Volume 82 1973 > Volume 82, No. 1 > Moving and movable images in Easter Island custom and myth, by Katharine Luomala, p 28-46
Back to Search Results                                                                                              Previous | Next   

- 28

Were Easter Island small wooden images formerly used in a sacred puppet theatre? Both J. Macmillan Brown and Walter Knoche have advanced this theory and have tried to support it by rationalising the native myths. Alfred Métraux has questioned both the hypothesis and the interpretation of data. My survey will show that the question and the arguments about its answer have obscured dramatic native beliefs about three different types of images and nascent theatrical effects achieved in their use. The three types, all representing human beings, are the small, wooden, skeleton-like carvings, the great stone statues, and the reed constructions. Myths narrate that the wooden carvings and the stone statues formerly had the power of movement. No comparable narratives concern the reed images but their use may suggest how Tahitians animated their wickerwork image of Maui, which in 1768 Captain Cook saw being carried but not used.

This paper is part of my investigation of Polynesian use of puppets, marionettes, and other moving and movable inanimate figures that human beings manipulate. 1 Sometimes, human beings imitate the actions of these figures. Although loosely used, the term marionette refers to a figure that a human being manipulates by cords or strings. A puppet is a figure manipulated directly by hand without an intermediary device. Many intermediate forms exist. In addition, there is a structural type called a “moving image,” “moving sculpture,” or “puppet image,” borderline to a true puppet. Instead of being manipulated, it is bodily lifted, carried, dragged or swung from one stationary position to another. 2 In Polynesia, New Zealand and the Hawaiian Islands had marionettes; Hawaii also had puppets; and Mangaia had a type combining strings and rods. Many Polynesian islands had moving images. Western Melanesia had varied types. How old these forms are will be discussed in later studies.

- 29

According to myth, Chief Tu'u-ko-ihu, who had arrived in the second canoe of people to settle Easter Island, carved the first small, wooden images and made them walk and dance. Men still imitate this semi-divine culture hero's style of carving moai miro, literally “image-wood,” to represent decaying and emaciated human bodies, and use the same kind of wood, toromiro (Sophora toromiro). However, lacking the chief's mana to make the statuettes dance and walk by themselves, men carry or wear their beloved figures to dance with them at festivals. Images range in height from 18 to 30 inches. A male image is called moai kavakava; a female, moai paapaa. Both types of moai miro are occasionally called toromiro after the wood. Each also bears a personal name. The most famous, the subject of a second myth, is The Hopping Nestling or The Jumping Little Bird owned by Tu'u-ko-ihu himself.

One version of the myth of the invention states that the chief put strings on the figures by which to manipulate them. However, according to other accounts, he activated them, presumably by his mana. His command was enough to make the figures dance and enable his favourite, Little Jumping Bird, to escape from a fire. Additional to myths about invention and the favourite are two others about the chief's power to activate inanimate objects. One tells how he ordered another chief's tapa cloak that he coveted to come to him. The other narrates that he commanded the great stone images to walk.

Versions of the myth about the chief's invention of images have been collected by Routledge, Métraux, Vives Solar, and Brown. Only Métraux, who obtained two variants, recorded them in the native language. The other collectors, each with one variant, tell little or nothing of their method. Brown, in fact, may not have collected any himself, but retold, as did Knoche, that secured by Vives Solar.

My summary of Métraux's first variant, published in both English and the vernacular, presents the basic plot. The section about the images walking is quoted in full. 3

When Tu'u-ko-ihu was walking from one of his houses to another one he passed Hitirau and Nuku-te-mango, two sleeping spectres, akuaku, and glimpsed their protruding ribs and hollow bellies. Another spirit, Hauriuri, then woke up the sleepers to tell them that the chief had seen them naked. Three times they ran after and caught up with the chief to ask him what he had seen. Each time he replied that he had seen nothing. He knew that if he had told them the truth they would have killed him.
Reaching his house, he took two discarded firebrands of toromiro and carved them into images to represent the spectres. The next morning, after a dream about two female spirits, he carved two flat (paapaa) images to represent them. Taking the four images, he returned to his other house and left them standing there. People, hearing about them, came from all over the island to exchange food - 30 for an image. Some men, who had asked the chief to carve images for them, arrived to get them. However, since they did not bring any food, the chief told them to wait.
The narrator then says, “Tu'u-ko-ihu made the images walk in his house and thereafter the house was called ‘The-house-of-the-walking-images’ [Te Hare Hakahaere Moai]. The images walked and made turns and turns. The owners of the images saw their images move and said, ‘How amusing are these images moving in the house.’ When they saw that, they were full of admiration. ‘How funny are these moving images.’ In the evening these people went to their houses, but Tu'u-ko-ihu did not give back their images when they returned.”

Métraux's briefer, second variant, published only in English, concludes by stating that the men who had not paid for their images went into the chief's house “and saw the images dancing of their own accord, by magic. They were struck with fear and paid their debts.” 4

Mrs Routledge ends her version by stating that later the chief “went to his other home; there he took the wooden moai, both male and female, and made them walk.” She adds that his house was called The House of the Walking Moai of Tu'ukoihu, the Ariki. 5

Knoche translated into German 6 Vives Solar's Spanish version. 7 It states that the chief, having carved images of the first two spirits, made innumerably more to hang in a semicircle in his house. To entertain his people he fastened paper-mulberry strings to the figures, gathered the cords in his hand, and made the figures execute all kinds of movements. Since then his house has been called Hare aka Aere-Moai, House of the Walking Images. Chagrined at being ridiculed, the spirits, Hititau and Nuku te Mano, either left the island or drowned themselves.

After describing the invention, Vives Solar states:

ho contento con esto Tukuihô y guiado de su carácter brómista y para entretenimiento de sus sôbditos, fabricó innumerables de estos monos que colgados en semicirculo en su casa, hacian movimientos y contorsiones, manejados diestramente por Tukuihô por medio de fibras trenzados de mahute. Por este motivo los isleños cambiaron el nombre de la casa real, que como hemos dicho se llamaba Hare Koka por el de Hare aka Aere-Moai (casa de los monos que andan). En cuanto a los diablos Hitilau y Nuko te Magnó, avergonzados de verse tan en ridiculo, desparecieron de la isla y es muy probable que se hayan suicidado arrojándose al mar. Translation: “Dissatisfied with this, Tukuihô, in line with his joking nature, fabricated for his subjects' diversion innumerable monkeys [in the sense of droll mimics], which suspended in a semicircle in his house made motions and contortions, dexterously manipulated by Tukuihô by means of strings braided of paper mulberry. For this reason the islanders changed the name of the royal house, which, as we have said, was - 31 called Cockroach House to that of Hare aka Aere-Moai (house of the walking ‘monkeys’). As for the demons, Hitilau and Nuko te Magnó, ashamed at seeing themselves so much ridiculed, disappeared from the island and it is very probable that they committed suicide by throwing themselves into the sea.”

Knoche writes:

Nicht zufrieden damit, schnitzte Tukuihu unzählige dieser Figuren und hing sie im Halbkreis um sein Haus auf. Und zur Unterhaltung seines Volkes befestigte er Stricke, die aus Mahute geflochten waren, an diesen Figuren, vereinigte sie in seiner Hand und liess sie alle möglichen Bewegung ausführen. Seitdem nannten seine Untertanen das Haus Hare aka Aere-Moai (d.h. das Haus der Figuren, die gehen). Die Teufel, Hititau und Nuko te Mano, in ihrem Ärger, sich so lächerlich gemacht zu sehen, verliessen die Insel oder stürzten sich ins Meer. Translation: “Dissatisfied with this, Tukuihu carved innumerable figures and hung them in a semicircle around his house. And to entertain his people he fastened strings, which were woven from paper mulberry, to these figures, gathered them in his hand and made them execute all kinds of movements. Since then his subjects have called his house Hare aka Aere-Moai (that is, the house of the Walking figures). The demons, Hatilau and Nuko te Mano, in their chagrin at being so much ridiculed, either left the island or hurled themselves in the ocean.”

Brown, it seems to me, has imaginatively amalgamated his ethnographic observations with inspiration from Vives Solar to retell the origin of the dancing images. His account is unreliable for comparative purposes. 8 To his retelling he has appended his theory of the historical origin of the supposed marionettes. Brown does not interpret as dancers the first figures that the chief carved. The chief decided, Brown states, that these emaciated male and female images, which included a double-headed image, would so gratify the spectres' vanity that they would bother the people no longer. Then “to cheer and amuse” his subjects he carved images of “full-fed men.” Brown adds:

He manufactured them by the score and made them so that their legs and arms should take the attitudes that those of the dancers of the hokohoko assume. Then he arranged them so that they could be hung on a cord all around the roof of his three hundred feet long house; by another cord he could keep them whirling round, whilst with a third he could control the movements of their limbs. And when the people crowded round there they saw the little wooden images dancing the hokohoko as they gyrated round the roof of Tuukoihu's house. And they laughed as they contrasted this with the picture of famine and the malignance of ghosts that they had seen in his rib-and-thigh-bone memorial images. He had found the true secret of the management of his Easter Islanders. . . .” The name of the chief's house Brown translates as “The House of the Moving, Dancing Images.”

- 32

Besides these versions of how the chief created the first wooden images and made them dance, three variants occur of a myth about the moai miro the chief carved and named Piu-hekerere, Hopping Nestling or Jumping Little Bird. Did it look like a bird or a human being? Nothing is said of its appearance. Islanders do carve an occasional image in other than human form to represent a lizard, a fish, or a bird. However, except for Routledge describing Piuhekerere “flying” home, a verb perhaps representing her interpretation, no reason exists to regard this figure as other than humanoid and bearing a personal name referring to a bird.

Following is a summary of Métraux's first variant 9 which is similar to Routledge's brief account. 10

An unnamed young man borrowed The Jumping Little Bird from Tu'u-ko-ihu to decorate a feast house that he had built to honor his father. After the feast had ended and all the guests except for a few young men had gone home, the building caught fire. Hearing the shouts of the people about the fire, Tu'u-ko-ihu called out to his wooden image, “O my brother, Jumping Little Bird, jump!” Then he sent a servant to the scene of the fire. When the young man saw him he told him that The Jumping Little Bird had been burned up. Declaring that it had not, the servant searched and found it lying far away from the ruins of the house, and gave it to the young man who returned it to the chief.

Métraux's second variant omits the episode of the servant and tells of the young man going direct to Tu'u-ko-ihu to report the loss of the image. To his astonishment as he enters the chief's house he sees The Jumping Little Bird at home, intact and unharmed. When the chief had called to the image to jump it had done so, and had come back home of its own accord. 11


Another narrative about Tu'u-ko-ihu, telling how he acquired an enemy's beautiful tapa cloak which he admired, further demonstrates the magical power of a command, his or another's, to animate objects. During a battle, the cloak was suddenly torn from around the enemy warrior's neck and flew over his head. The warrior then ordered his cloak: “Go straight ahead.” While other warriors looked up and commented on the flying cloak, its owner repeated his command until the cloak came near Tu'u-ko-ihu's house. The chief then ordered his servant to get “his” cloak for him. 12 Either the narrative is garbled or the listener must possess supplementary information not part of the narrative. Did the ever-present wind of Easter Island tear the cloak off? Did the chief himself first order the cloak to leave the warrior, and did its owner, an enemy, then surrender it gracefully by expediting its flight to the chief? Or, did the owner himself first command the coat to fly away to the chief in order to win a concession - 33 from him? Whatever the answer, islanders clearly believe that in Tu'u-ko-ihu's time not only wooden images but also tapa cloaks could be made to move upon command.


Also believed to be magically propellable by command are the gigantic stone statues. Métraux's summary of all the published myths that purport to explain the present locations of these statues reveals that islanders believe the images have walked to where they now are. 13 Four different people, believed to have possessed the mana to cause the images to move on command or by magical chants, are a chief (Tu'u-ko-ihu is sometimes named); the god Makemake; priests; and an unnamed woman, cook for the male image-makers. One myth declares that a chief, often said to be the popular Tu'u-ko-ihu, had such great mana that when he ordered the stone giants to walk they set out and chose the places most convenient to themselves. Another states that it was Makemake, the greatest god in the island pantheon, who had sufficient mana to relocate the statues. Still another myth narrates that priests by continual chanting made the statues walk to where they are now. Whenever the priests stopped chanting their spells the statues halted. Some statues are now scattered around the island because, according to mythology, an evil spell halted their march toward the family funeral platforms for which they were destined.

Myths also seek to explain why certain stone statues are lying prone instead of standing erect. Evil spells, islanders state, were chanted to topple these images from their upright position. Routledge was informed that an old woman, who cooked for the sculptors of these statues, had the supernatural power to order the images to move. When the image-makers did not share their food with her she angrily ordered the statues to fall down; she thus brought the men's work to a standstill. 14

Although some islanders told Routledge “that the statues were thrown down by human means, they never [had] any doubt that they were moved by supernatural power.” 15 One funerary platform she visited had a large stone image on it although the platform is on a hill, one side of which has a sheer cliff to the ocean and the other a very steep landward slope of 29 feet. A guide rhetorically asked her with regard to his ancestors' transportation of the statue to the platform, “Do you mean to tell me that that was not done by mana?”

Easter islanders, Métraux and Routledge suggest, had forgotten after European contact the practical techniques their ancestors had employed to transport a statue from a distant quarry to the platform of a collective sepulchre, ahu. Descendants then invented the myth of the statues being impelled by magical commands and spells to walk to their present sites. “To satisfy inquirers,” Metraux remarks, “they invented a myth which tells how the statues moved to the ahu by magic.” 16 “Legendary lore,” - 34 Routledge states, “. . . has invented a story which entirely satisfies the native mind and is repeated on every occasion.” 17


Islanders refer explicitly, it will be noted, to the power of words, magic and mana to accomplish extraordinary or supernatural feats in regard to the stone images. However, they only imply the use of this power in their myths about the tapa cloak's flight and the image's leap from a burning house. Taken for granted, it seems, is that magic and mana activated the objects. Also taken for granted is mana in those variants told to Routledge and Métraux about the chief's making images walk and dance. Routledge, finding this myth “one of the best known and uniformly narrated” stories on Easter Island, added that it “obviously bears the marks of endeavouring to explain facts whose genesis has been forgotten.” 18 It indeed explains how and why the chief invented the images but not explicitly how he made them move. Métraux's 1940 version merely states that the chief “made the images walk.” 19 Routledge, too, only notes that he “made them walk.” 20 His technique, I assume, was clear to all islanders, involved his great mana, and thus required no explanation.

In 1957, Métraux explicitly states, however, that the images danced “of their own accord, by magic.” 21 He gives this version only in English summary—unlike his 1940 version which he presented in both the native language and English translation. The phrase quoted here that he used in 1957 strikes me as perhaps his gloss to emphasise a point on which he differed from collectors other than Routledge. Métraux was skeptical—and I share his skepticism in part—of the authenticity of the incident in Vives Solar's version, and elaborated by Knoche and Brown as part of a theory, about Tu'u-ko-ihu using cords to make the images move like marionettes. Métraux states: “Discarding the magical element of the tale, Vives Solar has Tu'u-ko-ihu move the images by cords. On this misunderstanding, Knoche and later Brown built their theory of the Easter Island marionettes and the parallels with Indonesia.” 22

Of the legends and tales discussed by Knoche, Métraux adds: “Unfortunately his versions are based on texts established by Vives Solar who misunderstood most of his information and added fanciful details to give more colour to the narrative. The folklore contained in Brown's work suffers from the same fault. All my material was collected in the vernacular and translated literally. The texts were checked on the island by natives and now are stored in the library of Bernice P. Bishop Museum.” 23 Knoche apparently did not question Vives Solar's accuracy in recording the story without glosses and exactly as islanders told it to him. Brown's version is definitely suspect as a retelling; details about cords on the figures seem to have been greatly elaborated by Brown himself.

- 35

Vives Solar's reference to the chief hanging his wooden creations around his house and moving them by strings definitely inspired Knoche's theory that Easter Island formerly had a sacred puppet theatre. Brown does not mention Vives Solar or, in fact, indicate where he got his account of the invention of the dancing moai miro. That Knoche inspired Brown, as Métraux states, is uncertain if one judges only by Brown's theory having been published in 1924 and Knoche's in 1927. However, the two had obviously communicated with each other before 1924 because Brown published a photograph of part of Knoche's collection of moai miro. 24 Unknown is whether either had formulated his theory before their communication.

Vives Solar's myth, Knoche states, clearly shows that the figures, suspended by cords, were marionettes. Moreover, not all of the wooden images, Knoche adds, are household gods (representing ancestral spirits) because his collection includes some fantastic figures. For example, one is a double-headed image (mentioned by Brown). Another, representing a fish god, has a perforation in its back which probably served for the passage of a cord. Quite possibly, even the images representing ancestral figures, Knoche continues, might have been employed with sancrosanct significance in a puppet theatre. Then, too, since images were sometimes clothed, occasionally painted, and often equipped with detachable wigs of real hair they could, Knoche claims, have been used in a variety of performances. Because such plays are unknown in central and western Polynesia, one would certainly have to go back, Knoche declares, to the cradle land of Polynesians and their culture to rediscover a similar production. And, he concludes, even if the narrative about them is a fiction it contains some truth. Such is Knoche's theory about the moai miro. 25

Brown, it will be recalled, states that Tu'u-ko-ihu, after inventing the skeleton-like images to appease the spectres, carved images of “full-fed men” with “legs and arms that should take” attitudes of hokohoko dancers. Hanging them on a cord around his house, the chief, Brown claims, next attached another cord to keep them whirling and a third cord to control their limb movements.

Brown then mulls over where these marionettes originally came from to Easter Island. 26 Although regarding them as probably an early human invention, he speculates that Easter Island got them by way of New Zealand from Java where shadow plays, wayang, use leather figures to depict great heroes of Indian history. He chose New Zealand as the connecting link between Java and Easter Island because of James Cowan's Maori myth that the Patu-paiarehe, described as a blond aboriginal people, taught a Maori chief how to construct haka-dancing, wooden marionettes. 27 The superiority of Maori carving over that elsewhere in Polynesia, Brown adds, is another reason to favour New Zealand as the link. Brown freely conjectures that if Hotu Matua, leader of the first settlers on Easter - 36 Island, called at New Zealand, he took Tu'u-ko-ihu, who must have been Patu-paiarehe, with him to Easter Island. The contrast between the religious significance of Tu'u-ko-ihu's image and their dancing purely to amuse people probably developed, according to Brown, “in the submerged empires” (of a lost Pacific continent that he further posits). Of the two uses of the images, the religious, Brown declares, is the older because, “like all dramatic performances,” those using puppets and marionettes originated in religious ceremonial.

Brown very broadly compares figures from Easter Island and New Zealand with those from Hawaii, and all with those from Europe and Asia. Describing Hawaiian figures as the only marionettes to persist in Polynesia into his time, he accepts N. B. Emerson's conclusion that Hawaiians had not imitated European puppets. 28 Brown points out that whereas Hawaiian figures are clad in tapa, myths never describe those from Easter Island and New Zealand as clothed. Further, says Brown, whereas the Hawaiian manipulator is always concealed, like the operator in Burma and most Western countries, the Easter Island manipulator, Tu'u-ko-ihu, was visible. (Omitted by Brown is the fact that the Maori manipulator is visible to his audience.) Generally the source of the puppets' movements, Brown states, is concealed in China, India, and Further India, with only shadows falling on the screen. However, in Java, this is not the case for plays using modern themes which are performed in the daytime with round and more lifelike figures; shadow plays about historic figures are performed at night with flat figures. Despite differences noted between Maori, Hawaiian and Easter Island figures, Brown believes that they “point back to a common origin, in the fatherland, Hawaiki. There probably the Polynesians, before they spread all over the Pacific, indulged in dramatic performances of puppets carved out of wood and having eyes of mother-of-pearl. It was the gestures and action of the figures themselves that the spectators watched and not their shadows thrown on a screen; they are thus differentiated from the wayang plays of Java, and show a close affinity to the Punch-and-Judy shows of western Europe.” 29 Such is Brown's theory.

Did Easter Island formerly have marionettes or did it not? On the one hand, Brown and Knoche claim that it did because Tu'u-ko-ihu manipulated his wooden images by cords to make them dance. On the other hand, Métraux claims that to support their argument Brown and Koche have elaborated a version that Vives Solar had already coloured, whereas islanders, in telling the myth, mention no cords because they believe that the chief moved the images by supernatural means. Routledge's information supports Métraux.

My survey of available information indicates that no evidence exists that Easter Island formerly had marionettes, let alone a marionette theatre. To believe otherwise one must distort the customary meaning of what a marionette is and interpret as marionettes those moaimiro, representing male human bodies and certain creatures, which are made with a hole by - 37 which to string them as a necklace when their owner wears them to a festival. If we accept this distorted meaning of marionette—and I do not—then Easter Islanders have marionettes.

Although we cannot know what Vivas Solar's informant told him, in the published version the chief, instead of using his supernatural power, prosaically fastened cords of mahute, paper-mulberry bast, to his images to make them move. This version does not explain how the chief strung them. However, if he only pulled a cord through the hole in their backs their movements would be extremely limited. Perhaps Knoche, in ambiguously remarking that the myth, even if fictitious, has some truth, refers to the possibility that the disputed incident merely describes known island custom of stringing the figures in a necklace, and not marionettes.

The male moai miro—but not the female—and some figures of lizards and other creatures have a perforated protuberance at the back of the neck. One of the constant and outstanding features of male images is that “The seventh cervical vertebra is represented by a rounded protuberance, generally at the back of the neck, which developed into a knob for the suspension hole, though the protuberance is not always pierced.” 30 Some of the small wooden lizards also have the seventh cervical vertebra protruding as a knob which is pierced transversely to permit their owners to hang them on a string to wear at dances during feasts. Other images they carried in their arms and moved them rhythmically. 31

Being carved from one piece of wood, each image is rigid. Any possible movement is that of the spinning, swinging, and swaying that a single piece of perforated wood hung on a cord can be made to do. Male moai miro have clearly defined but rigid, unjointed legs and arms. Female images also have rigid, unjointed legs but the arms, crossed on the body, are merely carved in relief. Neither the limbs nor the head of any figure, male or female, can be manipulated except at the risk of breaking the parts. A magician with mystic power, like Tu'u-ko-ihu, would find this no problem. That is the advantage of accepting the account of his making the moai miro walk and dance as the description of a miracle due to mana. Otherwise one must rationalise the incident by introducing cords that manipulate the figures to make them move—and then they can only spin or swing.

Brown got around this problem by inventing a new episode—or so I think—about the chief creating a third, major kind of moai miro (the first two were the male and female spectral figures). This third type was made, Brown claims, so that the figures' legs and arms could be made to imitate hokohoko dancers. He vaguely describes hokohoko as having two rows of performers—young men, each holding a dance ornament in both hands, and young women—who sway from side to side as they sing. 32 If awaying is all they do, the spectral images hanging from a string could be made to imitate them. Perhaps dancers imitate the figures. Brown's only evidence of this supposed third type is the reference to a photograph of - 38 part of Knoche's collection. 33 Included there are small wooden images which Brown says are “copies of Tuukoihu's marionettes, as they have no ribs showing except . . . [for one specimen].” More pertinent than a reference to the ribs would have been information as to whether the limbs were movable. It is doubtful that they were. Such stylistic variations that distinguish them from other moai miro may develop from carvers seeking to please the curio trade.

Citing as examples certain figures in Knoche's collection and in museums, Métraux attributes aberrant characteristics to commercialisation for foreign sale that has resulted in ancient forms being “exaggerated and twisted; the images are no longer conventionalized figures but awkward caricatures.” 34 Knoche, it will be recalled, claimed that some moai miro might be clothed, painted, or fitted with detachable wigs of real hair, making them useful in varied marionette performances. Among aberrant examples, besides those in Knoche's collection, Métraux mentions two in the Musèe d'Ethnographie du Trocadero, Paris, perhaps the source of Knoche's opinion. 35 One moai miro, bewigged, wears a necklace of shell discs threaded on sennit; the other has a bunch of hair stuck into its head as a topknot. The wig, Métraux states, has been displaced from a Marquesan image. The Marquesans put wigs on their wooden images whereas Easter Island carvers did not. They customarily engraved designs on the top of a moai miro's head. The shell necklace is foreign to Easter Island, being of the type found in the Caroline Islands, Micronesia. Other aberrant images, not old probably, wear tapa loincloths or have two cock feathers on the forehead. All, Métraux declares, are part of carvers' later realism because their eyes were on the curio trade and visitors with poor taste.

What was the significance of the small wooden images to the people of Easter Island? At least some represented spirits of dead chiefs or family members. 36 When not on display they were carefully wrapped in tapa and stored in the huts. For festivals an owner unwrapped them, sang to them, danced about with them, and rocked them in his arms before hanging them by a cord on his person. He wore all his moai miro, perhaps 10 to 20; the more he had the more favourable a deity would be to his requests. Only men—never women—wore the images, Routledge states, and hung them around their necks as parts of their dress for important festivals. 37

A procession of men and women to a festival at a funerary platform was dramatic. All participants danced, and men carrying dance paddles or images went through many gyrations and movements with them. Métraux's informant said:

Some men carried a wooden image in each hand which they juggled as they sang and marched toward the ahu. They wore wooden pendants and images and carried other accessories such as dance paddles - 39 and figures of lizards or of men which they brandished, waved, and handled in various ways. Sometimes they were extended with a sudden movement; at other times they were held near the mouth, passed between the legs, and so forth. Sometimes the dancers made as if to spit on them.

The informant “demonstrated vividly the grotesque and often obscene gestures by those who carried images.” While dancing toward the platform, men and women “Indian-filed along a paved alley,” and “bowed their bodies forward with flexed knees, hopping forward each time they assumed a straight position. They moved the fingers rapidly and uninterruptedly.” Perhaps this was the dance Brown called hokohoko. 38

Whether the images were considered sacred and worshipped is uncertain. The story about Jumping Little Bird may indicate, Métraux notes, that the presence of the images was considered indispensable at a feast. 39 To me, this alone would not necessarily prove them sacred; they might be wanted only as prestigious ornaments for a prestigious occasion. The sanctity of the moai miro, Métraux might have added, is evidenced by the belief that each brings more chances of a god heeding the wearer's requests. He does remark that the ceremonial handling and wrapping of the images “would be incomprehensible unless we suppose that these images were really gods or representations of deified ancestors.” Easter Island custom corresponds, he observes, to that in Tahiti and the Tuamotus of coddling and flattering images of gods. To Routledge, the moai miro possibly “are portraits, or memorial figures, of which the older may have attained to deification. . . .” 40 As times changed in Easter Island, Metraux suggests, the artistic element may have become more important than the ideological. Then the images came to serve mainly as treasures to be conspicuously displayed at feasts.

The little moai miro had, then, at least in earlier times, religious significance and played a prominent role in dramatic religious processions and festivals associated with ancestral spirits and focused on the collective sepulchres where many of the great stone images stood. However, they were not marionettes and could not be manipulated as such. Questions without evidence for answers are: Were the dancers who swayed from side to side or bent and straightened as they hopped imitating how they imagined Tu'u-ko-ihu's images had danced? Did men identify themselves with the chief as they twirled and “danced” their necklaces of images or gestured with them? Did they ever hang perforated images on a string in a semicircle in a hut, as Vives Solar says the chief did, or around the roof, as Brown says, or set them by the door as Jumping Little Bird was to decorate the hut? However, the chief did more than string his images to make them swing to and fro. He also made them walk and dance, not on him or with him, or on a string, but apart from him. Such is what the least questioned versions imply, it seems to me. He and certain other men and a woman of ancient times could also, it was believed, make the stone giants walk.

- 40

Easter Island genius for achieving dramatic and theatrical effects in their creation and use of the giant stone statues and the small wooden images is further evident in their former custom of constructing a large, hollow, reed-and-rod image of a human being from within which an orator gave a eulogy to the crowd assembled before a funerary platform. Standing from 9 to 12 feet high, the image was set into a stone-circled depression, 3 to 4 metres in diameter, at the front, the landward side, of the platform. It was kept securely in position by four long ropes, one of which passed over the platform. The orator, holding one or two chickens in his hand, would climb inside the image, thrust his head out of its open mouth, and address the people gathered below him. During his oration he would occasionally extend his arm to exhibit the chickens and might even bite the comb of one. Why is unknown. Was it a silent, visually communicated promise of the feast and pleasure to follow? His oration described the fine qualities of the dead relative being honoured and also his own excellence in having organised the memorial. His listeners, being reminded of the dead person, would howl and chant funeral lamentations. When the festival was over and the guests had departed the image would be carefully preserved, particularly the head, so that it might be used again in the same way.

Little is known about the ceremony or the figure. No authenticated example of an image has been preserved into the present. Information comes from two eyewitnesses in the eighteenth century and from two visitors in the twentieth century who merely recorded what islanders remembered. The term paina refers to the image, to the ceremony, and to the orator who was also the host. The festival, probably part of a series of mortuary rituals, generally honoured a dead parent, but might also memorialise a dead wife or child. It was also an occasion for gaiety and feasting. A paina was always held at a traditional time in the summer. Usually a son organised the memorial for his father with his kinsmen's help. It took them years of work to accumulate enough food for the guests, who also brought food for distribution. At least some of this food was piled around the images. Chickens, the island's only domesticated animals, were a particularly prized food. The ahu where the honoured person had been buried was the site of the ceremony, the religious aspects of which the host asked a priest to direct. 41

Descriptions of the image indicate that its construction and use were not uniform and that changes occurred over the years. Routledge, in fact, did not consider the eighteenth-century images to be paina because they were so different from what her twentieth-century informants described. 42 The earliest image described, in 1770, was stuffed, and had arms and legs. The 1940 description tells of a hollow body but does not mention limbs. My conclusion, tentative because of ambiguities and omissions in the four accounts, is that the custom of entering the figure to give a eulogy was a later innovation which was necessarily associated with structural modifications of the image.

- 41

In 1770, an officer with González 43 described a 12-foot-high, white effigy, “clothed and portable,” and made with arms and legs. The image was “properly speaking the figure of a Judas stuffed with straw or dried grass.” (The reference apparently is to the figure used in Europe to ritually re-enact Judas Iscariot, betrayer of Jesus, hanging himself.) Details are given only of the head which had “coarsely figured eyes, nostrils, and mouth,” and was adorned with a black fringe of hair made of rushes which hung halfway down the back. The sex of the image is not mentioned. People set up the figure on the beach after the Spanish had erected three crosses there. All night they sat cross-legged around it and howled. The name kopeka recorded for it means vengeance, according to Métraux, who suggests the people meant the Spanish to understand that the ceremony honoured a slain man and was also a rite of vengeance. 44

In 1786, an officer with La Pérouse 45 told of a 10-foot-high “layman or effigy of reeds” covered with white tapa. (This explains the “white” effigy seen in 1770.) The head was “of a natural size, the body thin, the legs exactly proportionate.” Not stated is whether the body was hollow or had arms. Its being “thin” indicates that a person might be unable to enter it. Around its neck this effigy had a basket-shaped, tapa-covered net “apparently containing grass.” By the side of this sack was the figure of a child 2 feet long, with the arms crossed and the legs hanging down. The term “layman,” like the reference to a “Judas,” implies that the figures represented men.

However, the figure of the child with the large figure led Routledge to conjecture that the larger image might have represented a woman. 46 An old man to whom she described the eighteenth-century images said that such reed images had once existed to memorialise a dead wife or a “fine” child and would stand before a house or on a hillock where people gathered to mourn. Struck by differences between the eighteenth-century images and those described by her informants, Routledge reserved the term paina for the latter and called the eighteenth-century images kopeka. All of these images, however, are paina.

Routledge found that informants recalled only that the paina (meaning, she states, picture or representation) “was a large figure made of woven rods,” and that “the host would clamber up inside it and look through eyes or mouth; it had a crown made of the wings of a particular sea-bird, known as a ‘makohe’ [Frigate-bird], and long ears.” No reference is made to a tapa covering; the implication is that there was none. Usually the image stood, secured by four ropes, on the landward side at the foot of the paved slope of an image ahu (sepulchre with large stone statues). Most, or all, of the large sepulchres still had holes in the grass where paina had stood. Occasionally one was erected where a man had been killed, or on some other special spot. Although the ceremony, Routledge states, might - 42 honour either a living or a dead relative, the reed-and-rod image was probably used only to commemorate a dead person. 47

Métraux learned that a paina image was put together in three sections—head, nose, and body. 48 Ears, arms, legs, and other parts are not mentioned. Total height of the image is not indicated. Essentially, the body consisted of a conical framework covered with turmeric-stained tapa which was sewn to it and painted. This framework, strong enough to support a man's weight, was made of perpendicular poles to which were attached 11 or 12 rings of reeds that decreased in diameter toward the upper part of the poles. The head was a separate framework of tapa-covered wood and reed. The mouth through which the orator spoke was large and open. The painted eyes had eyeballs of black shell encircled by white discs cut from a human skull. (As Routledge was told the orator could look through the eyes or the mouth, the eyes apparently were sometimes open holes.) Frigate-bird feathers formed the head circlet; tufts of rushes, the hair; and black feathers, the eyebrows. Dots on the forehead and a black triangle on each cheek indicated that the image represented a woman; perpendicular lines on the neck, a man; black painting to simulate head-to-feet tattooing also represented a man. Sex apparently was not otherwise indicated. The nose, a piece of tapa stuffed with reed, was separately attached to the head. Métraux later, in a popular generalisation, states that head and limbs were separately constructed. 49 However, nothing in his 1940 account indicates that his informants mentioned arms and legs.

Three small, stuffed, tapa-covered reed images, preserved in the Belfast and Peabody (Cambridge) museums, may be either small paina (or small-scale models of them) or manu-uru, according to Métraux. 50 Unstated is date of collection. The term manu-uru, as I understand it from Métraux's usage, can be broadly applied to different kinds of objects, not necessarily in bird form, made of tapa and reed. Kites, for example, are manu-uru. Presumably, paina could be a name for a very specific kind of manu-uru. Métraux interpreted his informant's application of the name manu-uru to masks and masked people as the man's personal extension of meaning based on his residence in Chile where he had seen masquerades. 51 Easter Island apparently had no masks anciently. Generally by manu-uru are meant tapa and reed images of lizards and, rarely, of crayfish. These were placed, one at each side of a house entrance, either as ornaments or as supernatural protectors from evil spirits. 52 (That a moai miro could be similarly used is suggested by the young men who borrowed Little Jumping Bird having used it in this way.)

The three museum images, unlike the usual manu-uru, represent human beings. But, like them and the paina, they were made on a framework of plaited bundles of bulrush over which sheets of tapa were sewn. Eyes and - 43 ears on the three images were stitched, as separate pieces, to the tapa; fingernails are long sticks; teeth, pieces of bulrush. Faithfully reproduced were designs of facial tattooing and painting. Recalling the style of moai miro are an aquiline nose, protruding vertebrae, and two bulky malleoli.

I find it hard to accept Métraux's suggestion that these three images are small paina or models of them. His sketches of two of them show them seated and apparently unextendable whereas the four paina stood upright. 53 But, like the paina described in 1770 and 1786, the three images were stuffed instead of being hollow like the paina known in the twentieth century. In one of the two museum figures sketched the male sex organ is evident, whereas descriptions of the paina mention no indication of sex except for facial designs.

Nothing suggests that these small images, or any manu-uru, or the paina, whether hollow or stuffed, were true puppets. None was manipulated. The large paina were “moving images,” in that they were carried bodily to the funerary platform. There they were set into position and securely lashed with four ropes, to become rigid and immovable. The hollow paina served as a pulpit, shaped like a human figure, for the orator who stood inside. Unfortunately, the Spanish in 1770 did not tell how the “portable” 12-foot stuffed effigy was used other than as a focus for lamentations.


The 9-to-12-foot-high paina recall the 7-foot-high basketwork image seen by Captain Cook in Tahiti in 1768. It may have been hollow, and if so, perhaps occupied by a human speaker. Apparently it was not a true puppet but another effigy like a paina which had to be carried bodily from one stationary position to another and had no manipulable parts.

Although both Captain Cook and Sir Joseph Banks vaguely described the figure, neither provided a sketch. Cook, who found that the people had no reluctance about letting him examine it, stated:

. . . we . . . met with a very extraordinary curiosity call'd Mahuwe . . . [Maui] and said by the natives to be used in their Heiva's or publick entertainments, probably as punch is in a Puppet Show. It was the figure of a man made in basketwork 7½ feet high and every [other] way large in proportion, the head was ornamented with four nobs resembling stumps of horns, three stood in front and one behind, the whole of this figure was covered with feathers, white for the ground upon which [black—] imitating hair and the Marks of tattou, it had on a maro or cloth about its loins, under which were proofs of it being intended for a man. 54

The basketwork was probably wicker such as Tahitians used to enclose and shelter images of gods. Like others of their type, two such shelters in Bishop Museum have a face outlined in the wicker. Archey, describing a variation as “a closely-plaited sinnet cover with a crude face outlined or limbs scantily embroidered thereon . . .,” suggests that “The large wicker - 44 form of ‘Mahwe’ seen by Cook would be a variant of this practice. . . .” 55 Neither the image cover nor the image itself had any special sanctity; that lay in its red-feather decorations. 56

That the Tahitian effigy of Maui was a pre-European invention seems certain. Although Cook cautiously interpreted its use as perhaps like that of Punch in a puppet show, he is definite that the figure represented a human being, was individually named, and was used in secular, public performances. His having recorded the effigy's personal name, Maui, shows that it represented the famous culture hero and trickster, a strikingly identifiable personality in Polynesian mythology. Myths describe the Tahitian Maui as possessing either seven or eight heads. This suggests the four knobs on the effigy's head may have been attenuated heads.

Neither the effigy nor any plays with Maui as a character were again mentioned by Cook although his expedition saw and described Tahitian dramatic skits with human actors. Public entertainments were usually conducted by the 'Arioi, a hierarchically graded society of male and female entertainers, whose playlets freely burlesqued current events regardless of the social class of those portrayed. Additionally, entertainers sang, danced, and gave informative recitations about the district in which they were performing. Resembling the 'Arioi in less organised form were Hawaiian hula troupes, among whom were manipulators of both puppets and marionettes. Other eastern Polynesian islands had more informal and unorganised bands of youthful entertainers identified by names cognate with 'Arioi.

Polynesian love of dramatic skits has continued into modern times. Twentieth-century accounts from the northern Cook Islands and the Tuamotus describe human actors enacting scenes of how Maui fished up islands, snared the sun, turned his wife's lover into a dog, and performed other feats. Other traditions were also acted out there and in western Polynesia. 57


Examination of sources about Easter Island small wooden figures, large stone statues, and both small and large reed figures shows that no true puppets or marionettes, let alone a theatre for their use, existed. These forms are, rather, movable but non-manipulable and rigid figures. The wooden statuettes, usually but not always representing ancestral spirits, if perforated were strung and worn as a necklace in religious and secular processions and dances. If unperforated, they were carried in the dancer's hands or arms. Those on the necklace moved and swayed with their wearer; the others the owner carried and gestured with. They were cherished both as religious and display objects. These are the figures Knoche and Brown regarded, erroneously, I believe, as true marionettes used in a sacred marionette theatre. A single version, obtained by Vives Solar, mentions the inventor of these carvings as having employed string to make a series of them move. Other versions do not explain but merely - 45 state that he made them move. Two explanations I offer are that either the the inventor strung the perforated male figures on a string and made them move as his descendants did or the great mana he and others of his era were credited with enabled him to activate them, the great stone figures, and other inanimate objects. The power of their command or spells was sufficient without strings or other devices.

A nascent sense of theatre and drama is evident in Easter Island use of the little statuettes, the myths of marching stone statues, and especially in what may be a later custom of an orator climbing into a large, hollow, figure to eulogise the person his festival honoured and of his audience responding with chants and laments. For all three types of images the focal site, but not the exclusive site, for their display was on or near funerary platforms.

No records of dramatic skits come from Easter Island although they are reported from several other Polynesian islands. However, Tahitian use of a large humanoid figure at public entertainments, first described like the Easter Island figures in the eighteenth century, indicates the sharing of elements of a common cultural tradition. The Tahitian effigy was also of a movable but non-manipulable and rigid type.

Such moving effigies, large and small, also existed in other Polynesian islands, as did narratives about inanimate forms, natural or man-made, believed able to move at will or on command. No doubt exists in my mind that but few changes were required to adapt existing practices and types of figures to produce true puppets and marionettes, and as in the Hawaiian Islands plays in which they were used. Whether these alterations developed before or after European contact remains to be discussed at another time.

  • ARCHEY, Gilbert, 1965. The Art Forms of Polynesia. Auckland Institute and Museum Bulletin, 40.
  • BROWN, John Macmillan, 1924. The Riddle of the Pacific. London, Unwin.
  • COOK, James, 1968. The Journals of Captain James Cook on His Voyages of Discovery. The Voyage of the Endeavour 1768-1771. Edited by J. C. Beaglehole. Cambridge, University Press for the Hakluyt Society.
  • COWAN, James, 1921. “The Patu-Paiarehe. Notes on Maori Folk-tales of the Fairy People.” Journal of the Polynesian Society, 30:96-102.
  • EMERSON, Nathaniel B., 1909. Unwritten Literature of Hawaii. The Sacred Songs of the Hula, Compiled and Translated with Notes and an Account of the Hula. Washington, Bureau of American Enthology Bulletin, 38.
  • GEISELER, Kapitanlieutnant, 1883. Die Ōster Insel, eine Stätte prähistorischer Kultur in der Südsee. Berlin, Mittler und Sohn.
  • GONZÁLEZ Y HAEDO, Felipe, 1908. The Voyage of Captain Don Felipe González in the Ship of the Line ‘San Lorenzo’ with the Frigate ‘Santa Rosalia’ in Company to Easter Island, in 1770-1801, preceded by an Extract from Mvnheer Jacob Roggeveen's Official Log of His Discovery of and Visit to Easter Island in 1772, transcribed, translated and edited by Bolton Glanvill Corney . . . Cambridge, printed for the Hakluyt Society.
  • KNOCHE, Walter, 1925. Die Ōsterinsel, eine Zusammenfassung der chilenischen Ōsterinsel-expedition des Jahres 1911. Concepción, Wissenschaftliches Archiv von Chile.
- 46
  • — 1928. “Waren die Toromiro der Österinsel Marionetten?” Zeitschrift für Ethnologie, 59: 95-8.
  • KOOIJMAN, Simon, 1964. “Ancient Tahitian God-figures.” Journal of the Polynesian Society, 73: 110-25.
  • LA PÉROUSE, Jean Francois de Galaup, Cte de, 1797. Voyage de La Pérouse autour du monde (1785-1788). Paris, impr. de la République, an. V (1797).
  • LUOMALA, Katharine, 1949. Maui-of-a-thousand-tricks: His Oceanic and European Biographers. Honolulu, B. P. Bishop Museum Bulletin, 198.
  • MÉTRAUX, Alfred, 1937. “Easter Island Sanctuaries.” Göteborg, Ethnological Studies, 5: 104-53.
  • — 1940. Ethnology of Easter Island. Honolulu, B. P. Bishop Museum Bulletin, 160.
  • — 1957. Easter Island. New York, Oxford University Press.
  • ROUTLEDGE, Katherine Scoresby, 1919. The Mystery of Easter Island; the Story of an Expedition. London, Sifton Praed.
  • SPEAIGHT, George, 1955. The History of the English Puppet Theatre. London, Harrap.
  • VIVES SOLAR, José Ignaciu, 1920. Rapa Nui. Cuentos pascuenses. Santiago de Chile, Universitaria.
1   Research on Polynesian puppets and marionettes was begun when I was Visiting Senior Research Associate at Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., on a National Science Foundation grant in 1966-7.
2   Speaight 1955:32-5.
3   Métraux 1940:260-1.
4   Métraux 1957:145.
5   Routledge 1919:270.
6   Knoche 1925:267-9;1928:95-8.
7   Vives Solar 1920:61-4.
8   Brown 1924:137-42.
9   Métraux 1940:262.
10   Routledge 1919:270.
11   Métraux 1957:146.
12   Métraux 1940:366-7.
13   Métraux 1937:131-7; 1940:304; 1957:156.
14   Routledge 1919:182, 193.
15   Routledge 1919:198.
16   Métraux 1937:131.
17   Routledge 1919:269.
18   Routledge 1919:269.
19   Métraux 1940:261.
20   Routledge 1919:270.
21   Métraux 1957:145.
22   Métraux 1940:262.
23   Métraux 1940:363.
24   Brown 1924:facing p. 142.
25   Knoche 1927:98.
26   Brown 1924:142-5.
27   Cowan 1921:96-102.
28   Emerson 1909: 91.
29   Brown 1924:144.
30   Métraux 1940: 261.
31   Métraux 1940: 266: Geiseler 1883: 32, 48.
32   Brown 1924: 201.
33   Brown 1924: facing p. 142.
34   Métraux 1940: 249.
35   Métraux 1940: 253.
36   Métraux 1940: 259-60.
37   Routledge 1919: 269.
38   Métraux 1940:361.
39   Métraux 1940:262.
40   Routledge 1919:271.
41   Métraux 1940:343-5; 1957:172; Routledge 1919:233-4.
42   Routledge 1919:233.
43   Gonzàlez 1908:95.
44   Métraux 1940:345.
45   La Pérouse 1797 (I):81; Métraux 1940:344.
46   Routledge 1919:233.
47   Routledge 1919:233.
48   Métraux 1940:344.
49   Métraux 1957:172.
50   Métraux 1940:265-6.
51   Métraux 1940:140.
52   Métraux 1940:345.
53   Métraux 1940:238, 239, of Peabody Museum Nos. 53542, 53543, height 39 cm, 46 cm.
54   Beaglehole 1968:111-12.
55   Archey 1965:11-12.
56   Kooijman 1964.
57   Luomala 1949:80-5.