Description of Polynesian idols—Human sacrifices—An thropophagism—Islands in which it prevails—Motives and circumstances under which it is practised—Tradition of its existence in Sir Charles Sanders' Island—Extensive prevalence of Sorcery and Divination—Views of the natives on the subject of satanic influence—Demons—Imprecations—Modes of incantation—Horrid and fatal effects supposed to result from sorcery—Impotency of enchantment on Europeans—Native remedies for sorcery—Native oracles—Buaatapena—Means of inspiration—Effects on the priest inspired—Manner of delivering the responses—Circumstances at Rurutu and Huahine—Intercourse between the priest and the god—Augury by the death of victims—Augury by the stars and clouds—Divination for the detection of theft.
The system of idolatry, which prevailed among a people separated from the majority of their species by trackless oceans, and possessing the means, not only of subsistence but of comfort, in an unusual degree, presents a most affecting exhibition of imbecility, absurdity, and degradation. Whether we consider its influence over the individual, the family, or the nation, through the whole period of life—Its oppressive exactions, its frequent and foolish rites, its murderous sacrifices, the engines of its power, and the objects of its homage and its dread—it is impossible to contemplate it without augmented thankfulness for the blessings of revelation, and increased page 354 compassion for those inhabiting “the dark places of the earth.”
The idols of the heathen are in general appropriate emblems of the beings they worship and fear; and if we contemplate those of the South Sea Islanders, they present to our notice all that is adapted to awaken our pity. The idols of Tahiti were generally shapeless pieces of wood, from one to four feet long, covered with cinet of cocoa-nut fibres, ornamented with yellow and scarlet feathers. Oro was a straight log of hard casuarina wood, six feet in length, uncarved, but decorated with feathers. The gods of some of the adjacent islands exhibit a greater variety of form and structure. The accompanying wood-cut contains several of these.
The figure in the centre, No. 1. exhibits a correct front view of Taaroa, the supreme deity of Polynesia; who is generally regarded as the creator of the world, and the parent of gods and men. The image from which this was taken, is nearly four feet high, and twelve or fifteen inches broad, carved out of a solid piece of close, white, durable wood. In addition to the number of images or demigods forming the features of his face, and studding the outside of his body, and which were designed to shew the multitudes of gods that had proceeded from him; his body is hollow, and when taken from the temple at Rurutu, in which for many generations he had been worshipped, a number of small idols were found in the cavity. They had perhaps been deposited there, to imbibe his supernatural powers, prior to their being removed to a distance, to receive, as his representatives, divine honours. The opening to the cavity was at the back; the whole of which, page 355 page 356 page 357 might be removed. No. 2. is Terongo, one of the principal gods, and his three sons. No. 3. is an image of Tebuakina, three sons of Rongo, a principal deity in the Hervey Islands. The name is probably analogous to Orono in Hawaii, though distinct from Oro in Tahiti. No. 4. exhibits a sacred ornament of a canoe from the island of Huahine. The two figures at the top, are images worshipped by fishermen, or those frequenting the sea. The two small idols at the lower corners of the plate, No. 5. are images of oramatuas, or demons. The gods of Rarotogna were some of them much larger; Mr. Bourne, in 1825, saw fourteen about twenty feet long, and six feet wide.
Such were the objects the inhabitants of these islands were accustomed to supplicate; and to appease or avert the anger of which, they devoted not only every valuable article they possessed, but murdered their fellow-creatures, and offered their blood. Human victims were sacrificed to Taaroa, Oro, and several others. The eye was presented to the king. The natives state, that they regarded the eye as the organ or emblem of power. It has been supposed, that the circumstance of the priests' offering the eye, the most precious part of the victim, to the king, who appeared to eat it, indicated their having formerly devoured the men they had sacrificed. I do not regard this fact as affording any very strong evidence, although I have not the least doubt that the inhabitants of several of the South Sea Islands have eaten human flesh.
From the many favourable traits in their character, we have been unwilling to believe they had ever been cannibals; the conviction of our mistake page 358 has, however, been impressed by evidence so various and multiplied, as to preclude uncertainty. Their mythology led them to suppose, that the spirits of the dead are eaten by the gods or demons; and that the spiritual part of their sacrifices is eaten by the spirit of the idol before whom it is presented. Birds resorting to the temple, were said to feed upon the bodies of the human sacrifices, and it was imagined the god approached the temple in the bird, and thus devoured the victims placed upon the altar. In some of the islands, “man-eater” was an epithet of the principal deities; and it was probably in connexion with this, that the king, who often personated the god, appeared to eat the human eye. Part of some human victims were eaten by the priests.
The Marquesians are known to be cannibals; the inhabitants of the Palliser or Pearl Islands, in the immediate neighbourhood of Tahiti, to the eastward, are the same. A most affecting instance of their anthropophagism is related by recent visitors; who state that a captive female child, pining with hunger, on begging a morsel of food from the cruel and conquering invaders of her native island, received a piece of her own father's flesh!
The bodies of prisoners in war, or enemies slain in battle, appear to have been eaten by most of the Hervey Islanders, who reside a short distance to the west of the Society group. There were several inducements to this horrid practice. The New Zealanders ate the bodies of their enemies, that they might imbibe their courage, &c. Hence, they exulted in their banquet on a celebrated warrior; supposing that, when they had devoured his flesh, they should be imbued with his valiant and daring spirit. I am not certain that this was the page 359 motive by which the eastern Polynesians were influenced, but one principal design of their wars was to obtain men to eat. Hence, when dwelling in their encampment, and clearing the brushwood, &c. from the place in which they expected to engage the enemy, they animated each other to the work in the following terms, “Clear away well, that we may kill and eat, and have a good feast to-day.” To “kill and eat,” was the haughty warrior's threat; and to be “killed and eaten,” the dread of the vanquished and the exile. In the island of Rarotogna, they cut off the heads of the slain, piled them in heaps within the temple, and furnished the banquet of victory with their bodies.
The desire of revenge, or the satisfaction resulting from actually devouring an enemy, was not their only motive. The craving of nature, and the pangs of famine, often led to this unnatural crime. It was the frequent inducement in the Marquesas, and also in the Hervey Islands. In Maute, Metiaro, and Atiu, seasons of scarcity are severely felt; and, to satisfy their hunger, a number of persons, at the hour of midnight, have stolen a man from a neighbouring residence, killed, and eaten him at once. Mr. Bourne, who visited the islands in 1825, states, that members of the same family are not safe; and so awful is their wretchedness, that this horrid cruelty is practised towards those who, in civilized communities, are the objects of most endearing attachment: the husband has preyed upon the body of his wife, and the parent upon his child, in a most revolting manner, without subjecting it to any previous preparation. These facts are too painful and barbarous to admit detail. Another, and perhaps more criminal motive than either revenge or want, led some to the perpetration page 360 of these appalling deeds: this was, the indulgence of their depraved and vitiated appetite.
In the little island of Tapuaemanu, between Eimeo and Huahine, tradition states that there were formerly cannibals. In the reign of Tamatafetu, an ancestor of the present ruler, it is related, that when a man of stout or corpulent habit went to the island, or lowland on the reef, he was seldom heard of afterwards. The people of the island imagined those thus missing were destroyed by the sharks: but for many years, the servants of the king followed them to the island on the reef, and having murdered, baked them there. When the bodies were baked, they wrapped them in leaves of the hibiscus and plantain, as they were accustomed to wrap their eels, or other fish, taken and cooked on the island; they then carried them to the interior, where the king and his servants feasted on them. Their deeds were at length discovered by Feito, the wife of the king. She was in the house on one occasion, and, as they supposed, asleep, when she overheard the king and his servants planning the death of Tebuoroo, her brother. Anxious to save her brother's life, she revealed to him the purpose of the chief. He communicated it to the raatiras, or farmers, who immediately repaired to the marae of Taaroa, to inquire what they should do; and left with a unanimous determination to destroy their chief. Two men, Mehoura and Raiteanui, were appointed to hide themselves near his place of bathing; and when the chief came to bathe, they killed him with stones. A native of this island related the above statement within the last two years, at a public meeting held near the place where it is reported to have occurred, and afterwards in private stated that it was according page 361 to their traditions. Mr. Barff, to whom I am indebted for the tradition, adds, “The people affirmed it to be true.” This unnatural crime does not appear to have been general; and the above is the only direct account that we have of its existence in what are properly the Society Islands. It is not probable that it will ever be revived, and, at a recent public meeting, in alluding to it, as illustrative of the former, and contrasting it with the present state of the people, the native speaker concluded by saying, “Behold, under the gospel of Jesus Christ, this land, where man-eaters have dwelt, has become a land of neighbours and of brethren.”
No people in the world, in ancient or modern times, appear to have been more superstitious than the South Sea Islanders, or to have been more entirely under the influence of dread from imaginary demons, or supernatural beings. They had not only their major but their minor demons, or spirits, and all the minute ramifications of idolatry. Sorcery and witchcraft were extensively practised. By this art, the sorcerers pretended to be able to inflict the most painful maladies, and to deprive of life the victims of their mysterious rites.
It is unnecessary now to inquire whether satanic agency affects the bodies of men. We know this was the fact at the time our Saviour appeared on earth. Many of the natives of these islands are firmly persuaded, that while they were idolaters, their bodies were subject to most excruciating sufferings, from the direct operation of satanic power. In this opinion they might be mistaken, and that which they regarded as the effect of super-human agency, might be only the influence of imagination, or the result of poison. But considering the page 362 undisputed exercise of such an influence, recognized in the declarations and miracles of our Lord and of his apostles, existing not only in heathen, but Jewish society, and considering, in connexion with this, the undisputed dominion, moral and intellectual, which the powers of darkness held over those who were entirely devoted to the god of this world, it does not appear impossible, or inconsistent with the supreme government of God, that these subordinate powers should be permitted to exert an influence over their persons, and that communities, so wholly given to idolatry of the most murderous and diabolical kinds, should be considered corporeally, as well as spiritually, to be lying “in the wicked one.” In addition to the firm belief which many who were sorcerers, or agents of the infernal powers, and others who were the victims of incantation, still maintain, some of the early Missionaries are disposed to think this was the fact. Since the natives have embraced Christianity, they believe they are now exempt from an influence, to which they were subject during the reign of the evil spirit.
Individuals, among the most intelligent of the people, sometimes express their deliberate conviction, that it is because they live under the dispensation or government of Jesus Christ, that they are now exempt from those bodily sufferings to which they were exposed while they were willing and zealous devotees of idols. It is, I believe, also an indisputable fact, that those kinds of violent, terrific, and fatal corporeal agony, which they attributed to this agency, have altogether ceased, since the subversion of that system, of which it was so dreadful a part. I am not prepared to pronounce the opinions many of the page 363 natives still hold, as altogether imaginative: at the same time, the facts that have come to my knowledge, during my residence among them, have led me to desire the most satisfactory evidence for rejecting them.
Witchcraft and sorcery they considered the peculiar province of an inferior order of supernatural beings. The names of the principal oramatuas were, Mau-ri, Bua-rai, and Tea-fao. They were considered the most malignant of beings, exceedingly irritable and implacable; they were not confined to the skulls of departed warriors, or the images made for them, but were occasionally supposed to resort to the shells from the sea-shore, especially a beautiful kind of murex, the murex ramoces. These shells were kept by the sorcerers, and the peculiar singing noise perceived on applying the valve to the ear, was imagined to proceed from the demon it contained.
These were the kinds of beings invoked by the wizards or sorcerers. Different names were applied to their arts, according to the rites employed, or the effects produced. Tahu, or tahutahu, natinatiaha, or pifao, were the general terms employed, both for sorcery and the performance of it. Tahu, in general, signifies to kindle, and is much the same in import as ahikuni, the word for sorcery in the Sandwich Islands. The application of fire was common to both. Natinati signifies involved, entangled, and knotted: aha, is cinet; and the persons afflicted with this, were supposed to be possessed by a demon, who was twisting and knotting their inside, and thus occasioning most excruciating pain and death. Pifao signifies a hook or barb; and is also indicative of the condition of those, under the visitation of evil spirits, who were page 364 holding them in agony, as severe as if transfixed by a barbed spear or hook.
Incantations sometimes commenced with an imprecation or curse, either by the priest or the offended party, and it was usually denounced in the name of the gods of the party, or of the king, or some oramatua. The poor people entertained the greatest horror of this mode of vengeance, as it was generally considered fatal, unless, by engaging a more powerful demon, its effects could be counteracted.
This dreadful system of iniquity, and demon tyranny, was complex and intricate. The party using sorcery against another, whose destruction they designed, employed a tahutahu, or a taata-obu-tara, whose influence with the demons procured their co-operation, and was supposed to induce the tii, or spirit, to enter into the victim of their malice.
Prayers, offerings, and the accustomed mysteries, however numerous, were not sufficient for this purpose. It was necessary to secure something connected with the body of the object of vengeance. The parings of the nails, a lock of the hair, the saliva from the mouth, or other secretions from the body, or else a portion of the food which the person was to eat. This was considered as the vehicle by which the demon entered the person, who afterwards became possessed. It was called the tubu, growing, or causing to grow. When procured, the tara was performed; the sorcerer took the hair, saliva, or other substance that had belonged to his victim, to his house or marae, performed his incantations over it, and offered his prayers; the demon was then supposed to enter the tubu, and through it the individual, who suffered page 365 from the enchantment. If it was a portion of food, similar ceremonies were observed, and the piece of bread-fruit, fish, &c., supposed by this process to be impregnated by the demon, was placed in the basket of the person for whom it was designed; and, if eaten, inevitable destruction was expected to follow.
The use of the portable spittoon by the Sandwich Island chiefs, in which the saliva was carefully deposited, carried by a confidential servant, and buried every morning, and the custom of the Tahitians in scrupulously burning or burying the hair when cut off, and also furnishing to each individual his distinct basket for food, originated in their dread of sorcery by any of these means. When the tara had been performed, and the tubu secured, the effects were violent, and death speedy. The most acute agonies and terrific distortions of the body were often experienced; the wretched sufferer appeared in a state of frantic madness, or, as they expressed it, torn by the evil spirit, while he foamed and writhed under his dreadful power.
On one occasion, Mr. Nott sent two native boys, who were his servants, from Eimeo to Tahiti, for taro, or arum-roots. The man, under whose care it was growing, was a sorcerer: he was from home, I believe—but the boys, according to the directions they had received, went to the field, and procured the roots for which they had been sent. Before they had departed, the person who had charge of the field returned, and was so enraged, that he pronounced the most dreadful imprecations upon one, if not both of them, threatening them with the pifao. The boys returned to Eimeo, but apparently took no notice of the page 366 threatening. One of them was shortly afterwards taken ill; and the imprecation of the sorcerer being made known to his friends, it was immediately concluded that he was possessed by the evil spirit. Alarming symptoms rapidly increased, and some of the Missionaries went to see him in this state. On entering the place where he lay, a most appalling spectacle was presented. The youth was lying on the ground, writhing in anguish, foaming at the mouth, his eyes apparently ready to start from his head, his countenance exhibiting every form of terrific distortion and pain, his limbs agitated with violent and involuntary convulsions. The friends of the boy were standing round, filled with horror at what they considered the effects of the malignant demon; and the sufferer shortly afterwards expired in dreadful agonies. In general, the effects of incantations were more gradual in their progress, and less sudden, though equally fatal in their termination.
The belief of the people in the power of the sorcerers remained unshaken, until the renunciation of idolatry, and the whole population were consequently kept in most humiliating and slavish fear of the demons. No rank or class was supposed to be exempt from their fatal influence. The young prince of Taiarabu, Te-arii-na-vaho-roa, brother of the late king, was by many of the people considered as destroyed, by Metia, a prophet of Oro, and a celebrated sorcerer, who had sometimes been known to threaten even the king himself with the effects of his indignation. “Give up, give up,” was the language he on one occasion employed, when addressing the king, “lest I bend every strong bow;” in allusion it is supposed, to his page 367 pretended influence with the demon. Whole families were sometimes destroyed. In Huahine, out of eight, one individual alone survives; seven, it is imagined, having been cut off by one sorcerer.
The imprecation was seldom openly denounced, unless the agent of the powers of darkness imagined his victim had little prospect of escape, and that his family were not likely to avenge his death. In general, these mysteries were conducted with that secrecy, which best comported with such works of darkness. Occasionally the tahutahu employed his influence with the evil spirit, to revenge some insult or injury he or his relatives had received; but more frequently he exercised it for hire. From his employers he received his fee and his directions, and having procured the tubu, or instrument of acting on his victim, repaired to his own rude marae, performed his diabolical rites, delivered over the individual to the demon he invoked, imploring the spirit to enter into the wretch, and inflict the most dreadful bodily sufferings, terminate at length the mortal existence, and then hurry the spirit to the po, or state of night, and there pursue the dreadful work of torture. These were the infernal labours of the tahutahu or the pifao, the wizard or the sorcerer; and these, according to the superstitions of the people, their terrific results.
It is possible that in some instances these sufferings may have been the effects of imagination, and a deep impression on the mind of the afflicted individual, that he was selected as the victim of some insatiable demon's rage. Imagining he was already delivered to his power, hope was abandoned, death deemed inevitable, and the infatuated page 368 sufferer became the victim of despair. It is also possible that poison, of which the natives had several kinds, vegetable and animal, (some few of which they have stated as capable of destroying human life,) might have produced the violent convulsions that sometimes preceded dissolution. It is probable that into the piece of food—over which the sorcerer performed his enchantments—he introduced a portion of poison, which would prove fatal to the individual by whom it should be eaten. Indeed, some of the sorcerers, since their conversion to Christianity, and one of them on his deathbed, confessed that this had been practised, and that they supposed the poison had occasioned the death which had been attributed to their incantations. Others, however, still express their belief, that they were so completely under the dominion of the evil spirit, that his power extended to the body as well as to the mind. I offer no opinion on this matter, but confine myself to stating the sentiments of the people, and some of the facts connected with the same. It has been a subject of frequent conversation with several of the most reflecting among the natives, who, since they have become Christians, have expressed their deliberate belief that their bodies were subject to satanic agency.
It is a singular fact, that while the practice continued, with all its supernatural influence, among the natives, the sorcerers invariably confessed that incantations were harmless when employed upon Europeans: several have more than once been threatened with sorcery, and there is reason to believe it has been put to the test upon them. The sorcerers have always declared, that they could not prevail with the white men, because such were page 369 under the keeping of a more powerful Being than the spirits they could engage against them, and therefore were secure. The native Missionaries, in different islands, have also been threatened with sorcery from the idolaters among whom they have endeavoured to introduce Christianity. They have always defied the sorcerers and their demons, telling them that Jehovah would protect them from their machinations; and though frequently exposed to incantations, have never sustained the slightest injury.
The sentiments entertained by the natives relative to the character of these supernatural beings, led them to imagine them to be such as they were themselves, only endowed with greater powers. They supposed that in all their actions they were influenced by motives exactly corresponding with those that operated upon their own minds; hence they believed, that even spirits could be diverted from their purposes by the offer of a larger bribe than they had received to carry it into effect, or that the efforts of one tii could be neutralized or counteracted by those of another more powerful.
Under the influence of these opinions, when any one was suffering from incantations, if he or his friends possessed property, they immediately employed another sorcerer. This person was frequently called a faatere, causing to move or slide, who, on receiving his fee, was generally desired, first to discover who had practised the incantations which it was supposed had induced the sufferings: as soon as he had accomplished this, he was employed, with more costly presents, to engage the aid of his demons, that the agony and death they had endeavoured to inflict upon the subject of their malignant efforts, might revert to themselves page 370 —and if the demon employed by the second party was equally powerful with that employed by the first, and their presents more valuable, it was generally supposed that they were successful.
How affecting is the view these usages afford, of the mythology of these rude untutored children of nature! How debasing their ideas of those beings on whom they considered themselves dependent, and whose service they regarded as the principal business of their lives!—how degrading and brutalizing such sentiments, and how powerful their effect must have been, in cherishing that deadly hatred which often found but too congenial a home in their bosoms! They were led to imagine that these super-human beings were engaged in perpetual conflict with each other, employing their dreadful powers, at the instigation of their priests, in afflicting with deepest misery, and ultimately destroying, the devotees of some rival demon.
A mythology so complicated, and a system of idolatry so extensive and powerful, as that which prevailed in the South Sea Islands, led the people not only to consider themselves as attended and governed by the gods, but also induced to seek their direction, and submit to their decision, in every event of interest or importance. Every island had its oracle; and divination, in various forms, was almost universally practised by the priests.
In many respects, the oracles of the Polynesians resembled those of the ancients; in some they differed. Oro, the great national idol, was generally supposed to give the responses to the priests, who sought to know the will of the gods, or the issue of events; and at Opoa, this being considered as the birth-place of the god, was the page 371 most celebrated oracle of the people. It does not appear that there were any persons specially appointed to consult the gods. The priest, who officiated in other services, presented the offerings, and proposed the inquiries of those who thus sought supernatural direction.
No event of importance was determined, nor any enterprise of hazard or consequence undertaken, without, in the first instance, inquiring of the gods its result. The priest was directed, as they expressed it, to spread the matter before the idol, and to wait the intimation of his will, or the prediction of its consequences. The priest, who was called taura, or tairoiro, repaired to the temple, presented the offerings, and proposed the inquiry, while the parties by whom he was employed anxiously waited his report.
In all matters of great and national importance, however, the gods were generally consulted by the buaa tapena, or dedicated hog. The animal was strangled, the hair singed or burnt off by the application of torches of reeds, and the hog was conveyed to the sacred pavement, in front of the depository of the idol. It was there embowelled, and if the movements of the entrails, after being taken out, were quick or continued, it was regarded as an omen of success. This mode of consulting the god was generally resorted to, prior to engaging in war, or during the existence of hostilities. The hog was now bathed with its own blood, and the priest offered his prayers over it, and then laid the sacred cocoa-nut leaf round it, as the tapâu, or means by which the god might enter, and through the sacrifice manifest his will. The heart and its appurtenances were placed on the small altar, while the carcase was placed with great care in an page 372 upright position on the large altar. The priest then preferred the claims of the people, and the several orders of diviners took their station near the victim, to watch the indications of the god's designs, while the men, women, and children of the island waited without, to know the result. The following were the principal omens. If the hog continued for a given period without exhibiting any change, it was an indication of continued conquest and spoil to the party offering it. If the hinder parts of the pig sunk, while the fore-part remained stationary, it was regarded as an indication that the enemy was restrained by the gods, and that peace might be concluded; and such intimation was invariably attended to. If the middle of the back sunk while the fore and hind-parts remained stationary, it was an indication that neither army should be overcome, but that both, after sustaining some loss, should claim the victory. If some parts of the surface of the animal which had been covered with blood, changed colour, while other parts continued red, it signified that both armies should alternately experience victory and defeat. If the back was bent to one side, it indicated that the front rank of both armies should be destroyed, but the rear escape. If one eye closed, it shewed that the opposing chiefs should be conquered, or one of them taken. If the hinder parts of the sacrifice became enlarged, it indicated that the party offering it would be overcome, and consequently predisposed them to retreat, or sue for peace.
In the Sandwich Islands, the king, personating the god, uttered the responses of the oracle, from his concealment in a frame of wicker-work. In the southern islands, the priest usually addressed the page 373 image, into which it was imagined the god entered when any one came to inquire his will. Sometimes the priest slept all night near the idol, expecting his communication in a dream; at other times it was given in the cry of a bird, whose resort was in the precincts of his temple; in the sighing of the breeze among the entwining branches of the tall and slender trees around the temple; or in the shrill, squeaking articulations of some of the priests. When the priest returned to those by whom he had been employed, if an unfavourable answer had been given, the project was at once abandoned, however favourable other circumstances might appear. If the answer was propitious, arrangements were forthwith made for its prosecution; but if no answer had been given, no further steps were then taken, it was considered to be restrained by the idol, and was left in abeyance with him.
Appearing to the priest in a dream of the night, though a frequent, was neither the only nor the principal mode by which the god intimated his will. He frequently entered the priest, who, inflated as it were with the divinity, ceased to act or speak as a voluntary agent, but moved and spoke as entirely under supernatural influence. In this respect there was a striking resemblance between the rude oracles of the Polynesians, and those of the celebrated nations of ancient Greece.
As soon as the god was supposed to have entered the priest, the latter became violently agitated, and worked himself up to the highest pitch of apparent frenzy, the muscles of the limbs seemed convulsed, the body swelled, the countenance became terrific, the features distorted, and the eyes wild and strained. In this state he often page 374 rolled on the earth, foaming at the mouth, as if labouring under the influence of the divinity by whom he was possessed, and, in shrill cries, and violent and often indistinct sounds, revealed the will of the god. The priests, who were attending, and versed in the mysteries, received, and reported to the people, the declarations which had been thus received.
When the priest had uttered the response of the oracle, the violent paroxysm gradually subsided, and comparative composure ensued. The god did not, however, always leave him as soon as the communication had been made. Sometimes the same taura, or priest, continued for two or three days possessed by the spirit or deity; a piece of native cloth, of a peculiar kind, worn round one arm, was an indication of inspiration, or of the indwelling of the god with the individual who wore it. The acts of the man during this period were considered as those of the god, and hence the greatest attention was paid to his expressions, and the whole of his deportment.
In the year 1808, during the civil war between the king and rebel chiefs, of whom Taute was the leader, the priest of Oro, who was known to be not only attached to the king's interests, but a personal friend of Pomare, left the royal camp, and went over to that of the enemy. Many of Pomare's friends endeavoured to persuade him to remain with them, but no one dared to use force, as it was supposed that he acted under the inspiration of his god. This circumstance greatly discouraged the king and his friends, and probably prepared the way for their discomfiture and flight, as they supposed the god had forsaken them, and fought with their enemies.page 375
On an occasion, of more recent date, the god and the prophet were not treated with quite so much respect, but were rather rudely handled. The natives of Rurutu having determined to renounce idolatry, it was proposed by the native teachers that the people should meet together at the sacred enclosure, near the idol temple, where both sexes would unitedly partake of those kinds of food which had heretofore been regarded as sacred, and the eating of which by any female, especially in such a place, the gods would have punished with death.
At a previous meeting, Auura, one of the chiefs, had told a priest, who pretended to be inspired, that he was the very foundation of the deceit, and that he should never deceive them again. The priests, however, appeared at the appointed meeting; and one of them, pretending to be inspired, began denouncing, in the name of his god, the most awful punishment upon those that had violated the sacred place. One or two of the natives of Raiatea went up to him, and told him to desist, and not attempt to deceive them any longer, that the people would not tolerate their imposition. The priest answered, that it was the god that was within him, and that he was the god. When uruhia, (under the inspiration of the spirit,) the priest was always considered as sacred as the god, and was called, during this period, atua, god, though at other times only denominated taura, or priest. Finding him determined to persist in his imprecations, one of the christian boatmen from Raiatea said, “If the god is in, we will try and pinch, or twist, him out.” Immediately seizing the priest, who already began to shew symptoms of violent convulsive muscular action, they prevented page 376 this throwing himself on the ground. For a long time, the priest and one of the Raiateans struggled together; when the god, insulted at the rude liberty taken with his servant, left him, and the priest silently retired from the assembly.
When one of the priests was exhibiting all the violent gestures of inspiration in Huahine, a by-stander observed, that it was all deceit, and that if they were to open the body of the priest, they should not find any god within. The multitude, however, appeared struck with horror at the startling proposal, and seemed to think the individual who had dared to utter it would not escape the signal vengeance of the powerful spirit.
Although so much ceremony, and such extraordinary effects, attended the public or formal intercourse between the god and the people, through the medium of the priest, the communications between the priest and the god were sometimes of an opposite character, and ludicrously colloquial. Mr. Davies, when itinerating round the island of Eimeo, in the early part of his missionary labour in that island, arrived at a village near Tiatae-pua, where he endeavoured to purchase provisions from the inhabitants. Vegetables were procured with facility, but the only animals were a number of fowls, and these belonged to the priest of the adjacent temple. Application was made to this individual, who looked at the articles (scissors, looking-glasses, &c.) offered in exchange, and seemed desirous to barter his fowls for them, but he said they belonged to the god, having been presented as offerings, and that without his leave he durst not part with any.
Again he examined the articles, and then said he would go and ask if the god was willing to part page 377 with any of the fowls. He proceeded to the temple, whither he was followed by Mr. Davies, who heard his address to the object of hope and fear, in words to the following effect: “O my atua, (or god,) here is some good property, knives, scissors, looking-glasses, &c. e hoo paha vau, na moa na taua; perhaps I may sell some of the fowls belonging to us two, for it. It will be good property for you and me.” After waiting a few moments, he pretended to receive an answer in the affirmative, and returned, stating that the god had consented to the appropriation. The sacred fowls were accordingly hunted by a number of boys and dogs, and several secured, and sold for the above-mentioned articles.
It has already been stated, that the oracle was not the only method by which the people were accustomed to consult the gods; nor was the inspiration of the priests the exclusive manner by which supernatural direction was revealed to the people. Divination, or augury, was practised in a variety of modes, and by these means it was thought that future events were made known, and information was communicated. Much of their augury was connected with the sacrifices they offered. They had also a singular method of cutting a cocoa-nut, and, by minutely examining its parts, of ascertaining their portentous indications. These ceremonies were generally practised in the temple.
There were others, however, performed elsewhere, as the patu, which consisted in dividing a ripe cocoa-nut into two equal parts, taking the half opposite to that to which the stalk was attached, and proceeding with it in a canoe to some distance from the shore; here the priest offered his prayers; page 378 and then placing the cocoa-nut in the sea, continuing his prayers, and narrowly watching its descent, he thereby pretended to ascertain the result of any measures in which those by whom he was employed were interested. The patu was frequently resorted to while negociations for peace were carried on between parties who had been engaged in war. The situation of the stars was also regarded as foreshewing future events. When Venus and any other conspicuous planet appeared above the horizon at sunset, for several successive nights, it was viewed as an indication that two chiefs were planning each others downfall. When the horns of the new moon were in an upright direction, it was supposed to indicate the secret formation of two hostile parties. Such an aspect was called an angry or savage moon. If three or more spiral clouds were seen in the west about the setting of the sun, it indicated division of councils, and conflicts. If one conspicuous cloud appeared, it foretold the death of some powerful chief. When the sky was red over Borabora at sunset, the inhabitants of Huahine imagined it proceeded from preparations for invasion by the Boraborans, and they prepared accordingly. Divination was employed to discover the cause or author of sickness, or to ascertain the fate of a fleet or a canoe that might have commenced a distant or hazardous voyage. This latter was often used in the islands to the westward of the Society group.
The natives had also recourse to several kinds of divination, for discovering the perpetrators of acts of injury, especially theft. Among these was a kind of water ordeal. It resembled in a great degree the wai haruru of the Hawaiians. When the parties who had been robbed wished to use this page 379 method of discovering the thief, they sent for a priest, who, on being informed of the circumstances connected with the theft, offered prayers to his demon. He now directed a hole to be dug in the floor of the house, and filled with water; then, taking a young plantain in his hand, he stood over the hole, and offered his prayers to the god, whom he invoked, and who, if propitious, was supposed to conduct the spirit of the thief to the house, and place it over the water. The image of the spirit, which they imagined resembled the person of the man, was, according to their account, reflected in the water, and being perceived by the priest, he named the individual, or the parties, who had committed the theft, stating that the god had shewn him the image in the water. The priests were rather careful how they fixed on an individual, as the accused had but slight prospect of escaping, if unable to falsify the charge; but when he could do this, the credit of the god, and the influence of the priest, were materially diminished.
Sometimes the priest, after the first attempt, declared that no answer had been returned, and deferred till the following day the repetition of his enchantments. The report, however, that this measure had been resorted to, generally spread among the people, and the thief, alarmed at the consequences of having the gods engaged against him, usually returned the stolen property under cover of the night, and by this superseded the necessity for further inquiries.—Like the oracles among the nations of antiquity, which gradually declined after the propagation of Christianity, the divinations and spells of the South Sea Islanders have been laid aside since their reception of the gospel. The only oracle they now page 380 consult is the Sacred Volume; and multitudes, there is reason to believe, give to its divine communications unreserved credence, and yield to its requirements the most cheerful and conscientious obedience.
The religion, of which some account has been given, although established among a people scarcely above the rudest barbarism—destitute of letters, hieroglyphics, and symbols, and by their isolated situation deprived of all intercourse with the rest of the world—is, as a system, singularly complete.
The invention displayed in the fabrication and adjustment of its several parts, the varied and imposing imagery under which it was exhibited, and the mysterious and complicated machinery which sustained its operations, were remarkable, and, in the standard of virtue which it fixed, in the future destinies it unfolded, and in its adaptation to the untutored but ardent mind, the Polynesian mythology will not suffer by comparison with any systems which have prevailed among the most polished and celebrated nations of ancient or modern times.
In some respects, the mythology of Tahiti presents features peculiarly its own: in others we trace a striking analogy to that of the nations of antiquity. In each, the light of truth occasionally gleams through a mass of darkness and error. The conviction that man is the subject of supernatural dominion, is recognized in all, and the multiplied objects of divine homage, which distinguished the polytheism of the ancients, marked also that of the rude islanders. Nor was the fabulous religion of the latter deficient in the mummeries of sorcery and witchcraft, the delusion of oracles, and page 381 the influence of other varieties of juggling, and oppressive spiritual domination.
We are not surprised, that, to the enlightened, benevolent, but transient visitor, the South Sea Islanders appeared under circumstances peculiarly favourable to happiness, but their idolatry exhibits them as removed to the farthest extreme from such a state. The baneful effects of their delusion was increased by the vast preponderance of malignant deities, frequently the personifications of cruelty and vice. They had changed the glory of God into the image of corruptible things, and instead of exercising those affections of gratitude, complacency, and love, towards the objects of their worship, which the living God supremely requires, they regarded their deities with horrific dread, and worshipped only with enslaving fear.
While this system shews the distance to which those under its influence departed from the knowledge and service of the true God; it also furnishes additional confirmation of the fact, that polytheism, whether exhibited in the fascinating numbers of classic poetry, the splendid imagery of eastern fable, or the rude traditions of unlettered barbarians, is equally opposed to all just views of the being and perfections of the only proper object of religious homage and obedience; and that, whether invested with the gorgeous trappings of a cumbrous and imposing superstition, or appearing in the naked and repulsive deformity of rude idolatry, it is alike unfriendly to intellectual improvement, moral purity, individual happiness, social order, and national prosperity.