Throughout this trip the open-air sanctuaries called “Maraes”, which were once the centre of power and spiritual ceremonies in French Polynesian culture, have been a huge draw for me. Though they often look like a ragged and disorganised pile of stones there is something about the sites that are tranquil and calming. The biggest one on Tahiti is nestled in a large tree lined valley. Cupped and protected by the mountain, it feels sacred and intimate. Most of the others we’ve visited have been on the coast and have an airier, more expansive aura; the salty water and sea breezes limiting the vegetation that grows, so feeling less enclosed.
These ancient sites can be reliably dated to the 12th century, but with the knowledge that these islands were first populated in 869 it’s a fair to assume there was some form of sacred place for community gatherings from this time.
The Marae was the place reserved for ceremonial activities for both the social and religious realms of the ancient Polynesians. They consisted of a huge rectangular courtyard made from volcanic stone and coral, upon which a platform or “ahu” was erected.
It was a meeting point between humans and the divine, whose help it was necessary to gain for all their activities. Many ceremonies which included prayers, invocations and sacrifices took place at harvest time and for fishing, voyaging and war as well as recognising the social organisation and pronounced hierarchy of the Polynesians. Young Chiefs were inaugurated here and there are still some of the “Y” shaped stones upon which young boys would sit for the ceremony of circumcision – an eye watering prospect.
The most significant and spiritual of all the Maraes was Taputapuatea in Raaitea. This sprawling site dates from the 17th century and was the centre of spiritual power in Polynesia when the first Europeans arrived, and its influence was international: ari’i (chiefs) from all over the Maohi world, including the Australs, the Cook Islands and New Zealand, came here for important ceremonies.
Though the Marae are not used regularly for spiritual or social ceremonies these days I was touched to see that offerings were still made on some of the proud stones that were still standing. They consisted of shells, bracelets, necklaces, earthenware pots and wooden sculptures. As I sat on the warm stones offering my own prayers and wishes, I wondered who it was who had left these small tokens of themselves. What were their concerns, their hopes and dreams? What did they believe in and give thanks for? Are they so very different from me?
I was also struck by the presence, in nearly all the Maraes we visited, of the “Te Anu”. This is a large sculpted piece of wood which represented the big stars or “pillars of the sky” and were often dedicated to the guardian of a family or tribe. They were made from the wood of the breadfruit tree and reminded me of elongated Afro combs. There is little evidence of the presence of traditional spiritual expression in modern day Polynesia, so it was encouraging to see that artists are still making these ancient totems.
Ti’i (the Polynesian Tiki) are also seen at many of the Maraes. They are anthropomorphic figures made from wood, coral or stone and as they were viewed as guardians or protective spirits they were often placed at the entrance or boundaries of the Maraes.
My other interest was in their death and burial rites. In the Marae was the Fare Tupapa’u, a wooden or bamboo shelter with a long table upon which the deceased was placed in a lying or sitting position.
During the day it was exposed to the harsh sunlight, the skin constantly rubbed with coconut oil. This was to preserve the tattoos which had been etched on to the skin. Tattoos were not simply decorative, they told the life story of the person and as such were important to preserve. It’s not clear whether these desiccated pieces of hide were eventually buried with the body or kept by the family. Important individuals, having been exposed to the sun in this manner for sometime, would then be taken to their ancestral Marae and after decomposition their skull would be recovered and cleaned and venerated as a deified ancestor. In Bora Bora we visited the Kings Tomb.
This was a vast, sacred Banyan tree high up on the hillside above the sparkling, turquoise lagoon. In the long, straight roots which grew down from the branches in to the boulder strewn land, narrow crevices and hollows formed. When the Kings of the tribe died they were mummified, brought to this sacred tree and were placed upright, within the network of roots. In time more roots would grow and totally encase the body. It was a sobering thought, sitting before this cathedral like tree, to imagine the many royal skeletons that lay entombed within.
A tradition that is still practiced by many Polynesians today is that of saving the umbilical cord of their children. This is buried in the garden of their property and when they die their body is reunited with the umbilical cord and buried in the same spot. The circle of arriving and leaving this earth is completed.
It was difficult to get a sense of the spiritual life of Tahitians in the modern day. Despite being friendly and hospitable, they are private people. Certainly the Christian religion has superseded their own ancient, more pagan-like spirituality and churches are more abundant and more regularly attended than the Maraes. However, all the islands are steeped in wonderful myths and stories and, to me, exude those special qualities I so often find in nature and associate with my own spiritual life. A wildness which can be both thrilling and terrifying. A feeling of freedom and expansion which can easily slide in to an awareness of how small and insignificant one is. The ignition of curiosity and wonder and so much gratitude. The experience of things as being both simple and yet also being aware of the layers of complexity. So, lots of contradictions, but in essence a feeling of being one with something so much larger than myself. Perhaps it was something like this for ancient Polynesians, perhaps it’s like this for the people of the islands now. I can only guess. I am simply a visitor here and am acutely aware that there are many mysteries and facets to this deep and complex culture.