Stories and legends of Rapa Nui

“…Easter Island in the most lonely place in the whole World. The only fixed points which the inhabitants are able to distinguish  are the ones in the sky. That is the moon and the planets. Because of this they know all about the stars and know all their names more than what they know about the cities and other places which exist in the World. On this remote Island, humanity one day decided to change one of its most grotesque findings. Before Columbus discovered America another group of navigators had gone into unknown waters in the Ocean and found this piece of land. They got off their boats, sharpened their stone axes and they began to work on one of the most remarkable enterprises from the past. They didn’t build cities and castles and not even embankments and dams. They built very high stone statues of human figures as high as a house and heavy as a station wagon and place them here and there scattered all over the Island, on the flat land and high land each one placed on a stone pedistal….”

20 Mysterious Things About Easter Island That Still Baffle Us Today

The first Europeans reached the shores of Easter Island, Rapa Nui, in 1722 – on Easter Sunday, thus giving the remote island its distinctive name. Just a century later, the society that produced the famous moai, recognisable the world over, was in serious decline. Overpopulation and overuse of natural resources reached crisis point, and the islanders descended into tribal conflict. Warfare drastically changed the social order: the king’s power was diminished, and the island gradually fell under the control of tribal warrior chiefs. Within decades, the colossal statues on the ceremonial platforms, or ahu, were overthrown. By the time John Linton Palmer, ship’s surgeon aboard HMS Topaze, arrived in 1868, no moai was standing on a platform. Yet, out of this chaos came a completely new order: the rule of the sacred birdman.

The mysteries of the Rapanui people

Being very isolated from the rest of the world, Easter Island has a history and tradition not yet fully discovered and hidden by coastal fog. For example, their writing system Rongo Rongo, composed by glyphs carved on wood or “tablets”, has not been deciphered yet. We also do not know much about the civilization that carved and stood the spectacular stone monuments known as the moais, when the island was first settled and where the first inhabitants come from. The name of this place was given by the Dutch navigator Jakon Roggenveen, who officially discovered the island on April 5, 1722, exactly an Easter Friday. Another popular name of the island is Rapa Nui, but the term is not of native origin but rather Tahitian. It was given by navigators who visited the island in the nineteenth century. Despite its foreign origin, the name of Rapa Nui has been fully accepted by the islanders. This term also describes the people, culture and language.

Makemake, creator of humanity in Rapa Nui culture, of Easter Island of Chile


The Rapa Nui creation myth tells the story that once the earth was created, Make-Make the creation God, realized that something was missing and decided to populate the planet. He took a pumpkin full of water and could see his own reflection in it at the same time that a bird perched on his shoulder. By putting together the bird’s silhouette and his own, he gave life to his first son.

He continued with the feeling that he wanted to created someone similar to himself, that could talk and also think. He tried to impregnate the ocean, but fishes were born out of this. In a second try, he impregnated a big stone made of red earth, and this is how a man was born. Glad with his creation, Make-Make realized that this man was alone and decided to create also a woman. This is why Make-take is not only considered to be the creator of the world, but he is also strongly tied to the idea of fertility and above all, to food abundance; which was and is still mainly based on sea products.

The traditional theory of the Rapa Nui people who inhabited the island for hundreds of years is that they ran out of resources on the island, which resulted in war, leading to their demise. What supported this theory are thousands of obsidian, triangular objects that are found on the surface, called mata’a. Due to their large numbers and the fact that they’re made of sharp glass, many thought they were weapons of war. The ancient civilization that inhabited Easter Island wasn’t destroyed by warfare, according to a recent study, contrary to what some researchers believe. Researchers from Binghamton University analyzed spear-like blades of obsidian, known as mata’a, that were scattered about the island. They found that the mata’a were not used for violence, saying the shapes are inconsistent and different from other recovered weapons. The mata’a were more likely all-purpose tools, the study found. “We found that when you look at the shape of these things, they just don’t look like weapons at all,” Carl Lipo, professor of anthropology at Binghamton University, said in a statement.

Easter Island is just 3,500 kilometres west of the coast of Chile. It is dotted with nearly 900 massive human figures or moais and it is these mysterious stone monoliths that are its well-deserved claim to fame. Like much of history, the story of the moais treads a fine line between history and mythology. It is believed that the statues were commissioned by families to venerate a deceased head of a clan. Their size and grandeur was meant to correspond with the wealth and social standing of the clan. The island is famous for its moais—huge stone statues in human forms that are partially buried in the earth. These giant heads were carved centuries ago by the inhabitants of the island.




One of the most evocative images in the entire world, the Moai are ancient brooding figures carved from great slabs of volcanic rock. More than a thousand Moai can be found scattered over the island, most of them standing with their backs to the sea. Hundreds more lie half-completed in a volcanic quarry, mysteriously abandoned after a tribal war (see Tangata-manu). Opinion is divided regarding their purpose; some people believe they represent tribal leaders or ancient ancestors (see Aku-aku) — and some people don’t. The subject has been ripe with rampant speculation, and Easter Island attracts cranks like you wouldn’t believe. The mystery is enhanced by the fact that most of the Moai weigh a truly ridiculous amount of tons. How did the primitive Rapanui islanders shift those colossal statues across the landscape without the benefit of computers and cell phones? Many theories have been proposed, including ingenious block-and-tackle engineering by the natives, and extraterrestrial intervention by space aliens. But we prefer the simple solution, as explained most convincingly by the native islanders: “They just got up and walked by themselves”.

Legend says that the intrepid chief Hotu Matu’a led his people to Easter Island anywhere from 800 to 1,700 years ago. The chief and his people were from the mythological Polynesian island of Hiva (now believed to be the Marquesas Islands) and sailed to Easter Island on large canoes. They settled on the island, introducing new species like bananas, sugarcane and chickens, and lived far away from the rest of the world for generations until European explorers arrived. There is believed to have been a thriving population of a few thousand living on the island for many years. However, after devastating civil wars, epidemics, slave raids, famine and deforestation, there were just 111 people remaining by 1877. Today there are around 8,000 people living on the island, and almost half consider themselves indigenous Rapa Nui.

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.

“Earth scientists and others have used Easter Island and its inhabitants, the Rapa Nui, as a lesson in what can happen when a parcel of land is overpopulated and thus overused—resources diminish and the people starve to death (or resort to cannibalism as some have suggested). But now, the researchers with this new effort suggest that thinking may be wrong.” Scientists think Polynesians settled the island around 1200 AD. They became the Rapa Nui people, who erected 887 fabulous and famous giant stone statues called moai that mystify people. Over the next several hundred years, says, they cut down most of the trees and other plants on the northern part of Easter Island.

Rapa Nui (Easter Island) is a small, remote, volcanic island in the Pacific Ocean, some 2500 km from its nearest neighbour and 4000km from mainland Chile. Its extreme isolation has governed its past and ongoing existence. Many myths and enigmas about Rapa Nui have been generated by the records of early explorers, folk memories surviving from a population that had declined to about 250 people by 1915, sensationalised concepts of self-induced eco-disaster, and by the public’s fascination with the idea of societal collapse associated with the demise of an iconic tradition of colossal statue construction (AD 1200 and 1550). Today, Rapa Nui’s population of about 6000 gains much of its income from heritage tourism. It is faced with highly challenging issues of sustaining a UNESCO-designated World Heritage Site which is undergoing physical erosion on an alarming scale. Over much of the past decade Rapa Nui Landscapes of Construction Project, funded by The British Academy and AHRC, has considered these issues and the results and future development of the project will be discussed in this lecture. The lecture will also consider how Rapa Nui’s living heritage, past and present, has complex social, ideological, and ecological interfaces that need to be understood and addressed on an island-wide scale and within a Polynesian context.

Mythology and Traditions of Rapa Nui

Rapa Nui is better known as Easter Island and is one of the most isolated populated places in the world. Situated in the south eastern Pacific Ocean around 4,000 kilometres from Chile, South America its nearest inhabited neighbour is Pitcairn Island 2,075 to the west.  There in the extreme isolation of the vast Pacific Ocean a unique and amazing civilization evolved that created the most wonderful giant statues and left behind a fascinating and mysterious legacy. Today the inhabitants of the island are known as the Rapanui. According to legend the original settlers named the island Te Pito Te Henua which translates as Navel of the World. Rapa Nui mythology tells how the first settlers arrived on the island and later how the island was divided to be ruled by different clans whose chiefs were descended from a legendary chieftain called Hotu Matu’a. The location of Hiva is not known for certain but it is thought likely that it was somewhere in the Marquesas Islands, some 3,200 km way, or the Gambier Islands, 2,600 km distant. It was shown in 1999, that it was possible to sail from Mangareva, in the Gambier Islands to Rapa Nui, using traditional Polynesian sea vessels in 19 days.

The world is fascinated by the creation of these statues not only for the impressive size and quantity of them, but also for the circumstances under which they were built. This small island had very limited resources; not much drinking water, no cattle and no metal. The statues were transported to their final location several kilometers across hilly terrain – all of this being accomplished with the highest leader being a tribal chieftain. The Rapa Nui people are polynesians, such as Hawaiians, Tahitians and the Maori of New Zealand. The native languages of these islands are very similar. Official languages are Spanish and Rapa Nui – the native language of the island, similar to Hawaiian and Tahitian. Music has always been a big part of Rapa Nui culture. In all rituals and ceremonies they would sing. Just like in choirs of today in many countries they had four voices; re’o a ruŋa (upper voice), re’o vaeŋa (middle voice), re’o vaeŋa o raro (middle bottom voice), re’o a raro (bottom voice). The only instruments invented by this culture are basic percussion instruments. The most common one was the mā’ea poro – two basalt rocks that were pounded together to keep the rythm. Rocks that have been polished and rounded by rolling around in the ocean are selected for this, and when they are pounded together they cause a short, sharp sound.

For thousands of miles to the north, to the south, to the east and to the west, the Rapa Nui are alone. Their closest neighbours in Tahiti are more than 4,000km away. The islanders believe that they are descended from travellers from another Polynesian island, master navigators and seafarers who had to find a new home after a dream warned the king that theirs would sink into the sea. In the oral tradition that has become the basis for much of the island’s history, seven sailors discovered the land and returned the information to their leader. It was then King Hotu Matua’a who led the Rapa Nui people from the mythical island of Hiva, amounting to a population of around 100. There are multiple spots on the island, marked by the iconic Moai, where these settlers and explorers supposedly landed, eventually founding the nation of Rapa Nui. These islanders represent a rare example of a culture and community that has developed in total isolation, their language, religious customs, musical traditions and spiritual practises exemplify in individuality of indigenous culture. While most countries in the world can trace the paths of cultural inspiration, through travel and trade and diversity, Rapa Nui was never exposed to foreign influence until well after their foundation. And when these foreign influences came, they withstood. The islanders have faced internal wars, famines, loss of their natural landscape and their resources. Foreign slavers have come and left in droves, leaving little in their wake but chaos and smallpox epidemics. Colonial powers have jostled amongst each other for control of the land, leaving little concern for the people they hoped to rule.

Aku-Aku (mythology)

Aku-Aku (‘Devil’, ‘Ghost’ or ‘Spirit’), also known as Aku, Akuaku or Varua, are humanoid spirits in Rapa Nui mythology of the Easter Island. Aku-Aku are spirits of the dead, but they are not immortal and can be disposed of. They can be of either sex, and different Aku-Aku are associated with particular areas of the Easter Island. Some of the Aku-Aku are deified. They originally arrived onto the island with Hotu Matuꞌa, the legendary first settler of Easter Island. The original group of Aku-Aku who arrived with Hotu Matuꞌa numbered around 90, and were generally cannibalistic in nature.



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