Cook Islands custom



Birth and Childhood,     Death,     Maturity,     Wizards



  Birth and Childhood

On the island of Mangaia, in the Hcrvey Group, as soon as a child is born, a leaf* of the Alocasia Inclica (Seeman) was cut off, its sides carefully gathered up, and filled with pure water. Into this extempore baptismal font the child would be placed. First tying with a bit of " tapa " (native cloth made from the inner bark of the Broussonetia'. papyrifera) the part of the navel-string nearest the infant, the right hand of the operator longitudinally divided the cord with a bamboo-knife. The dark coagulated blood was then carefully washed out with water, and the name of the child's god declared, it having been previously settled by the parents whether their little one should belong to the mother's tribe or the father's. Usually the father had the preference ; but occasionally when the father's tribe was devoted to furnish sacrifices, the mother would seek to save her child's life by getting it adopted into her own tribe, the name of her own tribal divinity being pronounced over the babe. As a rule, however, a father would stoically pronounce over his child the name of his own god-Utakea, Teipe, or Tangiia-which would almost certainly insure its destruction in. after years.

It was done as a point of honour ; besides, the child might not be required for sacrifice, although eligible. The bamboo-knife would be taken to the " marae " of the god specified, and thrown on the ground to rot. If a second god's name were pronounced over the child, the bamboo-knife would go to one " marae," and the name of the babe only be pronounced over the second "marae." The removal of the coagulated blood was believed to be highly conducive to health, all impurities being thus removed out of the system. An analogy was believed to exist between the pith of a tree and the umbilical cord at birth. Hence the expressions " ara io " i.e., " pathway of the pith," or simply " io "f i.e., "pith," are still used for " God." On the island of Rarofconga, when a boy was born, a collection of spears, clubs, and slinging stones was made. When the sun was setting, a leaf of that gigantic aroid, Alocasia Indica, filled with water, was held over these warlike weapons, and the umbilical cord treated as above described.

The idea was that the child should grow up to be a famous warrior. Infanticide was rarely practised in the Hervey Group, excepting at Sarotonga, where it was common. In six out of seven islands of the Hervey Group cannibalism ceased only with the introduction of Christianity. It is worthy of note that on the remaining island-Mangaia-this revolting practice ceased before the introduction of Christianity, a circumstance unparalleled in Polynesia. It was in this wise: About a century before the Gospel was conveyed to those islands, the famous priest-chief, Mautara, had, by craft and force, crushed out all his foes, and seized the reins of government.

There was not a person living on the island but was connected with him or his by worship, blood, or marriage. "When this far-seeing man acquired absolute power, he wisely forbade cannibalism, through fear of perpetuating the anarchy which for generations had existed. Still the old habit showed itself again, even in Mautara ; and solitary instances of cannibalism are known to have taken place in later times by stealth, not openly and constantly as in the early days of the celebrated priest-chief. Old cahnibal Hcrvey Islanders have assured me that human flesh is " far superior to pig." My worthy friend and helper, Maretu, of Karotonga, was, in early manhood, a cannibal. This I learnt from his own lips.

But the last generation that practised cannibalism has entirely disappeared. Their descendants, in many instances, through shame, deny the well-known facts of the past. At Mangaia, and, I believe, the other islands of the Hervey Group, it was customary to prepare the body in this wise: The long spear, inserted at the fundament, ran through the body, appearing again with the neck. As on a spit, the body was slowly singed over a lire, in order that the entire cuticle and all the hair might be removed The intestines were next taken out, washed in pea-water, wrapped up in singed banana leaves (a singed banana-leaf, like oil-silk, retains liquid), cooked and eaten, this being the invariable perquisite of those who prepared the feast. The body was cooked, as pigs now are, in an oven specially set apart, red-hot basaltic stones, wrapped in leaves, being placed inside to insure its being equally done.

The best joint was the thigh. In native phraseology, "nothing would be left but the nails and the bones." It is worthy of notice that only warriors partook of these horrid feasts in the liervcy Group, very rarely, and by stealth, women and children (as in times of famine), or the remains of a broken clan hiding in the forest or in caves. Indeed, when a warrior wished ln*3 son to partake of human flesh for the first time, it was needful to deceive the lad by saying " it was only a bit of pork." Of course, when the truth oozed out, the son felt less scruple in following the evil ways of his father and uncles. Taoro, of Rarotonga, cooked his only child (a son) as a return feast for his cannibal friends. There can be no question that, at first, an inward voice protested against this unnatural practice. Yet, after a time, they learned to glory in their shame.

For many generations after the settlement of the islands cannibalism was rarely practised. Native traditions distinctly inform us when it was first sanctioned by the authority of leading men, and thus grew to be customary. Strange that on Mangaia it should again have ceased. In the opinion of many, in the deadlock which existed about the date of the introduction of Christianity, the natives of Mangaia would have relapsed into cannibalism. The deadlock was this :-Teao would only consent to beat the drum of peace on condition that his two maternal uncles, the leading victorious warrior chiefs (Teao being himself amongst the vanquished), were slain, and laid on the altar of Kongo as the price of peace ! It was for this that Teao lost his rank in after days.Deformed children are very kindly treated indeed, although, perhaps, tbo deformity was occasioued by the cruel treatment of the parents in a burst of passion.

A single child is universally carried astride on the hip of the mother. "Thy daughters shall be nursed at thy side " (Isaiah, lx. 4). "When there is a second child to be carried, it is placed on the shoulders of the mother, so that it rides triumphantly, holding on to the hair of the parent. Thii leaves one hip free to carry a basket of food and cooking leaves. It is rare for a father to carry his child. I have known a lad, three years old, to be still suckled, but in general the period of suckling does not extend beyond two years.

Too often infants are not suckled at all, on the plea that the " mother's milk is bad." Such children are " mama paru," i.e., brought up by hand. Bits of " taro" (Caladium petiolatuw), well chewed, are given to it from time to time. The kernel of an old coco-nut is finely scraped, the rich, oily juice is then expressed from it, and given in small quantities to the infant. The spoon anciently used for the purpose is the leaf of the Gardenia. I have often wondered how the stomach of the infants should be able to stand it ; but they do, and become fine men and women. Of late, however, the use of the coco-nut has gone out ot fashion, much to the detriment of the children. The soft, half-formed kernel itself is much used as the child becomes stronger. Many natives feed their new-born children on " paka," i.e., the baked leaves of the " taro," dipped in water.

The mortality amongst infants thus reared is great, and should they attain to adult age they have a diminutive frame. A chief's child would have three or four wet nurses, in order to produce the enormous frames for which they were famous. It is customary for a native woman, when visiting her friend, to suckle her infant. At Rarotongn, to regulate the shape of the child's head, it was a common, practice to apply slabs of soft wood (" buka tea") to the forehead and back of the head to produce the desired shape, i.e., a high head.

This practice did not obtain on Mnngaia, nor, I think, on any other island of the Hervey Group. It is still customary in the Hervey Group for mothers to press with the palm of the hand the noses of their infants, so that they may grow squat and round, " not (as I once overheard a woman say) like the thin, starved nose of the white race." When children are small they are spoiled by their parents ; but when of a useful age all this disappears, and many of them have a very hard life. The curse of native family life is adoption ; this makes discipline almost impossible. A cross word will make the youngster run off to its adopted parents, who sympathise where they ought to scold.

I have known parents take a present of food to the runaway, and humbly entreat his return ; but all in vain! These adopted parents, however, will resolutely set themselves to discharge the duties of real parents in teaching the youngster the arts needful in after life.The betrothal of the female child often takes place in the families of chiefs, in order to secure a suitable match. In that case the girl is continually receiving presents from the family into which, at adult (say 13 or 14 summers) age, she is to marry. Should the contract not be fulfilled, full payment is exacted for all these gifts ; but, as a rule, the contracts are well kept, so many parties being interested in the affair.


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No one was believed to die a strictly natural death, unless extreme old age was attained. Nineteen out of every twenty were regarded as victims of special divine anger or of the incantations of the " praying people" (Tangata purepure) i.e., the sorcerers. Causes of death were:
1. Infringement oitapu laws of all kinds.
2. An uttered resolve broken ; e.g., preparation for battle upon the
receipt of false intelligence. The trick may be seen through after a time, still the fight must at all risks come off, if once the war-girdle has been put on. Not only would shame attend the withdrawing warriors, but the special wrath of the war-god would rest upon them. So that there is nothing for it but fight at all risks. A journey prepared for, but not carried Ofut, Many years ago it was intended that the writer should remove to Rarotonga to take charge of the mission there. Everything was ready, when a brother from England arrived for that station. It so happened that just afterwards I lost two sons in one week of diphtheria. I was astounded to find that the natives of Mangaia, while sympathising with my loss, attributed the sad blow to my failure to carry out my original purpose.

3. A grave dug for a corpse, but not occupied. At the last moment
perhaps the owner of the soil objects to the burial, so the corpse is disposed of elsewhere. In that case, the natives firmly believe that someone else must die in order to occupy the empty grave.

4. Unusual luxuriance of growth of plantations of food. The saying is,
" E mou Avaiki tena," i.e., " it is also a crop for spirit-land " (portendsa cropforthe reaper Death, as we perhaps would phrase it.)

The bodies of deceased friends were anointed with scented oil, carefully wrapped up in a number of pieces of cloth, and the same day committed to» their last resting-place. A few were buried in the earth within the sacred precincts of the appropriate "marae;" but by far the greater number were hidden in caves regarded as the special property of certain families.

If a body were buried in the earth, the face was invariably laid downwards, chin and knees meeting, and the limbs well secured with strongest sinnet cord. A thin covering of earth was laid over the corpse, and large heavy stones piled over the grave. The intention was to render it impossible for the dead to rise up and injure the living! The head of the buried corpse was always turned to the rising sun, in accordance with their ancient solar worship.

It was customary to bury with the dead some article of value-a female would have a cloth-mallet laid by her side ; whilst her husband would enjoin his friends to bury with him a favourite stone adze, or a beautiful white shell (Ovula ovum, Linn.) worn by him in the dance. Such articles were never touched afterwards by the living.

Numbers were buried in caves easily accessible, to enable the relatives to visit the remains of the dearly-loved lost ones from time to time. The corpse was occasionally exposed to the sun, re-anointed with oil, and then wrapped in fresh tikoru (white native cloth).

The dead were never disembowelled for the purpose of embalming. The corpse was simply desiccated, and daily anointed with coco-nut oil. A month would suffice for this.
Warriors were in general hid by their surviving friends, through fear of their being disinterred and burnt in revenge.

The people of the entire district where the deceased lived take up " tare-" and prepare a feast in honour of the dead. A grand interchange of presents is usual on these occasions ; but, excepting the near relatives of the deceased, no one is really the worse for it. as it is etiquette to see that distant relatives get back similar articles to what they brought.
Whatever is laid upon the corpse is buried with it, and no further notice taken of it; but whatever is placed by the side, without touching it, is repaid.

The moment the sick died, the bodies of near relatives were cut with sharks' teeth, so that the blood might stream down the bodies ; their faces were blackened, and the hair cut off. At Karotonga it was usual to knock out some of the front teeth in token of sorrow. Everywhere the moment of death was the signal for the death-wail to commence. The most affecting things are said on such occasions, but always in a set form, commencing thus:- "Aue tou e! Aue! Aue!"-Alas for us! Alas! Alas! &c. The wailers usually lose their, voices for several days, aud their eyes arc frightfully swollen with crying.
As soon as the corpse was committed to its last resting-place, the mourners selected live old coco-nuts, which were successively opened, and the water poured out upon the ground.

These nuts were then wrapped up in leaves and native cloth, and thrown towards the grave ; or, if the corpse were let down with cords into the deep chasm of " Auraka," the nuts and other food would be successively thrown down upon it. Calling loudly each time the name of the departed, they said, "I I ere is thy food ; eat it." When the iifth nut and the accompanying " raroi," or pudding, were thrown down, the mourners said, " Parewell! we come back no more to thee."

A death in the family is the signal for a change of names amongst the near relatives of the deceased.
Chiefs and priests occasionally receive the honour of a "spirit-burial," the corpse being borne to the most renowned "marae" of his tribe on the island, and allowed to remain within the sacred enclosure for some hours, but the same day hidden away in the tribal cave. In such cases the depositing of the body in the "marae" was "the burial," or the committal of the spirit to the care of the god worshipped in life, whilst the letting down of the corpse into the deep chasm was designated "the throwing away of the bones'* (tirim/a ivi), the well-wrapped-up body being regarded as a mere bundle of bones after the exit of the spirit.

In the olden times, relatives of the deceased wore only " pakoko," or native cloth, dyed red in the sap of the candle-nut tree, and then dipped in the black mud of a taro-patch. The very offensive smell of this mourning garment was symbolical of the putrescent state of the dead. Their heads were encircled with chaplets of mountain fern, singed with fire to give it a red appearance.

The era, or dirge, and the mourning dance succeeded. Of this dirge, four varieties are known. They invariably took place by day, occupying from ten to fifteen days, according to the rank of the deceased. Sometimes a " death-talk " was preferred, consisting of sixty songs in honour of the dead, mournfully chanted at night in a large house built lor the purpose, and well lighted with torches. Each adult male relative recited a song. A feast was the inevitable finale.

Each island of the Hcrvey Group had some variety of custom in relation to the dead. Perhaps the chiefs of Atiu were the most outrageous in mourning. 1 knew one to mourn for seven years for an only child (a woman), living all that time in a hut in the vicinity of the grave, and allowing his hair and pails to grow, and his body to remain unwashed. This was the wonder of all the islanders. In general, all mourning ceremonies were over in a year.


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When circumcised, a lad considers himself to be a man. This rite was not infrequently delayed, so that the lad might become a finer man. It was performed about the age of 17 or 18.A Hervey Island girl may be considered mature at the age of 14. It must not be imagined that the ages of children were marked off by years, as with us.For females, a slight tattooing, the patterns, being different from those on males, is usual. She is expected to make her debut by taking part in the next grand dance. The greatest requisites of a Polynesian beauty are to be fat and as fair as their dusky skins will permit. To insure this, favourite children in good families, whether boys or girls, were regularly fattened and imprisoned till nightfall, when a little gentle exercise was permitted. If refractory, the guardian would even whip the culprit for not eating more, calling out " Shall I not be put to shame to see you so slim in the dance ?"

These dances invariably took place in the open air, by torchlight. About a year was required for getting up one such entertainment. This long interval was needed, first, for the composing of songs in honour of the fair ones, and the rehearsal of the performers; secondly, for the growth of " taro," &c, &c, to provide the grand feast necessary. The point of honour was to be the fairest and fattest of any young people present. I know of no more unpleasant sight than the cracking of the skin as the fattening process proceeds ; yet this calls forth the admiration of the friends.There is no analogy between the initiation of males into the tribe and the grades of freemasonry, it being done once for all. Xo new name is taken, no special colours used at the ceremony.

The advantage that accrues is simply this-he ranks as a man, can marry, take part in tribal dances, songs, recitations, and the various duties of adult native life.



Priests ex-officio dealt with the gods and the invisible world. It was for them alone to approach the deities on behalf of the state, clan, or chiefs, i.e., to chaunt Jcarahia (prayers) at the " marae " and present offerings. If Kongo were the divinity to be propitiated, a human sacrifice specially selected must be offered. To all other gods offerings of fish and " taro," &c, with the indispensable bowl of piper metJiysticum, were presented from time to time. No worshipper dared go empty-handed to his priest to inquire the will of the gods. The value of the gift must be proportioned to his rank and means. The load might be carried by male slaves to the outskirts of the " marae," but the offerer had a place allotted to him within the sacred precincts. The priest, or " god-box," clothed in whitef tikoru, at a little distance, alone, in the most sacred place, went through the needful prayers.

In a case of sickness the deity would be asked about the fate of his devoted worshipper. At Mangaia the favourable response would be couched in these terms-" The spirit will go to the sun-rising " (ka aere ki te ra iti), i.e., the sick will recover. For the spirit to descend with the sun-god Ra into the nether, or invisible, world is death. If the sufferer must die, a different metaphor was employed by the priest-"kua rau-ti para"-" The leaf of the ti tree (Cordyline terminalis) is sere," i.e., will drop off and perish.

The office of priest was hereditary throughout the Hervey Group. When a new priest was installed, he first bathed in the sacred stream of his tribe,
put on the white tikoru, ate only certain kinds of food, and abstained from many things permitted to others. On the day of installation of the priest of Kongo the temporal chief accompanied him to the 4imarac"- not too closely following him. Offerings of food having been deposited at the usual spot, cooked a taro " and the invariable bowl of ''kava" having been disposed of by the new priest-king, the temporal chief shouted lk Ka uru Kongo " -u Let Kongo enter" (i.e., inspire). The new lnVh-priesr, seated on a sacred stone,* then fell into convulsions, and spake in a most unearthly voice (? ventriloquism), the words so uttered being accepted as a divine oracle ! Thus did the temporal sovereign install the new priest-king (i.e., spiritual ruler). A grand feast would follow. Less of ceremony was observed with priests of divinities of inferior rank, but substantially the same process was carried out.

The technical phrase for this was " Va'i i te pia atua on1' = " open up the new god-box." On the eve of an important battle '" the omens were taken " (ka pa te vai) by the warrior chief himself. The native phrase, " Ka pa te vai," means literally, "enclose the water,'* because in taking the omens by the drowning of insects, tfce. it was customary to arrange the cut stems of a banana in a square on the ground. A single leaf of the Indira (Seeman), holding half a bucket of water, was deposited in the hollow, the water being kept from spilling by the cut banana stems. A number of centipedes, green lizards, and dragon-flies were now dashed into the water. The total of creatures drowned prefigured the number of warriors doomed to perish in to-morrow's battle. There was a special prayer (now lost) lor this ceremony.

Sometimes two shells (Turbo pctholatus), intended to represent the two hostile camps, were.deposited by the warrior chief on his own " marae," with an appropriate prayer, in tha dusk of evening. On returning at daylight, it is averred that Moke found the shell representing his foes turned upside down, a sure omen of their destruction, which accordingly took place. On most of the eastern Pacilic Islands were " wise women," who were consulted respecting the minor affairs of daily life. These women were supposed to be inspired by a female divinity. A small present must be made ere consulting the priestess.

On Mangaia the goddess Kuatamaine was consulted to discover a thief, and to secure success in fishing. There were numberless Kuaatu, or fishermen gods (of stone) in all the islands, each demanding an offering of a newly-caught fish from its votaries, or, in default of that, a hollow pebble to be strung into a sort of necklace, or the midrib of a cocoanut leaf, and thrown into the darkness, with these words, " Here is thy share, 0 Kuaatu !" The native name for sorcerer is " tangata purepure," i.e., " a man who prays." A heathen only prays for the ill-luck or death of his foes.

The prayers offered by the priests to the gods worshipped on the national or tribal "maraes" were termed "kamkia" ; those on minor occasions to the lesser gods were named "purest All these prayers were metrical,} and were handed down from generation to generation with the utmost care. There were " prayers " for every phase of savage life ; for success in battle ; for a change of wind (to overwhelm an adversary fishing solitarily in his canoe, or that an intended voyage of his own may be propitious) ; that coco-nuts, yams, &c, &c, may grow; that a thieving or murder expedition may be successful; that his hook or net may catch plenty offish; that his kite may fly higher than all others ; that his " teka" (reed) may outstrip the rest; that strong teeth may take the place of his child's first tooth when extracted, &c, etc. A great secret was the prayer at the excision of thcfinris umbilicus, that the hov might be brave, cr that the girl might in after-life be fruitful. Pew men of middle age were without a number of these prayers or charms.

They were usually uttered in too low a key to be heard by a stranger, lest he, too, should thus be armed with a dangerous weapon of offence. If a plantation were to be robbed, the appropriate prayer or charm must be uttered near to it, so that it might have its full effect. If a man were to be clubbed in his sleep, the prayer must not be used until the hut is in sight. Important charms orki prayers" such as these were to grown-up sons part of the equipment of life. In most cases, one or two would never be divulged until there was a premonition of death in sickness or battle. A man felt that if his last bit of " wisdom" were '" reeled off" (to use a native parable), die he must. Payment to the sorcerer consisted in a couple of pieces of native cloth, or fish and k> taro."  The succession was from father to son, or from undo to nephew. So, too, of sorceresses ; it would bo from mother to daughter or from aunt to niece. Sorcerers and sorceresses were often slain by the relatives of their supposed victims.

A singular enchantment was employed to kill oft the husband of a pretty woman desired by someone else. The expanded flower of a Gardenia was stuck upright-a very difficult performance-in a- cup {i.e., half a large coco-nut shell) of water. A "prayer" was then offered for the husband's speedy death, the sorcerer earnestly watching the flower. Should it fall, the incantation was successful. if the flower still remained upright, he will live. The sorcerer would in that case try his skill another day, with perhaps better success. Old natives assert that these enchantments, if persevered in, never failed ; but that since the prevalence of Christianity they have all become impotent. Indeed, thet prayers " themselves are happily lost.

In adzing a canoe, it was the duty of the chief taunga (artisan-priest) to chant an extempore never-ending song, which the other workmen took up. The song gave precision and unity to the stroke of their stone adz°s, added to their cheerfulness, and was believed to be supernaturally efficacious in helping on the work to its completion. As the taunga would be sure to be associated with the same set of helpers, the assistants knew pretty well what was being chanted.

This sort oc thing was called a " pataratara"-" a talking," of which I retain two written but untranslated specimens. Originally it was an address to the tree-spirit not to be angry at their adzing the noble trunk, with an invocation to the axe fairy, liuateatonga, to aid the progress of the w.ork. Taraaore, the last priest of Tangaroa (who had often offered human sacrifices to the tutelar god of Earotonga), when nearly ninety years of age, said to me:- " My father taught me how to retain wisdom (korero). He also told me when to marry. He did not feed me with bananas, plantains; and fis.h, lest, the food being light and slippery, wisdom should slip away from me. No ! he fed me with' taro/ well beaten with a pestle, and mixed with cooked ' taro '-leaves, the glutinous nature of the ' taro ' being favourable to the retention of wisdom."

This was uttered without a smile, in the full belief that this simple diet of his youth and early manhood accounted for the marvellous memory which he possessed to the very end of life. He assured me that it was thus the priests of the olden days were brought up.

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Published by:
Institute of Pacific Studies,
University of the South Pacific,

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