Volume 111 2002 > Volume 111, No. 2 > Continuity of bodies: The infant's placenta and the island's navel in eastern Polynesia, by Bruno Saura, Maryann Capestro and Henri Bova, p 127-146
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This study, based upon publications and verbal traditions, considers the significance of Tahitian placental burial. The custom is still widely observed and marks an essential connection between humans, the earth, plants and islands. Islands are said to possess a navel, as do humans.

Oceanic peoples' metaphysical attachment to their land is legendary. I wish to explore here one of the Tahitian customs involving land: the burial of the placenta of each newborn at the base of a fruit tree, so that the substance that nourished the foetus nourishes the tree. Despite 200 years of Westernisation, this custom continues to be widely practised. 1

It is appropriate to note here that the linked practice of hiding the newborn's umbilical cord in a secret place at the family's marae ‘open air sanctuary or temple’ disappeared many years ago. Reportedly, several days after birth, once the cord became detached from the infant's navel, it was concealed in the marae. This practice ceased altogether, even though both Catholic and Protestant churches were often erected upon the former marae sites and constructed of the same stones. 2 Hiding the cord, a second step in the ritual, was considered by the Tahitians to be religious and therefore pagan since it involved the marae. The first step—burial—was more a familial rite and has been widely practised until recent times.

By means of a review of ancient Tahitian society, I propose to examine the symbolism of placental burial as well as the essential and uninterrupted connection it suggests between people, earth, plants and islands. My interpretation is based on the combined evidence of linguistic data, classic ethnological sources and material gathered during field studies in the Society and Austral Islands in 1997-1998.

After consideration of both “anthropomorphic” and “topomorphic” (see below) elements, I consider the difficulties in distinguishing the placenta from the umbilical cord. Whereas they are physiologically different, their symbolic roles are very similar in that they convey the idea of transmission of life. In my opinion, contrary to Alain Babadzan (1983:89) for whom “les manipulations du placenta visent … un anéantissement, alors que celles concernant le cordon ont pour but une préservation” [treatment of the placenta aims at its destruction, while those of the umbilical cord seek its - 128 preservation], the two objects are not really in opposition, even if at times people attribute different functions to them in rituals and through rituals. For it is through rituals that they become separate entities, each having a proper function.


The placenta is called pūfenua in Tahitian, literally ‘core of land’. The word is constructed upon the foundation of , signifying the innermost part, ‘centre, heart’ and fenua ‘land, country’.

That in Tahiti the placenta is buried (tanuhia: passive voice of tanu‘to bury, to plant’) is not particularly different from practices in other traditional societies. The same practice, with minor variations, is observed all over Polynesia. Elsewhere throughout the world, placenta are often buried or sometimes burned, allowed to rot or desiccate, disposed of in a body of water, or even eaten (as is the case with many animal species). What is of significance is that in Tahitian pūfenua literally signifies the ‘centre, heart, pit, core’, i.e., , (of) ‘land’, i.e., fenua. It is as if it were indeed destined by nature to be (re)buried, or as if it were itself a part of the earth, a component of the female body predestined to nourish the infant and later to feed a tree. Apparently, the symbolism is perfect: complete osmosis between people and the land that bore them—and, I am tempted to add, this very earth that will be their last refuge. Indeed, it is always the term tanu (to plant) that is used to designate burial: people ‘plant’ other people in the earth as they plant trees, as if people, earth and trees were, and have always been, one.

Caution is in order, however. What, at first glimpse, seems to be a cycle of life and death, united in the harmonious affinity of earthly participation, should not be taken for granted. Before massive conversions to Christianity in the 19th century, Tahitians, Marquesans and inhabitants of neighbouring islands did not systematically inter their dead. The literature shows that the bodies of important chiefs were frequently left exposed in the open air until desiccated. The remains were then conserved in caves or taken to the marae where they were wrapped in a fabric made from pounded vegetable fibres and put in a receptacle, or more simply placed under several stones at the temple. The imperative “to return” the dead to the earth therefore is a recent Christian practice in Eastern Polynesia.

One should also be very careful about terminology that “naturally” predisposes us to assume that the burial (tanura'a) of the dead is a necessary counterpart, a symmetric double, of the initial ritual burial (tanura'a) of their placenta or ‘core of earth’. As a matter of fact, separating traditional Polynesian aspects of the rituals associated with birth and death from their Judeo-Christian counterparts is not a simple task, considering both the strong - 129 acculturation Eastern Polynesia has experienced and the near universality of certain ritual practices (as, for example, documented by Van Gennep 1909). Mā'ohi (Polynesian) and Christian customs do not necessarily borrow from each other or beget new rituals, rather they are frequently intertwined. The separation of the two is not always particularly beneficial: it is to our greater advantage to observe the rites in their inter-related and intrinsic unity, all the more so if they are experienced that way. At this point we must also add that contrasting traditional Tahitian rites with modern Christian rituals may also mean overlooking the semi-pagan dimensions retained in Judeo-Christian traditions, notably in the worship of relics, whether of the newborn or the recently dead.

Returning to the terminology of tanura'a: although care should be taken in interpreting the indigenous vocabulary, it is productive to question the intimate kinship between people and the earth that is suggested in the etymology of ‘placenta’ and in the burial practices associated with it. For Tahitians, the placenta resembles a ‘core of earth’. Once again, one must be careful to agree on the meaning of terms and to guard against being misled by one's own lexical categories. Since in English “earth” denotes both a dimension (a geographical area or land) and a physical entity (soil), what should be made of the link between fenua as part of the lexeme pūfenua, and the concept of the land within which the placenta is ‘planted’ or buried.

Fenua comes from the first meaning above, that is, a geographical place or area, but even so ambiguity remains since this piece of flesh, the pūfenua, is physical matter. Interestingly, in Tahiti, earth as matter is termed one (sand), repo (that also means soiled) and, even at times, vari (the same word that is used to denote menstruation). However, this is not the only paradox: the life-giving placenta, a bloody-female product, is likened to muddy earth that can soil or stain. Another opposite and positive image of the earth and woman also surfaces when one considers ‘placenta’ as a vital territory or universe to which people are intrinsically attached, like an infant is attached to its mother's flesh.

Therefore, to elucidate these matters, I start by envisaging the placenta as a ‘core of land’ in the territorial sense. Then I consider how, upon this territory, a continuity of life, notably, fructification, is manifest between people, the earth and the plants that issue forth from it—;a continuity that the ritual of placental burial manifests and perhaps reinforces. Finally, I will discuss the matter of its impurity, through a comparison between the placenta and the pito (umbilical cord).

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The placenta, as ‘core of land’, may perhaps be conceived as a primordial island, a first bit of ground or land attachment inside the nautical world of uterine water enclosed by the maternal membranes. 3 We should not be surprised at the poetry of this image: in Polynesia, there is no land without the ocean; and in Polynesian cosmogony islands are often marine beings fished from the depths, towed away and then stabilised by heroes or gods.

If ‘core of land’ is the right meaning to be inferred from the etymology of pūfenua, the relation of people to land is metaphorical: the placenta is not land, but like land. This metaphor operates through a sort of “topomorphism” or inverse anthropomorphism, since it originates from land that we attempt to uncover in people.

Normally, it is the inverse objective that is manifested in anthropomorphic representations, whereby people seek to read in their surroundings or in the environment that they inhabit—and not which inhabits them—the images of their own bodies. Thus, carvings on a rock at Tahaa (in the Leeward Islands) are said to be the footprints of the god Hiro, and on Huahine, in the same archipelago, a mountain is called Hiro's phallus owing to its perceived phallic form. Then too, the entire island of Huahine is described by its inhabitants as having the form of a recumbent pregnant woman and, indeed, this outline is apparent in the summits seen from the water's edge in the village of Fare.

Therefore, in Polynesia, the assimilation of the human body with a landmass would seem to begin before birth via the image of the placenta as ‘core of land’. However unusual this may seem, it is far from being unique, as demonstrated in Michel Cartry's (1982) studies of the Gourmantché in Burkina Faso. For Gourmantché, the symbol of the placenta as the infant's territory is even more explicit, since the human body is described by an opposition between the immensity of the jungle—comparable to the ocean for the Polynesians—and the area of the village. Just as the placenta is perceived as the “area of the foetus”, the area of the village constitutes a “body-space”:

…the great spatial divisions—of the village—(what are mistakenly called the four quarters of the horizon) being sometimes designated by reference to the presumed organs of the ‘body earth one’: ‘towards the mouth of the earth’, ‘towards the anus of the earth’, ‘in the belly of the earth’ are the ways people express themselves to indicate an intention to move towards the west, the east, or the middle of the village respectively (Cartry 1982:221).

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This tendency towards a reciprocal assimilation of humanity and earth, or of some of the geographical features of the latter, is probably universal (see Berry 1994). In the Tahitian area, where refined language frequently refers to ‘the body of an island’ (te tino o te ho'e fenua), it is uniquely expressed through the concept of a navel (pito) for each island. This is not a matter of seeking the navel of the entire world, but simply local evocations of a particular point as the navel of each island. This symbolism joins that of the placenta as ‘pit of land’ and leads us to consider the totality of topomorphic and anthropomorphic tendencies found in this culture.

A recent field study in the Austral and Leeward Islands confirms some of these disappearing traditions. It also justifies the restitution of various interpretations of the expression ‘navel of an island’. The extremely rich symbolism of the navel and umbilical cord applied to humanity has become complicated by an imprecision among most present-day speakers of Tahitian in distinguishing between these two objects. 4 In speaking of the human body, most use the word pito to express either ‘cord’ or ‘navel’, whereas purists distinguish pito ‘umbilical cord’ from tumu pito ‘origin or stump of this cord’, that is, ‘navel’. Concerning the body of an island, it would make no sense to allude to its umbilical cord; nevertheless the term pito (cord) is used to designate its navel. Furthermore, it is often difficult to distinguish between the island's papa ‘pedesta/foundation’, its tumu ‘origin/source/stump’ and its pito ‘navel’. These are rather interchangeable terms because the navel (pito) of an island is generally considered to be its source or point of origin (tumu).

In Polynesian mythology, islands were either caught like fish by a god or demi-god, or brought up from the depths of the ocean by the progressive rising of a rock or stratum called papa. The rising-rock type of birth mainly occurs in the Tuamotu myths, where, unsurprisingly, the western-most atoll, Mataiva, has a raised coral slab called Mataiva papa or Te papa no Mataiva ‘rock support foundation of Mataiva’ This slab is also considered to be its navel: the papa and the pito are one, symbolising a birthplace, a place of genesis. 5

Even if an expression meaning ‘placenta of an island’ does not exist in Tahitian, the meaning of pito (used here as ‘navel’) of an island recalls twice over human placenta. It does so, firstly, in a symbolic mode, since it is the origin of life, a point of anchorage, and thus pit or heart; secondly, and more simply, in a physical or geographic sense, it designates the centre. Recall that the lexeme , compounded with fenua in pūfenua (placenta), means ‘pit’ or ‘core’, but the pit is not only the nourishing source of an object, it is also, in simpler terms, its centre. is also, in Tahitian, an element in the formation of place names: ropū ‘among, in the midst of’ and - 132 rotopū ‘between’, expressing also the idea of the centre. 6 It is for this reason that when questioned about the meaning of the concept of the pito of an island, some saw it more as a location than a symbol: te ropū o te fenua or te ropūra'a o te fenua, ‘the centre of this earth’ or ‘the focal point of this earth’. Yet one concept persists from the comparison of the placenta of an infant to the navel of a land conceived as its centre: that of an anchor at the pit of a stomach, of a nurturing body of earth.

Logically, the navel of an island should be located at its middle; however, given the great diversity of form among the islands of Polynesia (atolls with a central lagoon, high islands, twin islands sharing the same lagoon, etc.), this is far from being the case. Rurutu in the Austral Islands is the most perfect and obvious example of an island with a navel; here, a stone placed almost in the centre of the mountains is deemed the navel and geographical centre. Legend recalls that the seven Hiro gods did not readily proclaim this spot as the centre, for after having named the mountain Erai, as the pito o Rurutu ‘the navel of Rurutu’, they realised that it was not in the centre and chose another spot at the foot of Mount Manureva as the location of the navel.

A mountain, a stone, a rock, even a tuft of trees, as on Rimatara (Austral Islands), can represent the navel of the island. 7 On Tahiti, some maintain that the entire high valley of Papenoo, centre of the main crater of the island, is the navel. 8 On Raivavae (Australs), the navel of the island is not in the mountainous interior but on the coast, identified by a large rock located at the exit of the village of Mahanatoa. This latter example shows that the navel of an island is not necessarily located in the mountains of high islands.

Huahine, in the Leeward Islands, offers a special case since it is really made up of two land masses, presently joined by a bridge. 9 Yet, the names and identities are not separated—the south island is called Huahine-iti (small Huahine) and the north island Huahine-nui (large Huahine). The unusual form of this double island causes those few locals who are still interested in the navel question to locate its ‘navel’ on the perimeter of the central bay formed by the joining of the two islands. This concave bay, as seen from the surrounding heights, has the form of a receptacle, of a sort of vagina. This then corresponds with the meaning of the island's name: Huahine, sexual organ (hua) of woman (hine).

The most intriguing case of an island's ‘navel’ is Tupuai (Tubuai) in the Austral Islands, where the inhabitants maintain that the ‘navel’ is located on another island, Maiao—also referred to as Tupuai manu (Tupuai bird) —700km away. According to legend, a bird (manu), fed up with the people's fractious belligerency and individualism, punished them by stealing their island's ‘navel’. The bird deposited it very far away in the ocean, in the - 133 form of a rock or rounded mountain that is Maiao Island. Even today, the inhabitants of Tupuai characterise themselves as lacking constancy and tiring easily from their tasks, unlike non-natives who promptly complete their jobs. 10 This case shows us that an island's ‘navel’ is not simply a geographic centre, the middle of a body, and that, wherever it is placed, it is also symbolically a transmitter of energy, the beginning and the end of the umbilical cord itself, bearer of the breath of life to the infant.


In summary, Polynesian infants are born attached by their navel to a parcel of land pūfenua, and islands also have a navel. Burial of the placenta (‘core of land’) and, occasionally, the umbilical cord reinforces the continuity of mutual belonging and assimilation between the person and the earth. This does not mean precisely that a Polynesian is issued forth from or “born of the land”, to use the title of Nicole Loraux's fine book on the ancient Greek myths of autochthony. She writes (1996:9-10),

There are at least two fashions in which mankind can issue from the earth; in some myths, such as the Platonic myth of the gÊgeneis, and also the Athenian or Thebian myths of autochthony (from autochthon, born of the very—autos—earth—chthon—of the country or native land), man … resurges from the earth as a plant emerges from the ground or the child from the womb. According to other myths, such as the Hesodic recounting of the creation of woman, the human creature—here, the woman, and we shall see that the opposition of the sexes is not without meaning—made of earth and modelled by an artisan god, is the product of a process of fabrication. Earth-fields, earth-matter, soil or clay….

Such were the two ways of being “born from the earth” in Greek antiquity.

For purposes of comparison, Polynesian myths, in the main, belong to the first of these forms of creation, although there are creation myths in which man and/or woman are said to be created from the very matter of earth. 11 Yet even in the first type, i.e., emergence, people do not arise from the ground as a plant does. Plants, which emerge from the womb of the land or come from transformation in human beings, are part of a process that involves three elements: earth, plants and human. It is thus in the context of the process of procreation that we can understand why in Tahiti the placenta as ‘core of land’, after having served to nourish the foetus, is destined to be ‘planted’ next to a tree.

Of course, this kind of relation of continuity between earth, plants and humanity can be observed elsewhere, as noted in Pascale Bonnemère's comparative study (2000:35) of the placenta in Oceania (with particular references to Strathern's 1982 and Merrett-Balkos' 1998 works on Papua - 134 New Guinea). Here I focus on Tahitian mythology and traditions.

In Tahiti, the first plants are said to be the feathers of the creator god Ta'aroa that have fallen to earth and taken root; afterwards, they are joined by other plants that originated in human bodies. Examples include the stalk of the tuber 'ape (Alocosia macrorrhiza), born from a man's flank, and the taro (Colocasia esculenta), “produced from the feet of man” (Henry 1928:421). These two vegetables are the staples of Hawaiian and Tahitian diets. Also of note is a Hawaiian type of taro called ‘navel’, in which the base of the leaf resembles a navel. According to legends still known to all Tahitians, the human Ruataata saved his children from starvation by turning himself into a life-giving breadfruit tree. This tree, tumu 'uru (Artocarpus altilis), is described as a body whose torso is the trunk, branches are arms and legs, leaves are hands, and whose fruit is the head.

Tales relating the origin of the coconut tree in Tahiti and in the Tuamotus are almost identical. The first three trees of this species are identified with the dead children of the woman Pito 'ura/‘Red navel’ (Henry 1928:421-23) whose head resembles the coconut with its hair—the outer fibrous husk, mouth and eyes. This head is purported to have a brain, the uto, a spongy matter that grows within the white nut meat and is nourished by the coconut's water.

Morphological similarities between certain plants or parts of plants and human organs further encourage this type of comparison. Thus, in Tahiti, the veined leaves of the taro are seen as resembling the lungs. Most interesting is that certain plants have received the same name as the organ to which they are compared, and vice versa. For example, the māpe tree (Inocarpus fagifer) produces a kidney-shaped edible tropical chestnut, whose Tahitian name designates the same organ. Sometimes, local medicine men apply practices that evoke associative theories, such as seeking treatments for liver disorders in the root of the fern nahe (Angiopteris evecta) whose form imitates the human organ.

Returning to the placenta in this continuous engendering of gods, people, lands and plants: there are many legends that describe the ‘core of earth’ also giving birth to plants and to human or semi-human creatures. The legend of Ta'arii and Hei-'ura-i-te-ra'i on the island of Tahaa recounts such an instance. They are the descendants of Tuturi-i-te-hau-tama, who had left Tahaa to settle on Raiatea, the twin island of Tahaa and located in the same lagoon. 12 Ta'ari'i and Hei-'ura-i-te-ra'i are also twins who share the same placenta. 13 At birth they were put into a gourd drifting towards their parents' island, Tahaa. There, at Niva-Poutoru, they were rescued by an elderly couple. The man cut their umbilical cord with a bamboo stick and went off ‘to plant’ their pūfenua in the mountains. This was to give birth to an - 135 enormous vine whose elongated form is reminiscent of their umbilical cord and produces seeds called tataramoa parcelled by twos, twin-like, in the same pod, and in the shape of a placenta. 14

Again, on Bora Bora in the Leeward Islands, the legend of Heitarauri, king of the sharks, recounts the story an amphibious human born from a placenta abandoned in the bulrushes (Manutahi 1982:81-87, 167-73). Having glided towards the sea, it becomes a child raised by two sharks. On Tahiti, the mischievous giant Hono'ura, one of the best-known characters in Tahitian mythology, is also said to have been born enveloped in a shapeless mass called pū-maruea that his father was preparing to bury as a placenta (Henry 1928:520). The eight-headed Tahitian demi-god Māui (Māui-upon-varu), also referred to as Māui-pūfenua (Henry 1928:408), is similar to the last two characters. In each of these cases, a special meaning of the term pūfenua is used: ordinarily the word designates the placenta, but in the case of Māui it clearly refers to a still-born or aborted child (tamari'i ma'iri pūfenua). Here, the placenta is associated with other solid and liquid elements contained in the maternal membranes, perceived in its entirety as a formless mass: the Tahitian text, in the case of Māui, speaks of “an earthy clod, like a jellyfish”.

In Eastern Polynesia, the continuity of creation and procreation between earth, plants and people is thus realised through burial of the placenta ‘core of land’ close to a tree, in a relationship that is both rooted in and opens onto an ongoing fecundity. However, the main paradox of the placenta is that it is simultaneously a physical body without form, an imperfect body destined to become a cadaver and therefore, at best, its function is to nourish the earth. And, it is as a source of great symbolic worth owing to its close association with the giving of life. I now turn to a second aspect of the placenta, moving from territory and cause of a growth to object or matter.


Analysing the treatment of the placenta and the umbilical cord by the ancient Māori of New Zealand and the Maohi of Tahiti, Alain Babadzan rightly emphasises the parallelism in the rites of embalming and dissecting cadavers and

… those rituals at the time of birth, when the emphasis was placed upon handling—at separate times—of these two corporal substances, respectively the placenta, disposed of at the time of birth by burial or ‘killing’, and the umbilical cord which is set apart for conservation until it is thoroughly dry. In both rituals, it is a matter of ridding oneself of a substance symbolising impurity (be it feminine or cadaverous) in order to be able to then conserve another category of organic substance, that is umbilical cord and skull, - 136 veritable relics preserved to attest, each in its own way, to the achievement of integration of the newborn into the social universe and of the dead into the ancestral universe (Babadzan 1986:132-33).

If it is appropriate to recall the traditional associations of the placenta with blood, putrescence and nature, as well as with its power of corruption and contagion, one also should not forget that the placenta and the umbilical cord, so alike physiologically, cannot be separated in the symbolism which binds them. For us, this identity is evident in the sameness, rather than diversity of treatments applied to them, as I explain in the last part of this essay.

Indeed, the placenta is less destroyed than hidden from view and human activity, when it is returned to its proper location, that is, to the ground or in some cases in the sea. One can contrast a statement by an inhabitant of Raivavae (Austral Islands) who affirms that in olden days, the pūfenua was boiled or cut up into pieces and thus killed, 15 with another by an old woman from Huahine (Leeward Islands) who affirms that it was ‘cared for’, coated with a medication from the Tahitian pharmacopoeia as was the child. These two surprising pieces of information are not entirely contradictory. The sectioning of the placenta or its purification by external treatment both aim to counter its potential negativity, linked to blood, in one case by killing it and in the other by attempting to control it.

The placenta, like the umbilical cord, is closely associated with the symbolism of life (ora) and of breath (aho), both of which are transmitted to the child. If the placenta is a nurturing force, the cord represents the canal through which this force is conveyed until the moment a double event takes place: the child breathes alone and the transfer of blood from the placenta into the newborn's body stops. That is why Polynesians traditionally wait until the cord has ceased pulsing, until the blood has fully flowed into the child, before cutting the umbilical cord. Teuira Henry (1928:183) also relates the ritual of a royal child's birth in ancient Tahiti: “The infant was allowed to cry long and breathe freely so as to receive full life (iho) from his mother, after which it was severed with the razor-like outside edge of a piece of bamboo….” The ritual was accompanied by a song recited by the paia (family doctor) evoking the sacred character (tapu) of the cord, bearer of ‘long breath’ (pito aho roa).

It is understandable that, for Tahitians, the child exists as a human being only at the time the umbilical cord that separates body from placenta is cut. This is why infanticide, widely practised in Tahiti when the first Europeans arrived, was performed after the birth but before the cord was cut (see Ellis 1972:169, Oliver 1974:425). Accordingly, from this moment, the placenta - 137 passes from a state of living matter to one of dead matter, dangerous to others unless buried in the ground, where it will continue to be part of the growth process of both the child and surrounding natural elements. The explanation here may be that the negativity of the placenta is, in a sense, “neutralised” or “channelled” by the earth.

The idea is implicit in Babadzan's reference (1983:87) to Best's description (1906:19) of New Zealand Māori practice. Best wrote that the placenta “is taken away from the village and buried, as it is looked upon as being tapu, as also is the place where it is buried, which is carefully avoided by the people”. Babadzan adds that the place of burial is “off of the beaten path, often near the latrines” (Babadzan 1983:87, my translation). Māori practice totally contradicts traditional Marquesan practices and those still observed in the Austral Islands in French Polynesia. Indeed, Louis Rollin (1974:87) reports that in the Marquesas “the placenta was buried in the middle of a path which thereafter helped women who crossed it to become pregnant”. In the Australs, even today, the placenta is buried at the threshold of the child's home, the busiest path possible. Best's commentary on the placenta as matter to be avoided undoubtedly evokes the impurity of a placenta in the open air, especially for males, which becomes dangerous to people only if it happens to be uncovered by animal or human action.

If the umbilical cord is a dried relic comparable to the bones or skull of the dead, it nonetheless remains, like the placenta, symbolically associated with the life given to the child, with the pulse and breath of life. Babadzan, again drawing on Best (1906:23-24), reports that in New Zealand, the umbilical cord, once dry and separated from the newborn, was cast into a river or at least sprinkled with water and then buried in a pleasant public spot where a tree could be planted whose growth would symbolise that of the child. This is convincing evidence that the placenta and the umbilical cord are not utterly different objects. It should also be noted that the umbilical cord was not really dried since it has been said that it was coated with oil or immersed in, or at least sprinkled with, water.

In the Austral Islands, some people still throw the umbilical cord into the ocean. The pito, which may have been conserved for a long period, is placed in a seashell ('apu ma'oa) and the baby's father drops it from his outrigger canoe into the open ocean. The depth the shell reaches in its descent is a predictor of the child's, especially a male child's, future prowess as a fisherman. The difference between the custom of immersion and that of disposing of the cord under a rock of the family shrine (marae) a few days following the birth as reported by Teuira Henry (1928:184) is unsurprising. Perhaps there is no real contradiction here, given she is reporting the birth of a royal child. She also relates that

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…the sea was the ‘supreme’ marae, into which princes, priests, and the people plunged to wash off crime and pollution of all kinds, their sins, spiritual and temporal. On the seaside the wanderer or exile who owned no land worshipped his god… there he offered his newborn child to his tutelary god (Henry 1928: 143-44). 16

When questioned about the possibility of immersing the umbilical cord, some people recall a long abandoned practice of placing the placenta in the passes of coral reefs. The symbolic dimension of the practice is particularly evident here. The pass being the focal point between the interior and the exterior, immersion symbolically followed in the opposite direction the pathway taken by the placenta at the time it was expelled from the uterus. Two of the people I interviewed suggested that this practice might have pertained specifically to the families of the 'aito ‘warriors’ who guarded the passes to forestall attacks from other islands. Here, again, this could refer to male children more than to female children. Another possible reason for this immersion in an aquatic milieu or even in damp earth is furnished by Handy, who notes (1923:73) in the Marquesas Islands a link of vitality between the placenta and the infant.

Yet, if some Polynesians opt for an underwater environment as the final destination of the placenta and especially the umbilical cord, others insist that both should be buried in a garden or at the threshold of a house. 17 In considering the diverse practices found in the great ensemble of Polynesian societies, contradictory cases surface sporadically. It may therefore seem pointless to seek to oppose systematically:

the placenta and the decomposing body on the one hand, the umbilical cord and relics on the other, as the membrane is to the core, wet to dry, putrescible to non-putrescible, organic to inorganic, polluted to non-polluted, feminine to masculine, destructible to indestructible and the immanent to the transcendent (Badabzan 1983:96).

As matter, the placenta is obviously more dangerous, more corruptible than hair, teeth or even an umbilical cord detached from the navel. At any rate, the placenta and its prolongation, the umbilical cord, are symbolically associated with an identical function: transmission of life. This is why they are often treated and disposed of similarly.

One must also remember their identifying function—that which serves to link a child and his family, and links the burial site to the memory of one's birthplace, one's island, and, in the past, one's marae—particularly if the burial has been marked by planting a tree.

Whenever the placenta or the pito are buried right at the threshold of the - 139 home, there is an obvious connection with the extended family living there. Such households, generally formed of three generations, are called ōpūfeti'i ‘belly of parenthood’. Therefore, the placenta quite logically finds its place at the entrance of a house, before, behind or inside of which the dead are buried, and within which the living live. This practice used to be observed on Rurutu and still is on Raivavae. Thus far I have mainly spoken of the placenta in the context of cadavers. I now turn to its bond with the living. 18

There is also a third function related particularly to the Austral archipelago that its people attribute to the burial of the placenta at the entrances of houses. Babadzan calls it “prophylactic”, reporting that for the inhabitants of Rurutu, the burial is expected

to protect the child from an excess of ha'ama (shame or timidity)… and permit him to frequent others without fear, that is to not hesitate crossing the threshold of the house (the house being metaphorically conceived as the maternal and feminine milieu), and to give himself over to group and external activities (1983:89).

If this feminine aspect of the house is undeniable, it would be incorrect to consider that qualities of sociability are exerted from the inside to the outside. According to all my informants, the burial of the placenta in this spot ensures children's sociability. In this manner, children easily relocate the door of their house, which they enter erect (e tomo ti'a 'ōna i roto), without effacing themselves, without fear or shame (aore e tāpuni, aore e haamā, aore a taiā), without going behind (eiaha 'ōna is haere nā muri), without bending their head or their back (aore e 'ōpipiri). 19 When children are adopted fa'a'amu—literally: ‘nourished’—and grow up in another house, a common situation in Polynesia, the fact that their placenta was buried in front of a house other than that in which they live causes absolutely no problem.

On the island of Tubuai, some people remember that they also used to bury the heads of turtles fished from the sea at the threshold. The turtle's eyes were to be turned towards the house, in the axis of the front door. Before the invention and commercialisation of underwater harpoon guns in the 1960s, the islanders fished turtles with harpoons while standing in their outrigger canoes, much in the manner of whale fishing. It was important to strike the unprotected part of the turtle, that is, its neck, from the front. Burying the head of the animal in front of the house affected the success of the future catch, with the next turtle hunted supposedly coming forward head on (nā mua), thus facilitating its capture. This practice is akin to the manipulation of the puna i 'a, a stone carved in the shape of a particular fish, and whose pattern of location, near the passes or fish farms, ensured - 140 that the fish depicted would be caught in abundance. In each of these cases, the goal is to maximise growth, fertility, docility, sociability of a human being or of an animal.

In summary, the principal difference between an “ordinary cadaver” and this dead matter, that is the ejected placenta once life has passed from it to the child, is that a putrescent cadaver will at least leave bones and teeth, relics that the placenta cannot leave. Therefore, it must return to nature, to the sea or to the earth, and continue to be only symbolically associated with the transmission of life, just like the umbilical cord attached to it.

In the last pages of his work Mythologiques: Le cru et le cuit, Claude Lévi-Strauss (1964:343) observes that

simultaneously or alternatively, rites offer man the means to either modify a practical situation, or to design and describe it. Most frequently, the two functions overlap, or translate two complementary aspects of a same process. But, whereas the power of magic thought tends to weaken and when rites take on a vestigial character, only the second function survives.

The example of rites relative to the placenta and the umbilical cord illustrate this duality of functions, and, in turn, the perspective opened by Lévi-Strauss permits an advance beyond the difficult question of the opposition between the two objects.

In Eastern Polynesia, the rites that are linked to them first of all show a natural continuity between earth and placenta (pūfenua), and the people and plants that issue forth from them, as I showed in the first part of this essay. This continuity is not strictly of a metaphorical sort, since it gives results, it acts. In Tahitian myths, this is really a question of a reciprocal dynamic engenderment. Burial rites or the immersion of the pūfenua and the pito are generally part of Lévi-Strauss' first category of rites, those that modify a practical situation. They transform, they act, in the sense that they have consequences for the life of newborns and upon their characteristics.

Thus, the contrast between the placenta and the umbilical cord is not the essential question because they are not physically or ontologically in opposition one to the other; rather it is people, via rituals, who have separated them. 20 Sometimes, ritual not only describes and recalls a continuity between people and life-giving earth, but actually produces a result. Other times, ritual celebrates simply and symbolically. Then, it is not even rudimentary description: it is note-taking.

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To be fair, the Polynesian example allows us to deduce the reciprocal influence of matter on ritual and vice versa. The cord, a dried relic, is more likely to be integrated in the rites of commemoration than is the placenta, which is less easy to manipulate because it is meant to corrupt and is destined to be part of rites of transformation and efficacy. Essentially, it is by rituals that objects acquire their significance, as Pierre Smith remarks (1982:107-8) concerning the bull-roarer (an ancient, simple, and widespread sacred musical instrument made of oblong plaques of wood, metal, or bone, that are turned and spun at the end of a long string):

…the bullroarer is of no interest from a musical point of view… it becomes a “sacred” object only when it is made part of a preconceived ritual schema, but once it is part of such a schema, it brings its own characteristics along with it, and it is on this common base that cultures elaborate various but deeply related glosses (1982:107-8).

I hope to have persuasively accounted here for the Tahitian glosses and traditions relative to the placenta, whose relationship with other glosses and other practices will henceforth appear more obvious.

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  • Babadzan, Alain, 1983. Une perspective pour deux passages. Notes sur la représentation traditionnelle de la naissance et de la mort en Polynésie. L'Homme, XXIII(3):81-99.
  • ——1986. De la naissance à la mort. In C. Gleizal (ed.), Encyclopédie de la Polynésie vo1.5. pp.121-36. Papeete: C. Gleizal.
  • Best, Elsdon, 1906. The lore of the Whare Kohanaga, Part II. Journal of the Polynesian Society, 15:1-26.
  • Berry, W., 1994. The body and the earth. Psychanalytic Review, 81(1):125-70.
  • Bonnemère, Pascale, 2000. Le traitement du placenta en Océanie. Des sens diffé;rents pour une mÊme pratique. Sciences Sociales et Santé, XXII:29-36.
  • Cartry, Michel, 1982. From the village to the bush. An essay on the Gourmantché of Gobnangou (Upper Volta). In M. Izard and P. Smith (eds), Between Belief and Transgression. Structuralist Essays in Religion, History, and Myth. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, pp.210-28.
  • Ellis, William, 1972 [1829]. Polynesian Researches During a Residence of Nearly 8 Years in the Society and Sandwich Islands. 2 vols. Paris: Musée de l'Homme.
  • Handy, E.S.C., 1923. The Native Culture in the Marquesas. Bernice P. Bishop Museum, Bulletin 9, Honolulu. [Kraus reprint 1986].
  • Hanson, Allan, 1970. Ragan Lifeways. Society and History of a Polynesian Island. Boston: Little, Brown and Co.
  • Henry, Teuira, 1928. Ancient Tahiti. Bernice P. Bishop Museum, Honolulu. [Kraus reprint 1985].
  • Hiro, Emile T., 1985. Lé;gende de Hau-Manava-i-tu. Bulletin de la Société des Etudes Océaniennes, 23:35-37.
  • ——1997. A parau no Huahine. In F. Vana'a (ed.), Hei pua ri'i II. Papeete: Académie tahitienne, pp.30-33.
  • Lévi-Strauss, Claude, 1964. Mythologiques. Le cru et le cuit. Paris: Plon.
  • Loraux, Nicole, 1996. Né de la terre. Mythe et politique à Athénes. Paris: Le Seuil.
  • Manutahi, Charles T., 1982. Contes et légendes de la Polynésie. Le secret des livres tupuna, te parau huna a te mau tupuna. Papeete: Polytram/Te hiro'a maohi tumu.
  • Marau Taaroa, 1971. Mémoires de Marau Taaroa. Paris: Musée de l'Homme—Société des Océanistes, no.27.
  • Merrett-Balkos, L., 1998. Just add water: Remaking women through childbirth, Anganen, Southern Highlands, Papua New Guinea. In M. Jolly and K. Ram - 145 (eds), Maternities and Modernities: Colonial and Postcolonial Experiences in Asia and the Pacific. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp.213-38.
  • Oliver, Douglas, 1974. Ancient Tahitian Society. 3 vols. Honolulu: The University Press of Hawaii.
  • Panoff, Michel, 1964. Les structures agraires en Polynésie française. Paris: Centre documentaire pour l'Océanie.
  • ——1970. La terre et l'organisation sociale en Polynésie. Paris: Payot.
  • Rollin, Louis, 1974. Mœurs et coutumes des anciens Maoris des îles Marquises. Papeete: Stepolde.
  • Saura, Bruno, 2000. Le placenta en Polynésie franccedil;aise: un choix de santé publique confronté à des questions identitaires. Sciences Sociales et Santé, XXII:1-23.
  • Smith, Pierre, 1982. Aspects of the organization of rites. In M. Izard and P. Smith (eds), Between Belief and Transgression. Structuralist Essays in Religion, History, and Myth. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, pp.103-28.
  • Strathern, A., 1982. Witchcraft, greed, cannibalism and death: Some related themes from the New Guinea Highlands. In M. Bloch and J. Perry (eds), Death and the Regeneration of Life. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp.111-33.
  • Van Gennep, Arnold, 1909. Les rites de passage. Paris: Emile Nourry.

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1   A 1997 study of 192 births at the public hospital of Mama'o-Papeete revealed that one in two Polynesian mothers took the placenta with them on leaving the hospital. In rural maternity hospitals and on neighbouring islands the proportion of placentas conserved reached 80 to 90 percent (see Saura 2000).
2   One measures here all the ambiguity of the rupture with traditional religion and social order despite the radical character of the change experienced in Tahiti and its neighbouring islands between 1815 and 1830.
3   The envelope of the child is in fact the pocket (pū'ohu) containing both the placenta (pūfenua) and water (pape). The loss of the water by rupture of the membrane preceding birth, is called te fa'aruera 'a i te pape tamari'i (infantile abandonment and rejection of the water). The fatty substance enrobing the infant at birth is called para.
4   The symbolism of the umbilical cord is in fact notably the physical expression of the intimate connection between two bodies, two human beings. In her Mémoirés, Marau 1(1972:181) the last Queen of Tahiti, relates the words of Chief Tuiterai to his relative and rival Tavihauroa, recalling the family ties linking them: “The same umbilical cord holds our two navels”. In the Tahiti of times past, a military formation consisting of marching together, two by two, was also referred to as te pito (the cord) (Ellis 1972:188).
5   Easter Island is also known in Polynesia as Te pito o to henua (Navel of the earth) but this seems to be a recent designation.
6   In Tahitian, the head of an octopus (fe'e) is its its central point: pū fe'e. In the Marquesas, the placenta is precisely referred to as pūfe'efe'e. In modern Tahitian, a capital, a megalopolis is called 'oire pū, from the Greek oikos: city and from the Tahitien : centre.
7   Conversation with the aptly named Protestant pastor Viriamu Tepito (the navel) 7 July 1997.
8   See the daily newspaper La DépÊche de Tahiti, 22 July 1997, p. 24.
9   According to the ex-Mayor Pita Oopa (interviewed 20 July 1997), the existing cement bridge was symbolically named Te pito o Huahine (the umbilical cord/navel of Huahine) at its inauguration in the early 1960s. Emile Hiro (1997:31) is in error when he refers to the bridge as Te pūfenua o Mata'irea, the placenta of Mata'irea (ancient name for Huahine); proof nevertheless, and I will return to this later, of a relative lack of symbolic distinction between the placenta and the umbilical cord.
10   Panoff (1970:83) confirms this: “Whereas the traditions… generally arrive at confirming the indigenous origin of the chieftaincy, there is nothing to be found at Tubuai, neither legend or genealogy, nor the records of the first voyagers to arrive there to confirm that the upper class was not formed by families from the exterior”.
11   On Tahiti, the first man created by the will of the god Ta'aroa is Ti'i, one of whose complete names is Ti'i-ahu-one: Ti'i clothed in sand (Henry 1928:402). He is linked with Hina-te-'u'uti, herself daughter of Ta'aroa and the goddess Hina. In New Zealand, it is the first woman who bears the name Hine-ahu-one: Hina clothed in sand.
12   This legend, partially reproduced in Hiro 1985, was told to me in June 1997 at Tahaa by Vincent Ruahe. I had been directed to him by the island's sage, Paimore Tehuitua, who preferred that a family legend from the district of Niua-Poutoru be recounted by the descendants of Tuturi-i-to-Hau-tams and his three brothers Ruahe-Hei-arii, Ruahe-Rarape and Ruahe-Mahuta. The inhabitants of Tahaa remember perfectly that during the 1960s a dance group from a neighbouring village staged this legend. During the performance a dancer very seriously injured himself with a bamboo lance. Even today at Tahaa the accident's cause is unanimously considered to be the fact that the dancer was not a part of the Ruahe family, nor originally from Niua-Poutoru, a village only a few kilometres distant.
13   This recurrence of twinning is interesting because the placenta is, after a fashion, the double of the foetus. However, Polynesian societies do not evidence the same interest in twins shown by some African societies. For the previously cited Gourmantché of Faso Burkina, the instance of twins sharing the same placenta, that is, the same territory, presents a problem: the normal infant, considered to be identical with this “body of the body” which is the village territory, will by consequence be the opposite of the “bad twin” of the pair, as the opposite of “the child of a single birth hesitating to cross a threshold, and the adult female twin about to be married” (Cartry 1982:226).
On the whole, the only indication of a special postnatal treatment of twins by ancient Tahitians occurs on the island of Maupiti where there is a sort of safe, composed of four upright stones, called te pito na maeha'a ‘the twin's navel’. Legend recounts the umbilical cord of male twins, To'atea and To'auri, born of a union between the woman Te'urafa'atiu (also the name of Maupiti's highest peak) and Tea'tapu of Raiatea (name of a mountain of Faaroa-Raiatea) were conserved here. Te'ura and Tea'tapu separated while Te'ura was pregnant and she returned to Maupiti. Tea'tapu wanted the pito (cord) of his infants returned and either buried or disposed of on the marae of Taputapuatea at Raiatea, in order that the cord would ‘pull’ (huti) the infants, bring them back to life on that island. But his desire was not respected; the cord was already hidden in the safe at Maupiti. This site is on the northern part of the island and is called Hotu a'e, a name shared with the mountain that dominates the area (Conversation with Poni Tavaearii-Tuheiava, 7 August 1998).
14   Teuira Henry (1928:182, 373) relates that in the bosom of the chiefs' families in pre-contact Tahiti, women gave birth behind the marae, in a small building constructed for that specific purpose and called fare rau maire: fern house, because it was covered with the fern maire. This fern was considered sacred and to have a beneficial effect since it was found hanging from the fare tree, the tree itself created from the umbilical cord of the god Tāne.
15   The Tahitian midwife, Raquel Blakelock, also remembers having seen in 1960, at Rapa, the placenta of an infant interred in the interior of one of the island's two remaining traditional houses. Before burial it was kneaded and mixed with mint—miri—leaves, the same herb once used to embalm the dead and commonly employed, even today, as protection against evil spells.
16   A traditional Tahitian incantation demands that the body's iho ‘essence’, that is the hair, the nails and even used clothing, be thrown down the pit of the marae, or into the ocean's depths.
17   The already mentioned myth of the pūfenua of Māui-with-eight-heads also echoes this. His parents believing the formless mass was a dead infant, enveloped it in a cloth made from the bark of the breadfruit tree and threw it into the ocean.
18   Hanson (1970:39), who studied these practices at Rapa (Austral Islands) during the 1960s, wrote that “when the placenta is expelled, Rapans customarily bury it under the floor or threshold of the family home….” Michel Panoff investigated a similar custom in Tahiti and other islands in French Polynesia. Nearly all his informants explained that the buried placenta establishes an “indestructible tie which will oblige the infant, become adult, to return to the family land, regardless of the voyages he might undertake” (Panoff 1964:118-19).
19   Taken from discussions with Taunoa Tanepa'u and Cesar Teinauri at Tupuai and with Mata'ura Flores and Grégoire Rono Tumarae of Raivavae in July 1997. In reference to the sectioning of the umbilical cord at the moment of birth, Taunoa Tanepa'u of Tubuai is the only one to add that the length of the cord left attached to the infant's abdomen was determined by the distance separating the infant's navel from his knee (turi 'avae) upon which the cord was stretched before sectioning. The mother must also moisten the navel with several drops of her milk to assure proper cicatrisation. This practice is confirmation that the anti-inflammatory virtues of the antibodies in mother's milk were well known to the Polynesians who also used this same milk to treat ocular infections.
20   Thus one must avoid thinking “… that the most widespread ritual procedures (would) derive from an arbitrarily borrowed or reconstructed symbolism with universal pretensions, and which claim to reveal, for example, the ultimate or original signification of sacrifice, circumcision, or initiation” (Smith 1982:107), as here the symbolic signification of the placenta or of the umbilical cord.