The myths of Oceania are many and varied. They have been developed over many centuries on each of the islands and atolls that make up Oceania.

This Web site provides an overview of some of the many myths and legends of Oceanic people. I do hope that it stimulates the interest in an area of Oceania that is in danger of being lost completely.


The World of the Gods

All the Polynesians were extremely religious people. They clung to beliefs about the gods which had a great effect on their day-to-day lives. As with so many other things, a lot of these beliefs were shared from island to island, though they might be very different in details. There were many versions of the legends about how the world came into existence.

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As most of them describe it, in the beginning there was only Nothing, and nothing could be said about it, except that it was completely dark. 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 child of Cloudless Heavens was an egg, which drifted about in the empty space. After ages of time, something stirred inside 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 revelled 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 who 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. What did the signs mean? 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." They were men, women, and children. Sometimes a particular family was selected to supply the sacrifices, one after the other, until every member of it had been killed. This kind of sacrifice was carried out only for the most important reasons, and we can therefore get an idea of what the Polynesians thought of as important. Some may seem very strange to us. They took place when temples were built, for instance, when a great chief was ill, or launched a new canoe, or when his daughter had her ears pierced for earrings. In some cases the horrible custom was performed just in order to make what was being done even more important. At other times it was to ward off danger from the person most involved in the ceremony. In some islands there were also mock sacrifices in which people lay pretending to be dead, or appeared with ropes around their necks as if they had been strangled. 

These things were done to please the gods because the gods were so powerful. Tangaroa himself was too great to be bothered with human affairs at all, and therefore he was never called upon to interfere in them. Sometimes he made his will known by the thunder or by inflicting natural disasters, but usually he remained remote in Hawaiki. But the lesser gods were always close at hand, and rewarded men or punished them as they thought fit. To offend the gods in any way was dangerous, as they would take personal revenge. There was a story in the Society Islands of two fishermen who furtively put out their lines in a stretch of water sacred to Rua-Latu, the sea god. The god caught their hooks, and the men hauled up to the surface the god himself, a terrifying figure with drifting, seaweed hair. He thundered at them that they had disturbed his sleep, and that he would now drown the islands to wash out the disrespect they had shown. Only one small island should be saved, he said, for the sake of his worshiper the princess Airaro, and anyone who wished to survive should go there. The fishermen hurried home and warned the people, but most of them scoffed at the wild tale. The princess, her family, and a very few others went to the refuge. The gods drew up the birds and insects into the safety of the sky, because these creatures acted as their messengers.

Then the water began to steadily, and it rose all day until all the land, all the gardens, all the people, were covered but Airaro's island. The water sank again that same night, leaving only ruins and death, and Airaro's family had to return to rebuild the country again. On the other hand, the worship and sacrifices made to the gods were not only carried out in slavish fear. They were payment for the gods' duties to men, and if the gods did not faithfully fulfill their duties in return they were despised, punished, and finally abandoned.

Religion entered into all kinds of aspect of life. Since agriculture was so important to the Polynesian, questions of who owned what stretches of land were absolutely vital. Here the maraes came into the picture, because where they were built established claims to ownership of the land around. Now and again some greedy great family would shift its maraes so as to encroach on the lands of other families. This always caused trouble. It was looked upon with disgust, and called by the word for a particularly mean kind of thieving. The claim a chief made to land by building a marae could never be taken away from him. Even if he was defeated in war and reduced to a nobody, he still had title to his rights in his maraes. If he was able to do it, he could fight his way back to power, and end with the same rights as before on the strength of his marae titles.

For ordinary people, the gods were very important in all kinds of activities. Who could tell if the plants would really grow next season? What made the big meaty fish come to certain reaches of the coast lines? Quite certainly the gods, the Polynesian thought. They knew that if there were no yams and no fish, they would die. Therefore, before every fishing excursion, or every planting season, the gods had to be pleased by prayers and offerings. This often had to be performed at the highest level. In Tikopia, each chief was responsible for one of the main food plants, and was responsible for carrying out a long ceremony to the gods to make sure the particular plant flourished. In the Marquesas Islands, the fishermen had special plots of land where women were never allowed. The chief fisherman would go there to pray, chant, and make offerings to the images of the fisherman's gods.

During the course of planting and fishing there were also set regulations and acts to be performed by anyone involved, these amounted to nothing much more than muttering a certain formula as the seedling was put into the ground or choosing a particular color of hook on a particular day. Many of these devices were almost what we would call superstitions, like not walking under ladders and thinking the number 13 is unlucky. The difference was that the Polynesians thought they worked, and so they should really be called magic. The Polynesians went in for a good deal of magic. While only men could be priests, women as well as men could be magicians. Each of them was supposed to have under his or her control one of the ghosts called ti'i spirit into the image. He gave it his orders and sent it about his business. To cast a spell on anyone, the magician needed something which had been part of the victim, such as bits of hair or fingernail clippings. Even something he had touched, food, or cloth would do. In some way, the spirit worked on these, and brought an illness upon the victim which killed him in a day or so.

Besides working with the frightening and evil magic, the magicians used their talents as detectives. By the use of spells they tried to discover criminals, particularly thieves. Of course this was not expected to work out successfully all the time, since the thieves had their own form of protection. They prayed to the god of thieves to look after them turn aside the spells of the inquisitive magicians. So, as all this shows, in Polynesia everyone believed in the gods. And the gods were so real to the people because, however powerful they were, the gods behaved like human beings. They quarrelled with each other, were generous, loved, and fought. Men and women did what they could to please the gods, but thought that if they failed perhaps the gods might be in the wrong as much as themselves. The Polynesians were willing to pay high prices for the favors the gods gave, but they expected the prices to be paid by favors regularly and promptly.

Besides this, since the worship of the gods was so much a part of everyday life, it helped the Polynesian culture to keep its shape. Their belief in high gods and less important gods helped everyone to understand why, on earth, there were noblemen and commoners. If it was so with the gods, then it should be the same with men. Every man had his god, and so the dignity of the gods gave dignity to men. This Polynesian belief in the human qualities of the gods led to one of their first clashes with Europeans. A Hawaiian legend foretold that one day the islands would be visited by the god Lono. On his third voyage, Captain Cook discovered the islands in December, 1778, and when he landed was given an extraordinary welcome. The Hawaiians had decided among themselves he was actually Lono, travelling on a floating island, and behaved accordingly. Cook was led to the most sacred shrine, and introduced by the priests to the statues of the gods. It seems that Cook himself took part in worshipping them. After this he was enthroned at the temple of Lono, and the priests sang hymns to him, made sacrifices, and fed him.

The strangest part of this story is that Cook must have known he was being worshiped. He had spent years among Polynesians, and certainly knew one of their religious ceremonies when he saw it. Perhaps he had become something of  Polynesian himself, or perhaps he only went along with the performance because he thought it would make it easier to establish influence over the Hawaiians. We shall never know, all we can see from this distance in time is the spectacle of a Christian Englishman allowing himself to be treated as a Polynesian god. But by doing this he put himself in a dangerous position. A few days later, one of his crew died, casting doubts on the idea that the strangers were really immortal and godlike.

By the following month, there were open quarrels between the Hawaiians and the Englishmen. One day, Cook, in an effort to control the situation, attempted something he had done in several other islands. He tried to take the old king of Hawaii hostage. It had worked before, but here the chiefs were even more sacred than anywhere else in Polynesia. The Hawaiians were torn between the claims of their kings and their gods, and it was more than they could stand. A struggle began, and while it was going on, a chief grasped Cook, who winced with pain. Immediately, the chief called, "He groans, he is not a god!" and stabbed Cook to death.

Even so, the islanders could hardly give up the idea he was the god Lono. The Hawaiians who brought his body back to his shop kept asking the English officers, "When will Lono come back again ?"

May you find your visit to the myths and legends of Oceania to be interesting, fascinating and enjoyable!

cookadze.jpg (5594 bytes)

Throughout most of Polynesia the adze was most closely associated  with the god Tane (known as Kane in Hawaii). On the island of Mangaia an adze was actually a symbol of Tane as the god of craftsmen.

hawstick.jpg (4657 bytes)

Hawaiian god-stick of the type that could be carried or placed in the thatched walls of a house.

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(E-mail: jane@janeresture.com -- Rev. 22nd November 2012)