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Ethnology of Tokelau Islands

God Houses

God Houses

Each village in Tokelau had the usual Polynesian meeting ground called malae, where most of the religious ceremonies, all the dances, the ceremonial division of fish, turtles, and whales, and other community festivities took place. At Atafu the malae had an area of about 180 square feet and was covered with sand and pebbles. A god house (fale atua) stood at one end, some distance from the village. One informant stated that it contained three coral slabs representing Tui Tokelau, Te Pusi, and Te Lio. A second informant said that two slabs of Tui Tokelau and Fakaofu stood before the god house, and none were inside it. These slabs were tupua, the residences of the gods during ceremonies. One of the slabs was taken by a missionary (Powell or Davis of the London Missionary Society) in 1884, and the other was put into the walls of the present church.

Thomson (31) inspected the site of the god house and coral slabs with a native who had seen them and the ceremonies performed before them in pre-Christian times. Two slabs 7 feet high, 6 feet wide, and 1.5 feet thick stood side by side and about 40 feet in front of the god house which was a rectangular frame building 40 feet long and 20 feet wide, standing on a low platform or foundation and similar in appearance to the present Atafu council house (pl. 5, C). Within the house was a chamber walled off by mats, the most sacred part, entered only by the priest. To the right side of the sacred malae, about 60 feet from the coral slabs and facing at a 45° angle toward the front, was a stone enclosure (sai) 18 by 18 feet square and 3.5 feet high. The rotted mats which were removed from the coral slabs during the annual ceremony were deposited here. They were absolutely tapu, and anyone daring to disturb them would die from contact with such sacred objects. The whole area was a sacred precinct which only the priest and his assistants might enter.

Fakaofu had two malae (26): one to the god, Tui Tokelau, and his son, O te Moana, and one to Fakafotu. Wilkes (34) describes the god house of Tui Tokelau and the two coral slabs or idols of the god and his son erected before it (pl. 6, B):

Their gods or idols were placed on the outside nearby. The largest of these was 14 feet high and 18 inches in diameter. This was covered or enveloped in mats, and over all a narrow one was passed, shawl-fashion, and tied in front, with the ends of the knot hanging down … The small idol was of stone, and 4 feet high, but only partially covered with mats. About 10 feet in front of the idol was one of the hewn tables, which was hollowed out. It was 4 feet long by 3 broad, and the same in height.

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The ancient god house was the largest structure at Fakaofu. Around the inside of the eaves was hung a string of mother-of-pearl shell lei made from the annual offerings of these ornaments to the god. The huge house posts were ornamented with sennit bindings, according to Hale (11):

In the center of the house, about the largest post, were piled confusedly together a dozen massive benches, or large stools, 2 feet high, as many broad, and about 3 feet long. They were of clumsy make, very thick and heavy, each one being apparently carved from a single block. The natives called them seats of the god, and we supposed that they might be for the elders of the village when they meet in council or for religious celebration.

Leaning against the largest post of the house were several spears all much worn and battered, which the natives said were from the sea. They were called lakau taua (wood of war).

The last god house at Fakaofu was destroyed by Father Padel in 1852 (p. 32). The only sacred objects that he reported inside the god house were two rusty guns salvaged from a wreck. He did not mention the great posts, the seats, or the table seen by Hale and Wilkes. Possibly these were destroyed in the hurricane of 1846 or 1852.

Worship and communication with family gods was conducted in the homes. Ancestral spirits came in visitations to priests or mediums who were descended from the ancestor. Many houses contained two or three coconut water bottles reserved for the ancestral spirit. They were suspended from a post or rafter, and fresh water was poured into them each day.