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Ethnology of Tokelau Islands

Supreme Deity

Supreme Deity

The supreme deity was Tui Tokelau, or Tui Tokelau Sili (Tui Tokelau, the highest), who resided in the sky. The name does not appear among the gods elsewhere in Polynesia, and his title, Tui, is the Tongan and Samoan term for chief, which suggests that he was a deified chief. This is supported by an account (26) written by the Rarotongan native teacher who visited Fakaofu in 1848:

The people set up their gods and gave them names, Tui Tokelau being the principal and most powerful. His advent at Tokelau was witnessed by the people. He descended from the sky and his arrival was accompanied by thunder and lightning. He is a cannibal god and appears in the night when all are asleep, with a coconut leaf in his hand with which he snares the spirit of man from his body, and when daylight comes, that man who has thus been acted upon dies.

Wilkes (34) states that Tui Tokelau was also called Tangaloa i lunga i langi (Tangaloa above in the sky). Tangaloa was a Samoan god who appeared in the mythology of Tokelau but not in the pantheon of gods. It is probable that some of his attributes were ascribed to Tui Tokelau.

Tui Tokelau controlled all nature and the food supply of the people. He was propitiated each year with offerings to make the fish and coconuts plentiful and to send sufficient rain. A coral slab erected to Tui Tokelau at Fakaofu had certain supernatural powers, according to Lister (14):

Good and bad fortune and diseases were sent by the Tui Tokelau. The bad fortune came as punishment for failure in the proper observances in his honor.

Sick people were washed with coconut water, some of which had previously been sprinkled over the stone.

If a person wished to die, he would crawl to the foot of the stone and remain there. His friends might bring him food and he might eat it, but in the course of two or three days he would die—and people had been known to die in this manner, so great was the power of their belief.

If a good haul of fish was taken, part of it would be offered before the stone by the king, and afterwards it was distributed among the Taulaitu—the priests.

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A sacred bird (manu sa) called the talanga belonged to Tui Tokelau. Its appearance was considered an omen that the god was approaching the island, and said by some to be the god himself.

Fire was sacred to Tui Tokelau, and only during the month of his worship was it permitted to have lights after dark. At other times three necessary exceptions were permitted: fish caught at night could be cooked in the kitchen shacks, for otherwise they would spoil during the warm night; and lights could be made at night during the care of a woman in childbirth and in honor of the death of the high chief, the priest of Tui Tokelau.