Read Chapter XXI of Mystic Isles of the South Seas., free online book, by Frederick O'Brien, on

A heathen templeThe great Marae of ObereaI visit it with Rupert Brooke and Chief TetuanuiThe Tahitian religion of oldThe wisdom of folly.

Reading one day from Captain Cook’s Voyages about a heathen temple not far from Mataiea which Cook had visited, I suggested to Brooke that we go to it. None of the Tetuanui younger folk had seen it, but Haamoura directed us to return toward Papara as far as the thirty-ninth kilometer-stone, and to strike from that point towards the beach. Cook had had a sincere friendship, if not a sweeter sentiment, for Oberea, the high chiefess of the clan of Tevas at Papara, and whom at first he thought queen of Tahiti. He described her as “forty years of age, her figure large and tall, her skin white, and her eyes with great expression.” That handsome lady had led him a merry chase, her complacent husband, Oamo, abetting her in the manner of Polynesia, where women must have their fling. The temple Cook and his officers inspected was the tribal church of the noble pair. The Voyages say:

The morai consisted of an enormous pile of stone work, raised in the form of a pyramid with a flight of steps on each side, and was nearly two hundred and seventy feet long, about one-third as wide, and between forty and fifty feet high. As the Indians were totally destitute of iron utensils to shape their stones, as well as mortar to cement them when they had made them fit for use, a structure of such height and magnitude must have been a work of infinite labor and fatigue. In the center of the summit was the representation of a bird, carved in wood; close to this was the figure of a fish which was in stone. This pyramid made part of one side of a wide court or square, the sides of which were nearly equal; the whole was walled in, and paved with flat stones.

When we reached the thirty-ninth kilometer-stone we met my host, Tetuanui, in his one-horse vehicle, inspecting the road. He agreed, though a little reluctantly, to take us to the marae (pronounced mah-rye). We turned down a road across a private, neglected property, and for almost a mile urged the horse through brambles and brush that had overgrown the way. We were going toward the sea along a promontory, “the point” upon which Cook’s mariners saw the etoa-trees a century and a half ago, about the time that Americans were seeking separation from England, before Napoleon had risen to power, and when gentlemen drank three bottles of port after dinner and took their places under the table.

“Tooti was in love with Oberea,” said the chief. “She was hinaaro puai.”

The expression is difficult to translate, but Sappho and Cleopatra expressed it in their lives; perhaps ardent in love would be a mild synonym.

At last, after hard struggles, we reached Point Mahaiatea, the “point” of Cook, on the bay of Popoti, which swept from it to the beginning of the valley of Taharuu. The reef was very close to the shore, and the sea had encroached upon the land, covering a considerable area of the site of the marae. The waves had torn away the coral blocks, and they lay in confusion in the water. The beach, too, was paved with coral fragments, the debris of the temple. Though devastated thus by time, by the waves, and by the hands of house-, bridge-, and road-builders, by lime-makers, and iconoclastic vandals, the marae yet had majesty and an air of mystery. It was not nearly of the original height, hardly a third of it, and was covered with twisted and gnarled toa, or ironwood, trees like banians, the etoa of Cook, and by very tall and broad pandanus, by masses of lantana and other flowering growths. Tetuanui, Brooke, and I stumbled through these, and walked about the uneven top, once the floor of the temple.

“Every man in Tahiti brought one stone, and the marae was builded,” said Tetuanui. “We were many then.”

He had not been there in fifty years.

We crawled down the other side, a broken incline, and to the beach. Land-crabs scrambled for their holes, the sole inhabitants of the spot once given to chants and prayers, burials, and the sacrifice of humans to the never-satisfied gods. There was an acrid humor in the name of the bay on which we looked, Popoti meaning cockroach. That malodorous insect would be on this shore when the last Tahitian was dead. It existed hundreds of millions of years before man, and had not changed. It was one of the oldest forms of present life, better fitted to survive than the breed of Plato, Shakespere, or Washington. Its insect kind was the most dangerous enemy man had: the only form of life he had not conquered, and would be crooning cradle-songs when humanity, perhaps through its agency, or perhaps through the sun growing cold, had passed from the earth. Not impossibly, insects would render extinct all other beings, and then the cockroach could proclaim that creation had its apotheosis in it.

The marae was the cathedral of the Tahitians. About it focused all the ceremonies of the worship of divinity, of consecration of priests and warriors to their gods and their chiefs. The oldest marae was that of Opoa, on the island of Raiatea, the source of the religion of these groups. It was built by Hiro, the first king of Raiatea, who, deified after death, became the god of thieves. The Papara marae was made of coral, but the quarried mountain rock was laid at the foundation, and these ponderous, uneven stones being patched with coral, in time the blocks had become tightly cemented together. A lime-kiln was along the land side of this marae of Oberea, and for years had furnished the cement, plaster, and whitewash of the district.

In the rear of the marae was the ossary where the bones of the victims were thrown. In Manila I had viewed immense heaps of these discarded skeletons of humans dragged from niches in a wall and flung indiscriminately on the ground by the monks, who owned the Paco cemetery, because the rent for the niches was past due. Tetuanui said that in his grandfather’s day there was a bad odor about the ossary, as there was in Paco until the American Government abolished the iniquity.

The altar itself was called Fatarau. Here were laid the offerings of fruit and meat, but human victims were not exposed on it. Their bodies were thrown into the ossary after the ceremony was completed. The altar was always bare except at these times, and none ascended it but priests, ecstatics, and the man who carried the god. Only he and the high priest might touch this idol. The demoniacs were usually in collusion with the priests, willy-nilly.

The idol was the king’s or prince’s god. Each had his own. A royal idol was wrapped in precious cloths and adorned with feathers, made usually of ironwood, and was about six feet long. They diminished in size with the importance of the owner, and among the commoners might be put in a pocket or a piece of bamboo, like the pocket saints one buys in Rome. Besides, every chief and little chief had his own marae, which might be very small indeed, as family shrines. Of great religious events the royal maraes were the scenes, and the high priests were attached to these. The personnel of the marae was:

The king, chief, or master of the temple; all ceremonies were for his benefit. The high priest and his assistants, the latter ordinary priests. The high priests served only the maraes of the first rank. The orero, who were preachers or poets; the oripou, or night runners; the guardian porters of the idol. The sorcerers or demoniacs.

Thus there were six ranks in the service of the temple. The high priest was supreme under the king, and decided when a human sacrifice was demanded by the gods. He was a kind of cardinal or bishop, and his jurisdiction extended over the maraes in the territory of his master. The priests’ functions were like those of the high priest except that they were subordinate, and they could not replace him in certain ceremonies. The orero was the living book of the religion, the holy chants of tradition, of ancestry, and of state. He must recite without hesitation these various records before the marae in the middle of an immense crowd. The orero cultivated their memories marvelously. They were usually sons of oreros or priests, and trained by years of study to retain volumes, as actors do parts. The oripou or haerepo were youths, neophytes, intended for the priesthood, and assisted the ordinary priests; but their special duties were singular and interesting. They were the couriers of the night, the spies of their districts upon neighboring clans. In war-time their work was arduous and most important, and their calling very honorable. Kings’ sons sometimes were oripou. The idol-carriers were tabu. Their persons might not be touched nor their food.

The sorcerers, ecstatics, and demoniacs were not regularly organized into a caste. When a man fancied himself possessed by a god, he became a recognized saint. He was tabu. He ascended to the altar and danced or gyrated as he pleased. The old missionaries, who believed these sorcerers inhabited by devils, record incredible deeds by them. Often the spirit forsook them, and they became common clay, but when primed with the deity’s power, they would ascend vertical rocks of great height by touching the smooth surface with tiny idols which they held in their hands, and without any contact by their feet. These demoniacs recall the oracles of ancient nations, and especially Simon Magus, the precursor of innumerable fathers of new religions, who by the power of the “Christian God” fell to a horrible death when he tried to fly before the Roman emperor on the wings of the devil.

Before a day of sacrifice a victim was selected by the high priest. The victim had no knowledge of his approaching end. He must not be informed, and though his father and mother and family were told in advance, they never warned their unfortunate loved one. No hand was lifted to avert his fate, for he was tabu to the gods. Though no excuse could be offered for the slaying of their own clansman except the direful hold of religion, which in Tahiti, as in Europe not so long ago, put Protestant and Catholic on the pyre in the name of Christ, yet so soft-hearted were these people that they could not disturb the peace of mind of the offering, and until the moment when he was struck down from behind he was as unconcerned as any one. They never tortured as the English and French tortured Joan of Arc, and as the police of America torture thousands of Americans every day.

I looked long at this ruined pagan tabernacle, this arc of the covenant for Oberea and Oamo, and for Tetuanui’s fathers. The chief said that his grandfather had seen it in its palmy period. Oberea was an ancestress of my host of Papara, Tati Salmon, who had the table-ware of Stevenson, and who was of the clan of Teva, as she.

Wrecked, battered by the surf, torn to pieces by pickaxes, undermined by the sea, and overgrown by the rank foliage of the tropics, the marae preserved for me and for Brooke, too, a solemnity and reminiscent grandeur that brought a vision of the beauty and might of the passionate Oberea, who had commanded it to be built. Though different in environment as the sea from the desert, and in size and aspect, materials and history, I was transported from this Tahitian temple to the pyramids on the sands of Egypt. Forty centuries later I could trace the same aspiration for community with deity and for immortality of monument which had sweated a hundred thousand men for twenty years to rear the lofty pile of Gizeh. In Borobodo, in the jungle of Java, I had seen, as near Cairo, the proudest trophy, temple, and tomb of king and priest humbled in the dust by the changing soul of man in his fight to throw off the shackles of the past.

This marae had not been a place of cannibalism, as the Paepae Tapu of the Marquesas Islands. The Tahitians had no record of ever having eaten humans. They replied to the first whites who asked them if they ate people:

“Do you?”

Yet when a human sacrifice was made, the presiding chief was offered the left eye of the victim, and at least feigned to eat it. Was this a remnant of a forgotten cannibalistic habit, or a protest of the Tahitians and Hawaiians against the custom as not being Polynesian, but a concession to a fashion adopted in fighting the Fijian anthropopogi?

The people of Huahine, an island near Tahiti, had a supreme god named Tane, who might be touched only by one human being, a man selected for that purpose. He was the sole bachelor on the island, being forbidden to marry. Whenever the priests wanted Tane moved to a shrine, this chap, te amo atua (the god-bearer) had to pack him on his back. The idol was a heavy block of wood, and when his bearer wearied, it had to appear that the god wanted to rest, for a god-bearer could not be tired. The missionaries burned Tane with glee, after a battle between the Christian converts and the heathen reactionaries. The progressives won, and convinced the enemy that Tane was a wretched puppet of the priests, so that they dragged the god from his lofty house, and kicked him on to his funeral pyre. “There was great rejoicing in heaven that day,” says a pious English commentator.

The Polynesians had very fixed ideas upon the origin of the universe and of man. In Hawaii, Taaroa made man out of red earth, araea, and breathed into his nostrils. He made woman from man’s bones, and called her ivi (pronounced eve-y). At the hill of Kauwiki, on the eastern point of the island of Maui, Hawaii, the heaven was so near the earth that it could be reached by the thrust of a strong spear, and is to-day called lani haahaa.

The Marquesans said that in the beginning there was no light, life, or sound in the world; that a boundless night, Po, enveloped everything, over which Tanaoa, (Darkness), and Mutu-hei, (Silence), ruled supreme. Then the god of light separated from Tanaoa, fought him, drove him away, and confined him to night. Then the god Ono, (Sound), was evolved from Atea, (Light), and banished Silence. From all this struggle was born the Dawn, (Atanua). Atea married the Dawn, and they created earth, animals, man.

In most of Polynesia there are legends of a universal flood from which few escaped. In Fiji it was said that two races were entirely wiped out, one of women, and the other of men and women with tails. A little bird sat on the top of the uncovered land and wailed the destruction. The Marquesans built a great canoe like a house, with openings for air and light, but tight against the rain. The ark was stored with provisions, and the animals of the earth were driven in two by two, fastened in couples. Then the family of four men and four women entered the ark, sacrificed a turtle to God, and retired to rest amidst the terrific din of the confined animals. The storm burst, and the waters covered the entire land. The storm ceased and a black bird was sent over the sea of Hawaii. It returned to the ark, and a wind set in from the north. Another bird was loosed, and alighted on the sea-shore. It was recalled, and a third bird brought back twigs. The ark soon grounded, and the four men and four women released the beasts, and went ashore. These repopulated the earth.

The Samoans believed that the earth was once covered with water and the sky alone was inhabited, until God sent his only begotten daughter in the form of a kuri, or snipe, to look for dry land. She found a spot, and brought down to it earth, and a creeping plant, which grew and decomposed into worms, and, lo! the worms turned into men and women.

In Hawaii Nuu was saved from a similar flood, and with him his three sons and their families. Ten generations later Kanehoalani was commanded by God to introduce circumcision. He went to a far-off country, had a son by a slave woman and one by his wife. He was then commanded, this descendant of Nuu in the tenth generation, to go up on a mountain and perform a sacrifice. He sought a mountain, but none appeared suitable; so he communed with God, who told him to travel to the east, and he would find a precipice. He departed with his son and a servant. The Hawaiians still call the mountains back of Koolau, near Honolulu, after the name of the three, and when the missionaries gave them the Jewish sacred books, were delighted to point out that long before Christ came to earth they had believed as above, and that Abraham was the tenth from Noah, that Abraham practised circumcision, and was father of Isaac and the illegitimate Ishmael, and that their descendant of Nuu, as Abraham, became the father of twelve children, and the founder of the Polynesian race, as Abraham had of the Jews.

One might detect some relation to the Hebraic scriptures in the legends of the Maoris of New Zealand and Tonga that the older son of the first man killed his brother, and that in Fiji one still is shown the site where a vast tower was built because the Fijians wanted to peer into the moon to discover if it was inhabited. A lofty mound was erected, and the building of timber upon it. It was already in the sky when the fastenings broke, and the workmen were precipitated over every part of Fiji.

The sun stood still for Hiaka when she attempted to recover the body of Lohiau, her sister Pele’s lover. There was not daylight enough to climb the mountain Kalalau and bring down the body from a cave, so she prayed, and the sun set much later than usual. Aukelenui-a Iku, the next to the youngest of twelve children, was hated by his brothers because he was his father’s favorite, and they threw him into a pit to die. His next eldest brother rescued him, and he became a traveler, and found the water of life, with which he restored his brother who had been drowned years before. The Chaldeans had a similar legend. Ninkigal, goddess of the regions of the dead, ordered Simtar, her attendant, to restore life to Ishtar with the “waters of life.”

Naula-a-Maihea of Oahu, not far from Honolulu, was upset from his canoe while paddling to Kauai, and was swallowed by a whale, which kindly threw him up on the beach of Wailua.

Kana-loa and Kane-Apua, prophets, walked about the world, causing water to flow from rocks, as did Moses, and in the ancient litany, recited by priest and congregation, the responses of “Hooia, e oia!” meant “It is true!” as does Amen, the response of Christian litanies to-day. The custom of using holy water prevailed all over Polynesia.

“The ocean which surrounds the earth was made salt by God so it should not stink,” said the legend, “and to keep it salt is the special work of God.”

To celebrate God’s act, the priests of Polynesia blessed waters for purification, for prayer, and for public and private ceremonies, and to exorcise demons and drive away diseases, as the priests of America and Europe do. Holy water was called ka wai kapu a Kane, and from the baptizing of the new-born child to the sprinkling of the dying its sacred uses were many. To-day the older people use these pagan ablutions to alleviate pain and cure maladies. The old Greeks used salt water for the same purposes, and had holy-water fonts at the temple gates, as do the Catholic churches to-day.

Levy and Woronick believed, or pridefully affected to believe, that at a remote period a band of Israelites, perhaps one of the lost tribes carried away by the Assyrians, peopled these islands; or settled in Malaysia before the Polynesian exodus from there, and gave them their lore. Pere Rambaud of the Catholic mission at Papeete considered it more probable that Spaniards, reaching Hawaii from wrecked Spanish galleons voyaging between Mexico and Manila, brought the holy doctrines. His explanation, however, often advanced, fell utterly before the fact that the Polynesians had no knowledge of Jesus or any man or god like him, and knew nothing of original sin; but, more convincing, all Polynesia had these legends, and there had been no communication with the Maoris of New Zealand and with Fiji after the Spanish entered the Philippines. It is to me quite certain that the Polynesians brought with them from Malaysia or India or from farther toward Europe those traditions of the beginnings of mankind which grew up hundreds of thousands of years ago, and were dispersed with each group setting out for adventure or driven from the birthplace of thinking humans.

Taaroa, whose name was spelt differently in separated archipelagos, was the father of the Tahitian cosmogony. His wife was Hina, the earth, and his son, Oro, was ruler of the world. Tane, the Huahine god, was a brother of Oro, and his equal, but there were islands which disputed this equality, and shed blood to disprove it, as the sects of Christianity have since the peaceful Jesus died by the demands of the priests of his nation.

Haui was the Tahitian Hercules. Of course he, too, bade the sun to stay a while unmoving, and it did. Joshua, the son of Nun, whose astronomical exploit at Gibeon brought him immortal fame, was a glorious warrior; but Haui’s unwritten achievements, as chanted by the orero at the marae where Tetuanui, Brooke, and I stood, would have forced the successor of Moses to have withdrawn his book from circulation, as too dull.

The Polynesian creator put on earth hogs, dogs, and reptiles. There were many kinds of dogs in their mythology, including the “large dog with sharp teeth,” and the “royal dog of God.” Among reptiles was Moo, a terrible dragon living in caverns above and beneath the sea, who was dreaded above all dangers. He was to them the monster that guarded the Hesperides garden, and the beast that St. George slew; but as the common lizard was the largest reptile in Polynesia, this, too, was an heirloom from another land. In the old Havaiiprobably Javathey must have known those fierce crocodiles that I have seen drag down a horse drinking in the river at Palawan, and noted swimming in the open sea between Siassi and Bornéo.

The chief and Brooke and I sat in the shade of the etoa-trees, and conversed about these ancient stories. Fixed in the mind of the race by the repetition of ages, they are the most difficult of all errors to erase, and the professors of this wisdom stamp it upon the heart and brain of the child in almost indelible colors, and make it tabu, sacrilege, or treason to deny its verity. Half a century ago repairs became necessary to Mohammed’s tomb at Medina, and masons were asked to volunteer to make them, and submit to beheading immediately after. There was no lack of desirous martyrs. One descended into the mausoleum, finished the task, and, reaching the air again, knelt, turned his face toward Mecca, and bent his head for the ax. The Mussulman keepers of the tomb justified their act, as, the forbidding telling the truth about religion and government, about war and business, is justified. Their words were:

“We picture those places to ourselves in a certain manner, and for the preservation of our holy religion, and the safety of society, there must not be any one who can say they are otherwise.”

It was noon when Brooke and ITetuanui having gone to instruct his gangplunged into the sea in front of the chefferie, and laughed in the joy of the sweet hour. He had written lines of beauty that interpreted our humor:

Tau here, Mamua,
Crown the hair, and come away!
Hear the calling of the moon,
And the whispering scents that stray
About the idle warm lagoon.
Hasten, hand in human hand,
Down the dark, the flowered way,
Along the whiteness of the sand,
And in the water’s soft caress
Wash the mind of foolishness,
Mamua, until the day.
Spend the glittering moonlight there,
Pursuing down the soundless deep
Limbs that gleam and shadowy hair;
Or floating lazy, half-asleep.
Dive and double and follow after,
Snare in flowers, and kiss, and call,
With lips that fade, and human laughter
And faces individual!
Well this side of Paradise! ...
There ’s little comfort in the wise.