Tongareva - Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. According to oral tradition, the first Tongarevan humans were the autochthons, Atea and his wife Hakahotu. Several generations later, after a brief stay by the settler Taruia, the great chief Mahuta and his wife, Ocura, arrived from the "land beyond the sky" bringing "cocoa-nuts and other plants for the earth, fish for the sea, and birds for the air." There were four principal gods, incarnated in feather, wood, and hair images but otherwise invisible to all but the taura (high priests). Their ritual loci were twenty-nine or so marae scattered around the atoll. Two of the gods gave life and everything necessary to its preservation; another was supplicated to weaken enemies; and the fourth also was malevolent. In addition, the Tongarevans believed in and feared spirits of the dead and the force of taboos.

Religious Practitioners. Although ariki performed certain ritual functions, the principal practitioners were the taura. Invested at, and associated with, specific marae, they acted as mediums for the gods and ancestral spirits, invoking them for assistance in sickness, war, and other troubles. Taura could travel through enemy territory with impunity, and their "spirit houses" were places of refuge; some taura seem to have possessed secular influence to rival that of the more powerful arikis. There may also have been seers.

Ceremonies. Birth was minimally ritualized, but more extensive rites involving genital operations, sexual initiation, and investiture with loincloths or skirts were performed at puberty for both males and females. Marriage ceremonies varied in complexity. There were quite elaborate greeting and welcoming ceremonies, as well as celebratory dances and turtleeating ceremonies. Mortuary rites, however, were the most involved rituals.

Arts. The contact-era record mentions very little material art beyond the images of the gods, minor embellishments of weaponry, black-feather headdresses worn by an undetermined class of men (probably ariki), and necklets of human hair and fingernails. The more common arts seem to have been ephemeral: songs, dances, pageants, and the recitation of legends.

Medicine. Beyond the fact that the gods frequently were implicated, it is unclear to what causes illness was attributed. Bathing was a very common therapy, occasionally attended, according to Lamont, with (unspecified) "superstitious forms." A coconut-based purgative allegedly was the only medicine they knew. Otherwise, most treatment was in the hands of the taura, aided in the case of eminent patients by the images of the gods.

Death and Afterlife. For some time after death, it was believed, the spirit of the deceased might be seen haunting its familiar grounds. After interment of its bones, it then left for a distant realm, then becoming visible only as stars. At death, the body was washed, anointed with coconut oil, and, along with its spouse or another close relative, covered with a mat. After dirges, dances, self-laceration, and rites to exorcise its spirit, the corpse and some of its utensils and tools were sewn in the mat and hung from the roof of a sleeping house under the observance of a chief mourner. If the deceased were eminent, this vigil might last as long as six months; afterwards, the bones were buried and a funeral feast celebrated.

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