As mentioned in the introduction, the mythological dimension and the metaphorical imagery that is encountered in some of the neru songs is absent in the inscriptions on wood. Names of gods such as Tangaroa do not appear and the fish and bird allusions to the neru seem to be limited to the use of the terms ika and tangata ika and the "young bird"-sign for tama. Instead, the descriptions focus on the process of physical change involving fatness, paleness, and menarche, and the severe psychological effect this had on the participants in combination with their prolonged isolation.

In the rongorongo texts, the process of ritual transformation is labeled tahuri, hariu, or huri, literally "to turn", "to be overturned", "to be upset", or simply riro, "to change". Some examples of the use of these terms are: "(They) have changed, (they) are no longer (our) sisters!" (fig. 60); "The people (we) know are completely changed by fatness!" (fig. 61); "(They) change because (they) grow extremely fat!" (fig. 62); "Do (they) like (it) if the fatness changes (them)?" (fig. 63); "If (they) are secluded for the sunlight, (they) will change!" (fig. 64).

The texts mention two reasons for the seclusion and the changes that the children undergo. One is that the children will become "beautiful" (tau, nehe-nehe). On the Santiago Staff, for example, it is said that "The sugarcane fattens (them) to be beautiful" (fig. 65), and tablet Tahua has "(Their) beauty will be seen when (they) have grown!" (fig. 66). Possibly, the last example has to be interpreted as a question rather than as a statement. As such it would indicate that the beauty that a fattened body and a paled skin traditionally represented had come under criticism. Not surprisingly, the children themselves seem to have become unwilling. This is, for example, found on tablet Keiti: "The children go inside but do not like (their) 'beauty': 'This 'beauty' fattens (us), this 'beauty' changes (us) completely!' " (fig. 67). Sentences such as these that suggest that instead of enhancing the neru's attractiveness, the seclusion took their beauty away correlate with the emphasis the inscriptions place on the deplorable circumstances of the seclusion and the inconveniences caused by obesity and lack of movement and sunlight.

The second and perhaps most important reason that is given for the seclusion is the anticipation of the menarche. In the inscriptions, the term that is used for menses is tehe, "to flow", "to menstruate", e.g., "The beautiful children will menstruate!" (fig. 68). The verb is often followed by tohu, "curse(d)", e.g., "The curse will flow if (they) are secluded!" (fig. 69). In some instances tohu appears independently, i.e., it refers to the menses as "curse". e.g., "After (their) color has been erased, (they) will be 'cursed'!" (fig. 70). It appears, however, that the term is more of a reflection of the taboos surrounding the phenomenon than an expression of an entirely negative appreciation.

The example in fig. 70 also points at another important issue in the discussion. It is the idea that the seclusion and the accompanying fattening and bleaching – and perhaps also the dire circumstances – serve to stimulate the menarche. By questioning the truthfulness of this interdependence, the advocates of abolishment seek to undermine the rationale behind these practices. On the Mamari tablet, they argue the point in this way: "Would (they) grow fat if the curse would not flow? Would the curse flow if (their) color would not change?" (fig. 71). Another fragment on the same tablet reads: "(We) obscure that 'flow' (as if) that 'flow' is something filthy! Would (it) not 'flow' if (they) were not swollen? (fig. 71). Does the curse flow because (they) have been secluded? Should (we) accept this cruelty?" (fig. 72).

Subject matter of the inscriptions

Introduction

Added: 2016-11-30

According to Englert (1974:154), the practice of secluding children in remote places for a prolonged period of time in anticipation of puberty disappeared several decades before the arrival of the missionaries in the 1860's. This suggests that its demise was the result of internal developments in the island's cultural and religious belief system. It is proposed here that most of the surviving rongorongo inscriptions document this changed attitude regarding the cult of these so-called neru as they describe in great detail the negative impact on the children's physical and mental health. They can be characterized as appeals or petitions for the abolishment of the ritual seclusion.

The term neru has not been identified in the inscriptions. A possible explanation for this is that it originated as a derogatory term meaning "fat one". This would also explain its near absence in the neru chants. Instead, the neru are simply referred to as tama, "children" or tama uha, "female children", i.e., "girls", and the sign appropriately depicts a bird chick with an opened mouth or looking up to be fed (fig. 1-2). This makes it easy to identify another bird glyph – with an open beak as if ready to feed its young – as matua, "parent". In some instances, it occurs as matua uha, "female parent", i.e., "mother" (fig. 3). The mothers are also referred to by the general term uha, "woman" (lit. "hen").

The inscriptions do not clearly state who the opponents of the ritual seclusion and possible composers of the texts are. In general, they refer to themselves as "we" with exclusive maatou which distinguishes them from the group they seek to convince (and which may include the absent part of the clan or tribe). On occasion, it separates both these groups from the parents or children. An example of the first case is: "Should those children grow fat for us?" (fig. 4), where "us" represents the ones who oppose their seclusion. In this context, the supporters of seclusion are addressed with plural "you" (korua) and the cult as "your custom" (fig. 5). The second case can be observed in "Would we not be hurt if (we) were closed up by the women?" (fig. 6). Here, the women who seclude their children are excluded from the "we". As a result of the presence of these opposing parties the use of inclusive taatou is much rarer compared to maatou. It appears, for example, in a situation where a communal responsibility for the perpetuation of the cult is expressed, as in "our custom" (fig. 7).

In the texts, the projected audience or readership at which these texts are directed is just as poorly defined as their opponents. It appears that korua often includes those parents who took part in the ritual by sending their children away. For example, they are likely addressed by: "They (i.e., the children) will resist you!" (fig. 8), and "You want that color!" (fig. 9). The (absent) parents and the children are also referred to as raua, "they", e.g., "Should the children be burned (by the sun) for them (i.e., the parents)?" (fig. 10).

Other references to the children include taina, "sister", lit. "sibling" (fig. 11), the use of which apparently was not limited to kinship, and tangata ika, "victim", "human sacrifice" (fig. 12). The sacrificial aspect of the rite suggested by the latter also appears in an intriguing passage on tablet Tahua that says – or doubts? – that the neru's "special transformation (is) a precious offering" (fig. 13). Moreover, in one of the neru chants (cf. text B4), it is stated that the children have to go through their ordeal "for the family, for the gods". Polynesian puberty rites were surrounded by many taboos but they have not been reported as being associated with specific gods. This makes the He timo te akoako chant an interesting case as some of its versions mention Tangaroa, a deity connected not only to the ocean and fish but also to death and the spirit world. The term tangata ika may be related to the fish metaphors used for the secluded children in the neru chants. However, this cannot be more than speculation as the use of ika, "fish", in the meaning of "victim" or "sacrifice" was very common. In addition, gods such as Tangaroa – as well as the word for "god" ('atua) – appear to be absent in the rongorongo inscriptions. The references to the children's family as the driving force and benefactors of the rite, on the other hand, are very clear: "Why are (they) growing fat for the parents?" (fig. 14); "Should (they) grow fat because the parents order (it)?" (fig. 15).

The picture that the neru songs draw of the harsh circumstances which the secluded children had to endure is confirmed in the inscriptions on wood. It is evident that the isolated stay in the dark, damp cave, the lack of sunlight and exercise, and the fattening diet had a devastating effect on their physical and mental health.

In addition to the already mentioned "fatness", "lameness", and "blindness", the neru's physical discomforts are described by a variety of terms including rua, "sickness"; tata, "agony"; ngaaha, "exhaustion"; mamae, "to suffer"; hehe "to be dazzled"; haka-tuu, "immobility"; kiki, "stiffness"; hura-hura, "trembling"; haoa, "to be wounded"; moe, "to faint"; toto, "to harm"; tingi, "to torture". An example from tablet Tahua reads: "Some are suffering pains, others have wounds!" (fig. 51). The most disturbing term for the neru's condition, however, is mate or mamate which not only means "to be very ill", "to be powerless", but also "to die" or "to be dead". On tablet Aruku Kurenga, for example, it is said: "Some die, others recover" (fig. 52). Arturo Teao used almost the exact same words when he told Englert: "When the neru reappeared among the people, they tended to become ill; some died, others recovered" (1939:208).

A phrase on the Small Santiago tablet reads: "The girls are unhealthy children" (fig. 53). It is likely that tae riva included their mental health as the inscriptions contain a number of statements on the neru's state of mind, ranging from unhappiness to losing their sanity. The Aruku Kurenga tablet, for example mentions: "The children long for the flames (of the sun)! (fig. 54)", whereas the Mamari text suggests that they developed serious mental problems: "Their mind is weakened by that place" (fig. 55). The term used most frequently for the children's psychological state is rangirua, a term not found in Rapanui but in Māori, which apparently means "to be confused", "to hesitate", "to doubt", etc. Examples of this are: "(Their) fatness confuses (them)" (fig. 56), "(Their) flabbiness confuses (them)" (fig. 57); "The children are confused because (they) are pale" (fig. 58). A clear description of the secluded girls' position is found on the Santiago Staff: "The children want to stop to grow fat because (their) gorging is making (them) carry too much! Will (they) calm down if (they) are victims? Will (their) crying calm down if (their) minds are deteriorating?" (fig. 59).

16 (Pv5)

huru ana     rotu    tama na

17 (Ev7)

 hue

 2 (Ca10)

1 (Aa4)

 3 (Ca9)

  tama   uha

 tama

  matua   uha

19 (Er4)

      tata  ana (tae)

                     hue

   ahu       ahu        ahu       ahu   ahu

24 (Aa2)

23 (Ab1; Hr7; Pr6; Qv2; Pr6)

26 (I3)

    ahu   tama

 tama ahu

ahu mo po no

20 (I9)

18 (Rb6)

  a-ta    haoa-haoa hue a

35 (Ev5)

anga nako  toa

   anga kiko  toa

40 (Gv2)

 39 (I9)

haka-teki-teki heka


  haka-teki    ahu

  25 (Pv5)

 27 (I8)

 mo  hue   ahu     a

           ro        ro

28 (Hv8)

29 (Bv12)

33 (Er1)

  hakari  nako

    hakari      nui

   puhi - puhi

30 (Ev6)

    ahu ana (tae)

                 hue

32 (Bv10)

  puha

 punga

31 (Hv11)

36 (Ev3)

38 (Hv7)

37 (Pv9)

 toa     haka-teki

  toa    haka-tei

42 (Pr10)

 41 (Hr1)

    ta    o   tama

 43 (Ra6)

  tahi-tahi  a    ina      ta  tangata a

 haka-teki pangahaa

 45 (I6)

44 (Gv4)

haoa tama mo tutu ta

  huru mo po ura

47 (Ca2)

46 (I1)

tahuri-ta(hu)ri  ui  

 mo   po    tava-tava

52 (Br3)

 mamate tetahi  hoki   tetahi

The seclusion of the neru appears in the inscriptions as huru, which is written with a sign that has been likened to the extinct palm species of Easter Island. Englert (1974:163) gives poki huru hare as the term for children who were confined to the house to obtain a fair skin color. As such, the term may be related to uru, "to enter", "to go inside". An example from the Large St. Petersburg tablet reads "Should (they) be secluded if the children protest?" (fig. 16).

Occasionally, the inscriptions refer to seclusion as hue, a word that also appears in ana hue neru, the name that was given to Englert (1974:182) for the caves in which the neru were "gathered". The term hue, however, also translates as "to hide", "to conceal". In the inscriptions, the syllables of the word are combined into a bottle gourd, which is also called hue (fig. 17). As the term "gourd" also appears to have been a metaphorical reference to the cave of the neru (cf. Neru cult), it is not always clear whether the word should be interpreted as "seclusion" or as "place of seclusion". Examples of this are "That seclusion will hurt (them) more" (fig. 18) and "Would (they) be in agony if (they) were not secluded?" (fig. 19). Frequently, the postverbal marker ro is attached to the small end as in "(They) are crying because (they) are secluded" (fig. 20). The figure of the gourd also appears in the petroglyphs at 'Ana O Keke and in one of the 'Orongo houses, places which had "gathering", and in all likelihood also "seclusion", in common.

Another term for the seclusion is apanga, which seems to be derived from apa, "to remove", "to put in a niche". It referred not only to the moment of removal from society, but appears to have been used for the ensuing period of seclusion as well. On tablet Tahua, for example, the ritual is also called ture o apanga, "the custom of removal" (fig. 21).

Seclusion

Fatness and lameness

The most important reason to isolate the neru was to prepare them for their passage into puberty. In anticipation of the menarche they were forced to become obese through a strict diet of sweet foods and a lack of exercise. The rite is therefore also called "custom of extreme fatness" (fig. 22). The word that is mostly used for "fat" and "to become fat"  is ahu, "swollen", "to swell". It is represented in the inscriptions by one of the most common signs, the so-called "turtle glyph" (fig. 23). There could have been several reasons for this choice. As elite children, the neru probably belonged to the "royal" clan of the Miru which traced its ancestry back to Tangaroa. As has been discussed in the pages on the neru cult, during this rite of passage the neru appear to have had strong links with Po, the world of the spirits. Turtles were in many parts of Polynesia connected to both kingship and the supernatural. A reference to honu, "turtle", to honui, "noble", "nobility", is therefore an additional possibility. Some examples of the ubiquitous turtle sign are: "fat children" (fig. 24); "Will the children grow fat?" (fig. 25); "(They) grow fat because (they) are in complete darkness" (fig. 26). On the Santiago Staff, it is stated that "Because (they) are secluded, (they) will become fat" (fig. 27), and on the Large Santiago tablet it is asked "Would (they) grow fat, when (they) were not secluded?" (fig. 28). The texts have several synonyms of ahu, for example, nui, "big", e.g., "large bodies" (fig. 29); nako, "fat", "to be fat", e.g., "fat bodies" (fig. 30); puha, "to get fat" (fig. 31); punga, "big", "fat", "fleshy" (fig. 32); puhi-puhi, "puffiness" (fig. 33); heka-heka, "flabbiness" (fig. 34).  

Englert (1939:197;208-209) was told that the neru were forbidden to eat sweet potatoes and that their most important food was sugarcane juice, which is confirmed by the inscriptions where it appears as toa, "sugarcane". On tablet Keiti, for instance, it is said "The sugarcane creates fat" (fig. 35) and "The sugarcane creates flesh" (fig. 36).

Two verbs that appear frequently in this context are haka-tei(-tei), "to grow", "to make grow", and haka-teki(-teki), "to be lame", "to make lame". The signs look very similar and they are often found in the same fragments. Sometimes they are interchangeable, for example, the "sugarcane that makes (them) grow" in text H (fig. 37) parallels "the sugarcane that makes (them) lame" in text P (fig. 38). The shortcut taken by the latter can be compared to the more accurate "The fatness makes (them) lame" (fig. 39), "The flabbiness makes (them) lame" (fig. 40), and "The weight makes (them) lame" (fig. 41). The fact that excessive growth results in difficulty in moving, while lack of movement in turn leads to more weight offers an explanation for the switch of the verbs' positions in parallel lines Hv8 and Pv9, haka-teki-teki – haka-tei-tei versus haka-tei-tei – haka-teki-teki, respectively.  

The severe impact that the excessive weight of the children must have had on their life can be deduced from the fact that more than a century later it was still remembered: "According to Emilia Kaituoe, her maternal grandmother was secluded inland from Hanga Ho'onu bay and was so heavy when the day of celebration arrived that she was unable to walk. The girl's father and uncle exhibited her by carrying her on their shoulders and she was considered the most beautiful girl present" (Edwards & Edwards 2013:261).

Paleness and blindness

The other aspect of the "beauty" of the secluded children – the paleness of their skin – is also found in the inscriptions. For "skin color" the word most frequently used is ta, "color", e.g., "the color of the children" (fig. 42); "Is (their) human color not erased?" (fig. 43); "The children will be harmed if (their) skin color is burned!" (fig. 44). On the Santiago Staff, it is recorded how the paleness of the skin is achieved by protection from the sunlight: "(They) are secluded to obscure the flames (of the sun)" (fig. 45); "Because (they) are obscured, (they) become pale (fig. 46).

Living in the darkness in caves or special houses not only bleached the skin of the secluded children, it also affected their eyesight: "(Their) vision is upset" (fig. 47). In the inscriptions, the two important characteristics, fatness and paleness, are often found close together or in similar constructions. In parallel fragments in lines Hv8 and Pv9, for instance, their relation is made especially clear as they appear in the same position: "Would (they) grow fat if (they) were not secluded?" (fig. 48) versus "Would (they) grow pale if (they) were not secluded?" (fig. 49). The parity of the concepts is also found in the so-called "genealogy" sequence on the verso side of the Small Santiago tablet: "Other people should accept (it) if (the children) like slenderness! Should (they) grow fat because (others) like fatness? Should (they) grow pale because (others) like paleness? Should (their) minds go crazy, because (others) like crazy minds?" (fig. 50).

Disease, depression, and death

 50 (Gv6)

56 (Gr5)

55 (Ca4-5)

[ra]ngirua i   ahu   a

 mae-mae roro kona

58 (Gv7)

57 (Sb4)

rangirua era   heka

[ra]ngirua tama mo mae

Transformation

54 (Br2)

53 (Gv5)

tama (tae)  tama uha

         riva

51 (Ab1) (adapted from Fischer (1997:407)

mamae    tetahi     tetahi   haoa

59 (I10)

hanga ro tama mo pii  mo   ahu mo haka-tari nui aku   rata mo ika-i(ka)  rata   rangi mo piro roro ra

63 (Qv2)

62 (Aa8)

  hariu- ke o ahu ke

(ha)ri(u)

hanga ana huri-   ahu

                (hu)ri

 66 (Aa2)

65 (I10)

  ui       tau  i haka-tei-te(i)

ahu mo  tau    toa

 67 (Er6)

69 (Br9)

68 (Bv9)

 tehe tama tau

 tehe ? tohu ana hue a

70 (Sa2)

   ko      tahi - ta[hi]    ra     ta       ka  tohu

 71 (Ca5)

  ahu ana tohu tohu ana riro-     ina        ta    a

      (tae) tehe   tehe      ri(ro)

72 (Ca12)

5 (Aa3)

4 (Gv3)

  ture  okorua

ahu ra tama momaatou

7 (Aa4)

6 (Gv4)

haoa (tae) mo tiaki  ro   uha

  ra  maatou       era   

9 (Pv6)

8 (Hv3)

   hanga    ta  korua

 tuu korua raua

10 (Gv7)

15 (I1)

ka tama moraua na

ahu ro mo ki matua

13 (Ab6)

  apinga          hauaa      a    tahuri-

                                           ta(hu)ri ke

14 (I1)

12 (Ab1)

 moaha ahu mo matua

tangata ika

 11 (Aa3)

taina

22 (Aa7)

   ture   o   ahu ke

21 (Ab1)

  ture   o  apanga

48 (Hv8)

 ahu ana (tae)

               hue

49 (Pv7)

mae ana (tae)

               hue

mo huru mo ura riro-

                        ri(ro)

61 (Nb4)

  tahuri- mee ite    pori

 ta(hu)ri

 60 (Db6)

  ko     tahuri     ai       ina           taina

64 (I3)

hanga ro ki ura tama

 rangi mo  hue ro

34 (Br7)

 heka-heka

ture    otaatou

po    mai tehe  (tae)   tehe  tae  ana (tae)   tehe tohu i  huru   too [na]  ino-                          riva               tehe    ahu                                           i(no) too mo hanga iti tetahi  ahu   mo  hanga   ahu    mae   mo  hanga  mae  mara mo hanga ro-ro                                                                                                              roro                 mara oo tama e  tae hanga tau ahu    tau  tahuri-  tau                                                        ta(hu)ri