Easter Island - Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. The traditional pantheon included at least ninety different named gods and spirits divided into the two categories of high gods and lesser gods. High gods included the creator, the rain god, and the superior god (Make-make). Lesser gods included gods with more restricted powers, nature spirits, demons, and ancestor spirits. Religious ritual included offerings of food and tapa, communication through priests, and chanting. Traditional beliefs have now been completely replaced by Roman Catholicism. Religious Practitioners. Priests, who could be men or women, were evidently drawn from the noble class. Little is known of the role and status of priests other than the fact that they acted as healers and communicated with the supernatural world through possession trance. Priests could also place curses that were considered especially harmful. There were also sorcerers whose skills were used to influence or cause harm to others.

Ceremonies. Ceremonies were held to bring rain, sanctify new houses, and to ensure a rich harvest as well as to mark all major life-cycle events. The annual feast of the bird cult ( tangata-manu ) and the feast of the Bird-Man were the most important ceremonies.

Arts. The best-known of the traditional arts centered on stoneworking and stone carving. The most dramatic expressions of this tradition are the 600 large (from 20 to 60 feet high) carved stone statues mounted on stone platforms called ahu. The statues are most likely portraits of ancestors and chiefs. Statue carving had ceased by the time of European contact, with some 150 statues sitting unfinished in the quarry and many toppled over. Petroglyphs have been found on the island, and some interior stone walls of houses are decorated with paintings. Traditionally, various body ornaments were carved and both men and women wore body tattoos. The carving of wooden images, which was a common activity in early times, has evolved into a tourist-based economic activity with human images much in demand.

Medicine. Healing was done by the priests who used steaming, massage, binding, a limited pharmacopoeia, and contact with spirits. Today, Easter Islanders use Western medical care provided by Chile.

Death and Afterlife. In the past, the body of the deceased was placed on the ahu platform and left to decompose. The bones were then buried in the ahu vault. Much behavior that would normally occur in the vicinity of the ahu was taboo during the time the body was displayed. The funeral ceremony involved a large feast with singing and dancing. Today, Roman Catholic practices have replaced the traditional ones, although the latter survived into the twentieth century, far longer than many other cultural traits. The body is now displayed in the home, followed by the church rite and burial in a coffin in the church cemetery. Interment is marked by hysterical grief. In the evening there is a feast with food taboos for the family of the deceased.

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