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Marae and Tikis

One essential common point among all Polynesian people is, without a doubt, their like to celebrate great feast on sacred ground. This vital need to communicate on a daily basis with the powers from beyond would incite them to  maintain a particular devotion with their divinities. Such devotion was expressed through great pious ceremonies where everybody took part and that were regulated by the tahua:  the "High Priests" who were true intermediaries between the people and their gods. To celebrate these rituals, the Ma'ohi used large sacred ground not far from each village: the marae.

CLICK to enlarge.The Marae

Marae were dedicated to the social, religious and cultural activities of a group or even a family. Many remains of these marae are found throughout all the islands in the Pacific archipelago, from Easter Island's "ahu" to the traditional marae of the Society Island. It is here, on these ancient platforms, that religious ceremonies took place. This is where the sensual magic of Polynesian dancing was born and where the first polyphonic songs were heard. It is on these marae that physical and sport activities were created to honor the many gods of Polynesian mythology. It is in these strange and taboo places, filled with mystery that sacrifices were performed, that justice was rendered, that government ruled, that decisions were made and that people met to communicate with each other. A landmarks of sport activities, of diplomatic encounters and of idea sharing, the marae encouraged cultural exchanges.


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People would gather there, above al,l to worship their gods and to ask them to favorably influence the elements. They would meet there to pray, praise the gods and dance before harvess, births and before going to war, in order to obtain the gods' blessings. Pagan worshipping has disappeared today, but marae still stand. There are still hundred of marae left today throughout Polynesia. A few dozens have been restored and are used in historical reconstitutions such as the marae of Arahurahu and Taata in Tahiti, and of course Polynesia's largest Marae in Taputapuatea, in Raiatea Island, which is inscribed on UNESCO's World Heritage list.

in the old days, marae were dedicated to the community's social and religious activities. The "Fare Pupu" (the village's meeting place) and the "Fare Tahua" (the priests' residence) were near the marae. The most sacred area of this high worship place was called the ahu. Mortals were not admitted on this taboo platform. Only the tahua (the priests) could go there to meet with supernatural powers, the divinities and the dead). Marae were rankedaccording to several categories. First were those where the archipelago chiefs gathered and that were dedicated to the God of war, Oro. This was the case with Taputapuatea in Raiatea. Then came the so-called national marae, under the supervision of a high priest, the tahua pure rahi and a major chief, the arii. There, sumptuous ceremonies took place where the arii proclamed the gods' absolute power. Human sacrifices were common there. Then came smaller marae, the marae mata'eina, where clans from neighboring valleys would gather under the authority of a local chief. As to ancesters marae (marae tupuna) they were family holy places reserved to only one clan. They were built on private family land and generally bore their name. They were also social marae (marae o te va'a mata'eina), reserved to those who wanted to join a same mind community. Finally the last category of marae was reserved to specialists. Medicine iests, fihing priests or building priests (canoes, houses, etc.) exercised their authority there. 


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The Tikis:  gods' representation

It is around 1400-1450 that the art of sculpture came of age with the appearance of the first stone tikis. Originating in the Marquesas, the tiki invaded the Polynesian Triangle under various representations. It is most often found in the form of statues, but it is also seen on canoe prows, on the chief's clubs, etc. It is also found in the form of jewelry, carved in sperm-whale ivory and even in human bones. It decorated to'ere (drums), umete (carved wood trays), etc. It is found not only in sculpture but also in graphic art and in tatoo patterns. It is a stocky and lofty male character, both   enigmatic and reassuring. His arms are folded down, his legs are bent. His head is held up and seems to be stuck on his body, he has no neck. As to his genitalia, they are particularly emphasized. It is on very old petroglyphs that archeologists first discovered tikis. These engraved and painted stones often showed faces with big rounded eyes, the original representation of Ma'ohi gods.

There were a lot of gods in Polynesian mythology, who each had a specific function. For the Ma'ohis, in these ancient times, gods and humans formed one single society. Gods had a human appearance, but they were stronger and had sacred powers: the mana and the ra'a. Each god had its own representation, whether animal, vegetal or mineral. They manifested themselves in two very distinct manners: the ata and the to'o.


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The ata, which means the shadow or the cloud, is a familiar object chosen by man to symbolize the god's incarnation: a stone, a tree, a fish, a bird, etc.. The to'o is a representation fabricated by the mortals, a stone, a piece of wood, carved to look like the god's image. Most of the time, these objects were decorated with red and yellow feathers, the emblems of divinity. Tikis became the popular heritage of these to'o. These sculptured figurines were very useful to their owner. They were also endowed with magic power. They were used to beat an enemy or to get protection from evil. They had their place in each fare in order to watch for the family's well-being. They were often displayed on marae dedicated to spirits. Tikis there were taking the place reserved to the priests.

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