ATUA . Across Polynesia the word atua (or its cognate form) is commonly interpreted as "god," "deity," "supernatural," or "spirit" entity. According to Torben Monberg (1966, p. 36) the atua were anthropomorphic (shaped like humans), anthroposocial (able to perceive what humans were doing and to communicate with them), and anthropopsychic (relations were conducted with them as though they had human ways of thinking). E. S. Craighill Handy (1927, p. 88) defined atua as personified concepts that embodied desires, needs, hopes, and dreads, or as individualized elements and forces observed in nature.
In some Polynesian groups (e.g., Tokelau, Samoa) a loose distinction is made between atua (gods) and aitu (spirits). Monberg (1966, p. 58) uses the term aitu to refer to lesser gods, while Raymond Firth (1970, pp. 66–69) uses the term atua to refer to all supernatural beings. A summary of usages of the word disguises the variations found between island groups. However, a summary can also give the range of meanings associated with this term. Generally, the term atua can refer to two major groups of entities: atua who have never been human, and those who once were human.
First among the group who were never human are the great creator gods of Polynesian origin stories. Sometimes these major atua are seen as sea gods (e.g., Tangaroa) or land gods (e.g., Tane). Under them come what could be called departmental gods—those that have control over the elements, the landscape, and human interactions, such as war or fertility. Both major and lesser deities can manifest beneficent or maleficent characteristics, although actively unpleasant spirits are often associated with specific places on the land. While these atua were never human, the chiefly lines of some Polynesian island groups are believed to have descended from them. There are few female atua in the Pacific pantheon—Hina, often associated with the moon, Pele of Hawai'ian volcanoes, and the atua Fafine (female goddess) of Tikopia—but the majority are male. Gender roles and relations on earth are often reflected in the heavens.
The second group, spirits that were once human, can be important dead ancestors whose significance on earth has been recognized in the supernatural realm and who may even be seen as lesser gods. All humans were believed to have ora, or "soul." At death this ora goes on to become either atua or aitu, a continuation of the life force in the spirit realm. These ancestral spirits may play no particular role in the relationship between the living and the dead, or they may feature in the rituals of their descendants, returning to collect the spirits of the newly dead and overseeing the welfare of the family to which they once belonged.
Records of traditional religious beliefs in Polynesia were often collected by the missionaries whose duty it was to extirpate these beliefs. The extent of their understanding varied in quality. Alternatively, accounts were also collected after the conversion of the Pacific to Christianity (Firth writing on Tikopia is an exception) and the stories of traditional gods have sometimes been fitted into a Christian understanding of a supreme god or a trinity. The oral traditions of each island group and their early ethnographies need to be studied carefully to discover the parameters of the term atua.
Firth, Raymond. Rank and Religion in Tikopia: A Study in Polynesian Paganism and Conversion to Christianity. London, 1970.
Handy, E. S. Craighill. Polynesian Religion. Honolulu, 1927.
Monberg, Torben. The Religion of Bellona Island: The Concepts of the Supernaturals. Copenhagen, 1966.
Williamson, Robert W. Religious and Cosmic Beliefs of Central Polynesia. Cambridge, U.K., 1933.
Judith Macdonald (2005)