Polynesian Temples and Gods

Marae Fare Miro, Maeva, Huahine, French Polynesia

Marae Fare Miro, Maeva, Huahine

The Eastern Polynesians (French Polynesia and Hawaii) were enthusiastic temple builders, evidenced today by widespread ruins. Known by the Polynesian names marae or me’ae, these platform and courtyard structures of coral and basalt blocks often had low surrounding walls and internal arrangements of upright wooden slabs. Once temples for religious cults, they were used for seating the gods and for presenting fruits and other foods to them at ritual feasts. Sometimes, but rarely, human sacrifices took place on the marae. Religion in Western Polynesia (Tonga and Samoa) was very low-key, with few priests or cult images. No temples have been found in Tonga and very few in Samoa.

The gods of Eastern Polynesia were represented in human form. There was an undercurrent of ancestor worship, but this was nowhere as strong as in Melanesia. The ancestors were more important as a source of descent for social ranking, and genealogies were carefully preserved. Surviving elements of the old religion are the still-widespread belief in spirits (aitu), the continuing use of traditional medicine, and the influence of myth. More than 150 years after conversion by early missionaries, most Polynesians maintain their early Christian piety and fervid devotion.