating fabrics of timber, borne on the surface of the waters, and propelled by the winds of heaven, they unanimously declared that the prediction of Maui was accomplished, and the canoes without outriggers had arrived. They were confirmed in this interpretation, when they saw the small boats belonging to the ships employed in passing to and fro between the vessel and the shore. These being simple in their structure, and approaching their own canoes in size, yet conveying in perfect safety those by whom they were manned, excited their astonishment, and confirmed their convictions that Maui was a prophet.

When a boat or a vessel has been sailing in or out of the harbour, I have often heard the natives, while gazing at the stately motion, exclaim, Te vaa a Maui e! Ta vaa ama ore. “Oh the canoe of Maui! the outriggerless canoe!” They have frequently asked us how he could have known such a vessel would arrive, since it was at that time considered by all besides as an impossibility. We have told them it was probable he had observed the steadiness with which his umete, or other hollow wooden vessel, floated on the water, and page 385 had thence inferred that at some future period they might behold larger vessels equally destitute of any exterior balancing power. They in general consider the use of boats and shipping among them as an accomplishment of his prediction.

The islanders also state, that there is another prediction, still to be fulfilled; and although it appears to them as great an improbability as the former, yet the actual appearance of one, leads many to think that possibly they may witness the other. This remaining prediction also has reference to a ship, and declares that after the arrival of a canoe without an outrigger, e vaa taura ore, a boat, or vessel, without ropes or cordage, shall come among them. What idea Maui designed to convey by this declaration, it is perhaps not easy to ascertain; but the people say it is next to impossible that the masts should be sustained, the sails attached, or the vessel worked, without ropes or cordage. They say, however, that one prediction respecting the vessels has been accomplished, but that the other remains to be realized. I have often thought, when contemplating the little use of rigging on board our steam-vessels, that should a specimen of this modern invention ever reach the South Sea Islands, although the natives would not, perhaps, like the inhabitants of the banks of the Ganges, be ready to fall down and worship this wonderful exhibition of mechanical skill, they would be equally astonished at that power within itself by which it would be propelled, and would at once declare that the second prediction of Maui was accomplished, and the vessel without rigging or cordage had arrived.

They have other predictions, but less circumstantial or probable, yet I could not learn that page 386 they have ever been led, from the declarations of their wise men, to anticipate the arrival of any distinguished personage in their country. The expectation of some wise and great prince or ruler rising up among them, or coming from some distant region, which has prevailed among many nations, and is generally supposed to refer to the appearance of the Saviour, does not seem to have existed among them; unless we suppose the anticipated return of Rono to the Sandwich Islands, an Avatar of whom, the inhabitants supposed Captain Cook to be, refers to this event.

Traditions of the deluge, the most important event in reference to the external structure and appearance of our globe that has occurred since its creation, have been found to exist among the natives of the South Sea Islands, from the earliest periods of their history. Accounts, more or less according with the scripture narrative of this awful visitation of Divine justice upon the antediluvian world, have been discovered among most of the nations of the earth; and the striking analogy between those religiously preserved by the inhabitants of the islands of the Pacific, and the Mosaic account, would seem to indicate a degree of high antiquity belonging to this isolated people.

The principal facts are the same in the traditions prevailing among the inhabitants of the different groups, although they differ in several minor particulars. In one group the accounts state, that in ancient times Taaroa, the principal god, (according to their mythology, the creator of the world,) being angry with men on account of their disobedience to his will, overturned the world into the sea, when the earth sunk in the waters, excepting page 387 a few aurus, or projecting points, which remaining above its surface, constituted the present cluster of islands. The memorial preserved by the inhabitants of Eimeo, states, that after the inundation of the land, when the water subsided, a man landed from a canoe near Tiataepua, in their island, and erected an altar, or marae, in honour of his god.

The most circumstantial tradition preserved among the Windward Islands, of this remarkable event, is one, for the original of which I am indebted to Mr. Orsmond: the following is a literal translation:—

“Destroyed was Tahiti by the sea; no man, nor hog, nor fowl, nor dog, remained. The groves of trees, and the stones, were carried away by the wind. They were destroyed, and the deep was over the land. But these two persons, the husband and the wife, (when it came in,) the wife took up her young chicken; the husband took up his young pig; the wife took up her young dog and the kitten; the husband took up that. [These were all the animals formerly known to the people, and the term fanaua, young, is both singular and plural, so that it may apply to one, or to more than one chicken, &c.] They were going forth, and looking at Orofena: the husband said, ‘Up, both of us, to yonder mountain high.’ The wife replied, ‘No, let us not go thither.’ The husband said, ‘It is a high or long rock, and will not be reached by the sea:’ but the wife replied, ‘Reached will be it by the sea yonder, we two on the mountain round as a breast, O Pitohito; it will not be reached by the sea.’ They two arrived there. Orofena was overwhelmed by page 388 the sea; that mountain, Pito-hiti, (alone) remained, that was their abode.

∗The high mountain in Tahiti.

“There they watched nights ten, the sea ebbed, and they two saw the little heads of the mountains in their elevation. When the sea dried or retired, the land remained without produce, without man, and the fish were putrid in the caves and holes of the rocks. They said, ‘Dig a hole for the fish in the sea.’ The wind also was becoming feeble, and when it was dead or calm, the stones and the trees began to fall from the heavens: thither they had been carried by the wind. All trees of the land had been torn up, and carried high by the wind. They two looked about, and the woman said, ‘Safe are we two from the sea, but death, or hurt, comes now in these stones that are falling. Where shall we abide?’ Torn by the roots up had been all the trees, and carried above the pathway of the rain in the heavens.

∗The native mode of reckoning time is by nights instead of days.

“‘Dig a hole for us two, a dwelling-place.’ The hole was dug, covered with grass the bottom of the hole or cave; stones were spread on the top of the hole, and these covered over with earth. While these two were sitting within, they heard with terror the loud voice of the falling stones. Now they fell more thinly, then one little stone at a time fell, and afterwards ceased entirely.

“The woman said, ‘Arise you, and advance without, and see if the stones fall.’ The man replied, ‘I go not out, I shall die.’ He waited till night and till day, and then said, ‘The wind is truly dead, and the stones and the trunks of trees cease to fall, neither is there the sound of the stones.” They went out, and like a small page 389 mountain was the heap or collection of the stones and the wood. The earth and the rocks remained of the land; the shrubs were destroyed by the sea. They descended, and gazed with astonishment: There were no houses, nor cocoa-nuts, nor palm-trees, nor bread-fruit, nor hibiscus, nor grass; all was destroyed by the sea. They two dwelt together. The woman brought forth two children; one was a son, the other a daughter. They grieved that there was no food for their children. Again the mother brought forth, but still there was no food. The children grew up without food; then the bread-fruit bore fruit, and the cocoa-nut, and every other kind of food. In three days encircled or covered was the land with food. The land became covered with men. From two persons, the father and the mother, filled was the land.”

The principal facts of this singular and curious account, though blended together by the natives in the order in which they are here given, probably refer to two distinct events. The total inundation of the land is perhaps a relic of the account of the deluge, and the tearing up and falling of the trees and stones, to some violent hurricane or volcanic eruption.

The tradition, which prevails in the Leeward Islands, is intimately connected with the island of Raiatea. According to this, shortly after the first peopling of the world by the descendants of Taata, Ruahatu, the Neptune of the South Sea Islanders, was reposing among the coralline groves in the depths of the ocean, on a spot that, as his resort, was sacred. A fisherman, either through forgetfulness or disregard of the tabu, and sacredness of the place, paddled his canoe upon the forbidden waters, and lowered his hooks among the branching page 390 corals at the bottom. The hooks became entangled in the hair of the sleeping god. After remaining some time, the fisherman endeavoured to pull up his hooks, but was for a long period unable to move them. At length they were suddenly disentangled, and he began to draw them towards the surface. In an instant, however, the god, whom he had aroused from his slumbers, appeared at the surface of the water, and, after upbraiding him for his impiety, declared, that the land was criminal, or convicted of guilt, and should be destroyed.

The affrighted fisherman prostrated himself before the god of the sea, confessed his sorrow for what he had done, and implored his forgiveness, beseeching him that the judgment denounced might be averted, or that he might escape. Ruahatu, moved by his penitence and importunity, directed him to return home for his wife and child, and then proceed to a small island called Toamarama, which is situated within the reefs on the eastern side of Raiatea. Here he was promised security, amid the destruction of the surrounding islands. The man hastened to his residence, and proceeded with his wife and child to the place appointed. Some say he took with him a friend who was residing under his roof, with a dog, a pig, and a pair of fowls, so that the party consisted of four individuals, besides the only domesticated animals known in the islands.

They reached the refuge appointed, before the close of the day; and as the sun approached the horizon, the waters of the ocean began to rise, the inhabitants of the adjacent shore left their dwellings on the beach, and fled to the mountains. The waters continued to rise during the night, and the next morning the tops of the mountains only page 391 appeared, above the wide-spread sea. These were afterwards covered, and all the inhabitants of the land perished. The waters subsequently retired, the fisherman and his companions left their retreat, took up their abode on the main land, and became the progenitors of the present inhabitants.

Toamarama, the ark in which those individuals are stated to have been preserved, is a small and low coralline island, of exceedingly circumscribed extent, while its highest parts are not more than two feet above the level of the sea. Whether, on the occasion above referred to, it was raised by Ruahatu to a greater elevation than the summits of the lofty mountains on the adjacent shore, or whether the waters, when, according to their representations, they rose several thousand feet above their present level, formed a kind of cylindrical wall around Toamarama, the natives do not pretend to know, and usually decline discussing this circumstance. Their belief in the event was, however, unshaken; and whenever we have conversed with them on the subject, they have alluded to the farero, coral, shells, and other marine substances, occasionally found near the surface of the ground, on the tops of their highest mountains. These, they say, would never have been carried there by the people, and could not have originally existed in the situations in which they are now found, but must have been deposited there by the waters of the ocean, when the islands were inundated.—We do not consider these marine substances as evidences that the islands were overflowed at the deluge, but have generally been accustomed to attribute to the whole a formation, if not posterior, yet not of more than equal antiquity with that event. We have usually viewed the coral, shells, page 392 &c. which do not appear to be fossils, as indications of the submarine origin of the mountains, and have supposed they were deposited on the rocks, near the surface of which they are now found, when those rocks formed the bed of the ocean, and prior to those violent explosive convulsions by which they were raised to their present elevation, and formed the groups of islands now under consideration.

These are but mere speculative opinions, and however strong the indications of such an origin might appear to our own minds, we could not demonstrate that the different islands now existing had not formerly belonged to one large island. Neither could we shew that they were not the remains of a continent, originally stretching across the Pacific, and uniting Asia and America, which, having been overflowed by the waters of the deluge, might have disappeared after those disruptions had taken place, by which the fountains of the great deep were broken up. Such speculations would have been useless, and we should only have perplexed the minds of the people with our own opinions. In general, we endeavoured to direct them to the records of that great event preserved in the Scriptures; in the traditionary accounts of which, perpetuated, as they were likely to be, by the descendants of the family of Noah for many generations, their own traditions, with those of the Sandwich Islanders, and other neighbouring tribes, had probably originated. I have frequently conversed with the people on the subject, both in the northern and southern groups, but could never learn that they had any accounts of the windows of heaven having been opened, or the rain having descended. In the legend of Ruahatu, the Toamarama of Tahiti, page 393 and the Kai of Kahinarii in Hawaii, the inundation is ascribed to the rising of the waters of the sea. In each account, the anger of the god is considered as the cause of the inundation of the world, and the destruction of its inhabitants. The element employed in effecting it is the same as that mentioned in the Bible; and in the Tahitian tradition, the boat or canoe being used, as the means of safety to the favoured family, and the preservation of the only domestic animals found on the islands, appear corrupted fragments of the memorial of Noah, the ark, and its inmates. These, with other minor points of coincidence between the native traditions and the Mosaic account of the deluge, are striking, and warrant the inference, that although the former are deficient in many particulars, and have much that is fabulous in their composition, they yet refer to the same event.

The memorial of an universal deluge, found among all nations existing in those communities, by which civilization, literature, science, and the arts, have been carried to the highest perfection, as well as among the most untutored and barbarous, preserved through all the migrations and vicissitudes of the human family, from the remote antiquity of its occurrence to the present time, is a most decisive evidence of the authenticity of revelation. The brief yet satisfactory testimony to this event, preserved in the oral traditions of a people secluded for ages from intercourse with other parts of the world, furnishes strong additional evidence that the scripture record is irrefragable. In several respects, the Polynesian account resembles not only the Mosaic, but those preserved by the earliest families of the postdiluvian world, and supports the presumption that page 394 their religious system has descended from the Arkite idolatry, the basis of the mythology of the gentile nations. The mundane egg is conspicuous in the cosmogony of some of the most ancient nations. One of the traditions of the Hawaiians states, that a bird deposited an egg (containing the world in embryo) upon the surface of the primeval waters. If the symbol of the egg be supposed to refer to the creation, and the bird be considered a corrupted memorial of the event recorded in the sacred writings, in which it is said, “The Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters,” the coincidence is striking. It is no less so, if it be referred to the ark, floating on the waters of the deluge. The sleep of Ruahatu accords with the slumber of Bramah, which was the occasion of the crime that brought on the Hindoo deluge. The warning to flee, and the means of safety, resemble a tradition recorded by Kœmpfer, as existing among the Chinese. The canoe of the Polynesian Noah has its counterpart in the traditions of their antipodes, the Druids, whose memorial states the bursting of the waters of the lake Lleon, and the overwhelming of the face of all lands, and drowning all mankind excepting two individuals, who escaped in a naked vessel, (a vessel without sails,) by whom the island of Britain was re-peopled. The safety which the progenitors of the Peruvian race are said to have found in caves, or the summits of the mountains, when the waters overflowed the land, bears a resemblance to the Hawaiian; and that of the Mexican, in which Coxcox, or Tezpi, and his wife, were preserved in a bark, corresponds with the Tahitian tradition. Other points of resemblance between the Polynesian account, and the memorial of the deluge, preserved page 395 among the ancient nations, might be cited; but these are sufficient to shew the agreement in the testimony to the same event, preserved by the most distant tribes of the human family.

Before closing the account of the ancient state of the people, their views in relation to the origin of those maladies with which they were afflicted, the cause of death, and their ideas of a future state, require to be noticed. Some of their usages and opinions on these subjects were remarkably curious. Every disease was supposed to be the effect of direct supernatural agency, and to be inflicted by the gods for some crime against the tabu, of which the sufferers had been guilty, or in consequence of some offering made by an enemy to procure their destruction. Hence, it is probable, in a great measure, resulted their neglect and cruel treatment of their sick. The same ideas prevailed with regard to death, every instance of which they imagined was caused by the direct influence of the gods.

The natives acknowledged that they possessed articles of poison, which, when taken in the food, would produce convulsions and death, but those effects they considered more the result of the god's displeasure, operating by means of these substances, than the effects of the poisons themselves. Those who died of eating fish, of which several kinds found on their coasts are at certain seasons unsuitable for food, were supposed to die by the influence of the gods; who, they imagined, had entered the fish, or rendered it poisonous. Several Europeans have been affected by these fish, though only slightly, usually causing swelling of the body, a red colour diffused on the skin, and a distressing head-ache. Those who page 396 were killed in battle were also supposed to die from the influence of the gods, who, they fancied, had actually entered the weapons of their murderers. Hence, those who died suddenly were said to be seized by the god.

Their ideas of a future state were vague and indefinite. They generally spoke of the place to which departed spirits repaired on leaving the body, as the po, state of night. This also was the abode or resort of the gods, and those deified spirits that had not been destroyed. What their precise ideas of a spirit were, it is not easy to ascertain. They appear, however, to have imagined the shape or form resembled that of the human body, in which they sometimes appeared in dreams to the survivors.

When the spirit left the body, which they called unuhi te varua e te atua, the spirit drawn out by the god, (the same term, unuhi, is applied by them to the drawing a sword out of its scabbard,) it was supposed to be fetched, or sent for, by the god. They imagined that oramatuas, or demons, were often waiting near the body, to seize the human spirit as it should be drawn out (they supposed) from the head; and, under the influence of strong impressions from such superstitions, or the effects of a disordered imagination, when dying, the poor creatures have sometimes pointed to the foot of the mat or the couch on which they were lying, and have exclaimed, “There the varua, spirits, are waiting for my spirit; guard its escape, preserve it from them,” &c.

On leaving the body, they imagined it was seized by other spirits, conducted to the po, or state of night, where it was eaten by the gods; not at once, but by degrees. They imagined, that page 397 different parts of the human spirit were scraped with a kind of serrated shell, at different times; that the ancestors or relatives of the deceased performed this operation; that the spirit thus passed through the god, and if it underwent this process of being eaten, &c. three different times, it became a deified or imperishable spirit, might visit the world, and inspire others.

They had a kind of heaven, which they called Miru. The heaven most familiar, especially in the Leeward Islands, is Rohutu noanoa, sweet-scented Rohutu. This was situated near Tamahani unauna, glorious Tamahani, the resort of departed spirits, a celebrated mountain on the north-west side of Raiatea. The perfumed Rohutu, though invisible but to spirits, was somewhere between the former settlement and the district of Tipaehapa on the north side of Raiatea. It was described as a beautiful place, quite an Elysium, where the air was remarkably salubrious, plants and shrubs abundant, highly odoriferous, and in perpetual bloom. Here the Areois, and others raised to this state, followed all the amusements and pursuits to which they had been accustomed in the world, without intermission or end. Here was food in abundance, and every indulgence. It is worthy of remark, that the misery of the one, and enjoyments of the other, debasing as they were, were the destiny of individuals, altogether irrespective of their moral character and virtuous conduct. The only crimes that were visited by the displeasure of their deities were the neglect of some rite or ceremony, or the failing to furnish required offerings. I have often, in conversations with the people, and sometimes with the priests endeavoured to ascertain whether they had any page 398 idea of a person's condition in a future state being connected with his disposition and general conduct in this; but I never could learn that they expected, in the world of spirits, any difference in the treatment of a kind, generous, peaceful man, and that of a cruel, parsimonious, quarrelsome one. I am, however, inclined to think, from the great anxiety about a future state, which some have evinced when near death, that natural conscience, which I believe pronounced a verdict on the moral character of every action throughout their lives, is not always inactive in the solemn hour of dissolution, although its salutary effects were neutralized by the strength of superstition.

As soon as an individual was dead, the tahua tutera was employed, for the purpose of discovering the cause of the deceased person's death. In order to effect this, the priest took his canoe, and paddled slowly along on the sea, near the house in which the body was lying, to watch the passage of the spirit; which they supposed would fly upon him, with the emblem of the cause through which the person died. If he had been cursed by the gods, the spirit would appear with a flame, fire being the agent employed in the incantation of the sorcerers; if pifaod, or killed, by the bribe of some enemy, given to the gods, the spirit would appear with a red feather, the emblem or sign of evil spirits having entered his food. After a short time, the tahua, or priest, returned to the house of the deceased, and told the survivors the cause of his death, and received his fee, the amount of which was regulated by the circumstances of the parties.

The taata faatere, or faatubua, was then employed, to avert the destruction of the surviving members of the family. A number of ceremonies page 399 were performed and prayers offered, according to the cause of the death that had taken place; and when these were concluded, the priest, informing the family that he had been successful, and that the remaining members were now safe, received another fee, and departed.

The disposal of the corpse was the next concern. The bodies of the chiefs, and persons of rank and affluence, and those of the middle class, were preserved; the bodies of the lower orders unceremoniously buried, which was called the burial of a dog: when interred, the body was not laid out straight or horizontal, but placed in a sitting posture, with the knees elevated, the face pressed down between the knees, the hands fastened under the legs, and the whole body tied with cord or cinet wound repeatedly round. It was then covered over, and deposited not very deeply in the earth.

However great the attachment between the deceased and the survivors might have been, and however they might desire to prolong the melancholy satisfaction resulting from the presence of the lifeless body, on which they still felt it some alleviation to gaze, the heat of the climate was such, as to require that it should be speedily removed, unless methods were employed for its preservation, and these were generally too expensive for the poor and middle ranks. They were therefore usually obliged to inter the corpse sometimes on the first, and seldom later than the second day after death. During the short period that they could indulge the painful sympathies connected with the retention of the body, it was placed on a sort of bier covered with the best white native cloth they possessed, and decorated with page 400 wreaths and garlands of the most odoriferous flowers. The body was also placed on a kind of bed of green fragrant leaves, which were also strewed over the floor of the dwelling. During the period which elapsed between the death and interment of the body, the relatives and surviving friends sat round the corpse, indulging in melancholy sadness, giving vent to their grief in loud and continued lamentations, often accompanied with the use of the shark's tooth; which they employed in cutting their temples, faces, and breasts, till they were covered with blood from their selfinflicted wounds. The bodies were frequently committed to the grave in deep silence, unbroken excepting by occasional lamentations of those who attended. But on some occasions, the father delivered an affecting and pathetic oration at the funeral of his son.

The bodies of the dead, among the chiefs, were, however, in general preserved above ground: a temporary house or shed was erected for them, and they were placed on a kind of bier. The practice of embalming appears to have been long familiar to them; and the length of time which the body was thus preserved, depended altogether upon the costliness and care with which the process was performed. The methods employed were at all times remarkably simple: sometimes the moisture of the body was removed by pressing the different parts, drying it in the sun, and anointing it with fragrant oils. At other times, the intestines, brain, &c. were removed; all moisture was extracted from the body, which was fixed in a sitting position during the day, and exposed to the sun, and, when placed horizontally, at night was frequently turned over, that it might not remain page 401 long on the same side. The inside was then filled with cloth saturated with perfumed oils, which were also injected into other parts of the body, and carefully rubbed over the outside every day. This, together with the heat of the sun, and the dryness of the atmosphere, favoured the preservation of the body.

Under the influence of these causes, in the course of a few weeks the muscles dried up, and the whole body appeared as if covered with a kind of parchment. It was then clothed, and fixed in a sitting posture; a small altar was erected before it, and offerings of fruit, food, and flowers, were daily presented by the relatives, or the priest appointed to attend the body. In this state it was preserved many months, and when it decayed, the skull was carefully kept by the family, while the other bones, &c. were buried within the precincts of the family temple.

It is singular that the practice of preserving the bodies of their dead by the process of embalming, which has been thought to indicate a high degree of civilization, and which was carried to such perfection by one of the most celebrated nations of antiquity, some thousand years ago, should be found to prevail among this people. It is also practised by other distant nations of the Pacific, and on some of the coasts washed by its waters.

In commencing the process of embalming, and placing the body on the bier, another priest was employed, who was called the tahua bure tiapapau, literally “corpse-praying priest.” His office was singular: when the house for the dead had been erected, and the corpse placed upon the platform or bier, the priest ordered a hole to be dug in the earth or floor, near the foot of the platform. page 402 Over this he prayed to the god, by whom it was supposed the spirit of the deceased had been required. The purport of his prayer was, that all the dead man's sins, and especially that for which his soul had been called to the po, might be deposited there, that they might not attach in any degree to the survivors, and that the anger of the god might be appeased.

The priest next addressed the corpse, usually saying, Ei ia oe na te hara e vai ai, “With you let the guilt now remain.” The pillar or post of the corpse, as it was called, was then planted in the hole, perhaps designed as a personification of the deceased, to exist after his body should have decayed—the earth was thrown over, as they supposed, the guilt of the departed—and the hole filled up.

At the conclusion of this part of the curious rite, the priest proceeded to the side of the corpse, and, taking a number of small slips of the fa maia, plantain leaf-stalk, fixed two or three pieces under each arm, placed a few on the breast, and then, addressing the dead body, said, There are your family, there is your child, there is your wife, there is your father, and there is your mother, Be satisfied yonder, (that is, in the world of spirits.) Look not towards those who are left in this world.—The concluding parts of the ceremony were designed to impart contentment to the departed, and to prevent the spirit from repairing to the places of his former resort, and so distressing the survivors.

This was considered a most important ceremony, being a kind of mass for the dead, and necessary for the peace of the living, as well as the quiet of the deceased. It was seldom omitted by any who could procure the accustomed fees for the priest, page 403 which for this service were generally furnished in pigs and cloth, in proportion to the rank or possessions of the family.

All who were employed in embalming, which they called miri, were, during the process, carefully avoided by every person, as the guilt of the crime for which the deceased had died, was supposed in some degree to attach to such as touched the body. They did not feed themselves, lest the food defiled by the touch of their polluted hands, should cause their own death,—but were fed by others.

As soon as the ceremony of depositing the sins in the hole was over, all who had touched the body or the garments of the deceased, which were buried or destroyed, fled precipitately into the sea, to cleanse themselves from the pollution, called mahuruhuru, which they had contracted by touching the corpse; casting also into the sea, the clothes they had worn while employed in the work. Having finished their ablutions, they gathered a few pieces of coral from the bottom of the sea, and, returning with them to the house, addressed the dead body by saying, “With you may the mahuruhuru, or pollution, be,” and threw down the pieces of coral on the top of the hole that had been dug for the purpose of receiving every thing contaminating, connected with the deceased.

The ceremonies in general were now finished, but if the property of the family was abundant, their attachment to the deceased great, and they wished his spirit to be conveyed to Rohutu noano, the Tahitian paradise, a fifth priest was employed. Costly offerings were presented, and valuable articles given to the priest of Romatane, the keeper of this happy place; Urutaetae was the page 404 guide of such as went thither, and the duty of the priest now employed was to engage him to conduct the spirit of the departed to this fancied region of enjoyment.

The Tahitians divide their history into two eras, the first they call the hau hupehupe, the rude or unpolished age: during this period the bodies of the dead were allowed to remain in the house in which they had lived, and which was still occupied by the survivors. A kind of stage or altar was erected in the house, on which the body was laid. But when the people became wiser, and society improved, the hau una, neat or polished age, commenced, which continued till the arrival of foreigners. It was in the commencement of this age, that separate houses were built for the dead.

The houses erected as depositories for the dead, were small and temporary buildings, though often remarkably neat. The pillars supporting the roof were planted in the ground, and were seldom more than six feet high. The bier or platform on which the body was laid, was about three feet from the ground, and was moveable, for the purpose of being drawn out, and of exposing the body to the rays of the sun. The corpse was usually clothed, except when visited by the relatives or friends of the deceased. It was, however, for a long time carefully rubbed with aromatic oils once a day.

A light kind of altar was erected near it, on which articles of food, fruits, and garlands of flowers were daily deposited; and if the deceased were a chief of rank or fame, a priest or other person was appointed to attend the corpse, and present food to its mouth at different periods during the day. When asked their reason for page 405 this practice, they have said they supposed there was a spiritual as well as a material part of food, a part which they could smell; and that if the spirit of the deceased returned, the spirit or scent of the offering would be grateful, or they were influenced by a wish to appease any desire the departed might have to return and partake of the enjoyments of life. Connected with the depositories of the dead, there was what they called the aumiha, a kind of contagious influence, of which they appeared to be afraid; and hence, at night especially, they avoided the place of sepulture. The family, district, or royal maraes were the general depositories of the bones of the departed, whose bodies had been embalmed, and whose skulls were sometimes preserved in the dwelling of the survivors. The marae or temple being sacred, and the bodies being under the guardianship of the gods, were in general considered secure when deposited there. This was not, however, always the case; and in times of war, the victors sometimes, not only despoiled the temples of the vanquished, and bore away their idol, but robbed the sacred enclosure of the bones of celebrated individuals. These spoils were appropriated to what the nation considered the lowest degradation, by being converted into chisels or borers, for the builders of canoes and houses, or transformed into fishing-hooks. In order to avoid this, they carried the bones of their chiefs, and even the recently deceased corpse, and deposited them in the caverns of some of the most inaccessible rocks in the lofty and fearful precipices of the mountain denles.

Notwithstanding the labour and care bestowed on the bodies of the dead, they did not last very long; probably the most carefully preserved could page 406 not be kept more than twelve months. When they began to decay, the bones, &c. were buried, but the skull was preserved in the family sometimes for several generations, wrapt carefully in native cloth, and often suspended from some part of the roof of their habitations. In some of the islands they dried the bodies, and, wrapping them in numerous folds of cloth, suspended them also from the roofs of their dwelling-houses.

The tribes inhabiting the islands of the Pacific were remarkably superstitious, and among them none more so than the inhabitants of the Georgian and Society Islands. They imagined they lived in a world of spirits, which surrounded them night and day, watching every action of their lives, and ready to avenge the slightest neglect, or the least disobedience to their injunctions, as proclaimed by their priests.

These dreaded beings were seldom thought to resort to the habitations of men on errands of benevolence. They were supposed to haunt the places of their former abode, to arouse the survivors from their slumbers by making a squeaking noise, to which, when the natives heard, they would sometimes reply, asking what they were, what they wanted, &c. Sometimes the spirits upbraided the living with former wickedness, or the neglect of some ceremonious enactment, for which they were unhappy.

When a person was seized with convulsions or hysterics, it was said to be from seizure by the spirits, who sometimes scratched their faces, tore their hair, or otherwise maltreated them. For some time after the death of Taaroarii we could seldom induce any of our servants to go out of the house after it was dark, under an apprehension page 407 that they should see, or be seized by, his spirit. They were, however, very ignorant young persons. The natives in general laugh at their former credulity. The whole system of their superstition seems to have been, in every respect, wonderfully adapted to debase the mind, and keep the people in the most abject subjection to the priests, who, in order to maintain their influence, had recourse to this extensive and imposing machinery of supernatural agency; and it must be confessed that, considering their isolated situation, their entire ignorance of science, of natural and experimental philosophy, their ardent temperament, the romantic nature of the country, and the adventurous character of many of their achievements, there was something remarkably imposing to an uncultivated mind in the system here inculcated.

Almost every native custom connected with the death of relations or friends, was singular, and none perhaps more so than the otohaa, which, though not confined to instances of death, was then most violent. It consisted in the most frantic expressions of grief, under which individuals acted as if bereft of reason. It commenced when the sick person appeared to be dying; the wailing then was often most distressing, but as soon as the spirit had departed, the individuals became quite ungovernable.

They not only wailed in the loudest and most affecting tone, but tore their hair, rent their garments, and cut themselves with shark's teeth or knives in a shocking manner. The instrument usually employed was a small cane, about four inches long, with five or six shark's teeth fixed in, on opposite sides. With one of these instruments every female provided herself after marriage, page 408 and on occasions of death it was unsparingly used.

With some this was not sufficient; they prepared a short instrument, something like a plumber's mallet, about five or six inches long, rounded at one end for a handle, and armed with two or three rows of shark's teeth fixed in the wood, at the other. With this, on the death of a relative or a friend, they cut themselves unmercifully, striking the head, temples, cheek, and breast, till the blood flowed profusely from the wounds. At the same time they uttered the most deafening and agonizing cries; and the distortion of their countenances, their torn and dishevelled hair, the mingled tears and blood that covered their bodies, their wild gestures and unruly conduct, often gave them a frightful and almost inhuman appearance. This cruelty was principally performed by the females, but not by them only; the men committed on these occasions the same enormities, and not only cut themselves, but came armed with clubs and other deadly weapons.

The otohaa commenced with the nearest relations of the deceased, but it was not confined to them; so soon as the tidings spread, and the sound of the lamentations was heard through the neighbourhood, the friends and relatives repaired to the spot, and joined in the tragic performance.

I am not prepared to say that the same enormities were practised here as in the Sandwich Islands at these times, but on the death of a king or principal chief the scenes exhibited in and around the house were in appearance demoniacal. The relatives and members of the household began; the other chiefs of the island and their relatives came to sympathize with the survivors, and, on page 409 reaching the place, joined in the infuriated conduct of the bereaved; the tenantry of the chiefs also came, and, giving themselves up to all the savage infatuation which the conduct of their associates or the influence of their superstitions inspired, they not only tore their hair, and lacerated their bodies till they were covered with blood, but often fought with clubs and stones till murder followed.

Auna has now some dreadful indentations on his skull from blows he received by stones on one of these occasions at Huahine; and in almost one of the last otohaa observed in the same island, a man was killed by the contents of the musket of another. Since the introduction of fire-arms, they have been used in these seasons; and the smoke and report of the guns must have added to the din and terrible confusion of the scene. I cannot conceive of a spectacle more appalling, than that which the infuriated rabble, smeared with their own blood, presenting every frightful distortion in feature, and frantic madness in action, must often have exhibited. This scene was sometimes continued for two or three successive days, or longer, on the death of a person of distinction.

I have often conversed with the people on their reasons for this strange procedure, and have asked them if it was not exceedingly painful to them to cut themselves as they were accustomed to do. They have always answered that it was very painful in some parts of the face—that the upper lip, or the space between the upper lip and the nostril, was the most tender, and a stroke there was always attended with the greatest pain—that it was their custom, and therefore considered indispensable, as it was designed to express the depth of their sorrow—that any one who should not do so, would be considered page 410 deficient in respect for the deceased, and also as insulting to his family. The acts of violence committed, they added, were the effects of the paroxysms of their sorrow, which made them neneva, or insensible. They continued till their grief was ua maha, or satisfied, which often was not the case till they had received several severe blows upon the tender part above mentioned.

The females on these occasions sometimes put on a kind of short apron of a particular sort of cloth, which they held up with one hand, while they cut themselves with the other. In this apron they caught the blood that flowed from the grief-inflicted wounds, until it was almost saturated. It was then dried in the sun, and given to the nearest surviving relations as a proof of the affection of the donor, and was preserved by the bereaved family as a token of the estimation in which the departed had been held.

Had the otohaa been confined to instances of death, or seasons of great calamity, it would not have appeared so strange, as it does in connexion with the fact, that it was practised on other occasions, when feelings the most opposite to those of calamity were induced. In its milder form, it was an expression of joy, as well as of grief; and when a husband or a son returned to his family, after a season of absence, or exposure to danger, his arrival was greeted, not only with the cordial welcome, and the warm embrace, but loud wailing was uttered, and the instrument armed with shark's teeth applied, in proportion to the joy experienced.

The early visitors, and the first Missionaries, were much surprised at this strange and contradictory usage; and, in answer to their inquiries, were informed, that it was the custom of Tahiti. page 411 The wailing was not so excessive, or the duration so long, nor were the enormities committed so great, as in the event of a death. The otohaa appears to have been adopted by the people to express the violence or excess of their passion, whether joy or grief.

There was another custom associated with their bereavements by death, of an opposite character, and more agreeable to contemplate. This was their elegiac ballads, prepared by the bards, and recited for the consolation of the family. They generally followed the otohaa, and were often treasured up in the memory of the survivors, and eventually became a part of the ballads of the nation. Though highly figurative and beautiful in sentiment, breathing a pathetic spirit of sympathy and consolation, they were often historical, or rather biographical, recounting, under all the imagery of song, the leading events in the life of the individuals, and were remarkably interesting, when that life had been one of enterprise, adventure, or incident.

Scarcely had Taaroarii, the young chieftain of Huahine, been consigned to the tomb, when a ballad was prepared, after the ancient usage of his country. I heard it once or twice, and intended to have committed it to paper, but my voyage to the Sandwich Islands, shortly afterwards, prevented. It commenced in a truly pathetic manner; the first lines were—

Ua moe te teoto o Atiapii i roto te ana
Ua rava e adu tona uuauna.

“The pride of Atiapii sleeps in the cavern;
Departed has its glory, or its brightness,” &c.

∗One of the names of the island of Huabine.

page 412

It was, throughout, adapted to awaken tenderness, and regret at the event, and sympathy with the survivors.

Soon after the decease of a chief or person of distinction, another singular ceremony, called a heva, was performed by the relatives or dependants. The principal actor in this procession was a priest, or relative, who wore a curious dress, the most imposing part of which was the head-ornament, or parae. A cap of thick native cloth was fitted close to the head; in front were two large broad mother-of-pearl shells, covering the face like a mask, with one small aperture through which the wearer could look. Above the mask a number of beautiful, long, white, red-tipped, tail feathers of the tropic bird, were fixed, diverging like rays; beneath the mask was a curved piece of thin yet strong board, six or nine inches wide in the centre, but narrow at the ends, which, turned upwards, gave it the appearance of a crescent.

Attached to this was a beautiful kind of network of small pieces of brilliant mother-of-pearl shell called the ahu aua, each piece being about an inch or an inch and a half long, and less than a quarter of an inch wide. Every piece was finely polished, and reduced to the thinness of a card; a small perforation was made at each corner, and the pieces fastened together by threads passed through these perforations. They were fixed perpendicularly to the board, and extended nearly from one end to the other. The depth varied according to the taste or means of the family, but it was generally nine inches or a foot.

The labour in making this part of the parae must have been excessive. The many hundred pieces of mother-of-pearl shell, that must have been page 413 cut, ground down to the required thickness, polished, and perforated, without iron tools, before a single line could be fixed upon the head-dress, required a degree of patience that is surprising. The manufacture was regarded as a sacred work; emblems of intercourse with the gods were required to be placed in front of the parae when it was made.

This part covered the breast of the wearer; a succession of pieces of black and yellow cloth fastened to the pearl-shell netting, surrounded the body, and reached sometimes to the loins, to the knees, or even to the ankles. The beautiful mother-of-pearl shell net-work was fringed with feathers; a large bunch of man-of-war-bird's plumage was fixed at each end of the board, and two elegantly shaped oro-oro feather tassels, hanging from each end, were attached to the light board by cords, also covered with feathers.

In one hand the heva carried a paeho, a terrific weapon, about five feet long, one end rounded for a handle, the other broad and flat, and in shape not unlike a short scythe. The point was ornamented with a tuft of feathers, and the inner or concave side armed with a line of large, strong, sharks' teeth, fixed in the wood by the fibres of the tough ieie. In the other hand he held a tete or kind of clapper, formed with a large and a smaller pearl-oyster shell, beautifully polished.

The man thus arrayed led the procession, which came from the valley, whither, as if under the paroxysm of grief, the party had retired at the death of the person for whom this was used, and continued, as he walked along, to strike or jingle the shells against each other, to give notice of his approach. He was attended by a number of men page 414 and boys, painted with charcoal and red and white clay, as if they had endeavoured to render themselves as hideous as possible. They wore only a maro or girdle, and were covered with these coloured earths. Sometimes the body was painted red, with black and white stripes; at other times the face painted red or black, and the rest of the body red and white. The pigment was mixed with the gum of the bread-fruit tree, that it might adhere to the skin. They were armed with a club or cudgel, and proceeded through the district, seizing and beating every person they met with, who did not shew them the greatest respect; any one who should ridicule them would be unmercifully cut with the paeho. The only remedy was to fly to the king's temple, which was on this, as well as some other occasions, a kind of sanctuary, or place of refuge. In general, all who saw their approach instantly fled, or hid themselves. They did not enter any of the dwellings, but often struck them as they passed by, to the great terror of those within. They appeared and acted as if they were deranged, and were supposed to be inspired by the spirit of the deceased, to revenge any injury he might have received, or to punish those who had not shewn due respect to his remains. It was often the means of commencing a war, which frequently proved fatal to multitudes before it terminated. Tuiheva was the god of this singular ceremony.