Added: 2016-09-05  Modified: 2017-02-18  

Metaphors: "birds"


The neru chants not only use "fish" metaphors for the secluded children. They are also frequently compared to birds in a variety of terms. Referring to human beings as "birds" is a well attested feature of traditional Rapanui texts in which people may be called "birds" (manu) or "chickens" (moa), women "hens" (uha) and men "roosters" (moa toa). The bird imagery appears in its most elaborate form in the He timo te akoako chant of which several versions have been recorded (cf. Fischer 1994b). The still underdeveloped children are called punua and manu punua, "hatchlings" (texts R1; B4), while the already fattened ones are referred to as manu nui, "big birds", and manu roa, "large birds" (text R1).


Other neru texts have similar references to a powerful sun god. In one version of the He timo te akoako chant, he is called te 'ariki o ara nui o ara hihi, "the king of the broad and shining path" (cf. text 8). This resembles the Māori ara whanui a Tane, the "broad path of Tane", which is formed on the surface of the ocean by the setting sun to guide the spirits of the dead (Best 1923:115-116) and which is comparable with Hawaiian references to the west as he ala nui o ka make, "the broad path of death", and ke ala ula a Kane, "the red or gleaming path of Tane" (Tregear 1891:461). In another version of He timo (text R1), the same god is depicted as a hostile deity who is threatening to scorch the children, possibly as revenge for their audacity to withdraw themselves from his sphere of influence.

In a god named Te Vao, this last text may have preserved a trace of another one of Tane's signature manifestations, namely the forest. Although the term vau that is used is not found in Rapanui vocabularies, it seems cognate with the word for "forest" or "wilderness" in other East Polynesian languages, e.g., MQA vao; TUA vao; MAO wao (Biggs et al. 2015). Part of the song reads ko e'a Te Vao karera one maunga te maunga nui o Tonga te maunga iti o Tonga te manu nui te manu roa: "After Te Vao has emerged, (he) shines down on the sand of the hills, the big hills of Tonga, the small hills of Tonga, (and) on the big 'birds', the large 'birds'!"; ko tiro ('atua kainga Te Vao karera Te Vao) te manu punua ka punua: "When (he) is gazed at – the god of the land Te Vao, Te Vao who shines down – by the young birds, the young ones will get scorched!"   

Another possible reference to Tane – in his function of "Sky Propper" (Tane-toko-rangi) – can be found in Metoro's improvised "reading" of tablet Tahua, which paraphrases some lines of the He timo te akoako text: e tagata noho ana - i te ragi - te tagata - hakamaroa ana i te ragi - ko te moa - e noho ana ki te moa - e moa te erueru - e moa te kapakapa - e moa te herehua - ka hora ka tetea (Barthel, 1958:186): "The man is waiting in the sky. The man is upholding the sky. These are the hens. (He) is waiting for the hens, hens scratching (the earth), hens flapping (their wings), hens tied up. Let (them) be indolent (ora)! Let (them) become white!"

Hair and nails: feathers and claws


Fig. 2

This use of bird metaphors suggests the involvement of the great Polynesian god Tane who manifested himself especially in the sun. in trees, and in birds. In the same way as the "fair" Tangaroa with his dark associations of ocean, night and death would have been conceived as the natural ally for the neru children, locked away in their damp, dim, and potentially lethal cave, his brother, whose sunlight threatened their fairness and their impaired eyes, could only have been imagined as their greatest enemy. The name of Tane, however, does not appear in Easter Island traditions and his Easter Island incarnation Makemake – also associated with birds – is only mentioned in one neru text (cf. text H1). The references to a "god" and "king" who is responsible for the light and heat of the sun, the sky, fertility, trees and plants, however, leave little doubt about his presence. Atu'a Mata Riri's verses 12-14, for example, read ki ai kiroto ki te u'i o 'atua, "(She) has to stay inside for the gaze of that god!"; ka pu te toromiro 'atua matua: "Let the toromiro-trees be brought forth by the parental god!"; ki ai kiroto tapu hana o 'atua: "(She) has to stay inside, the heat of that god is forbidden (for her)!"; ka pu te moana ahe uru: "Let the blue sky be brought forth! When is (she) going to enter (it)?" The theme returns in verses 25-26: ka pu te raa huu runga ki ai kiroto 'ina oioi: "Bring on the sun, burning high above! (She) has to stay inside, (it) will not reach (her)!" And verse 34 unequivocally states: e timo te raa e mea amura i hii ki te aro: "The sun is deplored by that fair one! (It) used to shine on (her) face!" (cf. text T1).

The "bird" imagery in all these texts corresponds with other information which suggests that the neru were expected to physically "turn into birds" in preparation for their return into the world of light. In the words of Juan Tepano: I ku[m]i te maikuku, i kumi te rauoho, ka-topa-ró ki te va'e; i kahu pu'a te rauoho o te neru: "(Their) nails grew long, (their) hair grew long. It fell on their feet; the hair of the neru was (like) clothing covering (their body)" (Englert 1939:208-209). The growing of long hair is also mentioned in Atu'a Mata Riri, verse 10: ki ai kiroto 'aringa rehe huru araro: "(She) must stay inside, with (her) flabby face and (her) hair to the ground!" (cf. text T1).

It is probably not a coincidence that the word used here for "hair" is huru, which – unlike its synonym rauoho – also means "feathers". Interestingly, a similar radical transformation has been reported for the birdman ritual. Similar to the neru, the winner of the annual contest for the sacred egg had to live isolated from society, which included avoiding the sun and a period of celibacy (Routledge 1919:246;248). Perhaps in order to become a proper receptacle for the bird god Makemake, the birdman also had to let his hair and nails grow (Clark 1899:145), i.e., he, too, had to physically emulate a bird.

Fig. 1

"Four-legged bird" at 'Ana O Keke

In He timo variants H1, R6, and R9, the metaphor is elaborated to manu va'e eha, "four-legged birds", which apparently became a puzzling expression as the relation of these texts to the neru was not understood anymore. It was therefore supposed to be a name for sheep and other animals, created by people who came into contact with four-legged creatures for the first time (Barthel 1974:157). This would imply that the Easter Islanders had failed to notice that the rat (which was on their menu) and the lizard (which played an important role in their sculpture) were quadrupeds. In the context of 'Ana O Keke, however, the term can easily be explained as a humorous description of the girls who had to go down on their hands and knees to crawl through the narrow tunnels. Another, more grim alternative is that it referred to neru who had grown so fat that they no longer were able to stand on their own two feet. It is probably for the same reason that the uha iti-iti, "little hen", in the text Ate a renga is called manu haka-opa: "crippled bird" (text T3).