Richard Kurin is the Under Secretary for History, Art, and Culture here at the Smithsonian Institution. He is a cultural anthropologist specializing in the study of knowledge systems, folk arts, museums, and development. He is currently Study Leader on our Extraordinary Cultures – An Epic Journey Around the World tour, and will be blogging periodically while traveling. This post is sixth in a series. To see the other posts, click here.
Dateline: Easter Island
Easter Island’s moai were enspirited with mana, or power, that would flow to members of the ancestral tribe once eyes were added to the statues. A few years ago, the Rapa Nui council of elders decided to add eyes, not of coral, but of cement, to one of the statues so that people could view and take photographs of a completed moai. The image is striking and indeed awesome.
Patricia, so knowledgeable, anticipates our question. How come all the moai don’t have eyes? She tells us that since the eyes completed the representation, they were regarded as especially powerful. None have been found for the hundreds of statues found on the island. Hundreds of sets of eyes may have been buried—hidden away tfor protection at the time of island upheaval. Alternatively they could have been thrown into the sea—either to save them or destroy them.
The group hikes up to Orongo at the Rano Kau volcano, the edge of Easter Island, but the center of the birdman cult. You really feel like you are at the edge of the world, given the wide panorama of the ocean.
The spiritual belief of the birdman cult grew as the making of statues and the economy declined. Mana was still important, thought to come not from the moai, but from a designated “birdman.” Warriors from different tribes would compete in an annual contest. The goal was to swim out to a small islet where birds annually nested, collect the first egg, and then swim back across the channel, climb the cliff, and bring the egg back fully intact. Seeing the rough, rocky channel, one can appreciate the danger involved and the skill needed for the task. The winner was designated the “birdman;” his tribe would then be the ruling tribe for the year, and his chief the paramount chief of the island. The birdman himself would have to live in isolation for the year—as his power was too strong for his fellow humans.