Prof. Friedrich Ratzel

The Races of Oceania

Religion in Oceania

Legend of Papa and Kaka

Separation of Heaven and Earth

Rangi-Ru and Maui

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Legend of Papa and Kaka


Although the existence of the gods had a beginning, it knows no end: so they hold in Tonga. Earth, heaven, all things, are of themselves divine; and therefore Pa, the Night, is placed at the beginning. Po was in labour for ten nights, and on the tenth appeared Kaka, father of Rangi and Papa, from whom sprang Tane, with his eight brothers. The nights had special names, to which the priests gave a profound interpretation. Similarly, among the Maoris, creation commences with the night. After untold periods desire awakes, then longing, then feeling. Thought follows upon the first pulse of life, or the first breath drawn; and upon thought, mental activity. Then springs up the wish, directed to the sacred mystery or great riddle of life. Later, from the material procreative power of love is developed the clinging to existence, permeated by a joyous sense of pleasure. Lastly, Atea, the universe, floats in space, divided by the difference of sex into Rangi and Papa, Heaven and Earth; and individual creations now begin. Bastian asks in reference to this towering structure of thought: "Did some disguised Anaximander or Pythagoras wander this way?" In every phrase, as we may say, are found resemblances with Asiatic or American cosmogonies. There is no need to refer to the Egyptian Ru and Buto, sun and night; every cosmogonic idea of the Oceanians has relatives east and west of the Ocean.


Papa and Rangi held each other in a tight embrace

Papa and Rangi held each other in a tight embrace. [From Wikipedia - Ed.]


Separation of Heaven and Earth

Papa, the Earth, and Rangi, the sky, lay in close contact with each other. From the attempts of poetry to explain their separation, and the consequent vaulting of heaven, sprang the whole legend of the gods, taking one form in Tahiti, another in Tonga, yet another in Samoa.

Rangi-Ru and Maui

A more localised variation brings us from Ru-Rongo, the god of heaven, to Tangaroa. Kaka, brother to Papa, the earth, represents the sky, or the light, in contrast to her. In Hawaii he appears as Wakea, and Papa's husband, who, in conjunction with her gives birth to many generations of gods, notably the series of the Mauis. Diving into the depths of the sea, he united himself with the sea-goddess; and after he had returned to land, the Moa-birds begotten of this union lighted on his shoulders.

Idol from New Zealand

Idol from New Zealand. Approx 26cm high
(Christy Collection)

Metaphysical interpretations of what preceded the creation of earth are only conceivable among Polynesians of a large community, where a regular priestly order rendered a strict tradition possible - as in Hawaii, the Society Islands, or New Zealand. Where the lore was handed on only by the mixed society of the secret leagues, the history of creation remains wholly in the region of fable or legend. No doubt the outlines show faintly through, and some names recur; but in details the conception has changed. It is with an interest born of old acquaintance that we find carpenters and artists in Mortlock worshipping the zenith under the name Lageilang as their most special patron-god; by his nature he must be Rangi.

Still more familiar, as we go east, is the notion of the sky as found in the Gilberts, according to which it was a spherical shell lying close to the earth, which a hero helped the gods to push higher. His sister, in the form of a cuttle-fish, supported him. Brother and sister appear otherwise, in the process of creation, as representing the male and female principles - as in the Mariannes, the Carolines, Pelews, and elsewhere.

The character of the Melanesian variations on Polynesian legends of the gods is that of a jocose, almost anecdotic lowering of them to humbler spheres. What is myth in Polynesia here becomes fairy-tale, losing thereby in grandeur, but gaining in human affability. The primitive inhabitants of the islands, who correspond to the Kalits of Micronesia, are no giants, but helpful gnomes; and their chief, Marawa, still shows treasures hidden in clefts of the rocks to poor people who confide in him. Sportive turns are in accordance with the cheerful nature of these curly-haired folk.

In the New Hebrides they say of the creator, that he first made men go on all fours, and pigs upright. But this annoyed the birds and reptiles, and they called a meeting, at which the lizard was foremost in demanding a change, while the wagtail strongly opposed. The lizard forced his way through, crawled up a coco-palm, and jumped down on the back of a pig, making it drop on to its fore-legs. Since then pigs go on all fours, men upright.

But the value of these traditions is quite misunderstood, if, as for obvious reasons the missionaries are apt to do, we see in these spirits, who at bottom are cosmogonic figures, only the heroes of fairy tales. The Polynesian legend of the fishing up of the land from the depths of the sea takes the following form in Yap: Mathikethik went out fishing with his two elder brothers. First, he hooked up crops of all sorts, and taro; then the island of Fais. His hook is kept by the priests; and since, if it were destroyed, Fais also would disappear, the inhabitants of that island are in constant subjection to the menaces of the Yap chiefs. Thus can a great piece of cosmogonic imagery sink to the level of trick and superstition.

The connection of creative activity with sun and moon, still so clear in Polynesia, has become in Micronesia quite legendary. In Pelew they relate how a man and his wife, tired of staying in that island, went to the stone in Eymelijk whence they sprung, and called on the moon. It approached, and they climbed on to a serpent's neck, and so reached the moon, where they may now be seen. Other sun and moon notions take a similarly odd form. When the moon wanes, sorcerers are eating it in dough. The sun shines at night in another country.

Once upon a time four men in Pelew, seeing the sun setting, leaped hastily into a canoe. They went on till they got to the denges-tree, and the sun asked what they wanted. The people said, to visit him; and he told them to let their canoe drift, and plunge down after him. The islanders did so, and found themselves in a strange country, in a well-built house, where the sun entertained them. The viands served in the dishes were tiny in size, but got no smaller with eating. At length the people prepared to depart; but as their canoe had floated away, the sun took a thick bamboo-cane, an article hitherto unknown in Pelew, and shut them in it. He bade the bamboo float to Ngarginkl; the men arrived there safely, and became the four highest chiefs. But the bamboo floated away to Ngareko-basango, where there are thickets of bamboo to this day, but none on Peleliu. In remembrance of their deed, however, the people of Ngarginkl are allowed to fetch bamboos from thence.

The birth of the creator from stone or from the earth is the starting-point of Fijian and New Hebridean cosmogony. Ndengeh's priests point out a rock, which rises from a river at the foot of the hill which he inhabits, and say it is his father. The interpretation is to be found in the connection between father Heaven and mother Earth. Thus among the Banks Islanders the supreme god, Qat, emerges from a stone, which was his mother; and then with the help of his companion, Marawa, creates the rest of the world. Marawa is invoked with Qat in all emergencies, and may easily be recognised as the legendary Maui of New Zealand and Hawaii. Qat was doomed to be slain, but succeeded in climbing a nutmeg-tree. He had hardly reached the top when, by the arts of his hostile brothers, the tree grew higher and higher, and became of such circumference that Qat could not have got down again, had not Marawa, seeing his friend's difficulty, blown to earth a thread, or a hair from his head. Here we have the sun; and the tree of heaven is the same as that by way of whose top, in another story, the whole group of Tongaros saved themselves from a hostile spirit.1

1 [The Tongaros are Qat's brothers. Marawa is occasionally a spider.]

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