Te Pito Te Henua, or Easter Island, by William J. Thompson, , at sacred-texts.com
The principal feature of interest, connected with Easter Island, is the written language by which the ancient traditions and legends were perpetuated. The existence of the incised tablets was not known until the missionaries settled upon the island. Numerous specimens were found in the possession of the natives, but no especial attention appears to have been directed towards them. Several persons, belonging to vessels that were wrecked at Easter Island, report having seen these tablets, but they were so highly prized by the natives, that they could not be induced to part with them. The three hundred islanders who emigrated to Tahiti had in their possession a number of these tablets; they created some attention on account of the remarkable skill with which the figures were executed, but they were highly prized by the owners and no effort was made to secure them because their real value was not discovered. The Chilian corvette O'Higgins visited Easter Island in January, 1870, and Captain Gana secured three tablets, two of which are on deposit in the national museum at Santiago de Chili and the third was sent to France, but does not appeared to have reached its destination. Paper impressions and casts were taken from the Chilian tablets for the various museums of Europe. Those sent to the English Ethnological Society created some interest after a time, but others sent to Berlin were regarded as stamps for marking native cloth ("Mittheilungen, July, 1871). Seven of these tablets are now in the possession of Tepano Jansser, bishop of Axieri, all in excellent state of preservation.
While the Mohican was at Tahiti, the bishop kindly permitted us to examine these tablets and take photographs of them. These tablets were obtained from the missionaries who had been stationed on Easter Island, and they ranged in size from 5½ inches in length by 4 inches broad, to 5½ feet in length and 7 inches wide. Diligent search was made for specimens of these tablets during our visit to Easter Island. At first the natives denied having any, but Mr. Salmon knew of the existence of two, and these were finally purchased after a great deal of trouble and at considerable expense. The tablets obtained are in a fair state of preservation. The large one is a piece of drift-wood that from its peculiar shape is supposed to have been used as a portion of a canoe. The other is made of the toromiro wood indigenous to the island. In explanation of the disappearance of these tablets, the natives stated that the missionaries had ordered all that could be found to be burned, with a view to destroying the ancient records, and getting rid of everything that would have a tendency to attach them to their heathenism, and prevent their thorough conversion to Christianity. The loss to the science of philology by this destruction of valuable relies is too great to be estimated. The native traditions in regard to the incised tablets simply assert that Hotu-Matua, the first king, possessed the knowledge of this written language, and brought with him to the island sixty-seven tablets containing allegories, traditions, genealogical tables, and proverbs relating to the land from which he had migrated. A knowledge of the written characters was confined to the royal family, the chiefs of the six districts into which the island was divided, sons of those, chiefs, and certain priests or teachers, but the people were assembled at Anekena Bay once each year to hear all of the tablets read. The feast of the tablets was regarded as their most important fête day, and not even war was allowed to interfere with it.
The combination of circumstances that caused the sudden arrest of image-making, and resulted in the abandonment of all such work on the island, never to be again revived, may have had its effect upon the art of writing. The tablets that have been found in the best stage of preservation would correspond very nearly with the age of the unfinished images in the workshops. The ability to read the characters may have continued until 1864, when the Peruvian slavers captured a large number of the inhabitants, and among those kidnapped, were all of the officials and persons in authority. After this outrage, the traditions, etc., embraced by the tablets, seem to have been repeated on particular occasions, but the value of the characters was not understood and was lost to the natives. A man called Ure Vaeiko, one of the patriarchs of the island, professes to have been under instructions in the art of hieroglyphic reading at the time of the Peruvian visit, and claims to understand most of the characters. Negotiations were opened with him for a translation of the two tablets purchased; but he declined to furnish any information, on the ground that it had been forbidden by the priests. Presents of money and
valuables were sent him from time to time, but he invariably replied to all overtures that he was now old and feeble and had but a short time to live, and declined most positively to ruin his chances for salvation by doing what his Christian instructors had forbidden. Finally the old fellow, to avoid temptation, took to the hills with the determination to remain in hiding until after the departure of the Mohican. It was a matter of the utmost importance that the subject should be thoroughly investigated before leaving the island, and unscrupulous strategy was the only resource after fair means had failed. Just before sundown one evening, shortly before the day appointed for our sailing, heavy clouds rolled up from the southwest and indications pointed to bad weather. In a heavy down-pour of rain we crossed the island from Vinapu to Mateveri with Mr. Salmon, and found, as had been expected, that old Ure Vaeiko had sought the shelter of his own home on this rough night. He was asleep when we entered and took charge of the establishment. When he found escape impossible he became sullen, and refused to look at or touch a tablet. As a compromise it was proposed that he should relate some of the ancient traditions. This was readily acceded to, because the opportunity of relating the legends to an interested audience did not often occur, and the positive pleasure to be derived from such an occasion could not be neglected. During the recital certain stimulants that had been provided for such an emergency were produced, and though not pressed upon our ancient friend, were kept prominently before him until, as the night grew old and the narrator weary, he was included as the "cup that cheers" made its occasional rounds. A judicious indulgence in present comforts dispelled all fears in regard to the future state, and at an auspicious moment the photographs of the tablets owned by the bishop were produced for inspection. Old Ure Vaeiko had never seen a photograph before, and was surprised to find how faithfully they reproduced the tablets which he had known in his young days. A tablet would have met with opposition, but no objection could be urged against a photograph, especially something possessed by the good bishop, whom he had been instructed to reverence. The photographs were recognized immediately, and the appropriate legend related with fluency and without hesitation from beginning to end. The story of all the tablets of which we had a knowledge was finally obtained, the words of the native being written down by Mr. Salmon as they were uttered, and afterwards translated into English.
A casual glance it the Easter Island tablets is sufficient to note the fact that they differ materially from other kyriologic writings. The pictorial symbols are engraved in regular lines on depressed channels, separated by slight ridges intended to protect the hieroglyphics from injury by rubbing. In some cases the characters are smaller, and the tablets contain a greater number of lines, but in all cases the hieroglyphics are incised and cover both sides as well as the beveled edge and hollows of the board upon which they are engraved. The symbols
on each line are alternately reversed; those on the first stand upright, and those on file next line are upside down, and so on by regular alternation.
This unique plan makes it necessary for the reader to turn the tablet, and change its position at the end of every line; by this means the characters will be found to follow in regular procession. The reading should commence at the lower left-hand corner, on the particular side that will bring the figures erect, and followed as the characters face in the procession, turning the tablet at the end of each line, as indicated. Arriving at the top of the first face, the reading is continued over the edge to the nearest line, at the top of the other side, and the descent continues in the same manner until the end is reached. The Boustrophedon method is supposed to have been adopted in order to avoid the possibility of missing a line of hieroglyphics.
Ure Vaeiko's fluent interpretation of the tablet was not interrupted, though it became evident that he was not actually reading the characters. It was noticed that the shifting of position did not accord with the number of symbols on the lines, and afterwards when the photograph of another tablet was substituted, the same story was continued without the change being discovered. The old fellow was quite discomposed when charged with fraud at the close of an all-night session, and at first maintained that the characters were all understood, but he could not give the signification of hieroglyphics copied indiscriminately from tablets already marked. He explained at great length that the actual value and significance of the symbols had been forgotten, but the tablets were recognized by unmistakable features and the interpretation of them was beyond question; just as a person might recognize a book in a foreign language and be perfectly sure of the contents without being able to actually read it.
Beyond doubt certain legends are ascribed to particular tablets, all of which are named, and a reference to those names will recall the appropriate story from those who do not profess to understand the hieroglyphics. An old man called Kaitae, who claims relationship to the last king, Maurata, afterwards recognized several of the tablets from the photographs and related the same story exactly as that given previously by Ure Vaeiko.
The writing is composed of pictorial symbols carrying their signification in the image they represent. The execution would be a creditable production with the assistance of the best etching tools, and is a truly wonderful result of patience and industry to be accomplished by means of obsidian points. The minute size of the hieroglyphics made it impossible to convey anything more than the general appearance of the objects delineated, but the figures may be recognized by their form in the outline drawing after the manner of some of the Egyptian hieroglyphics. The study of the tablets is chiefly difficult on account of the way in which actual objects are conventionally treated, and in order to
preserve symmetry and effect, men, canoes, fish, etc., are represented of the same size throughout the lilies.
A careful study of the hieroglyphics of Easter Island is being made, with the hope that valuable information may be obtained in regard to the early history a ad origin of the people. Results of an extremely interesting nature are barely outlined at present and not in shape to be presented. herewith. It is not considered expedient to attempt an explanation of the symbols until the subject can be treated exhaustively. As an example of the ideographic character of the signs, the tablet containing the genealogical tables shows a frequent repetition of the symbol of the great spirit Meke-Meke in connection with that of the female vulva. The signification is the birth of a person. The position of the figures shows whether the child was the result of marriage, or intrigue, and the following figures indicate the date of the birth, the seasons and the approximate time. An important feature, in connection with the tablets, is the fact that forms have been discovered which have no types on Easter Island, and which may lead to an identification of the locality from whence the first settlers migrated. The hieroglyphics include, besides the representation of actual objects, figures used by the chiefs, and each clan had its distinctive mark. Samples are given in different treaties made with the islanders of the sign-manual of some of the chiefs. (See Plates XXXVI-XLIX.)