Wednesday, 23 August 2017

The Story of Koro

Dubbed the "Midnight Dancer", poor Koro laments that his status as a statue in the Enchanted Tiki Room lanai prevents his feet from moving. Nevertheless, with his drum he entertains the other gods and helps them have a "big time." Known in Tahiti as 'Oro, he was considered the supreme deity and patron of the Arioi, a religious sect who prepared dances, dramas, and songs for the large festivals. In peacetime, 'Oro could be gracious, but his fundamental character was a god of war demanding human sacrifice.

An idol of 'Oro, wrapped in woven coconut fibre.
This type of effigy is called a To'o.
Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

'Oro began life as the child of Ta'aroa - the Tahitian version of Tangaroa - and Hina tu a uta. His birthplace was the sacred site of Taputapuatea on the island of Raiatea, which became a major political and religious centre whose influence spread across the entirety of Polynesia. Already established by 1000 CE as a complex of marae (stone platforms used as temples) where priests and oceaneers would share knowledge of the cosmos and navigation, Taputapuatea reflected 'Oro's status as both a god of war and a god of peace.

In the distant past, warring factions gathered at Taputapuatea for one of the greatest events in Polynesian history, the drafting of the Fa'atau Aroha. Translating to "friendly alliance", the Fa'atau Aroha was a great peace that freed up the islanders of Tahiti to become colonizers of the Pacific. In the wake of the Fa'atau Aroha, explorers reached the three distant corners of the Polynesian Triangle: Hawaii, Aotearoa (New Zealand), and Rapanui (Easter Island). Stones from Taputapuatea were taken along with these daring oceaneers and added to marae built on each of the new islands they possessed, forming a lasting link between diverse Polynesian cultures. Unfortunately the Fa'atau Aroha was eventually broken when the leaders of the two great alliances, the Aotea (East) and Aouri (West), were killed. The golden age age of Polynesian seafaring came to an end.

Taputapuatea became a major pilgrimage site, but after the arrival of Europeans and missionaries, it fell into disrepair. Maori scholar Te Rangi HÄ«roa, also known by his English name of Sir Peter Henry Buck, visited Taputapuatea in 1929 and left with a deep melancholy:
I had made my pilgrimage to Taputapu-atea, but the dead could not speak to me. It was sad to the verge of tears. I felt a profound regret, a regret for — I knew not what. Was it for the beating of the temple drums or the shouting of the populace as the king was raised on high? Was it for the human sacrifices of olden times? It was for none of these individually but for something at the back of them all, some living spirit and divine courage that existed in ancient times of which Taputapu-atea was a mute symbol. It was something that we Polynesians have lost and cannot find, something that we yearn for and cannot recreate. The background in which that spirit was engendered has changed beyond recovery. The bleak wind of oblivion had swept over Opoa. Foreign weeds grew over the untended courtyard, and stones had fallen from the sacred altar of Taputapu-atea. The gods had long ago departed. 

Taputapuatea. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

The Arioi had the privilege of preparing dances, dramas, and songs in worship of 'Oro. Whereas Tahitian society was clearly stratified, membership in the Arioi was egalitarian and open to anyone willing to commit themselves to it. That said, the sect had its own structure mirroring that of the society at large, though much more fluid. Only the highest orders of the Arioi were reserved for the highest members of the nobility (ariki).

Each island had its own variation on the basic caste structure, but they all followed roughly the same pattern. At the top were the nobility (ariki), the landowners, and it was from this class that the kings (ariki rahi) were chosen. The ariki rahi were typically of the firstborn sons and before European contact, Tahiti had one for each of the eight tribes. Freemen (raatira) were the strata of small landowners, merchants, craftsmen, and artists. At the bottom were serfs (manahune) who tilled the fields of the ariki and gave up the majority of their agricultural goods to them. The structure mirrors the feudalism of Mediaeval Europe, and the main escape from it was the Arioi. 

The permeability of Arioi hierarchy may have been one of the reasons why they were forbidden to have children. Promiscuity was permissible so long as an Arioi was unmarried. As soon as they became married, other dalliances stopped. Nevertheless, if an Arioi found themselves with child, that child would either be aborted or killed at birth. This habit is particularly interesting given the importance of fertility in Tahitian ritual, and besides keeping the bloodlines of the cast system pure, also demonstrates that freedoms come with responsibilities and sacrifices. To enjoy the privileges of the Arioi, one had to sacrifice family and a family line. To enjoy family and a family line, one had to give up being an Arioi.  

Becoming an Arioi required "possession" by 'Oro: a trance-like state in which a person would feel compelled to force their way into an Arioi meeting. Suitable candidates were judged on their beauty, knowledge of Tahitian religious precepts, and skill in recitation, acting, and dance. Initiates received a special ankle tattoo and rights to wear a special kind of tapa cloth. As they rose in the ranks, the tattoo was added to, becoming ever larger.

A major role for the Arioi were the performances during major festivals in which the ariki charitably distributed goods amongst the people. Though society was highly stratified and even authoritarian in many respects, the status of the ariki wisely depended on their mollification of the lower castes. Great celebrations were held in which the ariki gave away goods to other members of the tribe, to build their reputation of generousity and curry the favour of those they stood over. An integral part of these celebrations were songs, dance, and dramas organized and performed by the Arioi. These celebrations and performances also provided opportunity for some ribald critique of authority, lending the Arioi a jester-like or "fool's festival"-like social function. Most of all, their role was to maintain tradition, performing the stories of the gods in a pre-literate culture.

The age of the Arioi and 'Oro worship came to an end with the arrival of Christian missionaries in the 19th century, who could not decide which they found more offensive: the pagan worship, the promiscuous sexuality, or the destruction of children. When Captain Cook visited Tahiti in 1777, he witnessed a human sacrifice at Taputapuatea in which a prisoner was bound and his head caved in with a mace. Taputapuatea had assumed its prominence as a meeting place and worship site because it was said to have been the birthplace of 'Oro himself. He was also said to have spent a good deal of time on Bora Bora, on Mount Pahia, from which he searched across the islands for a suitable bride. Taking the form of a handsome warrior, he found one in the beautiful maiden Vairaumati, who he would visit every morning by descending on a rainbow. Eventually, they would have a son and 'Oro would elevate her to the status of a goddess.        

Nowadays, poor Koro sits, immobilized, in the Enchanted Tiki Room lanai. But like his followers, the provides the music for the gods' great celebrations.    

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