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Ethnology of Tokelau Islands



The classification of the Tokelau gods and spirits is typical of western Polynesian religion, but several characteristics of the supreme deity—the temple and sacred enclosure, the coral slabs wrapped in mats, and the national annual ceremony—strongly distinguish Tokelau religion from that of Tonga and Samoa, type religion for all western Polynesia.

Supreme Deity

The supreme deity as a sky god, associated with thunder and appearing in the form of a bird, has analogies to Tangaloa, the great god of western Poly- page 163 nesia, but fire was not sacred to Tangaloa, nor were temples or great stone slabs erected to him. The only parallel to Tui Tokelau is found in the supreme deity of most of the Ellice Islands and some of the Gilbert Islands. The god of Funafuti (12), Foilape, was seen by the people as thunder and lightning and as a sea bird; fire was tapu to him and was prohibited at night at Funafuti and Niutau (68). The chief god at Nukufetau (68), Tapuariki, was also worshipped in thunder.

The Tongan title tui (highest ranking chief), applied to the name of a god, suggests the deification of a chief. It is possible that the first chief of the Fakaofu people was deified, an assumption for which there is good evidence in Newell's account (19) of the deification of a chief, Fafie, during his own lifetime.

Nature Gods

The only god of second rank who has any significance in the Polynesian pantheon is Fakafotu. In eastern Polynesia Fakafotu is a goddess or female element, but no characteristics of this goddess are remembered in the Tokelau Islands. That Fakafotu's importance was once very great is evident in the special marae and coral slab devoted to him or her, an honor accorded no other god, except Tui Tokelau and his son.


Unlike the priests of Samoa who were outside the social pattern (59), the priests of Tokelau (taula) held a very high and important position in society. They took an active part in the government as well as in the religious rites, and formed an inner council which was very close to the high chief. This position is more like that held by priests in eastern Polynesian society where they developed into the dominating power of many islands.

The lesser priests (vaka atua) appear under the same name in Tonga and Samoa, and fulfilled the same functions as vehicles of the gods through whom they spoke to the people. The interchange of the terms taula and vaka atua by early writers in speaking of the different classes of priests and shamans has left in confusion whatever distinguishing characteristics there may have been between the two groups.

The coconut was spun at Vaitupu, Ellice Islands, like the Tokelau notched ball, but Kennedy (13) does not refer to its use in selecting priests or officials.

God Houses

The Tokelau god house, in its construction, size, and consecration to the supreme deity, has no counterpart in the god houses of Samoa. Samoan god houses were much like the surrounding dwellings of the village, and were sacred to village or local war gods (27). McKern (58) states of Tonga that, “It is doubtful if there were any temples as such.”

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In eastern Polynesia the construction of temple buildings varied in the different groups. In Hawaii, temples were built within the walls of the marae. In the Marquesas, sacred houses were built for the use of the priests during inspirational seances, but these were destroyed after the ceremony. At Tahiti, a moderately sized structure was built on the court of the marae or near it to house the idols and religious paraphernalia.

Temples did not exist in Micronesia. The Gilbertese (44) built small spirit houses similar to the Tongan house described by McKern (58), with no doors and an entrance under the eaves reached by a ladder.

The type of Tokelau god house is limited in its distribution, outside this group, to the Ellice Islands. Houses of the supreme god, Foilape, stood at Funafuti, Nukufetau, and Nanumea Islands. As at Fakaofu, weapons were kept in the temples at Nanumana and were brought out for religious ceremonies. These god houses were also festooned with strings of pearl-shell ornaments; this decoration was used in the special dwelling house of a Tongan priest (58). No god house outside Fakaofu is described as containing the wooden seats but such seats were once used by the talking chiefs of Samoa (27) and are still used in Sikaiana, an island of mixed peoples with a Polynesian culture, in the Solomons. Wooden seats were also commonly used by eastern Polynesian chiefs.


One of the chief differences between the cultures of eastern and western Polynesia is the form and function of the marae. In eastern Polynesia, the marae is marked by upright stones, by stone platforms, or a combination of both. In western Polynesia the marae is a cleared ground without stone construction. It is used chiefly for social gatherings and council meetings. Great stepped earth and stone vaults were built in Tonga for chiefs' burials, but they were neither termed maraes nor used for religious purposes. Monolithic slabs were erected to the high god on the marae of Funafuti, Nanumea, Nui, Nanumana, and Niutau in the Ellice Islands and at Onoatoa, Apaina, Nukunau, and Tapiteuea of the neighboring Gilbert Islands in Micronesia, but none of these were associated with stone platforms or stone enclosures.

Simple maraes of upright stones on a cleared area are found also in the interior of Tahiti and in New Zealand. In Emory's opinion (43) the simple form with sets of three upright slabs at one end of the ground and a single slab opposite is the original; from this form developed the complex marae of stone platforms with upright slabs placed on top of or before them. Emory (43) believes that the slabs are back rests for the gods and priests.

The Fakaofu marae (pl. 6, B) suggests very strongly the original Tahitian shrine without platform. At one end of the Fakaofu marae stand the high coral slabs of Tui Tokelau and his son O Te Moana, and opposite them stands a wooden stool, undoubtedly the seat of the priest during part of the ceremo- page 165 nies. There is no evidence in the Tokelau Islands that the upright stones of any marae were seats of the gods or priests as in eastern Polynesia. They were places of the gods, something material in which they could reside when they came to earth during the ceremonies. It is possible that the idea of the material embodiment of the god was transferred, in the Tokelau Islands, to the upright stone, which would account for the practice of dressing the stone. In eastern Polynesia, the material object entered by the god was an image or object separate from the stone slab seat or back rest (43). At Tahiti, Captain Cook saw the image of the god Oro wrapped in tapa, laid on the platform of the marae. Simple maraes without platform or terrace but with stone uprights occur in both eastern Polynesia and the Tokelau and Ellice Islands, but the function of the stone uprights differs.

The sacred stone enclosure, for the disposal of the cast-off mats from the sacred stones at Atafu, is also found in the early type of combined platform and monolithic slab marae in the Tuamotu Islands. Here the enclosures served as places for the disposal of sacred paraphernalia and bones of sacrificial food which had been eaten by the priests. The absence of these enclosures in the Ellice Islands can be explained by the absence of the practice of wrapping the sacred stones.


The annual ceremony of offerings and prayers for prosperity was performed to Foilape at Funafuti in the same manner as at Fakaofu (12). Mats and pearl-shell pendants were the main presents laid before the god. Although a prayer for abundance of crops, fruit, and fish was made annually by the high priest at Rotuma (15) and a ceremony to Tangaloa was held at the full moon in May in some villages of Samoa (27), no ceremony held before a temple and sacred upright stones has been fully or even partially described from any other islands of western Polynesia.

The fundamentals of the Tokelau ceremony are found in eastern Polynesia. At Tahiti great ceremonies called pai-atua (assembling and uncovering of gods) were held on a marae, before upright stones or a platform, for the inauguration of a sovereign, for the laying of a cornerstone of a new marae, for rain in time of drought, and for a great harvest. The ceremony was preceded by preparations similar to those made in Tokelau: everything at the marae was renewed, the god's canoe was patched, offerings of fine white mat cloth were made, grounds were weeded and cleaned, the moss and waste from the marae and the old coconut leaf images and matting were collected and thrown into the sacred refuse pit. All activity after this was forbidden and the people remained in their houses. The priests consecrated themselves at their homes, abstaining from mingling with their families, eating their food apart, living on a separate mat and having their private water gourd—restric- page 166 tions observed by the master carpenters of the Tokelau Islands while building canoes or houses. The Tahitian ceremonies were far more elaborate and prolonged than the Tokelau rites. At times the populace was prohibited from witnessing them, but at other times was allowed to watch from a distance as at Atafu. The uncovering and redressing of the erect stones of the gods was not observed at Tahiti.

Headstones of graves were wrapped with mats at Leuaniua (61), an island with mixed Polynesian culture in the eastern Solomons.