This god would have been carried in procession on important occasions in the Hawaiian islands. He was made of feathers from honeycreepers, set on a framework of basketry. The eyes were represented by pearl oyster shells, the teeth were those of dogs.


The Gods of the Pacific are powerful gods. Some have called them idols - more have called them art. And the Gods of the Pacific have had an enormous influence on European art throughout the 20th century. The Gods were powerful, and their power could be dangerous as well as life-enhancing. And this power had to be contained: the Polynesians had a word for the means by which this power could be contained and controlled: Tapu. Tapu means 'marked' or 'set apart': anything that was Tapu had to be wrapped and kept separate. And the word Tapu has also migrated to Europe and has become our word Taboo.


Tapu was taken up in early studies of comparative religion, and later adopted by Freud and other psychoanalysts, and has come to refer more and more to what is dangerous and forbidden. The Polynesian meanings of tapu, relating to the presence of the power of the Gods and containing and wrapping this power, have been lost in translation. 

This god would have been carried in procession on important occasions in the Hawaiian islands. He was made of feathers from honeycreepers, set on a framework of basketry. The eyes were represented by pearl oyster shells, the teeth were those of dogs.
British Museum

Among the finest collections of Polynesian material are those in the British Museum. Many of them pre- or immediately post-contact – that is, before the Polynesian art had been contami nated by European ideals. Thus, when Steven Hooper, the Director of the Sainsbury Research Unit at the University of East Anglia decided to set up an exhibition on Pacific Encounters: Art and Divinity in Polynesia, 1760-1860, he inevitably borrowed most of the material from the British Museum. When Neil MacGregor, the Director of the Museum, saw the Norwich exhibition, he was entranced. “We must have this ourselves” he said, for few of the objects are on permanent display. So he gave Lissant Bolton, Julie Adams and Jill Hasell, nine months to prepare a new exhibition which runs at the British Museum from 28th September 2006 to 7th January 2007. Many will visit the exhibition to see the art; CWA readers will also visit to pay homage to the Gods and to see a splendid example of life in a chiefdom society. (The catalogue on sale: Pacific Encounters, by Steven Hooper, though published by the British Museum Press (£25), is in fact the catalogue of the Norwich exhibition).  

The oldest object in the exhibition is also the least ritual: a Polynesian boat that even predates Captain Cook. It was brought back by Captain Samuel Wallis in 1766-8, lashed to the deck of The Dolphin, the ship in which he circumnavi gated the world. Wood is rare in Polynesia and thus the boat is made from small sections of wood tightly sewn together with coconut matting.  

British Museum Wood was scarce in Polynesia, and this boat was constructed of 45 wood sections, fastened together with plaited coconut cordage. Top is the complete boat, brought home from the Tuamotu islands by Captain Samuel Wallace, below is a section, showing the construction.
British Museum

The absence of many of the local materials also underlies many of the wonderfully coloured cloaks that were such a feature of Polynesian life. Cloaks were needed to cover and conceal that which was Tapu. Some of the finest were made from barkcloth and the feathers of tiny red birds – red being a particularly holy colour not only because red is the colour of blood, and thus thought to be potent, but also because red was such an unusual and outstanding colour in the green islands of Polynesia. Such feathers were also used to make up the feathered head with the feathers set on a foundation of twined basketry with feathered netting tightly attached and the eyes represented by a pearl oyster shell and the teeth of which there are about 200 being dogs’ teeth. 

British Museum

But the best way of keeping the Gods firmly under control was to wrap them up, and the largest single exhibit appears to be a roll of cloth. However at the centre was a God, his head peeping out at one end. The exhibition also has some fine examples of unwrapped Gods: their more intimate parts often seemed shocking to the members of the London Missionary Society who collected many of them, who sometimes castrated them, and sometimes covered them with little skirts to protect the Gods’ modesty. But one should remember that originally they would have been kept wrapped up anyway. 

British Museum A’a, the most famous figure of all. It was collected in the Austral Islands by the Revd John Williams, and brought home as their prize trophy by the London Missionary Society, who used it on the front cover of their journal, Missionary Sketches. Picasso liked it so much that he had a replica made which he kept in his studio, for inspiration. It was probably a reliquary, for the back is hollowed out and covered by a panel. The surface is decorated by no less than 30 small figures.

The best known of all the Gods in Rurutu, one of the Austral Islands, was A’a, presented by the Rurutuan islanders in August 1821 to the Rev. John Williams. The figure has a hollowed body with 30 small figures distributed over its surface. It became the prize trophy of the London Missionary Society, and was widely exhibited, and Picasso liked it so much that he had a cast of it prominently displayed in his studio.  

British Museum Not a bale of cloth, but a god, wrapped up in a roll of bark cloth to prevent his magic powers from escaping; though the god can be seen peeping out at the left end – as seen in detail below. The small figures carved on the staff represent generations of human ancestors, their feet resting against the god’s back. Collected by the missionary John Williams in 1827 in Rarotonga in the Cook Islands
British Museum
British Museum This brightly coloured cape was made from feathers on a netted fibre base. Feathered capes were worn by those of a lesser status than the most powerful chiefs, who wore larger cloaks.

One of the problems of Tapu was that the chiefs, being the descendents of Gods, were themselves highly Tapu and therefore had to be treated carefully. The tattooing of a chief’s body was a way of wrapping it in images and in some islands the more highly tattooed you were, the higher your position in the hierarchy. The exhibition has several examples showing how the objects carried by these tattooed figures in paintings and drawings can be paralleled by the objects in the collections. The best example is that of a priest with an elaborate headdress of an unknown type and Julie Adams, the assistant curator, describes her delight in going through the collections and suddenly finding the exact headdress which now forms one of the highlights of the exhibition. 

A male standing figure, from the Cook Islands, with three smaller figures in high relief on the chest. It has escaped being emasculated, despite its missionary collectors.
British Museum
For many Polynesians the creation of the world was associated with a pair of distant, original deities, the Earth Mother, and the Sky Father, they were originally locked in a close embrace. Crushed in the darkness between them lay their many children, yearning to be free. Eventually one son, Tane Mahuta, succeeded in separating them, by pushing upwards against his father’s chest. Thus the world of light was formed. This carving,from the Bay of Plenty in New Zealand, made as a door lintel for a meeting house, refers to this moment of creation. Three figures push the sky and earth apart, and two large spirals represent light and knowledge entering the world.

The main European discovery of Polynesia came in a flurry in from the 1760s onwards. However in 1797 Christian missionaries arrived, and by 1830s conversion to Christianity was widespread, writes the curator, Lissant Bolton. Islanders converted for many reasons. Some were compelled by their chiefs to convert. For others, Christianity was part of a new world brought to them by Europeans, which they embraced along with metal tools, firearms, cloth and books. For some, the idea of a God beyond the physical world, offering unconditional love, freed them from the constant worry of managing divine power. Sometimes people signalled their conversion by explicitly desecrating an important tapu restriction. Today many Polynesians are committed Christians, but despite conversion, many aspects of Polynesian cosmology have been sustained through the last two centuries, and in Hawaii and New Zealand especially, people are identifying more and more with the traditional rituals and practices that have been passed down to them.

British Museum Bowl with two figure supports, the teeth made from cut sections of boars’ tusks. It was almost certainly used to drink Kava, a drug made from the roots of the pepper bush, which could lead to trance in which chiefs and priests communicated with divine powers. It was presented to Clerke, one of Cook’s captains, in the Hawaiian islands, and it probably circulated by exchange in a Kula ring. Clerke in return presented ‘a little piece of red bay’s (baize) and some other trifles’.
Chiefs and kings were at least half way to being gods, and were thus dangerously endowed with magic powers, or tabu. It was necessary therefore to wrap them up to prevent the tapu from escaping, and the best way of wrapping them up was to tattoo them all over – the ‘wrapping’ could not be removed. Here we see Mouwateie, a powerful chief, from the Island of Nukabiwa, (drawn by Georg Heinrich von Langsdorff, by courtesy of the British Library) who has been thoroughly ‘wrapped up’ so that the dangerous powers he possessed could not escape. The extent of tattooing demonstrated one’s position in society: the more the tattooing, the higher caste you were.
British Library
British Museum Note the fan in his right hand, a powerful symbol of office. The British Museum has just such a fan, as seen on the right