Volume 44 1935 > Volume 44, No. 173 > Material representations of Tongan and Samoan gods, by Te Rangi Hiroa, p 48-53
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- 48

THE Tongans and Samoans of western Polynesia resembled other groups in southern, central, eastern, and northern Polynesia in having gods, priests, and places where religious observances were carried out.

The gods varied in origin, sphere of influence, and power. Their power was confined to a family group or extended to tribes, villages, districts, or even to one or more islands. In general principle, the gods were regarded as something intangible without innate material form.

The priest was the human medium between the god and the followers of the god. The office was usually hereditary and carried out the transmitted ritual and observances that placated the god and induced it to use supernormal influence on behalf of the devotees. A visible manifestation of the formless god was apparent when an inspired priest was affected with a convulsive seizure attributed to the god entering his human medium to make known his decisions or commands. In such cases, the priest was regarded as a material receptacle and was hence termed a waka (canoe or receptacle) in New Zealand and a pi'a atua (god-box) in Mangaia. The inspirational technique was used throughout Polynesia but not all priests were convulsive receptacles nor did all gods assume this method of visible manifestation.

The official places for making divine contact varied considerably. Certain gods were represented by rocks or trees, and a simple ritual such as the offering of a branch or a pebble or the muttering of a short formula was carried out even by the laity when such sites were passed. For more important deities and occasions, special structures were constructed, the offerings assumed greater value culminating in some regions in human sacrifices, the - 49 ritual became more elaborate, and an educated priesthood officiated. Religious places of worship conformed to three main types.

(a) Stone structures were characteristic of central, eastern, and northern Polynesia. The main features were a paved or gravelled court usually rectangular in ground plan and a raised platform at one end of the court. Elaboration varied in different regions as to the presence of curbing, walls, stone uprights, stepped platforms, stone seats, houses, images, additional courts and terraces, and special features such as the carved boards (unu) of Tahiti and the oracle-tower of Hawaii. Simple forms occurred in the atoll islands, the inland valleys of the Society islands, and the now uninhabited islands of Nihoa and Necker which lie to the north-west of Hawaii. The unroofed court accommodated a select congregation and the raised platform provided a sacred place about which the priests officiated.

In central and part of eastern Polynesia, the structures were referred to as marae but there are linguistic indications that the term marae more specifically indicated the court while the raised platform was usually distinguished by some form of the term ahu. In Easter island, the emphasis was on the raised platform with its stone images, and the term ahu seems to have included the whole structure with the sloping pavement in front of the platform. In northern Polynesia, the term marae disappeared and the Hawaiian structure received the name of heiau.

The thatched buildings that were erected on some courts for the housing of drums, sacred objects, images, and even priests, were accessory to the fundamental stone structure. It is probable that some of the simpler courts had no houses erected on them.

(b) Wooden structures were characteristic of the Tongan and Samoan groups of western Polynesia. They were built on the same architectural plan as the dwelling-and guest-houses which stood on stone platforms. Wooden fences were erected around the house to define a taboo area. The term malae (cf. Tahitian marae) was not applied to these sacred houses but referred to the village-green where open-air meetings of a purely social nature were held. The stone platform was accessory to the house and - 50 merely followed the pattern adopted with houses for human occupation. The fundamental element of the religious structure was the house in which sacred objects were kept and in which the priest might reside.

(c) No specialized structure. New Zealand, the southern region settled by Polynesians, was characterized by the absence of an elaborated pattern of religious structure. The paved marae court of central Polynesia with its religious significance was absent, but the term marae was applied to an unpaved social court before the village meeting-house. The New Zealand marae thus had an affinity with the Tongan and Samoan malae in that it formed an assembly-ground for social functions. The religious ahu of central Polynesia was divorced from the social marae, and under the name of tuahu (tu-ahu) was relegated to some selected spot outside the village. The tuahu consisted merely of a cleared space, a wooden post, an upright stone, or even of as many as five stones set upright by human agency. More often, however, the tuahu was represented by a selected outcrop of rock which the hand of man had no part in providing.

It is true that the dwelling-house occupied by the priest in New Zealand might be regarded as taboo by the general public from its association and the priest might be consulted there in his religious capacity, but there was no special complex as in western Polynesia. In New Zealand, the house was the house of the priest; but in Tonga, the house was the house of the god. Small sacred houses were erected on one or more piles, in which offerings for the gods were placed on occasions, but such buildings were isolated elements that lacked the definite relationship which existed between the raised wooden platforms (fata) for offerings and the religious marae in central Polynesia. The Maori seemed to be content to get into touch with his gods without the aid of the elaboration in religious structure which took place in the rest of Polynesia.

Though the Polynesians created their gods from immaterial beings without innate material form, they associated them with certain material forms that the eye could see. The material representatives of the gods without form of their own may be classed into two groups, animate and inanimate.

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From the earliest times, man has observed the movements of animals and birds and drawn deductions from them. Sometimes the deductions were quite rational and assisted materially in the prosecution of the food-quest. The Polynesian fisherman observed the actions of flocks of sea-birds and deduced from them that they were following shoals of young fish. He joined in the chase, knowing from experience that shoals of bonito would also be following beneath in the water and would take his pearl-shell lure in mistake for fish. The voyager noted the flight of sea-birds in a certain direction in the evening and deduced that land lay in that direction, for experience had taught him that even sea-birds prefer to rest on land at night. Other interpretations of movements do not appear so rational, such as those with a supernatural association. Animals and birds were somehow credited with being influenced by supernatural causes more readily than man. Movements of living things were thus interpreted to indicate whether or not the individual person or group would be successful in the particular quest which occupied attention at the time. The attitude toward such phenomena as the movements of living things was a general vague idea of luck, good or bad. In Polynesian society, the attitude was more definitely connected with the spiritual concept that the immaterial gods influenced the movements of living bodies to convey messages to their followers. Usually movements in the same direction were favourable while movements in the opposite direction were unfavourable. Movement or appearance on a particular side was favourable while on the opposite side the effect would also be opposite. A further step was taken when families and groups selected certain living things to represent their specific god. The living object thus became the animate representative of their immaterial god and the god's communications were evidenced by the appearance, movements, or sounds, that the living representative made. Another step in elaboration took place when on occasions the god was regarded as being actually present in the living representative, much in the same way that the god took possession of the inspirational priest. Bird-representatives usually acted as messengers without the god being in temporary residence. The living - 52 representatives of gods are usually referred to as incarnations; but it must be remembered there is a wide range of belief from their being merely sacred to the gods to their being occupied by the gods. The Maori term for the living representatives is aria and the Tahitian is ata. Both terms carry the association of form or shadow. The Tongan term applied to them is vaka (canoe, receptacle) which is the term applied by the Maori to the priest who was the receptacle that the god entered at times.

Diversity occurs with regard to the question of taboo. Should an individual member of a species be regarded as the god's representative only when functioning, or should the whole species be taboo at all times? In New Zealand, the prevailing concept was that a member of the selected species was regarded as the divine representative when it acted in a significant manner or when a sign was required. Otherwise, any member of an edible species was freely eaten by the worshippers of the god represented by the species. In Tonga and Samoa, the whole species was taboo to all followers at all times. This western attitude comes near to one of the elements of totemism but, even here, it must be remembered that the animal incarnation had never been an ancestor but that it was merely the representative at most of a human ancestor who had been deified.

The following table, compiled from Collocott 1 and Gifford 2 for Tonga and from Turner 3 for Samoa, gives a list of the kinds of animate representatives utilized in the two groups and the number of gods that used each species:

Animate Representative Tonga Samoa
Dog 1 1
Flying fox 1 1
Bat - 2
Pigeons 1 5
Dove 1 -
Rail (ve'a) 2 5
Owl 1 4
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Fowl - 4
Kingfisher 1 2
Heron 2 1
Snipe 1 -
Tern 1 1
Manuali'i 1 1
Kaleva 1 -
Fuia - 1
Turtle - 5
Stingray - 2
Octopus 2 7
Shark 5 -
Eel 1 4
Sea-eel 2 4
Sea-snake 2 -
Mullet 1 5
Vete 1 -
Cockle - 1
Shell-fish (fuhu) 1 -
Sea-urchin - 1
Land crab - 1
Lizard 2 3
Centipede - 2
Butterfly - 1
  31 64

Human form occurred with three gods in Tonga and with five in Samoa. These were spiritual or ghostly forms and cannot be classed as animate representatives, even though they were credited with movement. The human living representative was strictly speaking the inspirational priest when possessed by the god.

Natural phenomena in the form of the moon (3), rainbow (2), star (1), lightning (1), and cloud (1), occurred in Samoa as representatives of the gods, but they have not been recorded for Tonga by the authorities consulted. Though not living representatives, they could yet convey information from their appearance and apparent movement.

Some representatives such as sea-urchins and shell-fish were probably merely taboo to the god or, in other words, could not be eaten by the god's worshippers.

(To be continued.)

1   Collocott, E. E. V., Notes on Tongan Religion, J.P.S., vol. 30, 1921, pp. 152, 227.
2   Gifford, E. W., Tongan Society, Bishop Museum Bulletin, no. 61, 1929.
3   Turner, G., Samoa, a Hundred Years Ago, … 1884.