The Birdman of Easter Island

We are visually saturated with the images of moai. But for me the places associated with the other, later cult of the island seemed a lot more visually impressive.

The Birdman cult was something rather extraordinary. It demonstrates again what mad fantasies can be developed by the human mind if it is left to its own devices, in relative or full isolation (this is felt very strongly all over the world in isolated places, for example in Japan, where I am right now).

The Birdman cult was concentrated in the sacred village of Orongo. The path from Hanga Roa to Orongo can be undertaken by foot, it is about 5 km up the slope of the volcano, and indeed it retraces the ancient sacred route that was used by the processions from other parts of the island to climb the volcano. This is how this magical path looks:

On your way to Orongo you pass this cave created in the rock by the waves. The rituals took place here too:

The view over Hanga Roa from the slopes of the volcano:

When you first look down into the volcano from its slope, you get ants running on your skin. It is like a huge bowl where a giant witch is boiling her soup:

The sharp internal slope:

The representatives of all the islands’ tribes gathered in early spring, which here means around September, in the sacred village of Orongo. The village is located on the ridge between the crater of the volcano Rano Kau and the ocean. The ocean side of the ridge:

The volcano side:

After conducting the rituals mandated by the tradition, a group of pretenders set off by swim from Orongo to the island of Motu Nui. Pretenders, named hopu, came from each tribe. Their goal was the small island of Motu Nui, which is located right in front of Orongo about 1400 metres from the shore.

At that time in early spring on this island and only there a sacred bird manu tara nested. The pretenders’ goal was to obtain the very first egg of the bird. The pretenders spent days and weeks on the island hunting for the egg. This was a rather dangerous undertaking and every year a number of people fell down from the rocks to their death. The one who found the first egg (or the chief of his tribe) became the Tangata Manu, the Birdman, the sacred ruler of the island for the following year. He spent the year in solitude in a special house in Orongo. He wore a special dress, including a head cover made from human hair, he grew long nails, his head was cut bold and painted red or white. The tribe he came from dominated the island during the year.

As the result of this natural selection had direct impact on the political life of the island, it often came to heated argument and even fighting in Orongo. That’s why the huts of various tribes look like miniature castles, which are easy to defend from the inside.

The last Birdman election took place in 1867. The ritual ceased due to the arrival of the Europeans and in particular the diseases they brought, which quickly killed 90% of the island’s population (which was typical in all newly “discovered” lands).

In Hanga Roa I also visited the main church and was taken aback by the way the Christian symbols look there.

The believers surround the body of Christ. Moai-reminding statues:

A fish pulpit:

A confessional:

I think this is meant to be an angel:

But I could not resist the thought that this IS the Birdman.

So he lives on in the contemporary Catholic belief practised by the islanders.

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