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"-
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-
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
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-
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-
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-
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).
huru ana rotu tama na
tata ana (tae)
ahu ahu ahu ahu ahu
23 (Ab1; Hr7; Pr6; Qv2; Pr6)
ahu mo po no
anga nako toa
anga kiko toa
mo hue ahu a
ahu ana (tae)
ta o tama
haoa tama mo tutu ta
huru mo po ura
mo po tava-
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).
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-
Two verbs that appear frequently in this context are haka-
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-
Disease, depression, and death
[ra]ngirua i ahu a
rangirua era heka
[ra]ngirua tama mo mae
tama (tae) tama uha
51 (Ab1) (adapted from Fischer (1997:407)
mamae tetahi tetahi haoa
hanga ro tama mo pii mo ahu mo haka-
hanga ana huri-
ui tau i haka-
ahu mo tau toa
tehe tama tau
tehe ? tohu ana hue a
ko tahi -
ahu ana tohu tohu ana riro-
(tae) tehe tehe ri(ro)
ahu ra tama momaatou
haoa (tae) mo tiaki ro uha
ra maatou era
hanga ta korua
tuu korua raua
ka tama moraua na
ahu ro mo ki matua
apinga hauaa a tahuri-
moaha ahu mo matua
ture o ahu ke
ture o apanga
ahu ana (tae)
mae ana (tae)
mo huru mo ura riro-
ko tahuri ai ina taina
hanga ro ki ura tama
rangi mo hue ro