Prof. Friedrich Ratzel

The Races of Oceania

Religion in Oceania

Cosmogany and mythology; views of Nature

The Tii

Beginnings of metaphysics

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Cosmogany and mythology; views of Nature

The highest gods were bound together by a common origin from Chaos or Po, anterior to all existence; these were called the offspring of Night. Then demigods and heroes, as well as even men of high birth, made their way into the circle, with the result of obscuring Polynesian mythology. These late-promoted were often just the most considered in the realm of gods, even though they might be locally limited.

Ancestral images from Easter Island

Ancestral images from Easter Island - approx. 930mm high. (Munich Museum.)

Tangaroa the Polynesian Zeus, god of the sun, the firmament, the horizon

On the other hand, to one only belongs, in the highest measure, a profounder connection with cosmogony; this is Tangaroa, who is revered even in remoter islands, as Taaroa and Kanaloa. A Raiatean legend gives a grand picture of his all-pervading power; how at first, concealed in an egg-shaped shell, he hovered around in the dark space of air, until weary of the monotonous movement, he stretched forth his hands and rose upright, and all became light around him. He looked down to the sand on the sea-shore, and said: "Come up hither." The sand replied: "I cannot fly to thee in the sky." Then he said to the rocks: "Come up hither to me." They answered: "We are rooted in the ground, and cannot leap on high to thee." So the god came down to them, flung off his shell, and added it to the mass of the earth, which became greater thereby. From the sherds of the shell were made the islands. Then he formed men out of his back, and turned himself into a boat. As he rowed in the storm, space was filled with his blood, which gave its colour to the sea, and, spreading from the sea to the air, made the morning and evening glows. At last his skeleton, as it lay on the ground with the backbone uppermost, became an abode for all gods, and at the same time the model for the temple; and Tangaroa became the sky.

In other traditions he appears as the Polynesian Neptune; and he was also worshipped as the guardian of those who went to sea in dug-out canoes. Lastly, as the giver of the model for the temple, he was the patron of artists. It is indeed obvious enough for a maritime people to make the god of the sea the father and the first of the gods. While it is under his supreme sway that creation develops from plants through reptiles to men, these last were finished by the god Naio, and brought nearer to the gods themselves. This Naio, who arranges the revolution of the sun and the fixity of the earth, leads ultimately to the Maui of New Zealand. By this addition of subsidiary or assistant gods, Tangaroa's position as time went on got obliterated. He was called the Uncreated, the Survivor from the age of Night, and hymned as follows:-

Taaroa like the seed-ground, Taaroa, widest spreading, Taaroa all around us,
Taaroa, rocks' foundation, Taaroa, light forth-breaking, Taaroa down beneath us,
Taaroa, rocks' foundation, Taaroa rules within us, Taaroa. lord of wisdom.

The places where he was publicly worshipped were but few. With his wife, by whom he had a son and a daughter, who in their turn had two sons, he is the first to emerge from Chaos; and embracing the rocky soil he begat land and sea. But when the forerunners of the day - the dark-blue and light-blue sky - came to him, begging a soul for the earth, he bade his son Raitubu to carry out his will. He, by merely looking at heaven and earth, produced all that is in earth, sky, and sea.

In Tangaroa's gigantic creative force, which allows good and evil to proceed from it indiscriminately, the root of his transformation to an evil principle may already be seen. In Tonga he eclipses the sun, and meets us in Hawaii as the evil spirit among the four chief deities. In Fiji, tagaloa means the odour of a corpse.

The Tii

In connection with Tangaroa another divine figure represents the man-forming side of his creation; many traditions record Tii as the father of the human race, with his wife as the mother of mankind. Sprung from the alliance of a descendant of Tangaroa's with the sand of the shore, he himself formed his own wife, and their children were the patriarchs of the human race. In Opoa, two Tiis - one of the land, one of the sea - are said to have taken human bodies, and to have peopled the islands, hitherto inhabited by gods only.

But some held that Tii and Tangaroa were one and the same being, like the sun by day and by night. Some again asserted of each alike that he was the first man who, living on after his death, was called by the name; whence also the spirits of the departed had received this appellation.

This legend looks like an extension of the notion, which is spread all over Polynesia, of Tangaroa the creator; he and his wife were made to have inhabited and peopled all the islands in succession. Tii is in more ways a benefactor of the human race, by raising the heaven above the earth, by mutilating the earthquake god, by bringing fire, and creating man. Thereby he is closely linked with Maui; and consistently with this we meet him in the Society Isles as god of light, sprung from the sun and moon.

Beginnings of metaphysics

Thus did mythology develop from cosmogony, and here too it owes its existence mainly to a dim impulse towards knowledge. The impulse towards an arrangement of the conceptions of the next world has contributed something to it. Lords of heaven and hell were needed. Thus the eternal mirror of anthropomorphic impulse casts upon the deep shining sky, and upon the wide horizon of its island home, magnified and distorted human figures as bearers of the creative and destructive forces of nature. And they who there act and suffer gigantically are genuine Polynesians all the while.

Efforts after dominion and power, jealous claims to honour and possession, inexorable vengeance for neglect, are common to all; not one is adorned with moral pre-eminence, surpassing wisdom, or spontaneous goodness; crimes of every sort find example and encouragement in the spirit-world. Thus even the highest beings are drawn down to earth by the polytheism which makes them in the likeness of men. Only in the beginnings of creation is the impulse to express in an image some inkling of the origin and interdependence of beings preserved. Creation begins in profound metaphysical depths. Here mythology goes near to bring forth science.

Poetry and legend struggle to explain the riddle of the world, but in vain. Yet it is a brilliant testimony to the intellectual ability of the Polynesians. If their development in other domains had kept pace with it, they would have been a race of high distinction; but at bottom the limitations of a life confined to the islands recur everywhere within their wide sea-horizon. The very beginning of cosmogony followed the course of natural development: the central point of the world came into existence by land being cast up from the primeval bottom, and later-discovered islands were fished up by heroes. Moreover, the whole is permeated by the view that the primitive forces of Nature, from which, personified as gods, the world of phenomena has come forth, are always striving, in pursuance of a process of development which is originally included in them, to swallow it up again.

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