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The following Cook Islands traditions have been extracted and edited from: Cook Islands Culture published in 2003 by the Institute of Pacific Studies, in conjunction with the Cook Islands Cultural and Historic Places Trust and the Ministry of Cultural Development, Rarotonga, Cook Islands. 


Ancient Polynesians believed in Tangaroa, Rangi, Rongo, Tane and many other gods. Some believed in a great god 'Io and a self-created World Soul whose name was too tapu (sacred) to utter, and whose identity could never be revealed to human eyes or ears. 'Io could be understood only through the priests, who made it a strict sacred law never to give away religious secrets. Whoever did would surely die.

Polynesians were not worshipping wooden idols, feathers or stones. Rather, they are these objects as physical containers, which the invincible god entered on appropriate occasions. After the ceremonies they left the stone or wood to return to the spirit world. In one Polynesian story of creation 'Io (whose name appears in various forms including unknowable. He created the world and the universe out of Himself and allowed them to evolve. He called material existence out of nothing by the power of His word. The universe evolved through successive stages, the first being Void or night, 'Io or the Tuamotu form Kibo), was The Self-Created Supreme Being - unseen and evolve. He called material existence out of nothing by the power of His Word. The universe evolved through successive stages, he first being Void or Night. This Supreme Being was alone in the empty lightless Void. He was 'Io-the-parentless. 'Io means the core of pith of anything, and may have denoted the existence of the Supreme Being.

'Io the Supreme lived in the highest heaven, at the very centre, or heart, of creation. In one version, heaven and earth, which were descended from him gave birth to 70 male gods called Te 'Anau-a-Rangi or the Children of Rangi. They were the original gods directly connected with our world and with mankind. The many gods of ancient Polynesia each had a well-defined role and attributes. The word tane, for example, means male, man, husband. The god Tane was a major generator of beings and things in the world and therefore represented the male or masculine principle. He was the fertilizer that caused Mother Earth to produce all kinds of vegetation. As Tane Mahuta (in the New Zealand Maori version) he represented the trees; as Tane-i-te-Wananga he represented occult knowledge; as Tane-te-Wairoa he represented sunlight. Tane formed a human image on Mother Earth and, with breath obtained from the Supreme Being. 'Io, he breathed it into the lifeless body on Mother Earth and so woman was created. The god impregnated the woman and men were born. The heavens became the sky, which floats above the earth. 'Io dwelt with Hawaiki (Earth) and several lands or islands of this world were born. Then, gods and men appeared followed by papa (rocks), then land, roots, and finally the things that grow on the land. All this took many eras of thousands of years.

Genesis 1: 1-4 seems to me to be similar to the Polynesian creation story. We read:

In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. The earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters, and God said, Let there be light: and there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good and God divided the light from the darkness.

I think there must have been some connections amongst all religious beliefs since time immemorial and that God, the unknowable, omnipresent, omnipotent and all-knowing, has been in touch with every human race inspiring certain individuals to receive spiritual apprehension of truths beyond understanding.

Spiritual and Physical Existence

For a pre-Christian Cook Islander, his spiritual and physical nature was inseparable. Each had a complementary role in every activity and experience. In a sense, he considered his spiritual side more important because it existed before the physical body appeared.

If he wanted to succeed in life he had to know how to influence the gods through the correct rites, ceremonies, prayers. Rites began, accompanied, and ended all-important activities. When he planted, trended and harvested his crops, he did so spiritually and physically. Ritual including 'akatapu (consecration), ta ma (purification), karakia (prayers), atinga (offerings), and apinga 'akaariu (charms) were part of the physical preparation for important occasions.

When he set out to make a canoe, he performed the correct rites in order to create a perfect spiritual atmosphere for his work. When he went to war, or on a fishing expedition, he made sure that everything was in order spiritually as well as physically so that those in the spirit world would help. Birth, death and all other ev4nts of important were both spiritual and physical, requiring suitable ceremonies and correct action by those affected. The feeling that everything and every event in nature manifest4d the embodiment or influence of some invisible being, or force, was always in the mind in every phase of life. One's first day duty was to make sure that the right spiritual atmosphere was in order to make favourable connection with the spiritual realm.

Human Intermediaries

These made the connections between gods and men or between men and gods. The three important but separate roles in worship were chiefly, prophetic and priestly (ritualistic). All three roles might be vested in one person but usually they were divided amongst distinct classes of religious leaders.

In every group there was someone, ideally the first-born male, with the mana (divine power) of the ancestors. There was also a taura (a talented diviner or specialist in the occult) not necessarily of chiefly rank, who became the channel to receive revelations from the gods and to discern the trend of events. Third, there were ta'unga (established, usually hereditary, experts in sacred lore and rituals).

Ta'unga was an expert or master in any technical activity. He knew everything about his work and was a good leader who could organise and direct the work and workers in any community project. As a ritualistic expert, the ta'unga was the priest (orometua in today's context). He knew how to organize worship and he led the rites.

Prophet is only mentioned in the Mangaian term pi'a atua meaning a person who was a "god box" is that the spirits or the gods entered and took over their body and facilities.

Marae were sacred places of many kinds, ranging from simple shrines to elaborate stone temples. The kind of place was determined by the nature of worship offered in it, but also, if for public worship, the number of people attending.

Mana was the concentration of power, the "dynamism" of nature of gods, spirits, individuals, rites or objects. In a person it manifested in his power, strength, prestige, reputation, skill, dynamic personality, intelligence, accomplishment. Mana was not just physical power or energy, but procreative power from 'Io, the Supreme God diffused and transmitted throughout the universe and to mankind through the first-born.

Tapu referred to that which was psychically dangerous and therefore restricted, forbidden, set apart, to be avoided, because (a) it was either divine and therefore needed to be isolated for its own sake from both the common (human beings and things) and the corrupt, or (b) it was corrupt and therefore dangerous to the common and the divine, needing isolation from both.

Offerings and sacrifices to the gods were fruits of the land, fish, animals, human bodies, and every kind of thing people made with their hands. It was believed that the gods ate the essence of the food offerings and were sustained and strengthened by them. It was also customary for the living family to make offerings to the spirits of the dead. Some offerings were made to appease the gods - reconciliation. A public calamity was interpreted to mean that the gods were angry for some reason: breaking a tapu, for example. Guilty ones might be tied up and presented live to the god, the priest confessing the faults and begging the gods to remove the calamity. In extreme cases the culprits were then thrown on a red-hot umu (oven).

Everyone who took part in an enterprise was entitled to a share of the result, but each according to his rank and mana. The gods received the first part of everything; then the chief as their representative, then their servant the ta'unga, then those who took part and finally the rest of the people. This may be how the orometua of today acquired their title "tavini o te Atua".

The raising of the tapu was the offering of the first fruits to the gods; whatever crops were harvested first, and the first fish. In war, the first enemy killed was the "first fruit" offering. All the food offered brought together and offered to the gods was shared out to the people.  

Feasting was perhaps the most important part of every rite because our ancestors believed their gods to be present as honoured guests. Therefore the more lavish the feast, the more honoured were the gods. It was for everyone to enjoy but for the living relatives, more food added prestige. The dead in the other world also benefited, their mana (prestige) being increased by the lord of the underworld. The invisible gods were present at every activity and feasting was no exception.

Prayer and Spells

An offering to the gods was always accompanied by a prayer or chant, which could be as simple as calling the name of the god, making the offering and making a request. Every man had his own private prayer but elaborate worship services were for the priests who had the knowledge of secret things. Prayers and spells were recited in a singsong, chanting fashion, for accurate and rhythmic utterance was believed to be very important if the mana was to be transmitted into the spiritual world. The breath was the medium on which the words uttered were carried so the more continuous the chanting without pausing for a breath, the more effective it was.

When Mangaians were having heir main meal, a little before sunset, the head of the family would take a cooked taro, pinch off the smaller end and throw it outside. Calling his god's name, he would say, "Motoro, here is your taro; O eat." If there were another god important to the family the same thing would be repeated. Then the head of the family would eat.

The following Cook Islands prayer aimed to hasten recovery from injury and was considered to be an infallible cure:

In the presence of Great Vatea,
Staunch, O wound, lest the sufferer faint,
Staunch quickly, lest he faint and die!
Here is water from the swamp to cure thee
Wound, heal speedily! 

(The above two lines were repeated five times, mentioning "water from the valleys", "water bubbling out of the earth" "from the running stream", "from the taro plantation", "from the mountain-side")

Be healed in the name of Rongo and Tutavake
Poison of the ironwood, arise, depart!


Dynamic action and words were believed to affect nature. Dancing at religious festivals was closely related to the offerings and feasts in honour of the gods. Dancers were believed to rouse and stimulate the gods, for mana also meant procreative power. Dancing was a form of worship, designed to bring into action the mana of the gods who were believed to be animated by the same emotions as men and on whose procreative activities depended the continuation of life. The dancing roused the passions of the gods who would get satisfaction from female mates so that there would be plenty of breadfruit, kumara, taro, bananas, yams and fish. For men and women at these festivals, the end was a sexual orgy, which produced human children. Because the procreative power in the human fathers was released and freely spent, the nature father was aroused to impregnate the mothers in nature.

Role of Chiefs

The ariki (high chief) was a unique intermediary between the gods and men. As the first-born male he held the highest rank in the tribe - a direct descendent of the gods by virtue of the first human coming from the gods. He was therefore a central figure in tribal worship, a point of contact between the spiritual realm and the physical. As the first-born of the gods, he was their representative in human form when they were worshipped by the people. But in addition to being distinguished by birth, he had to be consecrated in all the appropriate rites, educated in knowledge and/practice related to the hidden mysteries.

The Loins

Craighill Handy states, on the importance of the loins:

... for a people who made generation operative through sexual union a universal ;principle of their natural philosophy, it was inevitable that especial significance should be attributed to the human organs of generation. The belief in the second and psychically potent nature of the loins and genitals may be illustrated from all parts of Polynesia ... the loins of the male, recognized as the seat of human generation, were quite reasonably regarded by the native as the focus of such generative power as was embodied in him, and many beliefs and practices arose out of this idea. These aspects of the nature worship are not to be regarded as indications of degeneracy, but rather as evidence of a highly dignified philosophic sense of the true meaning of one of the fundamental and essential bodily activities of man.

To digress, when he was old Abraham said to his eldest servant: "Put, I pray thee, thy hand under my thigh... And the servant put his hand under the thigh of Abraham his master, and swore to him concerning that matter" (Genesis 25.2, 9). Probably it was because of a belief in the sacred and psychically potent nature of the loins and genitals, regarding the loins of the male as the seat of human generation.

The inauguration of an ariki included girding him with a maro decorated with red feathers. The rite elevated the wearer to the rank of the gods.

Traditional Belief Today

The following stories help illustrate the point that some aspects of the spiritual realm of the past are still with us. Recently in Aitutaki a man required some vairakau Maori (herbal medicine) and a request was made to the lady who made the medicine. Three days later when the lady returned she said: "I knew the day before your niece rang that someone was going to call me, so the following morning I did not go to work as early as usual. I waited for the call." She knew it would be a local call, but not who the caller would be because "When I hear a sound in my right ear the call is local, and when I hear it in my left ear the call is from overseas." She did not explain further.

Many years ago, in Arorangi, a ta'unga saw a woman already dead and clothed in white being carried away by some people also dressed in white but whose faces could not be seen. He recognised only the woman. The following day he visited the lady's family and told them what he had seen the night before. Mid-morning that day the woman whose body the ta'unga had seen, died.

The Missionaries

The missionaries were ;perhaps too hasty in destroying everything native. They should have taken the time to study the people and their culture more closely. The missionaries had a mission as far as they were concerned the negatives were the ones to change. They considered the English way to be the right and only way.

The Reverend John Williams said there were some good things about native customs and habits. Our people were all heathen, needing salvation, and salvation to him meant not only giving up idols and heathen obscenities, but also adopting western clothing and copying, as far as possible, the customs of this respectable bourgeois tradesman.

If the missionaries had studies the culture of the natives and leant to adapt to their way of thinking, they would have found much of value. The worship of our forebears for example, was an everyday affair, in line with the teaching of Jesus, and not just a one-day-a-week law derived from Jewish origins. When they planted and took care of crops, went fishing, dedicated new canoes or houses, our ancestors carefully followed a set pattern of worship. Religion was a part of everyday life. Their prayers acknowledged their connection with he invisible gods and showed spiritual awareness and recognition.

The missionaries, in their eagerness to "enlighten" the "heathen", destroyed many religious elements in the culture by imposing puritanical western ways, and forcing on them beliefs that were hardly Christian. The London Missionary Society itself was made up of five denominations within Christianity who saw their religion from different angles according to their various doctrines.

Recent Trends

Christianity evolved in the Cook Islands as elsewhere in the world. In the late 1800s new denominations arrived: Catholics, Seventh-day Adventists and Mormons. The first Baha'i pioneer came to the Cook Islands in 1953. In 1977 the London Missionary Society handed over its work to the newly formed Cook Islands Christian Church. Later, new evangelical denominations such as the Assemblies of God and the Apostolic Church arrived from the United States of America.

At the same time, higher education, mass communications, tourism and wider travel by Cook Islanders, changed people's world view and modified many beliefs and practices. These processes of change will no doubt continue.


Rites of Passage: The Highlights of Family Life
'Aka'iti Ama

A typical Cook Islands family consists of the mother and father, sons and daughters, and a son or daughter-in-law with their body. Some families include other grandchildren or great-grandchildren, and a widowed grandparent. Many families also include an adopted child (known as a feeding child or tamaiti angai) who is usually a close relative.

Today, however, the average family size is shrinking due to family planning and emigration. Also one finds today some households of unmarried women and their children, which did not occur in earlier times when a man and a woman were both essential to the subsistence needs of the household. The 1991 census showed that the average household on Rarotonga contained only 4.6 persons, but if we exclude the expatriates who often live alone or with one or two others, the average would be closer to the other islands average of 5.6. The "social" household is considerably larger because relatives oft4n live in homes side by side and interact a lot.

Extended families are still common, and that lifestyle maintains the customs, traditions and unity of the family. A child is maintained by the young ones witting around their elders in the evenings, listening to stories and legends and joining in singing and chanting. The elders love to talk of the events they took part in during their youth, and to teach techniques of fishing, planting, medication, social relations and other essential knowledge.

It was important for children to learn their genealogies and relationships. Particular emphasis was given to relations with chiefly families, and to the protocol of dealing with chiefs. Processes of investiture of ariki if one was of an ariki family is learned, as well as mata'iapo or other leader if one was related to them. The Cook Islands families are generally related to one chief or another and thus owed allegiance to him and, in the process, gain confidence and status by being one of that clan and tribe.


Birth was not a particularly important time of celebration in ancient times mainly because child mortality was high as the killing of unwanted children was common particularly on Rarotonga. According to William Wyatt Gill, a missionary who arrived in 1852 and made an extensive study of the customs of the Cook Islands over the next half century. He recorded that when a boy was born on Rarotonga, sea water was poured over a collection of spears, clubs and clingstones as the sun was setting and the umbilical cord was sliced. This was done to ensure that the boy would become a good warrior. 


Before the coming of the missionaries, many chiefs and warriors had several wives. In this respect, it was common for girls to be promised in marriage to a chiefly boy when they were quite small. They would receive gifts from the perspective husband's family until, soon after puberty, they would move to his household and be married.

After the arrival of the missionaries in Rarotonga on 26th October 1823, only one wife was permitted. This caused considerable anguish for those with multiple wives who had to choose which one they would keep and which ones they would send back with their one children to the wife's relatives.

Marriage was a very strong bond during the first generation after the arrival of Christianity. During this time, there were serious punishment for fornication and adultery. In common with many modern society, these constraints have now weakened.


In ancient times the dead were either buries in a cave or in the ground or alternatively wrapped in cloth and laid on a raised platform, always with the head turned towards the rising sun. At death, the relatives slashed themselves with shark's teeth or knives to make the blood flow. Their faces were blackened, their hair cut and sometimes front teeth knocked out - all done to show their grief. Close relatives change their personal names in memory of the deceased. Mourning ceremonies were long and arduous.

Most of these customs disappeared in the 1800s although the changing of names and burial of valuable property with the deceased continued in Atiu and the northern atolls until the 1960s. Burial became the only method of disposal of bodies, so much so that some families are now short of land to bury their dead.

Until recently, the period of mourning was six months or more for relatives, but in recent years the mourning period had become progressively shorter and the ceremonies less elaborate. The wearing of black, formerly universal, is now less common and is often replaced by a black ribbon which is worn for a period or by wearing white. Death feasts remain important, but on a smaller scale than previously.

To be continued...

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