Sacred Birds of Land and Sky

Some places in Polynesian have so much history with them that you feel like that the stones almost cry out. Maraes (worship grounds) are like that.

The Cook Islanders say that the first people in the world came out of a hole in a ground that was located at the marae of Taputapuatea on the island of Havaiki (modern day Raiatea in the Society Islands). Marae Taputapuatea was an old marae in the 1200’s. Up until that time Polynesians would gather there every few years for great ceremonies. But an argument arose between two groups during a ceremony which led to warfare.

After the fighting the only people who continued to come to Taputapuatea were the people from the Society Islands. For them, Taputapuatea was their national marae.

Since the introduction of Christianity Marae Taputapuatea is abandoned. The people no longer come.

Shortly before Christianity came Marae Taputapuatea was the site of a prophecy from a tahu’a (priest) named Vaita. This story is from ‘Ancient Tahiti’ by Teuira Henry who is quoting/translating the words of two priests of Bora-Bora, Auna-iti and Vai-au, who made these statements in 1823.

“At Opoa, at one of the last great gatherings of the Hau-pahu-nui, for idolatrous worship, before the arrival of European ships, a strange thing happened during our solemn festivity. Just at the close of the pa’i-atua ceremony, there came a whirlwind which plucked off the head of a tall spreading tamanu tree, named Paruru-mata’i-i-a’ana (Screen-from-wind-of-aggravating crime), leaving the bare trunk standing. This was very remarkable, as tamanu wood is very hard and close-grained.

“Awe struck the hearts of all present. The representatives of each people looked at those of the other in silence for some time, until at last a priest of Opoa named Vaita (Smitten-water) exclaimed, “E homa, eaha ta outou e feruri nei? (Friends, upon what are you meditating?) “Te feruri nei matou i te tapa’o o teie ra’au i motu nei, a’ita te ra’au nei i motu mai te po au’iu’i mai (We are wondering what the breaking of this tree may be ominous of; such a thing has not happened to our trees from the remotest ages),” the people replied.

“Then Vaita feeling inspired proceeded to tell the meaning of this strange event:

“Te ite nei au, tei mua ia`u nei te aura’a o teie nei peu maere rahi! Tena mai te fanau’a ‘una’una na te Tumu, e haere mai e hi’o i teie uru ra’au i Taputapuatea nei. E tino ’e to ratou e tino ’e to tatou, ho’e ana’e ra huru, no te Tumu mai, e e riro teie nei fenua ia ratou. E mou teie ha’apaoraa tahito nei, e e tae te manu mo’a o te moana, e te fenua nei, e haere mai e ta’ihaa i ta teie ra’au i motu e ha’api’i nei.

“I see before me the meaning of this strange event! There are coming the glorious children of the Trunk (God), who will see these trees here, in Taputapuatea. In person, they differ from us, yet they are the same as we, from the Trunk, and they will possess this land. There will be an end to our present customs, and the sacred birds of sea and land will come to mourn over what this tree that is severed teaches.

“This unexpected speech amazed the priests and sages, and we enquired where such people were to be found. “Te haere mai nei na ni’a i te ho’e paha ama ‘ore (They are coming on a ship without an outrigger),” was Vaita’s reply. “We have seen ships that men learned to build from Hiro, but they always have outriggers or they would upset, and how can what you say be true?” we said.

“Then a high priest of Huahine, named Tereroa, derided Vaita and told him he had gone back to childhood or was insane; and two other priests of Opoa, named Hua-tere and Fa’aarahia, reasoned with him against such a statement, and finally the dignitaries all dispersed, none being convinced that Vaita spoke the truth.

“Soon King Tamatoa heard of the discussion and sent for Vaita to come to his house and explain the matter to him; so he went willingly, and there he found his brother priests and a great throng who had assembled to hear him. Vaita was received kindly by the king, who however was doubtful of what he said. Then in order to illustrate the subject, Vaita, seeing a large umete (wooden trough) at hand asked the king to send some men with it and place it balanced with stones in the sea, which was quickly done, and there the umete sat upon the waves with no signs of upsetting amid the applauding shouts of the people.

“But anger raged in the hearts of all us priests, save Fa’aarahia, who, with the king, sided with the majority of the people; and then we parted, we priests swearing vengeance upon him in the event of his prediction proving false. But we had not long to wait for its fulfillment.” end of quote

We have just read the prophecy that the sacred birds of land and sea would come to Taputapuatea and mourn for the loss of the ancient religion.

In the 1930’s Taputapuatea was visited by several anthropologists. One, a half Maori, named Peter H. Buck (Te Rangi Hiroa), wrote of his feelings in ‘Vikings of the Pacific’. These are his words.

"We took pictures of speechless stone and inanimate rock. I had made my pilgrimage to Taputapu-atea, but the dead could not speak to me. It was sad to the verge of tears. I felt a profound regret, a regret for -- I know not what. Was it for the beating of the temple drum or the shouting of the populace as the king was raised on high? Was it for the human sacrifices of olden times? It was for none of these individually but for something at the back of them all, some living spirit and divine courage that existed in ancient times and of which Taputapu-atea was a mute symbol.
"It was something that we Polynesians have lost and cannot find, something that we yearn for and cannot recreate. The background in which that spirit has engendered has changed beyond recovery. The bleak wind of oblivion had swept over Opoa. Foreign weeds grew over the unintended courtyard, and stones had fallen from the sacred altar of Taputapu-atea. The gods had long ago departed. To keep down the rising tide of feeling, I said bruskly in the American vernacular, 'Lets go'.


This is something that I posted on the Kava Bowl about three years ago. (I kept the original on a disk). I want to add that at the very end Te Rangi Hiroa is referring to Polynesians having lost something. Many today would call it culture. Others argue that the culture is not lost, it has only changed. Te Rangi Hiroa is saying that something is lost, he could have called it culture, may be what he really means doesn’t have a word for it. The word culture is only an approximation for what the thing really is. Perhaps the real word is ‘intensity’ or ‘fire’ or mana.

I have found a prophecy in a book and I found the fulfillment of the prophecy in another book. These two things make an interesting contrast which may give words to people who want to express feelings about culture.


(Peter H. Buck in Vikings of the Pacific, Chapter 7: The Center of the Triangle).

Posted: March 16, 1999

Copyright © 1996 Daniel (Taniera) Longstaff