Polynesian Accounts of Creation


Key notes

-Resembles with the holy trinities, felt like Athrahasis, felt like the first part explains the dimensions.

Tahitian texts recorded by John Orsmond before 1848 and edited by his daughter Teuira Henry for the Bishop Museum publications do contain quite similar concepts based upon a like nature philosophy in their treatment of cosmic forces.

From a creation story given to Orsmond in 1822 and repeated later by another reciter with but slight variation I quote from Miss Henry’s translation:

Ta’aroa was the ancestor of all the gods

Ta’aroa was the ancestor of all the gods; he made everything. . . . He was his own parent, having no father or mother. . . .

Ta’aroa sat in his shell (pa’a) in darkness (te po) for millions of ages. . . .

The shell was like an egg revolving in endless space, with no sky, no land, no sea, no moon, no sun, no stars.

All was darkness, it was continuous thick darkness (po tinitini ia e te ta’ota’o). . . .

But at last Ta’aroa gave his shell a filip which caused a crack resembling an opening for ants. Then he slipped out and stood upon his shell . . . he took his new shell for the great foundation of the world, for stratum rock and for soil for the world. And the shell . . . that he opened first, became his house, the dome of the god’s sky, which was a confined sky, enclosing the world (ao) then forming. . . .

Ta’aroa made the great foundation of the earth (te tumu nui o te fenua) to be the husband, and the stratum rock (te papa fenua) to be the wife . . . and he put his spirit into it, which was the essence of himself, and named it Ta’aroa-nui-tumu-tahi, Great-Ta’aroa-the-first-beginning.

Ta’aroa dwelt on for ages within the close sky . . . he conjured forth (rahu) gods (atua), and they were born to him in darkness (i fanau i te po). . . .

. . . It was much later that man (ta’ata) was conjured [forth] when Tu was with him.

Chaotic period

Another chant given to Orsmond in 1822 in Borabora and again in Tahiti describes a “chaotic period” after a condition of nothingness in which all was originally confined in a state of balance between such opposites as darkness (po) and light (ao), rapid and slow movement (huru maumau, huru mahaha), thinness (tahi rairai) and thickness (tahi a’ana). 

Pairs of rocks having “affinity between them” (e tau’a ta raua) are the first elements of growth. Tu (“Stability”) is conjured forth as artisan. “Roots (a’a) were born for growth in the world.” Ta’aroa fixes the dome of the earth upon pillars (pou) brought forth by Tumu-nui as male, Papa-raharaha as female parent.

This allows widening of the sky “upon the pillars of the land of Havai’i.” The po is extended, mountains grow, water rushes forth, ocean grows, rocks increase, skies increase to ten in number, rain falls, moss and slime appear, forests, food, the paper mulberry plant, creeping plants, weeds, all living things.

Atea is above in space—“Earth had become land and it was filled with living creatures. Fresh water flowed throughout the land, sea filled the ocean, and they [land and ocean] were filled with living creatures. But still all was in thick darkness (poiri ta’ota’o). . . .” All this is still taking place within the original shell (’apu) out of which Great Ta’aroa had formed the sky of the gods, the shell called Rumia, translated “upset” in the text.

Compare these Tahitian chants with the Kumulipo. The idea of a first cause in the person of an anthropomorphic deity presiding over creation is absent from the Hawaiian story.

In the Tahitian the concept is quite fully developed.

Ta’aroa (Kanaloa in Hawaii) “gives a filip and cracks the shell” in which he is confined. He crawls out and stands upon its outer edge.

He grows to be a lad, still within the “shell” out of which he has formed a sky for the new land. Ta’aroa feels weariness and delight.

Uttering an incantation to stabilize the forms

At one time he is a conjuror molding earth in his hands or uttering an incantation to stabilize the forms he has molded, at another time a god sending his essence into the rock Tumu-nui that it may unite with Papa-raharaha and upset the condition of equilibrium that has prevented growth and change.

Everything is Ta’aroa’s. He has created everything. All this is foreign to the Kumulipo. But the Tahitian chants stress, like the Hawaiian Kumulipo, the idea of affinity (tau’a) between pairs of natural forms.

They stress the period of darkness during which the shaping of earth and sea took place and their filling with living forms before man appeared.

In Maori myth one cosmogonic account takes the form of a family group like that in the Hawaiian “Chief-who-opened-heaven” to come down to earth and make the beautiful La’ila’i his wife.

Here it is the Wide-sky itself, Ranginui, who takes Papa-tu-a-nuku to wife, “sets” (hikaia) vegetation to cover her and “places” (makaia) small creatures “to animate the earth and the waters thereof.”

Gods are created, seventy of whom are named.

All are confined within the embrace of their parents, unable to move or stand upright. A glimmer of light shows and gradually they come forth into the outer world.

Eventually they separate their parents to enlarge space for living, and raise the sky upward, a story fully elaborated also in Tahiti but hardly recognized in the Kumulipo.

The New Zealand teaching goes on to organize the world, giving to each god his special function and classifying forms according to their order of creation as in Tahiti;

first ocean out of which grew land, then small plants, trees, reptiles and insects, animals, birds, the heavenly bodies;

finally woman, “from whom mankind in this world sprang,” an arrangement scarcely differing from that of the Kumulipo except for its neglect of sea life, so important in the structural plan of the Hawaiian creation chant.3

In Mangaia, myths collected by the missionary W. Wyatt Gill describe under a different symbol the change from life within the Po to that of the world of the Ao, the world of living men on this earth.

One myth tells how the primal generator, the female spirit Vari-ma-te-takere, dwells in darkness at the base of the dark underworld of Avaiki, “the Mangaian equivalent of Po.”

Avaiki is conceived like the inside of a coconut shell. It is divided into spaces or lands to each of which one of Vari’s children is assigned.

Buck thinks such a structural conception is foreign to the Polynesian mind and was probably suggested by the questioner, but such imaginary divisions are applied by Hawaiians to the arch of the sky as it rises from the horizon, and to the spaces of air as one looks toward the zenith—certainly not a foreign interpolation.

Uppermost, in the thin land next to the outer shell, dwells Vatea, the Wakea or ’Atea or Rangi of other groups. He climbs into the light and lures “Papa” to him.

Gods are born of the two, and eventually Mangaia is pulled up from the depths and peopled by men, offspring of the primal gods.

Stories of chiefs succeed those of primal gods.

Here again the poet shapes his story of beginnings upon similar basic conceptions.

In a line from a song dated about 1790 the primal goddess Vari-ma-te-takere is addressed as “a goddess feeding on raw taro” (E tuarangi kai taro mata), a reference recalling the children of Haloa born on the Hawaiian genealogy to Wakea and Papa.

The word wari (wali) occurs in various Polynesian groups and always with reference to a softened substance: “mud” or “muddy” in Tahiti and Rarotonga; “pulp” or “pap” in Mangareva; “a marsh” in the Tuamotus; “potato grown watery with age” in New Zealand.

It is equivalent to the walewale out of which life springs in the first lines of the Kumulipo.

The epithet ma-te-takere is translated “at-the-beginning.” 

Takere is applied ordinarily in Polynesia to the keel of a canoe, in Maori to “the bottom of deep water.”

Perhaps just “at the bottom” would be a fair rendering as applied to Vari.

The taro plant propagated by budding, sending up stalk and leaf into the light out of the mud of its underwater or underground rooting, may well be the symbolic form in which the poet of Mangaia, where taro culture is, as in Hawaii, the basic vegetable food, conceives the story of the parent-stock of mankind.

From the Takaroa atoll of the Tuamotus Dr. Kenneth Emory of the Bishop Museum collected a cosmic chant in which “the earth’s origins” or “roots,” as Gessler reads te tumu henua, are similarly compared to the growth of a plant. Emory translates as follows:

                                       Life appears in the world,

                                       Life springs up in Havaiki.

                                       The Source-of-night sleeps below

                                          in the void of the world,

                                          in the taking form of the world,

       in the growth of the world,

                                              the life of the world,

                                              the leafing of the world,

                                              the unfolding of the world,

                                              the darkening of the world,

                                              the branching of the world,

                                              the bending down of the world.6

Hawaiians use a similar incantation in approaching certain forms of plant life imagined to have originated in the underworld of the Po or ’Avaiki, referred to here as “Kahiki,” whose spirits are supposed to show themselves on earth in the body of the plant. A species of kava plant called ’ava nene is prescribed to quiet a fretting (nene) child, and Kawena Pukui gives the following invocation to be used in its plucking:

                                         O great kava that sprouted in Kahiki

                                             grew taproot in Kahiki

                                             spread rootlets in Kahiki

                                             grew stalk in Kahiki

                                             branched in Kahiki

                                             leafed in Kahiki

                                             blossomed in Kahiki

                                             bore leafbuds in Kahiki

                                           I have come to get your leafbuds

                                             for medicine for—

                                             for long life for—

In a “family story” from the same informant a similar chant is addressed to an ancestral coconut called upon to provide a bridge for passing over seas. Here the lines conclude with the maturing of the plant which has

                                                      fruited in Kahiki,

                                                      ripened in Kahiki,

and the coconut sprouts above ground, puts forth leaves and fruit and shoots upward as in all good fairy stories. The coconut tree is, of course, to be understood here as a phallic symbol of generation from a single stock which allows the young adventurer to approach his kin over seas.

The process of creation as Emory finds it described in the Tuamotus reads much like the Hawaiian.

Development proceeds by “pairing of matter, phenomena of nature, or of abstractions such as ‘source of Night’ . . .,” and Emory calls this “a wide-spread and ancient Tuamotuan teaching . . . confirmed by cosmogonic genealogies and chants which have survived” and not the result of “missionary teaching.”

In schematic charts illustrating the progress of development of the world in its making, a primal pair represented by male and female phallic symbols lies at the base of the eggshaped shell out of which, as in Mangaia and Tahiti, life is thought of as emerging.

These are named on the chart Te Tumu and Te Papa. They are the source of generation. Above them lies the land of Tumu-po:

Tumu-Po, source of the night world

sleeps below in the non-existence of the earth,

the slime of the earth

the limpidity of the earth, etc. . . .

Source whence human beings spring,

Source whence ’Atea sprang.

The shell representing the night world, the Po, is divided in the chart into layers filled with easily recognizable outlines of plants, animals, and men, these last in prostrate position.

Above each layer arches a sky; to the summit of the highest sky reaches a ladder of men, one on the shoulder of another. The men seem to be climbing out of the underworld of the Po into a succession of outer worlds, taking with them the plants and animals of the night world as they go.

The drawing looks like an adaptation to a migration legend rather than to one of development culminating in the intellectual faculties of adulthood such as some see in the Kumulipo.

As in the Kumulipo, there is no single presiding deity.

Birth proceeds by the pairing of earth, the female, with sky, the male.

Above the first land, Tumu-Po, arches Tumu-Ao; above the last land, Fakahotu-henua, arches the sky ’Atea.

The two are translated by Emory, “Fruitfulness-of-earth” and “Space.” They are the parents of mankind:

’Atea produces above,
Fakahotu produces below.

There is much in common here with other creation stories, both Tahitian and Hawaiian.

In Tahiti Ta’aroa made “the great foundation of the earth” (te tumu nui o te fenua) to be the husband and “the stratum rock” (te papa fenua) to be the wife.

Although the generation of rocks does not enter into the Kumulipo story as we have it, rocks of phallic shape are worshiped in Hawaii as ancestral fertility gods.

Tumu-po as source of the night world is no other than Kumu-([u]li-)po of the Hawaiian prayer chant. “This is the genealogy of the Hawaiian people, from Kumu-lipo-kapo to Wakea and Papa,” concludes the report of the Committee of 1904.

Both areas represent a succession of generative pairs, in the Tuamotus of “lands” and “skies,” in Hawaii of “nights” (Po) advancing toward day (Ao), with some identical names between the two. Both lead up to ’Atea (Wakea), parent of mankind and apex of the arching spaces of sky.

Emory sees a tendency to multiplication of these divisions in the Tuamotus, and this may well have happened also in Hawaii.

Three layers

Original drawings show but three instead of ten, and an early Tuamotuan text reads:

The universe was [first] like an egg. . . . It at last burst and produced three layers superimposed one below propping two above.

This threefold pattern is perhaps reflected in the trio of males regularly named on Hawaiian genealogies of beginning and active in creation stories relating to the ordering of the universe and the origin of mankind.

The appearance of this pattern in Hawaii is generally laid to missionary influence. Although the Christian trinitarian doctrine may have strengthened its use, I see no reason for supposing it to have originated under missionary teaching.

The gods Kane and Kanaloa are rather regularly named in this trio with a third figure representing man.

Ki’i as this third member occurs but once, and that quite naturally at the moment of dawning from the night world, the Po, into the light of day, the Ao.

Similarly a Tahitian chant called “Creation of Man” given to Orsmond by three different reciters between 1822 and 1833 shows Ta’aroa, after land, sky, and ocean have been filled with living things, consulting “Tu, the sacred one, Tu, the great artisan of Ta’aroa,” about filling “the room for man.”

He “conjures up from below” (rahu ra i raro) the man Ti’i.

Ti’i takes to wife the “Woman who ate before and behind,” and between the two the different classes emerge: “the high chiefs of the royal girdle” (ari’i nui maro ’ura) begotten of the first pair; the lesser nobility (hu’i ra’atira and ari’iri’i) from the union of these with their inferiors; the commoners (te ta’ata ri’i and te manahune) who are not “born” (fanau) but “conjured forth” (i rahua) by Ti’i and his wife.

Ti’i, Tiki, or Ki’i, traditional first man

Ti’i, Tiki, or Ki’i, traditional first man throughout eastern Polynesia, thus personifies the procreative power of mankind or specifically the male sex organ.

In New Zealand the progenitor of man is Tane (Kane) son of the sky god, hence called Tane-nui-a-Rangi.

To him is attached the story, absent in Tahiti but present in fringing groups of the eastern Pacific, of the father-daughter marriage ascribed to Tiki in Mangareva and the Tuamotus, in Hawaii to Wakea.

Allowing a shift from Tu to Kane in Hawaii, both gods of artisans in Tahiti, the Tahitian story of man’s origin corresponds in time, place, and function with the first Kumulipo trilogy.

Three males join in the task of peopling earth with mankind, Ta’aroa, Tu, Ti’i in Tahiti and an equivalent trio of Kane, Kanaloa, and Ki’i in Hawaii.

Woman who sat sideways

The “Woman who ate before and behind” in Tahiti becomes La’ila’i, the “Woman who sat sideways” of the Kumulipo.

Another common element with South Sea mythical conceptions in the Kumulipo trio is the octopus form taken by Kanaloa in this chant of the first dawn of day.

Exactly in agreement is the Tahitian myth of the cutting away of the arms of the octopus Tumu-ra’i-fenua, “Beginning-of-Heaven-and-Earth,” into which Ta’aroa has placed his essence, and the consequent dawn of light (ao) after “the long wearisome night” (po).

Hitherto gods have been called into being in darkness; now light dawns over earth.

In the Kumulipo, spirits of darkness have generated animal and plant life of land and sea; now, generations of mankind people the land.

In the Kumulipo manuscript the first line of the refrain accompanying the births of the first four sections reads, not Ka po uhe’e i ka wawa with its suggestion of the “slipping away” (uhe’e) of night, but Ka pou he’e i ka wawa, thus picturing the god in the form of an octopus (he’e) supporting (pou) in darkness the first heaven and earth exactly as in the Tahitian chant.

This is not darkness in the physical sense but applies to the supremacy of the spirit world, the Po, as compared with the world of living men, the Ao.

The eight-armed octopus

The eight-armed octopus, called in the Kumulipo the “hot-striking” (hauna-wela), is the manifestation or body in which Kanaloa may appear in some Polynesian groups as god of the sea and sea creatures in contrast to Kane, god of land forms.

In Hawaii, a prayer at the launching of a canoe names both gods, Kane as god of the forest from which the tree was cut, Kanaloa as god of the element over which the canoe must travel.

A sorcerer’s prayer for the healing of the sick invokes Kanaloa “god of the octopus”—ke akua o ka he’e.

The Samoan demigod Tae-o-Tagaloa is born of a woman part human and part fe’e (“octopus”), hence he is part god and part human.

Magic connected with the number eight throughout southern Polynesia may derive from the eight-armed octopus.

The Maui figure, sometimes represented as a son of the Tagaroa family, is “eight-headed” in Tahiti, “eighth born” in Samoa.

In the Marquesas, according to Handy, “an octopus, or if one could not be obtained, a taro root with eight rootlets was used ceremonially in certain rites.”

A further factor entering into the position of Kanaloa in Hawaiian accounts of creation, but not apparent in the Kumulipo, shows strife to have arisen at some time either before or after the migration into the Hawaiian group between followers of the Kanaloa priesthood and that of Kane, with Kane eventually triumphant, Kanaloa repudiated, and god Ku set up in his stead as agent with Kane in the creation story. Fornander notes:

“In the mo’olelo of Moi the prophet . . . of Molokai; in the prophecies and sayings of Nuakea, the prophetess . . .; of Maihea and Naulu-a-Maihea, the prophet race of Oahu . . .; of the prophet Hua of Maui—in all these prophesies—it is said that the gods (na akua) created heaven and earth.

The gods who created heaven and earth were three, Kane, Ku, and Lono.

Kanaloa was a great enemy of these three gods.

Before this creation of heaven and earth, etc., everything was shaky, trembling and destitute, bare (naka, ’olohe-lohe); nothing could be distinguished, everything was tossing about, and the spirits of the gods were fixed to no bodies, only the three above gods had power to create heaven and earth.

Of these three Kane was the greatest in power, and Ku and Lono were inferior to him.

The powers of the three joined together were sufficient to create and fix heaven and earth.

Since neither Ku nor Lono is named in the Kumulipo chant, it looks as if the displacement of Kanaloa in national worship took place after its composition.

Certainly by the time of the American mission in 1820 the idea prevailed that Kanaloa was rebellious against Kane and worked against him.

The missionaries compared Kanaloa with the biblical Satan.

Best says, quoting Fornander, “Kanaloa is in Hawaii . . . a personified spirit of evil, the origin of death, the prince of Po . . . a revolted, disobedient spirit who was conquered and punished by Kane (Tane). . . .”

A similar character is given to Tangaroa in the Tuamotus.

There a Tangaroa god “who delighted in doing evil” set fire in the highest heaven “seeking thus to destroy everything.” “Tangaroa-i-te-po” he is called and “supreme ruler of the underworld.” 

In New Zealand a quarrel is said to have arisen between Tane and Tangaroa when reptiles took to the land and Tangaroa resented this encroachment upon his preserves. 

In the Tahitian octopus myth it is Tane who cuts away the clinging arms of the octopus body of Ta’aroa and fills earth and sky with beauty.

Again, in a composition called “Strife and reconciliation between heaven and earth,” Tumu-nui, the rock foundation in which Ta’aroa has placed his essence, is pitted against Tane, the two playing their enchantments: Tumu-nui sending heavy mists and rain, famine, night; Tane matching him with clear weather, abundance, the sun by day.

In Hawaii, a contest over the right of the kava drink seems to be connected with Kanaloa’s overthrow.

In the prayer quoted above he is distinguished as “Kanaloa the kava drinker” (inu ’awa). It is as if an upstart priesthood had overthrown the exclusive prerogative of a ruling priesthood to the kava bowl.

The situation may reflect a historic conflict. A Fornander note equates Lihau’ula, “a priest of greater renown than any other,” with Kanaloa.

Tradition tells also of war between Lihau’ula the elder and Wakea the younger son, after the death of their father has left Wakea landless, and of the eventual success of the younger.

But may not the idea of opposition between the gods depend upon a more basic symbolism in the universal facts of human birth?

The embryo lying surrounded by the sac of fluid within the mother’s womb belongs to the spirit world, to Kanaloa; with birth it emerges into the world of living men and becomes the child of Kane.

Again, Kanaloa, god of darkness and the underworld, takes over man at death. The father-daughter marriage is in some groups said to usher in man’s mortality.

In New Zealand it is Tane son of Rangi by Papa-tu-a-nuku, originally Tangaroa’s wife, who takes his own daughter to wife, and it is she who, learning of her relationship to him, escapes to the lower world “to drag our offspring down.” “And now,” says one version of the tale, “from this time onward the flow of the ‘current of death’ of mankind to the ‘everlasting night’ became permanent.” 

In Mangaia Tangaroa is the first-born son of ’Atea and Papa, but Rongo (Lono) not only secures for himself the main food supply but also takes Tangaroa’s wife Taka and has by her a daughter Tavake by whom he has children, and “with the birth of Tavake’s children the lineage of the main stock of Mangaia became definitely human.” 

In Hawaii a story tells how the two gods each make a figure of a man and Kanaloa’s dies while Kane’s lives.

Perhaps because Kanaloa made his figure first, all men must eventually die.

That is the way the mind works under a deterministic priesthood: “In Adam’s fall, We sinned all.” It may be that death became inevitable when the first child born to Wakea by his daughter came into the world a foetus.

The gods are immortal, renewing their youth as a crab its skin.

Once man had this power, say old Hawaiians, and a number of stories are told throughout the Pacific of some trivial failure of the culture-bringer that determined death for mankind.

If the connection with man’s ultimate fate suggested above for the drawing contest between Kanaloa and Kane is correct, is it possible that late reciters of the Kumulipo chant have obscured the part played by Kanaloa in the story of Ki’i and La’ila’i, and “Ki’i the man” was originally Kanaloa’s figure drawn after the form of god Kane, into which Kanaloa has “placed his essence” to deceive the woman, just as Wakea in the later story enters the image (ki’i) set up to lure Ka-we’o-a?

It may be that the quarrel over the precedence of the first-born to Ki’i rather than to Kane had originally for the priestly composer an eschatological rather than a political implication.

Changes and substitutions in cult practice must lie back of these variations upon the common theme of world beginnings.

Adaptation of traditional elements depends in each case upon the special migration history of the group, its fresh contacts and their resulting influence upon family and cult history.

We cannot tell whether a historical struggle between leaders of different factions with their rival deities has given rise to the symbolism of conflict in creation stories or whether the cosmic conflict was itself a symbol of the universal facts of birth and death.

Certainly fancy personifies and plays with such cosmic elements.

The hero’s search after the sun hidden by a god in the underworld or to recover a bright lady from an underseas ravisher, and his famous fishing after a robber sea god, are all variations upon the theme of daybreak translated into popular fiction.

On the other hand, the cosmic story is itself a symbol of the coming into life, out of the sea of water within the mother’s womb, of the child born, as we say, “to the purple,” or as the Hawaiian puts it, “hot with fiercest taboo,” the child who must, however, eventually die because of some misdoing of the primary deity from whom man sprang.

Home > Polynesian Accounts of Creation