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Ceremonial Birth Chants in Polynesia

IN THE preceding chapters evidence has been brought to show that the Kumulipo chant was accepted as a genuine tradition of beginning for the Hawaiian people and that corresponding traditions from southern groups prove its composers to have drawn from common Polynesian sources. It is possible to go farther and to show that the recitation of similar genealogical prayer chants carrying the family stock back to the gods and connecting it with the beginning of life on earth played a part in other Polynesian groups in ceremonies held at the birth of a chief's son.

Word of such ceremonial functions has as yet come from but two sources, from the Marquesas, reported by Handy, and from the Tuamotus, by Percy Smith.[1] In the Marquesas there are held, says Handy, "Great chanting festivals ... intoned with accompanying rites ... celebrated for various purposes by family groups, or, in the case of chiefs' families, by the tribe." One such occasion is at "the arrival of a first-born heir." The "central feature" is the chanting of the creation chants, vavana and pu'e. Recitation of genealogies is also a feature of the occasion, participated in by representatives of the different branches of the family line. A single chanter opened the recitation. "When he came to a certain point in his chant he would stop and a representative of some branch of the family would continue with the recitation

[1. Handy, Marquesan Native Culture, pp. 314-30; Smith, Journal of the Polynesian Society, XII, 221-42.]

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of the genealogy of his branch." This went on until all branches had been represented.

The creation story recounting the impregnation of One-u'i (the sand woman) by 'Atea (Wakea) is the subject of the pu'e chants. It is said to be taboo to teach these to women and women are excluded from the audience when these are recited. The vavana have to do with the development of the child and their recitation is open to all. To quote Handy's summary of their content:

The words [of the vavana] recapitulate the conception, birth, growth, and so on of the child, linking these with the mythical birth of the gods from the level above (papa una) and the level below (papa a'o). in subsequent sections the chants refer to the making of ornaments, weapons, and utensils for the child, to his canoe, to his sacred house and to various practices such as bathing, making cloth, etc., connected with it ... connecting all with mythological references to gods and ancient lands. In parts various gods are summoned to assist in the rite. The chant is very long, containing more than ten thousand words. There is much repetition of phrases-some of them meaningless. . . . Throughout there is mingling of narrative referring to incidents connected with the child, mythological references, and these meaningless phrases.

There is no reason to suppose that Hawaiian chants of beginning would follow the exact pattern in content and meaning laid down by the Marquesan. In fact these chants differed among Marquesans themselves: "Every tribe had its own rendition of these sacred chants," says Handy. Nevertheless the description of style fits the Hawaiian to the letter and that of the content supplies a strong argument for Pokini Robinson's view of the Kumulipo as based upon the progress of a child from birth to maturity. That part of the chant, too, which "recounts the basic stages of growth of the world" by naming the various plants as "births" by One-u'i after impregnation by 'Atea in order to provide materials needed for the child's activities after birth may give a clue to the meaning of the sea and land

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births listed in the Hawaiian Kumulipo. In the Marquesan chant the "mothers of various kinds of material" are invoked to furnish these for the construction of the house of the first parents, 'Atea and One-u'i. The introduction here of "various kinds of fish in the sea" as "wives of 'Atea," which puzzles Handy, must have a similar significance. Thus the gods favorable to mankind are shown preparing upon earth and in the sea provision for the livelihood of that child who is to be their direct offspring, descent from whom down the generations is claimed for the first-born of each family of the tribe through the recitation of vavana and pu'e.

Some twenty years earlier than Handy's report on the Marquesan ceremony, S. Percy Smith had published in the Journal of the Polynesian Society the text and translation of two Tuamotuan chants "sung at the birth of a high chief." These have, so far as I know, attracted no attention from scholars in this area. The translation is the work of "a Tahitian gentleman," with some corrections by Smith himself in line with Maori usage, who discovered in the text "many identical phrases to be found in Maori karakias." These identities he unfortunately does not quote. To Maori influence also he ascribes the prominence of the god Tane and the little importance attached to Tangaroa in the chants. Of their general contents he writes: "In the usual cryptic manner of these compositions, they go back to the beginning of all things, and then trace the origin of the new born to the gods and thence through ancestors to the migration."

In form and spirit as well as in content the chants resemble those of the Kumulipo. There is a like emphasis upon opposites, upon mythological allusions, upon refrain. In the first chant the word tumu serves as keynote as the chanter welcomes the generating pair Tane and Hine, "source" or "cause" or "origin" of all things; hails the rainbow,

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sign of the birth of a chief, and wishes long life to the child under the name of Rongo, a name identical with the invocations to "Rono" at the ceremony for Captain Cook's deification in Hawaii as the god Lono and highly suggestive in view of the dedication of the Kumulipo to "Lono of the Makahiki." In the second stanza "thought" (manava) expands in various directions, all propitious to the new-born "Rongo." Word is brought and the drum beaten for the chief Rongo. Next a search is declared for the "cause," the "origin," and the child is found to be born from the "stem," from the "seed" spread by 'Atea, Fakahotu, and Rongo, the repeated word tumu in the text being given a variety of meanings in the English translation. A couplet follows voicing an aphorism consistent with Kukahi's distinction between the separate worlds for gods and men:

The way [te ara] for the god [no te atua] is below [ki te po];
The way for man [te tangata] is above [ki te ao].

There follows a series of three-line stanzas, each concluding with a refrain proclaiming the "growth" (tupuranga) of lesser gods (Vaitu) and of men.

The next stanzaic-like verses are recited in turn by representatives from the assembled company, as explained by the translator: ". . . when the subjects of a king went to congratulate him on the birth of a child or other important event, they assembled at the court or mahora, and before commencing their speeches, the one about to commence stamped with his foot to indicate that he asked permission to speak. As soon as he had caught the king's eye, he knelt, and with the preamble 'maeva te ariki' commenced his speech of homage. Having concluded, he arose and gave place to the next."

The second chant opens with a comparison of the family stock, not to a "pathway" but to "a small tree shooting out its roots and becoming widespread like the Kofai." The

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reference is to a tree bearing red and yellow flowers, colors sacred to chiefs throughout Polynesia and hence an appropriate symbol for the royal lineage. A kind of migration story follows with an enumeration of well-known lands of the Pacific. Succeeding stanzas having to do with the birth of gods are too obscurely phrased for me to attempt analysis. To the god Tane is ascribed power to cause the growth of vegetation. The earth is "broken up," mankind "came forth," and the rainbow is hailed.

In this part of the chant "speakers" from every quarter bring their "orations," which consist in a listing of place names. The word vananga so translated is identical with the Marquesan vanana, and this identity marks a close connection between the function of such ceremonial chants in the two areas. Possibly the Hawaiian word hanauna for "a circle of relatives of one family" is its Hawaiian equivalent. At least it seems to me that Smith's translation of the word vananga in this connection by "oration" does not give the full implication. The whole development of the Kumulipo is based upon the idea of blood descent from a single stock established from the beginning of the race and derived from primary gods. It is fair to conclude from Handy's excellent but all too limited report upon Marquesan ceremonies for a first-born that interest centers here also, not upon any speculative philosophy about how the world came to be so ordered, but upon the immediate effect of the chant upon the child to whom the family must look for its perpetuation on earth. As Handy puts it, "The chants really amount to elaborate causative spells."

Just how far the idea of magic versus religious worship is involved in any ceremonial act is an individual question, not one possible of verifying as a general conclusion. My own observation of the attitude of Hawaiians toward even their minor deities, derived, however, entirely during post Christian times, leads me to believe that the majority endowed

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their gods with the passions of men just as they gave their chiefs the honors of gods during life, and after death set them up as gods. Certainly they looked upon these dwellers in the spirit world as capable of manifesting themselves not only in material forms and forces of nature but also in the bodies of human beings living on earth among men. Chants and stories of the gods are so handled. The whole material world is thus the product of deity made manifest. The newborn child of high chief rank is himself quite literally born a god. The recitation of the genealogical prayer chant not only honors the long line of ancestral gods with whom he claims kinship but reminds them of their responsibility to this new offspring in the family descent, hence claiming for him as for a child of beloved parents those benefits of fertility in plant and animal life and of success along the pathway of human life necessary for his well being and within the power of gods alone to provide.

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