In Oceania, many mythological characters such as gods and goddesses make an essential part of Polynesian folklore. Arguably, the more important deities reflect the ocean, water, and island environments around them. However, as you will also see, this is not always the case as some gods who have nothing to do with water had massive impacts on their subjects.
This article will showcase some of these exciting characters across the Pacific, trying to avoid repeating Polynesian gods or goddesses of the same type while showing the variety of these deities. In turn, the outcome of this will be to give you an idea of how rich these gods were and how they helped transform the lives of Polynesians. So let’s take a trip around the Pacific to find out more.
Hawai’ian Gods and Goddesses
The first stage of our journey takes us to Hawai’i, where an archipelago of islands each has its unique histories and tribes. In addition to this, Hawai’i has plentiful Polynesian Gods for us to meet and learn about. In the sphere of the Pacific, they have similar gods and myths to those found in other parts of the Pacific, but with a unique Hawai’ian flair found little where else.
Kāne: God of Creation and the Sky
The first god we meet is Kāne, the god of creation and the sky, and the overseer of all gods. He has a lot of power over them and even created some to aid in building a world.
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He created many gods, including Kanaloa, the god of the dark and the darkness at the bottom of the ocean. In a sense, Kāne is the opposite of Kanaloa as he embodies life and light, while the sea is linked to passing on.
Kāne helps Hawai’ians if they need help giving birth and offers his services for the price of a tribute. In addition, if artisans needed something built, they gave offerings to Kāne for his blessings in the formation of a new creation such as a canoe or building. Thus, he is both a supervisor of the gods and a patron for other creators by giving goodwill and fortune to creation, whatever form the result might come in, whether in body or wood.
Kanaloa: Polynesian God of the Ocean
The oceans splash up against the island’s shores and, from the waves, step out a man. This man is no man at all but a god: Kanaloa, the god of the Ocean.
Kanaloa is one of Kāne’s creations to guard the ocean and personify the darkness of its depths, and on land, however, being a primal opposite to his own father’s light. Despite this opposition, they have been good friends and often share ocean journeys and a sacred drink called ‘Awa.
Sailors give offerings to Kanaloa just before they set sail. If he is pleased with their gifts, he might give them calm waves and winds. This went hand-in-hand with Kāne as the sailors also asked for a blessing from the creator God to ensure their canoe remained sturdy during their passage. Thus, both father and son work well to ensure the protection of their realms and the safe journeys of sailors.
Ku: The God of War
You need not worry about this god’s face. He is just Ku, the god of war and one of the more unusual mythological characters known for having an ugly war-ready grimace as he always looks ready to strike his club.
Do not fret. Ku might be ready to cause bloodshed, but he is also known as the god of strength and healing. This makes him a great patron to warriors and healers as he has a soft side that will allow wounds to be sewn and for illnesses to run at the sight of his face.
Ku is worshiped under many names, including Kū-ka-ili-moku (land snatcher), and these allude to the darker side of Polynesian culture. There are oral histories of tribal warfare between Hawai’ian clans, so Ku was a symbol to aid sides in their war efforts to secure lands. Sometimes, there was a human sacrifice as part of this worship of Ku, in both war and a prepared ritual setting. These facts make Ku unique as he is the only one with known sacrifices used as offerings.
Lono: The God of Peace, Rain, and Fertility
Returning to the calmer side of gods, we find ourselves looking at a man standing in a field during a rain shower. That god is Lono, the God of Peace, Rain, and Fertility. Whereas so far we have met the gods of war, creation, the sky, healing, and the ocean, Lono is critical to the well-being of people on the island. He provides the fruits for survival and harmony through the chaos of Ku’s war.
Every year, Hawai’i celebrates the harvest festival of Makahiki, which is a sacred tradition to the worship and appreciation of Lono. In 1779, Captain James Cook arrived in Hawai’i during this celebration needing rigging repairs on his ship, the HMS Resolution.
Cook sailed clockwise around the island before landfall, unaware of the season’s significance for the native Hawai’ians and that he was copying ritual processions by traveling clockwise. Thus, when the ship dropped anchor, many came to believe that the coming of Cook must have been God Lono himself.
There is much debate surrounding these circumstances as the records of this event are hazy. However, what is known is that the Hawai’ians took in Cook with members of his crew who were ill at the time. Unfortunately, after a time, Cook began to take advantage of the Hawai’ian’s hospitality, and through cultural misunderstandings, there was a violent outburst. As a result, Cook, and many others, were killed in the bay waters his ship anchored in.
Māori Gods and Goddesses
Returning to the sea currents, we head to the far south to seek out the land of the Māori. In Aotearoa, gods and goddesses are mythological characters that have a massive influence on the culture of Māori. They share similar gods to what was described above in Hawai’ian Polynesian mythologies, but they have different names and legends. Here, we will avoid discussing the same Polynesian gods and goddesses and instead showcase the wide range across Polynesian sub-cultures. Let’s meet some of them!
Papatūānuku: Goddess of the Earth
We arrive on the mainland North Island of Aotearoa, and a regal goddess stands on the headland, looking down at us in greeting. She is Papa, the goddess of the Earth, the land that gave birth to all things, and looks over these children of trees, birds, animals, and people. She is often sleeping, with her back set up towards the sky, but she is here as a spirit to welcome us.
Being the mother of all, she has many children who have kept her occupied, but she has been eternally sad since giving birth. Her first children split her up from her partner, Rangi, the god of the sky. The children might have brought light to the world, but they made their parents sad, creating the rivers and oceans as a reminder of their shared tears.
She is a woman who always looks sad—longing to hold her lover tightly again as she had at the beginning of time.
Maori respect Papa through various avenues, for example, birth and creation rituals because life comes from her body, the land. Often, women have close ties to the Earth because they can bring life to the world, much like Papa. One such ritual is when a baby is born, the placenta and umbilical cord are buried in a sacred place. This place becomes tapu, a place of spiritual significance.
Tāwhirimātea: God of Weather
Papa reclines away as a shadow of a cloud is cast on the land. A storm is brewing.
An enormous Polynesian god appears riding a cloud, Tāwhirimātea, the god of the weather and son of Rangi and Papa. He commands the power of crashing clouds and thunder, and he is angry. Furious that his siblings were so selfish, he flies into a rage every time he hears his mother’s cries.
Tāwhirimātea’s four siblings brought light into the world when they separated Rangi from Papa; however, Tāwhirimātea didn’t like this suggestion. So, in a fit of anger, he sent his children to show this displeasure. He threw the four winds, clouds of rain, and thunderstorms at each of his siblings. However, he didn’t defeat one, Tūmatauenga, the god of war and humans, so his anger continues to stir bad weather even now.
This god is essential to Māori as he influences the daily lives of farmers, fishermen, and other outside activities. For example, he is the one everyone asks for favors from if they want their crops to get plenty of rain during a tough session or if a sailor asks for calm winds.
Rūaumoko: God of Earthquakes
We move inland for shelter from the raging storm above, but it would just be our luck; the Earth is rumbling, and there is an eruption! Rūaumoko senses the discontent of his brother, and as the god of earthquakes and volcanoes, he makes his emotions known through these means.
During the separation of Papa from Rangi, the four children turned their mother face-down, so she didn’t have to look at the sadness in her partner’s eyes. Rūaumoko was being held either in her breast or womb, which caused him to become trapped underground, and so his movements today cause these earth tremors and volcanic eruptions as he attempts to escape.
Rūaumoko also influences the changes of the seasons and his movements at certain times of the year. The temperature changes from a shift to warm to cool air from the underground lava vents, which cause transitions from Summer to Winter.
Māori don’t fear Rūaumoko, despite his power to cause harm. They acknowledge that he is a kind god who will not hesitate to cause damage if he isn’t respected. However, some tribes interpret earthquakes and volcanic eruptions as a sign they haven’t been appeasing Rūaumoko. If they don’t give him the needed offerings, he might grow frustrated and strike out.
Tāne Mahuta: God of the Forest
The storm clears, the ground settles, and we find ourselves in the middle of a great Tāne forest, the realm of Tāne Mahuta, the god of the forest. He is a peaceful Polynesian god who clothes his mother’s body, Papa, in vegetation after she was separated from Rangi. He does this with adornments of forests of tall sacred trees through to small shrubs.
Māori speak to great forests, like this one, as Tāne, and for each tree as if they are his children. They have tremendous respect for nature in all forms, whether the mother or her son and his children in all green forms. Respecting nature ensures in some way that nature will protect and respect the animals and humans and provide them with the tools for survival.
When a tree falls, the event is treated as a sacred rite for the provided material. Each part of a tree has different terms and spiritual significance, such as the bark of a tree being part of Tāne’s skin. So, a Maori canoe carver performs certain rites to ensure all gods in the forest are well respected as he takes the wood and carved it into a canoe.
Certain native trees have different names, and the older they were, the more critical it was considered to protect them. In addition, certain types of wood were reserved for specific purposes, such as a chief’s house or a waka.
Tāne’s children don’t just include trees but also smaller plants like flax. These are important to the Māori culture as they are used to weave clothes, bags, and ropes from strong fibrous materials.
Tāne bids us farewell as we leave his forest, getting back into our waka as we head out into the open ocean north towards the smaller Polynesian Islands of Samoa and Tonga.
Gods of Tonga and Samoa
Up until now, we have met eight Polynesian gods from Hawai’i and Aotearoa. So often, these Polynesian sub-cultures overshadow smaller island groups who also have interesting mythological characters worth tapping our trowels into to understand the bigger picture of Polynesian gods across Oceania. So let’s stop by and meet some of them before we head home!
Hikule’o: Tongan Goddess of the World
Just as we spot Tonga on the horizon, from the dark ocean waters merges a strong and commanding goddess. The guardian of the underworld, Pulotu, the world of dark waters and ancestors, and the goddess of Tonga, Hikule’o.
Hikule’o recently has become an important goddess for Tonga as she represents not just the significance of their cultural past but also a means to secure their future. There is a take-back of culture in the form of decolonization in Tonga and all around the world.
Traditionally, Tongans crafted wooden figurines of Hikule’o to bring the goddess into the physical realm for various reasons. As a result, she appears tough and powerful, ready to aid those in this realm and outside of it, particularly those in the founding chiefly line of Tu’i Tonga, who is her earthly representative.
The worship of Hikule’o was banned shortly after European contact. However, there has been a resurgence in the cultural practice as Tongans push for the right to celebrate and practice their cultural heritage again. These are seen in Tongans creating wooden figurines to worship the deity as they did in the past.
Perhaps this is why we see her standing regal once again out of the darkness which was trying to remove her from history?
Tagaloa: Samoan Supreme God
We bid farewell to Hikule’o, and soon, we find ourselves in the warm waters of Samoa. There is a reflection of a massive man in the shimmering waters, and as we look up, we see a Polynesian god balancing on two islands looking back at us with a curious smirk.
This is Tagaloa, a major god in Samoan mythologies who created the heavens, Earth, and life. The partnership between the sky and Earth conceived him, and when he fluttered his eyes open into this new reality, he set off to create life.
Tagaloa wanted to create a place for himself to stand on because there were only heavens and waters at the beginning of time. So, once he had made his first island, he decided to split this landmass up into small stepping stones. These islands included Savai’i, Upolu, Tonga, Fiji, and many more, all made from the larger one called Samoa.
With these islands now created, he felt concerned that the distances between the rocks were too great, so he created a vine to spread over them. The leaves of this vine began to form worms which eventually became humankind. He made sure each island had a man and a woman to help populate his creation, as well as giving them a governing system to keep order.
He named kings for each island and a ruling overseer for the region, the son of Day and Night, Satia i Ie Moaatoa. The meaning of his name was ‘attached at the abdomen’. Satia i Ie Moaatoa was called this when he was wounded and ripped from his mother’s abdomen. He would reside in Samoa, where his name would become a part of its naming, which means sacred abdomen.
Polynesian Gods and Goddesses: Summary
With our brief journey around the Pacific to see different Polynesian gods and goddesses, we realize that they are a significant fragment in understanding Polynesian culture and its past. Yet, even today, the deities shape the lives of many Polynesians across Oceania to embrace their culture and celebrate the beauty of the world created by divine beings.
Despite the distances between island groups in the Pacific, they were all connected by their bloodlines, similar cultural trends, and shared love of the sea. As a result, the greater Polynesian cultural sphere is unique and varied, as a product that has only been created from this special corner of the world.
The words, stories, names, and traditions of these Polynesian gods and goddesses live on in the Pacific and its people!