Find here the most curious facts about Tahitian Mythology. Learn about their religion, cult, gods and most popular symbology.
Tahitian mythology can be defined as the set of myths and legends that originated not only on the island of Tahiti, but also on the Society Islands. These islands were comprised of Bora Bora, Huahine, Moorea, Raiatea and other islands.
It is given by the historical tales that developed throughout history in these ancient villages, which are even part of the Polynesian mythology. This is because Tahiti is the largest island that belonged to what was formerly called “French Polynesia“.
History of Tahitian mythology
It is estimated that around 4000 BC, the first settlers from Southeast Asia crossed the great ocean on a voyage of exploration to the Pacific islands. The first islands to be colonized around 1300 BC were the islands of Tonga and Samoa.
In the following centuries, they managed to colonize all the islands of Tahiti, as well as the rest of the South Pacific. Later the whole area became known as the “Polynesian triangle”.
That area was bounded by Hawaii to the north, by Easter Island to the southeast and New Zealand to the southwest; the whole island group was named “Society Archipelago”.
Tahiti is the largest of the islands of this so-called French Polynesia. At the time of colonization, Europeans gave them the name society archipelago because of the proximity of its eight islands.
The history of Tahitian mythology is full of fantasy, its fauna and flora has a lot of influence on it; and the migrations brought as a consequence the influence of Polynesian mythology and the clash of cultures by the struggle of its conquest.
All these stages influenced their religion, until the acceptance of Christianity by the natives. In spite of this, their islands maintain in common their original language known as “ma’ohi”.
Religion in Tahitian mythology
Religion has always been a fundamental part of Tahiti, from its origins to the present day. However, as a consequence of migrations throughout history and up to the present day, there is a great variety of religions throughout the area.
Since 1797, due to the initiative shown by the Protestant missionaries, the whole Tahitian area went from traditional Ma’ohi cults to show a diversity of expressions of Christianity.
Then around 1830, a population of Catholics emerged. Currently within the Tahitian religion, the population is divided as follows:
- Protestants: make up 50% of the population of the area.
- Catholics: between 25% and 25% of the total population.
- Other religions: the rest of the Tahitian population is inclined towards other religions such as Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Seventh Day Adventists and the so-called “Sanitos”; named after the community of Christ.
Despite the variations adopted within their religion, traditional Ma’ohi cults are still preserved in Tahitian mythology. As the vestiges of stone, in marae and tikis; as well as retain many habits and beliefs of their ancestors.
Gods of Tahitian mythology
Within Tahitian mythology there are gods and sacred figures within Tahiti and the Society of the Islands. However, their main gods are Maui and Rata; there is also Mana. There are also other figures that stand out within this mythology.
Within Tahitian mythology, Maui is the main deity of Tahiti and is represented as a very wise man or a prophet.
In their stories they tell that Maui was a priest, who was later transformed into a deity. He was always busy at marae, named after his sacred place; one day the sun descended from the sky while he had an unfinished work and Maui caught its solar rays making the sun stop its course for a while.
This made him the discoverer of fire, for this reason he was called “Ao ao ma ra’i a”; before people had to eat their food in its raw form until Maui taught them how to make fire through the friction of wood.
In Tahitian mythology the King of Tahiti was Tumu-nui, and his father was Vahieroa; one day they were on their way to Pitcaim when a giant clam swallowed them, leaving Rata on the throne as the new King of Tahiti.
When Rata grew up and became a man, he would plan his revenge. According to the Tuamotuan version, when Rata chooses a tree to build his canoe, he discovers that the tree is protected by the forest elves.
In a single night Rata manages to capture the elves and builds the canoe; when he is on his way to Pitcaim they are swallowed by the same clam that took his ancestors. But Rata and his crew manage to open the monster with the help of their spears.
They manage to get out, taking with them the remains of their ancestors; to be buried in Tahiti. After having accomplished his revenge, Rata dedicated himself to having adventures at sea; becoming the protector of Tahitian travelers of the sea.
Within Tahitian mythology mana is not considered a god per se, but rather a kind of mythical situation or fact; he is defined by a variety of terms such as strength, power, supreme, presence, control, elegance, grandeur, superiority, among many others.
They describe it in many ways and characteristics, it is tangible but also intangible, enigmatic but also revealing, it is the whole. But it is a fact for sure natural but it contains mystery and esotericism.
It is in every being and element of every existing dimension, and can build and uplift as well as destroy and annihilate all that is vital. It is fascinating and seductive as well as terrifying and dangerous. Also, it is defined as the starting point between life and death. It is the essence of the cosmic power of the universe.
Other Gods and sacred figures
Despite the presence of other figures and demigods in Tahitian mythology, there is no concrete record or history of each one of them; however, they stand out in their stories in a significant way. Among them are:
- Pua tu tahi
- Ro’o i Te Hiripoi
- Potii ta rire
- Te uri
Sacrifices to the gods
Although there are not many records of the existence of traditional rituals within Tahitian mythology, there is an account written by Captain James Cook. He recounts his experience of witnessing a human sacrifice.
In the year 1776, when the Captain arrived in the lands of Tahiti, he witnessed this ritual which he defined as extremely gruesome. Two of the natives proceeded to dig a grave accompanied by the rhythm of maracas and drums.
In that grave, they would place the corpse of a man whose feet and hands were tied; at the bottom of the grave the captain observed a wall that was completely decorated with different skulls.
Among other records found, even rituals with acts of cannibalism have been described; where the priests in these rituals make a ritual with prayers summoning their gods to be invited to the feast.
Myths and legends of Tahitian mythology
Within this mythology we can find legends that narrate the life and history of their heroes and gods; they describe their exploits and adventures. They are also full of fantasy and poetry.
For the Tahitians, in the beginning the father who comes from the sky married the mother earth; which was called Papatu’oi. Their children were Tumunui and Paparaharaha, both of whom married.
Tumunui was left with the great founder, and Paparaharaha as the one in charge of giving life on earth. Their son was Te Fatu; becoming the lord of the heavens and the ancestor of all existing life. Thus creating the world.
Legend of the origin of the coconut
The son of the moon had a daughter, she was a beautiful princess named Hina. Her beauty was so powerful that one day a lightning bolt came out of her body. Hina was to marry the King of Lake Vahiria, but he was a very nasty eel.
Hina escaped, and sought the protection of the god Maui. On the Vairo cliff, Hina and the god Maui stood; they could see the eel coming in the distance to take her away. Maui through his words used his power and the eel fell on his hook.
The eel was thus captured and its head was cut off, Maui wrapped it in a lid and gave it to Hina; he gave her specific instructions that she could not open it or leave it on the ground until she got home as she would have many treasures for her.
Hina forgot the package on the ground and left, then the lid was opened and the eel’s head was left on the ground; from it came out many young shoots and that is how the first coconut trees were born.
Legend of the Vahine, Goddess of Love
The vahine was the name given to any girl around 18 years of age; but it could include any woman between twelve and forty years old, as long as her appearance was not too childish or too obese.
It is said that these women were used as a weapon of seduction in the wars, both between the tribes themselves in the different islands and with the colonizers upon their arrival. The settlers upon arriving in Tahitian lands after months of sailing and meeting the tribes offered their women, even the chief’s own daughter.
They believed that by giving them their women, the foreigners became “theirs”; thus, they ceased to be an enemy and became another inhabitant of their village. This way they would be close to them in case there was any betrayal on their part and they would be close and unaware of it.
For this reason the concept of “la vahine” although it appeared to be an act of generosity, the reality was an act of war of these women who trapped the foreigners with their sensuality and obeyed the orders whoever was the man to whom they were delivered.
It is from this myth that the concept is born in Tahitian mythology that coitus always precedes love; thus many men throughout history have fallen into this trap of sensuality and love.
Symbology in Tahitian Mythology
In Tahitian mythology there are many highlights that represent their symbology. They have a very expressive culture of great value throughout their islands; inherited from their ancestors of Ma’ohi origin.
Where dance and music arise in a magical way, and sports had a mythical meaning; javelin throwing was the sport of the gods, kings supported the development of surfing, there were rowing and heavy stone lifting competitions for everyday men where they could demonstrate their strengths.
Tattoos play a very important role in Tahitian mythology, their meaning comes from the word “tatau” and the symbols of each tattoo are personal; since each drawing tells the personal story of each Tahitian.
Each stroke of the tattoo represents the connection of the ancestors with the present and the future. Tohu, is the god of the tatau; and has the power to provide the existence and meaning of each tattoo.
The tattoos symbolize beauty and marked the culmination of adolescence in every Tahitian; it represents in their culture a sacred bond between the zeal and the earth.
Mythological origin of the tattoo
Although there are countless legends about the origin of the tatau, it is not very clear what it is; but it is true that they share one element: they are a gift from the gods to men.
One of the legends of the island of Tahiti tells us that the first tatau were given to the children of the supreme god of creation. They taught men how to use the tatau and thus became the divinities of tattoos.
Historical origin of the tattoo
There are no records that tell us with certainty the origins in the history of tattoos, since their existence dates back to before the Maori civilization. It is very probable that its existence was already in the migrations that came from Asia.
There are indications that the tattoo prevailed in all the islands; it spread throughout Polynesia and its greatest influence was in the Marquesas Islands due to the complexity of its meaning.
Sacred meaning of the tattoo
Tattoos, being considered in its history as a gift from the gods to men, gives it a fundamental sacred meaning; and through tattoos they had the obtaining of a supernatural power over people. For they provided protection to Tahitians from losing their mana.
The tattoos also represented the level of prestige of each person; as well as symbolized their health, fertility and balance. They were also used to ward off negative energies from the universe.
Types of tattoos
Among Tahitians we can observe the relevance of three types of tattoos:
- The ari’i: they are related to the gods and priests; they were strictly hereditary and for that reason were reserved only for direct descendants.
- The Hui ari’i: they were only for the chiefs of each tribe, both men and women alike.
- The Hui to’a: they also received other names such as Hui ra’atira, iato’ai or manahune; this type of tattoo was especially for warriors, war chiefs, oarsmen, among others.
Function of tattoos in Tahitian society
Tattoos represented the different social levels in Tahitian mythology. According to the type of tattoo of the person it was very easy to locate his social position within his family, tribe and even in a territory.
It also reflects which sacred rituals he has gone through such as adolescence or marriage. As well as the feats lived by that person, war hero, fisherman, hunter, among others.
There is a diversity of meanings of tattoos within the Tahitian society, they could even be simply decorative in nature; and although they were not mandatory, it was considered disrespectful for a Tahitian not to wear at least one tattoo.
Function of tattoos in the afterlife
Tahitians believed that beyond life there was a country called “Hawaiki”; there lived the mythical gods and their ancestors.
When people left this world they took their tattoos with them, since they were permanent on their skin, they took them to Hawaiki to show their origin, their deeds and the social rank they had in life.
Tattoos by Island
Each of the islands that make up the Society Archipelago have individually developed each design and meaning of their tattoos. On the islands of the Marquesas, the tattoos are called “patu tiki”, and for them it means “to hit images”.
Another characteristic aspect of each island was the area of tattooing, in some islands it was the whole body including the face; while in others like for example the Leeward Islands, it was never usual to tattoo the face.
Despite the diversity of tattoos and meanings around all the islands, their original meaning has been lost over the years.
Tools used for tattooing
The tools used to perform the tattoos consisted of: a comb made of bones, which had closed edges; and a tortoise shell or a mother-of-pearl, which was attached to a wooden rod.
The way in which these tattoos were made was a very painful and even late process; they could last days, weeks, months and even years making a tattoo. For this reason they were considered as a ritual.
The process of making the tattoos they had consisted of bathing the comb in the ink, which was made of Indian nut charcoal diluted with water or oil. They placed the teeth of the comb under the skin to hit it with the wooden stick, and in this way they made an incision; this way the ink penetrated completely into the skin.
They called tattooers the priests in charge of performing this work in the different islands; they were also called in their language as “tahu’a tatau”. This work was hereditary and passed from generation to generation; it was highly remunerated and within the society they were highly regarded.
Prohibitions on tattooing
This practice of tattooing was disappearing until its totality as a consequence of the arrival of Christianity, once the missionaries established in these lands around the XVIII century.
The different religions that were adopted in the islands protested to remove tattoos from the new Christian society. In 1819 King Pomare II established a code of rules that abolished the practice of tattoos in the islands.
With the code of norms and the protests by the new religions, the tradition and meaning of tattoos was lost with the passing of history.
Today, tattoo artists still exist on the different islands; foreigners are successively attracted by the beauty and reputation that precedes the tatau.
Even many of today’s tattoo artists practice in different cities of the world. Among them are: Paris, London or New York.
Tahitian mythology tattoos are internationally recognized because of their traditional roots, beauty, history and meaning.
Music and dance
After the missionaries arrived in Tahiti, they wanted to eliminate all traces of their joyful music and sensual dances from their traditions. In ancient times, music and dance were used to pray to their gods or ancestors, to seduce a person, to welcome visitors, to challenge enemies, among others.
In spite of these attempts to eliminate their traditional customs, even today dance and music symbolize a fundamental point in Tahitian mythology.
Originally, the instruments used to create music were bamboo drums, the ihara, and the nasal flute; called vivo. Although it was considered that any instrument could make music such as stones, shells and even coconuts. Today, the most common musical instruments are stringed and percussion instruments.
The most common are the to’ere, the fa’alete, the pahu which consists of two drums played with sticks and the pahu tupa i’rima which is a drum played with the hands. Other outstanding instruments are the ukulele and the guitar.
were considered profane and described events in the daily life of the Tahitians. In some cases, evidence of group singing has been found, such as tapa weaving; known as bark weaving.
In the festivities and celebrations they were very common to the rhythm of the pahu drums; the songs were very influenced by the sailors coming from Europe who loved the profane songs.
Also very noticeable was the influence of the missionaries, who brought the hymns to the Tahitian culture. In the end, the hymns that adopted Tahitian mythology were created as a mixture of religious songs brought by the missionaries and the Polynesian songs existing in the islands before the Europeans.
there are three main types of hymns: the ru’au, himene son and ute. the first two have their origin in pre-European times; and are used to praise their chiefs and even entire clans, myths and exploits. every island has these hymns, but each has its own meaning of these.
Before the arrival of the Europeans, the dances were numerous and very varied; although nowadays much of this tradition has been lost. Due to the loss of the dances over the years, there are very few records of them. However, it is known that women and men could dance together or separately.
Some of the dances were practiced seated and others standing. The prohibition of these dances was due to the fact that the missionaries considered them profane because of their lack of modesty, witnessing nudity and tattoos.
It was not until the 50’s of the last century, that the presence of dances was reflected thanks to the oral transmissions of knowledge of Tahitian customs.
Types of dances
The Tahitian dance is the most influential in all the islands; however, some of the islands have managed to preserve their own dances. The most common are: the bird dance in the Marquesas Islands, the kapa dance in the Tuamotu Islands and the pe’i dance in the Gambier Islands.
Of the types of Tahitian dances, they are classified into four types:
- The otea: originally a dance reserved for warriors; and is the most prominent within the islands. the rhythmic motifs that make up this dance are called pehe and the instruments that generally accompany it are percussion.
- The aparima: this dance is characterized by the mime act performed by its dancers to tell the stories. it is generally mute and is practiced on their knees. The accompanying instruments are percussion instruments.
- The hivinau: in this dance a mixed circle of men and women is performed, then a man who is in the center of the circle makes a repetitive chorus. The instrument that accompanies this dance is the drum to the rhythm of the soloist.
- The pa’o’a: is inspired by the making of the tapa; they make a semicircle and a soloist makes a chorus with the theme. A couple is chosen to perform a dance in the middle of the circle; shouting several times the words “hi!” and ” ha!”.
Craftsmanship in Tahitian mythology
The most used technique was the braiding; this was reflected in bags, hats, baskets, among others. Their main working materials were the vegetable fibers found in pandanus, cane leaves or coconut trees. Also very famous were the tifaifai, they called this way to their hand-sewn bedspreads made by women; where with their motifs they reflected the love for nature and vegetables.
Other very well worked material was the wood, of this work the men were in charge; from sculpting figures of their ancestors or making graphics and symbols, to the manufacture of several pieces of utility; among them spears, maces, among others.
The materials used to sculpt these pieces were commonly precious woods, called tou and the false pink wood called miro. Other materials used by the artisans were volcanic stones, corals and even bones; with these they made pieces for decorative purposes, for war or for use in daily tasks.
The last but not least material they discovered was the “pearl”. Fascinated by its beauty and variety of tones, it was used to make jewelry and dresses for dances and decoration.
Influence of flowers in Tahitian mythology
The flora present all around the islands are of a great variety of species and have a great significance in Tahitian mythology. There are many uses that have been given to them throughout history within the traditions of this culture; the most used flower was the “tiare Tahiti”.
This flower was generally used to make wreaths with them, which were usually given to visitors and relatives returning from long trips as a sign of welcome. The presence of this flower was also very important in the tradition of couples; people who wore this flower in their left ear, whether they were male or female, meant that this person was already married.
Places of worship in Tahitian mythology
Few aspects are known about the sacred places for Tahitians and their ancestral rituals. However, there is the existence of some temples and spaces that left traces in their history.
Temple of the ash
In the interior of Tahiti, was hidden the famous “Temple of Ash”; called Marae Arahurahu. It was completely surrounded by mountains over 2000 meters high.
In the middle of these mountains, there is a flattened ground where the sacred place is located; surrounded by a wall and boards with banners made of tree bark and engraved signs. At the entrance, even today you can still see different figures made of wood with diabolical aspects to keep visitors away.
The Ahu is a sanctuary of the islanders where they performed their sacred ceremonies. It is an altar that has a height greater than 3 meters; it was built with basalt blocks. Its structure forms a pyramid in a staggered manner. It is believed that this is the place where the gods descended from the heavens to Tahiti.
In this sacred place only the gods and priests were allowed to be present; the chief of the tribe could only enter once, and that was at the moment he received his coronation.
Conclusion abouut Tahitian Mythology
Tahitian mythology is an inheritance of the Maori culture; where they have an extensive and rich culture where the gods mark the legends and the daily life of Tahitians.
It is the union of the ancient peoples formed by the Archipelago of solitude and is also considered a variant of Polynesian mythology. The space that existed between their islands caused differences among their tribes, and they adopted different beliefs in each island.
Despite having a unique religion, after the arrival of the colonizers over the years their religion was suppressed and changed to Christianity.