TANGAROA is the most important of the "departmental" gods of Polynesia. In his many cognates, he was worshiped by most Polynesians as the chief god and creator of the world. His popularity, however, depended chiefly on his role as ruler over the ocean. Tangaroa stands as the origin and personification of all fish; his offspring are the creatures of the sea. Tangaroa was often appealed to by seafarers and fisherman, and, under the title Tangaroa-whakamautai, he was recognized by the Maori of New Zealand as the controller of the tides.
The souls of the Polynesian ancestors live on in the spirit land of Hawaiki, which is the symbolic place of origin of the Polynesian people. Ancestor deification was probably the original form of Polynesian religion. While some of the gods' names were common throughout the Pacific islands, most Polynesian gods were strictly local deities. The Polynesian deities have been classified into four groups: supreme, "departmental," tribal, and family. The departmental gods were classified according to the aspect of nature they ruled. The major departmental gods—Tane, Rongo, Tu, and Tangaroa—were often portrayed in eastern Polynesian mythology as the sons of Rangi ("sky") and Papa ("earth"). Areas of authority were distributed among the four departmental gods, who, together with the tribal ancestors, constituted the pantheon of the earliest Polynesian mythology and who were shared by many island groups.
The parentage of these deities was often traced to ancestors: like the gods of Greek mythology, the Polynesian departmental deities had once been living persons with human desires and passions. The process of creating gods continued in Polynesia until the advent of Christianity in the Pacific islands during the early nineteenth century. In general, the study of Polynesian myths and religious beliefs has been dependent upon source materials from early missionaries, who were not free from prejudice. The religion and mythology of the Maori of New Zealand, however, were systematically studied and therefore constitute an important exception.
In New Zealand, Tangaroa appears to have been venerated under several names, such as Tangaroa-nui, Tangaroa-ra-vao, Tangaroa-mai-tu-rangi, Tangaroa-a-mua, Tangaroa-a-timu, and Tangaroa-a-roto. On other Polynesian islands, Tangaroa was known as Taʾaroa, Tangaloa, Tanaroa, and Kanaloa. Tangaroa's role varied because major gods were often fused with local or family deities. Tangaroa did, however, continue to exist as an independent major god in most of the Polynesian myths, and a distinct Tangaroa cult developed in parallel to other common worship practices. This cult apparently flourished on the islands where there was an affinity between gods and eponymous ancestors. On some islands, there remains only scant information about Tangaroa, but his former importance is proven by his appearance in many fagu (sacred) chants:
O Tangaroa in the immensity of space
Clear away the clouds by day
Clear away the clouds by night
That Ru may see the stars of heaven
To guide him in the land of his desire (Buck, 1938)
Tangaroa was portrayed as the supreme being in western and central Polynesia, but he was worshiped as the god of the sea. In the Samoan Islands, Tangaroa was essentially a creator—the being who formed the islands or who raised them up from the depths of the sea. In Tongan mythology, Tangaroa appeared as the sky god. Tui Tonga, the founder of the Tongan royal family, was respected as having descended from Tangaroa. He was therefore held to be sacred and to possess great powers that were attributed to semidivine chiefs. Though Tangaroa was also referred to as the supreme being and first cause in Samoa, the Society Islands, and Hawai'i, the complex was almost absent from the belief system of the Polynesian marginal islands according to E. S. Craighill Handy (1927).
In the Cook Islands, Tangaroa and Rongo are said to have been the twin children of the primal parents Papa and Atea ("heaven"). Tangaroa is said to have taken a wife, Hina, in the Cook Islands—a conjunction that was held throughout Polynesia. On Easter Island, the Ariki Mau ("great chief") was the possessor of mana ("power") that was transmitted down the genealogical line from the ancestral gods Tangaroa and Rongo. On Samoa, Rongo is said to be the offspring of Tangaroa and Hina. Thus the roles of the gods, as well as their names, frequently vary from region to region.
There is a striking contrast to the above in the interpretation given Tangaroa in the Marquesas Islands, where Tangaroa was elevated into a divinity who battled Atea for supremacy. A creation myth of the Marquesas, however, contains many references to Tangaroa as merely a god of the sea and winds. It is plausible that the status of Tangaroa declined under the growing influence of Christian missionaries on the islands. In Hawaii, where he is called Kaneloa, Tangaroa was less important than the other departmental gods. This lack of status may have been due to the fact that the people of Hawaii later arranged their pantheon to conform with the Christian triadic pattern, using Kane (Tane), Ku (Tu), and Lono (Rongo) to form a trinity.
Effects of Christianization
As might be expected, the advent of the Europeans led to radical changes in Polynesian religions. In the Austral, Society, Tuamotu, and Gambier islands, the people still know Tangaroa as the god of the sea. Polynesian contact with Europeans, however, and the eventual conversion of many islanders to Christianity destroyed the old gods' religious authority. Why, then, is Tangaroa the sole "survivor" among the many Polynesian gods? The answer is tied to the fact that for the Polynesians, descendants of great seafarers, the ocean is vitally important. The music-loving Polynesians continue to sing their old chants even though they no longer fully understand the role that the texts had played in their religious traditions. The old fagu chants, still known in the extreme eastern end of the Tuamotu Islands, offer a sketch of the creation myths and of some of the religious concepts that existed before the advent of Christianity. These chants contain not only the name of Tangaroa but also the names of other gods; even ancestral gods often appear in parodies. But, in general, the gradual disintegration of traditional island society has coincided with the death of the Polynesian gods.
Radical change was enhanced by the modernization of island societies after World War II. In the 1960s, Tangaroa was mentioned in only one of the parody chants that was used on the occasion of welcoming visitors to the eastern Tuamotus:
We descend from Tangaroa Manini, we are ready for you
We love you Manini, with blessings
Has come to our land. (Hatanaka, 1976)
It may be that one day even the name of Tangaroa will no longer be known to the Polynesian people; then all of the gods will have returned to the land of Hawaiki.
Buck, Peter H. Vikings of the Sunrise. New York, 1938.
Handy, E. S. Craighill. Polynesian Religion. Honolulu, 1927.
Handy, E. S. Craighill. History and Culture in the Society Islands. Honolulu, 1930.
Hatanaka, Sachiko. A Study of the Polynesian Migration to the Eastern Tuamotus: Preliminary Report. Kanazawa, Japan, 1976.
Sachiko Hatanaka (1987)