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Ruins of a Religion: ‘The Polynesian Iconoclasm’ in Photos

In his recently published book, The Polynesian Iconoclasm: Religious Revolution and the Seasonality of Power, Jeffrey Sissons explains the ten-year period during which Hawaiians, Tahitians, and other South Pacific island societies almost completely destroyed their religious temples and god figures. Later, the native religion and its symbols were replaced by the Christian religion, and the churches and laws that accompanied it. Below, the author shares the significance of the book’s cover, followed by images from the book, photos taken by the author’s son, Hugo.





For me, the most striking of the book’s image is the one used for the cover: “Native Church at Raiatea.” I’m thrilled that Berghahn decided to go with this image – the moment I discovered it in the Rex Nan Kivell collection (National Library of Australia) I knew it was destined for my cover. It depicts a Christian church built at Raiatea (French Polynesia) on the rubble of a destroyed pre-Christian temple (marae). The church is one of the first in Polynesia to be constructed using white cement made from burning coral. The marae upon which it stands was destroyed in the summer of 1815-16 at the beginning of the great regional event that I term “The Polynesian Iconoclasm.” Three doors are visible at the top of steps that rise up the side of the marae platform – such platforms (ahu) were the most sacred part of the marae. The rounded end of the building was a separate courthouse with its own door – church and state were thus architecturally combined. There were 2,400 people at the official consecration in April 1820.



Taputapuatea marae. This is a large marae at Opoa in Taputapuatea, on the coast of the French Polynesian island of Raiatea.




Rubble from an abandoned coastal marae on Moʻorea. Tahiti is in the background.




Tautira district in French Polynesia near the main marae in honor of the Polynesian god ʻOro.




Octagonal church on Moʻorea. Originally built in 1823 and rebuilt, 1887-1891.



Site of the first Polynesian printing press, Moʻorea.



Jeffrey Sissons is Associate Professor of Anthropology at Victoria University of Wellington. He is the author of numerous publications on Maori and Polynesian history written over the past 25 years. His most recent book is First Peoples: Indigenous Cultures and their Futures (Reaktion Books, 2005).


Series: Volume 5, ASAO Studies in Pacific Anthropology