Skip to main content

Polynesian Religions: Mythic Themes


Although one might argue whether the gods created the Polynesians in godlike form or the Polynesians created the gods in their own image, it is a truism that in Polynesia gods and people are aspects of the same reality and form a continuum of the sacred and the profane. Even as, in relative terms, the gods are sacred and the people profane, so also are the chiefs sacred and the commoners profane. This axiom underlay the sociocultural organization of the Polynesians and gave religious justification to ranked social and kinship structures. The mythological threads of Polynesian religions developed an intimate association among gods, chiefs, priests, and people. High gods, demigods, ancestral gods, culture heroes, spirits, elves, and people were intertwined in different ways in each island group to create separate religions that were particularized and parochial while at the same time part of a homogenous religious fabric that was spread over a vast expanse of ocean containing hundreds of large and small Polynesian islands.

Polynesia can be conveniently divided into western Polynesia (including Tonga, Samoa, Tuvalu, the Tokelau Islands, Niue, the Futuna Islands, and Uvéa) and eastern Polynesia (Hawaii, the Society Islands including Tahiti, the Marquesas, the Cooks, the Australs, Mangareva, the Tuamotus, Easter Island, and New Zealand). A number of small islands lie outside the Oceanic region commonly designated as Polynesia, but they have Polynesian religious and cultural traditions (Rennell, Bellona, Tikopia, Anuta, Ontong Java, Kapingamarangi, Takuu, Sikiana, and others). These "outliers" are closely related to western Polynesia. Fiji, Lau, and Rotuma, on the western fringe of Polynesia, are in some ways closely related to western Polynesia, although religiously Fiji is probably more closely related to the Melanesian islands to the west. The religion of each of these groups and its mythological basis formed a coherent whole with the social organization. The connections between gods, ancestors, and humans were often made visually apparent and ritually maintained through religious architecture and works of art including songs, dances, sculptured images, and, most fundamental of all, oral literature. Although it is difficult to separate sacred and secular in Polynesia, the emphasis in this article will be on the mythological themes that help to explain the religious element of the society with its emphasis on mana and tapu, rather than on the mythological basis of secular storytelling. From a Polynesian point of view, the terms mythic and mythological are not entirely appropriate because these sacred traditions are considered historical and unquestionable in much the same sense as is Genesis by many Christians.


One of the most important and widespread mythic themes in Polynesia deals with the origins of the universe, the gods, and various aspects of nature. From the primary void or chaos came heaven and earth, which lay close together. The Sky Father (variously, Langi, Rangi, or Atea) and the Earth Mother (Papa or Fakahotu) clung together in a warm embrace and, in the cosmogonic myths of many of the islands, were the progenitors of the gods, the land and sea, the elements, and of plants, animals, and people. Rangi and Papa were usually forcefully separated by gods or demigods.

In western Polynesia the most important agent in this separation was usually some form of the high god Tangaroa (Tangaloa) or the demigod trickster, Māui. In Tonga, for example, Māui-motua (the senior Māui) pushed up the sky; this let in the light and permitted humans, who had previously crawled as crabs, to stand.

Our land was created
Shrouded from above
And we crawled as crabs.
The first and second skies
Tell to Māui-motua
To push them high
So the breeze can come in, for it is hot
And bring light to the land
And then we stood up
And walked about proudly.

In Rotuma, Lagi and Otfiti ("heaven" and "earth") were joined together. The male and female principles of heaven and earth, Lagatea and Papatea, were the progenitors of the high god Tangaloa. When Tangaloa was born he rose to a kneeling position and pushed Heaven and Earth apart; he did not rise to his full height, however, because of the distress of his parents who did not want to be completely separated.

In eastern Polynesia, especially among the Maori of New Zealand, cosmogonic origins were more detailed. While Rangi and Papa clung together, they produced offspring; the four great gods Tane, Tangaroa, Tu, and Rongo, known throughout Polynesia, as well as two specialized gods Haumia and Tawhiri. These offspring felt cramped with their dark close quarters and debated if and how they should separate from their father and mother. Except for Tawhiri, who disagreed, each son attempted to separate the parents. Rongo, god of cultivated foods, tried; Tangaroa, god of fish and reptiles, tried; and Tu, god of destruction, tried. Tane, god of the forests, found that he was strong enough but that his arms were too short; so he placed his head against his mother and pushed his father up with his feet. Tawhiri, god of the winds, rose with his father. Upset by Tane's success, Tawhiri sent his own offspringthe four great winds, smaller but more violent winds, clouds of various kinds, and hurricanesagainst him. Tawhiri's brothers and their offspring were terrified. Tangaroa's fish offspring plunged deep into the sea, but the reptiles sought safety in the forests of Tane, even though many of Tane's trees were snapped and destroyed. Rongo and Haumia hid themselves in Mother Earth. Only Tu withstood Tawhiri's wrath and finally defeated him. During the long storm Tawhiri's progeny multiplied to include rains of various kinds, mist, and dew. Finally, light increased and the progeny of the other brothers increased. Rangi and Papa have never been reconciled to their separation; and, to this day, Papa's sighs rise to Rangi as mist, and Rangi's tears fall to Papa as dewdrops.

This cosmogonic story explains not only Tawhiri's periodic outbursts, but also the reasons for disagreements among the other brothers. Tangaroa was upset that some of his progeny deserted him for the forests of Tane, and Tu took revenge on his brothers for deserting him in battle against Tawhiri. Tane gives wood for canoes, spears, and fishhooks to the children of Tu in order to destroy the offspring of Tangaroa. The latter, however, overwhelms canoes, land, and trees with his relentless waves. Tu also traps the birds of Tane's forest, enmeshes the children of Tangaroa in fishnets, uproots the children of Haumia and Rongo, consumes all his brothers' offspring as food and controls his brothers with incantations.

Variations of this theme, especially the belief in a primal pair and their existence in a void or darkness (often called pō ), exist in other eastern Polynesian areas. In some locales, Tangaroa was thought to be the originator of all things in the universe; in others his place was taken by Tane; while in others Tangaroa and Tane together serve this function. In the Society Islands, for example, a great octopus held the sky and earth together in his great arms. Taʾaroa (Tangaroa) existed in the darkness of contemplation, and from this darkness he called the other gods into being. When Taʾaroa shook himself, feathers fell and turned into trees, plantains, and other green plants. Ta'aroa then called the artisans to fashion him into something beautifula carved wooden image in most versions. Rua (the Abyss) killed the octopus by conjuring, but it did not release its hold, and, still in darkness, the demigods Ru, Hina, and Māui were born. Ru raised the sky as high as the coral tree, but ruptured himself so that his intestines floated away to become the clouds that usually hang over the island of Bora-Bora. Māui, the trickster, then used wedges to support the sky and went to enlist the help of Tane, who lived in highest heaven. Tane drilled into the sky with a shell until light came through. The arms of the octopus fell away and became the island of Tubuai. Tane then decorated the sky with stars and set the sun and moon on their courses. The fish and sea creatures were given places and duties, and the god Tohu was given the job of painting the beautiful color on the fish and shells of the deep. In Tahiti, Tane was symbolized by a piece of finely braided coconut-fiber sennit, while in the Cook Islands, Tane the artisan was symbolized by beautifully made basalt adzes lashed to carved handles with braided coconut fiber.

In Hawaii, Kāne (Tane) and Kanaloa (Tangaroa) were not usually represented in tangible form. Kāne, the ultimate ancestor of the other gods, was usually associated with the upper atmosphere, while Kanaloa, in paired opposition, was associated with the sea and its creatures. Lono (Rongo) and Kū (Tu) were less distant and abstract and were concerned with agriculture, plants, rain, pigs, peace and war, forests, canoes, houses, and crafts. Many attributes of Lono and Kū were interrelated; they depended on each other both as necessary opposites and as aspects of each other. Various attributes of Lono, Kū, Kāne, and Kanaloa might be considered as separate gods. There were hundreds of these gods, each known by a compound name that coupled the god's name with a specific attribute, such as Kāne-hekili (Kāne of the thunder) or Kūkāʾilimoku (Kū the snatcher of land, that is, the war god).

In addition to the four major gods of eastern Polynesia, other gods were often associated with specific aspects of nature. Sometimes separate gods, such as Haumia and Tawhiri in New Zealand, were given the care of particular natural phenomena, such as uncultivated food and the winds, that were elsewhere part of the domains of the four great gods. Special gods appeared to meet special requirements of different natural environments, as did Pele the goddess of volcanos and Poliʾahu the snow goddess in Hawaii. In short, the four great gods, especially in eastern Polynesia, were usually concerned with the creation of the universe, of most of the elements of nature, of the rest of the gods, and, ultimately, of human beings. Most of these cosmogonic stories begin in the pō, or primal darkness, and tell how one of the gods alone (often Tangaroa) or the Sky Father and Earth Mother together created the other gods and, eventually, all their progeny, each of which was a personification of a selected aspect of nature. Each island or island group had a slightly different cast of characters and emphasized different plants, animals, and natural phenomena. Whereas in the Cook Islands the creation of the universe was involved with a coconut shell that was organized in layers with Vari or chaotic mud at the bottom, in Hawaii a gourd and its association with Lono was more important. To maintain a connection with Lono, an ipu o Lono ("gourd of Lono") was kept in a sacred area of each household to receive offerings and prayers, which were usually concerned with fertility and protection against sorcery. In other areas a local deity sometimes replaced or elaborated one or more of the four great gods. Thus, in New Zealand the existence of two gods of food, Haumia and Rongo, indicates the importance of uncultivated food to the Maori, which was not the case in other Polynesian areas; and in Hawaii the existence of Pele and Kū, both gods of destruction, suggests a philosophical distinction between destruction by nature and destruction by humans.

Origin of the Islands and People

In western Polynesian creation myths more emphasis was given to the creation, genealogies, and interrelationships of human beings than to the creation, genealogies, and interrelationships of the gods from whom human beings descended. In Tonga, for example, the god Tangaloa 'Eitumatupu'a climbed down from the sky on a great casuarina tree and cohabited with a woman of the earlier Tongan population, which had descended from a worm. The child of this union was ʾAhoʾeitu. When ʾAhoʾeitu was old enough he went to the sky to visit his father and returned with several celestial inhabitants who became his ceremonial attendants. Half man and half god, ʾAhoʾeitu became the first Tuʾi Tonga ("paramount chief"). The succeeding Tuʾi Tonga descended from ʾAhoʾeitu and were born of the daughters of the highest chiefs in the land. Several Tuʾi Tonga were assassinated, and in about the fifteenth century the incumbent twenty-fourth Tuʾi Tonga appointed his younger brother as a subsidiary ruler, the Tuʾi Haʾa Takalaua. The Tuʾi Haʾa Takalaua was given only temporal power, while the Tuʾi Tonga retained for himself high rank and spiritual status. The sixth Tuʾi Haʾa Takalaua created a similar split in authority, reserving for himself high rank and giving to one of his sons the title of Tuʾi Kanokupolu and the tasks of ruling and collecting tribute. All three lines descended from ʾAhoʾeitu and were further linked by marriage. The origins of Tangaloa, the sky, the island of Tonga, or the other elements of nature, however, are often not detailed. The gods were less important than was the way that the chiefs traced their genealogies to them. Tangaloa (Tangaroa) and Māui were the important male gods in western Polynesia, while the female god Hikule'o was in charge of Pulotu, the underworld (a concept undeveloped in eastern Polynesia). Tangaloa was often considered the sole creator god, whose universe was the sky and a vast expanse of ocean. According to a Samoan story, Tangaloa threw a rock into the ocean, and it became Manuʾa, one of the Samoan group of islands. Tonga was said to have been created when the gods threw down chips of wood from their workshops. In Tonga, the first occupants were worms, a female of which cohabited with Tangaloa to start the first ruling dynasty. Samoans believed Samoa had been created when Tangaloa threw down a rock as a place for his bird-daughter to live. He also sent vines to the island; the vines developed maggots, which in turn generated humans. Rather than being thrown down from the sky, or sometimes in addition to this type of creation, a widespread mythic theme of island origin recounts that the islands were fished up from the sea bottom by Māui or, occasionally, by Tangaloa or Tiki. In some areas of eastern Polynesia humans originated when the god Tane, or a separate character in the creation story, Tiki (Tiʾi), impregnated a female form that had been shaped by the god from sand and that held the essence of the female principle, Mother Earth. In other areas Tangaloa created Tiʾi, the first man, for Hina, who was thought of as a goddess in some locales and as the first woman in others. In Tahiti the chiefs traced their genealogies to Tiʾi and Hina. Along with the creation of human life came the creation of death. According to the Maori, Hina-titama, an offspring of Tane and Hina the Earth-Formed, mated with her father and had several children. Her realization that this union was incestuous drove her to the underworld; from there she snared their children one by one. This was the origin of death. The origin of human life is usually associated with the Sky Father and the male principle, while the origin of death is usually associated with the female principle. In some areas there are quite different accounts of the origins of humankind. On Easter Island the most important god was the local deity Makemake, who was not only the patron of the rituals of the bird cult but was also the creator of humans. In Tuvalu the male parent was the sun, the female parent a stone, altering the more generalized sky and earth into more specific aspects of the upper and lower atmospheres. Although the origin of individual plants or animals may not be specified, items of local importance are often given stories of their own. For example, in Tahiti one of the lovers of the demigoddess Hina was an eel named Tuna from whom the coconut plant originated after he was buried. Hina, who embodies the essence of femininity, is also credited with the origin of the banyan tree, which grew on earth after she dropped a branch of such a tree from her abode in the moon. Similarly, in Tonga kava and sugarcane originated from the head and body of a dead child who was killed as food for a visiting high chief. This child was not eaten but buried, and the two plants grew from her grave. A rat that had eaten from the kava plant staggered but regained its balance after eating from the sugarcane plant. This was the origin of the ritual drinking of kava and of the ritual eating of sugarcane that accompanies kava -drinking. In Hawaii an extremely complicated mythology reveals the intimate relationships among gods, humans, and elements of the natural environment. The order of the islands' origins is given in great detailstarting in the east with the island of Hawaii, moving west through the major islands of the Hawaiian chain, and ending at Niihau (an afterbirth), Lehua, Kaula, and finally the low reef islands. The parents of the islands were primarily Wakea (Sky Father) with Papa (Earth Mother). Wakea's secondary mates were Kaula and Hina while Papa's secondary mate was Lua. In addition, the Kumulipo chant sets out the origin and order of all plants and animals in the universe as well as the origin of gods and men. Kane and Kanaloa were the first gods to be born, Laʾilaʾi was the first woman and Kiʾi the first man. Some generations later the goddess Haumea bore children to Kanaloa and then took a husband among men and became the goddess of childbirth. In many forms, nature, gods, and people interactednot only to create, but also to change and destroy.


The demigod Māui was the trickster who upset the status quo. Maui has been immortalized by Katharine Luomala in her study, Māui-of-a-Thousand-Tricks (Honolulu, 1949). Māui's most important deeds included fishing up islands on his magic fishhook (taking the place of Tangaloa in other areas), snaring the sun, and stealing fire from the gods. He also had specialties in the traditions of some areas, such as pushing up the sky in Tonga and Uvéa (taking the place of Tane, who often performed this feat in eastern Polynesia), trying to overcome death in New Zealand, and in Tokelau taking the place of the original male parent. Māui was often considered a magician, but his most admired characteristic was trickery against authority. In classic tales Māui usually does not create, for this was the domain of the gods. Instead, as half man and half god, he transformed what had already been created into something useful to man. Thus, he slowed down the sun, which previously had raced across the sky, so that days would be long enough to beat out and dry bark cloth, grow and prepare food, and build temples to the gods. Māui stole conveniences of the gods (such as fire to cook food) for the comfort of men. Māui was the archetypal culture hero who could deal with both gods and humans. The mythic themes of Polynesian religion are complex social metaphors that helped to justify rank and social stratification to a people concerned with genealogy, respect and disrespect, and aspects of nature that needed to be explained and appeased. The gods and mythical heros were blamed for, and became part of, human vanity. Polynesian religion was an outgrowth of Polynesian social structure that focused on genealogical connections and the integration of the gods with nature and the human condition.

See Also

Māui; Oceanic Religions, overview article.


Bibliographies on Polynesian mythology are very extensive, but they usually focus on specific islands or island groups. The best bibliography, of more than three hundred entries, can be found in Katharine Luomala's Māui-of-a-Thousand-Tricks: His Oceanic and European Biographers (Honolulu, 1949). As sources of first resort, the following works are recommended.

Alpers, Anthony. Legends of the South Sea. London, 1970.

Beckwith, Martha Warren. Hawaiian Mythology (1940). Reprint, Honolulu, 1970.

Best, Elsdon. Maori Religion and Mythology. Wellington, New Zealand, 1924.

Burrows, Edwin G. Western Polynesia: A Study in Cultural Differentiation. Göteberg, 1938.

Craig, Robert D. Dictionary of Polynesian Mythology. New York, 1989.

Dixon, Roland B. The Mythology of All Races, vol. 9, Oceanic (1916). Reprint, New York, 1964.

Emory, Kenneth P. "Tuamotuan Concepts of Creation." Journal of the Polynesian Society 49 (1940): 69136.

Firth, Raymond. Rank and Religion in Tikopia: A Study of Polynesian Paganism and Conversion to Christianity. London, 1970.

Fornander, Abraham. Fornander Collection of Hawaiian Antiquities and Folklore. 3 vols. Bishop Museum Memoirs, vols. 46. Honolulu, 19161920.

Gifford, Edward W., comp. Tongan Myths and Tales. Honolulu, 1924.

Grey, George. Polynesian Mythology and Ancient Traditional History of the New Zealanders. London, 1922.

Luomala, Katharine. "Polynesian Mythology." In Encyclopedia of Literature, edited by Joseph T. Shipley. New York, 1946.

Luomala, Katherine. Māui-of-a-Thousand-Tricks. Honolulu, 1949.

Luomala, Katharine. Voices on the Wind: Polynesian Myths and Chants. Honolulu, 1955.

Poignant, Roslyn. Oceanic Mythology: The Myths of Polynesia, Micronesia, Melanesia, Australia. London, 1967.

Subramani. South Pacific Literature: From Myth to Fabulation. Suva, 1985.

Adrienne L. Kaeppler (1987 and 2005)

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Polynesian Religions: Mythic Themes." Encyclopedia of Religion. . 21 Aug. 2018 <>.

"Polynesian Religions: Mythic Themes." Encyclopedia of Religion. . (August 21, 2018).

"Polynesian Religions: Mythic Themes." Encyclopedia of Religion. . Retrieved August 21, 2018 from

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

The Chicago Manual of Style

American Psychological Association

  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.