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Tahu’a pure

Priests in Maohi Society
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Priests, or tahu’a pure - literally, ‘men skilled in praying’ - were an important and influential caste within Maohi society.

Until well after the establishment of Christianity in the Society Islands, Maohi men and women implicitly believed that their ancestral gods and countless spirits beings could intervene within and influence every aspect of their lives. They regarded virtually everything they did as requiring them to seek the protection or avoid displeasing a god or spirit.

This was done through prayer. Maohi prayed, for example, in the hope of being rewarded with a good catch when fishing or producing good tapa cloth. However, by the same logic they believed it essential to ensure the favour of a god or spirit in regard to more important things in life, and saw this as best achieved through trusting to prayers offered by tahu’a pure.

Tahu’a pure were men who lived in constant communication with the gods and spirits, usually but not exclusively within the precinct of the marae. Indeed, the architecture and structures of the marae reflected its primary purpose as a sacred space in which tahu’a pure conversed with gods or spirits.

By prayer tah’ua pure sought to persuade a god or spirit to inhabit temporarily an image, stone or tree within the marae. The tahu’a pure knew a god or spirit had become embodied by physical signs such as the rustling of leaves, for example, when a god chose to enter a tree.

The tah’a pure would then try to discern the god or spirit’s intentions or persuade it to help an individual or a community. Depending on the circumstances, the prayers of the tah’a pure ranged from brief but flattering appeals to lengthy addresses of rich poetic complexity requiring the aid of mnemonic devices such as carved sticks or branches from a tree growing within a marae. Priestly traditions dictated the time of day or night when prayers designed to achieve particular ends might be said, or whether prayers needed to be accompanied by sacrifice and if so whether the sacrificial offering needed to be food, an animal or a human victim.

Tah’a pure were engaged to pray at important moments in life, such as the birth of children, marriage and death. They were expected to secure the aid of the gods for communities in time of war and fought in battle themselves. They also played a crucial role when a community was defeated in battle by removing the mai, or spiritual sickness that was believed to contaminate people and land ravaged by war.

Some tahu’a pure appear to have specialised in investigating sorcery and overturning its effects, although sorcery was detected and dealt with more commonly held by men and women who were specialists in divining called tahu’a tutera.

Also, as Douglas Oliver notes, in skilled occupations such as sea fishing or canoe building there were some men who were not simply masters of their craft but also tahu’a pure who were held to enjoy special favour with the god who took most interest in their work. Tupaia, for example, who sailed with Cook from Tahiti, appears to have been a tahu’a pure whose spiritual power was grounded in his skills as a navigator. Similarly, some tahu’a pure appear to have specialised in medicine or in the teaching of subjects other than prayer and ritual (such as agriculture and genealogy). However, as with the divining of sorcery, these generally appear to have been undertaken by specialists other than tahu’a pure, and were not exclusively the preserve of men (See Henry and Osmond, 1928: 154).

In most marae there was one tahu’a pure whose everyday needs were met by the surrounding community. However, larger maraes, such as those associated with powerful kin-titles, were presided over by a tahu’a nui or tahu’a rahi - literally one ‘great or pre-eminent among men who pray’. These men inherited their office and were usually descended from one or more of a district’s highest-ranking families. By virtue of their high-ranking lineage and thus proximity to the gods they were seen as pre-eminent in controlling the flow of spiritual power and were entrusted with undertaking the most important ceremonies in Maohi society, assisted by more lowly-born tahu’a pure and various specialist attendants. High priests often served as advisers to leading Arii and as pre-eminent knowledge custodians. Some wielded great political as well as spiritual influence.

While high priests and higher-ranking tahu’a pure usually inherited their offices, they could only do so on successfully completing many years of specialist study of prayer and ceremony. All tahu’a pure underwent strict tuition by highly respected priests in special schools, known as fare aira’a upu. As Teuira Henry observes,

There he learned all the prayers and mystic rites of the clergy, communing with the gods in solitude, often at night, and sometimes going down into dark caverns to hold intercourse with the gods and to pray, and thus become immune to contact with good and evil spirits….(Henry, 1928: 154-5)

Tahu’a pure also had to be free of the slightest speech impediment or physical disfigurement.

While tahu’a pure enjoyed prestige and material comfort, they lived perpetually conscious of the need to perform prayers and ceremonies to perfection. Failure to do so, or acting knowingly or inadvertently so as to cause spiritual pollution could only be atoned for by their death.

Related Entries for Tahu’a pure
Concepts: Death in Maohi Society, Pohe

Parties: Tahu’a nui (High Priest)

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Structure based on ISAAR(CPF) - click here for an explanation of the fields. Prepared by: Paul Turnbull
Created: 15 September 2003
Modified: 5 May 2004

Published by South Seas, 1 February 2004
Comments, questions, corrections and additions: Paul.Turnbull@jcu.edu.au
Prepared by: Paul Turnbull
Updated: 28 June 2004
To cite this page use: http://nla.gov.au/nla.cs-ss-biogs-P000309

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