Volume 91 1982 > Volume 91, No. 3 > Female pollution in Polynesia.. by F. A. Hanson, p 335-382
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People throughout the Pacific have endowed sexuality with symbolic significance, usually in ways which diminish the status or restrict the activities of women. Menstruation is frequently viewed as contaminating and stands as the archetypical hallmark of the female's special position. Often the unmarried girls of chiefly Yapese villages are sent during menstruation to subservient villages, enabling the dominant village simultaneously to rid itself of pollution and to assert its superiority (Labby 1976:87). In New Guinea highland societies such as the Wola women, particularly menstruating women, are thought to have the capacity to pollute and even kill men (Sillitoe 1979). Somewhat more evenhanded are the Kafe, another highland group, who hold both semen and menstrual blood, when out of place, to be polluting (Faithorn 1975). It is similar on Wogeo, which together with other volcanic islands such as Blupblup and Bam belongs to the Schouten archipelago, located off the north coast of Papua New Guinea. Contacts between male and female are thought to contaminate both sexes. Women are purged naturally of defiling male influences, while men must periodically cleanse themselves of female pollution by gashing themselves in an artificially induced “male menstruation” (Hogbin 1970).

According to Ortner and Whitehead's recent claim, things are different in Polynesia, where “notions of female pollution, disruptiveness, and threat are not developed” (1981:20, see also 402-3). This view, however, rests uneasily among the received understandings about the status of women in traditional Polynesian cultures. Handy's Polynesian Religion, for example, contains the statements that menstrual blood was seen as “utterly contaminating to all that was sacred,” that “the process of delivery was throughout Polynesia regarded as unclean and psychically dangerous,” and that the vicinities of ritual or “scared labor” (such as canoe-building) were closed to women “who, because they were common (without mana) and harbored dangerous influences of the lower aspect of Nature, were always open to acting as mediums of evil” (Handy 1927:47, 213, 54; see also 38-9, 41-48). As will become obvious in the following pages, the idea that women were viewed in Polynesia as dangerous, disrup- - 336 tive and polluting is rampant in the literature.

My own contention is that this unsavoury trio of adjectives should be disarticulated. There can be no question that women were considered to be dangerous and disruptive in aboriginal Polynesia (although they could also be quite the opposite), but the idea of female pollution needs rethinking. A number of rites and other customs pertaining to women simply do not make sense if the peculiar danger and other special capacities of the female are grounded in a view of her as intrinsically contaminating or unclean. They become intelligible, however, from the perspective of a quite different — in some ways even diametrically opposed — set of ideas about the nature of women. That, at least, is my thesis in this essay.

First I shall review, from a number of Polynesian societies, those data which have commonly been cited as evidence for a concept of female pollution. Then I shall undertake a detailed exploration of the issue in New Zealand Maori culture, where information is richest. The shortcomings of interpretations which rest on the notion of female pollution will become apparent in the course of that investigation, and I shall suggest an alternative analysis. Finally, that new explanation will be tested against the data from other Polynesian societies. 1

Western Polynesia

Although the generalisation does not hold invariably, fewer institutions which are commonly understood in terms of female pollution are found in western Polynesia than in the east. During menstruation a Samoan woman should not eat pork, make kava or the breadfruit dish tafolo, but otherwise she observes few restrictions. “She need not retire to a special house; she need not eat alone; there is no contamination in her touch or look” (Mead 1949:54; see also 1969:123). Menstrual blood may be called “dirt” (papapala) in Samoa and, according to Shore, is thought to be polluting. This, however, is not because the blood is feminine but because it flows uncontrolled from the body. Blood from a wounded person of either sex is equally polluting, while the blood shed by a woman at childbirth is neither called “dirt” nor considered to be contaminating (Shore 1976:293; 1981:198). 2 About the only danger of femininity is that fishing would be spoiled if a woman were to touch the canoe or tackle (Mead 1949:54).

Menses are not considered dangerous on Pukapuka, and women during menstruation are not restricted in their contacts with others. One exception is that sexual intercourse is avoided during menstruation; not, however, for the sake of males. The purpose is to protect women from the difficulties which could result if menstrual blood were pushed up into the chest (Beaglehole and Beaglehole 1938:279). The only special prohibition - 337 on Pukapukan women which I have been able to find is that, with the exception of the “sacred maid” (of whom more later), they were barred from ocean-going canoes (Hecht 1977:196).

On nearby Tongareva it is deemed important to hedge the association between female genitalia and food. This makes it necessary for a woman to adopt a peculiar position when grating a coconut, sitting with her left leg bent and her right leg crossing the left thigh, holding the nut in the small triangle formed by the bent left knee and the right leg.

Pa said it was not right for a woman with food so close to have her thighs apart. When she crosses her right leg over the left thigh with the food to the far side the intervening right leg forms a barrier between the female sex organ and the food, which satisfied Tongarevan psychology (Buck 1932:123).

In the Tokelaus women are barred from the vicinity of canoe building (MacGregor 1937:114), while on Niue it is thought that a woman's presence in a canoe would bring bad luck (Loeb 1926:100). Niuean women are even forbidden to eat the “sacred” fish caught during a canoe's maiden fishing trip, and they are not allowed to engage in food preparation during menstruation (pp.91, 172-73).

Food restrictions also constrain women in Tonga, where “it was tapu for a woman to step over a growing yam vine, presumably lest the plant be blighted” (Gifford 1929:344). The Beagleholes report that Tongan women should not work, cook, or wash clothes during menstruation (Beaglehole and Beaglehole 1941:84).

Men and women do not eat together on Futuna and Uvea (Burrows 1936:140; 1937:100). Reports are mixed from Fiji. Quain states that on Vanua Levu “there is no fear of menstrual blood....the girl goes about her usual chores without concern for her condition” (1948:316). Thompson's account of the situation in the Lau Islands is quite different. The touch or glance of a pregnant or menstruating woman is thought to be destructive to turtle nets, and warriors would abstain from sexual intercourse for four nights before handling their sacred weapons (Thompson 1940a:113-14). During the first 100 days of pregnancy a woman is particularly dangerous. She may not bathe in the sea, participate in fishing, or touch the food of a sick person. She is also especially vulnerable during this period and may not allow her hair to be cut lest her strength be sapped (Thompson 1940a:83; 1940b:29). In general, “everything which was directly connected with women's loss of blood — the menses, first intercourse, pregnancy, and birth — was profane and impure.” This may not be a notion associated exclusively with females, however, because circumcision was considered to be profane as well (Thompson 1940a:113).

Turning to the Polynesian outliers, women on Tikopia may not sit on - 338 the “sacred” side (mato paito) of houses, nor may they attend sacred ceremonies or enter sheds which sheltered sacred canoes (Firth 1957:78-9, 132). A female spirit medium did not go into trance during menstruation; if called upon to do so she might decline with the explanation that she was “in a condition unpleasing to the spirit” (Firth 1967:325). No prohibitions of any sort accompany menstruation on Ontong Java (Hogbin 1931:29), but a number of restrictions come into play during pregnancy. Especially during her first pregnancy a woman may not sit on a stool and, after about the sixth month, she may not cook, kindle or even sit near a fire, or walk about after dark (Hogbin 1930:103-5).

On Rennell Island men and women eat separately. Menstruating women are prohibited from contacting outsiders, but they may continue to cook for their families. Birth is regarded as “unclean” and takes place not in a dwelling but in the open, usually near the latrine (Birket-Smith 1956:84, 105, 111). And finally, on Kapingamarangi Atoll, women should refrain from sexual intercourse, heavy work, and mingling in crowds during menstruation; more recently the rule has been modernised so as to bar them also from attending church services at this time (Emory 1965:164).

To summarise and generalise, western Polynesian evidence for the notion of female pollution is based mainly on restrictions on women's behaviour with reference to other people, sacred places, the production, preparation and consumption of food (especially as concerns fishing), the construction and use of canoes and (to a lesser extent) houses. These restrictions are often linked with the processes of menstruation and parturition, and particularly with the blood produced at those times.

Eastern Polynesia

As in the west, data from traditional eastern Polynesian societies are uneven regarding the symbolic status of women. A number of islands provide only fragmentary evidence. Mangarevan women slept in special houses separate from their families during menstruation, and women were barred from sacred places (Buck 1938:127; Laval 1968:113-14). In the Australs, women of Ra'ivavae formerly were not allowed to cook for their families during menstruation (Marshall 1961:246). I found a similar prohibition to be in effect on Rapa in 1963-64: a menstruating woman should not prepare other people's meals if it involves touching the food with her hands. Although she is permitted to hold, kiss and otherwise touch children, she should avoid physical contact with adults at this time. Women on the Tuamotuan atoll of Raroia were denied delicacies such as turtle or large fish. They were forbidden to partake of sacrifices which had been offered to the gods, and they were forbidden to enter the marae (ritual centre) (Danielsson 1956b:45, 50-51, 58, 193). Williamson reports that - 339 people in the Tuamotus would abstain from sexual relations the night before a sacrifice was to be made at the marae (1924, II:286).

Considerably more information is available from old Hawaii. As elsewhere, menstruation was a focal point of concepts and prohibitions. “A flowing woman was looked upon as both unclean and unlucky (haumia, poino),” reports Malo (1951:29). During this period she was confined to a menstrual house (hale pe'a). She participated in no outside activities, was isolated from all contact with men, and was even fed by a female relative (Malo 1951:27-29; Handy and Pukui 1972:9; Handy, Pukui, and Livermore 1934:7). Here is an explanation grounded explicitly in the notion of female pollution:

According to old Polynesian belief, the discharge of the menses was a sign of psychic as well as physical contamination. A woman had to be isolated both for her own protection and for that of others, for she was then especially subject to evil influences; at the same time, being physically unclean, her touch was spiritually defiling (Handy, Pukui and Livermore 1934:7).

Restrictions upon women in Hawaii extended well beyond menstruation. Excepting high-ranking women of the ali'i class who owed their position to illustrious pedigrees, women were reported to be devoid of sacredness. They could not handle fishing gear nor enter ritual places. They ate separately from men, and were not even allowed to enter the mua, or house where men of the family ate (Malo 1951:27-29; Handy and Pukui 1972:9, 11; Handy and Handy 1972:316).

Under the system of strict kapu where the sanctity of the male was concerned, it was necessary that men of the household be guarded against contamination of their food and working gear by women, who were periodically “unclean.” Hence, the production and preparation of food devolved upon men (Handy and Handy 1972:301).

It was a time-consuming task, because the man had to prepare totally separate meals for himself and his wife, in different ovens (p.302; Malo 1951:27). 3 The famous overthrow of the Hawaiian religious system in 1819 occurred when the young king Liholiho defied these rules and publically ate with women.

The richest data regarding the symbolic position of women in Polynesia come from the Marquesas, the Society Islands, and New Zealand. “Women Is held unclean,” wrote the seaman Edward Robarts of the Marquesas, where he lived from late 1798 to early 1806. “They must not come near the Morias [marae, the ritual centre], nor walk over the place where food is cooked, nor eat of food which has been beat by the hand of a man” (Robarts 1974:268). These were just a few of the regulations designed, according to most authors, to control the defilement of women (Suggs - 340 1966:155; Maranda 1964:35; Tautain 1896b:547). Women ate separately from men and were denied pork and other succulent foods (Tautain 1896a:450; Rollin 1929:158-59). Certain activities required men to enter a tapu or “sacred” state, which entailed a number of precautions relative to women. This applied to a chief preparing to go turtle fishing, who must not enter any house frequented by women (Williamson 1924, II:282). Warriors returning from battle were not allowed to eat with their wives until they (the warriors) underwent a ceremony which removed the war tapu from them (Handy 1923:135). 4 Nor could women engage in sexual relations, light fires, or even leave their houses while their husbands were in battle or fishing (pp.135, 166-67). In addition to battle, women had to keep their distance from other male activities such as construction and the production of art objects (Suggs 1966:156).

The physical passage of a woman over something or someone was viewed with consternation. Objects over which a woman had stepped could not be used again (Danielsson 1956a:188). Likewise, “a woman could not sit on a man's saddle, ride in a canoe, or sit on a chair or a house porch if a child was beneath it” (Suggs 1966:28). Melville adds that, excelling the rule which prevented them from embarking in canoes, females could not even swim in a lake if a canoe were on it (Melville n.d.:159). Occasionally, however, Marquesans would intentionally use the special properties of femininity to advance their own purposes. Many diseases were thought to be the work of possessing demons, and a woman might literally be applied as a cure.

It was thought that the vagina of women was abhorrent to such demons. One way that a woman could cure her husband if he was affected with sickness was by sitting naked on the afflicted part. Similarly, a sick man's female relations would sometimes attempt to frighten or draw away his troublesome guests by leaping over him naked (Handy 1927:245; see also Handy 1923:271)

As elsewhere in Polynesia, parturition and especially menstruation were at the heart of a woman's special position in the Marquesas. Menses, the blood shed during childbirth and the placenta were all considered to be highly tapu. Contact with them was thought to produce leprosy (Rollin 1929:97, 171; Robarts 1974:269). 5 There seems to have been no physical isolation during menstruation, but an expectant mother did repair to a special house, joined only by her husband and the midwife, for parturition. This might have been as much for the sake of the woman herself as it was to protect others from the dangers of childbirth, for a parturient woman was thought to be particularly vulnerable to malicious demons (Rollin 1929:96).

Mary Douglas predicts in Purity and Danger that sex pollution beliefs - 341 will flourish in societies where an ideal of male dominance is contradicted by female independence or where their relationships with women frequently lead to conflict among men (1966:142). While these conditions were and are widespread in Polynesia, they appear to have been most pronounced in the Marquesas. One thinks especially of Linton's account of how, in the Marquesan system of polyandry, important men used their wives to entice other men to become their clients, and how women in these circumstances were able to use their sexual favours to manipulate their husbands (Linton 1939:152-59).

Women in the contact-period Society Islands also lived under a wide range of prohibitions. The sexes ate apart, men fearing that they would be crippled or struck blind if they shared meals with women. Food for the two sexes was even produced in separate gardens, and women did not dare eat food cooked by men or kindle a fire with embers from a fire made by a man (Levy 1973:503; Williamson 1924,II:393; 1937:142; Oliver 1974:601-2). Women were not allowed to attend sacred ceremonies at the marae and, together with children, the old and the infirm, they were barred from the construction site of a new marae (Levy 1973:234; Henry 1928:131; Oliver 1974:60; de Bovis 1892:86). Restrictions pertaining to canoes and fishing, which we have found to be so widespread in Polynesia, seem also to have been present in the Societies.

Consecration of canoes, nets, spears, lines and hooks was an essential element in the success of fishing, for fish and fisherman, like all else, were under the control of tapu and the mana atua [divine influence]. This explains why women in former days never, and now rarely, went out in fishing canoes. The women being common (noa) would have neutralized the tapu of the craft, gear, and fishermen (Handy 1932:73-74).

From de Bovis, however, comes a curious counter report. While he records that women ate apart from men, could not enter the marae, and occupied a generally inferior social position, he adds that a woman had charge of her husband's canoe and fishing gear and that she would sometimes go fishing with him (de Bovis 1892:66).

Also relevant is the amo'a tapu rite. This, according to Handy, was an old custom, widespread in Polynesia, which was performed over adolescent males of high rank. “Henceforth the lad should never again eat food in any way contaminated by contact with profane womanhood, or eat in the company of women.” He continues that in Tahiti these regulations were occasionally disregarded, for Cook saw chiefs being fed by women (Handy 1930:28). Oliver also devotes a good deal of attention to the amo'a which, more broadly than Handy, he understands as a series of rites which mark various stages of an individual's development from birth to adult- - 342 hood. We will have occasion to look more closely at Oliver's analysis of the amo'a rites later. For now it will suffice to note that, like Handy, he understands them as linked to female pollution. More specifically, Oliver views the amo'a rites partly as a means of neutralising the “mother-derived pollution” which an individual acquired at birth (1974:441).

Oliver's explanation of female pollution in Tahiti is based on the sorts of mystical-religious states which the two sexes might adopt. The mundane, secular state in which most people existed most of the time was known as noa. Men could be ritually transported into a “sacred” state (ra'a, mo'a) in order to perform special ceremonial or other activities, but women, Oliver claims, were constantly noa and were therefore barred from all association with sacred people and things (Oliver 1974:67, 601). Consistently with this view, Langevin-Duval (1979:187) reproduces reports from Henry and Morrison that women were too “impure” to be offered as human sacrifices to the gods. Those who incline to the view that women were thought to be polluting in Tahiti might ground the belief in physiological processes such as menstruation, but this seems to have been less a matter of concern here than in many of the other Polynesian societies we have reviewed. In his exhaustive scrutiny of the sources Oliver found no evidence that Tahitians of the late 18th century regarded menses as contaminating. They seem, indeed, to have been rather casual about it (Oliver 1974:601). It is interesting to note in this regard that Tahitian mahu — male transvestites who, while adopting the role of females in most respects, of course did not menstruate — had to observe all of the restrictions to which women were subjected (Williamson 1924,II:393).

While concepts and customs regarding menstrual pollution seem to have relaxed in recent history on most islands, juxtaposing the above observations with Levy's study of contemporary Tahiti makes it appear as if historical development in the Societies has been, if anything, in the opposite direction. So Levy reports that modern Tahitians rarely engage in intercourse during menstruation because “menstrual blood is considered dangerous for the male” (1973:126). He also indicates that menstruating women today avoid touching plants or going fishing, for fear that the plant might wilt or the fishing be spoiled. However, he continues, this is due not so much to contact with menstrual blood per se as to a more generalised contact with a woman in the menstrual state (Levy 1973:146).

What we have learned so far suggests that the symbolic position of women in eastern Polynesia was rather similar to the situation in the western islands. Generally speaking, both regions had prohibitions associated with food, canoes and fishing, and in both the prohibitions were especially elaborate in connection with menstruation and parturition. This entire complex, however, was more pronounced in eastern Polynesia than - 343 in the west. In addition, it had a more explicit religious component in the east, where the female's position with reference to the gods was elaborated. This is certainly part of a greater cultural preoccupation with religion in general in eastern Polynesia than was the case in the west.

The Position of Women

Women in traditional Maori society were subjected to restrictions of the same general sorts that we have met elsewhere in Polynesia. They were not allowed to approach the construction sites of important houses or canoes or places where instruction in sacred lore was taking place (Best 1929:39; 1974:16). Crozet (1783:135) reports that although women cooked for everyone they ate separately from men, while Best states that this may have been a matter of local variation, with the sexes eating together in many places (1924a,I:408). However, men who were in a consecrated (tapu) state before battle or for other special purposes were forbidden to eat with women, or to have sexual relations with them (Best 1924a,I:256; Dieffenbach 1843,II:85-86). In the Tuhoe tribe special buildings existed for the manufacture and storage of fish nets and bird snares, and these were strictly off limits to women (Best 1916:54).

The constraints on a woman's activities were expanded and intensified during menstruation. She was restricted in her movements, for her approach could blight crops in the garden or cause them to decay in storage pits, destroy the power of nets and snares to capture birds, drive cockles from the beaches, prevent boiling berries from being cooked, even stop the special black mud used to dye flax from “growing” (Best 1905a:215; 1924a,I:406; 1925a:115; 1930:367-68; Goldie 1904:89; Mead 1969:192). As a uniquely Maori twist on the widespread Polynesian prohibition against women preparing other people's meals during menstruation, if a woman in that condition were to feed a talking parson bird, the bird would be struck dumb (Best 1942:362).

Maori Cosmology

In common with other eastern Polynesian societies, restrictions on females in New Zealand had a distinctly religious component. Indeed here, more than anywhere else in Polynesia, the peculiar nature of women was intentionally used for ritual purposes. Understanding this requires a grasp of some fundamental Maori religious principles, particularly the concepts of atua, tapu, and noa. 6

Atua means “god” or “spirit.” The term is applicable to all spiritual beings: gods of universal power and significance, deceased ancestors, or demons and sprites of purely local influence. “Atuas,” according to one - 344 visitor to old New Zealand, “are the secret powers of the universe” (Dieffenbach 1843,II:11). Any event for which no physical cause was immediately apparent was attributed to atua 7 (Earle 1909:219). Most illnesses were thought to be the work of atua, as was the otherwise unaccountable phenomenon of fear which might grip a seasoned warrior before battle (Goldie 1904:3; Thomson 1859,I:220; Shortland 1856:82). Growth of any sort was understood as an important instance of atua animation; for example, atua were thought to be busy at work in gardens stimulating the growth of crops (Dumont d'Urville n.d.:186, 225; Cruise 1823:32). The list of events which Maori attributed to atua is a long one, including the movements of heavenly bodies, natural disasters, outstanding accomplishments in warfare, construction or art, even involuntary twitches in the muscles.

Tapu has had sufficient impact on Western culture to have been borrowed by European languages, as “taboo” in English, for example. It is no simple task, however, to ascertain the concept's meaning in Oceania. Because this has been attempted in some detail elsewhere for Maori culture (Hanson and Hanson, forthcoming), here I will simply report that, aligning myself with Edward Shortland (1856:102) and certain passages in Elsdon Best (1925c:1123; 1929:38-9; 1973:32), I understand something to be in the tapu state when it is under the influence of the atua. Maori therefore would call gardens tapu because atua were there stimulating the growth of crops, and pregnant women were called tapu for a similar reason (Best 1906:1). Likewise sick persons, warriors in battle, artists engaged in tattooing or wood-carving, and persons of elevated rank were under the influence of atua and therefore tapu.

Tapu could be readily communicated. It might pass, for example, from something to its likeness. The artist George French Angas met stiff resistance when, in the Lake Taupo region in the early 1840s, he wished to sketch tapu subjects. The Maori thought that tapu would be conveyed from the person or thing to its picture, so that the original subject would somehow be desecrated if the sketch were stored in the same portfolio, or even executed with the same pencil, as drawings of non-tapu objects (Angas 1847,II:112-13). As this example implies, tapu was also thought to pass by contiguity. European captains were sometimes dismayed when Maori chiefs whom they had invited for a cup of tea would, upon finishing its contents, dash the cup to the floor (Buck 1910:21; Maning 1973:128). The intention was to ensure that their tapu, which had entered the cup by contact with their lips, spread no further to the possible detriment of both themselves and future users. Blood was a particularly powerful agent for the transfer of tapu. The East Coast chief Ta-manuhiri happened to have a nosebleed while on a fishing trip in another man's canoe. Upon their - 345 return Ta-manuhiri confiscated and destroyed the canoe because the blood had communicated his tapu to it, and it could therefore not be put to any future use (Best 1924a,I:255). The blood from battle also left its tapu, which had to be removed before the ground upon which it was shed could be used again. Indeed, a pa (fortified village) which had been successfuly defended might be abandoned by its inhabitants after the fight if there was no priest (tohunga) who could remove the tapu resulting from the blood that had been spilled there (Best 1905b:157).

Tapu was a mixed blessing. On the one hand, the animation of atua was essential to a number of processes vital to human well-being, such as the growth of crops, pregnancy, success in battle, and artistic creation. The Maori had ritual means of inducing the atua to lend their influence or tapu to such activities, some of which we shall meet below. But the tapu state occasioned by the influence of badly intentioned atua was decidedly detrimental. Atua kahu was the term for a special class of atua that originated in human stillbirths. Irredeemably malicious, their influence brought on illness, anxiety or confusion (Best 1924b:128-31). Even for those atua who were not badly intentioned, the tapu state occasioned by their influence could be irksome. Persons participating in ritual, tattooing, and other tapu activities were required to observe a number of inconvenient restrictions on normal behaviour, such as not being allowed to use their hands while eating (Best 1924a,I:256).

To escape the assault of a malicious atua or to return to a less confining mundane state upon the completion of a ritual or other special activity, the Maori frequently desired to leave the state of tapu. They wished, that is, to restore themselves to the state they called noa. Often glossed as common or profane (in contrast to tapu as sacred), noa simply means the absence of tapu (Williams 1971:222). That is, in the terms of our analysis, noa refers to the state of affairs in which the influence of atua is not present. If one crucial goal of Maori ritual was to direct tapu into persons, things and circumstances where the animating influence of the atua was needed, its other and equally important purpose was to remove tapu from those persons, things and circumstances where it was not, or no longer, desired. Rites of this latter sort were termed whakanoa — to make noa.

Women, Pollution, and Tapu Removal

Now we may return to the main theme of the argument because, together with water, cooked food, and the village latrine (see Hanson 1982), the female operated as an important agent in whakanoa rites. In a ceremony designed to remove tapu from warriors returning from a campaign a woman would eat the ear of the first enemy killed (Shortland 1856:248; Tregear 1904:364). The construction of a fortified village pa was an - 346 intensely tapu affair. That tapu had to be removed before people could enter the pa and put it to normal use, and a young unmarried woman of a ranking family was the central figure in the whakanoa ritual. While a priest intoned incantations, she would enter the gateway of the palisade and then would station herself at various points inside during the several, phases of the ceremony (Best 1924a,II:241-43). Conjoined with the priest's chanting, the sheer presence of the young woman sufficed to transform the pa from a tapu to a noa condition. Again, a crop of sweet potatoes was made noa after the harvest by having a woman eat the first, specially prepared tubers (Best 1925a:108). Some rituals employed women in conjunction with cooked food, another agent of tapu removal. A person who had engaged in the highly tapu activity of cutting hair was made noa by rubbing his hands with a cooked sweet potato or piece of fernroot, which was then eaten by a woman (Shortland 1856:110). Similarly, tapu was removed from those who had scraped the bones of a deceased person a year after the death (part of Maori funerary observances) when a woman ate “the sacred food offered to the dead” (Angas 1847,II:144).

A few students of Maori culture have grappled with the question of the rationale behind women's capacity to remove tapu. Johansen's view is that women were conceived as closely associated with the earth and with everyday life, both of which were noa categories. Given her fundamentally noa nature, a woman could “level down” excess tapu in situations she encountered (Johansen 1954:222-25). Elsdon Best and, more recently, Jean Smith have accounted for the female's whakanoa capacities explicitly in terms of pollution. The atua, claim Best and Smith, found female genitalia utterly contaminating, repulsive. They would retreat before women and anything women contacted, leaving those things devoid of godly influence, which is to say, in a noa state. As Best explained the situation with reference to the tapu activity of canoe construcion,

if a woman passes over the place where the canoe is being made, ka oma nga atua, the gods will desert the place, for the passing of the female organ over the ground has desecrated the tapu of the spot; it is a pollution resented by the gods, who will desert the canoe and have nothing more to do with it (1925b:96; see also Best 1929:39).

Construed in this way, the concept of female pollution appears to be an effective explanation for the data reviewed thus far. Restrictions were placed on the activities of Maori women, the interpretation runs, because they represented a danger to men, to crops, to wildlife, to warfare, to art, to construction, and so on. This danger was rooted in pollution associated with female genitalia. The most serious effect of female pollution was not so much that it contaminated people and things of this world directly, but that it repelled and desecrated the gods. This caused them to withdraw - 347 their influence or tapu, leaving a person or thing unfortunate enough to have come into defiling contact with a woman bereft of godly protection or animation. One beneficial byproduct of this system of ideas, however, is that people could use female pollution to control the gods by expelling them and their tapu from places where it was not welcome through the judicious ritual application of a woman. As Jean Smith said of whakanoa rituals in general, “the Maori controlled the gods by aggressively polluting them” (1974:37; see also pp.28, 38).

Some Problems and an Alternative

Because it is grounded in the notion that women pollute and therefore repel the gods, I shall refer to the interpretation just reviewed as the repellent thesis. Having shown how it can be used to account for many Polynesian beliefs and practices concerning women, I now want to turn the discussion round and argue that ultimately it cannot be sustained. The reason is that it contradicts many other relevant data from New Zealand and, as we shall see, from other parts of Polynesia as well. One difficulty crops up with respect to tapu. As the concept has been defined here, at least, to be tapu was to be under the influence of an atua. If the atua found women repugnant, as the repellent thesis holds they did, then it follows that women would never be tapu. In fact, however, they were frequently tapu (Elder 1932:478-79; Shortland 1856:144-45; Tregear 1904:43; Best 1929:13-14). They were especially so at childbirth — precisely a time one would least expect it if atua were particularly repelled by female genitalia. Equally discordant with the repellent thesis is the fact that menstrual blood — supposedly the quintessential stuff of feminine pollution — was itself tapu (Best 1905a:213).

Proponents of the repellent thesis are aware of these data and have an answer for them. It is that there were two types of tapu, the one referring to a state of sacredness and purity, the other to pollution. The tapu connected with parturition, and menstruation is placed, of course, in the latter category (Smith 1974:26, 27, 55). As Best explains it:

One phase of tapu may be most harmful in its effects upon another phase, thus, should a menstruating woman, or one who had just given birth to a child, trespass on the [sweet potato] field, then the tapu of the field would be polluted, and the gods estranged. For the tapu of the woman would be of the nature of the condition termed “unclean” in the Scriptures, whereas the tapu of the plantation represents the sacredness of the gods (Best 1930:367-68; see also Best 1924a,II:6).

It is a strategy which succeeds in reconciling the discrepancy of fit between the theory and the data, but at the cost of the dangerous procedure of dividing a single Maori concept into two, antithetical categories.

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Tapu also applied to certain women of high rank. This, too, poses a problem for the repellent thesis, which must explain how creatures who are supposedly by nature contaminating and unclean could be under the influence of the gods and hold positions of honour in society. First, the data: a female — sometimes just the first-born female — of a high-ranking (ariki) family was known in many Maori tribes as tapairu. She was the subject of a great deal of ritual and social attention on occasions such as the tohi ceremony (performed for infants), when she was tattooed, and upon the selection of her husband. Among the Mataatua tribe of the Bay of Plenty region a tapairu would hold the position of puhi. This woman should remain a virgin until she married (after which she would be succeeded by another, maiden puhi), she was relieved of all menial tasks such as cooking, and was constantly accompanied by a number of female attendants. The puhi was highly honoured, she was tapu, and she performed a number of important ceremonial functions (Best 1924a,I:346-51, 407, 450-51).

The tactic which Best adopts to reconcile these data with female pollution is to claim that elevated rank could eclipse the female nature and render some women tapu, while the rest of womankind retained the contamination intrinsic to their sex. So he writes that women

took part in certain ritual performances, particularly those pertaining to the lifting of tapu. Women render all things noa or void of tapu, for they are, as a rule, viewed as the very antithesis of tapu. At the same time some high-class women were tapu, such as puhi and tapairu....A respected tapairu would be treated with much deference. Her sleeping place was tapu, and she ate her meals alone (1924a,I:407).

This would fit with Best's general theory of tapu removal only if the women who participated in whakanoa rituals were of commoner status; that is, those women who polluted and repelled the gods. But later in the same work Best informs us that the opposite was true, that high-ranking, tapu women such as the puhi participated in much ritual, “especially the ritual by means of which tapu was removed from persons, places, and new houses and forts” (1924a,I:451). Therefore, the tapu of a ranking woman cannot be said to diminish her ritual capacity to remove tapu. If anything, since ranking women appear to have been preferred in such a ritual role, it would seem to have enhanced it.

One other way this might be made to square with the repellent thesis is to conclude that the tapu of the puhi or tapairu was of the sort that Best calls “unclean” and therefore antithetical to the sort of tapu which was normally removed in whakanoa rites. That view, however, scarcely fits with the honour and respect extended to women in those positions. Nor does it fare well in the light of more detailed information as to how women - 349 were actually used in the ritual removal of tapu. Our source, again, is Best, who describes how tapu was removed from perhaps the last pa (fortified village) to be built on the East Coast in accordance with indigenous ceremonial. It was a great honour to be the woman who participated in the rite. She was young, unmarried, from a ranking family, and she dressed in her finest clothing for the occasion. She positioned herself at various parts of the pa while a priest recited incantations. When her entry had removed the tapu from the palisade, the people saluted the girl with tears, the hongi (pressing noses), and formal greetings such as: “Welcome, O maid! You who hail from the revered customs and prized remembrances of your ancestors and elders” (Best 1924a,II:342). It would seem curious to direct such behaviour towards a person whose raison d'être in the ritual was her intrinsic pollution.

Another term for women who participated in whakanoa rites was ruahine. While the puhi was young and maiden, the ruahine was a mature woman, often the oldest woman available. Probably there were criteria governing the choice of a young or an older woman for particular whakanoa rituals, but I have found nothing in the literature regarding them. Much of what is recorded about the ruahine, however, throws further doubt on the repellent thesis. It was frequently necessary to remove tapu from a person's hands, acquired by cutting hair or handling tapu objects. This was often done, as mentioned above, by bringing the hands in contact with a piece of cooked food, which was then eaten by the ruahine. Best's exegesis is that “the food employed in the particular rite removes or absorbs, as it were, the tapu, which is then transferred to the ruahine who represents the tapu spirits of ancestral beings” (1924a,I:261). Immediately after this passage Best reiterates his general theory of tapu removal: the female pollutes the gods, forcing them to withdraw. But his explanation of the role of the ruahine in this rite utterly contradicts that theory. Far from polluting the tapu spirits, she represents them; instead of driving tapu away, she assimilates it.

The final sort of Maori evidence which contradicts the repellent thesis is that females were not used only to remove tapu. Occasionally they also participated in rituals designed to instil it. One treatment for a warrior who suffered from weakness or fear before battle was to have a ruahine step over him, an act which would render him tapu (Tregear 1904:336, see also Best 1924a,II:228). Again, the rite which placed students in the necessary tapu state before their instruction in sacred lore included their eating a piece of cooked fernroot after it had been passed under the thigh of an elderly woman (White 1886-90,I:10 [English], 6 [Maori]). A theory which holds that women evict tapu by polluting the gods can make no sense of ritual practices such as these.

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By now it should be clear that, while the repellent thesis can account for some of the data regarding the symbolic status of women in Maori culture, it cannot generate satisfactory explanations for all of them. I think a radical revision of our understanding of the Maori view of the female is necessary. Curiously, the revision I mean to propose can be developed on the basis of certain insights of the two strongest proponents of the repellent hypothesis, Elsdon Best and Jean Smith.

Smith insightfully points out that the Maori view of birth is central to this issue. She contends that, as the pathway whereby human beings enter this world, the vagina is a mediator between the human and “ultrahuman” (spiritual or godly) realms (1974:28-29). This presupposes that Maoris understood human souls to have some sort of pre-existence in the world of the gods. A good deal of evidence exists to support that point. The ritual greeting addressed to newborn infants of rank in the Kahungunu tribe may include the words: “Welcome, o child! You who come from Tawhiti-nui, from Tawhiti-roa, from Tawhiti-pamamao, from the Hono-i-wairua” (Best 1929:23). These names, Best informs, refer to the legendary homeland of the Polynesians. The most common name for the homeland, Hawaiki, was also used with reference to the before-life: “A native, in speaking of some occurrence long past, will often say: “I was at Hawaiki at that time,” meaning he was not yet born” (Best 1925c:673).

Figuring so prominently in myths about deities and heroic ancestors, the homeland can be said to belong rather more to the world of atua than to the human world. Indeed, the typical preface to a Maori oration invites the spirits of the dead to leave this place and return to Hawaiki. And the translation of the words which compose the last of the place-names given above — the Hono-i-wairua — is the “assembly of spirits.”

This suggests that, in the Maori view, the vagina was more than a symbolic mediator between the spiritual and physical halves of existence. It was an actual channel whereby a spirit, embodied in human form, moved from the godly to the human realm. The Maori notion of stillbirths constitutes additional evidence for this interpretation. As noted (above), stillbirths were thought to become malicious, disease-producing demons known as atua kahu. That fits readily with this view of birth, for a stillbirth would be the sediment of an aborted attempt by an atua of the wairua (soul, ghost) variety to enter this world as a human being. Its malice is perhaps attributable to frustration at its failure to be properly born.

Now we may begin to formulate a new interpretation of the symbolic and ritual position of women in Maori culture. As birth canal, the vagina was viewed as the passage by which spirits, embodied as human infants, emerged into this world from the world of the gods. Their source in the godly realm would account for why the process of birth was extremely - 351 tapu. Moreover, given their origin in the world of the atua, neonates were themselves intensely tapu. To suit them for life in the human world, their tapu was ritually removed soon after birth (Shortland 1882:40-42). It is a matter of simple extension to conclude that if the vagina served as a conduit for the emergence of some influences from the godly realm into this world, other influences might use that passage as well. In other words women, because of their genitalia, were points for the introduction of tapu into the physical world. This sheds light on those rites in which women were used for the establishment of tapu, such as occurred before instruction in sacred lore. As described above, a piece of cooked food would be eaten by the students after having been passed under a woman's thigh. My interpretation is that the food, passing close to the vagina, would acquire tapu from it, and the tapu would in turn be assimilated by the students when they ate the food. 8

This, however, constitutes no more than part of an analysis. We may have identified a rationale for how Maori women could introduce tapu but we have yet to provide an explanation for their more common use as agents for its removal. Smith continues to ground her analysis in Maori ideas about the vagina. As the passageway whereby the divine enters the human world at birth, it mixes elements from the two worlds. Specifically, it “humanizes” the divine. That, she claims, pollutes the gods and their tapu. And this, Smith continues, accounts for the “impurity” of female genitalia and for the ritual capacity of women to control the gods by forcing them to withdraw their tapu. Hence she identifies the ruahine, the older woman used in certain rituals of tapu removal, as “an agent of polluting humanization” (Smith 1974:22, 23, 25, 27, 28-29, 37, 51).

While I fully share Smith's view that existence for the Maoris was divided into two realms — the physical or human world and the spiritual or “ultrahuman” world of the gods — I do not agree that their mixture was regarded as polluting. Our disagreement on this point may be rooted ultimately in a difference of opinion over the Maori view of the relationship between humans and the gods. Smith argues, tentatively, that the Maoris saw mankind as the greater power which used the gods mainly as a means of rationalising human failures. She continues that ritual was biased towards separation, towards removing tapu, because of a desire to keep the gods out of human affairs.

A man maintains and increases his mana through his own efforts; in his relationship with the ultrahuman his main concern is not to derive anything from it but, through right behaviour and ritual, to fend off ultrahuman hindrances and threats to his power (Smith 1974:92)

From this perspective it is perhaps not difficult to understand Smith's idea that the mixture of the human and the ultrahuman is polluting — although - 352 now it would seem that, contrary to statements in the earlier parts of her book, the human component would be the one to suffer pollution rather than the ultrahuman.

It is certainly true that Maoris felt nothing of the awe, love and veneration that mark the ideal Judeo-Christian response to the divine. As Smith has cogently pointed out, theirs was a manipulative — even aggressive — attitude of using ritual means to usher the gods in and out of human affairs as it suited their purposes. However, my own understanding of the Maori view of the role of the gods in this world is quite different from Smith's. My opinion, set out above, is that, far from being a hindrance, the influence of the gods, or tapu, was deemed to be essential for a great many vital processes and events in the physical world, including the growth of crops, successful fishing and bird-snaring, human reproduction, victory in battle, and artistic creation. These situations all involved the intermingling of godly tapu with physical objects or persons, and that created conditions which were thought to be potent, sacred, and dangerous. But with the possible exception of cases in which the godly influences were decidedly malicious (to be considered in more detail below), I can find no evidence for a belief that the mingling of the divine with the human contaminated either party. Therefore, I cannot accept Smith's theory that women, because of their role in childbirth, were thought to pollute the gods.

We still need to account for the negative connotations which undeniably formed part of the symbolic position of Maori women and, more specifically, to offer an explanation for the female's capacity to remove tapu. A fruitful approach to these issues is found in the work of Elsdon Best, the other major backer of the repellent thesis. For Best, female pollution is rooted in two negative facets of the Maori view of woman: her associations with death and with original sin. The first of these is visible in a number of mythological sources. The male god Tane desired to create humankind but discovered that he was impotent to do so without the connivance of an uha, or female element. He ascended to the heavens to consult Rangi, his sky-god father. Best reproduces their interview, beginning with Tane's question:

“Where is the uha (female element)?” Rangi replied: “The abode of misfortune is below, the abode of life is above.” (Kei raro te whare o aitua, e hamamai i runga ko te whare o te ora.) The latter is the mouth. Man eats food and so preserved strength and life. But the whare o aitua [house of catastrophe] is an organ that pertains only to the female element. Man is born into the world from the whare o aitua. His lot is tribulation and death (Best 1925c:757).

The most graphic mythological linkage between woman and death is the rendezvous of Hine-nui-te-po with Maui. Hine-nui-te-po, Great- - 353 woman-of-the-night, is the goddess associated with death, and Maui is a culture hero who, in his illustrious career, procured fire, regulated the course of the sun across the heaven, and fished the North Island of New Zealand up from the bottom of the sea. Now, as a crowning exploit, he resolved to secure eternal life for humankind by killing Hine-nui-te-po. He set out with his companions the birds, and they found her asleep. He confided his plans to enter her genitals, pass through her body and emerge at the mouth. Recognising humour in the situation, he warned the birds to restrain their laughter until he had completed his transit and she was dead. Then Maui stripped naked, his tattooed skin as beautiful as a mackerel, and began to worm his way into the sleeping woman. Unfortunately for Maui, the birds could not contain themselves and they burst out in raucous laughter at the strange sight. Their guffaws awakened Hine-nui-te-po who, discovering Maui half-way inside her, clenched her thighs and so crushed him to death (Grey 1956:42-44; 1971:22-23).

The second pillar sustaining Best's belief that women were understood in Maori culture to be polluting is what he took to be their connection with original sin. This is grounded in a “fireside” or popular version of the origin of mankind, as told by the Maoris of Taranaki. Best (1924a,I:478-79) reproduces the story as it was collected by the Rev. T. G. Hammond:

Tiki-te-po-mua was the first man created, but he dwelt without a companion. He reviewed all the species of lower animals, but could find no companion suitable for himself among them. Hence he felt much his lonely condition.
Now one fine day Tiki found himself beside a calm, clear pool of water, and, looking into it, he saw therein his own reflection. He was delighted with the discovery of what he believed to be another person of the same form as himself, and plunged into the pool to secure a companion for himself. The image eluded him and he went away unsuccessful. Some time afterwards he awoke from sleep and felt a desire to urinate, but he first made a basin-like hole in the earth, which was filled. Here again he saw the image in the pool, which he covered with earth so as to secure it, and the image developed and came forth a living companion for him.
The couple lived together for some time without any knowledge of sex until one day the woman entered a stream to bathe. While doing so an eel came to her and so excited her with his tail that she became aware of sexual desire; hence she, in her turn, excited the man, and so came about the fall of man. The woman became with child, and the affair was looked upon as sin. Then Tiki the man, feeling that the eel had led him astray through the woman, slew it and cut it into six pieces, from which sprang the six kinds of eels.

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Best is explicit in his conviction that the implication of woman in original sin, together with symbolic association with death, lie at the core of Maori ideas concerning female pollution. In the story of Tiki and his temptress, he claims (1924a,I:479-80):

we have an origin for the old-time Maori belief that woman represents misfortune, sin, uncleanness, death; that the whare o aitua (abode or place of misfortune, i.e., the female organ) represents death and holds the power to slay man. It was thus that Maui, he who strove to gain eternal life for man, perished, done to death by the goddess of the realm of death.
Hence is woman unclean during and after childbirth; hence is she employed to destroy tapu; hence is she destructive to man. Thus did man acquire the knowledge, thus did he know death.

While Best acknowledges its striking resemblance to the biblical account of Adam, Eve and the serpent, he claims that the Tiki story is genuinely Maori. Perhaps the diffusionist orientation he shared with his contemporaries inclined him to this view, for then he could glimpse a connection between widely dispersed peoples. Sexuality “was the sin in Maori myth as in far-away Babylonia. The act itself was the sin. The twain now knew themselves” (1924a,I:479).

My own view, contrary to Best's, is that the Tiki story is not authentically Maori and probably owes a great deal to missionary influence. This position can be maintained on the basis of a coherency criterion: the notions that there was a time before carnal knowledge, and that sexuality is sinful, are utterly alien to Maori culture as I understand it. Indeed, as is argued in detail elsewhere (Hanson and Hanson, forthcoming, Chapter 2), the Maori concept of creativity in general was modelled on sexuality. 9 The high gods were born of a sexual union between the male sky and female earth; plants and animals sprang from sexual encounters between one of those gods, Tane, and a succession of female partners. Humankind itself, in what Best calls the “sacerdotal” myth as opposed to the “fireside” version presented above, descends from the sexual union of Tane with a female whom he fashioned from the earth (see Best 1924b:74-80; Smith 1913:33, 138-44). These data cast serious doubts on the authenticity of the Tiki story, as well as on Best's use of original sin as an explanation for women's supposed pollution and their ability to remove tapu.

On the other hand, the connection which Best detects between female and death is entirely authentic to Maori culture. It is represented in several different institutions and myths and one of the most crucial of these — the story of Hine-nui-te-po's destruction of Maui — is recorded in a number of different sources (Grey 1956:41-44; 1971:22-23; White 1886-90,II:106-7 [English], 100-1 [Maori]; Smith 1913:63-64, 177-78). In fact, - 355 the association between woman and death leads directly to the complex of ideas in terms of which I think the female's capacity to remove tapu may be understood. Once again, these ideas elaborate the root metaphor of sexuality.

It requires no great leap of imagination to recognise Maui as a phallic symbol in the story of his death. This is especially transparent in the version which states that before entering Hine-nui-te-po Maui magically adopted several forms — a lizard, a rat — and finally settled on a worm as most appropriate shape for the job (Smith 1913:63-64, 177-78). If phallic symbolism be allowed, then the whole story can be understood as an allegory of sexual intercourse, one which conveys the message that the male is defeated, killed, by the female. Confidence in this interpretation is increased by the existence of another, very similar myth. It was mentioned above that mankind is descended from the union of the god Tane with a female whom he fashioned out of the earth. Their copulation is described in a ritual karakia (incantation) as a battle between the male and female organs, Tiki and Karihi. Tiki attacks bravely, but Karihi draws him further and further into herself until, spent, he succumbs (Smith 1913:37). All mankind shares the fate of Maui and Tiki, for this is the Maori image of death. The vagina, as we have already learned, was characterised as te whare o aitua, “the house of catastrophe.” Best writes of female genitalia that “an old native explained to me: ‘It is the power of that organ that destroys man. It assails man and destroys him’” (1925c:764). And according to White's text, “man dies and does not return because he is sucked into the genitalia of Hine-nui-te-po.” 10

Johansen (1954:234-36) and Biggs (1960:20) have both pointed out that the salient physiological fact underlying these constructions is male detumescence in intercourse. 11 This can readily be linked to our discussion of tapu. Growth, we have seen, was a result of tapu, of the animating influence of atua. This applied not only to the growth of crops or the growth of hair, but also to erection. So an erect penis, as beneficiary of atua animation, signified courage, strength, vitality. If a warrior awoke with an erection on the morning of a battle, or if he entered the fray in that condition, it was a sure sign that he would overcome any flaccid foe (Buck 1950:510). By the same reasoning, loss of erection signified the departure of atua influence, the shift from the tapu to the noa state.

Again, a procedure of simple extension brings us to the interpretation I wish to advance concerning the capacity of women to remove tapu. In the same way that the vagina draws erection (therefore, tapu) from the penis, female genitalia can drain tapu from any person or thing. Basically it is a matter of repatriation. Just as the atua and their tapu may use the female as a conduit for emergence into the human world, so in whakanoa rites the - 356 female draws tapu into herself and sends it back to its point of origin in the world of the gods.

The proper procedure upon encountering a lizard is especially transparent when viewed from the perspective of this analysis. Lizards were greatly feared because they were thought to be the physical vehicles (aria) for malevolent atua (Shortland 1856:57-58; Cruise 1823:320). To avert catastrophe, upon meeting a lizard one should immediately kill it and then have a woman step over it (Best 1925c:1011). On our interpretation this procedure is effective because the atua, having first been deprived of its material vehicle by the death of the lizard, is then drawn into the woman and thereby repatriated to the world of the atua before it can do its mischief in this world.

It is clear from the foregoing that the Maori view of life and death forms part of this general complex of ideas. The human spirit or soul (wairua) is a sort of atua that has much the same sort of career in this world as those atua brought here to preside over the growth of crops, construction, and other projects. The soul, embodied, enters this world through the female. After its time here is finished it departs through the same portal, drawn into the genitals of Hine-nui-te-po, and returns as a ghost to the world of the atua. In this way the fundamental issues of human existence, and especially the problem of death, were integrated with Maori religious ideas and general cosmology in a remarkably consistent manner. However it was, if the phrase be allowed, at a price: some parts of the dark image of woman in Maori culture — her danger and the attendant restrictions upon her behaviour — are attributable to her connection with death.

Note particularly that we have reached a conclusion regarding the whakanoa powers of the female which is diametrically opposed to the repellent thesis. Best and Smith argue that women remove tapu by polluting the atua, causing them to retreat before the female contamination and taking their tapu with them. The present claim, to the contrary, is that women remove tapu by attracting it, by serving as the conduit through which it is repatriated to the spiritual realm. Because of the special relationship which it posits between women and the atua, I shall refer to this hypothesis as the affinity thesis.

Applying the Affinity Thesis

My contention is that the affinity thesis is preferable to the repellent thesis because it can account for a broader range of the Maori data regarding women. If women polluted and therefore repelled the gods, for example, it is not possible to explain those rituals in which women were used to instil tapu. This is readily understood in terms of the affinity thesis, however, which holds that the female constituted a conduit for the two-way - 357 passage of influences between the spiritual and human realms. Again, the affinity thesis fits Best's description, reproduced above, of how the ruahine represented the spirits and assimilated tapu when she ate food which had been passed over the hands of a tapu individual. This is unintelligible from the perspective of an interpretation which holds that women repelled tapu. And so also is the fact that certain women, such as the puhi and tapairu, were themselves tapu. Since it holds that, far from being repugnant to the gods, women enjoyed a special affinity with them, the interpretation offered here is entirely consistent with these data.

It remains to determine whether the affinity thesis can provide an equally satisfactory account of those data which are explicable in terms of the repellent thesis. This has already been done in the case of rituals of tapu removal: the affinity thesis claims that, instead of driving tapu away, a woman attracts it and repatriates it to the world of the gods. The only facts left to consider are the special restrictions placed on women's behaviour. Mainly these prohibited women from contact with tapu persons, places, or things: the construction sites of new houses or canoes, the places where fish-nets or bird-snares were made or stored, members of a war party, priests officiating at ritual or artists in the act of creation. Such restrictions were designed to prevent women from removing desirable tapu. According to the repellent thesis, the approach of a woman would destroy the tapu by driving off the atua. The affinity thesis can account for these restrictions at least as effectively. Indeed, the result is very much the same although for a different reason. A woman would attract the atua, drawing the tapu into her, thus removing it from the site, person or thing before it was desirable to do so.

Finally, what of menstruation? As mentioned already, at this time a woman was considered to be particularly dangerous to tapu and therefore the restrictions regulating her contacts were intensifed. According to the repellent thesis, this is to be explained by the notion that menstrual blood was the epitome of female uncleanliness, so her potential to pollute was exaggerated. This view, however, does not square well with the data. Far from being revolted by menstruation, the atua were closely associated with it. Menstrual blood was considered to be a tapu substance (Goldie 1904:27: Best 1905a:212-13). As we have defined the concept, this means that it carried the influence of atua. Indeed, one of the meanings of the term atua is, precisely, “menses” (Williams 1971:20). My view is that menstrual blood required special precautions not because it was polluting but because it was potent. As with blood of any sort, it was a powerful conductor of tapu. But menstrual blood had a supercharge of potency due to its connection with reproduction. Because menstruation ceases during pregnancy the Maoris viewed menstrual clots as “wasted souls of human be- - 358 ings” (Goldie 1904:26; see also p. 89 and Best 1905a:211-12). Menstrual blood is, in other words, the unfinished stuff of which people are made. Indeed, in certain myths it is not all that unfinished, for the culture heroes Maui and Whakatau were both born from discarded menstrual napkins (White 1886-90,II:63, 65, 79 [English], 58, 60, 72 [Maori]; Best 1905a:211-12). Atua, as indicated above, were also closely linked to menstruation. Tane and his brothers, gods born from the union of Papa the earth and Rangi the sky, emerged from the womb with their mother's menstrual flow (Smith 1913:21, 210). These associations had medical as well as mythological implications. Malevolent atua of a sort called kahukahu, which rejoiced in producing disease by biting and pinching internal organs, were thought regularly to emerge into this world via menstruation. If a menstrual napkin was thrown in the water, or left where pigs rooted or where moths congregated, such a demon might enter a fish, pig, or moth and launch its attack against people from that vehicle. When someone was stricken by a disease of this sort, part of the diagnosis was to query the women of the household as to the manner in which they had disposed of their soiled menstrual cloths (Goldie 1904:26-28, 88-91). This is the only context in which I can justify a characterisation of women as polluting. It is not that there was thought to be an intrinsic pollution of women or of menses. But the malicious demons which were liable to use menses as a means of entering the world might be said to pollute those persons whom they attacked with disease. Together with her association with death, I take this to be the source of the negative aspect of the Maori concept of the female.

These hazards explain the precautions which menstruating women had to take in their contacts with other persons. We still must try to account for the beliefs that the approach of a menstruating woman could stunt crops in the garden, rout cockles from the beach, or deprive talking birds of the power of speech. Two interpretations are possible, and I am not entirely sure which to endorse. One, which accords with the preceding paragraph, is that the sort of atua associated with menstruation (such as the malicious kahukahu) were inimical to the atua who lent fertility to crops and cockles or articulation to trained birds. In that circumstance the atua arriving via menses might drive off their more benevolent counterparts, and the tapu so necessary to the garden, beach or bird would be lost. This interpretation would provide a way to certify the view of Best and Smith that tapu had distinct — even opposed — qualities, so that the tapu of menses was radically different from the tapu of growing crops. I would still maintain, however, that tapu was ultimately a unitary concept definable as atua influence, with the differences that appear in particular instances of tapu being attributable to the specific nature or intentions of the - 359 atua involved.

The other interpretation is that a woman's capacity to draw tapu into herself was heightened during menstruation. In this case the danger she represented for the tapu that animated cockles, crops or talking birds is that she would remove it by attraction, not repulsion. It may be that the female passage between the two worlds was thought to be open to especially heavy (and perhaps not easily controlled) traffic during menstruation, making a woman particularly liable to drain tapu from persons, places and things during this period. Certainly movement from the spiritual realm into this world is increased, as is obvious from the emergence of the blood itself, together with the malevolent kahukahu that may accompany it. Evidence of increased traffic in the opposite direction is less available. One bit of information from the French Polynesian island of Rapa may be relevant. There the uterus is viewed as an organ which opens and closes periodically (see Hanson 1970). Remaining closed most of the month, it opens each 28 days for a week or so, allowing the accumulated blood to drain in menstruation. Rapans claim that a woman can be impregnated only during or immediately after menstruation. Conception in this view results from the mingling of male semen and female blood in the uterus, and their reasoning is that semen can enter the uterus only during the time of the month when it is not sealed shut. Data are lacking as to the Maori view of the physiology of the uterus but Maoris, very much like Rapans, did identify a woman's fertile period as the last two or three days of menstruation plus the three days immediately after (Best 1905a:214; Goldie 1904:90). 12 Thus, it is clear that, in the Maori view, female genitalia were more receptive to at least one substance (semen) during menstruation (and immediately after) than at other times. Metaphorical extension could have produced the idea that menstruating women had an increased capacity to attract tapu. If so, that in turn would account for the particular precautions taken to prevent menstruating women from contacting those places, persons and things which should retain their tapu.


Having articulated an alternative to the repellent thesis on the basis of data from New Zealand, we may now investigate how well it fares in other Polynesian societies. When we leave New Zealand we leave my area of primary specialisation so far as the symbolic position of women is concerned. Therefore, the argument in this section of the essay is intended to be more suggestive than decisive.

- 360
The Marquesas

To challenge the idea that women were thought to be polluting in the Marquesas is a daunting proposition because it contradicts the view of virtually everyone who has written on those islands from the end of the 18th century down to the present (see, for example, Robarts 1974:268; Tautain 1896b:547; Handy 1923:261, 271; Suggs 1966:27-8; Dening 1980:89-90). Certainly I do not question that women in the Marquesas, as in New Zealand, occupied a special position — one which was often dangerous and potentially detrimental to human affairs and which, as a result, led to a number of controls on women's activities. What I do question is the assumption that this special status derived from the idea that women — most particularly their reproductive functions of menstruation and paturition and the blood associated with them — were polluting and repugnant to the gods. I shall suggest instead that in the Marquesas, as in Maori culture, a special affinity was thought to exist between the gods and women, who represented points of communication between the human and spiritual realms.

In addition to the numerous restrictions they had to observe, reviewed in an earlier section, Marquesan women had ritual functions which were remarkably similar to those in New Zealand. It was also necessary to remove tapu from a newly built house in the Marquesas, and, as in the Maori rite, this was accomplished by having a woman be the first to enter it. Handy applies a single analysis to both societies:

The part played by women in both the Marquesan and Maori rites for removing the tapu from a new dwelling indicated the fact that it was thought necessary to remove evil influences from the house as well as the tapu of sacredness, for women were absorbers of evil (Handy 1927:292).

So far as I can ascertain, neither the Marquesans nor the Maoris distinguished two sorts of influence — one “evil” and the other “sacred” — that were ritually removed from a new house. However, this passage does give some basis for choice between the rival hypotheses, for Handy's description of women as “absorbers” is more conducive to the view of the affinity thesis that women attract tapu than to the assumption of the repellent thesis that they drive it away.

Other logically similar rituals were designed to rid a sick person of the demon afflicting him by having a naked woman leap over him or sit on the affected part of his body (Handy 1923:270-71; 1927:245). Again, this can be explained, albeit in different ways, by both the repellent and the affinity theses. It was this practice which led Handy to articulate the only prior statement of the affinity thesis which I have found in the literature:

The hypothesis presents itself that these performances may have - 361 originated not, as has been supposed, in the theory that the spirit would be frightened away, but rather in the belief that the demon would be attracted and thus drawn out of and away from the man (Handy 1927:245).

But Handy did not follow up this possibility. Instead, he espoused the assumption of the repellent thesis that “the vagina of women was abhorrent to such demons” (1927:245; see also 1923:271).

Evidence which seems initially to lend strong support to a notion of female pollution in the Marquesas is the widely reported belief that someone who had improper contact with women, and particularly with blood from menstruation or parturition, would be stricken with leprosy (Handy 1923:269; Tautain 1895:640-41; 1898:304; Rollin 1929:97, 177; Robarts 1974:269; Suggs 1966:27-28). Unhappily, the sources are not so effusive as to why this should happen. As we have seen already, however, Marquesans commonly attributed disease to the intrusion of demons into the body. Leprosy was probably no exception. At least the disease had its spiritual representative, for “the demon goddess of leprosy...was traditionally the first woman on earth who succumbed to the disease” (Handy 1927:90). It is possible, then, that Marquesans did not identify the cause of leprosy as some intrinsic contamination of the female. Their view may have been rather that, as with the kahukahu of the Maoris, the demons which produced leprosy were prone to use menstruation (and, in the Marquesas, childbirth) as a means of emergence through a female from the spirit world into the human world. This interpretation would shed light on Rollin's statement that women were particularly vulnerable to malicious demons at childbirth (1929:96).

If the Marquesans viewed women as intrinsically polluting or unclean, it would follow that the influences which were communicated by or through them would invariably be malignant. This, however, was by no means the case. Consider, for example, the ha'atahetahe rite.

To prevent leprosy, a person who had been defiled by contact with menstrual fluid had to find the woman who had thus defiled him and proceed with her, both of them being naked, into the river, the woman upstream, the man downstream. The woman must take up in her hands water that had touched her pudendum and throw it over the man who had been defiled. This would relieve him of the danger of becoming a leper (Handy 1923:269; see also Suggs 1966:28).

Curiously then, female genitals could be used ritually to annul precisely those detrimental situations which they had participated in producing. Possibly this rite was intended to remove the influences which caused leprosy, either by washing them off or by introducing other, beneficial spiritual influences to combat them. Ceremonies to observe menarche also - 362 suggest that contact with a female — even a menstruating female — was not necessarily detrimental. In one of these, performed only over the first-born daughter of a family, the girl

was seated upon the heads of her maternal uncles and her paternal aunts (her ceremonial sponsors, called pahupahu). The girl being removed, a pig was then placed on the heads of the pahupahu, who leaned over so that their heads were touching. The pig was then cut up and eaten by the pahupahu (Handy 1927:225).

In another rite the “entire population” would file by a seated, newly menstruating girl. The girl's mother's brother cut a lock of hair from each person who passed before her, which he placed on the white tapa cloth that the girl wore between her thighs (Tautain 1896b:546). And finally there is the “wedding carpet.” Following a Marquesan wedding the relatives of the bride would lie down on the ground and the groom would walk over them and then the groom's relatives would likewise make themselves a carpet upon which the bride would walk (Danielsson 1956a:114-15, plate 9). 13

I lack sufficient direct and contextual data to offer detailed analyses of these institutions. One thing, however, is clear: they are utterly unintelligible from the perspective of any theory which claims that women were thought to be polluting. This is especially obvious when it is noted that the head and hair were considered to be especially tapu, and that women normally had to take elaborate precautions not to pass above anyone or step over a utensil for fear of harming the person or rendering the utensil unusable (Handy 1927:47; Rollin 1929:121; Suggs 1966:28). Judging from these ceremonies together with the data we have reviewed previously, it seems more reasonable to conclude that the Marquesans viewed women as associated with a broad spectrum of influences, some of them dangerous and detrimental but others harmless or even beneficial. And that can be conceptualised more readily on the affinity thesis than in terms of an idea of women as polluting and repugnant to the gods. The female was a conduit for the passage of spiritual influences in and out of the human world. These transactions could have good or ill effects, but as a conduit the female's intrinsic value charge was neutral. Her effect was detrimental or even polluting if she introduced malevolent demonic influences (such as resulted in illness) or if she accomplished the untimely removal of desirable influences (such as the tapu of a chief before turtle-hunting or a warrior before battle); it was beneficial if she removed unwanted tapu (as from a newly built house or a person suffering from illness) or if she bestowed desirable influences (as one suspects was the case in the rites pertaining to menarche).

Women's relationship to the gods also provides evidence upon which a - 363 choice between the rival theories may be made. As in New Zealand, the Marquesan notion of tapu can often be translated as “sacred.” Its opposite, “common,” is meie, the counterpart of the Maori noa. William Crook, a missionary who lived in the Marquesas in 1797-98, believed this contrast to be isomorphic with the distinction between the sexes, men being tapu and women meie (Dening 1980:88). This would parallel the notion sometimes (and, according to this analysis, erroneously) attributed to Maori culture that women were intrinsically noa, and it would stand as a point in favour of the repellent thesis. Yet, as Dening points out (1980:88-90), the categories were not congruent because on occasion men were meie while women could be tapu. Indeed, women were tapu during menstruation and pregnancy and such quintessentially feminine substances as menses and the placenta were themselves tapu (Rollin 1929:96-7, 171). Since a case cannot be sustained that Marquesans viewed women as by nature the antithesis of tapu, perhaps there, as in New Zealand, the association of women with the “common” (meie, noa) state is to be explained by their peculiar capacity to remove tapu. But so far as the Maori case is concerned, they were able to do that, I have argued, because gods, demons, supernatural influences in general were attracted to women, not repelled by them. Data exist to support the notion that the relationship of Marquesan women to the supernatural was also one of intimacy rathèr than repugnance. Communications from the supernatural world were often transmitted through mediums, who would become possessed by the gods, and these mediums were usually women (Tautain 1896a:447; Rollin 1929:178). Tautain adds the intriguing information that those gods who were deceased human beings were thought to be female, even when the ancestors in question were men. “In a general fashion, in the Marquesas, the natives usually attribute the feminine sex to ghosts. The body is considered as male, the soul, the spirit (Etua) as female” (1896b:548).

These data make no sense if one espouses the notion that the gods were polluted and repelled by women. On the other hand, they are readily intelligible in terms of the theory that women had a special affinity with the gods and represented a conduit for the communication of influence between the physical and spiritual realms.

The Society Islands

The basic Tahitian concepts of relevance to our discussion were very similar to those described above for the Maoris. As in New Zealand, Oliver reports of Tahitian cosmology that “in the vague sense in which the terms were used, it may be said that humans and spirits normally existed in different spheres, or ‘rooms’ (piha), of the universe” (1974:65-6). The partition between these spheres was by no means impermeable. The souls - 364 of deceased human beings went to dwell in the supernatural realm as a sort of atua (god, spirit). In common with the manipulative attitude towards the deities found in New Zealand, in Tahiti atua were frequently summoned into this world to attend rituals or participate in other activities where their assistance was needed, after which they would be dismissed to return to their own realm (Oliver 1974:56, 67, 113-16). The Tahitian view of the effect of divine influence on things of this world also closely paralleled the Maori. As Oliver reconstructs the Tahitian belief, the gods endowed circumstances they influenced or occasions they attended with a sacredness (ra'a, mo'a), and that rendered those occasions and circumstances tapu — restricted or set aside from normal use. According to Moerenhout (1837,I:529), one object of tapu was to cause persons or things in that state to take on a certain godliness themselves (de faire participer à la nature des dieux). People and things which lacked this godly influence or sacredness were noa — ‘common, profane, secular’ (Oliver 1974:67). As with the Maori, Tahitians believed that while divine assistance was necessary for many human activities, it was also dangerous and restrictive. Therefore, when their purposes had been accomplished they would remove the sacredness from, or “render secular” (fa'anoa, the Tahitian cognate of the Maori whakanoa) those people, places and things which had been tapu.

Women were thought in the Society Islands to have fa'anoa or secularising capacities. I have not discovered instances where, as in New Zealand and the Marquesas, they were intentionally used in fa'anoa rituals. It does seem clear, however, that the restrictions on women's activities reviewed earlier in this essay, such as being barred from the marae (ritual centre), were designed to prevent them from inadvertently removing desired sacredness. The question before us is whether the Tahitian rationale behind the female's fa'anoa capacity was that she drove sacredness away by polluting the gods, in line with the repellent thesis, or attracted it to her, as the affinity thesis would have it. The conventional strategy is to adopt the former explanation. Moerenhout (1837,I:532) states that women were “objects of reprobation” so far as the gods were concerned. Langevin-Duval reproduces reports from the early observers Morrison and Ellis that a woman's touch would contaminate food intended as an offering to the gods, and that if a man destined for human sacrifice could induce a woman to bite him hard enough to draw blood it would render him an unfit victim and his life would be spared (1979:187).

While the notion that women were thought somehow to pollute the gods has a long history, it does imply a curious discontinuity in Tahitian culture. Rank was transmitted through the generations by both parents, with the mother's significance in this regard being, if anything, greater than that of the father (Langevin-Duval 1979:192). High rank was thought to - 365 derive from the gods (p.186). Hence the discontinuity: divinely authored rank was passed through women but women were repugnant to the gods. Langevin-Duval evades the contradiction by introducing the variable of social class: impurity applied only to women of commoner status; those of the chiefly (ari'i) class were as sacred as any man (p.191).

My own suggestion is that this problem does not arise if one entertains the possibility that, far from polluting the gods, women (of any class) had a special affinity with them. The notion that the mother was important in the transmission of divinely inspired rank follows readily from this interpretation because it includes the proposition that women were particularly involved in communication between the human and supernatural realms. That the bite or touch of a woman would render a sacrifice unsuitable might then be explained by the idea that whatever the offering contained which was destined for the gods would be drawn into her, voiding the sacrifice.

The ritual cycle termed amo'a is especially relevant to this discussion. Oliver has carefully extracted descriptions of these rites from the literature and has subjected them to a good deal of analysis. Amo'a was the term used for a series of rites performed over individuals (particularly those of high rank) at various intervals from birth to marriage, such as when the umbilicus drops off and when the infant leaves the special house which it had occupied since birth to enter the family house for the first time. These rites punctuated the gradual process whereby the child, totally secluded upon birth, made contact with a progressively broadening range of people, places, and things (Oliver 1974:438-9).

Oliver reproduces two detailed accounts of amo'a rites. The first, a translation from Moerenhout (1837,I:535-37), describes the ceremony called oroa, 14 which occurred when a child was from six weeks to two months old. Up to that time its mother had been prohibited from using her hands for any purpose other than attending to the baby's needs. She could not even touch her own food, but had to be fed by someone else. An amo'a rite removed these severe restrictions from her. The parents and child presented themselves at the ceremonial centre or marae, the mother walking on bark cloth to prevent her feet from touching the sacred ground. While a priest invoked the gods, the mother, and then the father, would hold the baby in one hand and use the other to gash their foreheads with a shark's tooth. The blood was collected on leaves of the miro (Tahitian rosewood), which were deposited on the altar (Oliver 1974:420-1). Oliver also reproduces Morrison's description of an amo'a rite performed on the occasion of a marriage. Here the mother of the bride gashed her forehead and allowed the blood to drop on some pieces of sugar-cane and miro leaves. These were taken by the bride's father, aunts and uncles, who pressed them to their - 366 foreheads and deposited them before the seated marriage couple. A priest recited a long prayer and then took the bloodied leaves and cane to the marae where they were buried (pp.443-4).

In attempting to analyse the amo'a rites, proponents of both the repellent and affinity theses would agree that birth was thought to put those associated with it (the child, the parents, especially the mother) in a special and dangerous condition, and that these rites were designed to remove that condition so the affected person would be free to participate in normal human activities. The point of difference between the two theses concerns the nature of the condition brought on by birth and removed by the amo'a rites. For the repellent thesis it is contamination, defiling to both humans and gods, arising from the presence of female blood and the prominent role of female genitalia in paturition. For the affinity thesis, on the contrary, it is a surplus of godly influence which accompanies the passage, via the female, of an embodied spirit from the divine to the human realm. Interestingly, Oliver wants it both ways:

I suggest that there were two kinds of attributes that might have been involved in the condition now being discussed; a something that was polluting, derived mainly from the mother, and a something that was sanctifying (but equally dangerous to others), derived from either or both parents, or from some other source (1974:441, Oliver's italics).

In what follows Oliver is explicit that the latter “something” derived ultimately from the gods. It was, indeed, “a portion of some god himself. Thus, the amo'a rites, strictly speaking, may be viewed as either neutralizing or reducing the divinity in the child” (p.443).

My own position is that only one of the theses is correct. Moreover, I think that sufficient data exist to warrant a choice between them. Consider first of all the one which I think is erroneous — the repellent thesis. Oliver's reasons for thinking that amo'a rites may have been concerned with pollution derived from the mother are: 1) Tahitian women's general noa condition; 2) the facts that a woman would bathe after parturition and that the infant was “purified” with the heart of a banana tree, “both of which seem to have been aimed at removing menstrual and allied matter;” 3) the statement by the missionary Hassall in 1798 that a neonate could not be taken into a house because it was “unclain;” and 4) “analogies from other Oceanic societies which I shall not document here” (pp.441, 419).

Taking the first of Oliver's reasons, I have already argued that the female association with the noa state can be explained as readily by a capacity to remove sacredness (ra'a, mo'a, tapu) by attracting it to herself as by the idea that she pollutes the gods. As for bathing in the sea, according to the missionary Crook, a woman would do this, pressing on her abdomen or enlisting her husband to do so, following the birth (Oliver - 367 1974:420). There can be very few people on the face of the earth who bathe as often as Tahitians do, so to assign a particular symbolic significance to the fact that they would do so after parturition is questionable in the absence of more specific data. The reference to purification concerns Henry's account of how, after having cut the umbilicus, a priest would roll the cylindrical heart of a banana tree over the skin of a chiefly neonate while intoning “this is the purifier, the heart of the banana...” (Henry 1928:183). The issue here is whether or not the banana somehow purifies a contamination which the infant derived from its mother by the sheer fact of being born. Oliver points out that the words translated as “this is the purifier,” te tama teu, could be rendered in two very different ways. Te tāmā teu would be “to cleanse of menses,” which would fit well with the repellent thesis. Te tama teu, on the other hand, means “the child (of) menses” (Oliver 1974:551). This reference to menstruation contains no hint of pollution; I might add, however, that it accords well with the Maori idea, mentioned above, that Maui and other culture heroes were born of menstruation. So far as Oliver's point about analogies from other Oceanic societies is concerned, the entire purpose of this essay is to suggest that, in Polynesia at least, the notion of female pollution needs rethinking and refinement. There remains Hassall's statement that neonates were “unclain.” One wonders what Tahitian word Hassall is translating here. Certainly “unclain” is no universal opinion. Morrison, upon whom Oliver relies to a much greater extent than Hassall, states more than once — and in passages which Oliver reproduces — that an infant is “sacred” (p.422).

The notion that an infant was sacred fits the second half of Oliver's analysis: that the amo'a rites were designed to remove an element of divinity, “a portion of some god,” from the child (p.441). This, of course, is entirely in line with the affinity thesis, which holds that birth is a sacred process because it involves the passage of the infant from the spiritual to the human realm. Good evidence exists to support this view. In a manner remarkably similar to the Maori practice described (above), Tahitians made literal references to a ranking neonate as a god. So the formal greeting pronounced upon its birth included the phrase “the god has flown hither” (ua muhuta mai nei te atua) (Henry 1928:183). Evidence is also strong that the parents, who were in close contact with the child — and especially the mother, who provided the channel for its entrance into this world — were also in a sacred state. The mother, as noted already, was forbidden to touch her food with her hands until an amo'a rite had been performed when the child was six to eight weeks old. Moerenhout reports that chiefs in the state of tapu — which as he describes it was clearly a state of sacredness, not pollution — had to observe precisely the same restriction (1837,I:530). The parallel with New Zealand, where tapu persons - 368 were also not allowed to handle their food, is again striking.

While it is difficult to analyse them fully from the available descriptions, the amo'a rites themselves are more intelligible from the perspective of the affinity thesis than the repellent thesis. Both descriptions reproduced by Oliver include the gashing of the forehead (by both parents of the infant in one case, by the mother of the bride in the other) and the subsequent depositing of the blood at the marae. If women were considered to be polluting and therefore repugnant to the gods, what sense could there have been in depositing female blood at the marae, the precise spot where the gods were thought to congregate? There is no hint in the sources that the purpose of this rite was to expel the gods from their marae. How, then, can we account for the blood-letting? Self-laceration was a common method of expressing grief in many parts of Polynesia, but that would not seem to have its purpose in amo'a rite because these were scarcely occasions for mourning. I would suggest that it was a fa'anoa act, a means of removing sacredness from the person, rendering her (or him) noa. The head was a part of the body where sacredness was thought to be concentrated, and Morrison reports that amo'a rites were performed over an individual to “make his head Free” (Oliver 1974:422). We have seen that in New Zealand, at least, blood was thought to be a supreme conductor of tapu, and Oliver states that the miro, leaves of which were used to collect the blood in the Tahitian amo'a rites, was “of all the plants the one most highly favoured as a vehicle for communication between human and spirits” (p.445). It does not seem far-fetched, then, to suggest that when blood was drawn from the forehead of a person, collected on miro leaves which were then placed on the altar or buried at the marae, it was a fa'anoa procedure of removing sacredness from the person (freeing the head) and, as in the Maori whakanoa rites analysed above, repatriating it to its point of origin in the spiritual realm. Support for this interpretation of the amo'a rites may be found in Henry's (1928:188) description of a ceremony observing a Tahitian chiefly heir's coming-of-age, in which the sacrifice was called the amo'a-tapu, or “putting aside of restriction.”

This review of the data suggests that in the Society Islands, as in New Zealand and the Marquesas, the special — and dangerous — status of women is attributable not to a concept of female pollution but to a peculiar position that women held as a point of communication between the human and spiritual worlds.


As in other Polynesian societies, many Hawaiian beliefs and customs pertaining to women are ambiguous in the sense that they yield to interpretation by either the repellent or the affinity thesis. Women were - 369 isolated in special houses during menstruation. During this period they were fed by other women, not being allowed to use their own hands while eating. The explanation has been advanced from the perspective of a repellent thesis that women were particularly polluting and therefore repugnant both to other people and the gods during menstruation. They had to be fed by someone else because their touch would contaminate the utensils (Handy, Pukui and Livermore 1934:7). A proponent of the affinity thesis might suggest, on the other hand, that a menstruating woman stood in a particularly close relationship to the gods. We have seen that a prohibition against using one's hands while eating was a marker of the state of tapu (being under the influence of the gods) in both New Zealand and Tahiti, and this could have been the case in Hawaii as well. Confinement to menstrual houses might have been rooted in a notion that intensified activity at the feminine portal between the worlds signified an increase in a woman's dangerous capacity to remove desirable tapu inadvertently. Or it is possible to incorporate a notion of pollution into the affinity thesis in the very specific sense that noxious, disease-producing spiritual influences might have been thought in Hawaii as well as in New Zealand to enter this world via menses. Such malicious demons could be thought to pollute those whom they attack. The report that menstruating women were “especially subject to evil influences” (Handy, Pukui, and Livermore 1934:7) may lend support to this view.

The data themselves are unclear with respect to parturition. Malo reports that an infant was kept with its mother in the hale noa (‘common house,’ in which men and women could interact freely) until weaning. Then, for a boy, the child was installed in the mua, a tapu house where men ate apart from women, and “the eating tabu was now laid on the child” (Malo 1951:87; see also pp. 29, 126, and Handy and Handy 1972:316-7). From this it appears that Hawaiian infants were born noa and (the boys, at least) were later made tapu, precisely the reverse of the situation in New Zealand and Tahiti. On the other hand, Malo also reports that, during her first pregnancy, a ranking woman was tapu from the time of conception until seven days after parturition (1951:138-9).

As with isolation during menstruation, the “eating tapu” enjoining the sexes to take their meals separately can be analysed in terms of either the repellent or the affinity thesis. Sahlins states that men's meals were a literal communion with ancestral gods, the food being a sacrifice. A woman's presence at the meal would defile the men, the food, and the gods (1981b:7). Certainly this inclines towards the repellent thesis: in addition to any direct effect she might have on the gods, she would render the food unfit for them and thus thwart the communal, sacrificial purpose of the meal. From the perspective of the affinity thesis, however, it could be - 370 asked whether a woman's presence at meals would “defile” the gods not because she was repulsive to gods in general but because the sort of gods which were particularly associated with women were antipathetic to those with which men communed while eating. This would not be uncommon in the Hawaiian pantheon, which contained a good deal of dissension such as the rivalry between Ku and Lono (Sahlins 1981a). 15 Alternatively, the interpretation suggested above for why Tahitian women must not touch offerings destined for the gods might be extended to the Hawaiian regulation about meals: female participation would deprive the gods of their sacrifice because that in the food which was intended as an offering to them would instead be pre-empted by passing into and through the woman.

In common with Maoris, Marquesans, and Tahitians, Hawaiians held that females had the capacity to remove tapu (in Hawaiian, kapu). They participated in rituals of tapu removal, for which, according to Handy (1927:158), “women were eminently suited being by nature without tapu.” Again, however, the critical question so far as our investigation is concerned is not raised: did they remove tapu by driving it away or by attracting it? Handy continues that women were used in the Hawaiian ceremony to free warriors from “psychic danger” and that they also had a role in the important war rite known as Luakini. He says of the latter (p.158):

one feature of the ceremony as described by Malo was the assembling of a group of high-born women, for the purpose of performing a rite of purification, in a building called the hale papa, which stood just outside the sacred precincts of the war temple.

Handy cites Malo's Hawaiian Antiquities, p. 214 of the first edition. Here is the relevant passage from the second edition (p.175):

all the female chiefs, relations of the king, came to the temple bringing a malo [cloth girdle] of great length as their present to the idol. All the people assembled at the house of Papa to receive the women of the court. One end of the malo was borne into the heiau [temple] (being held by the priests), while the women chiefs kept hold of the other end; the priest meantime reciting the service of the malo, which is termed kaioloa.

This was certainly a rite of tapu removal, for Malo continues that a priest then stood before the people and said eli eli (completed), they responded noa, and “the consecration of the temple was now accomplished, and the tabu was removed from it, it was noa loa.

Again the point of contention between the rival hypotheses is unresolved. Probably the long strip of cloth constituted an avenue of communication between the women and the gods whose images were in the temple. - 371 But was feminine pollution thereby conveyed to the gods, who departed in revulsion, or were the gods drawn along the cloth to the women?

One body of Hawaiian data exists, however, which does recommend a choice between the repellent and affinity theses. Hawaiian women would perform the hula during Makahiki, an annual festival which celebrated the return of the god Lono to renew the fertility of the land. The dance was explicitly erotic. It was designed to attract Lono and to arouse him sexually, thus preparing him for his task of cosmic regeneration (Sahlins 1981b:3-4). Sahlins goes on to offer the remarkable insight that the sexes represented the two fundamental ways in which humanity drew the necessary conditions of existence from the gods: for the male it was to extract human livelihood from the gods in the form of food, while for the female it was to attract the gods and to transform their generative powers into children (1981b:5). This information contradicts the theory that in Hawaii the gods were thought to find women polluting and repugnant. On the other hand, it strongly supports the view that a special attraction and affinity characterised the relationship between women and the gods.

Western Polynesia and the Outliers

One theme in Polynesian religion which has emerged from our discussion is a concern with the location and movement of atua. Polynesian deities were anything but omnipresent. They did their work, be it beneficial or malicious, in particular places. Much Polynesian ritual was therefore concerned with awakening the gods, bringing them to places where their influence was desired and expelling them from places where it was not. On several islands, women, as points of communication between the physical and the spiritual realms, were of great ritual importance to the movements of atua.

These matters are interestingly elaborated on Kapingamarangi Atoll, a Polynesian outlier located south of the Carolines. Each day, in the mid-afternoon, the gods were thought to emerge from the ocean off the south-eastern part of the atoll. They would make their way northward along the outer reef until, shortly before sunset, an assistant priest would call to them, saying “Come, the door of the house is open.” Then two priestesses, the ariki ahina, would take down the screens on the seaward end of the “cult house,” which stood at a place called Hereu. The high priest stationed himself outside the opposite end of the cult house. He delivered the evening prayers, after which the priestesses replaced the wall screens. Shortly before sunrise the high priest would come again to the house, take down the screens, deliver morning prayers, and replace the screens. The gods, who presumably had spent the night in the cult house, then retraced their path along the outer reef to the southern part of the atoll whence, - 372 about mid-morning, they would return to the sea. Women avoided these morning and afternoon transits of the gods, remaining out of sight in houses, because the gods were liable to attack any woman they saw who was not accompanied by a man (Emory 1965:228-30).

The interpretation that the gods were attracted to women, a part of the affinity thesis, fits these data far better than the idea that women repelled the gods. It is difficult to understand, for example, why women would be used to remove the wall screens of the cult house, inviting the gods to enter, if they were thought to be repugnant to the gods. It is also interesting that the priestesses did not remove the screens in the morning. The rationale may have been that feminine attractiveness to the divine was inappropriate when the object was to dismiss the gods. Proponents of the repellent thesis might point to the tendency of the gods to attack women as supporting evidence for their theory. While that may signal a divine antipathy towards women, however, it certainly does not suggest that the gods were anxious to avoid them. Moreover, it is at least as reasonable to think that the “attack” to which women were vulnerable when unaccompanied by men was a sexual assault, which would imply a powerful divine attraction to women.

Pollution of some sort may have been associated with menses. As mentioned earlier, menstruating women on Kapingamarangi were not supposed to mingle in crowds, and it is also true that the priestesses would refrain from their functions of handling wall mats of the cult house at this time (Emory 1965:164,228). Possibly the interpretation we have offered for other Polynesian societies applies here as well: malignant spirits which would bring disease, and which perhaps were also inimical to the more benevolent gods who came daily to the cult house, might have been prone to use menses as a means of entry into the human world. However that may be, childbirth on Kapingamarangi seems, as in New Zealand and the Society Islands, to have been under the special protection of the gods. Post-parturient women were confined on the islet of Touhou — where the cult house was located and where the gods spent every night — until a ritual was held to “release” them (p. 242). Indeed, the geography of this rite implies that on Kapingamarangi, as in other Polynesian cultures, birth was understood as the embodiment of a spirit and its transfer from the divine to the human realm. On their daily visits, as we have seen, the gods came to the cult house on Touhou from the south, and they returned in the same direction. The call informing them that the door of the house was open was made when they were believed to be on the reef off Taringa, the islet immediately to the south of Touhou (pp. 4, 228). In the po ritual, which released a mother (and presumably her infant as well) from confinement on Touhou, the final step occurred when she was taken to - 373 Werua, the islet immediately to the north of Touhou, and from there she returned to normal life (pp. 308-9). Symbolically, then, birth was a process whereby the new human being comes to Touhou with the gods from their realm in the south. Then, after a period of confinement (which one may wish to call liminal) and a ritual to diminish or remove the sacredness, the baby and its mother leave Touhou towards the north and so fully enter the human world. 16 It is easy to understand this rite as the counterpart of the amo'a rites of Tahiti or the rites which removed tapu from newborn infants in New Zealand.

The widespread belief in Western Polynesia that a particularly close relationship existed between women and the supernatural lends further support to the affinity thesis. Each of the four burial lineages of Pukapuka had a “sacred maid” (mayakitanga), who was often the eldest daughter of the chief. While the chief controlled the secular arm of government, the sacred arm was concentrated in the sacred maid (Hecht 1977:196-7). Samoa also had the institution of the sacred maid (taupou), and shared with Pukapuka the general idea that males held secular power (pule) while females were associated with sacred power (mana) (Shore 1981:207, 211). One expression of this is found in the Samoan ceremonial gift exchange system, in which the “male side” (such as the relatives of the groom in a wedding exchange) gives goods made by men (called 'oloa) in return for toga, or goods made by women. The link between the female and the sacred is visible in Pitt's statement (1970:235) that toga were “always given by the bridal 'aiga [family group], or any person or groups imbued with extensive tapu (which was often associated in song and legend with female genitalia).”

The same themes are found in Tonga. Within the family, after the father dies the eldest brother has secular power over family members, including his sister, but a sister outranks her brothers and she and her offspring have mystical power over them and their children (Bott 1981:17-8). On an important ceremonial occasion such as a wedding or a funeral, the person who occupies the most honoured position (fahu) is the father's sister, father's sister's child, or sister's child of the new spouse or the deceased (Rogers 1977:167-8). The same system operated on the level of national politics, where secular power was held by the Tu'i Kanokupolu but he was outranked by the Tu'i Tonga, who held sacred power. Both of these titles passed from father to eldest son. However, the female primacy of rank is evident in that the Tu'i Tonga conventionally took as his first wife and mother of his heir the sister of the Tu'i Kanokupolu. This meant that the higher ranking Tu'i Tonga would be father's sister's son to his cousin the secular ruler or Tu'i Kanokupolu (Bott 1981:32-3; Fig.1). 17

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A special affinity between women and the supernatural is also implied by the fact that mediums on Ontong Java, through whom deceased ancestors communicate with the living, are usually women (Hogbin 1932:443). And eight of the nine cases of possession by evil spirits which occurred during Emory's field work on Kapingamarangi involved women, while Emory together with a number of islanders doubted the authenticity of the single male case (Emory 1965:316). On Tokelau

women seem to be seen as having close links with beings inhabiting other worlds; that is, with aitu “spirits” or “ghosts” of the generally unseen world, and with animals (fish, including turtles, and birds) of the natural world. These creatures are attracted to women, who are both vulnerable to their malicious acts and can enlist their aid to accomplish their own desires (Huntsman and Hooper 1975:419-20).

This passage suggests that, on Tokelau at least, the fundamental cosmological division is between nature (including the godly and unseen) and culture rather than between the physical and the spiritual realms as I have postulated in this essay. In either case women mediate the halves of existence, standing at points of communication between them. Yet the differences between these views may have an effect on how the widespread restrictions on women's activities with respect to fishing and fishing tackle, turtle hunting and bird snaring are analysed. My inclination is to ground an explanation in women's tapu-removing capacities. To be successful, these activities had to be carried out under the aegis of the gods, and the requisite tapu would be drawn off were a woman to happen upon the scene. If, however, the idea that women had a special affinity with animals as well as gods was general in Polynesia, that analysis may require modification.

Another matter for further investigation is the relation of women to the priesthood. Positioned as they were at points of contact between the human world and that of the gods, women would seem to have been ideally suited as religious leaders. And the information cited above from western Polynesian societies such as Pukapuka, Samoa and Tonga indicates that sacred or mystical power there was indeed concentrated in wo- - 375 men. But in eastern Polynesia, where religion was more elaborated, although women participated in a great deal of ritual they seldom did so in the role of chief officiants. This was probably due in part to the fact that men tended to keep power in their own hands, although it should not be forgotten that women in Tahiti and Hawaii not infrequently held high positions (see Gunson 1964, Valeri 1972). Another reason may be connected with the manipulative attitude Polynesians adopted towards the gods. Women were perhaps too close to the gods, too subject to their influence, to be able to control them. Although men were more remote from the gods — perhaps because they were more remote from them — they may have been thought to be more effective at relatively dispassionate manipulation of the divine for human ends.

Finally, a basic difference in the position of women in eastern and western Polynesia may be pointed out. Although the matter certainly requires refinement, in general eastern Polynesians seem to have been primarily concerned with the capacity of women to relocate tapu or godly influence and with the possibility of ritually using that capacity in the service of human ends, while western Polynesians were more preoccupied with a distinction between secular and sacred power and the relevance of the sexes to it. This review of the evidence suggests, however, that for both eastern and western Polynesia the long-lived and widely held theory of female pollution is incorrect. It is true that women were deemed to be dangerous, that their association with disease, misfortune, and death injected distinctly negative connotations into the set of meanings connected with them. But none of this is to be explained in terms of an idea that women polluted other people and the gods. On the contrary, the position of the female in Polynesia, including its negative component, is more fully understood according to a special affinity which was thought to link women with the supernatural.

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1   Louise Hanson has been my partner in Maori studies since our research in New Zealand in 1976-77. Many of the following ideas emerged from joint investigations and discussions with her. I am also grateful to Marshall Sahlins, who brought out a number of critical issues in the course of a long conversation about the subject matter of this essay.
2   Shore does not explain why Samoans consider menstrual flow to be uncontrolled but the blood of parturition to be controlled.
3   This matter is not entirely clear, however, because on the page immediately following his statement that cooking for both sexes was done by men, Malo records that women sometimes cooked their husband's food (Malo 1951:28).
4   This is not consistent with Tautain's report, mentioned immediately above, that men and women ate separately at all times.
5   Curiously, however, intercourse was allowed during menstruation and was not thought to produce the disease in the husband (Tautain 1898:304).
6   The following is a synopsis of an interpretation of Maori concepts set out in detail in Hanson and Hanson, forthcoming.
7   In Maori the plural is conveyed by the article: te atua means “the god” and nga atua means “the gods.” A distinction between singular and plural is often relevant to this discussion. Whether singular or plural is implied should be clear from the context.
8   For analysis of the peculiar capacity of cooked food to transfer tapu, see Hanson and Hanson, forthcoming, Chapter 4.
9   Marshall Sahlins (1981b) makes the similar claim that Hawaiian cosmology was grounded in sexuality.
10   White 1886-90,I:126 [Maori]. The English version has “sucked into the mouth of Hine-nui-te-po” (p.142 in the English part of the volume), but the Maori term nga were were refers specifically to her genitals, not her mouth.
11   Detumescence is also referred to as “dying” on Pukapuka (Hecht 1977:189).
12   Hawaiians also located the fertile period at menstruation (Malo 1951:259).
13   I have found no reference to this custom in the earlier sources, so its origin and antiquity are uncertain. It seems to be compatible with the observance of first menstruation, mentioned above. Danielsson (1956a:114-15) reports that the custom is also found in the Cook Islands, on Rarotonga and Mangaia.
14   Oliver mistakenly renders it as aroa; Moerenhout may mean oro'a, a general term for “rite.”
15   Similar hostilities among gods are visible in the Maori myth of the wars waged among the children of Rangi (the sky) and Papa (the earth) after they had separated their parents (Grey 1971:2-5, 1956:3-11).
16   Additional spatial symbolism which reinforces this point is that, during a ceremony which took place in the house on Touhou where the mother and child stayed, she and the other participants all faced towards the lagoon while the infant was placed at the seaward end of the house (Emory 1965:306). It will be remembered that the gods came ashore on Touhou from the outer reef, and that they entered and left the cult house on the seaward side. One might therefore conclude that the open sea and the south were associated with the gods, while the lagoon and the north signified the human world.
17   The question arises, of course, as to whom the Tu'i Tonga's sister marries and whether her offspring, by the logic of the sytem, would not outrank the Tu'i Tonga. Rogers (1977:178) points out that several solutions may be found in Polynesia. In Hawaii it was brother-sister marriage; in Pukapuka the secular chief's sister (the sacred maid) was dedicated to life-long celibacy, while in Tonga the Tu'i Tonga's sister married outside the system by taking a husband from the Fale Fisi; a lineage which was considered to be foreign because it was founded by an immigrant from Fiji (See also Bott 1981:33,56).