There are works of art all over the world that permit a discovery and reflection of French Polynesian culture. In each edition of our magazine, we invite you to find out more about these true ambassadors of Tahiti. This is a to’o, a strange anthromorphic figure that here represents Oro, the formidable god of war.
This form of a God image (To’o) is quite clearly anthropomorphic, with its eyes, ears, nose and arms quite easily seen. This figure of To’o represents the Tahitian war God Oro. Most of the time these fiber effigies were kept hidden. Only for very important ritual ceremonies was To’o brought out in public. Those occasions being a new high chief taking his thrown or during times of war or the seasonal harvest rites.
To’o was wrapped with a protective covering of Pandanus leaves, than placed in a miniature God house, where it was kept together with other sacred images and objects. On those special occasions when the presence of To’o and the other god images were needed, they were removed from the God house and brought together on the same Marae (sacred temple.) Then they were unwrapped to be viewed and be consecrated again. During these ceremonies their material and protective coverings were renovated. At the end of the ceremony, after the images were respectfully esteemed and re-created, they were returned to their miniature God house.
To’o represents the Tahitian war God Oro
The sacred images, with their Mana (supernatural powers) in Polynesia took many forms. Sometimes the most powerful deities were not represented by human or animal figures. In Tahiti, the island’s most powerful deity was Oro, the god of war. He was the child of the supreme god Ta’aroa and Hina-tu-a-uta at Opoa on the island of Ra’iatea where Tapu-tapu-atea, the most sacred marae (sacred temple) in all of Polynesia was constructed. Originally, this marae had been dedicated to the creator god Ta’aroa, but sometime later, either in the thirteenth or fourteenth century, this supreme position was usurped by his powerful son ‘Oro. After which time Ta’aroa faded into the background.
Oro’s worshipping appears to have first been introduced to Tahiti in 1767, a short time before the first European contact. During the first fifteen years of the nineteenth century, with the support of Pomare II, the worshipping of Oro spread quickly and became Tahiti’s national religion. However, Oro’s reign did not last very long. In 1816 Pomare II converted to Christianity, and the island’s native religion was overthrown.
During this period the vast majority of To’o and other sacred images were destroyed. Their sacred feathers removed, the surviving ones, were ironically, often presented to or acquired by missionaries who sent them back to the church in Europe as tangible proof of their evangelical achievements with these “heathen, idol worshipping savages.”
Other related divinities associated with him were made in more abstract oblong effigies. The center core (a piece of wood) was heavily wrapped in layers of interwoven coconut husk fiber, which may have or may have not covered the wooden portion. The process of wrapping was considered sacred. Sometimes after the wrapping was completed, additional strips of coconut husk fiber were applied to the exterior. These additions suggested facial or other body features of the deity. The wood and fiber elements served as a base for the attachment of feathers. These feathers were believed to contain the mana of this god.
William Ellis, (a British Missionary, born in 1794 died in 1872) described the importance of these feathers in the to’o images: “For these feathers the gods were supposed to have a strong predilection. To them the power or influence of the god was imparted and through them transferred to the objects to which they were attached. Many idols were solid pieces of wood, bound or covered with finely braided fibres of the cocoa-nut husk. The feathers were attached on the outside by small fibrous bands.”
To protect these sacred objects, To’o like many other Polynesian sacred objects were wrapped in multiple layers of tapa (bark cloth), which formed large bundles, which were only opened on the most sacred occasions. Remember we are speaking of the god of war, which meant Oro’s favor was sought before each important military battle. Even though Oro was mostly associated with warfare, he was also was associated with other roles. He was also patron of the arioi, semiprofessional class of performing artists made up of both young men and woman. The arioi were permitted great personal and sexual freedom but they were forbidden to have children. They revered Oro as the god of the origin of mankind, eternal youth and the fulfillment of sexual desire.
To the limits of abstraction
In 1777 at the marae (sacred temple site) of Atehuru on the island of Tahiti, Captain James Cook witnessed a sacrificial rite most likely devoted to Oro. He described the opening of such a sacred bark-cloth bundle, “One end of the other bundle was next opened but we were not allowed to go near enough to examine its contents, but was told the Eatua (atua,(god)) was concealed in it, or rather what is suppose to represent him. This is a thing made of the twisted fibres of the husk of the coca-nut shaped something like a large lid, that is roundish with one end much thicker than the other. We have very often got small ones from different people, but never their use before.”
To’o brings the human form to the limits of abstraction. Its facial features are suggested by two corded vertical lines with small loops on the top representing the eyes. Another pair of loops similar to the eyes, represents the ears. Two parallel horizontal lengths of cord signify the mouth. L-shaped lengths of cord on each side suggest the arms.
The piece which I have published is believed to have been collected by the Reverend George Bennet. He was a member of the London Missionary Society. Between 1821-1829, together with Reverend Daniel Tyerman, they visited Missionary stations around the world. Between 1821-1824, they were in Polynesia. Reverend Bennet assembled a large ethnographical collection which was given to the London Missionary Society Museum and the Saffron Walden Museum in Essex, United Kingdom.
Laurance Alexander Rudzinoff