(from Peter H. Buck, Vikings of the Pacific, University of Chicago Press, 1938. pp. 202-221

Hoist up the sails with the two crossed sprits,
The two-sprit sails that will hear us afar.
Steer the conrse of the ship to afar distant land,
Sail down the tide with the wind astern.

Mangarevan Chant of Farewell


On the third day out from Reao, the Tahitian captain of the Moana pointed toward the east and shouted, 'Mangareva'. We had been sailing through the atolls of the Tuamotu which, though interesting, were monotonous in their similarity. Watching a mountain peak rising higher and higher above the horizon, we felt the excitement of change. The peak was Mount Duff, named by Captain Wilson in 1797 after his ship, which carried the London Missionary Society's first group of workers to Tahiti. The mountain seemed to float up out of the sea, and one could share the feelings of the Polynesian discoverers when they named it Mangareva, the Floating Mountain.

Click here for a photo of Mt. Duff (from "Air Tahiti Magazine" No. 12.)
Click here for Map.
Click here for a photo of the lagoon of Mangareva ("Air Tahiti Magazine" No. 12.)

We sailed through the western passage in the encircling reef, and the individual islands of the group unfolded before us. We passed Taravai on our left with little Angakau-i-tai nestling beside it. A group of small rocky islets, of which Kamaka was the largest, lay to the south. Akamaru and Aukena separated as we approached. We sailed along the south coast of the largest island, Mangareva, with Mount Duff towering above. The islands are the remains of crater rims, and the hillsides are steep and bare except for a kind of cane. From the main middle ridge of Mangareva, secondary ridges run down to the sea and form boundaries for small bays. Tiny pockets of flat fertile land extend back from the bays as far as the mountain slopes. The coconut groves are thus small and scattered. A plateau on the south of Mount Duff is the site of a modern cemetery in which stands a building that was pointed out to us as the tomb of Te Ma-puteoa, the last king of Mangareva. We rounded the cemetery point, and the chief village of Rikitea lay before us, with the two towers of its large stone cathedral rising above the trees. The schooner dropped anchor near the wharf, and Captain Emile Brisson, Deputy Administrator of the Gambier Islands, came aboard with his wife and family. We received a cordial welcome and a hearty assurance of assistance in our work. Emory stayed in the Brisson residence and I lodged in the detached library of M. Tondon, the Administrator, who was absent in Tahiti. The library contained a fine collection of works on Polynesia, and the back veranda had a closed-in shower bath. It was the most comfortable quarters that an ethnologist could find in the South Seas. Stimson went on by the Moana to continue his linguistic work in another of the Tuamotu atolls.

On landing, the native inhabitants came forward with outstretched hands and greetings of 'Ena koe' (There you are), corresponding to 'Hello', and the exact equivalent of the New Zealand greeting, 'Tena koe'. The correct response is 'A koe noti' (You indeed). The Mangarevan dialect sounded pleasant, for it resembles a blending of Maori and Rarotongan dialects. The A is absent and is represented by a catch in the voice; the k and ng sounds are both present.


First Impressions

I had hoped that in volcanic islands so far east as Mangareva, the people had been conserving enough to preserve their native culture. Alas! the change was even greater than in the Tuamotu. The old type of house had been completely displaced by structures of sawn timber and corrugated iron; even the oldest inhabitant had not seen the original native pattern. The rafts that were so plentiful on Beechey's visit in 824 had been discarded for small outrigger canoes of the Tahitian model. Nets and fish traps that were abundant in the old culture had long since disappeared, and the only hand nets seen were in the houses of settlers from the Tuamotu. Our hopes were shattered, for we had come to a barren land.


European Contact

The change in culture was inaugurated by the French-Catholic missionaries, Pare Laval and Pare Caret, who came to Mangareva in 1834. At first they met with opposition, but after King Te Ma-puteoa and his chiefs became converted, the whole population followed suit. Pare Laval acquired an extraordinary influence over the people. The open temples were dismantled and the wooden images of their gods were burnt, except a few that were sent back to Europe. On the site of the great community house in Rikitea, a huge cathedral was constructed in stone, and the cut coral blocks that had formed the bench along the front of the community house were included. The people became expert stone masons, and the chiefs had stone houses built for themselves. Stone is a fitting material for temples and churches but not for dwelling houses in Polynesia. The cathedral still functions, but today the stone palace of Te Ma-puteoa and the stone houses of the chiefs in the various villages are roofless and deserted.

Laval has been blamed, perhaps unjustly, for accelerating the mortality that followed in the wake of civilization. All students of Polynesia, however, must be grateful for the record he left us of Mangarevan traditions and early history. After teaching the natives to write, he induced them to record in their own language their traditional history, mythology, rituals, and customs. The story was told by converted native priests and chiefs who had taken part in what they described. Laval translated the native text into French, adding his own personal observations. This valuable manuscript has lain for years in the archives of the Order of the Sacred Heart (Picpus) at their headquarters at Braine-le-Comte, Belgium. Through co-operation between the Order and Bishop Museum, Laval's manuscript on Mangareva has been published, making known a wealth of material that would otherwise have been lost to the world.


Oral Traditions: Religion and Mythology

I ... interviewed Karara, an intelligent woman about sixty years old.... Karara was a pou-kapa, a leader of song, and she had a rich repertoire.

Mangarevan mythology is weak as regards the creation. At the head of the royal genealogy are the gods Atu-motua (Father-lord), Atu-moana (Ocean-lord), Atea (Space), and Tangaroa. The first two are local, but in Atea we have the widely spread concept of Space which occurs in the mythologies already quoted. Atea married Atanua and, as this mating occurs elsewhere only in the Marquesas, we have a significant affinity between the Marquesas and Mangareva. Tangaroa, important because of his wide distribution in Polynesia, is the father of eight sons, among them being Tu, Rongo, and Te Pari, the youngest, who was the father of Tiki. Tane occurs as a fisherman, whose daughter became the second wife of Tangaroa. Tangaroa is said to have been the creator of all things, but this statement is probably a late borrowing from Tahiti, for there is nothing in the native text to support it. The functioning god who was worshipped in the temples was Tu, responsible for the fertility of the breadfruit trees. Rongo sent rain for the crops and, appropriately enough, his symbol was the rainbow. A host of deified ancestors were worshipped by various groups of people.

Nothing remains of the principal temples on Mangareva beyond an odd stone or two. On the atoll of Temoe (Crescent Island), thirty miles to the east, there are temples that have been but little disturbed by treasure seekers. These were built by fugitives from Mangareva and thus reveal the Mangarevan pattern. Those that Emory saw consist of an open court with a raised stone platform, stepped in front, and with a chamber at each end. The people of Temoe were taken back to Mangareva after the conversion to Christianity. When the Mangarevans revisited Temoe in after years to plant coconuts, the zeal for temple destruction had subsided and so the stone temples of Temoe have survived to the present day.

The Tiki myth is present in orthodox form, for Tiki moulded a woman out of the earth and named her Hina-one (Earth-maid). He married her and later committed incest with his own daughter. He deceived her by building another house for himself at a distance and visiting her at night under the pretence that he was someone else. This story resembles the Marquesan version.

Maui appears in Mangareva as the youngest of a family of eight with the name, Maui-matavaru (Maui-the-eighth). Probably the variant names of the Maui brethren were treated as distinct individuals, a fresh one was added, and the tale was confused with that in which Maui had eight heads. Maui-the-eighth snared the sun and fished up an island, using his ear for bait. The fire episode has been shifted to a local folktale.

The Tahaki cycle is present with variations. Tahaki was famous for his ruddy skin. At a diving competition off the inner reef, his enemies made Tahaki dive last. As each person dived down, he was converted temporarily into a fish and waited below. When at last Tahaki dived, all the waiting fish swarmed in on him and bit off his wonderful skin. Tahaki emerged nude. He was fortunate, however, in having a fairy grandmother who attended the gathering. As fast as a fish removed a piece of skin, just so fast did the old lady remove it from the fish's mouth and place it in her magic basket. Then she returned to the Underworld with Tahaki's complete skin in her possession. Later, the naked Tahaki and his cousin Karihi went to the Underworld, where his grandmother reclothed him, fitting each piece of skin into its proper position. The stick insects in a neighbouring coconut tree had stolen some of the skin, which they used to decorate their armpits. They refused to return the part they had, and Tahaki's grandmother comforted him by saying, 'It does not matter. They have the piece from under your soles, and the loss will not show.' Thus, the stick insects of Mangareva still have red under their armpits.[Tahaki was called Kaha'i in Hawai'i; Tafa'i in Tahiti. For the Tahitian Version of the Tafa'i story, click here.]

Rata, the great canoe builder, was also born in Mangareva, and his adventures, though detailed, are local, taking place around the coast of Mangareva. His father and mother were captured in his youth by Matuku-takotako of Rikitea, who made his mother a menial in his cooking house and made his father an attendant at the beach latrines. Rata, in an approved local setting, slew Matuku-takotako and freed his parents. [Rata was called Laka in Hawai'i; Rata in Tahiti and Tuamotu. For the Tuamotu version of the Rata Story click here.]

The story of Apakura, which is found in Samoa and New Zealand, undergoes a marked local variation. Apakura lived in Mangareva and her son Tinaku-te-maku, a handsome youth, sailed to Rangitea to pay court to a woman of rank. He was successful with the lady but was killed by the unsuccessful suitors. Two frigate hawks bore the tidings back to Mangareva, where they remained stationary in the air above Apakura's home. Apakura called up to the birds, asking if they had seen her son alive. The birds gave no response. She then asked if they had seen her son dead. The birds dropped their legs, hung their heads, and drooped their wings in affirmation. Among the many chants in the story is the lament of Apakura for her dead son, the last verse of which refers to the myth that the moon dies every month but, falling into the Living-waters-of-Tane, comes to life again.

Thou art a moon that ne'er shall rise again
O son of mine!
The chill dawn breaks without thee
O son, O son of mine, O son!

The words are simple, but perhaps only the Polynesians and the Irish can feel the depth of poignant grief expressed in simple words.