Volume 98 1989 > Volume 98, No. 3 > The seasonality of power: the Rarotongan legend of Tangiia, bu J. Sissons, p 331-348
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Anthropological inquiry into the past discourses and practices of chiefly power in Polynesia has gained renewed impetus of late. In particular, Marshall Sahlins' structuralist informed, yet historically situated, analyses of the discursive and ritual dimensions of hierarchy, most notably in Hawaii, Fiji, and New Zealand, have drawn attention to a widely shared set of notions concerning the relationship between humanity and divinity (Sahlins, 1981, 1985a, 1985b). Of related concern has been the apparently contradictory conceptions of chiefly power, both productive and destructive, transcendant yet transformative, from “above” yet socially produced and reproduced. Howard (1985) and Valeri (1985) have argued that narratives relating to the establishment and transformation of political order in Rotuma and Hawaii are primarily attempts to resolve or mediate such contradictions. In this paper I address these and other related issues through an analysis of the Rarotongan legend of Tangiia, a narrative that recounts the political career of Tangiia, his founding of a pre-Christian political order and his introduction of associated rituals and festivals. My focus will be on the temporal structure of the narrative, and I seek to demonstrate the imbeddedness of this structure in Rarotongan ceremonial and political life. Although my analysis is structuralist informed, I bring to it certain assumptions apparently not shared by others in search of mythical meaning. I begin, therefore, by distancing myself from a certain style of structuralist reasoning.

One structuralist approach to the interpretation of myth and legend assumes these stories to be attempts at cultural puzzle-solving, philosophical solutions to, or at least partial resolutions of, contradictions arising out of the way reality is categorised. In some instances, it seems, the same aspects of reality are included within two opposed categories, so posing a logical problem requiring an analogical solution. Hence the conclusion arrived at by Howard after his particularly thorough and incisive analysis of two Rotuman myths:

The problem in cultural logic confronting Rotumans in conceptualizing their political system arose from a set of categorical paradoxes associated with chieftainship: that chiefs are gods, but they are human; that they are people, but different from them; that they represent the unity of the polity, but have parochial interests within it (Howard 1985:71).

Howard suggests that underlying these paradoxes is an essential idea, a notion - 332 commonly held throughout traditional Polynesia:

In short, I suspect Polynesians conceived of people as more or less godlike, with the paradoxical dilemmas emerging in relation to specific instances (the myths being, in this view, an exploration of such instances) (Howard 1985:71).

In a similar vein, Valeri has argued that Hawaiians were philosophically troubled by their contradictory notion of chiefly power — it came from “below”, yet from “above”. As a “feudal” lord empowered by his vassals, the king was represented as a conqueror and usurper who transformed the social order, but, as a divine ruler empowered by the gods, he represented the continuity of social order; “the successful king is one who mediates the disordered and ordered aspects of power, who transforms a cause of disorder into a cause of order” (Valeri 1985:92). According to Valeri, this problem is addressed via a legend which recounts the rise to kingship of the Hawaiian hero, Umi. Umi, a “prince” born of a commoner woman, grows up not knowing his true father, the king. He eventually learns the true identity of his father and reveals this to him. However, upon the death of the king, Umi's older brother is nominated as supreme ruler, and Umi eventually leaves the court to live among commoners. Then, with support from “below”, Umi defeats his older brother and unites the entire island. Valeri argues that this legend:

attempts to prove that the two contradictory components of kingship (which must originate from ‘below’ and ‘above’ at the same time) are, in fact, not contradictory at all when considered as two stages of a process (1985:98).

The problem with this puzzle-solving conception of myths is that it must either impute an essential purpose to the myths (the exploration of categorical paradox) or impute this purpose, irrespective of context, to the tellers. To impute a purpose to a narrative that is independent of the narrator strikes me as philosophically unsound, since intentionality is surely the prerogative of a subject. To claim the exploration of categorical paradox as the intention of tellers is equally unsatisfactory since it is obvious that the reasons for narration, conscious and unconscious, vary greatly according to circumstances. Rather than impute intentionality to narratives or narrators — whether this be the exploration of cultural paradox or some other universally pressing issue — I think it important not to prejudge the ways in which the rationality of myth and legend informs and transforms the lived relationships of social practice. Myths, in my view, have no essential purpose. They are not, in essence, analogical answers to prior logical questions, nor functional charters for some prior institution. Rather, they are the discursive products of subjects reflecting on the lived relationships that are the condition of their subjectivity. Myth analysis, in this view, explores that condition by seeking to reveal the rationality of the lived relationships as they are represented within myth. This rationality, this temporal and atemporal order, may indeed embody paradox, but it is surely grossly reductive to centre our analysis on this feature in the belief that it will provide the key to the myth's innermost secrets. If, as - 333 Lévi-Strauss once observed, the world of myth is round, then there is no privileged point of entry.

While they are the products of socially constituted subjects, myths and legends are also important in the reproduction of that subjectivity. Polynesian narratives about chiefly power are also about those whose existence depends upon that power. As Sahlins, following Johansen, has noted, the Maori chief “lives the life of the whole tribe”, a notion by no means unique to the Maori. With the “heroic I” “the main relationships of society are at once projected historically and embodied currently in persons of authority” (Sahlins 1985a:47). To the extent that chiefs live the life of the collectivity, narratives about chiefly power also inform that life, and are reproductive of modes of subjectivity. They are discourses both about power and of power, a point well appreciated by Polynesian leaders. In this paper I seek to relate the legend of Tangiia to the ceremonial and historical reproduction of political order in Rarotonga. In so doing I argue that the legend is a discursive reflection on the lived temporality and seasonality of Rarotongan political life.


Rarotongan tradition informs us that Tangiia was primarily responsible for a political order within which a small number of high chiefs, or ariki, mediated between people and gods. Ariki had access to divine power and cultivated divine allegiance, yet in practice they were also elevated to their status by the mataiapo, titular heads of landholding groups. Indeed, Baltaxe has argued that, with respect to mataiapo, the ariki was simply ‘first among equals’, the two titles being “virtually identical in terms of effective powers in day to day matters” (Baltaxe MS 1975:192). The land-holding groups headed by mataiapo were known as ngati. They were cognatic descent groups, similar to the Maori hapu, in that members traced descent from a common ancestor through male and female links. A preference for virilocal residence meant that land rights were usually traced through the father, and this in turn helped create a patrilineal bias in the lengthy genealogies. This bias was further accentuated through the widespread practice of adoption.

Full membership and land rights in a ngati other than that of the birth mother or father could be gained through adoption which, like the arranged marriages between the children of titleholders, served to establish and perpetuate alliances. Where the mother had married out, the most prevalent form of adoption followed the opposite direction to the marriage, the child, and sometimes adults, moving back into the mother's brother's or mother's father's ngati (Crocombe 1964:29). A feast marked the occasion of the adoption and, unless objections were raised at this time, participation in the feast signalled concurrence (p.56). Adopted sons were entitled to make claims on the title of their adoptive father and in such cases the seniority of birth parents as well as seniority in terms of age came into play (p.35). In the case of Tangiia, as we shall see, these two sources of seniority were brought into contradiction providing a source of contention between Tangiia and his “elder” brother.

The legendary significance of the senior brother-junior brother (tuakana-teina) relationship as a pivotal point of political tension and change throughout Polynesia has - 334 been widely commented upon, especially since Goldman (1970). Sahlins has noted that this distinction is homologous with other paired concepts, the relations between which may be reversed and/or given different significances within a structural history. Homologous pairs of major significance throughout Polynesia are:

junior brother senior brother
people gods
legitimacy through action legitimacy through descent
warrior priest
sea land

These associations are clearly evident in Rarotongan political thought, and feature in the legend of Tangiia. As we shall see, Tangiia's career traces a movement from the left-hand column to the right-hand column, and thus moves between two modalities of power—from oppositional and active to integrative and transcendant. This conceptual shift also characterises the political ascendance of mataiapo, with their parochial interests within the polity, to the status of ariki who ideally embody the unity of the polity.

The cognatic descent groups headed by mataiapo were land-based corporations holding rights to segments of land, termed tapere, that stretched from the mountainous interior to the sea. Within the tapere were located the settlements and marae (ritual centres) of the ngati. These marae were linked by a paved road, the ara metua, which encircled the island. Duff has commented:

In all, the ara metua seemed to have served a primary ceremonial purpose, arising from the progressive linking of concentrations of ceremonial stone structures at strategic mountain valley exists . . . Along these road links the chiefs and people proceeded in ceremonial processions at regular seasonal ceremonies, with boundary stones and stonebacked seats marking challenge or reception points by title holders of other districts (Duff 1974:13).

This assumption of a primary ceremonial significance for the ara metua appears to be well founded. In an important episode in the legend which follows, Tangiia is said to have established the marae while making a complete circuit of the island. Moreover, this circuit was repeated annually during the takurua akaau ceremonies which culminated in the reassertion of political order.

At its most general level the Rarotongan political order was triadic in structure, comprising three great confederations or vaka (‘canoes’). The dominant confederation immediately before the introduction of Christianity was the vaka Takitumu, occupying the eastern and south-eastern portion of the island. The ngati of Takitumu were united under two complimentary ariki titles—Pa Ariki and Kainuku Ariki, the former an “immigrant” (sea) title originating with Tangiia's adopted son, and the latter a tangata 'enua (land) title originating with Tangiia's wife's people. Hence, for Takitumu, land: sea:: Kainuku: Pa. This structure was reproduced in the relationship - 335 between Takitumu and the next most powerful vaka, Te Au o Tonga. Te Au o Tonga, in the north of the island, was, at the time of the missionaries' arrival in the 1820s, represented by three ariki titles (Makea Nui, Makea Karika and Makea Vakatini), all deriving from Tangiia's rival (and later, ally), Karika. In Takitumu accounts, Karika is depicted as a warrior, cannibal, and outsider in relation to Tangiia, who is said to have layed the foundations for social order before Karika's arrival. Thus, for Takitumu, land: sea :: Takitumu: Te Au o Tonga. Of course, these relationships were not politically neutral and are indeed strongly contested in accounts which dispute Tangiia's first occupancy and the nature of his alliance with Karika.

The third, and numerically smallest of the Rarotongan vaka, was Arorangi. Represented by the Tinomana Ariki, this vaka included the tapere and ngati on the western side of the island. Immediately before the arrival of missionaries, Arorangi was most closely allied with Te Au o Tonga, and had provided shelter for the ariki of this vaka after they had been driven from Avarua by the warriors of Takitumu (Maretu 1983:50-51). Maretu makes it clear that the alliance between Arorangi and Te Au o Tonga was matched by a marked tension between Arorangi and Takitumu.

The ancestors of the Arorangi people are described as wanton cannibals who at one time treated a demoralised Takitumu people “like pet pigs”:

Because of these acts of cannibalism perpetrated by the Arorangi people on those who were in a state of nervous exhaustion [Pa Ariki had allowed his mana to pass to Tinomana] word was handed down through all the families of the victims, generation by generation, that they seek revenge for those deeds. I myself saw my father's human oven (p.40).

From a Takitumu perspective, the Arorangi vaka appears to have mediated the opposition between Takitumu and Te Au o Tonga. The Tinomana ariki title is said to have originated with Tangiia's son, Motoro. However, the vaka was established by his despotic descendant, Rongo'oe. Rongo'oe was a descendant of Tangiia through his mother, and of Karika through his father, and he is explicitly associated with Karika as a warrior and cannibal (Te Aia 1893:277-8; Savage 1916:61; Baltaxe MS 1975:89-90).


The summary of the Tangiia legend that follows is based on a lengthy account written by Te Ariki Taraare and published with a translation by S. Percy Smith and Steven Savage in the Journal of the Polynesian Society (1919:183-208; 1920:11-69; 1921:129-41). The legend belongs with a major collection of Rarotongan traditions recorded by Taraare and dealing with origin myths (Maui, etc.) pre-Rarotongan (Avaiki) ancestors, the ‘scattering’ of the Avaiki people, the settlement of Rarotonga and the ‘family’ traditions of a number of ariki and priests (ta'unga) (Taraare 1898-1921). We do not know with any accuracy when Taraare wrote his original manuscript, but it is likely to have been completed some time in the mid-19th century. We do know that it was copied by one of the Rev. Chalmers' trainee missionaries, - 336 Tauraki, probably between 1867 and 1877, and that the Tauraki manuscript was subsequently copied by Smith in 1897 (Te Ariki Taraare 1898:62; Maretu 1893:195 n.30). In general, Smith's translation of the published parts of this manuscript is inadequate, to say the least—some passages are left untranslated, others are loosely paraphrased, and throughout there are numerous inaccuracies. As might be expected from the author of a Rarotongan dictionary, Savage's translation of an important section of the Tangiia legend concerning ceremonies introduced into Rarotonga is better, although he, too, departs from the original wording in places. Accordingly, the summary and interpretation which follow are based on my own retranslation of the published Rarotonga text.

Apart from the Taraare account, at least five shorter versions of the Tangiia legend have been published (Williams 1838:144-98; Gill 1876:24; Nicholas 1892; Te Aia 1893; Maretu 1983:33-7). Although I have consulted these, I have decided to restrict myself in this paper to the Taraare account. In doing so, I accept that I am interpreting Rarotongan cosmology and political thought from one point of view only, that of a Takitumu priest. However, this restricted focus is offset by the detailed cosmological context provided by Taraare's collection as a whole.

Te Ariki Taraare, a member of the Takitumu priesthood, was a recognised tumu korero, a legitimate source of traditional knowledge. Smith wrote that his family had borne the name Taraare for some 20 generations and that they had performed a major role in the ritual consecration of ariki at the Arai-te-tonga marae. Dr Wyatt Gill is quoted as saying that:

Te Ariki Tara-are, the last of the priests and sages, and the last to offer human sacrifices, was always deferred to by Mana-rangi [presumably another ta'unga] as a final authority on Rarotongan antiquities, as I have many times witnessed (Smith's introduction to Te Ariki Taraare 1898:62).

Smith had an understandable tendency to exaggerate the importance of his sources, but in this case I see no reason to doubt that Taraare's authority was indeed traditionally sanctioned. Taraare was a deacon within the theocratic hierarchy in 1849 (Maretu 1983:186), and one is entitled to assume that his account reflects this to some extent. However, the fact that his narrative is always closely tied to songs, sayings, genealogy and other traditional mnemonic forms suggests little creative innovation on his part. Of course, we cannot know what he has omitted.


Pou-vananga-roa had one son named Maono, and adopted two others, Tangiia and Tutapu. Tangiia's mother was the elder sister of Tutapu's mother, but, after adoption, Tangiia became the younger brother of Tutapu. Pou-vananga-roa conferred ariki titles on his son, Maono, and on his adopted son Tutapu, while Tangiia became only a lesser chief.

Angered at being deprived of ariki status, Tangiia seized Maono's title on the marae, taking the whole of the tribute for himself and banishing Maono to the - 337 mountains. Tangiia retained all of the titles and lands for himself and did not distribute these to his junior siblings as he should have done. He then fought with Tutapu, not allowing him to bathe in his sacred stream, and denying him the fore-parts of the shark and turtle tributes. During the fight over the stream the sacred phallic pendant from Avaiki, Te Tua-ki-Taaroa, was fractured.

Tutapu left Taiti, where the disputes had taken place, and returned to his people on Iva, while Tangiia departed for Mauke, where he seduced two daughters of the local ariki. Upon his return to Taiti, Tangiia was accused by his sister of stealing the breadfruit tribute — she was unaware that Tutapu had taken it to Iva. They quarrelled on the marae, and as a result, Tangiia snatched some turtle flesh out of the hand of his sister's husband. After this incident, Tangiia's sister took a canoe and left for Uaine, followed soon after by her husband.

Tangiia then fitted out a canoe and travelled to many lands. Upon his return to Taiti, he sent for his children from Mauke. Shortly after the children's arrival, Tutapu came to Taiti seeking to recover his father's sacred weapon and the rights to human sacrifice. Tangiia refused to concede these, offering only the breadfruit tribute, already in Tutapu's possession. War commenced, Tutapu and his people occupying the eastern half of the island, Tangiia and his people holding the western side. During the battle Tutapu set fire to the ridges, burning to death one of Tangiia's Mauke sons. The other, Motoro, was saved by the goddess Ta'akura who, following the advice of Tangaroa, wrapped a thick cloak around Motoro under the cover of the smoke. The son was then spirited away by a large bee and butterfly (these insects were, therefore, sacred to Motoro's vaka, Arorangi).

Tangiia was totally defeated and his land was destroyed by fire. He and his remaining people boarded a canoe with their possessions; the ariki's seat, and the images of the gods Tongaiti, Rongomatane, Ruanuku, Tu and Tangaroa. Before finally departing, one of Tangiia's warriors also stole the god Rongo-uenga from Tutapu, leaving him with but one god, Marumamao. Tangiia lamented the loss of his land, his koutu (royal court), drinking springs, bathing places, home district, mountains, and, most of all, his children, both of whom he thought had been killed, and then he departed to the west, towards Avaiki.

Tangiia's vessel reached Avaiki just as the takurua ceremonies were beginning. These were the ceremonies instituted by Tu-te-rangi-marama to akaau (bring peaceful order to) his land. They were attended by the visiting parties (tere) of all the major gods. Tangiia told Tu-te-rangi-marama of the plight which had befallen him and explained the causes of the war. Upon hearing this, the assembled gods decided to confer upon Tangiia their mana, and agreed to accompany him (in image-form) to his new land, Rarotonga. Most importantly, they also agreed to give him the takurua and all things connected with it.

Tangiia then left Avaiki and took the takurua to other lands. During his voyage he met the great ancestor, Iro, who agreed that Tangiia should adopt his son as ariki for the people of Rarotonga (he became the first Pa Ariki.) Tangiia then travelled to Uaine, where he was reunited with his sister and her husband's people. She gave him her canoe, which became an outrigger for Tangiia's vessel. The sister, her husband and - 338 their people then boarded the outrigger and set out with Tangiia for Rarotonga. On the way they stopped off to consecrate Iro's son as ariki, but the ceremony was interrupted by Tutapu, who pursued Tangiia and his sister shouting, ‘Give up my god! Give up my god!’

Tangiia escaped from Tutapu during the night and sailed to Iti, where the seating arrangements of his vessel were changed. The women and children were assigned to the sister's outrigger on the left and the warriors were assigned the main canoe on the right. They then visited many lands in the east. It was during this voyage that they met up with the great warrior chief, Karika (founder of the vaka, Te Au o Tonga). Karika brought his canoe alongside that of Tangiia and boarded Tangiia's vessel, demanding that he hand over the au-kura, the red plume signifying supremacy. Tangiia was about to do so, but it was knocked from his hand by one of his men who then kept it out of Karika's reach. Fighting began with the two canoes (vaka) locked tightly together. When Tangiia was on the verge of victory, Karika offered to make peace, and he gave his daughter in marriage to Tangiia to seal the arrangement.

The canoes then separated and Tangiia continued on towards Rarotonga. He missed the island at first, and, finding himself in rough seas, was forced to turn back. Thus, he finally arrived following the direction of the sunrise and entered the eastern harbour. Tangiia named the reef, and then went inland where a marae was constructed and dedicated to the god Tongaiti, discoverer of Rarotonga. He then returned to the shore, where a channel in the reef was named. Alternating between inland and coast, Tangiia then made a circuit of the island, constructing marae, dedicating them to gods, and appointing guardians. Upon completion of his circuit he went inland and married two daughters of one of the original inhabitants, Tane-korea.

After these marriages Karika, the warrior whose food was human flesh, landed at Rarotonga and built a coral enclosure in which he lived for some time. Karika then travelled inland in search of Tangiia and his daughter, Tangiia's wife. Here Karika was presented with a trumpet and drum, items connected with the takurua, and he took these back to the coast.

After Tangiia and Karika had established themselves in Rarotonga, Tutapu, the relentless pursuer, arrived seeking his stolen god. War commenced, Tutapu on one side, Tangiia and Karika on the other. During the fighting, Tangiia sent his sister and younger brother to visit their father, Pou-vananga-roa, in order to learn from him the outcome of the battle and to gain the ritual knowledge needed for success. Pou instructed the pair to take two bunches of pandanus (substitutes for human sacrifice), one in the left hand for the setting sun, and one in the right hand for the rising sun. The left-hand bunch was tied to the back of the canoe, representing Tutapu, the right-hand bunch was tied to the front of the canoe, representing Tangiia. The bunch which fell first would indicate the defeat of the represented leader, and, as might be expected, Tutapu's fell first at the rear.

On their voyage back to Rarotonga with the good news, the sister and brother called in at Mangaia, where they took on board Tangiia's Mauke son, the son who had been saved from the fire at Taiti. Upon returning to Rarotonga, the news of Tutapu's certain defeat was conveyed to Tangiia, who then performed the appropriate ritual to ensure - 339 the support of his gods. Taking a coconut, the top half of which represented himself, the bottom half representing Tutapu, he presented it inland, towards the sea, then in the direction of the sunrise. The ritual was concluded with a dedication of his weapon to the gods Rongomatane, Tu, Ruanuku, and Tangaroa. The battle now took a new turn and Tangiia's forces gained the upper hand. Tutapu was pursued inland and there killed by Tangiia, who hastily scooped out and swallowed one of his eyes. For his haste, Tangiia was reprimanded by the gods — the body should have been offered to them first.

The victors took Tutapu's body to an infertile area on the coast and attempted to cook it. However, when the oven was opened, the body was found to be still quite raw. Although it was subsequently taken to different marae around the island and placed in ovens, yet still it would not cook. A priest then informed Tangiia that he had first to remove the tapu from his Mauke child, and from one of his elders who had taken the first victim in battle. In order to do so, the priest struck the body with a kava leaf and rubbed it on Tangiia's mouth, reciting karakia as he did so. The body was then successfully cooked and eaten. After the ritual consumption of Tutapu, Tangiia banned any further taking of human life. He then divided up the land among his supporters and introduced the takurua akaau ceremonies.

When he died, Tangiia's spirit was taken above (runga) by the god Tongaiti in order that they might join Tangaroa in a kava ceremony. While Tangaroa was preparing the kava, Tongaiti swallowed and ejected Tangiia, and then Tangiia did the same for Tongaiti. After drinking his kava Tangaroa repeated Tongaiti's swallowing act, consuming and ejecting Tangiia as a supplement to his kava. Tongaiti then again swallowed and ejected Tangiia and the ariki did the same for the two gods. Tangiia was now told that he possessed their mana. After this mutual consumption the party proceeded to the house of Rongomatane, wherein all the gods had assembled. Rongomatane, smelling the odour of human spirit on Tangaroa's breath, demanded an explanation. On hearing Rongomatane's anger, Tangiia rushed inside and sat on Tongaiti's lap. When Tangiia was identified as the ariki who had awakened the gods, all wished to consume him. Accordingly, all the assembled gods swallowed Tangiia with their kava and Tangiia likewise swallowed and ejected the gods. Tangiia, now one of the gods in the house of Rongomatane, was assigned to a priest of the Arai-te-tonga marae, the same marae with which Te Ariki Taraare was most closely associated.


At the most abstract level, Tangiia's career traces a passage between two modalities of power — from the adversarial and oppositional to the transcendant and integrative. It begins with Tangiia, a younger brother deprived of ariki status through adoption, opposing and alienating his two elder brothers, his sister and her husband, and indeed his junior brothers who were deprived of lands and titles. The result is the destruction of the social order. This destruction is then followed by a progressive integration of the Rarotongan polity — a reconciliation between Tangiia and his sister, the adoption of Iro's son, an alliance with Karika, the establishment of a marae circuit — culminating in Tangiia's transcendance of the polity to become a god in the house of Rongomatane. - 340 The turning point of the narrative is Tangiia's voyage to Avaiki, his receiving of divine mana, and, most importantly, his acquisition of the takurua ceremonies.

Tangiia's voyage to Avaiki was, in fact, a symbolic death. Traditions recorded by Te Ariki Taraare tell us that Tu-te-rangi-marama of Avaiki-raro built a great sacred enclosure, the korotuatini of Tu-te-rangi-marama, in which the spirits of high chiefs and gods assembled. The custodian of the korotuatini was the god Tiki, and Gill tells us that warriors also hoped to join Tiki in this sacred enclosure (Gill 1979:20). Tiki had travelled to Avaiki-raro following the path later taken by the spirits of the deceased. When climbing a tree at the cliff between this world and the realm of Po, he deliberately disobeyed his mother's instructions and grabbed hold of a dry branch instead of a green one. He fell below into the net of the goddess Miru (Taraare 1920:108-13). A number of other traditions attest to the presence of Tiki in Avaikiraro and the possibility of return to this world. In one case, Akimano, overwhelmed by the sexual potency of Iro's father, Moetarauri, died during intercourse and travelled to Avaiki. Tiki did not consider this an appropriate reason for the visit and sent her back (Savage 1916:145-6). In another instance, Tangaroa's son, Ngata Ariki, wished to marry the daughter of Kuiono and so become Ariki. When Kuiono died before the marriage could take place, Ngata Ariki retrieved the spirit from Tiki and replaced it in Kuiono's body by following the reverse passage of food — he entered the anus and emerged from the mouth. Later, after separating from his wife, Ngata, like Maui of New Zealand Maori myth, transformed himself into a pigeon and flew to Tu-te-rangi-marama (Taraare 1927:178-8). Tangiia's method of travel may have been more mundane; however, the reasons for the voyage (his symbolic death) and the consequences of his return (the establishment of the ariki in Rarotonga) have definite mythical precedents.

Tangiia's defeat at the hands of his elder brother followed his separation from his sister, and the re-established bond between brother and sister was an essential precondition for the reconstitution of the social order — it enabled Tangiia to defeat both Karika and Tutapu. In a perceptive comment, Sahlins has noted that, throughout Polynesia, the female (as sister or wife) plays a mediating role between opposed junior and senior brothers such that junior brother + female gives accesss to divine mana, bringing about the defeat of the senior brother (Sahlins 1985b:199). In this case, the sister provides access to the ritual power and knowledge of the father, Pou-vanangaroa.

The alliance between Tangiia and his sister, concretely represented as the joining of their canoes (the sister's/female's to the left, the brother's/male's to the right) prefigures the joining of Tangiia's and Karika's vaka. Indeed, the locking of the canoes together in battle was the strategy employed by Tangiia to secure victory, and ultimately a father-in-law. The marriage to Karika's daughter, and later to the daughters of Tane-korea, in addition to the tie between Tangiia and his sister, meant that the odds were stacked overwhelmingly in Tangiia's favour when it came to battle, ultimately ensuring that Tangiia's social order would consume Tutapu, figuratively and literally.

Taraare's account of Tangiia's return voyage to Avaiki and his subsequent defeat - 341 of Tutapu articulates a set of associated oppositions as listed below.

raro runga
=west =east
=below =above
death life
defeat victory
left right

The term ‘raro’ denotes both ‘west’ and ‘below’, these two glosses associated with the setting sun. ‘Runga’ denotes both ‘east’ and ‘above’. Death and defeat are associated with the category ‘raro’, while life and victory are associated with ‘runga.’ The bunch of pandanus held by Tangiia's sister in her left hand and placed on the stern of the canoe fell first, indicating Tutapu's defeat. Tangiia presented the coconut to the east in the ritual performed to ensure victory over Tutapu.

Tangiia's passage from raro to runga is also, and ultimately, a transcendance, a passage from the Korotuatini of Tu-te-rangi-marama to the house of Rongomatane above (or to the east), that is, to Avaiki-runga. It is tempting to read into this distinction between Tu and Rongo the Hawaiian and New Zealand Maori oppositions between Ku/Tu (associated with the warrior-king or humanity in its destructive aspect) and Lono/Rongo (associated with fertility and peace). Unfortunately, however, Rarotongan tradition, as recorded by Te Ariki Taraare, offers no support for such a reading. In the first place, Rarotongan cosmology does not clearly differentiate between gods in terms of a distinction between destructive and productive, and, secondly, there is little evidence for a fixed pantheon of gods, each representing an aspect of nature or social life. Taraare's traditions are extremely vague on the cosmological relationships between the various gods, and Maretu's account of the destruction of god-images with the arrival of Christianity suggests that they were politically and contingently differentiated through their associations with various marae (Maretu 1983:60-2). In fact, it appears that Rarotongan gods were “politically appointed”, and, as such, entered into the dynamics of political life. Political distinctions among ngati were articulated in terms of the distribution of divine images, and, hence, of divine mana. When discussing the burning of images to make way for the Christian god, Maretu noted that:

Because of Tuaivi's illness the Mataiapo would not allow the marae to be burnt. Also Tuaivi and Tangiau had quarrelled and separated. Each now had a different god (Maretu 1983:61).

The loss or movement of divine representations was also associated with the loss or movement of people. Hence, it is said that when the Takitumu people wandered dazed to Arorangi, there to be treated like “pet pigs”, they did so because Pa Ariki had given Tangaroa's sacred girdle to Tinomana Ariki. “That was the offence, it was said, which caused the people to go. They did not want to stay home” (p.30). We can now appreciate why Tutapu was so relentless in his pursuit of the gods stolen by Tangiia, - 342 and why Tangiia's possession of all the major gods, obtained from Avaiki, was a prerequisite to his rebuilding of the political order.

Despite the fact that there appears to have been a minimal differentiation of divine roles within a stable pantheon, there are strong indications of hierarchical relationships between the gods — some more closely associated with ariki and others associated with local mataiapo and their marae. Two gods of major importance for all three vaka were Rongomatane and Tangaroa (Maretu 1983:60-1, 198-9), and their significance is confirmed by Maretu when he notes that the reason that ariki did not eat human flesh was:

that it would have been an offence against the gods, Rongomatane and Tangaroa in heaven. The only human oven in heaven belonged to them. That is why it is said that those two gods said to Tangiia when he swallowed Tutapu's eyes in anger, ‘you are a high chief who eats hurriedly. It is not right to eat a high chief’ [only the two gods could do so] (Maretu 1983:41).

Also significant is the fact that Rongomatane is the only god named in the creation chant with which Te Ariki Taraare opens his manuscript (Taraare 1893:63). Here, Rongomatane is associated with the growth of the land, although, in other contexts, he is associated with war (Tangiia called on his assistance to defeat Tutapu). In the accounts of both Maretu and Te Ariki Taraare, Rongomatane is closely associated with Tangaroa, who, like the former god, has a dual character. He was a major war deity and “after battle it was traditional to convey the bodies of the slain to Vaerota [marae] as offerings to Tangaroa” (Maretu 1983:50n., 58), but he was also associated with the origin of breadfruit, chestnuts and yam (Taraare 1898:65-6).

Despite a lack of clear differentiation between Rongomatane and Tu-te-rangi-marama, in terms of fertility and war, the two deities are, as I have said, opposed in terms of symbolic geography — Rongomatane is located above and/or to the east while Tu-te-rangi-marama resides below and/or to the west. Furthermore, and this may be the crucial distinction, Rongomatane and Tangaroa head a hierarchy of gods who busy themselves with the affairs of the living while Tu-te-rangi-marama and Tiki, as custodian of Tu's korotuatini, concern themselves with the affairs of the departed. It requires only a small semantic extention from west/death to war/destruction, and from east/life to productive fertility to arrive at the Hawaiian understanding of the Ku-Lono polarity, although, once again, I stress that Rarotongan tradition makes no such shift.

As Sahlins has convincingly demonstrated, Hawaiian interpretations of the Ku-Lono polarity were closely tied to the performance of the makahiki ceremonies, during which Lono took possession of the land in order to fertilise it while the power of the king (as Ku) was put in temporary abeyance (Sahlins 1985a:114-20). One is struck by a number of parallels between the actions of Lono and Tangiia. Both arrive at the beginning of their seasonal festivals — Lono in Hawaii for the makahiki, Tangiia in Avaiki for the takurua. Both transfer the life-giving power from the world of ancestors (Kahiki/Avaiki) to the human world, and both do so by making a circuit of their - 343 respective islands. Of course, the correspondence is by no means complete, because, although Tangiia is later identified with Rongo (god and ariki eat each other), he gains part of his mana and the takurua ceremonies from Tu, confirming once again the essential duality of Rarotongan deities.

The Hawaiian makahiki ceremonies mark a transition from the reign of Ku to the temporary reign of Lono. Given the dual nature of Rarotongan deities, such a transition clearly makes no sense in terms of Rarotongan cosmology. Instead, as I will now argue, the takurua ceremonies introduced by Tangiia transform the power of all gods and ariki from an adversarial mode into an intergrative mode so re-enacting Tangiia's legendary career.


The Rarotongan year was divided into two seasons or tau, signalled, as elsewhere in Polynesia, by the setting and rising of the pleiades constellation. The appearance of the stars on the horizon in mid-December marked the beginning of the akaau season, the hot season during which the breadfruit ripens. The disappearance of pleiades at sunset marked the beginning of the cooler months, or paroro. The first period of paroro, termed paroro mua, was during May and June, with the winter solstice occurring in June (Gill 1876:316; Savage 1962: “akaau” as listed after “akaturi” as distinct from “akaau” as listed after “au”.

During March, in the time of plenty, an are kariei (or are karioi), a house of entertainment for young men, women and warriors, was built, and here, festivities associated with warfare took place (Maretu 1983:48-9; Taraare 1921:130-1). There were performances demonstrating modes of defence and attack (eva tipa), spear-play exhibitions (kapa-rakau), and the singing of war songs of challenge and reply. Pigs were killed, large quantities of breadfruit were eaten, and kava was drunk so that the murmerings of the gods might be heard. Although these festivities only imitated warfare, there was also the possibility that they might become a prelude to the real thing. The earlier-mentioned war between Takitumu and Te Au o Tonga was initiated in the are kariei — the Te Au o Tonga people called their neighbours “gutless windbags” (Maretu 1938:48). There followed four and a half years of incessant fighting, during which breadfruit and coconut trees were felled and more than 700 people died, before the ariki of Takitumu agreed to allow the ariki of Avarua to return to their district in 1823 (p.51-3). Then:

A great feast consisting of pigs, kava and all kinds of food was prepared. Drum [kaara] were sounded and there was dancing and rejoicing because Nga Tangiia was victorious, the ariki [Makea] had returned and all the ariki were now living together . . . When the people [i.e., Makea's followers who had gone to live with him] at Arorangi heard that Makea was now living at Araitetonga, they all returned to their own lands to build. Peace reigned over the land (Maretu 1983:53).

Maretu's account makes it clear that the timing of this return was significant, and - 344 we learn from Williams that it took place in May or June, that is, during the period of paroro mua (p.52, n.69). In other words, this return and re-establishment of political order coincided with the ceremonies of takurua akaau.

The takurua akaau ceremonies directly contrast with the March festivities in that they ideally effected a transition from a state of division and contention to one of peaceful integration. The term “akaau” may be glossed as ‘to cause or make peace, to cause friendliness, terminate, bring together, unite’, and au, as a noun denotes ‘reign, period of tenure, the ruling body’ (Savage 1962). These definitions convey well the significance of the takurua akaau as ceremonies intended to re-establish a peaceful political order — a function explicitly attributed to them by Taraare (1919:65 paragraph 518). As described by Te Ariki Taraare, the ceremonies proceeded in two distinct phases, termed akaau atua and akaau ariki. During akaau atua, people were released from tapu restrictions, a festive procession made a circuit of the island, gifts were exchanged between “friends”, and the “male and female” atua (i.e., all the gods) were summoned and fed (similar events accompanied the arrival of Lono during the Hawaiian makahiki). Then, approximately one month later in June, the akaau ariki ceremony was held. A second procession, led by the atua tini (company of assembled gods) travelled around the island, following the ara metua from marae to marae. Upon reaching its point of departure in the east, the procession turned towards the coast and at a marae near the sea the atua tini adorned themselves and drank large quantities of kava. The procession then moved to the shore where the atua tini heated themselves by a fire so that the kava (as oily perspiration) oozed through the skin. They then plunged into the sea, throwing water over their heads.

In the account provided by Taraare of the original akaau ariki the procession of gods was led from the sea by Tangiia across a piece of white tapa cloth, and this suggests that Pa Ariki of Takitumu would “later” have assumed this role. Tangiia's atua tini was then followed on to the beach by parties of gods led by Tongaiti (first discoverer of Rarotonga), Toutika (who followed Tongaiti to Rarotonga), Marumamao (a god taken from Tutapu by Karika) Ka'ukura and, finally, Tangaroa. Again, these events have their parallels in Hawaii where, during the final stages of the makahiki celebrations, the king, as the god Ku, returns from the sea to re-establish his reign. Also, as in Rarotonga, this reign was intended to be a peaceful one, at least in the initial stages, hence the king was symbolically killed before being reinstated. Such extreme measures were perhaps not necessary in Rarotonga, although it does appear that the atua tini ‘cooked’ themselves beside the fire before plunging into the sea to remove their tapu.

Te Ariki Taraare's account of these takurua ceremonies is presented as an integral part of the legend of Tangiia, and the reasoning behind this should now be clear. Tangiia's legendary transition from an adversarial role to an integrative and transcendant one, mediated by his symbolic death and acquisition of the takurua, is the same transition effected via the takurua ritual in Rarotongan political life. There is a logical correspondence between the temporality of the narrative and the temporality, or seasonality of power in Rarotonga oscillating, as it did, between periods of division and reintegration.

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We have seen that one of the keys to an understanding of the Tangiia narrative is its particular relationship to political process — the temporal structure of the narrative is isomorphic with ritual, and to some extent, historical practice. Sahlins has termed this practical reproduction of mythical structures “mythopraxis”, contrasting it with practice that is generated through habitus — a “system of dispositions” (Bourdieu 1977:72). There is, for Sahlins, a critical distinction to be made between structures that are “practiced primarily through the individual subconscious [i.e., are inscribed in habitus] and those that explicitly organize historical action as the projection of mythical relations” (Sahlins 1985a:53-4). In Hawaii, the former are said to be the organisation of the historical practice of commoners while the latter are most closely involved with the reproduction of chiefly, “heroic” history (pp.138-9). The legend of Tangiia is clearly related to the reproduction of the chiefly political order in Rarotonga — the ceremonial cycle and the legend have the same temporal structure; however, it seems to me that the temporal structures of Rarotongan ceremonial and political life are better understood as inscribed within habitus than as explicitly organised projections of mythical relations. Sahlins has been taken to task for greatly over-emphasising the prescriptive force of mythical categories and structures to the extent that these are given logical priority over the unreflective structure of practice (Friedman 1987). Friedman rightly points out that:

structure is embedded in lived experience in a variety of significant ways, not merely as plans or grammars, but as the actual form of experience and the constitutive identities of subjects; that cultural schemes are not for the most part programmes of action, but properties of reality that observers abstract and often reify (Friedman 1987:96).

But it is not only observers who abstract and reify — participants do this as well, and in traditional Rarotonga they included the narrators of the legend of Tangiia. The narration of the legend was, therefore, a reflexive moment in Rarotongan cultural reproduction, counterpointing moments of unreflective habitus in the seasonal reproduction of power.

If this is so, it seems to me that the relationship between the two modalities of chiefly power expressed in the legend is not simply an intellectual problem, as Howard and Valeri have argued for comparable Rotuman and Hawaiian narratives: it is a “lived” relationship, constitutive of the very subjectivity that produced the legend. True, adversarial and transcendant power are opposed within the legend and ceremonial cycle as moments in a process, but this in no sense implies that the essential purpose of the narrative and ritual is to resolve a conceptual paradox (chiefly power is adversarial yet transcendant). To assert as much, one would need to argue not only that the narrative and associated ceremonies have an essential purpose, but also that the contradictory notions of chiefly power are logically prior to and independent of the narrative and akaau ceremonies. Neither proposition, it seems to me, is acceptable. Indeed, I further suggest that the dual nature of chiefly power — human, adversarial, - 346 and from below, yet divine, transcendant and from above — does not constitute a Polynesian puzzle at all. It is simply a political reality to be suffered and celebrated.

The Rarotongan legend of Tangiia, as a reflection on that reality from within, plots social process as a life history, and political relations — between the three vaka or between humanity and divinity — as the intersection of this life history with that of other intentionally acting subjects. The takurua, which signals a turning point, a new beginning, in the seasonality of power becomes a turning point in the career of Tangiia, confirming not only that the chief lives the life of the collectivity but also that the collectivity relives the life of the chief, seasonally reproducing the circumstances of its birth.


I wish to thank Margaret Orbell and Ruth Finnegan for their helpful comments on an earlier draft of this article.

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