Added: 2016-09-05

In Polynesia, animals, plants, and inanimate objects such as stones which were colored red, were often associated with Tangaroa (Scheffrahn 1965:218-219;258-259). In New Zealand, Tangaroa was connected to certain red stones, for example, "at the mouth of the Motu River, in the Bay of Plenty, the local people, the Whanau-a-Apanui tribe still treasure as a sacred and most potent fishing talisman a very ancient stone called 'Te Whatu kura-a-Tangaroa' ('The Sacred Red Stone of Tangaroa'). It is a small carved red stone, described as about two inches in length and half an inch broad, with a piece of human bone attached to it for a hook" (Cowan 1930:178-179).

An Easter Island equivalent is possibly found in Maunga Tangaroa, a hill with the smooth curves of a whale or a seal, which is overlooking Puna Pau, the quarry of the red moai "hats" (fig. 3). A Mangaian myth attributes the color connection to a decision made by the primal parents Vatea and Papa to split the world between Tangaroa and his twin brother Rongo, god of cultivated plants: "The division was made on this principle: all the RED on earth or in the ocean became Tangaroa's; the rest, i.e. the great bulk, was Rongo's" (Gill 1876:12). A similar color distinction – but this time between Tangaroa and Tane – was made in Hawaii where it was said that "Kanaloa was a tall god with a fair skin who usually appeared in human form, while his companion, Kane, was dark, with curly hair and thick lips" (Thrum 1923:260).

Metaphors: "fish"


Once the texts that are connected to the neru are interpreted in their proper context they become more coherent and less fragmentary than the existing translations have led to believe. The only parts which are obscure to a certain degree are the metaphors that compare the secluded children to different kinds of animals, mostly fish and birds. One text describes the neru as "fish" that have been lowered to their inhospitable abode by means of a net: hakaturu hai kupenga mata patapata e mo rarau mai o te ika timo ena: "(We) are let down in a net with wide meshes! Because of (their) capture these 'fish' are mourning!" (text  B1). The comparison can be explained by the fact that the word ika, "fish", was also used as "sacrifice" or "victim", which are fitting meanings in a ritual context and as a description of the neru's circumstances. In other instances, however, the purpose of the metaphor is less obvious. In another text, for example, a girl who is about to be secluded is addressed by an admirer as "fish": e ika tuutuu pukao mo raro koe e ika uka hoa e: "(You) will become a 'fish' with a bristling topknot if you stay down there, o (my) beloved 'fish' girl!" (text M2). The addition of uka to the second ika suggests that the word was intended as "fish", and not as "victim" or "sacrifice". A similar conclusion can be drawn from the repeated use of a particular species of fish – the paroko – as reference to the neru.


In the Atu'a Mata Riri chant (text T1), the name of the paroko appears in three places. Verse 30 has ka pu te paroko, "Bring on the paroko-fish!", which verses 42-43 explain as the summoning of a certain phase in the neru's development: ka pu te heva pararoroko: "Bring on the state of delirium (so that) the paroko will come forth!" This suggests a ritual transformation process involving some form of intoxication – possibly induced by poporo berries. The third occurrence, in verse 36, apparently refers to the animal's slimy skin: he toto te hii mo kino no paroko mo ngaro rengo: "The sunrays are harmful because the paroko will be totally corrupted if (its) 'smoothness' disappears!" Apart from Atu'a Mata Riri, there are two other chants which refer to the neru as paroko (cf. texts R3; M3).

The word pararoroko of verse 43 can be compared to the terms paraparoko, paroparoko, parokoroko that are used in different versions of the Makemake creation myth. Although these have been interpreted as verbal forms, e.g., "many small paroko-fish came forth" (Englert 1980:12-15) and "the fish parokoroko came into being" (Fedorova 1965:397), there is a possibility that they are in fact garbled combinations of similar structured words. The last sentence of a version of the He timo te akoako chant, for example, reads he rere he pororeko te paroko ki te karu hihi, which can be translated as "The paroko-fish will leap up and slip and slide to (their) gathering on the ridge" (cf. text R3). The word pororeko, "to be slippery, slimy" is probably related to poreko, "to be born" and porekoreko, "fecund". These make an alternative interpretation of the sentence possible, one which conveys the notion of "to be born" or "to be born in large numbers". This would suggest that the small paroko was not only chosen as a metaphor for the neru because it is a shy fish which likes to hide in holes among the coastal rocks or because the children's crawling through the muddy tunnels to the supplies of fresh water resembled the paroko's sliding through the wet shore sand, but also because it was thought to represent some infant stage in the development of the neru during their stay at 'Ana O Keke. Its plentifulness near the seashore may have been responsible for the association with fertility whereas its slimy skin may have linked it to childbirth. These notions of "fertility" and "birth" also play an important role in another explanation.   

It can be hypothesised that the paroko was not thought of as a "real" fish since it lacks scales and is able to operate outside the water. These two properties (which it, incidentally, has in common with humans) may have relegated it to the fringe of the domain of the "father of fish", Tangaroa, and may even have put it, at least temporarily, under the auspices of the sea god's brother and greatest adversary, Tane, who was associated, inter alia, with fertility and agriculture. There are some facts which point in this direction.

Firstly, in the two versions of the Makemake creation myth that were published by Englert (1980:12-14), Makemake – Tane's Easter Island incarnation according to Métraux (1940:314) – is credited with the creation of the paroko-fish by fecundating a gourd. Secondly, another member of the Blenniidae, the patuki, was apparently associated with agriculture as specimen of this fish were left on ahu to fertilize nearby fields (Seaver Kurze 1997:71). Horley & Lee (2012:17-18) have identified images of this patuki at 'Orongo which suggest a connection with the bird cult of Makemake. The fact that the paroko and patuki species look very similar – De Buen (1963:75), for example, lists them both as the Reef margin blenny – may have caused them to be endowed with the same ritual associations. Thirdly, there is an interesting parallel provided by a small freshwater fish known to the Māori under the names of panoko, papanoko, parikou, parakoi, and others: "Captain G. Mair has stated that natives of the upper Whanganui apply the term te ika huna a Tane-mahuta (the hidden fish of Tane-mahuta) to the panokonoko" (Best 1929:224-225). This fish has since been identified as the torrentfish (Cheimarrichthys fosteri), a species that is found in fast-flowing rivers throughout coastal New Zealand but of which until recently little was known as it is difficult to observe (McDowall 2000:119-131). The fact that it is able to penetrate deep into the inland and reach considerable heights traveling upstream may have been the origin of the association with the god. It is however possible that the identification is incorrect or that other fish went by the same name. Taylor, one of Best's sources, for example, describes the papanoko as a "scaleless fresh water fish" (1855:383), which means that he cannot be referring to the scaled torrent fish.


Barred tide pool goby

Fig. 1

Chapman's blenny

Fig. 2

The paroko has been described as a small, dark colored fish which is abundantly present in the coastal waters of Easter Island. There is not certainty about the paroko's identity as the name has been linked to several members of the large and often very similar looking Blenniidae or Gobiidae families, e.g., the Reef margin blenny (Entomacrodus striatus) (De Buen 1963:75), Disalvo's Goby (Kelloggella disalvoi) (Randall & Cea Egaña 1984:12), the Barred tide pool goby (Kelloggella oligolepis) (Randall & Cea Egaña 1984:12; Fischer 1997:99), and Chapman's Blenny (Entomacrodus chapmani) (Fischer 1997:99). These species are found in shallow, (sub)tropical waters hiding in rocky crevices or in burrows on the sea bottom. Some of them have no scales, but a thick slimy skin and are able to live outside the water for some time and to travel between tide pools using their large pectoral fins as "feet".

Many cultures have credited animals that have the ability to function in two different habitats, such as turtles, seals, and lizards, with special powers. In Polynesian lore, both gods and humans make use of them as intermediaries between separated domains, especially those of the supernatural and the human world. If the paroko also belonged to this group, the possibility exists that the neru were also looked upon as living on the edge of two different realms. In the same way as fish species which are not restricted to the ocean could venture outside the supervision of Tangaroa, they lived in their dark cave outside the reach of the sunlight and thus away from the all-seeing eye of Tane/Makemake. It is therefore a distinct possibility that the home of the neru-"fish" was somehow seen as an extension of the ocean. This would be one explanation for the presence of Tangaroa in four versions of the He timo te akoakao chant. In one of these, the neru are called rongorongo a Tangaroa, "the followers of Tangaroa" (text R1) and in three others, tau Tangaroa, "the pretty girls of Tangaroa" (texts R2; R3; R4).

The association between the neru and Tangaroa may have had its origin in the circumstance that the neru belonged to the "royal" Miru as Routledge was told that the Honga branch of this tribe traced their ancestry back to Tangaroa (Williamson 1924:57). Another fact of importance is that the god of the ocean was traditionally imagined as being mea, "fair" or "red". Grimble, who has described the practice of seclusion in some detail for the Gilbert Islands (Kiribati), has suggested that there was a direct link between divine complexion and skin bleaching: "The whole idea underlying the bleaching process is closely connected with a race-memory of certain ancestral gods who, like the famous Tangaroa of Polynesia, were fair of skin and of a marvellous beauty" (1921:43).

On Easter Island, the name of the "fair" Tangaroa appears as Tangaroa Mea in the story of the god's landing at Tongariki in the guise of a seal with a human face. When Vives Solar recorded the myth for the first time in 1917, the original meaning of the adjective had evidently been lost because mea was explained to him as "raw" and referring to the natives' failed attempt to cook the animal in an earth-oven. It was said that the uneatable remains were thrown in the sea at a small cove of Hanga Nui that therefore became known as Hanga Tangaroa Mea. Fortunately, the text has preserved the seal's introduction of himself as "Arahi ariki Tanga-Roa mea" (Vives Solar 1918:417), which can be read as hara'i 'ariki Tangaroa Mea, i.e., "(I) am accompanying king Tangaroa Mea". This means that the animal explicitly stated that it was functioning as the visible incarnation – the 'ata or "shadow image" – of Tangaroa "the Fair", which makes it likely that the inspiration for the culinary part of the myth came from an epithet that was no longer understood.   

Both their noble birth and their highly admired fairness may have designated the neru as "children of Tangaroa", a type of distinction that, for example, can also be found, on Mangaia where the "origin of mankind is taught in the contrast between 'the fair-haired and fair-skinned children of Tangaroa,' and 'the dark-haired and dark-skinned children of Rongo' " (Gill 1876:xx). Possibly, the neru were regarded as tapairu, a widespread term in Polynesia encompassing fair skinned fairies, female offspring of Tangaroa or the underworld goddess Miru, and firstborn and/or virginal daughters of the elite (cf. Barthel 1961:256-259). On Easter Island, the word occurs as a title in two of Ure Vaeiko's chants: for a fair daughter of Tangaroa in Apai (Thomson 1891:517-518; cf. De Laat 2014) and for a "queen" or "princess" in Eaha to ran ariiki kete (Thomson 1891:523; cf. Métraux 1937:53).

Fig. 3

Puna Pau with Maunga Tangaroa