The majority, if not all, of Polynesians are extremely religious. That is why it is not surprising their culture is filled with myths and other beliefs.
They hold their beliefs about the existence of gods which, of course, have a great impact on their everyday living. A lot of beliefs are share from one island to another.
A number of versions were made as to how the world came into being. As most of the inhabitants describe it, in the beginning, there was only Nothing. And thus, nothing could be seen except for total darkness. At last this blankness began to shift about and change into other kinds of Nothingness, then into different kinds of night, then dawn, then day, then space called Cloudless heavens.
The said child of Cloudless Heavens was an egg which was drifted in an empty space.
After ages of time, something enthused in the egg, burst its shell, and emerged. This was the supreme god, Tangaroa. But Tangaroa was dismayed to find himself alone. So he took the remains of his shell and created the world out of it.
Next he created the lesser gods, and finally men and women. In those days the Earth Goddess and the Sky God were so close together that people living between them kept banging their heads on Sky.
It was always hot and stuffy, and nothing grew properly. One day the young gods reveled and, heaving and shoving, pushed the two apart. That is why sometimes we hear the Sky God lamenting with a voice of thunder, while the rainfall is really his tears at being parted from Earth.
In the times since people were created, the Polynesians said, the gods have lived in Pulotu or Hawaiki, the mysterious islands in the west. Sometimes, however, they went to live in the sky or otherwise under the islands. The Hawaiians believed that the home of some of the gods and goddesses was the volcano called Kirauea. Here they lived in the vast crater, two miles across.
The smaller craters were the gods’ houses, while the boiling lava was the sea on which they went surfboard riding, and its rumbling and crashing was the music for their dances. Just as there were different ranks of people, there were different ranks of gods.
The most important were the Atua, the original gods who created the world. The greatest was of course Tangaroa. next came the Tupua, men who had been ruling chiefs on earth, and had been elected as gods when they died. the greatest of them became transformed into posts supporting the roof in the gods’ own temple in Pulotu.
Third in rank were the Aitu. As far as the ordinary Polynesian man or woman was concerned, these were the gods who really counted. There were gods for every kind of trade or activity – gods for carpenters, builders, canoe makers, thatchers, net makers, even for thieves. It was not just a matter of one god for each kind, but up to a dozen or more.
Besides this, each district had its own individual god, and so die many families. This was still not the end of the list. In some parts of Polynesia they believed in gods of mischief, who went about causing small troubles out of sheer malice. Finally, lowest of all on the scale, there were ghosts and spooks that were sometimes frightening but never very important.
Among the other gods the Polynesian worshiped were some particularly important to them. Their lives depended on the fertility of their animals, their gardens, and themselves. Since they had gods for almost everything else, naturally they had gods and goddesses to represent the powers which made this fertility possible. It was a long time before Europeans understood that the chief servants of these particular divine characters were the members of the Arioi society, whose odd behavior so puzzled the first visitors to Tahiti. Their strange, wandering lives were really pilgrimages, and their apparently lighthearted songs and dances were a form of worship.
The gods were served in temples called maraes, which were also often used as public meeting places. They were built on points of land overlooking the sea, or deep in the woods. A huge enclosure, with stone walls sheltering a number of small huts in front of a great pyramid, was the usual form of a marae. On the top of the pyramid stood another small enclosure containing the wooden image of the god. Other images and sacred equipment were kept in the courtyard huts. There was also a building nearby for the sacred canoe, made by the king’s own hands, for the gods’ travels.
The worship was carried out by special priests. Being a priest was a profession, usually taught to a boy by his father who was also a priest. Anybody could pray privately, but for the great ceremonies each priest had to be word perfect in numbers of long prayers and chants. They had a few devices to help them. Some were very simple, just bundles of leaves or sticks which the priest laid down one by one as he finished each chant.
The Marquesans had sacred strings in which knots represented ancestors, and the Maoris had wooden rods notched for the same purpose. but the most extraordinary, and most famous, of these memory aids are from Easter Island. About 1868 a French missionary discovered in the islanders’ huts some slabs of wood carved with row after row of tiny engraved signs. A couple of dozen are now scattered throughout the museums of the world. The islanders remembered that the professional chanters used to hold them in their hands as they sang, but only one of these men, Metoro, was still alive.
When he was questioned by a missionary, the answers he gave seemed to make no sense, and he was dismissed as a fake. The question of whether or not the signs were a form of writing remained unsolved.
In 1953 Thomas Barthel, a young German expert on codes, began a new investigation. He collected copies of all the tablets. After a long search, he ran down the missionary’s lost notes on Metoro’s explanations in an Italian monastery. Barthel decided Metoro had been doing his best. Not completely trained, he had really understood some signs and had made wild guesses about others. In the end, Barthel decided that the tablets contained true writing in the form of ideograms, small pictures standing for single words, often combined to form yet other words. They stood for the key words of a chant, as if it had been written like a telegram. Most of the tablet inscriptions are myths, according to Barthel. He also thinks that the system of writing was brought to Easter Island from some other part of Polynesia, where it was forgotten before Europeans arrived.
Even with the Easter Island writing method as a help, however, the priests had to be learned men with excellent memories. They fully earned their title of tohunga, or “expert,” and were well paid for their work. But they, too, were bound in the same rigid pattern of classes as the rest of the people and the gods themselves. The priests of the Aitu gods, for instance, could not serve the Atua gods. The priests not only prayed to the gods. The people believed that the gods actually entered their bodies from time to time. Then the priest would shriek, tremble, and roll on the ground while people questioned the god within him. this lasted about half an hour, after which the priest fell into an exhausted sleep. Any answer the priest gave was taken as the voice of the god himself. The Polynesians also looked on all kinds of natural wonders as signs from gods, including their dreams, and it was part of the priests’ work to interpret their meaning.
The priests also carried out the sacrifices to the gods. For most occasions, the gods were presented with offerings of particularly delicious food, such as pigs, turtles, and some kinds of fish. These were not wasted by the congregation, who ate them at a big feast when the prayers were over. But there was another kind of sacrifice which was much more sinister, even though the victims were also called “fish,” or the “fish of the gods.”