General Essay on the Religions of Polynesia

The peoples of the thousands of islands which make up Polynesia arrived in the Pacific around 1500 Before the Common Era, spreading out from early settlements in Tonga, Samoa and the Marquesas Islands to populate other island groups. Over three millenia up to the present day they developed their own societies and languages, yet retained many similarities.

Though social organisation varied, societies were stratified to greater or lesser degrees, usually with a chiefly ruling class (ali'i, arii, ariki), commoners, and a lower or slave class. Though heredity was important, there was provision for a person of ability to rise into acceptance into the aristocracy. Originally the head of a family mediated with the divine realm, but this function became more specialized with a resulting order of priests (Kahuna, tahu'a, tohunga, tufuga) expert in higher knowledge. There is much variation in the region as to how much the roles of chief and priest were separate or combined, and to what degree they related to civil power. Schools of higher instruction in esoteric arts were restricted to the higher class. The primary concern of religion was protection of the people, individual and group, from spiritual powers, with strict obedience to laws necessary to keep the divine and physical worlds in harmony. The main functions of priests were divination in order to foretell events, and to conduct ceremonies to ensure the safe ordering of the society.

Tribal life was centred on an area of sacred space (heiau, malae, marae, me'ae) - usually a simple open-air area marked out by stones, perhaps including a shrine or altar area where offerings were made to deities and spirits, and where images of deities may be held. Ritual included song, dance, chanting of sacred formulae, and in the tropical islands the drinking of 'ava/kava. While most of the functionaries were male, women played an essential role in the rites of bestowal or removal of kabu/tapu/tabu, sacredness, as the female body was seen to be the link between the sacred and temporal realms. A human sacrifice would be made on special occasions such as the dedication of a new marae or important building. Pacific peoples had no system of writing, but a well-developed oral tradition preserved the history genealogy and stories. Artwork included the carving of bone, wood and stone, as well as body tattooing.

The major deities (aitu, akua,atea, etua), personifications of nature and patrons of labour and cultural pursuits, are fairly common between islands and groups though their functions and positions vary. Departmental deities such as Kanaloa/Ta'aroa/Tanoa/Tangaloa/Tangaroa, Kane/Tane, Ku/Tu, Lono/Oro/Rongo/Roo are mainly male, though the female principle is very evident in Papa the Earth Mother and the first woman Ina/Hina/Sina who is often personified in the moon. Creation stories vary but overall tell of a primal time of chaos with the world being formed in the sea by a first creator deity usually attributed as Ta'aroa/Tangaloa, and/or of the separation of the primal parents Atea/Rangi/Vatea/Wakea (Sky-father) and the Papa Earth-mother and the subsequent formation of earthly life with the agency of the deities. Kane/Tane in some places acted as the originator of human life. The divine beings inhabit the spiritual world envisaged as a separate realm above the earthly world, but they were actively concerned with the everyday activities of the humans. Images of the deities were carved from wood or stone, but images of ancestral figures were more common.

Culture heroes, ancestors such as Maui and Tawhaki whose talents and exploits became enshrined in legend are seen as humans possessing extraordinary spiritual power (mana) and therefore superhuman ability. Ancestral spirits were important in everyday life. These, and nature spirits, could be embodied in a variety of objects and great care was taken not to offend them. The spirits of dead persons dwelt in an unstratified underworld, there being no notion of judgment.

In the late seventeen-hundreds and early eighteen hundreds, European colonization of the Pacific was preceded by Christian missions which generally suppressed the islanders' culture, altered the customs, and strove to replace the local belief with Christianity. Largely because of the relative difference between technologies, including literacy, the life of the Pacific peoples was quickly transformed. The missions brought education, particularly in the areas of literacy and trades, tools, a wider variety of foodstuffs, and diseases which cut the population drastically. Sacred places were replaced by churches, the local deities and practices condemned.

Particularly during the main periods of contact with Christian missionaries and European settlers, mainly during the century of the eighteen hundreds, local religious movements arose as the people attempted to adjust old and new beliefs. On the whole, however, the Christian message was accepted easily and quickly, and Polynesians from Samoa, Tahiti, and Cook Islands joined missionary teams to Melanesian islands as teachers within just a few years of their own introduction to the new beliefs. At present Polynesian people are almost entirely Christian, belonging to a number of denominations - particularly Anglican, Catholic, Congregational, Methodist, Presbyterian, Wesleyan and unique Pacific forms of Christian sects such as the Cook Islands Christian Church, Congregational Christian Church of Samao, Free Church of Tonga, Pacific Islanders' Presbyterian Church. The social life of a Polynesian community is ordered around the church and associated activities. In most recent times, however, a revival of interest in traditional cultures sees more indigenous beliefs being incorporated into a wider system.

Other world religions have been present in very small numbers over the past century as a result of emigration from Europe, Asia and South-East Asia.


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