Polynesian Religions: An Overview

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Polynesia consists of several thousand islands contained within an immense triangle in the central Pacific with its corners at Hawai'i, New Zealand, and Easter Island. Polynesian peoples also inhabit a few "outliers" to the west of the triangle, such as Tikopia and Ontong Java in the Solomon Islands. Polynesian islands range from the huge, continental North and South Islands of New Zealand through the high, volcanic islands found in the Hawaiian, Samoan, and Society (Tahitian) chains, to the tiny, low atolls of the Tuamotu archipelago. Although a good deal of cultural diversity does exist within Polynesia, even more noteworthygiven the vast distances between island groups and the striking ecological differences between the continental, volcanic, and coral islandsare the cultural consistencies that hold throughout the region. These include closely linked languages, related forms of social and political organization, and similar religious beliefs and ceremonies.

While numerous isolated beliefs and practices from the pre-European period survive on many islands, the native Polynesian religion described in this essay no longer exists in a pure state. Conversion to Christianity began in Tahiti at the beginning of the nineteenth century. The process was essentially completed on most major islands by the middle of the century, although some remote islands, such as Tikopia, were not fully Christian until a hundred years later.

A Case Study: Kapingamarangi

Discussion begins with a description of some religious practices on one islandas it happens, an island of little significance by most measures. But it will serve as an introduction to Polynesian religion generally, because it is possible to detect in the religious practices of that island patterns that are basic to religion throughout Polynesia.

Kapingamarangi is a tiny, isolated atoll located to the south of the Caroline Islands in the western Pacific. It consists of an oval coral reef surrounding a lagoon six to eight miles in diameter, along the eastern edge of which are about thirty islets. The total land area more than five feet above sea level is less than one-half of a square mile; this is the living space for about five hundred inhabitants. Although it is an outlier, located well outside the Polynesian triangle, the culture and people of Kapingamarangi are distinctly Polynesian.

Every day, according to traditional beliefs, the gods would visit Kapingamarangi. They came from the sea, emerging in mid afternoon off the southeastern portion of the atoll and making their way northward along the outer reef toward an islet called Touhou. Shortly before sunset a priest would call out an invitation to the gods. They would come ashore at Touhou and proceed to a special cult house. They entered the seaward end of the house, which a pair of priestesses had just opened for them by taking down the wall screens. The high priest stood outside the opposite (lagoon) end of the cult house and delivered evening prayers, after which the priestesses replaced the wall screens. The following morning, just before sunrise, the high priest came again to the house. This time he went to the seaward end, took down the wall screens, delivered morning prayers, and then replaced the screens. The gods, who had spent the night in the house, departed after the prayers had been addressed to them, retraced their path along the outer reef to the southeastern part of the atoll, and, about mid-morning, returned to the sea. Several hours later they appeared again, and the entire process was repeated.

These daily events on Kapingamarangi encapsulate, in microcosm, many of the basic elements of religion throughout Polynesia. Although numerous variations may be found in different islands, Polynesians are unanimous in these beliefs: that the gods inhabit a realm distinct from the physical world populated by human beings; that they are frequent visitors to the physical world; that the gods are responsible for a great deal of what happens in the physical world, including events both beneficial and detrimental to human beings; that humans may exercise, through properly executed ritual, some control over the visits of the gods to the physical world and what they do here; and (what is one of the most distinctive features of Polynesian religion) that the gods may be ritually induced to withdraw from the physical world in circumstances where their influence is not, or is no longer, desirable. At bottom, Polynesian religion is a story of gods who are immensely active in this world and of people who attempt to control the activities of the gods by directing their influence into places where it is desired and expelling it from places where it is not. The essence of Kapingamarangi's daily cyclethe entrance of the gods into the human world, ushering them into a place of human choosing, requesting their assistance in matters of human needs, and then dismissing them to their own spiritual realmwas enacted in a thousand ways throughout Polynesia.


The universe, with its spiritual and physical realms, its myriads of gods, human beings, plants, and animals, was established by a series of creative acts. Myths from Samoa and the Society Islands tell of an uncreated creator godTangaloa or Taʾaroa (elsewhere Tangaroa, Kanaloa, etc.)who was stirred to create the beginnings of a world. In other myths the first spark of creation is a series of abstract mental qualities and urges, existing and evolving in themselves: thought, remembrance, consciousness, and desire. In most Polynesian accounts of creation, existence was soon differentiated into a male sky and a female earth. These were joined together in copulation. The earth gave birth to a number of sons, the major gods of the Polynesian pantheon. Their numbers and identities differ among the various islands, but frequently the names Tane, Tu, and Rongo appear in one linguistic form or another among them. Tangaroa, the creator already mentioned for certain myths from Samoa and Tahiti, often appears in other myths as another of the sons of the earth and sky.

With the sky pressed so closely to his terrestrial mate, the living space between them was dark and cramped, and their sons could scarcely stand upright. They resolved to separate their parents. After numerous fruitless efforts, one of the sons succeeded in wrenching the lovers apart and raising the sky to the position it now occupies. Perhaps this is a mythological source for the notion that existence is divided into a spiritual and a physical realm, because on many islands the gods were thought to dwell in the heavens. (The spiritual realm normally includes more than just the heavens, however. As described already, the gods of Kapingamarangi came from the open sea. The underworld, as the home of the dead, was also widely considered to be part of the spiritual realm.)

Further stages of creation are usually expressed in genealogical terms. In a Samoan myth, various sorts of rocks and plant and animal species are born and mate to produce still other furnishings of the earth through many generations following the initial union of celestial and terrestrial rocks. In the ninth generation, Pili, a lizard, mates with a tropical bird, and their three sons and daughter are the first human beings. In the mythology of the Maori of New Zealand, the progenitor is the god Tane. Unable to create alone, he sought an uha, or female partner. He found a great many of them, and from his unions with them were born water and the various species of insects, birds, and trees and other plants. Through all this, however, Tane was frustrated in his abiding desire to create humankind. Finally he and his brothers, the sons of the sky and the earth, shaped a woman from the earth. Tane breathed life into her nostrils, mouth and ears. Unsure of himself, he then copulated with the various orifices and crevices of her body. This was the origin of the bodily excretions, for the places fertilized by Tane gave birth to saliva, mucus, earwax, excrement, and perspiration. Finally Tane tried her genitalia, and she bore a daughter, whom they named Hine-titama. Later Tane incestuously took his daughter as his mate, and she gave birth to the first human beings.

It fell to a number of heroes, of whom the most famous throughout Polynesia was named Maui, to put the finishing touches on creation. In those earliest days the sun moved rapidly across the sky, making night much longer than day. People found it difficult to accomplish their work in the brief span of daylight. Māui (or, on some islands, a hero of another name) journeyed to the place where the sun emerges from the underworld at dawn, and there he laid a snare. When the sun appeared Maui caught it and gave it a drubbing with his club (made, in some versions of the story, from the jawbone of one of his female ancestors). Thenceforth it could move only slowly and painfully across the heavens, and thus was the day lengthened to equal the span of the night. Mythic heroes are also credited with fishing up many islands from the depths of the sea. The North Island of New Zealand is known as Te-Ika-a-Māui, or Māui's fish, because he caught it with a fishhook (also made from the same jawbone), which he baited by smearing it with his own blood.


The spiritual realm was thought to be populated by an indefinitely large number of beings, known in most islands by some variant of the term atua. The term may be translated as "god," although it should be borne in mind that in Polynesia this is a remarkably broad category. Some gods have never lived as humans (for example, the sons of the earth and sky), while others are spirits of deceased ancestors or of quasi-human entities such as stillborn babies and menstrual clots. Some gods are benevolent, others are mischievous or downright malicious, and still others have no particular moral qualities at all. The gods have a diverse range of occupations and interests. Their number includes creator gods; gods responsible for various "departments" of existence (such as the sea, the forests, cultivated plants, and so on); gods that concern themselves with particular places, particular tribes, or particular families; gods of warfare, fishing, carpentry, and various other occupations; even gods that specialize in bringing on certain diseases or ravishing people whose hair was a certain color. All in all, they are an extremely numerous and varied lot.

While the gods properly belong to the spiritual realm, it was thought throughout Polynesia that (as with the daily visits of the gods to Kapingamarangi) they would frequently enter the human world. Indeed, so extensive was their influence deemed to be that Polynesians tended to attribute any condition or event for which a physical cause was not immediately apparent to the work of the gods. Among a great many other things, this included thunder and lightning, shifts in the wind, and the growth of plants, animals, and people. The gods were authors of dreams and human artistic accomplishments; they underwrote the rank and power of chiefs and success in love or war; and they generated courage and cowardice, illness and accidents, and even involuntary twitches in the muscles.

An indication of the variety of events that Polynesians would attribute to the gods is recorded by the traveler and artist Augustus Earle. When he sailed from New Zealand to Australia in 1828, several Maoris also made the trip. Earle writes in his Narrative of a Residence in New Zealand (Oxford, 1966):

The second day after we were at sea, I saw a group of savages lying round the binnacle, all intently occupied in observing the phenomenon of the magnetic attraction; they seemed at once to comprehend the purpose to which it was applied, and I listened with eager curiosity to their remarks upon it. "This," said they, "is the white man's God, who directs them safely to different countries, and then can guide them home again." Nothing could exceed the delight manifested by our New Zealanders as we sailed into Port Jackson [Sydney] harbour; but above all, the windmills most astonished them. After dancing and screaming with joy at beholding them, they came running and asking me "if they were not gods." (pp. 196197)

Polynesians took great stock in omens. Belief in godly instigation of events of all sorts, and that the gods had knowledge superior to that of humansknowledge of what was happening far away, or would happen in the future, for exampleled Polynesians to think that many events could be read as messages from the gods about matters of importance to humans. Dreams were a particularly rich source of information from the world of the gods. One's own spirit or soul could leave the body in sleep, traveling great distances as the gods do, and gathering all sorts of intelligence while out of the body. Sometimes the message of dreams was straightforward, as when a Maori woman's dream that raiders were gathering in the hills to attack her village was confirmed when scouts found that raiders were indeed in the hills. Other dreams needed expert interpretation to reveal their meanings. If a Maori man dreamed of skulls lying on the ground, and decorated with feathers, it was a sign that his wife was pregnant; moreover, the color of the feathers foretold the sex of the baby.

Diviner priests in Hawai'i and Tahiti would read the outcome of a proposed battle in the entrails of sacrificial animals. The configurations of rainbows, clouds, and other heavenly phenomena were everywhere understood as omens. Should a Maori war party see the moon situated above the evening star, for example, they would abandon plans to attack a fortified village because the battle would go against them. The moon situated below the evening star, on the other hand, was a sign that their attack would be crowned with success.

An important way in which Polynesian gods were thought to make their influence felt in the physical world was literally to enter and possess human beings. Often this was an unwelcome situation, for the intruding god might be malicious and proceed to bite, twist, or pinch the individual's internal organsa common explanation for disease. On the other hand, certain persons were particularly prone to spirit possession by which a deceased chief, ancestor, or some other god would communicate with human beings. The medium would go into a trance, during which his or her tone of voice might change drastically. That was thought to be the voice of the possessing god, conveying information about the cause of some disease, the identity of a thief, the outcome of a military expedition, or some other matter of importance to the human community.

The gods also frequented animals of various species: sharks, herons, lizards, owls, and so on. Because the indwelling gods were often malicious, and in any event had power enough to make them dangerous to ordinary people, such animals were regarded with fear, or, at least, with a great deal of circumspection. Lizards were thought in many islands to be favorite earthly vehicles for particularly malevolent gods, rendering these animals objects of terror to people. In his Journal of a Ten Months Residence in New Zealand (London, 1823), the early visitor Richard Cruise reported that when a visiting ship's officer in the early nineteenth century brought a lizard to a Maori women in order to ascertain the local word for it, "She shrunk from him in a state of terror that exceeded description, and conjured him not to approach her, as it was in the shape of the animal he held in his hand, that the Atua [god] was wont to take possession of the dying, and to devour their bowels" (p. 320).

Mana and Tapu

Persons, places, and things that were possessed by or were otherwise under the influence of the gods were often referred to by one or the other of the two most well-known concepts in Polynesian religion: mana and tapu. While these terms have usually been understood by Western observers to function as nounsso that one might have a certain amount of mana, infringe a tapu, or put tapu on or remove it from somethingsome scholars think that they properly describe states of being rather than things. From this perspective, mana or tapu are similar to fame: One may "have" fame, but that is not like having a concrete thing such as a computer.

Mana (a form used in many Polynesian languages) refers to the state of being that is enjoyed by those objects, places, or persons that benefit permanently (or at least for an extended period) from the strengthening influence of the gods. A primary mark of mana is outstanding effectiveness in action. Hence the term was applied to certain weapons (many of which had proper names and unique qualities, as did the swords Excalibur and Nothung in European lore) that were thought to be invincible in and of themselves.

Individuals who had distinguished themselves by outstanding accomplishments as warriors, navigators, priests, or artists were thought to have mana. At least as important, mana characterized certain families and descent lines. Polynesian society on many islands (particularly on Tahiti and the other Society Islands, and on Samoa, Tonga, and Hawai'i) was highly stratified, with great gulfs of rank separating the chiefs and other nobles from the commoners. The rank of the nobility passed from generation to generation, reaching its culmination in the line of firstborn children. These lines traced their descent back to the high gods and existed under their special protection. Their rank and position was validated precisely by this relationship to the gods, which was the source of their intense mana. In many respects the relationship was so close that those of exalted rank were considered to be very like gods themselves. In Tahiti high chiefs were carried on the backs of servants whenever they ventured out, because if their feet had touched the ground, that spot would have been made so sacred that it could no longer be used for ordinary purposes. All persons along the chief's path had to bare their bodies to the waist as a sign of deference. In Hawai'i the concern that nobles not marry spouses of standing lower than their own resulted in the approval of brother-sister marriage for chiefs of the highest rank. The offspring of such unions were considered to be divine, and all persons were required to prostrate themselves in their presence.

Tapu, a form used in the Maori and Tahitian languages, is a term taken into English as "taboo," and is close in meaning to mana. It too is concerned primarily with the influence that the gods exercise over people, places, and things of the physical world. Tapu is often defined with reference to restrictions or prohibitions, it being tapu to enter a certain place, eat certain food, touch certain objects, or undertake various other activities. The word, however, refers not so much to the sheer fact of restriction as to the reason for it: that the place, person, or object in question was possessed by or under the influence of the gods and therefore had to be treated with extreme care.

It is tempting to translate tapu as "sacred," but that term has a consistently positive connotation that is by no means always the case with the Polynesian concept. As has been noted already, to be under the influence of a Polynesian god is not necessarily a desirable condition, for it may entail physical or mental illness, loss of courage, or any number of other unwelcome states. All of these may be described in terms of tapu. This points up one distinction between tapu and mana. While both terms refer to states brought on by the influence of gods, mana was limited to conditions characterized by outstanding effectiveness of action or elevated rank. Tapu might also be used in those circumstances, but it describes detrimental or debilitating states as well.

Again, both mana and tapu may refer to states of long duration, but these were perhaps more commonly described in terms of mana. On the other hand, only tapu was used to describe conditions in which the influence of the gods was experienced for relatively brief or defined periodssuch as during festivals or religious ceremonies, seasons for growing crops, expeditions for hunting, fishing, or raiding, or times of tattooing or building a canoe or house. Because Polynesian rituals dealt primarily with such temporary influence of the gods, channeling it into areas of life where it was desired at the moment and away from areas where it was not, they were much more concerned with tapu than mana.

One reason that the tapu state tended to be of relatively short duration was because it was easily transmitted. Mana could be diminished or lost by defilement of some sort, but it was not easily communicated from one person or thing to another, except from parent to child by descent. To the contrary, tapu was considered to be a highly volatile state that was readily transmitted. This, indeed, is the primary reason why the term is so often translated as "forbidden" or as having to do with prohibitions: because it was necessary to hedge someone or something in the state of tapu with all sorts of restrictions in order to prevent its unintentional communication to other persons or things to which it might be detrimental. At this point it is well to recall that tapu refers not to a thing but to a state of being under the influence of gods. Should that influence pass from one person or thing to another, as Polynesians thought it commonly did, then the person or thing newly brought under godly influence would enter a state of tapu. If the godly influence should completely leave the "donor" in this situation, then that person or thing would be released from the tapu state.

Transmission of tapu was normally by direct or indirect contact. In many parts of Polynesia menstrual blood was thought to be dangerously tapu, and great precautions were taken to avoid contact with it. The Marquesan belief was that such contact produced leprosy. Throughout Polynesia food was considered to be an excellent conductor of tapu. Today women of Rapa, in the Austral chain, avoid preparing anyone's food but their own while they are menstruating. In ancient Tahiti and Hawai'i men and women ate separately on a regular basis in order to insulate the male from the dangerous influences connected with the female.

An intriguing example of how tapu may spread involves an unfortunate dog at Ruatoki, New Zealand. The dog contracted the extremely dangerous tapu associated with the dead because it rooted in a grave and began to chew on the corpse of a recently deceased person. The situation deteriorated when the dog, chased by numerous enraged Maoris, tried to escape by swimming across the Whakatane River. It was caught and killed in midstream, but by then the entire river had become tapu because the dog had been swimming in it. After that its water could not be used for any purpose until a priest had performed a special ceremony to release the river from tapu.


Polynesian ritual covered an extensive field of activity. It could be destructive, as in witchcraft rites that directed gods to injure or kill their victims. Maori legend, for example, tells how a sorcerer bewitched a New Zealand tribe called Maruiwi by calling upon the god Ira-kewa to confuse their minds so that they began to wander about in the night, walked over a high cliff, and fell to their deaths. Other rites were performed for the more constructive purposes of securing fertility of crops or success in voyaging, hunting, or fishing. Some rites consisted of no more than conventional incantations that an individual might mutter to secure the gods' approval or avoid their wrath when crossing a forest or a stream; others were elaborate festivals demanding immense preparations and lasting for days, or even, as in the case of the Hawaiian festival called Makahiki, for months. In all cases, however, Polynesian ritual had the same purpose as the daily rites on Kapingamarangi, that is, to move and focus godly influence in accordance with human wishes.

Understood in this way, it is possible to distinguish three phases in Polynesian ritual. The first is an invitation to the gods to come to the place where the ritual is taking place. The second is an attempt to induce the gods to lend their influence or support to whatever goal (fertility of crops, victory in battle, success in an interisland voyage, and so on) the rite is designed to promote. While these two phases are found in the ritual process of many religions, a third phase receives particular elaboration in Polynesia. In this phase, after the purpose of the rite has been achieved, the gods are dismissed and their influence is terminated.


Polynesian gods were conceptualized as behaving very much like human beings, so ritual invitations to them were similar in kind to the way one might invite human guests. In Tahiti this included preparing an attactive place for them. Tahitian rituals normally took place in rectangular enclosures called marae. Between rituals very little attention was paid to the marae. The gods were not present, so there was no danger, no particular tapu associated with the marae at such times. When a ceremony was about to take place, however, a necessary prelude was to clear weeds and sweep the courtyard, to repair and scrape moss from the stone altar, to set up perches upon which the gods might settle, and in general to make the marae as attractive as possible for the gods who were to be summoned to it. Before lineage gods were invoked in Tonga, special mats would be spread out as places for them to sit.

Rituals normally began with an invitation to the gods to attend. In Tahiti lesser gods might be dispatched as messengers to invite the greater gods, and priests would intone long chants that described how each emissary had located the god it had been sent to fetch and was leading it to the marae. Other Tahitian chants inaugurating rituals were designed to awaken the gods from sleep. Hawaiʾians would sometimes appeal to the gods' sexuality, attracting them to a ritual with an erotic hula dance.

New Zealand Maori invited the gods to certain places by setting out material objects in which they could take up residence. Rudely carved stone images, called "resting places for the gods," would be placed in fields after sweet potatoes had been planted. The intention was for gods to enter the images, whence they would establish a state of tapu over the crop by lending their growth-stimulating power to it. Other special objects, either natural or human-made, were placed in forests, near the sea, or in fortified villages. These constituted domiciles for the gods who ensured an abundance of birds and rats in the forest, fish of various species in the sea, or protection for the village. It was important to conceal these objects carefully, lest they fall into the hands of some malefactor who would perform certain spells causing the god to depart and bringing disaster on the forest or village.

Priests in certain parts of New Zealand carried "god-sticks": small, carved wooden pegs that, when wrapped in a certain way and stuck in the ground, would be entered by gods. Idols or images were thought to provide housing for the gods in many parts of Polynesia. In the early nineteenth century the several chiefs who were competing to become king of a centralized Tahiti went to great lengths to secure the image of the war god Oro. Where the image was, so the belief went, there Oro himself would come, bringing with him success in war and politics.

New Zealand Maori were particularly conscious of boundaries between the human and the spiritual worlds. Frequently their rituals would be held at such places, where the gods could readily pass from the spiritual realm into this one. One of the most intriguing of these boundaries had to do with the village latrine. This was commonly built on the outskirts of a village, often on the brow of a cliff or steep hill, over which excreta would fall. The latrine consisted of a pair of carved posts that supported a low horizontal beam where the feet would be placed while squatting. Handgrips to assist in preserving one's balance were planted in the ground in front of the beam. The beam was thought to be a boundary between the realms of existence: The physical world was on the village side of the beam, with all its human hustle and bustle, while the region behind the beam, where excrement fell and where people never went, was the spiritual world. Of the numerous rituals the Maori performed at the latrine, none presents a clearer view of it as a point of emergence of the gods into the physical world than the consecration of the Takitumu canoe. According to Maori lore, this was one of the canoes that brought their ancestors to New Zealand. The tradition relates how Takitumu was placed in a state of tapu, so as to enjoy the gods' protection during the long and dangerous voyage, by literally hauling the canoe up to the latrine and inviting the gods to embark.


Once the gods had arrived at the site of the ritual, the next phase was to carry out the purpose for which they had been invited. This might be to convince them to do something for the human community, or to thank them for services already rendered. A common means of accomplishing either of these ends was to give the gods gifts. In many places in Polynesia the gods were thanked for their assistance by offering them the first crops harvested, the first birds snared, or the first fish caught. War gods might be given the first enemy killed; often a hook would be placed in his mouth and he would be announced as the first fish. Human sacrifices were offered in many parts of Polynesia including Hawai'i, Tahiti, Tonga, the Marquesas, Mangaia (in the Cook Islands), and New Zealand. Human lives were sacrificed for a variety of purposes, including the commemoration of significant events in the lives of high chiefs, the launching of important new canoes, or the opening of major houses. People in Tonga would strike off joints of their little fingers as sacrificial supplications to the gods to restore relatives to health.

Another common means of influencing the gods on ritual occasions was by incantations. After a Maori priest had induced a god to enter his godstick by wrapping it in the proper way and sticking it in the ground, he would step back a few paces and intone his requests. Often the priest held a bit of string that was tied to the stick and that he would jerk occasionally to prevent the god's attention from wandering.

The efficacy of an incantation, and, indeed, of a ritual observance in its entirety, was thought to depend on the perfection with which it was accomplished. This mispronunciation of a word, a breath drawn in the wrong place, or any disturbance of the general atmosphere surrounding the rite, was thought to abort the whole ceremony. On many islands, during a religious ceremony the people who were not participating in the rite were constrained to remain in their houses, lighting no fires and making no noise. Cocks must not crow, nor dogs bark; absolutely nothing was allowed to disrupt the highly tapu atmosphere of the rite. In the Society Islands, should a woman or child wander near the place where a ritual was occurring, the intruder would be killed immediately (perhaps by the husband or father) and offered to the gods as a sacrifice to amend for the disturbance. Perhaps such rules and practices, although far more severe, were not different in intent from a Maori priest tugging at the string tied to his godstick in order to prevent the attention of the gods from being distracted by matters other than those addressed in the ceremony.

The emphasis on perfection of delivery of incantations and performance of ceremonies indicates that Polynesians believed their gods to be concerned with the outer form of worship. Inner feelings and convictions were not relevant issues in Polynesian religion. New Zealand provides the most striking bit of evidence for this proposition. An imaginative chief there arranged for the necessary incantations that accompanied the planting of crops to be delivered by a talking bird!


The final phase of Polynesian ritual was the departure of the gods and, with them, the termination of the state of tapu. Occasionally this constituted not a phase but the rite in its entirety. This would apply to rituals designed to cure illness or to counteract witchcraft, where the god involved was malevolently inclined and the sole purpose of the rite was to exorcise it. In other cases, as in the departure of the gods from Kapingamarangi's cult house each day at dawn, the gods were excused in the final stage of ritual, after prayers or thanks had been addressed to them or when the beneficial results for which they had been summoned had been realized. Many Polynesians believed, for example, that crops could grow, battles be won, or houses and canoes be successfully built only with the assistance of the gods. Only, that is, when the field, warriors, weapons, builders, tools, and raw materials were in a state of tapu. But that very tapu, together with the numerous restrictions designed to control its unintended spread, rendered it impossible for the crops to be eaten once they were harvested, for warriors to take up normal activities after battle, for people to live in the house or to travel in the canoe when built. Therefore it was necessary to excuse the gods once their contribution had been achievedto release the crop, the warriors, the house, or the canoe from the state of tapu.

A person, place, or thing that had been released from tapu entered a state of being known on many Polynesian islands as noa. Often translated as "common" or "profane" (in contrast to views of tapu as "sacred"), noa may be understood simply as the opposite of tapu as the state of not being under the influence of the gods. Rituals or segments of rituals designed to provide a release from tapu were often designated by words such as fa'anoa (in the Society Islands) or whakanoa (in New Zealand), meaning "to make noa."

Normally the dismissal of the gods was, as in Kapingamarangi, a temporary situation. They would be invited back the next time their assistance was needed. Occasionally, however, the lifting of the tapu state was intended to be permanent. This of course applied to disease-dealing or otherwise malicious gods. People wanted to escape their influence forever. But it might also be the case with a god from whom assistance had been expected, if it became clear that the god was not performing satisfactorily. Tahitians had a special ceremony for casting off a god. If a family found that it was receiving few benefits from the god it venerated, the family priest would address a special incantation to the god. He would berate it roundly for its feeble support, and inform it that the family would have nothing more to do with it. Then they would select another god that promised to be more helpful.

A variety of means were available to terminate the state of tapu. One was simply to get away from the god. Many gods were restricted in their spheres of influence, so if a person were suffering from a disorder known to be caused by a certain god, the healer's prescription might be for the patient to leave the area frequented by that god.

The more common tactic, however, was to send the gods or their influence away. One of the most common ritual agents used for this purpose throughout Polynesia was water. By sprinkling or immersion in salt or fresh water, Polynesians of Samoa, the Marquesas, New Zealand, the Society Islands, and Hawaiʾi would return to the noa state after participating in war, rituals, funeral observances, and other activities. The rationale was doubtless that the water washed away the godly influence responsible for the tapu.

Fire was another agent for releasing persons and things from tapu, because of its capacity to consume or drive out indwelling gods. In the Society Islands sickness or insanity might be caused by a malicious spirit that dwelt in a stone buried by a witch near the victim's residence. Should a diviner ascertain where the stone was concealed, he would unearth it and throw it into the fire to destroy or expel the infecting spirit.

Probably the tapu -eradicating properties of fire account for the fact that, in New Zealand, cooked food (that is, food that has been exposed to high heat or fire) was one of the most common agents used in rituals concerned with the expulsion or transfer of godly influence. Some scholars claim the Maori view to have been that cooked food repelled the gods, others that it attracted them. In any event, it was very commonly a part of whakanoa rituals, such as that in which the hands of someone who had been cultivating a garden, curing an illness, or cutting the hair of a chief were released from tapu by passing a bit of cooked sweet potato or fernroot over them.

The Maori were extremely careful in their direct or indirect association with cooked food when they were in a state of tapu that they wished to preserve. They were most reluctant to enter European hospitals, where water to wash patients might be heated in pots previously used for cooking. The same reasoning explains why some Maoris who had embraced Christianity and wished to purge themselves of the influence of the pagan gods would purposely wash their heads in water heated in cooking pots. One European trader engendered the wrath of a Maori chief when he joked that a cooking pot that he had for sale would make a fine helmet for the chief, and made as if to put it on his head.

The Maori concern with thresholds between the spiritual and physical realms, discussed above in connection with ritual means of bringing the gods into this world, is also important in rituals designed to send them out of it. One cure for illness was to bite the latrine beam, presumably with the intention of repatriating the affecting god to the spirit realm by sending it over the threshold between the worlds. After a session of training in sacred lore, which required that students be in a state of tapu if the learning process were to take place successfully, the students would bite the latrine beam in order to return to the noa state. Finally, a warrior who was afraid before battle might fortify himself by biting the beam, although it is not entirely clear in this case whether the purpose was to be rid of a fear-producing god, or to take on the influence of a courage-producing one.

Unquestionably one of the most intriguing agents for the ritual release from tapu was the female. In New Zealand and the Marquesas Islands new houses would be made free of tapu by having a woman enter them. Women participated in the tapu -dispelling phase of the war ritual known as Luakini in Hawai'i. In New Zealand women would eat the first tubers and thereby render a newly harvested crop of sweet potatoes noa. Maoris would rid themselves of the malicious spirit that might be lurking in a lizard by killing the animal and then having a woman step over it. Marquesans would exorcise the demon afflicting a sick person by having a naked woman leap over or sit on the affected part of the patient's body. Women were not permitted to assist at major rites in the Society Islands, for fear that their presence would expel the gods. For the same reason women were not allowed to go near sites of canoe or house construction in New Zealand or, in the Marquesas, to have any contact with men who had been made tapu prior to turtle fishing or battle.

The usual interpretation is that the gods found women to be repugnant, particularly because of their connection with menstrual blood (a substance thought, on this interpretation, to be more polluting than any other). Hence the gods would withdraw upon the appearance of a woman, taking their tapu with them. An alternative view is that the gods were attracted to women rather than repelled by them, and that women therefore terminated tapu by absorbing the godly influence into themselves. On this interpretation the female is understood, as is the Maori latrine, to represent a passageway between the godly and human realms of existence. The rites in which women acted to dispel tapu would of course be examples of the movement of godly influence through the female from the human to the spiritual world. Certain practices in New Zealand can be interpreted as the movement of godly influence in the opposite direction, as when students about to be instructed in sacred lore would enter the state of tapu by eating a piece of cooked food that had first been passed under the thigh of a woman.

The view of the female as a passage between the two realms leads to some possible insights into the Polynesian view of birth and death. In New Zealand and the Society Islands incantations addressed to newborn infants of rank welcomed them into the physical world from the world of the gods. An infant, that is, was apparently viewed as an embodied spirit that had passed from the spiritual realm to the human realm. And, of course, the infant accomplished the transit by being born of a woman.

Polynesians understood death as the passage of the soul from the physical world to the spiritual realm, where it continued to exist as a god or spirit of some sort. Most interesting is that, in New Zealand at least, this passage too was thought to be made through the female. This is evident in the intriguing story of the death of the culture hero Māui. Having fished up islands and slowed the sun, Māui resolved to bestow upon humankind the ultimate gift of eternal life. He intended to accomplish this by killing Hine-nui-te-po, the female personification of death. Accompanied by his friends, the birds, Māui came upon her while she was asleep. His plan was to kill her by entering her vagina, passing through her body, and emerging at the mouth. He cautioned his friends not to laugh if they found the sight amusing, for fear of waking her. Then he stripped naked and, binding the thong of his club tightly about his wrist, he proceeded to enter the sleeping woman. But predictably the birds found the sight hilarious and they burst out in raucous laughter. That awakened Hine-nui-te-po who, discovering Maui attempting to enter her, clenched her thighs tightly together and crushed him to death. And such, opined a Maori commentator, is the fate of all humans: to be drawn at death into the genitals of Hine-nui-te-po.

Hence the female seems to constitute a two-way passage between the spiritual and physical realms of existence, for humans as well as for the gods. Moreover, the very distinction between human beings and the gods now begins to collapse. Humans, arriving at birth from the supernatural realm, apparently were thought to have a spiritual existence before birth, and they definitely were thought to return to the spiritual realm as ghosts and ancestral gods after death.

For a final bit of evidence of a Polynesian belief that human beings exist as spirits in the godly realm prior to birth, this article will return to where it beganthe tiny atoll of Kapingamarangi. After a woman had given birth, she and her infant would go for a set of birth ceremonies to the islet of Touhou. That is the place, it will be recalled, where the gods would come ashore every day. Therefore, while it might actually have been born on another islet, the infant was ritually introduced into Kapingamarangi on the islet of Touhou, just as the gods were. After a period of ceremonies on Touhou, mother and child participated in a ritual that took place on Werua islet, located just to the north of Touhou. After that, they would return to their home islet and to normal life.

Interpreting this, it is seen that the child, like the gods, has come from the spiritual realm of Touhou. But whereas the gods remain gods by leaving Touhou and traveling south, the same direction from which they came, the child becomes human by leaving Touhou to the north. From that point forward the child becomes a full member of human society. In essence this is not unlike ceremonies that release one from tapu in other parts of Polynesia, rites in which the removal of godly influence enables a person to participate without restriction in normal human existence.


Two general books are E. S. Craighill Handy's Polynesian Religion (Honolulu, 1927) and Anthropology and Religion (1959; reprint, Hamden, Conn., 1970) by Peter H. Buck (Te Rangi Hiroa). Both are written by acknowledged experts in the field, although, as their dates imply, neither benefits from contemporary methods of anthropological analysis. The same may be said for the larger but less influential compendia by Robert W. Williamson, Religious and Cosmic Beliefs of Central Polynesia, 2 vols. (1933; reprint, New York, 1977), and Religion and Social Organization in Central Polynesia (Cambridge, 1937). Katharine Luomala's Maui-of-a-Thousand-Tricks (Honolulu, 1949) is an interesting study of myths, dealing with a single culture hero, drawn from all parts of Polynesia. The most thoroughly documented of traditional Polynesian cultures is New Zealand's. George Grey's Polynesian Mythology (London, 1922) is a widely read collection of Maori myths. Despite its forbidding title, J. Prytz Johansen's The Maori and His Religion in Its Non-Ritualistic Aspects (Copenhagen, 1954) is a rich and fascinating analysis, as is his companion book, Studies in Maori Rites and Myths (Copenhagen, 1958). More recent Maori studies are Jean Smith's Tapu Removal in Maori Religion (Wellington, 1974), and F. Allan Hanson and Louise Hanson's Counterpoint in Maori Culture (London, 1983). For the Society Islands, the most useful works are Teuira Henry's Ancient Tahiti (Honolulu, 1928) and, by Douglas L. Oliver, a three-volume compilation of information from the sources plus analysis of his own, Ancient Tahitian Society (Honolulu, 1974). A good deal on religion may be found in E. S. Craighill Handy's The Native Culture in the Marquesas (1923; reprint, New York, 1971); William Mariner's An Account of the Natives of the Tonga Islands, 3d ed., 2 vols. (Edinburgh, 1827); Edward Winslow Gifford's Tongan Society (Honolulu, 1929); and John B. Stair's Old Samoa (1897; reprint, Papakura, New Zealand, 1983). Books with useful information on Hawaiian religion are Martha Warren Beckwith's Hawaiian Mythology (1940; reprint, Honolulu, 1970) and David Malo's Hawaiian Antiquities, 2d ed. (Honolulu, 1951). Religion of the Polynesian outliers has been well analyzed in Torben Monberg's The Religion of Bellona Island (Copenhagen, 1966); Raymond Firth's The Work of the Gods in Tikopia, 2d ed., and Tikopia Ritual and Belief (both, London, 1967); and finally, the source from which the information on Kapingamarangi in this essay is taken, Kenneth P. Emory's Kapingamarangi: Social and Religious Life of a Polynesian Atoll (Honolulu, 1965).

New Sources

Charlot, John. "Towards a Dialogue between Christianity and Polynesian Religions." Studies in Religion/Sciences religieuses 15, no. 4 (1986): 443450.

Howard, Alan. "Cannibal Chiefs and the Charter for Rebellion in Rotuman Myth." Pacific Studies 10 (1986): 127.

Mageo, Jeannette Marie, and Alan Howard. Spirits in Culture, History, and Mind. New York, 1996.

McLean, Mervyn. Weavers of Song: Polynesian Music and Dance. Honolulu, 1999.

Ralston, Caroline, and Nicholas Thomas, eds. "Sanctity and Power: Gender in Polynesian History." Journal of Pacific History 22 (JulyOctober 1987): 115227.

Ritchie, James E. Sacred Chiefs and Secular Gods: The Polynesian View of the World. Hamilton, N.Z., 1998.

Wallin, Paul. The Symbolism of Polynesian Temple Rituals. Oslo, Norway, 1998.

F. Allan Hanson (1987)

Revised Bibliography