BIRDS, TREES AND MARAE
When the god Ta’aroa created the earth, he shook the feathers covering him, to dress the earth with trees, vines, weeds…
In ancestral society, feathers from the creator were a major symbol of fertility and abundance, they gave rise to the first plants of the earth.
Therefore, trees, birds and gods have been closely linked from mythical times.
Birds and trees were very important on marae, sacred place. As emanation of gods and ancestors they provided their users with particular qualities. A plant, an animal, a mineral next to the marae represented the guardian spirit of each family. They were called upon for each action accompanying their life, from birth to death. That is why in yesteryears marae were heavily planted with trees, very close to the enclosure. Shadows from their foliage attracted gods and spirits.
During ceremonies performed on marae, a silent and feared place, tahu’a ‘upu or priest prayed to wake up the gods to get favours. Their appearance – in the form of birds, breeze, mist, rain, rainbow, or other actions of nature – was the sign expected, as proof of their attendance. The priests then said “‘Ua tau mai te Atua !”, “The god flew over here !”
To welcome these gods/birds, long masts called tira and paddles or hoe were placed on the marae.
A pebble or coral altar or ahu, being the most sacred area - from where emanated and accumulated terrestrial and cosmic energies (ahu)- with erected boards or branches called unu-marae dedicated to them.
Sometimes the tip of these unu-marae was surmounted by sculptured birds, characterising a species and the effigy of a deity.
Offering of food were presented on wooden offering platforms, fata ‘ai’ai for the small ones and fata rau for the large ones. “When birds came down to eat the food, it was thought that gods came to eat”, therefore these offerings were enjoyable.
An ‘āva’a, small stony structure was used as a receptacle for effigies of gods. Overlooking the marae, there were many trees on which birds, messengers of the afterlife, came to land.
As for the other areas of the marae, were reserved for humans – priests, chiefs, dignitaries, tupa’i pahu-drum players…
Feathers, especially red and yellow ones, were the most precious possessions, they were the exclusive right of high chiefs who wore them during grand ceremonies, identifying with the gods.
As priests, they drew the mana, the power of the gods, to conserve and nurture in the idols of wood, stone or coral called ti’i in the effigies of gods known as to’o and carved wooden boards, the unu-marae.