The Polynesian Iconoclasm

The Polynesian Iconoclasm: Religious Revolution and the Seasonality of Power

Jeffrey Sissons
Copyright Date: 2014
Edition: 1
Published by: Berghahn Books
Pages: 170
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt9qcvw9
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  • Book Info
    The Polynesian Iconoclasm
    Book Description:

    Within little more than ten years in the early nineteenth century, inhabitants of Tahiti, Hawaii and fifteen other closely related societies destroyed or desecrated all of their temples and most of their god-images. In the aftermath of the explosive event, which Sissons terms the Polynesian Iconoclasm, hundreds of architecturally innovative churches - one the size of two football fields - were constructed. At the same time, Christian leaders introduced oppressive laws and courts, which the youth resisted through seasonal displays of revelry and tattooing. Seeking an answer to why this event occurred in the way that it did, this book introduces and demonstrates an alternative "practice history" that draws on the work of Marshall Sahlins and employs Bourdieu's concepts ofhabitus, improvisation and practical logic.

    eISBN: 978-1-78238-414-4
    Subjects: Religion, Anthropology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-v)
  3. List of Figures
    (pp. vi-vi)
  4. Acknowledgements
    (pp. vii-viii)
  5. List of Abbreviations
    (pp. ix-ix)
  6. Map of Polynesia and Other Pacific Islands
    (pp. x-x)
  7. Introduction. Exploding History
    (pp. 1-8)

    The Polynesian Iconoclasm was an explosive event of world-historical significance. It began on the island of Mo‘orea, Tahiti’s close neighbour, in the winter of 1815 when district priests and chiefs demonstrated their allegiance to a high chief, Pomare, and his new god, Jehova, by destroying their sacrificial altars and god-images. The following summer, district chiefs in Tahiti and most other Society Islands did likewise, desecrating all of their images and temples. Within ten years, Society Islanders would take their iconoclastic revolution to the Austral Islands, Hawai‘i and the Southern Cook Islands. In each place iconoclastic performances, probably none of which...

  8. 1 The Seasonality of Life
    (pp. 9-28)

    While the timing of Captain Cook’s arrival in Hawai‘i during themakahikiseason of 1778–1779 was a mere coincidence, the Polynesian Iconoclasm which occurred during the same or equivalent season across numerous different societies several decades later was anything but a chance occurrence. This timing was, instead, the outcome of collective agency deeply informed by local understandings and practices of seasonality. In the Society Islands, Hawai‘i, the Austral Islands and the Southern Cook Islands, the mass destruction of temples and the destruction, concealment and defilement of god-images between the years 1815 and 1828 were ritual events, almost all initiated...

  9. 2 The Mo‘orean Iconoclasm
    (pp. 29-44)

    Pleiades had just dipped below the evening horizon in June 1815, signalling the beginning of the chiefly season ofmatari‘i-i-raro, when Pomare began his circuit of the island of Mo‘orea. His party of Christian chiefs and priests included Pati‘i, the head priest of Mo‘orea who had thrown his god-image onto a large fire some four months earlier. This tour was critical to the realization of Pomare’s totalizing ambitions, its main purpose being to secure the ritual and military allegiance of Mo‘orean chiefs and priests to himself and his new god, Jehova, prior to his return to Tahiti. In place of...

  10. 3 Pomare’s Iconoclasm as Seasonal Sacrifice
    (pp. 45-61)

    In his brilliantly quirkyKings and Councillors, Hocart argued for the ritual origins of all government and understood centralization to be a ritual process directed towards the securing of life:

    It may seem a roundabout way of centralizing government to let one god devour all the rest. It seems roundabout only to those who are still possessed by the idea that the primary function of the king is to govern, to be the head of the administration. We shall see that he is nothing of the kind. He is the repository of the gods, that is, of the life of...

  11. 4 More Distant Emulations
    (pp. 62-80)

    On the first of November 1819, at the beginning of themakahikiseason and less than a month after Pomare’s visit to Ra‘ivavae, Hawai‘i’s newly installed king announced the end of the eating tabus. This, before any European missionary had arrived in Hawai‘i (Sahlins 1992: 57n1). During a feast held in a large building, ‘nearly a hundred feet long and thirty feet broad’ and attended by chiefs and foreigners from ships, Liholiho sat and ate with women, calling on the other chiefs present to follow his example. Men and women then ‘sat promiscuously and ate the same food’ (Tyerman and...

  12. 5 Re-consecrating the World
    (pp. 81-100)

    The above lines are from the Tahitianraumata-ohi, a prayer chanted by a priest towards the end of a series of rites termedraumata-vehi. As noted in Chapter 2, it was common practice during the conflicts of Pleiades above to demolish the temple of an enemy and destroy or desecrate his god-images (Ellis 1829b: 214; Henry 1928: 313). The process of re-creating a divinely sanctioned hierarchy entailed rebuilding these temples, making and wrapping new god-images and purifying the land through the performance of theraumata-vehirites.

    William Ellis’s description of this process is worth quoting in full:

    In addition to...

  13. 6 Re-binding Societies
    (pp. 101-116)

    In December 1822, the people of Aitutaki in the Southern Cook Islands burned down the sacrificial platforms and wooden buildings on theirmaraewithin which god-images had been housed. The following day, these images were exchanged for spelling books in a grand ceremony that involved the entire population processing under the leadership of their district chiefs (Williams n.d.(a): 47; Williams 1839: 74–75). This ritual exchange dramatically re-enacted an equivalence between temple images and locally-printed missionary texts that had also previously been displayed in the neighbouring Society Islands and Austral Islands in the aftermath of generalized iconoclasms there.

    In this...

  14. 7 New Tabus and Ancient Pleasures
    (pp. 117-134)

    When in June 1824 the LMS delegation led by Messrs Tyerman and Bennet visited Atiu in the Southern Cook Islands, they were pleased to learn that the entire island had recently ‘thrown away their idols’, built a large chapel and ‘embraced the gospel’ (QC III: 140). We know, however, that soon afterwards the people of Atiu realized their mistake and returned their spelling books to their Ra‘iatean teachers. The problem, as Robert Bourne recorded it in October 1825, was that the taro crop failed: ‘the people say’, he continued, ‘it is because of this word that is come among them...

  15. 8 History, Habitus and Seasonality
    (pp. 135-148)

    Lined up along the wall at the back of my desk is a series of cardboard boxes I use for filing copies of archival documents. At the outset of this project I adopted two labelling systems: One organized the material into islands and the other, comprising three boxes labelled simply I, II and III, organized the material in terms of Van Gennep’s and Turner’s three-stage model of the ritual process. I guessed early on that the ritual schema of separation, liminality and reintegration might be loosely expressed in the events I was about to explore and, in any case, I...

  16. Appendix
    (pp. 149-150)
  17. References
    (pp. 151-156)
  18. Index
    (pp. 157-160)