The Cult of the Ancestors and the Moais

The Cult of the Ancestors and the Moais

The Cult of the Ancestors and the Moais

Scientists, especially ethnologists, have long studied how different and complex communities were formed and what cultural aspects kept them alive. In New Guinea, the second largest island on the planet, more than one thousand ethnic groups compete for crop land, hunting grounds and other natural resources. Often this competition devolves into power struggles. Under these conditions, only the most united and fortified communities stand a chance of being successful. To maintain their union, these groups often assume a cultural trait that probably began with the dawn of human history: the veneration of the ancestors. This cultural development is found throughout the entire area of Polynesia.
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Within this cult of the ancestors, every man was assured of his sense of place, unity and identity. In the center of some villages, enormous meeting houses, reserved exclusively for the men, were built. Inside, the people used to guard the bones, skulls and other sacred objects or carved representations of their mythical ancestors. A prime example of this are the ceremonial houses of the New Zealand Maori, which they consider the home of initiated men and of the spirits.

Generally, rites of initiation for young men were considered necessary for admission into the community of adults among which they became symbolic brothers, subordinated to the ancestors. Local lineage usually covered families related over three generations and didn’t hold more than 100 people. Everyone knew each other. They acted communally and held to strict rules to resolve internal or external conflicts. As family numbers grew within a given territory, the disputes for resources obliged some family groups to unite in clans. They constructed sometimes fictitious relationships through a mythology of common ancestors, but this permitted them live in order and peace within the clan.

One of the oldest strategies for achieving unity and order was – and continues to be to this day – the repressive domination that does not accept any divergence from official doctrine. Loyalty to the sovereign is shown through human sacrifice, while the power of the priests is reaffirmed with the construction of temples and monuments. The grandeur and richness of these buildings signify the existence of resources which could serve the common good.

If we return to the days of the Polynesians, especially those who settled Rapa Nui, we find a cult of the ancestors which was celebrated in meeting places called Ahu, stone platforms which stand out over the scenery of most tribal territories as places where the sacred rituals were held. The most outstanding are those which were topped by statues weighing several tons which are called Moai. Archaeologists have told us that almost all of the Ahu with Moai had more than one phase of construction.

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What most caught the attention of the first Dutch visitors to the Island in 1722 were these megalithic monuments. The Moai represented those male personages of a tribe who had Mana, a spiritual power which permits a person to communicate with the gods. The Ariki (kings or chiefs) and the Tohunga (priests) had this power from birth; others could acquire it over their lifetime through great feats and had to demonstrate it constantly in order to not lose it.

The well-to-do tribes ordered the construction of a Moai, as a symbol of a departed person with a high level of Mana. Once ready, after many months of work, the Moai would take its road, often of many kilometers, from the quarry at Rano Raraku to the Ahu of the respective tribe. Accompanied by solemn festivities, the statue was finally erected. On many of the Moai a type of reddish headdress, called a Pukao, was placed. Once standing, eye sockets were carved for placing the eyes made of white coral with pupils of black obsidian or stones of other colors. Thus, the Mana of the departed was revived. Now, the late, great ancestor could act and protect his tribe. This is also the reason that the Moai look inland, toward their people, rather than outward to the infinite sea, including those on Ahu Akivi.

For the Rapanui, death is just a part of life, as is life a part of death. The physical life is only one phase of human existence. When men with Mana were cremated behind the Ahu, the whole population participated in the disintegration of their physical bodies, placed on a circular platform, exposed to the sun, the wind and the rain until finally only the bones remained. People were able to observe the process day by day. The smell of decomposition reminded them of what was happening. The skeletons were then placed in rectangular cavities within the Ahu, while the skulls were artistically carved and finally buried.

Today, Mana can no longer work. No Moai has its original eyes. Only one eye has ever been found in the sands of Anakena. Maybe the eyes were thrown into the sea, maybe they were destroyed or simply eroded away over time. No one knows what really happened. Today, we can see one statue with the eyes restored in the Tahai complex. With a little imagination, we can perhaps visualize the other stone colossi observing us day by day around the entire Island.

The size of these statues used to be between 3 and 5 meters (10 and 16.5 feet), occasionally up to 10 or 12 meters (33 to 39 feet). However, in the quarry at Rano Raraku, we can find an unfinished one that measures more than 20 meters (nearly 66 feet). The average weight is around 5 tons, while no more than 30 or 40 statues weigh over 10 tons. The largest belong to the time of full development of the Rapanui culture, called the “Ahu Moai” Period, between the years of 1,500 and 1,600 DC.

The Ahu with Moai are places of cultural memory. Several of the monumental Ahu have been restored to their purpose through the restoration work of the 20th Century. Today they are one of the universally recognized symbols of Rapa Nui, strengthening the local identity and serving as an attraction for cultural tourism.

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