The Polynesian Universe

Astronomy and Astrology

The Polynesians relied upon astronomy to steer their canoes while sailing around the ocean. The sun guided them during the day, but at night the boatmen watched the stars and the planets to be certain of the direction they were sailing. It was therefore necessary for this group of islanders to keep strict records of which stars rose where, and when they were visible in the night sky.

Many times, the stars themselves were recorded in the tales of great voyages made by the Polynesians' ancestors. In The Morning Star Rises, the story of Hawaii-loa is expressed. Hawaii-loa, the discoverer of the Polynesian islands, came from a far-away land in search of another place for his people to live. He steered by the stars Makalii (the Pleiades), Iao (Jupiter as a morning star), and Hoku-ula (the Red Star, or Aldebaran). Experts have estimated that the Polynesian islands were settled around the dawn of the Christian era, so the sea-going islanders have been using the stars for at least two thousand years.

Using the "pits" along the horizon and the stars that passed through the zenith, the sailors were able to determine their latitude and longitude. The Polynesians knew that the same star would pass through the zenith at all points along the same latitude. When a certain star passed overhead, the sailors knew that they had reached the latitude they wanted. They also memorized the configuration of the constellations, and could predict the motion of the planets along the ecliptic and the motion of the Moon. However, not all of the voyaging was done at the same time each year. Therefore, the Polynesians memorized the brightness, color, and position of several hundred stars, as well as the time of year that the stars were visible. For checking the course during the day, the Polynesians were able to tell the diurnal position of the Sun, as well as its distance north or south of the equator on any day of the year.

The Polynesians also used astronomy for calendrical purposes. The lunar calendar was used to determine feasting or fasting days, and the solar calendar to mark the passing of days, months, and years.

The Polynesians, who were dependent upon astronomy for so many reasons, were therefore quite observant of the skies. They also kept good records of the astronomical movements so that they could predict with accuracy their important days and so that they could make the amazing ocean crossings they did.

These accurate records were also used for astrological purposes. It was the conjunction of Iao, Makalii, and Hoku-ula that led Hawaii-loa's first mate to recommend that the voyage change to that direction. He believed it to be a favorable omen, and therefore told Hawaii-loa to sail toward the conjunction. Many similar ideas held for the ancient Polynesians. The gods could affect the human world, and the positions of the planets and other heavenly bodies could determine what the gods had done or would do. In order to predict events, the same astronomical records that provided such excellent navigation for the sailors were used to interpret the motions of the heavenly bodies, much as the Greeks and the Chinese used astrology to predict the future and discover corrupt governments, respectively.

This was therefore another reason the Polynesians had for creating such records of planetary and stellar motion: it was a tool of the people to determine the future, as well as the fate of loved ones. When a canoe set off on a voyage, a piece of coconut skin was passed beneath the canoe, then placed under a rock. When the travelers should have reached their destination, the rock was lifted. Depending on the amount of deformation and twisting that had happened, the villagers could decide whether their loved ones had survived the voyage.

The Creation of the Universe

The Polynesians had a very different idea of the creation of the universe than did other contemporary societies. Most Polynesian stories of the universe's creation contain four main elements. First, there is a "world egg" with the seed of all existence. Second, the earth is brought out of nothingness. Third, in the stories of creation, Ta'aroa (also known as Tangaroa, Tangaloa, or Kanaloa) was the Creator. Fourth, the earth and heaven were the source of all life in the universe.

Here is a typical story of creation, paraphrased from Makemson, pp. 49-71.

In the beginning, there was the infant god Ta'aroa. He lived in the shell Rumia, which was Upset. He broke open the shell and stared at the empty space around him. No other creatures existed then, so he grew another shell around himself to shut out the cold of the void. Ta'aroa grew to be a young boy, and was aware of his power. He broke through this second shell in order to create other beings like himself.

Ta'aroa used the shell he had just broken as stratum rock to form the earth. He dwelt in Rumia, the dome of the sky. The only other living creature was Tumu-rai-fenua (the Foundation of the Heavens and the Earth), the Great Octopus, who held the sky close to the earth with his four legs, North, South, East, and West. On the earth, the land became firm.

Ta'aroa then created Tumu-nui (Great Foundation) and Paparaharaha (Stratum Rock) in order to create life, but they would not wed. As a result, Ta'aroa created Atea, Bright Expanse, who lived in Rumia with him. By Papa-tuoi (Thin Earth), she was the mother of children who were artisans for Rai-tupua-nui (Great Sky Builder). These children helped him build ten heavens, the highest being the Sky of Sacred Omens of Tane.

Atea then married Rua-tupua-nui, Source of Great Growth; they were the parents of all celestial beings. Then she took a third husband, Fa'a Hotu (Make Fruitful), and the two deities switched genders. Atea then looked into the eyes of his wife Hotu, and the two had a son (Ra), who divided the world into North, East, West, and South.

The world was still in darkness, though, and the gods became discontent. They schemed to kill the octopus in order to raise up the sky. Rua-tupua-nui succeeded in killing the octopus, but the arms still held fast to the earth. Artisans came, but they were afraid of the wrath of Sky-Father Atea, so they would not separate the earth and sky. Ra was the first one to succeed in raising the sky up. He raised Rumia to the top of the mountain Moua-raha on Porapora, but he became humpbacked and had to stop.

The hero Maui-ti'i-ti'i thought of hacking off the arms of the octopus, and managed to then raise Rumia up to the tops of the highest mountains. He then flew up to the highest heaven, and asked Tane for help. Much disorder existed on earth, but Tane fixed it and raised the sky. Reeds bearing red blossoms were placed along the horizon to help support the sky, and can still be seen at sunrise, at sunset, and in the Aurora Australis.

The stories change as one passes from island to island, and even within different areas of the same islands. The number of heavens could vary anywhere from three to twelve, and were formed by concentric hemispheres of solid material resting on the plane of the earth. Sometimes the gods had different names, and sometimes the world was not created, but evolved from nothingness. However, all contain the four main ideas essential to any story about the creation of the universe.

The creation stories, much like those telling the story of Hawaii-loa's voyage, have been passed down for many centuries, and can still tell us a great deal about the Polynesian society. The ideas of multiple gods and that the gods reside in other worlds are expressed through these tales. That the gods could affect the events on the earth is another idea conveyed by the Polynesian tales.

(written by Marguerite Smith, with assistance from Abby Clark, and Chris Habetler)









Makemson, Maud Worcester. The Morning Star Rises: an account of Polynesian Astronomy. (Yale University Press, New Haven), 1941.


Williamson, Robert W. Religious and Cosmic Beliefs of Central Polynesia, Volume I. (Cambridge University Press, London), 1933.