A Woodcarving From Easter Island

By: Henry Usher Hall

Originally Published in 1925

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The object figured here from the Museum’s Easter Island collection belongs to a class, of woodcarvings usually referred to in the literature of Easter Island as household gods, It includes figurines representing men and women, various animal forms, and monsters combining features of both the former categories. The Museum’s collection contains several fine examples of the first; the others are rarer. In Dr. W. T. Brigham’s survey of Polynesian material in British Colonial and European museums five figures of lizards or man-lizards, similar to our example, are mentioned: four in the Museum für Völkerkunde at Berlin and one in the Archaeological Museum at Cambridge.1 To these must be added one in the Museo de Etnologia y Antropologia at Santiago in Chile,2 another which in 1904 was in the possession of Mr, J. Edge-Partington of Eltham, Kent,3 and still another which recently formed a part of the collection of Mr. W. Knoche, in Santiago.

Front and side view of a carved curved wood lizard
Easter Island Woodcarving.
Museum Object Number: P3278
Image Number: 24

But little is known of the old customs of the people of Easter Island or Rapanui, or of the religions beliefs and practices with which the carvings appear to have been associated. Consideration of the native terms for the objects, as these have been reported by travellers, yields little more than the somewhat meagre amount of information as to the physical nature of the images which seemed important to those travellers’ informants at the moment when the names were communicated. These names are not moi toromiro and moi kavakava. The word moi, which forms part of both expressions, has been recorded also as mohai, moai. In W. Churchill’s compendium of Easter Island vocabularies4 the meanings given for this are “idol, image, sculpture, statue.” The first of these meanings is presumably a missionary inference and the word, thus without context, is in any case of too indeterminate a significance to be useful for inferences of any other kind. Any of the other meanings is quite evidently as appropriate as it is barren of further implication. Toromiro is the native name for a small tree or large shrub, a kind of mimosa, from the wood of which the figures were made. The name is thus simply descriptive, an image of Edwardsia wood. From the connotation of the second word we do get an illustrative reference to the wanderings and the physical environment of the Easter Islanders. Miro is a tree, plant, wood. In the Paumoto Archipelago, in Mangareva, and in Tahiti, the same word denotes a tree with red wood, Thespesia populnea.5 The reddish colour of the wood of which the images are usually made recalled to the colonists of this last outpost of the Polynesian migrations to the eastward the more abundant and tractable raw material for their handicrafts to which they had been accustomed at happier stages of their long voyagings out across the Pacific. But why, then, the qualification implied in the other component of the word? The Easter Island vocabularies do not show this component in its simple form. But we have hakatoro, to cause to stretch, to elongate.6 In the Paumotus, fakatoro means to stretch out the hand; in Tahiti, faatoo, to extend a limb. We have thus, in the Polynesian speech of this southeastern province, the word toro in compositon with various forms of a causative prefix which in Easter Island alone is recorded in several other forms, aka, haga, paka, haa, ha, and we see that toro connotes extension, length, prominence. This is confirmed by Mangarevan tore, a thing jutting out, projection, and by the same word in Tahitian meaning disposed in rays. That the same word should appear as what we should call adjective, verb, and noun is not cause for surprise in regard to a language in which parts of speech are scarcely differentiated. It is a striking commentary on the poverty of the environment on which the Easter Islanders had to draw for the satisfaction of the remarkable impulse to artistic creation which was in them and which, far from being stifled by the exiguity of the media, was by that encouraged to a performance unequalled in its kind between the Melanesian islands and the waste of waters east of Rapanui- a suggestive commentary also on the resilient and enduring hardihood of their spirit in these poor circumstances, that they should make the best of the poor material at their hand to the extent of calling a stunted plant of which the largest example might be some ten feet high and five inches through the trunk,7 by the same name toromiro, the tall tree, par excellence, which the Tahitians gave to their sacred tree, the stately Thespesia. The figurine has the characteristic bowed form which is due to the difficulty of getting a straight length from the contorted stem of the Easter Island mimosa.

Kavakava, the alternative word recorded as determining the kind of moi in question is said to refer to a character of the finished product, while toromiro distinguishes the raw material, wood, by way of contrast to that used for the gigantic statues of volcanic stone, moi maea (mea), for which Easter Island is famous. The word is said to mean rib, and to be applied to the woodcarvings in question because in them, both human and animal, the representation of the ribs is usually a well marked feature. The identity of both parts of the reduplicated form with the word used elsewhere in Polynesia for the infusion of the roots of Piper methystieum (kava) which is a favourite narcotic drink most Polynesians is striking. Strangely enough, the settlers of Easter Island did not bring with them this cultivated plant. The word survives among them with the meaning bitter, evidently in reference to the acrid taste of the kava root. Has it perhaps also survived to express a visual memory of the appearance of the root shredded in preparation for the drink, a memory excited by an imagined similarity of the close narrow parallel ridges by which the woodcarver represented ribs in the figurines? Or perhaps kava in the reduplication as recorded represents a misunderstood kavai.8 The latter word signifies a beard, and a short curled tuft commonly appears on the chin of the statuettes which imitate the human form.

As to the significance and employment of these images, most of the meagre information which we have is summed up by R. Andree9 as follows: They “were employed as small house gods. . . These small idols served the purpose of presenting the worship of the natives to the great high god Makemake. They were kept wrapped up in bast or small bags and brought out only at the feast of the god where bananas, fish, and eggs were offered to him . . . . They were the most effectual intermediaries of the petitions of men to the divinity and had indeed also special functions unknown to us.” J. L. Palmer10 repeats the remark of the Jesuit missionary Father Eugene (1863-1865) “that although they had ‘household gods’ suspended to the roof of their dwellings, they did not worship them.” W. J. Thomson11 reports that they “were made to represent certain spirits and belong to a different order from the gods, though accredited with many of the same attributes.” He repeats the statements gathered by Andree from Gana12 and Geiseler that “they occupied a prominent place in every dwelling and were regarded as the medium through which communications might be made with the spirits, but were never worshipped.”

We have then to reconcile the contradictory statements that they were “idols” and “gods” and yet were not worshipped. No doubt the missionary whose assertions seem to have been adopted by later visitors was unable to make his own conception of worship tally with what he may have heard or observed of ritual observances. But we know that elsewhere in Polynesia ancestors became tutelary gods, were intermediaries between men and the higher deities, and were worshipped in the sense that sacrifices and petitions were made to them.

According to Palmer, the “domestic idols” of Pere Eugene included, besides human figures, “a quantity of very odd figures carved, representing lizards, sharks, fowls, nondescripts.”13 A carving of a monster, combining attributes of a human being and of a bird, is figured by R. Andree in the article to which reference has been made. This image has perhaps some relation to the bird-man who played an important part in the ritual feasts of the island, a prominent figure in the so-called hieroglyphs which were inscribed on wooden tablets and breast ornaments, and is represented in the rock carvings and in paintings on stone walls of old houses. On the other hand an image published by St. George Gray14 appears to represent a rat simply; while another moi toromiro figured in the same volume of Man, and referred to at the beginning of this article, is described as a “human figure with the head and tail of a lizard.” The example figured here differs from this in several respects. The ribs are not marked, as they are in the Edge-Partington example. The tail disappears between the thighs; the lower legs are riot represented, but are cut off by a ridge encircling the lower portion of the image, which ends here in a rounded handle coming to a point at the extremity, The shieldlike plate which covers the hips and upper part of the thighs behind is here replaced by a curved ridge in strong relief which evidently represents the upper outline of the pelvic basin and the intention to emphasize a condition of emaciation which commonly marks the execution of these figures. The fanlike arrangement of vertical ridges in which the raised and segmented ridge representing the backbone terminates on the surface of the pelvic shield, if one may so call it, of the Edge-Partington image, is absent here, hut is probably represented by the lobular lower portion of the raised hut unsegmented backbone, though this terminates above the pelvic border. In the case of the rat mentioned previously the fanshaped termination cif the backbone is said to be present also, but it cannot be seen in the illustration. The wings of the bird figured by Andree are brought together behind the back, arid, as if tied there, expand at the tips into a similar fanlike appendage. It is perhaps, in this case, an imperfectly differentiated representation of spread tail feathers, and, possibly misunderstood, may have influenced the modelling of the backbone of the other forms of image. The arms of our figure, of the Edge-Partington example, and of the rat of St. George Gray are all disposed in a similar manner, the extremities being brought together in the attitude of a suppliant; ill the last two cases the digits are marked. It seems to me to be doubtful that, in the case of the lizardlike figures at any rate, anything but an unconsciously anthropomorphized lizard is to be seen; that the aim was to produce a representation of a lizard, not of a man-lizard.

The two images figured in Man arc pierced transversely through the raised backbone, so as to be suspended by strings from the necks of the participants in the festival of the high god. They seem to have been usually carried in that manner in procession. The handle of the object here, well-polished by use, indicates that it was carried in the hand. It is an unusually large example, over two feet long and would have been awkward to carry slung about the neck.

In other parts of Polynesia, the lizard had considerable importance in magic and religion. The god Tangsroa was incarnated as a lizard, The lizard was an incarnation of the. Maori god Ha. Lizards were omen givers in Samoa. They had a magical origin from the scales of the Maori ogre Kupuwai. In the South Island of New Zealand it was believed that killing a lizard averted the evil consequences of a dream. Clearly the Easter Islanders shared the general Polynesian belief in the magical or religious importance of these reptiles. Perhaps a creature which, though so remarkably different from their familiar domestic fowls and the seabirds, yet, miraculously enough, produced eggs, the food, as we have seen, of gods, might be regarded as a peculiarly efficient mediator between gods and men, when eggs were offered to Makemake and the effigies of these and other intermediaries were brought before him. If, as seems likely, all these images are connected with the reverence shown to ancestors everywhere in Polynesia, another Polynesian belief that lizards were the food of departed spirits in the underworld may have some significance here. At still another point the egg producing powers of the lizard may have brought him into relation with Rapanui superstitions. The first egg of a certain species of seafowl, which came to an islet near the shore for the nesting season, to be brought in by the leading swimmer of a number of competitors who represented important men among the population gave the right to his principal to be regarded as bird-man for a year. The functions of this personage are not clear; but the magical or religious importance of his office seems to be indicated by the frequency with which the representation of such a monstrous creature otherwise merely mythical appears among the artistic productions of Easter Island.

1 Occasional Papers of Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum, Honolulu, 1, Part 1, pp. 19, 51.
2 Publications of that museum, Vol III, No. 1, p. 243
3 Man 1904, No.46
4 In Easter Island, Carnegie Institution, Washington, 1912.
5 In Easter Island, Carnegie Institution, Washington, 1912
6 Remarks on Phallic Stones from Rapanui, J. L. Young, Occasional Papers of the Bernice Panahi Bishop Museum, II, Part 2, p.31 (171).
7 W.J Thomson, Te Pito te Henua on Easter Island, Report of the National Museum, Washington, 1880
8 Cf. Churchill (quoting Geiseler, Die Osterinsel, Berlin, 1883), ibid.
9 In Globus, LXXVI, pp. 380, 380.
10 A Visit to Easter Island, or Rapa Nui, in 1868. Journal of the Royal Geographical Society, XL (1870), p. 174.
11 U.S. National Museum Report, 1889, p. 470.
12 In R. A. Philippi, La isla de Pascua, Santiago de Chile, 1873.
13 Palmer, ibid., p. 180.
14 Man, 1904, No. 96.

Cite This Article

Hall, Henry Usher. "A Woodcarving From Easter Island." The Museum Journal XVI, no. 2 (June, 1925): 125-131. Accessed February 21, 2024. https://www.penn.museum/sites/journal/1332/

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