The Allure of the Taboo; Artifacts from Polynesia Recall Ancient Spirituality

By Pepper, Tara | Newsweek International, October 9, 2006 | Go to article overview

The Allure of the Taboo; Artifacts from Polynesia Recall Ancient Spirituality


Pepper, Tara, Newsweek International


Byline: Tara Pepper

When Christian missionaries arrived in Polynesia in 1797, their monotheistic faith spread rapidly among the islanders, displacing ancient and colorful indigenous beliefs. Until then, Polynesian gods governed every aspect of human activity--from warfare to agriculture--and success or failure in these enterprises depended on courting divine favor. Central to the process were elaborate objects which symbolized tremendous spiritual power and which have, over the centuries, inspired everyone from Freud to Picasso.

"Power and Taboo: Sacred Objects from the Eastern Pacific," a new exhibit at London's British Museum (through Jan. 7, 2007), explores this compelling, little-known world. The speed with which many Polynesians converted to Christianity is partly a testimony to the influence of local chiefs. Some embraced the faith as part of the new world brought to them by Europeans, which also included metal tools, firearms, cloth and books. Yet for others, it must have been a relief to embrace the idea of a god who existed beyond the physical world. Each exhibit in the British Museum's vibrant show illuminates the relentlessly difficult work involved in managing the divine power of the ancient Polynesian gods.

The show's opening section explores everyday life on the islands, centered on fishing and farming, and the hierarchical system of government by chiefs, priests and warriors. Homes contained their own small shrines, at which ritual sacrifices of food would be made. The exhibit includes a carved Maori lintel from New Zealand, depicting the creation of the world, in which Rangi, the male god of the sky, and Papa, the female god of the earth, are pressed tightly together, so that nothing could grow in their dark, tight embrace. When the pair was forced apart by one of their children, the void filled with light, allowing plants to thrive.

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