Religion Tokelau

The elements of religion Tokelau were characteristic of the religions of Western Polynesia. The pantheon consisted of a supreme deity who resided in the sky and a group of nature gods who resided in the world.

No marae or stone platform was erected for the gods. The ritual was very light and almost entirely confined to an annual ceremony to the supreme deity. Communication took place with the ancestral spirits. Nature spirits abounded in the woods and the sea.

religious Tokelau

The priests (taulaitu) of Fakaofu probably belonged to a higher social group comprising the great chief and the council of elders. They were revered because of their seniority as well as their sacredness.

The chief priest was the priest of Tui Tokelau. Other gods also had their own priests, but little is remembered of their functions and powers. The prophets and shamans, called vaka atua (literally, the god's canoe, carrier or hull of the god), did not officiate at any religious ceremony but acted as intermediaries with the gods. 

When a prophet was in communication with his patron deity, he usually went into a frenzy. The god was believed to possess (tokaia) his body and used his voice to speak in a thundering voice to those who desired advice or explanation. The activities of a vaka atua are described by Turner:

After death, the friends of the deceased were anxious to know the cause of death. They went with a present to the priest and begged him to make the dead man speak and to confess the sins which had caused his death. The priest could be taken away from the corpse, but he claimed to call the spirit and have it within him. He spoke in his usual tone and told her to tell them everything he had done to cause her death. 

Then he, the priest, groaned in a weak, hesitant voice, an answer as if coming from the spirit of the deceased, confessing that he had stolen coconuts from such a place, or that he had fished at such and such a place. particular place forbidden by the king where he ate the fish which was the incarnation of the god of his family. As the priest moaned something like that, he managed to squeeze out a few tears and sob and cry over them. The friends of the deceased felt relieved to know the cause, got up and went home.

These shamans or prophets were consulted for omens and advice from the gods before undertaking any important activity. Before people left their island, they prayed to Tui Tokelau and her son for help. The ancestors were called in case of family problem, illness or impending death, through the family vaka atua. For these services, the shaman received an offering of food or a mat. Direct offerings were not made to the gods when they conversed with their mediums.

It was believed that a god would complete any task or grant any request if properly approached by his vaka atua. If the vaka atua failed to achieve the desired result, it announced that a stronger deity, over which it had no control, had driven out its own deity.

Religion Tokelau: election of priests

In the Tokelau religion, upon the death of a priest, his successor was chosen by spinning a wooden ball (niufilo) in the center of a circle of candidates. This bullet was about 15 inches in diameter and had a notch or cut mouth on one side. The man to whom that notch pointed when the ball stopped spinning was the god's chosen candidate. 

The name niufilo (rotating coconut) suggests that a coconut may have been used, as in Vaitupu. The niufilo was kept in the house of the god of Tui Tokelau.

Another confirmation of the priest's selection was made by a pair of crossed staffs (filifili) suspended low above the candidates' heads. If the sticks moved when the name of the candidate indicated by the niufilo was pronounced, it was believed that the god had verified the choice.

The Grand Chief, with his senior officers, conducted the divination and spun the divination ball. It is said that he often turned it to select his personal choice, but it was believed that such an action would bring great distress to the king and his family. Once, a leader, Kakaia, was spinning the ball, which stopped with its mouth in front of Pakao, but Kakaia spun it to point at Savaiki. 

Pakao's father jumped up and cursed the people of Fakaofu with exile and torture at the hands of foreigners for allowing this trick. The hurricane that then drove many people overboard and the blackbird raids would be the fulfillment of his curse.

Religion Tokelau: churches

Every village in Tokelau had the usual Polynesian meeting place called a malae, where most ceremonies of the Tokelau religion took place, all the dances, the ceremonial division of fish, turtles and whales, and other communal festivities. To Atafu, the malae was about 180 square feet in size and covered with sand and pebbles. A divine house (fale atua) stood at one end, at some distance from the village. 

An informant said it contained three coral slabs depicting Tui Tokelau, Te Pusi and Te Lio. A second informant said that two slabs of Tui Tokelau and Fakaofu stood in front of the god's house, and none were inside. These slabs were tupua, the residences of the gods during ceremonies. One of the slabs was taken by a missionary (Powell or Davis of the London Missionary Society) in 1884, and the other was placed within the walls of the current church.

Thomson inspected the site of the god's house and the coral slabs with a native who had seen them and the ceremonies performed before them in pre-Christian times. Two slabs 7 feet high, 6 feet wide and 1.5 feet thick stood side by side and about 40 feet in front of the god's house which was a rectangular frame building 40 feet long and 20 feet wide, standing on a low platform or foundation and similar in appearance to the present council house of Atafu (pl. 5, C). 

Inside the house was a room surrounded by mats, the most sacred part, where only the priest entered. On the right side of the sacred malae, about 60 feet from the coral slabs and facing a 45° angle forward, was a stone enclosure (sai) 18 by 18 square feet and 3.5 feet from above. 

The rotten mats that were removed from the coral slabs during the annual ceremony were deposited here. They were absolutely tapu, and anyone who dared disturb them would die upon touching such sacred objects. The whole area was a sacred enclosure which only the priest and his assistants could enter.

Fakaofu had two malae: one for the god, Tui Tokelau, and his son, O te Moana, and one for Fakafotu. Wilkes describes the house of the god of Tui Tokelau and the two coral slabs or idols of the god and his son erected before it (pl. 6, B):

Their gods or idols were placed outside nearby. The largest of them was 14 feet high and 18 inches in diameter. This was covered or wrapped with mats, and over it a narrow one was passed, like a shawl, and tied in front, with the ends of the knot hanging down… The little idol was of stone and 4 feet high , but only partially covered with matting. About 10 feet in front of the idol was one of the carved tables, which was hollowed out. It was 4 feet long by 3 wide and the same height.

The Old God House was the largest structure in Fakaofu. Around the inside of the eaves hung a string of mother-of-pearl shell necklaces made from the annual offerings of these ornaments to the god. The huge posts of the house were adorned with sennit bindings, according to Hale:

In the center of the house, round the tallest post, were heaped confusedly a dozen massive benches, or great stools, two feet high, as many wide, and about three feet long. They were clumsily made, very thick and heavy, each apparently carved from a single block. The natives called them seats of the god, and we surmised that they might be for the village elders when they met in council or for a religious celebration.

Leaning against the tallest post of the house were several spears, all badly worn and battered, which the natives said came from the sea. They were called lakau taua (warwood).

The last divine house of Fakaofu was destroyed by Father Padel in 1852 (p. 32). The only holy items he brought back inside the god's house were two rusty guns salvaged from a wreck. He did not mention the tall posts, seats, or table seen by Hale and Wilkes. These may have been destroyed in the hurricane of 1846 or 1852.

Worship and communication with family gods took place in homes. Ancestral spirits came to visit priests or mediums descended from the ancestor. Many houses contained two or three bottles of coconut water reserved for the ancestral spirit. They were hung from a post or rafter and fresh water was poured into them every day.