Polynesian Myth & Religion:
How the Natives Interpreted Captain Cook
The Polynesian culture is saturated with fascinating
historical legends, both fictional and non-fictional. From the story of how Pele, the fire goddess, caused
volcanoes to erupt, to how coconut trees originated from decapitated eels,
Polynesian history is a mixture of factual knowledge and fantastical legend.
The wonderment that these legends incite in all those that hear the tall
tales can only be outdone by the amazement one feels when learning about the
plethora of gods and goddesses that make up the Polynesian belief system.
The gods of the Polynesian pantheon range in degrees of importance, from
great gods, such as Tangaroa, Tu,
and Lono, to local gods who were previously deified priests or chiefs
of great renown. Worship
of the gods involved sacrifices (including humans), chants and recitations,
feastings (often with great prodigality), sexual orgies (to promote fertility),
and elaborate rituals, often preceded by long fasting and abstinence.
Although presently, these legends and ceremonies are simply acknowledged
and respected as part of the rich cultural history, the tall tales and
fantastic ritualistic practices were very real prior to European contact in the
eighteenth century. It was here, in 1778, that the mystical world of Polynesian
history collided with the "real" world of scientific navigation and
British naval militarism, resulting in the death of one Captain James Cook.
Lono, Makahiki, and Cook's "Deification"
The death of Captain Cook is a factual historical event
that has taken on a life akin to that of a mythical legend.
Having been told and retold, the Legend of Captain Cook is one of the
most, if not the most, fascinating stories in Polynesian history.
The fascination of this story lies in the range of facets of Polynesian
history that it touches on: Captain
Cook’s story includes ancient mythology/history (the legend of Paao and Pili),
ancient/modern ceremony (makahiki), and modern mythology/history (the actual
Cook encounter, including the subsequent mythological synopses regarding the
events that took place). The
following encapsulates these facets and makes more explicit their meaning.
with, the events that entail the celebration of makahiki have taken place for
thousands of years. Four months out
of the year, the Polynesian people peacefully gained power over their chiefs and
participated in a ceremony reminiscent of the French “Mardi Gras”. After these four months had expired, the chiefs ceremoniously
regained power for the ensuing eight months of the year.
As soon as the eight months had expired, the four-month ceremony of
celebration ensued, and this was the Hawaiian yearly social cycle prior to the
European invasion of the early eighteenth century.
The respected anthropologist Greg Dening encapsulates
this relationship with the following analogy: "Native is to Stranger
as Land is to Sea". Presently,
this relationship only exists in theory as historical data, but prior to the
European invasion of the eighteenth century, it dictated everyday living through
a complex annual usurpation of power in which the power of the people supplanted
that of the chiefs.
Before providing a description of the events that took
place two centuries ago, a brief summary of the previous two millennium in
respect to the
Polynesian people is necessary:
The Polynesians are those people who some 2 or 3 thousand years ago spread to all the islands of the Pacific through the great triangle that reached from Hawaii to New Zealand to Easter Island. . . . That was their cultural triumph. They had mastered the immense ocean. . . . In their different island worlds, the Polynesians developed separately, playing variations on their common cultural themes. They held in common, however, an understanding of themselves, expressed in the mythical opposition of ‘native’ and ‘stranger’. They were native and stranger amongst themselves and to themselves. They saw themselves as made up of native, those born of the land of the islands, and stranger, those who had at some time come from a distant place." (Dening, 160).
The four-month period where the commoners regained power
over the chiefs with usurped power, called makahiki (ma-tahiti), was a
festive time where the ordinary was reversed. The commoners ruled the land and the god of the land, Lono,
returned. Lono was greeted
with great pomp and circumstance. Large
memorials were constructed to honor him and people sang and danced in
expectation of his arrival. Although
he never showed up (Captain Cook was mistaken for him in 1778, but more on that
later), the people continued to celebrate life. From November to February, peace and love reigned supreme,
gender roles were reversed, and the Polynesian population immersed itself in a
nonstop, four-month festival.
With astounding collective self-control, commoners would
avoid the violence and civil unrest that would otherwise overpower a peaceful
celebration such as this. The oral
pact that was made within the Polynesian community that stated that no war was
to be waged and no violence was to be displayed during these four months was
amazingly respected. This
astounding example of mass self-control speaks volumes concerning the Polynesian
people. After four months were over, the chiefs returned, and so did
“normalcy”. The eight-month
“normal” period in which the chiefs reacquired their power was called Kapu
(taboo). This was a time of war
and human sacrifice in order to please the gods.
Fittingly, Ku, the ancestral deity of the strangers, took Lono’s
place as the appropriate god of worship. People
reassumed their regular roles and life as usual continued… until the next
The annual cycle that was mentioned above speaks, as
stated earlier, volumes about the Polynesian people. One could feasibly argue that this evidence shows that
Polynesians are less violent than the rest of the world.
Although the evidence for this hypothesis is substantial, it
oversimplifies the entire traditional ceremony.
The makahiki ceremony shows that the Polynesian people are
extremely respectful and devoted to their historical traditions.
As a people, they would rather die than behave in a manner that goes
against their ancestors. Death is,
in Polynesian religion, a transcending stage where the newly deceased are
reunited with their ancestors. The
stereotypical label of being "brave soldiers" that is placed on the
males of Samoa is not far from the truth. Death
was not the end to life in the Polynesian belief system.
Therefore to die honorably in battle would be a privilege.
Rather than being an end, death was the beginning of a new life--a
reunion with prior lost loved ones and an eternal resting place where food and
The Legend of Paao: The
Arrival of the Stranger
When we speak today of Polynesian culture, we are
speaking of traditional cultural beliefs, ceremonies, and practices. That is,
what the Polynesians were doing before European contact. Today the culture
is a blend of these traditional ways with a heavy dose of European culture and a
dash of Chinese. Virtually every cultural practice has been affected by
colonization, but some of them are less altered than others and many remain an
important part of Polynesian life despite the changes that have occurred.
Legends play an extremely immense role in Polynesian
culture. They are part of the history and geography, and they are part and
parcel of the connection between a family and its land.
In present day Western culture, legends are stories that are deemed to be
fabular; they are not considered to be either physically or historically
accurate. But in traditional Polynesian culture, legends and history were
intertwined until they were inseparable. Fantastic stories, with giant lizards
and giant warriors, were considered to be legitimate history. Part of the
explanation of this lies in the fact that Polynesians have never had a written
record. All of their history has
been oral. Therefore, having fantastic characters in a story makes it easier to
remember and insures that it will be passed on from generation to generation.
Visitors to Polynesia will often be told various
legends, but families closely guard the vast majority of the personal legends.
These are the legends about particular areas or tracts of land that tie the
family, via its ancestors, to the land that it owns. These legends are only told
amongst the family, and even then, it is only a chosen few (usually one in each
generation) that are allowed to hear and learn them.
The following legend is the origin from where all other familial
territory legends flow. It is the legend of Paao and Pili.
Paao and Pili were the founding fathers of the
Polynesian government. Paao
is the founder of the high-priest family of Hawaii, and Pili, the
ancestor of kings. In the eleventh
century, Paao and his elder brother Lonopele were engaged in an
argument over stolen fruit.
The argument got so heated that both Paao’s and Lonopele’s
sons were killed. Because Lonopele
was the elder, and thus had more power, Paao was forced to leave
immediately. Paao traveled across
the seas with his friends, his wife, and an astrologer to help them navigate the
After the long journey, and when nearly out of provisions,
the party of Paao and friends finally touched land at Hawaii.
Paao and his company were greeted with open arms and Paao was pleasantly
surprised that these “foreigners” spoke a language similar to his.
He settled down in this environment and became high priest of Hawaii.
Meanwhile, in the northern part of Hawaii, Kapawa,
the high chief of the unblemished Ulu line of high chiefs, was abusing
his powers as chief. He lived an
atrocious life, befriending idle and criminal sorts, each of
whom he regularly invited to serve as his eating companions. As he traveled the island, he literally left each district
impoverished, but these crimes were permissible.
High chiefs of old times enjoyed certain prerogatives that would be
frightful in this day and age. The
actual abuse of divine right that Kapawa committed was when he violated
“the sanctity of the temples” (74). It
was at this point that the district chief, located in a section of Hawaii called
Holi, decided that royal blood alone was not sufficient to keep a chief
in office. There comes a time when
a ruler must be looked at objectively. This
was that time. The district chief
then asked Paao, the high priest, to physically dethrone Kapawa, the
The ensuing battle was well fought by both sides,
but after weeks of warfare, Paao emerged the victor.
Kapawa fled across the channel between the islands of Hawaii and Maui,
where he died “a discouraged and ruined king” (76).
The people of Hawaii, so impressed by Paao’s victory,
wanted him to become high chief as well. Content
with his power as high priest, Paao declined the offer and search for another
high chief instead. This decision
would turn out to be the turning point in Hawaiian history.
Pili, the high chief from Samoa, was persuaded by messengers to
move to the island of the north. With his immense caravan of canoes, Pili
journeyed across the water to Hawaii. It
is here, in Kohala, that Paao and Pili made their home. The two figureheads, representing the sacred and the secular
aspects of Hawaiian government, respectively, subsequently separated power
between the two entities, with religion getting the majority of the power over
Thus is the story of how the term "stranger"
came to be associated with the ruling class of Polynesia.
Dening further personifies this relationship with the metaphor “chiefs
are sharks that walk on the land” (160).
The Intersection of Myth and
In 1778, the history and myth of Polynesia came together
to seal the fate of Captain Cook.
Now Captain Cook, already a world famous explorer at the
time of his “discovery” of Polynesia, happened to arrive at the islands at
the beginning of makahiki. Naturally,
he and his crew were greeted with extreme kindness.
The natives also treated the crew, and Cook especially, with a godly
reverence. After all, they had
arrived just in time for the festive carnival in a tremendous ship that was
larger than any Polynesian person had seen thus far.
Moreover, the shape and makeup of the ship’s mast was reminiscent of
Lono’s makahiki symbol and the European Captain Cook was adorned with
medals and other shiny materials. With
all of these coincidences, one could easily understand why the Polynesian people
mistook the human captain for a god.
For approximately four months, the captain and his crew
were treated to the best that the Polynesian people had to offer.
Polynesian women were readily given to the crewmembers for pleasure
purposes and the abundance of fruit and other indigenous food was readily
available for the malnourished sailors.
For the first time in months, the fatigued sailors were able to
peacefully relax on land.
After the Captain had gotten his fill of the Polynesian
way of living, he decided to set sail again for home, precisely four months
after their arrival. Without
knowing it, Captain Cook had just solidified his position as Lono.
As the ship was setting sail, goodbyes were exchanged and expectations
for a revisit next year were present on both sides.
After Cook’s ship had gone, the Polynesian Chiefs returned and the
eight-month period of Kapu had begun.
Men and women reassumed their normal roles in society and various
sacrifices were made to please the present god of worship, Ku.
Lono’s long anticipated arrival had finally come and gone, which
solidified his existence and hence, the existence of all other gods in their
Meanwhile, on the Resolution, Cook and his men
had experienced some boat trouble. Because
of this trouble, they were forced to return to the island after just ten days of
sailing. This time, instead of
being greeted with great pomp and circumstance, they were approached by
questioning chiefs and confused common folk. They were native of the land and it was the time where the
strangers of the sea ruled. The
Cook caravan was out of place and out of luck.
An ensuing battle arose between the natives and Cook’s
Europeans, resulting in the deaths of various Polynesians and certain sailors,
namely the Captain. As Cook’s men
were retreating back to England carrying their leader’s corpse, the Polynesian
people wished them well and still expected the return of Lono when the
next season of makahiki arrived. It
is only after the instilment of Christian values that the ceremony of makahiki
ceased to exist.
Presently, the inhabitants of Polynesia keep the spirit
of makahiki alive through various parades and festivals, but the
historical ceremony that allowed for people to do nothing more than enjoy life
has been diminished to mere mythology.
Bibliography (the essay above drew upon several of the scholarly books
listed below and the web resources that follow)
Westervelt, William D. Hawaian Historical
Legends. 1923. Honolulu: Mutual, 1998.
Andersen, Johannes C. Myths and Legends of the Polynesians. 1928. New York: Dover, 1995.
Buck, Peter Henry. Anthropology and Religion. Connecticut: Archon Books, 1970.
Craig, Robert D. Dictionary of Polynesian Mythology. New York: Greenwood Press, 1989.
Dening, Craig. Mr. Bligh’s Bad Language. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992.
Myth and Religion (General, Hawaiian, and Maorian) on the Web