Polynesian Mythology

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Polynesian Mythology

Polynesia is a vast region of the Pacific Ocean consisting of many hundreds of widely separated, culturally and politically diverse island groups. Ranging from Midway and Hawaii in the north to New Zealand in the south, the triangular area called Polynesia also includes Tahiti, Samoa, Tonga, Tuamotu, the Cook Islands, and the Pitcairn Islands. Although the mythology of Polynesia took different forms on various islands, many of the basic stories, themes, and deities were surprisingly similar throughout the region.

Foundations of Religion and Myth. Scholars believe that humans first migrated to Polynesia from Southeast Asia about 2,000 years ago. These people carried with them their mythological traditions about events, deities, and heroes. As time passed and people moved to different island groups, they adapted their mythology and religious beliefs to suit their new environments. In the process, they added new characters and events to the traditional myths and legends. Nevertheless, the basic elements of religion and myth remained relatively unchanged throughout the island groups, and a fairly distinct pantheon of gods and goddesses emerged.

Polynesian religion and mythology placed great emphasis on nature, particularly the ocean environment. The Polynesians became masters of navigation and other seafaring skills, and their religion and myths strongly reflected the importance of nature and the sea. Polynesians believed that all things in nature, including humans, contained a sacred and supernatural power called mana. Mana could be good or evil, and individuals, animals, and objects contained varying amounts of mana.

Because mana was sacred, Polynesians invented complicated rules to protect it. Ordinary people were not allowed, for example, to touch even the shadow of a great chief. Nor could they step inside sacred groves or temples. The punishment for breaking important rules, known as tapus (the source of the word taboo), was often death. Illness and misfortune were believed to come from breaking minor tapus.

The Polynesians' religion included many gods, local deities as well as the great gods of their pantheon. The people felt a close personal connection to their deities and to various heroes, demigods, and tricksters of their mythology. The most popular character was Maui, a hero-trickster well known throughout Polynesia.

Worship of the gods involved chants and prayers, elaborate rituals, and sacrifices (including human sacrifice) performed by various classes of priests, some of whom acted as oracles. Magic also flourished among the Polynesians, who used incantations, charms, and spells to summon the gods or ask for their guidance or assistance.

Origin of Yams

The yam, or sweet potato, is one of the basic food crops of Polynesia. A number of myths explain the origin of this important food. One Maori myth tells how the god Rongo-maui went to heaven to see his brother Wahnui, the guardian of the yam. Rongo-maui stole the yam, hid it in his clothing, and returned to earth. Soon after, he made his wife, Pani, pregnant, and she later gave birth to a yam, the first on earth. Rongo-maui gave this food to humans.

deity god or goddess

pantheon all the gods of a particular culture

supernatural related to forces beyond the normal world; magical or miraculous

demigod one who is part human and part god

trickster mischievous figure appearing in various forms in the folktales and mythology of many different peoples

ritual ceremony that follows a set pattern

oracle priest or priestess or other creature through whom a god is believed to speak; also the location (such as a shrine) where such words are spoken

incantation chant, often part of a magical formula or spell

cult group bound together by devotion to a particular person, belief, or god

Priests usually organized and led religious festivals and celebrations. In some places, special cult organizations, consisting of storytellers, musicians, dancers, and other performers, took charge of staging ceremonial activities. Sacred ceremonies often included singing, dancing, storytelling, and dramatic performances. The Hawaiian hula dance originated as a sacred ceremonial dance.

Polynesian Deities
Haumiagod of wild plants and vegetables
Kamapua'apig god
Kanegod of creation and growth
Kucreator god
Lonogod of the heavens
Mauitrickster god and hero
Orowar god
Papa, Posupreme creator goddess, mother earth
Pelefire goddess
Rangi, Aosupreme creator god, father sky
Rongogod of cultivated plants
Ta'aroa, Rua-i-tuprasupreme creator god
Tanegod of the forest
Tangaroa, Kanaloa, Tangaloagod of the seas
Tawhirigod of the wind and storms
Tugod of war

Major Gods and Characters. The most important gods of the Polynesian pantheon were those associated with creation myths and legends. Best known were Rangi (Father Sky) and Papa (Mother Earth), the two supreme creator gods of the Maori people of New Zealand. According to Maori legend, Rangi and Papa served as the source from which all things came.

The counterparts of Rangi and Papa in Hawaiian mythology were Ao and Po. Ao represented the male force in the universe and was associated with the sky, the day, and light. Po, the feminine force, was linked with the earth, darkness, and night. According to Hawaiian myth, a creator god named Ku separated Ao from Po. Ku then worked with Lono, god of the heavens, and Kane, the chief god of generation and growth, to create the earth and all living things. After Kane made the first man and woman, he became angry at their bad behavior and decided that humans would be subject to death. He then left the earth and went to live in heaven.

cosmic large or universal in scale; having to do with the universe

In Tahitian mythology, the supreme creator deity was Ta'aroa, also called Rua-i-tupra (source of growth). Ta'aroa emerged from a cosmic egg and started the process of creation. To fill the emptiness around him, he used part of the egg to make the sky and the other part to create the earth. Satisfied with his accomplishment, he filled the world with all the creatures and things that are now found in it. The Tahitians believed that Ta'aroa sent both blessings and curses, and they tried to appease him with human sacrifices.

The Maori gods Rangi and Papa had many offspring, including Tangaroa, the god of the seas. According to legend, Tangaroa fled to the sea to escape the wrath of his brother Tawhiri, the storm god. Tangaroa later quarreled with another brother, the forest god Tane, and forever after he enjoyed sinking canoes made from wood from Tane's forests. In Hawaiian mythology, Tangaroa was called Kanaloa and the Hawaiian counterpart of Tane was Kane. The Samoans and Tongans knew Tangaroa as Tangaloa.

Perhaps the best-known and most feared deity in Hawaii was the fire goddess Pele, a violent figure associated with volcanoes. Renowned for her beauty but also for her ability to destroy, Pele symbolized the power of natural forces. Many Hawaiian legends deal with her unpredictable temper and dangerous nature.

Another prominent deity in Hawaiian mythology was Kamapua'a, the pig god. Known both for his warlike nature and for his romantic exploits, this energetic god appeared in many tales. The Hawaiians often sought Kamapua'a as an ally during war and used his adventures to explain various natural phenomena.

By far the most popular figure in Polynesian mythology was Maui, the trickster god and hero. Though small in stature, he displayed amazing strength and had various magical powers. The many tales about his adventures reveal a cunning and determined hero who performed many great and wondrous deeds, including creating the Pacific islands with a magical hook and providing humans with more hours of daylight by slowing the sun's passage across the sky. Maui also tried, but failed, to become immortal.

Major Themes and Myths. The best-known myths in Polynesia deal with creation and with the origin of gods, humans, and other living things. The adventures of characters such as Pele and Maui also figure prominently.

Some Polynesian myths describe creation as a process of growth or evolution from a primal state of chaos, nothingness, or darkness. The Hawaiian myths of Ao and Po, the male and female forces of the universe, reflect this idea. From a great watery chaos at the beginning of time, the creator god Ku separated Ao and Po, thus producing day and night and making the world possible.

Other Polynesian creation myths focus on a preexisting creator who lives alone and forms all things from nothingness. This idea is expressed in stories from Samoa and Tonga about Tangaloa. According to legend, while Tangaloa ruled over a vast expanse of ocean, his messenger, the bird Tuli, searched endlessly for somewhere to rest. Tangaloa eventually threw some rocks into the water, and these became the islands of Samoa and Tonga.

In the Maori creation myth, two primal beingsTe Po (Night) and Te Kore (Darkness)existed in a realm of chaos at the beginning of time. From them sprang Rangi and Papa, the first gods of the universe. For many ages, Rangi and Papa were locked in an embrace, and their offspring, including numerous gods, were caught between them. The gods grew weary of their confinement and finally separated Rangi from Papa, thus providing room for themselves and for all things to grow and multiply.

The origin of humans and other living things is explained in various ways. According to myths about Tangaloa, after he created the islands of the Pacific, he used a vine to cover the bare land and provide shade. The vine spread, and parts of it decayed and became full of maggots. Tangaloa took the maggots and shaped them into humans. When he gave them a heart and soul, they came to life.

In Maori myth, several of the godsespecially Tane-mahuta, Tangaroa, and Rongo-ma-tane (the god of cultivated crops)played an active role in creating lands, plants, and humans. According to some legends, all living creatures, including humans, emerged from Tangaroa's vast body.

Captain Cook and the Gods

In 1778 English explorer Captain James Cook became the first European to visit the Hawaiian Islands. He arrived during a period of political turmoil, and some scholars believe that a misunderstanding about the native religion cost him his life. When Cook came ashore, the people thought that he was the god Lono. They escorted him to their temple, where he took part in their rituals, unaware that doing so confirmed their beliefs that he was Lono. The Hawai ¡ans believed that Lono would ritually "die" and then leave them. Cook left, but soon returned, which confused the ¡slanders. Anxious to make sure that Lono died as he was supposed to, the Hawaiians killed Cook.

immortal able to live forever

primal earliest; existing before other things

chaos great disorder or confusion

In another myth, the god Tane went searching for a wife. He united with several different beings and produced mountains, rivers, and other living and nonliving things. Tane longed for a partner with a human shape, however, so he formed a woman out of sand and breathed life into her. This woman's name was Hine-hauone (Earth-formed Maiden), and she had a daughter named Hine-titama (Dawn Maiden). Tane later took the girlwho did not know he was her fatheras his wife, and they had many children. When Hine-titama discovered Tane's identity she fled to the underworld, dragging her children after her. The relationship between Tane and his daughter resulted in the arrival of death for humans.

A Hawaiian myth tells how Kane longed for a companion in his own image. His mother, Papatuanuku, told him to make a likeness of himself from clay and to embrace it. When he did as she suggested, the clay figure came to life and became the first woman.

Numerous myths explain the origin of various plant foods and other things of value. According to some stories, humans had to steal food from the gods or trick them into giving up certain foods. In others, however, the gods felt sorry for humans and generously gave food to them. A number of myths also explain that foods were the offspring of a particular god or grew from part of the body of a god.

Some Polynesian myths tell about characters who possessed extraordinary or supernatural powers and acted as miracle workers, mischief makers, or tricksters. The Hawaiians called these figures kapua and loved to hear about their many adventures. The kapua were often raised by grandparents who used magic to help them in their adventures. They generally grew up to be monstrous creatures who could change shape and perform great feats of strength. Among the more popular tales were those in which the kapua slayed monsters, rescued maidens, defeated rivals, and competed with the gods.

underworld land of the dead

Legacy. With the introduction of Christianity in Polynesia in the 1700s, traditional religious beliefs began to fade. Although the Polynesian gods no longer play a major role in religion in most parts of the region, the rich heritage of myths and legends remains part of the literature, folklore, and imagination of native cultures.

See also Creation Stories; Maui; Melanesian Mythology; Menehune; Micronesian Mythology; Pele; Rangi and Papa; Ta'aroa; Tiki; Tricksters.