A paramount chief - 'ariki mau' - held the original power in Rapa Nui society, as was typical throughout Polynesia. Over time, the chief's omnipotence declined (possibly as a result of ecological stresses), and the secular power on the island was seized by a warrior class, called 'matatoa', whose emblem was the Birdman. The result was a decline in the old religion of ancestor worship and an increase in acts of warfare. At this time, statue making appears to have ceased, and the birdman cult, expressed primarily through the rock art petroglyphs, came into being.
locations on Easter Island, Orongo, on a narrow ridge between a 1,000 foot drop into the ocean on one side and a deep crater on the other. The most sacred area at Orongo is called Mata Ngarau, where priests chanted and prayed for success in the annual egg hunt.
In the Rapa Nui mythology, the deity Make-make was the chief god of the birdman cult, and the other three deities associated with it were Hawa-tuu-take-take (the Chief of the eggs, a male god), his wife Vie Hoa, and another female deity named Vie Kenatea. Each of these four also had a servant god who was associated with them. The names of all eight would be chanted by contestants during the various rituals preceding the egg hunt.
Contestants were men of importance on the island. Each contestant would appoint one or sometimes two hopu (other adult men of lesser status) who would actually swim to Motu Nui carrying provisions in a bundle of reeds called a pora under one arm and await the arrival of the terns, hoping to return with the first egg. Meanwhile, their tribal sponsors, the contestants, waited at the stone village of Orongo. The race was treacherous, with hopu facing the potential threat of sharks, drowning and cliff falls.
This successful contestant (not the hopu) would then be declared tangata-manu, would take the egg in his hand and lead a procession down the slope of Rano Kau to Anakena if he was from the western clans or Rano Raraku if he was from the eastern clans. The new tangata-manu was entitled to gifts of food and other tributes (including his clan having sole rights to collect that season's harvest of wild bird eggs and fledglings from Motu Nui), and went into seclusion for a year in a special ceremonial house. Once in residence there he was considered tapu (sacred) for the next five months of his year-long status, and allowed his nails to grow and wore a headdress of human hair. He would spend his time eating and sleeping, and would be expected to engage in no other activity.
The Birdman cult was suppressed by Christian missionaries in the 1860s. The origin of the cult and the time thereof are uncertain, as it is unknown whether the cult replaced the preceding Moai-based religion or had co-existed with it. The researcher Katherine Routledge was able to collect the names of 86 tangata-manu.
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