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Ethnology of Tokelau Islands

Nature Gods

Nature Gods

The minor gods were personifications of natural elements and resided in the world. According to Monfat (17) the god second in rank was Te Moana, the son of Tui Tokelau. Te Moana was a sea god who took form in a waterspout. When Fakaofu was attacked, the priest of Te Moana prayed to him to create high waves and a strong wind to drive off and drown the enemy fleet.

Nothing is remembered of Tonuailangi who resided beyond the horizon except his ability to prophesy. Through his priest he foretold events which happened on the other atolls, and which were later verified by visitors from these atolls to Fakaofu. Because the European ships came from behind the horizon, the natives at first believed them to be vessels of Tonuailangi.

Toikia was physically the strongest of the minor gods. Little is remembered about him besides his part in the wrestling match between Fafie and Leua, two semi-mythical characters. In the match Fafie threw his opponent and held him down, but Vevea pulled Fafie off by his hair. Fafie called upon the god Toikia to assist him, and Toikia appeared and wrenched Vevea away. Although the other gods were present at the match, they were helpless against Toikia. When the king of the gods saw that Vevea was defeated by Toikia, he ordered that Vevea should be killed. The others threw him upon a fire and burned him to death.

Fakafotu was the god of storms and hurricanes; thunder was called the anger of Fakafotu. He also appeared in the form of a great tree. A coral slab was erected to him beside the slab of Tui Tokelau at Atafu, but at Fakaofu his god house and slab were separate from those of Tui Tokelau and Te Moana. Fakafotu has the name of the primary female parent of the gods and men in Tongareva (29), New Zealand, and eastern Polynesian islands.

The god Fafie took the form of a great canoe. He lived in traveling canoes and ruled over the destinies of voyagers on their journeys between the atolls and Samoa or neighboring groups of islands.

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Te Lio appeared as a great mat and lived near the beach along the lagoon, of which he was the god.

Mafola was a god of the sea. Requests addressed to him through his priest were always fulfilled.

All kanava trees were consecrated to Na Tongaleleva and could never be used without the removal of the tapu by the chief priest. Any man violating this tapu was killed by the deity. When it was necessary to cut a sacred kanava on one of the outside atolls, the chief priest of Fakaofu appointed a priest to travel to the atoll and perform the rites. Tonuia, the chief of Atafu, broke this tapu and cut down a tree of Tongaleleva. Later he journeyed to Fakaofu, and on his return he was blown to sea and lost. His death was reported by the priest of Na Tongaleleva, who ascribed the cause to the breaking of the tapu. Tongaleleva also brought to his priest the song Tonuia sang at his death which has become a popular ballad.

Ko taku sala ia e ko iloa
Ko te ulu o na Tongaleleva
Na ko taia kupu kese lava
Fakaofu e kona e mamala.

My wrong is known
The head of Tongaleleva
The mature tree was cut far away
Fakaofu is poisoned and diseased.

The god Te Laumua lived with the mischievous spirits (ngaveve). He was very kind and made amends for the pranks of his implike fellows. When he was prayed to through his prophet, he restored the souls that had been stolen by the ngaveve.

The god Salevao had many of the characteristics and propensities of the ngaveve spirits. He resided in the bush at the northern end of the village on Atafu and flew about the villages snatching souls with a flying-fish net. The natives often heard the flick of Salevao's net overhead, which they interpreted as an omen of death. He had a great liking for pretty women, especially when they were pregnant. A very bad odor often indicated his presence at home, but it was customary for anyone noticing it to flatter the god by crying out, “What a delightful scent I smell!”

Hale (11) mentions another god, Atua Tafito, who was referred to as “O Debolo”, a word probably learned from shipwrecked sailors on the atoll.

Luafine was given as the name of another god, and at Nukunono the names Mona and Fenua were given as local gods of that island. Thomson (31) adds the name of a god, Aeooa, worshiped at Atafu, to whom a stone slab was erected.