Mana is a fundamental concept in the worldview of the Rapa Nui people and other Polynesian cultures. Mana is understood as the sacred and spiritual power that comes from the divinity and is manifested through the human descendants of the gods.
Mana represents the vital energy that is the source of everything, an extraordinary creative force that is responsible for the fertility of the earth, the seas and thus for human prosperity. However, mana also has a dangerous and destructive dimension, capable of annihilating people if they contravene a certain tapu or sacred precept. Thus, the notions of mana and tapu form an inseparable binomial that governed the beliefs of the Rapa Nui people and shaped Easter Island’s ancient political and religious system.
Inherited and acquired mana
This sacred power was thought to exist within the members of the ruling class, and especially the ariki mau or paramount chief, because their ancestors were descended from the gods. This divine blessing was passed down from father to son, so that the ariki inherited mana in their own right.
However, mana not only represented a divine idea, it was also related to learning the knowledge necessary to perform a task effectively. Thus, mana could be acquired by individuals who demonstrated excellence in the practice of certain subjects or activities. These expert masters, called maori in the Rapa Nui language, gained social recognition that enhanced their status within the community.
This new “hard-earned and talented” mana was also passed on from generation to generation, creating new privileged lineages. Thus, different classes and guilds of experts emerged, such as the ivi atua or priests, the maori rongo rongo or wise men who understood the inscribed tablets, the maori takona, tattoo specialists, stone carvers masters who sculpted the moai, fishermen and warriors.
Finally, mana could also be found in certain elements of nature or obtained through certain objects considered magical. This special power could be transferred to other people or things, both in a positive and negative sense. Moreover, just as mana could be inherited or acquired, it could also be lost, or turned against its possessor, either by the action of a more powerful mana or by breaking a sacred order or tapu.
The ariki mau and his supernatural power
The ariki mau or paramount chief of Easter Island was a direct descendant of Hotu Matu’a, the first king to arrive on the island, and thus of the gods Tangaroa and Rongo. This high aristocratic rank was unique to the Honga lineage of the Miru tribe and gave him a higher status than other tribal chiefs.
The ariki mau embodied mana, a supernatural power of divine origin, and was therefore considered the spiritual and religious leader of Easter Island. However, although feared and respected for his social prestige and sacredness, the ariki mau had no real political power.
The main function of the ariki mau was to apply his magic to ensure the welfare of his people, guaranteeing the food supply through his influence on nature. Although he oversaw certain religious activities that required his presence, most rituals were performed by the “ivi atua” or priests who belonged to the nobility.
In Polynesia, the birth of this divine chief was associated with certain miracles brought about by the power of his mana. Thus, for example, new species or varieties of animals and plants emerged or reproduced in greater numbers when a new king was born. Similarly, the death of an ariki was thought to cause the extinction of the beings that had existed thanks to him.
Life of the ariki mau
The office of ariki mau was hereditary, and he was the only man who was obliged to marry a woman of his own clan. When he reached old age it was customary for him to abdicate in favour of his first-born son, who also inherited the mana.
Tradition has it that the ariki mau lived in Anakena or near Tahai in inverted boat-shaped houses called hare paenga, the foundations of which are still preserved. Their lifestyle, behaviour and physical appearance were dictated by a set of tapus or strict rules that no one was allowed to break.
The ariki mau wore a hami or loincloth and a layer of tapa cloth (woven from mahute bark) dyed with vegetable dyes. He carried various wooden symbols, such as the ao, a staff, and a crescent-shaped pendant called a reimiro, and his skin was decorated with tattoos and paintings befitting his high position.
The power of mana and tapu
The mana surrounding the ariki mau permeated all his belongings, so that his body, his clothes, his dwelling and everything he wore was tapu to anyone else. No one could touch any part of the king’s body without risking death or severe pain. The king’s head was his most sacred part and therefore his hair was never cut.
No one was allowed to see the king or his son eat or sleep, only his servants who were nobles and assisted him in all his needs were allowed to enter his house. The king’s food was tapu and only his servants could touch it.
The ariki mau had, in turn, several forbidden foods. For example, he was not allowed to eat rats because it was said to affect his power to produce more chickens. And he could only eat certain fish, including tuna (kahi), even during the months when there was a fishing tapu, the prohibition of which did not affect the island aristocracy.
New fishing canoes and newly built houses had first to receive the king’s blessing before being used by their owners. It was believed that through these rituals the objects absorbed the good luck emanating from the divine mana.
The king also exercised his power over the weather, imploring rain from the god Hiro to increase the fertility of the land, and over nature to obtain a greater abundance of food. In gratitude, he received the first fruits of each season and then gave the order to begin the harvesting of crops and the practice of fishing, which until then had been tapu. Afterwards, great feasts and ceremonies were organised where the food was distributed among the population.
Objects with mana
The ancient Rapa Nui believed that the power of mana permeated certain objects in such a way as to bring good luck. This magical energy could be inherent in the object or come from powerful people to whom it had belonged.
These mana-charged objects were used as amulets to favourably influence the increase of harvests, the fertility of chickens and fishing, as well as to protect houses or places from possible dangers. Let us take a look at some of these items.
The sacred power emanating from the ariki mau and other nobles of the Miru tribe (ariki paka) did not cease with death. Their mana was thought to be transmitted to the bones, and especially to the skull, since, as we have seen, the head was the most sacred part.
For this reason, the skulls of the ariki were stolen from ahu and other burial places to be used as talismans. These valuable skulls used to be decorated with different designs engraved on the forehead and were placed inside the hare moa or stone hen-houses in the villages. They were therefore called puoko moa or hen’s head, as they had the magical power to increase the egg-laying capacity of the hens and thus multiply the chickens.
This belief in the magical power of ariki skulls was also common in other Polynesian islands. For example, these special skulls were carried on boats to protect fishermen from sharks and ensure a good catch, or placed in sweet potato fields to guarantee a good harvest.
Mangai ivi tangata, the human bone hooks
The fishhook or mangai, in the Rapa Nui language, is an artefact that is widespread throughout Polynesia and was considered one of the most precious objects to have on an island, since, through its use, the inhabitants obtained the food necessary for their subsistence. It took a long time to make one of these valuable pieces, so they were passed down from father to son as family jewellery.
A large majority of the ancient fishhooks that have been collected on Easter Island have been found in ariki graves buried in the ahu, along with obsidian-tipped spears. In addition to the mangai maea made of polished basalt, the most common were the mangai ivi made of bone and, in particular, the mangai ivi tangata or hooks made of human bones whose origin goes back to a legend.
According to tradition, a fisherman named Ure Vai, who was not very successful at fishing, made the first mangai ivi tangata from the femur of his dead father on the advice of an aku-aku or spirit that appeared to him in a dream. When he threw the mangai into the sea, it began to catch fish with great ease, returning to shore with large quantities of fish.
This story reaffirms the belief in using the mana impregnated in the bones of an experienced fisherman to favour the luck of a younger one. Although from a practical point of view, the use of human bones is explained by the absence on the island of large animals from which sufficient material could be extracted to make these tools.
The islanders also kept unique stones to attract good luck. Most of them had engravings on their surface, and although they sometimes showed human or animal figures, the most repeated design was the komari or female vulva, the symbol of fertility in Rapa Nui.
Some of these stones had the same purpose as the skulls and were called maea moa or stone for the hens, because they were also placed in the hen houses to increase production. Others were taken on board the canoes because they were used to catch tuna and other fish.
Three large rocks, located within the Rapa Nui National Park, stand out for their size and the legends surrounding them.
The first is the Te Pito Kura magnetic stone which, according to legend, was brought by Hotu Matu’a from Hiva, his homeland. This almost spherical and smooth rock is said to concentrate high magnetic energy. Because of its high iron content, this stone gets hotter than other stones and causes compasses to behave strangely. Many visitors place their hands on it to capture its energy or, according to the belief of some, to increase female fertility.
The second is Pu o Hiro, a stone located not far from the previous one, whose name means “Hiro’s trumpet” and refers to the ancient god of rain. This artefact, unique on the island, has a main hole through which it was blown, producing a deep trumpet-like sound. It was apparently once considered a talisman for fishing, and tradition has it that when this strange instrument was ‘blown’, fish were attracted to the shore.
The third rock is the most inaccessible to the public because it is located on one of the hills of the Poike volcano, near the summit of Pua Katiki, and is called Vai a Heva. The ancient Rapa Nui sculpted a fierce and enormous face around a natural cavity 2 metres long, which was used to represent a large open mouth and possibly served to collect rainwater. Its name (Vai, “water”; Heva, “magic”) refers to the legend that those who drank or immersed themselves in the water of this pool managed to stay young forever. So this unique figure, reminiscent of ancient Roman masks, would be a kind of Fountain of Eternal Youth on Easter Island.