Power And Taboo: Polynesian Gods At The British Museum

| 02 October 2006
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Feathered Head. Hawaiian Islands, late 18th century. Courtesy of British Museum

'Can all the gods be counted?
They cannot all be counted!'
Society Islands Chant

We visit the British Museum's new exhibition about eighteeth and nineteenth century Polynesia, and find out about the powerful beliefs that regulated island societies.

The British Museum's new exhibition begins with a huge blue map, interspersed by tiny dots. These are the islands of Polynesia - stretching from Rapa Nui (Easter Island) in the East to Aoterea (New Zealand) to the West. Despite the vast distances, these islands shared a common culture, and an overwhelming sense of the gods as the ordering force of society, whose images were sacred. The British Museum's exhibition concentrates on a period from 1760 - 1860 when Europeans had reached the islands for the first time, but it also looks at the status of these traditions today.

While the exhibition covers very similar ground to the Cuming Museum's Mana earlier in the year, the great beauty of the displays gives this show power.

photo shows carved wooden god with tatoos

Figure ‘fisherman’s god’. Cook Islands, Rarotonga. Late 18th/ early 19th centuries. Courtesy of the British Museum

The heart of the exhibition is many wooden statues of the gods - mostly male, their pronounced genetalia, and the smaller figures attached to some of their chests, indicate their regenerative force. Many of these statues were brought back to England by the Missionary Society - who frequently amputated their penises to fit with their own very different ideas about the interrelationship of sex and religion. This statue of a fisherman's god is one of the few to survive the missionaries intact.

There are countless gods in Polynesian culture, but themes of war and power are to the forefront. Female goddesses are smaller, and delicately covered in shells. Frequently gods would be wrapped in fine wicker baskets to contain the effects of their power. Tattooing had a similar effect on people: by covering their bodies with tattoos, Polynesians would be 'dressed' and holding their lifeforce within themselves.

Lifeforce can be stolen from others by taking parts of their bodies: a carved wooden spittoon belonging to a chief is inlaid with 52 teeth taken from the bodies of enemies killed in battle.

Green pendant

Neck pendant. New Zealand, late 18th / early 19th century. Courtesy of the British Museum

Carvings also include images of 'birdmen' from Easter Island - eloquently expressing the predicament of these most remote of islanders. They sometimes suffered from food shortages, and eventually ran out of the wood from which these beautiful objects are carved. The birdmen had the heads of men on the bodies of birds, and were carved annually for the chief of the island.

After the coming of Westerners, many Polynesians converted to Christianity. For some, the museum suggests, the idea of a single benign God beyond the physical world acted as a release - they no longer needed to work so hard to manage divine power in a god-saturated world. Some would mark their conversion to Christianity by deliberately desecrating a taboo restriction. But traditional beliefs still survive: many Polynesian visitors to the museum come to greet the displays not as groups of objects, but as living treasures with immanent power. The Museum has a close relationship with groups such as the New Zealand Maori group Ngati Ranana - finding common ground between a curatorial and an animistic view of the things on display.

photo shows god in the process of creation - tiny people are attached all over his body

'A'a', carved wooden figure, Austral Islands, late 18th/early 19th centuries. 'A'a' is one of the most iconic figures in Polynesian art, the inspiration for a poem by William Empson and for Picasso who kept a cast of the figure in his studio. Courtesy of the British Museum

Two poems are set like quotation marks around the exhibition. The first is the confident assertion of the Society Islands' chant:

Gods inside, gods outside,
gods above, gods below
gods oceanward, gods landward
gods incarnate, gods not incarnate
gods punishing sins, gods pardoning sins
gods devouring men, gods slaying warriors
gods saving men
gods of darkness and light, gods of the ten skies
Can the gods all be counted?
They cannot all be counted!

The latter is a recent poem by Che Wilson, a Maori who used to lead Ngati Ranana in London. It describes the loneliness felt by the taonga (treasures) held by the British Museum so far from home, and the joy they feel in recognising a Maori visitor.

photo shows wooden statue attached to earth between legs.

Lyonel Grant statue 1997. Courtesy of the British Museum. The photo does not give a sense of the size of the statue, which is several feet high.

But if this contrast gives a sense of decline, it is countered by this huge carving by Lyonel Grant which dominates the last room of the exhibition. It was specially commissioned by the British Museum in 1997. The shape between the statue's legs is this time an umbilical cord or placenta: stressing the Maori connection with the land.

The postscript also looks at the effect of the Polynesian gods on a European society where many people were also abandoning traditional religion. In the 20th century Freud adopted the idea of taboo in his psychoanalytical work, whilst Picasso and Henry Moore were influenced by this statue of A'a: a Rurutuan god. The association between the Polynesian gods and a vibrant, unsafe, creative, uncontainable lifeforce therefore survives in many forms.

More on the venues and organisations we've mentioned: