Added: 2016-09-05



"Fish" and "birds" are not the only zoological references to the neru in the surviving texts. Atu'a Mata Riri (cf. text T1) mentions three other animals that can be associated with the secluded girl in the chant. In verse 20, the lightness of her skin standing out against the darkness is compared to that of a glowworm and verse 29 has the exclamation: ka pu te taoraha: "Bring on the whale!", which may be an ironic allusion to her expanded body size and/or an appeal to Tangaroa as the animal was known to function as one of the 'ata of Tangaroa (Scheffrahn 1965:115; 219). The most intriguing trope, however, is found in verse 15 which can be reconstructed to ki ai kiroto pohuhutuhutu-tere-vai-mangaro / ka pu te veke a haka-mea: "(She) has to stay inside, that 'fresh water skimming larva'! Bring on that dragonfly and make (her) fair!" A fragment of a He timo te akoako version in the field notes of Métraux, published as version K by Fischer (1994:420-421), starts with some of the familiar lines, but concludes with a phrase that is absent in the other versions: e timo te ako-ako / he ako-ako tena / e te tu / e te kuia / e te manu vae eha / e te pohuhutuhutu tere vai mangaro, which can be reconstructed to he timo te akuaku / e akuaku tena / e te tetu / e te kui a / e te manu vae eha / e te pohutuhutu tere vai mangaro: "This swallowing is deplored, but (it) must be swallowed by the 'expanding ones', the 'staggering ones', the 'four-legged' birds, the 'fresh water skimming' larvae". The last part was annotated by Métraux as "insect insect walks sweet water" (Fischer 1994:420), which corresponds with his translation of "Bug-that-flies-on-fresh-water" of the same word in Atu'a Mata Riri  15 (Métraux 1940:321).

The reduplications of pohutu which occur in both texts resemble the paraparoko, paroparoko, parokoroko variants of the paroko fish. It is possible that the name was turned into a verbal form to convey the meaning of "to be, to act like a dragonfly larva". It is however also possible that the word was lengthened because it evoked other associations such as pohutu, "dirty", "to be soiled". To reach the supplies of fresh water, the neru would have to crawl through a system of narrow tunnels and chambers, the floors of which were very muddy and in some places covered by thin layers of water (cf. Steiner 2008:265-266). This means that they quite literally had to "skim the fresh water", an action which would undoubtedly have left them completely "soiled". Roussel's vocabulary gives another meaning of pohutu that is interesting in the neru context: "défiguré" [disfigured] (1908:191).


Dragonfly (Pantala flavescens)

Fig. 2

Englert's vocabulary (1978:228) has pohutu as the name of the larva stadium of the dragonfly which is known as veveke in Rapanui. The only species on Easter Island is the Globe Skimmer or Wandering Glider (Pantala flavescens) (Samways & Osborn 1998:935). The female of this insect deposits its eggs in or near fresh water pools. After hatching, the aquatic larva or "nymph" spends some 40 days in the water as a ferocious predator feeding on insect larvae and a wide variety of other prey. In the final stage, the nymph leaves the water, sheds its larval skin and emerges as a dragonfly. Verse 15 clearly demonstrates that the Easter Islanders were well aware of the connection between the larva and the adult stadia of the dragonfly.  

This double identity is much clearer present in the adjacent scene in which a much larger fish is hauled aboard a canoe. To its right side it has an appendage which looks very much like a bird chick emerging from its body, mirroring the left part of the other bird. Apparently, this scene of leaving the water depicts the other decisive moment in the ritual transformation of the neru: the conclusion of their stay at 'Ana O Keke and the end of their existence as "fish". As the "fattened" animal is caught and "dies" – by means of the implements of Tane – the appearance of the small bird illustrates the "rebirth" of the neru as "birds", i.e., as human beings.

If this interpretation is correct, these two scenes would show us the children while they are crossing over from the domain of the "god of fish" into that of the "god of birds", and vice versa. As these transitions were clearly not understood as mutually exclusive processes, they suggest that 'Ana O Keke and its inhabitants were seen as a permanent battleground in the ongoing conflict between the gods of fish and birds, of darkness and light, and of death and life. In this mythological framework, the bleaching of the neru may have been viewed as a movement towards Tangaroa's realm with its associations of "fairness", "fish", "water", and "death". The fattening, on the other hand, would have been an expression of fertility and renewal of life, which, together with the growing of hair and nails that gradually turned them into "birds", signaled their return to the earth above and the sky, the domains of Tane. As long as the gods' struggle for control was undecided, the neru could therefore be imagined both as "fish" and "birds". The outcome could go either way. If the god of light gained the upper hand, the neru would reach the menarche and return as fertile "birds" to the world of human beings. If, however, they succumbed to the dire circumstances, this would have meant that Tangaroa was victorious and that they would have to remain his "subjects". In his dark realm, the "fish" would then literally have become "victim" or "sacrifice".

While it is evident that the initiation rite and its practice of seclusion, bleaching and fattening were brought to the island by the Polynesian immigrants, there is much more uncertainty with regard to the associated mythical imagery which has not been recorded for other Polynesian cultures. Although it seems likely that Tangaroa and a Sun god such as Tane were already involved in the cult from the beginning, it cannot be excluded that it was a local development within an existing mythical framework. Whatever the case may be, the presence of these powerful gods clearly indicates that the menarche was seen as a crucial part in the supernatural scheme of things, one over which a strong form of control needed to be exercised. In his exhaustive survey of the fear of pollution by the menstruating woman, Frazer (1913:97) has explained the origins of the phenomenon in this way:

Although the presence of a mythological framework and a metaphorical language is the most intriguing aspect of the neru songs, their main focus is on the many negative aspects of living a life in seclusion. Taken together they paint a detailed and realistic picture of the miseries resulting from fattening and being forced to sit in a dark cave for a prolonged period of time. The desperate and at times almost rebellious tone of these laments suggests that at a certain point in time the ideals of becoming fair and fat to be "beautiful" were more or less openly questioned. How is this to be explained if these girls were partaking in what must have been a prestigious and sacred ritual?

The solution that is proposed here is that the neru chants as a whole basically consist of two layers. There is the older stratum to which the metaphorical imagery, the traces of a mythological background, and the series of transitions culminating in the menarche, belong. In a later phase, another one was added to this, reflecting a fundamental change of attitude towards seclusion, in particular in such an inhospitable and potentially lethal place as 'Ana O Keke. As the attention shifted to the physical and psychological problems of the neru, the original elements were gradually pushed to the background, becoming more and more fragmented and poorly understood – a process that can best be observed in the various versions of the He timo te akoako chant. Whereas the original recitations had probably been composed by priests and similar experts as "explanations" of the ritual in mythical terms to the society at large, the remodeled "laments" – most notably Atu'a Mata Riri – appear to have been created by people intimately associated with the life of the neru, such as family, caretakers, and former neru.

If Englert (1974:145) was correct in his assumption that the rite had already been abandoned "decennia before the arrival of the first missionaries", i.e., well before the 1860's, it could mean that in their second phase the chants reflected a general opinion about the unacceptability of seclusion, one that had already been formed previous to any significant foreign influence. It is possible that in its last stage the cult had spread among a broader segment of the population, either causing or resulting from a shift in emphasis from ritualistic to cosmetic aspects.

Although some texts that were related to the neru were collected by Geiseler (1882) and Thomson (1886), these remained poorly understood and as a result there is no mention of the practice before Knoche's report of 1912. It is not clear whether this silence was the result of a tapu that still surrounded the cult or an embaressment with it's negative aspects, such as the high mortality rate. Over time the true nature of the ritual, in particular the fattening, seems to have disappeared from the collective memory and the mysterious girls became the romantic object of poetical imagination. An explanation for this could be that on Easter Island plumpness outside a ritual context may not have been the desirable ideal it was on many other islands. To be sure, there is no special mention of obese men or women in the first visitors' reports. In the 1930's, Englert wa the last researcher who was able to collect reliable information on the cult of the neru and he was probably the first to be confronted with some of its more gruesome aspects.


Fig. 1

The fact that Pantala flavescens crosses over from one habitat into another must have secured it a place among the "ambiguous" animals. As such it will have functioned in the neru imagery in a role similar to that of the paroko. In the first place, however, the dragonfly's extraordinary metamorphosis from a dark green or brown and rather nasty looking aquatic bug into an elegant flying creature, colored in bright reds and yellows, must have been regarded as the perfect symbol for the dramatic changes to the children's body in preparation for their ultimate emergence from the "aquatic" environment of 'Ana O Keke.

Although the information on the neru cult has only survived in scattered fragments, it seems evident that its ideology centered around the theme of transition. In Atu'a Mata Riri, vs 38, this idea is most clearly stated as ki ai kiroto ka rori, "(She) has to stay inside, until (she) is transformed!" Surely it is by no means surprising to find motifs of change – of one's place in society and of one's body – figuring prominently in an initiation rite. What makes the Easter Island case a very special one, however, is the fact that, perhaps more than anywhere else, these ideas have been formulated in an explicit metaphorical language. At the same time, however, they have been embedded in a very familiar Polynesian mythological scheme.

Since both Tangaroa and an unnamed Sun god make their appearance in the neru chants and since the children are referred to both as "fish" and as "birds", it seems not too farfetched to assume that they somehow played a part in the eternal war that was waged between the brother gods Tangaroa and Tane. For Easter Island, some traces of their fundamental dichotomy can be found in Metoro's recitations for Jaussen: ko te ariki kua noho i te henua ko te ariki kua noho i vai: "this king lives on the earth, this king lives in the sea" (Barthel 1958:187) and in the myth of Tangaroa's landing at Tongariki which states that his mana was "over the sea" while that of his brother was "over the land" (Métraux 1940:310-311). Māori lore which paints the conflict in colorful detail, tells us how Tane supplied the human race "... with canoes, with spears and with fishhooks made from his trees, and with nets woven from his fibrous plants, that they may destroy the offspring of Tangaroa; whilst Tangaroa, in return, swallows up the offspring of Tane, overwhelming canoes with the surges of his sea, swallowing up the lands, trees, and houses that are swept off by floods, and ever wastes away, with his lapping waves, the shores that confine him ..." (Grey 1855:8). In another context, the denizens of the ocean are described as being particularly vulnerable to the rays of the sun (e.g., Grey 1855:59-66; Best 1982:286-287) and on other islands, Tane himself is occasionally imagined as a fisherman (e.g., Buck 1938:421; 424; 509).

On Easter Island, this imagery comes together in the depiction of the sun god as a heavenly fisherman with his rays serving as nets and fishing lines. In Atu'a Mata Riri, vs 34-35, it is said that the "king" will be nourished if the "fish" are cooked by his sunbeams. Therefore the neru can only stay safe by hiding in the cave until sunset, an event which appears in another text using similar imagery: ki te haka-mata mata / ki te haka-mata hau / teatea hetu'u / he hahati te 'ariki: "Against the weaving of nets by (his) eye, against the weaving of nets by (his) lines, the stars will start to shine, (and) the 'king' will be shattered!" (cf. text R3). In this context, the name 'Ana O Keke not only seems to signify that the cave was a place where the sun had "set" for its inhabitants but also that it was lying outside the reach of the divine power who manifested himself in the sun.

The idea of transition has found a prominent visual expression in the middle part of the cave's large petroglyphic mural (fig. 3). To the left a bottle gourd is depicted in such a way as to suggest a whale, which – as already mentioned – was one of Tangaroa's many 'ata. To its right a much smaller figure of a bird is moving toward it, its head touching on a curled line – perhaps a wave indicating the border between land and water. Possibly, the bird image is a cleverly designed trompe-l'œil, that also represents a fish. If the figure includes a fish, it could portray the neru in the critical moment of the beginning of their seclusion: they enter the cave as "birds", i.e., as humans, and by doing so they are transformed into "fish" in the realm of Tangaroa.

Some early traces of the allegorical themes of the mythological background of the neru cult are found in the report of the pioneering field work that was undertaken during the Spanish expedition of 1770. The Spanish made an attempt to collect the Rapanui names for the numerals from one to ten, but they were given a series of terms that, although clearly Polynesian, have nothing to do with numbers (Barthel 1962:3; Fedorova 1969:146). The manuscript of captain Aguera's journal at the Mitchell Library in Sydney lists these as "uno: cojàna; dos: corena; tres: cogojù; quatro: quirote; cinco: majanà; seis: teùto; siete: tejèa; ocho: moroqui; nuebe: vijoviri; dièz: queromata-paùpaca quacaxixiva" (fig. 5).

To explain what could have caused the misunderstanding, Mellén Blanco has argued convincingly that the informants, while not understanding the Spanish questions, must have had a good look at a list with Arabic numerals (1994:38). This can be deduced from the fact that the number 6 was interpreted by them as teùto, i.e., te uto, "buoy", apparently because it resembled a bottle gourd (which were probably used as net floats), and the number 8 as moroqui, i.e., moroki, the name of little fish which were used as bait.

Although this scenario seems plausible enough, attempts to link the descriptions of the other numerals to pictures, objects or even rongorongo signs, fail to produce any convincing results. If, however, instead of concentrating on the individual numerals, two or more of the Rapanui descriptions are joined together and interpreted as such, it becomes clear what the Easter Island informant was trying to communicate. With minor modifications of Mellén Blanco's reconstruction of the Rapanui words from the Spanish notation, the phrases can be read as ko 'ana ko renga / kokohu kirote ma hana te uto / tehe a moroki / iho viri / kero mata pahu / paka haka-kikiva: "(It is called) the cave with the beautiful girls. The 'buoy' provides shade inside for the heat. The 'little fish' menstruate (1). (They) are stiff and round. (Their) wrinkled figures are completed. (They) leave, (they) become smooth".

Interpreted in this way, this early Rapanui text provides an accurate description of the neru practice, using the same ritual imagery that is found in traditions, songs, and petroglyphs. The little moroki-fish are an obvious equivalent of the paroko as metaphorical "fish" reference to the neru, whereas the term "buoy" – because of its "watery" connotation – is in fact a more accurate image for the womblike cave than "gourd". If the interview was conducted aboard one of the Spanish vessels anchored in Hanga Ho'onu, the cave of the neru would only have been some 5 km away. Triggered by what appeared to be depictions of a bottle gourd and a small fish, the informant must have understood the "writing" as having to do with the neru at 'Ana O Keke and therefore did his best to "read" the symbols much in the same way as Metoro would do for bishop Jaussen little over a century later.  

"(...) the object of secluding women at menstruation is to neutralize the dangerous influences which are supposed to emanate from them at such times. That the danger is believed to be especially great at the first menstruation appears from the unusual precautions taken to isolate girls at this crisis. Two of these precautions have been (...) that the girl may not touch the ground nor see the sun. The general effect of these rules is to keep her suspended, so to say, between heaven and earth. Whether enveloped in her hammock and slung up to the roof, as in South America, or raised above the ground in a dark and narrow cage, as in New Ireland, she may be considered to be out of the way of doing mischief, since, being shut off both from the earth and from the sun, she can poison neither of these great sources of life by her deadly contagion."

Although Frazer did not investigate the practice for Polynesia, his general description applies remarkably well to the neru's confinement in the almost inaccessible location of 'Ana O Keke, hovering more than 100m above the ocean level. In their cave in the forbidding cliffs, the neru girls were quite literally unable to "touch the earth" or "see the sun". As it happens, one of the texts uses the very same term as Frazer to describe the neru's awkward position: ko reva ure kikiu, "(Our) crying children are suspended (up there)!" (text E1).

Hiva and Po

Hanson (1982:375) has refined Frazer's analysis by arguing that women at menstruation or childbirth were not isolated from society because they themselves were seen as the source of evil but because at such times their body provided potentially malevolent forces of the spirit world (Po) with an access to the world of the living. This connection to the supernatural can also be found in the imagery associated with the secluded girls. Roussel noted in 1869 that on Easter Island the soul of a deceased person was believed to leave the island to return to "a foreign land" (1926:498). Evidently the name that was given to him was "Hiva". As Hiva was also the name of the legendary land of origin, this designation can be compared to the Māori identification of the spirit world with Hawaiki, the mythical homeland (Fedorova 1993:143). The association of Hiva with Po, the dwelling-place of the "souls" of the unborn and the dead, together with references to a neru as "beautiful girl of Hiva" (texts 10; 11), suggest that 'Ana O Keke was looked upon as a place belonging to the supernatural world. This is in agreement with the fact that in the Polynesian imagination, craters, lakes, wells, and especially caves functioned as passways into the spirit world.

That the neru were seen as subjected to direct influences from Po corresponds with the associated imagery which suggests that the transitions into a new phase of their life were primarily viewed in terms of "birth" and "death". One example of this is the already mentioned petroglyph in 'Ana O Keke depicting the "death" of a fish in combination with the "birth" of a bird. Another indication that the neru's reappearance from the cave was compared to a "birth" can be found in the use of the term kovare, "mucous discharge preceding childbirth", to describe their first menstruation in Atu'a Mata Riri, vs 45. Both the connection to Po and ritual death would provide additional explanations for the involvement of Tangaroa with the neru cult as the god was on many islands associated with death and the underworld (Scheffrahn 1965:274-280). This suggests that 'Ana O Keke was also imagined as "grave" or "burial ground". An important indication for this is found in the last verse of Atu'a Mata Riri which explicitly uses the term tanu, "to bury", to refer to the neru's confinement: he aha e toe to tanu, "What will remain (with her) of that interment?"  

Gourd and womb

The assumption that in order to "be born" the neru were the recipient of certain influences from Po – in accordance with the widely held Polynesian belief that the newborn child was the embodiment of a "spirit" from the supernatural world (Hanson 1982:350) – opens the possibility for yet another symbolic interpretation of 'Ana O Keke. If the "watery" cave was not only imagined as an extension of the ocean as suggested above, but also as a point of entry from the netherworld, it can be hypothesised that it was thought to have essentially the same function as the womb, i.e., to develop the child and to furnish it with a spirit from Po.

The same association is probably responsible for Jaussen's comment on a fragment of Metoro's recitations: "In their prayers, they ask Makemake for small gourds, by which term they especially meant children" (Barthel 1958:186). The text to which Jaussen is referring is particular important because it confirms the link between sea, gourd, and secluded children: ka pu te ipu - ka pu - i te mahigo - ka pu i te tamaiti - e tai - ka hora - ka tetea: "Let the 'gourd' bring (them) forth! Let (it) bring forth a large family! Let the children be brought forth by the sea, let (them) be indolent (ora), let (them) become white!" The term mahingo has – apart from "family in the widest sense" (Englert 1974:186) – two interesting other connotations. The first is that of "following" (Churchill 1912:222), "people under one's command", "subjects" (Fuentes 1960:777), which seems congruent with the labeling of the neru as rongorongo a Tangaroa, "the ones who obey Tangaroa" (text R1). The second is "to come in great numbers" (Churchill 1912:222: maigo), which brings to mind the first part of the well-known Makemake creation myth in which the paroko-fish are born from a gourd that has been impregnated by the god, because the reduplicated term paroparoko has been translated as "many small paroko came forth" (Englert 1980:13). This fecundation of the gourd by Makemake may have originated in the idea that the "womb" that was 'Ana O Keke was fertilised by the rays of the sun god, as a result of which the "little fish" came into being. The fact that this act of creation was considered a failure, may be an indication that the paroko was seen as a phase in the neru's life cycle and not as the end result.

The comparison of 'Ana O Keke to a "womb" would explain the fact that the whale figure in the cave's petroglyphs is actually a depiction of a bottle gourd and the notion of being secluded "inside the gourd" appearing in one neru chant (text C2), because the association between childbirth and gourds is well attested in Polynesia. Certain Māori tribes, for example, used gourds or gourd-shaped bowls (ipu whenua) to bury the placenta (Neich 1993:38).

For Easter Island, Knoche (1912c:660) has reported that the placenta (henua) was simply buried but that the umbilical cord was first placed in a calabash. According to Métraux (1940:102-103), sometimes both were put in a calabash and thrown into the sea.

Māori placenta bowl, 19th century

Fig. 4

The Rapanui "numerals" of 1770

A typical rite of passage

The neru cult fits remarkably well in the general scheme of rites of passage that was drawn up by Van Gennep in his seminal "Les rites de passage" (1909). He distinguishes three ritual phases marking an individual's transition from one group of society into another: in the first, termed "séparation", the individual is detached from an earlier fixed point in the social structure. In the middle phase ("marge" or "liminarité"), the subject lives a marginalised existence, is stripped from the external signs of his former status, and receives instruction for his new role, accompanied by ceremonies of inversion. In the third phase ("agrégation") the subject returns to society and takes up his position in the new group.

In the case of the neru, information on the first phase, the ritual behavior in the advent of the seclusion, is lacking, but the last phase, their reintroduction to society, is reported as being marked by certain ceremonies in which they were put on display and which involved singing and dancing. The bulk of the information in oral traditions, chants, and petroglyphs, however, pertains to the intermediary phase of their stay at 'Ana O Keke. This is in agreement with Van Gennep's claim that rituals belonging to the middle phase make up the better part of initiation rites (1981:14).

Several aspects of the neru cult that have been discussed above are accounted for in the detailed analysis which Turner has made of this "liminal" phase – in particular for initiation rites. The neru's concurrent associations with "death" and "birth" are explained by the fact that in the liminal phase initiates are structurally, if not physically, "invisible" for the rest of society: "The structural 'invisibility' of liminal personae has a twofold character. They are at once no longer classified and not yet classified. In so far as they are no longer classified, the symbols that represent them are, in many societies, drawn from the biology of death ... The other aspect, that they are not yet classified, is often expressed in symbols modeled on processes of gestation and parturition" (Turner 1967:96). In this state of ambiguity and paradox – in which the initiates are considered ritually polluting – they are in general concealed by masks, paint, or seclusion in special places (Turner 1967:99). The fattening and bleaching of the neru can therefore be interpreted both as symbols of this ritual dying and growing and as strategies of masking and hiding.

The fact that certain elements appear to operate in an ambiguous way, one that is, for example, encountered in 'Ana O Keke's function as both "birth" and "burial" place, is not an uncommon phenomenon in this context: "Undoing, dissolution, decomposition are accompanied by processes of growth, transformation, and the reformulation of old elements into new patterns. It is interesting to note how, by the principle of the economy (or parsimony) of symbolic reference, logically antithetical processes of death and growth may be represented by the same tokens, for example, by huts and tunnels that are at once tombs and wombs ..." (Turner 1967:99).

Decline and disappearance

'Ana O Keke petroglyphs (detail)

Fig. 3

© 2007 H.E. Steiner, Stuttgart

Fig. 5

The Rapanui "numerals"  


(1) An alternative interpretation of tehea is tea or tetea, "to grow white".