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Polynesian Mythology: Tahiti Islands




In Tahiti, the highest mysteries of the traditional lore were the province of the divine chief, the inspirational priest and the ceremonial priest. Consistent with other Polynesian countries, the chiefs of Tahiti traced their genealogy back to the gods and they were therefore the living link with the mythological past.

The inspirational priest was the mouthpiece of the gods, the oracle and the diviner, who was consulted before any events of importance. His revelations were probably the source of new myths and the basis for the reinterpretation of the old. The ceremonial priest presided over the public ceremonies associated with the birth, marriage, installation and death of a chief, as well as those which regulated man's association with nature.


A stone image of Aroonoona, the guardian of the marae where public religious ceremonies were performed. Ra'ivavae, Austral Islands.

A grey stone tiki, or votive figure from the Marquesas Islands.

Instruction was formal and took place either in permanent buildings or in a specially built structure which was later destroyed. There were various degrees of learning. In the Society Islands novice priests retired within the sacred enclosures of Houses-in-which-to-absorb-invocations to learn to recite without hesitancy the prayers, chants, invocations and ritual of their profession; and men and women of rank join a House of Learning to study mythology, genealogy, heraldry, astronomy, navigation and geography, as well as the art of competition.

The religious festivals and public celebrations which were stage-managed by the hereditary priests and bards also absorbed the energies of many other people in the group who excelled as musicians, dances and players. In some archipelagos the popular entertainers with the young adolescents of the privileged classes, while in the Marquesas the gay young men who associated together in bands called Ka'ioi were liberally rewarded for their performances at feasts and ceremonies. In times of peace, they wandered from village to village as strolling players and minstrels. They rubbed their bodies with perfumed oils and dyed their skins orange with turmeric. They adorned themselves with feather ruffs, anklets and hair ornaments and wore yellow bark cloth garments. Within these informal groups young men of talent, no matter how humble their origin, could achieve advancement.

In the more class-bound communities of Tahiti and the neighbouring islands, the loose association of the Ka'ioi was paralleled by the more formal institution of the Arioi, but membership in this society also gave talented men and women the opportunity to short-circuit the rigid social divisions, for whatever their social origin, candidates for the society had simply to work themselves into a frenzied state of nevaneva and break into an Arioi performance. Once they were accepted as novices, they were trained in the art of pantomime and took part in the comic interludes. They also performed as a chorus and introduced the program with a chant praising the attractions of the district in which they were playing, its history and its mythological association.

tahtemple.jpg (27606 bytes)

The stones of an ancient temple on the Island of Moorea, c.1943.

There were eight graves of Arioi, each with a distinctive dress and tattoo pattern, and members could advance through successive grades up to the seventh; but the highest order of the red tapa girdle could only be inherited. Even so, it could not be assumed automatically, it had to be bestowed by the high chief himself. Although complete sexual freedom was permitted and permanent unions were formed between members, all grades of the Arioi, except the highest, had to bow to destroy all children born to them. This meant that, in spite of their personal prestige, which they gained as Arioi, they could never consolidate their power and thereby threaten the established hierarchy. Their reward came after death, when they entered a special paradise presided over by the god Roma-Tane.

However, the Arioi were much more than a guild of entertainment, for their artistic skills were dedicated to Oro, whom they called Oro-of-the-laid-down-spear, thus transforming this formidable god of war into a god of peace. Before they set out on a journey, they ritually demanded that Oro remain behind at home in the marae to safeguard them.

Very little is known about their performances. The first European witnesses were so shocked by what they regarded as their licentiousness that they recorded no details, and as many of the living Arioi were amongst the first converts to Christianity, the dissolution of the society was rapid.  

tahiti1.jpg (6274 bytes)

The delicately carved handle of a fly-whisk from Tahiti
which culminates in two squatting figures joined back to back.
The image probably had religious significance.
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