From Burn My Head In Heaven / Tugi e Ulu haaku he Langi (Penguin 1998)
Death of a God
According to stories, Limaua had three names. He was mostly known by the name of Lima- ua, meaning two hands. He was also known by his nickname Gutupuhi, meaning spurting mouth, and Fulukovi, meaning an ill-bred god who acts in a mean manner. His home was at Houma in Aliutu. He had a wife named Fineiki and two beautiful daughters, Fitiutouto and Kiliutomanogi. He was considered to be an angry person who caused storms, hassled fishermen, and slapped canoes about. The only way to appease this god was after the fishermen caught fish and went to Houma to make offerings. If this exchange did not satisfy him, he would shake his head. His long hair, thick as kelp, caused the currents to spoil the day’s fishing. He has been described as resembling a merman, with streaming hair and a fish’s tail, but was represented as an ancient warrior with the customary flowing beard and decorations of white shells and ti girdle. Limaua was a descendant of Huanaki, one of five gods who arrived at Niue.
Plants, fragrance, Fashion
1891. The day opens on the plaza of Tuapa village. The curtain rises on a ghost of a landscape. The background is dotted with native huts. The people of Mutalau village are anxiously waiting for the ceremony to begin and for the feared god to appear. The audience have turned up dressed in their best for the occasion. The women in holy white dress, their hats decorated with flowers and sweet-smelling leaves, the children also in white dress playing around their parents, disseminating the fragrances from their kahoas. Maile leaves release a dizzy sweet scent. The aromatic yellow corolla pua petals, fragile and easily bruised to reveal thin dark capillaries.
The white people of the island who made up government officials and teachers, merchants and their wives and children, were invited and grouped together under a palm hut especially built to shield them from the sun that burned spiritually above their heads like a soft halo. They had the best view, directly in front of where the ceremony would take place, servant boys and maidens standing pensively beside them. The men’s shiny shoes reflected their status on the island. Many of the island men came dressed casually, white and black cotton shirts composed of riveting designs of linear lines. Symmetrical patterns criss-crossed on to hats; black trousers and cotton vests.
The reason for this unique celebration was for the Christian akoako and teacher, Nemaia, who had been living in Tuapa for a number of years spreading the gospel. God was his light and that light was his pathway which shone towards Mutalau, a village two miles to the east. Tuapa invited Mutalau to participate. Rather than Nemaia taking part, the task was left to selected men from Mutalau to hurl the spears. The moment arrived when the audience hushed to see the god. Four men carried the god onto the maale, their bodies rubbed down with oil. They glistened in the sun.
The dull hiapo in which the god was wrapped was made from the bark of the ata tree. The globular fruit of this tree, when crushed, secretes a sexual perfume; its leaves are used in the preparation of medicine. The god himself was made from the soft wooded tree, the puka. Its flowers are small, fragrant in terminal cymose clusters; its wood is used in the construction of canoes.
About forty people, chanting and dancing an old-style takalo followed behind the god, spreading themselves out unevenly. When the god was lifted into the air and suspended from a coconut tree, the cajolery in the voices of the people of Tuapa caught the audience unaware. They cried out to the people of Mutalau, standing meekly some distance away, waiting for a lightning bolt to fall as a cue for them to lift their spears and pierce Limaua.
Tuapa called out, —If you pierce Limaua, Nemaia can go to Mutalau, but if you miss he stays in Tuapa.
The first twenty spears were thrown but missed. Then a young man, Makaea, stepped forward, breathed in deep and the muscles on his arms and the youth of his chest made the girls giggle. He threw with great power his spear, but missed. Vihekula stepped out. The sun shone in his eyes. A fresh stream glittered around his lips. He danced the takalo and penetrated the god through the heart. The wood’s waters, soft as sperm, burst as the spear fell and nearly wounded Apelamo.
The katoua was three metres long, carved from the kafika, a hardwood tree. The timber was easily shaped by the carver’s sweat to construct houses. When used as firewood, it released a fragrance similar to the solitary red flowers of the kaute. A boy of five, fascinated by the genius of the weapon, could not lift the newly made spear.
The wounded god was lowered to the ground and a lament, composed for a different ritual, went like this: — Ko e mate toa he ha? Ko e mate toa he kai fakaamu (Why did the warrior die? The warrior died because they ate him bit by bit).
The people mourn the fallen god. The children watch in fascination. The white people move away from the sun. Nemaia goes to Mutalau. For three days, Limaua waits in the sea for a victim, his hair floating upon the surface.
The sun rises onto a hot Pacific afternoon. The fragrance of umu combined with the fumes of small fires in the forest drift across the maale of Aliutu. Figures of workers walk in and out of the mist. They are carrying the photographic equipment of Loeb, who signals them to stop in front of the newly built mission houses. The workers have just shown Loeb the burial caves, where he disturbed the bones by lifting them towards the sun in a sudden heroic pose that frightened the spiders.
In front of these huts Loeb would wait for the Niuean men and women to sit and be photographed. He appeared to the Niueans as a taulaatua, a magician capable of fashioning incredible likenesses out of cameras. It was also here that the intellectuals of the island, Niuean teachers from different villages, met to discuss with the white missionary the personalities of Christianity. Loeb would give to each one a notebook and pencil, requesting them to write down their legends and creation stories from their magafaoa. The teachers did, and over many meetings provided Loeb with a wealth of information to write a monograph on the history and tradition of Niue Island.
Only the day before he was in the most southern part of the island, using callipers to navigate the circumference of people’s heads, frantically jotting numbers down. He approached his work like an explorer of the sea, treating the heads like islands, looking for signs of life, and a safe coastline to make landfall. At the request of Loeb, his friend Hipa organised groups of dancers who still remembered the old ways of dancing. They travelled along the makatea road, an earth that shone luminous pathways through the primordial rain forest, to perform for Loeb.
From a bird’s-eye view – the garish orbs of the taketake, a beautiful bird Huanaki had brought to the island – one could see these pathways ending at the shiny windows of the New Zealand Administration. The brightness not quite shedding light on the Union Jack that stood like a soldier outside the door. It illuminated enough to see the symbols of St George, St Andrew and St Patrick flapping in the air.
It was in front of Loeb’s house that the dancers enacted the tame, an old dance where a group form a ring holding hands, while jailed inside a man wearing a poliki imitates a frightened squealing rat, his face smeared with white paint. Outside the ring, an owl in human form tries in vain to kill the rat. The jailers chant until the voices become deafening and finally the owl breaks through and pounces on the rat. The rat pretends to die.
As Loeb looked into the camera lens he felt a cold substance on his face. He looked up to see what should present itself as iron. The shadow of a cross above the church stretched awkwardly across the maale to end over his eyes. In the background the smoke from the fires swelled into a massive dome shape, engulfing everything in its way.
In 1924, the killing-the-god ritual once again took place, this time at the maale at Aliutu. Like any special event in Niue, whether it be a hair-cutting ceremony, ear-piercing, marriage or whatever, a feast always followed. A great way to end a day of celebrating and honouring the ceremony. Great demands were made of the families involved to ensure any celebration was a success. Even more important was that the day be a success for Loeb, whom the Niueans felt had become a great friend, recording their legends and stories of creations and gods. The people of Aliutu practised the dances and the area where Limaua was being constructed was forbidden for anyone to enter. The day arrived to perform the event. The maale was turned into a stage. The maale was an open land with a background of trees, with a central section defined by coconut trees, of which two were used to suspend Limaua.
It was well after midday, as the sun’s shadows stretched towards Liku. A half dozen pigs were laid out, fifty or more chickens, talo, watermelons and other dishes. A table was prepared for the palagi under shelter. Loeb was given a prominent place to sit. After the feast a men’s dance was performed, Rarotongan style. The muscle tones of their bodies swelled in the heat. The shininess of their bodies made sex shine as well, while the sticks whacked out a rhythm that echoed throughout the island a penetrating limbo.
The front of the stage was extended forward from the two coconut trees for at least ninety metres or more. It was an open stage, so no curtain could separate the audience. In the trees’ shadows, actors playing minor parts in the play waited for their cue to go on stage.
The first participants emerged from a hut built to conceal Limaua. At the last moment, four men entered the maale bearing on their shoulders the wrapped effigy. Silence among the audience frightened the children, stopping them playing. Parents held on to them in case the god escaped from the guards and stole them. The four men were wearing caps, singlets, long pants, grass kilts and stood on crates to secure the god to the ropes tied to the two trees. They were actors playing the roles of servitors for the mysteriously wrapped god, handled dramatically for all to view. Immediately following Limaua was an anguished band of warriors, brandishing their weapons. Chanting and performing war dances, sweeping around the god to face the audience, who fell back a step.
While the warriors were keeping the enemy at bay, the elevated god was shaken violently, using the ropes that strung him up, until the cloth fell away, exposing him to the audience, who quietened down and waited for the execution. Loeb was standing some distance away, flanked by two men, holding a katoua. Some members of the audience commented on the powerful smell of the oil used to massage the spear. The warriors, confident that their god was safe, retreated slowly to the back. One actor kept the god breathing and alive by manipulating the rope.
Loeb, the god’s attacker, calmly walked onto the stage, sweat dripping down his forehead into tiny streams. The blue ocean gave the stage a distant disguise, perhaps of explorers sighting the island, its artists sketching the coastline of trees, comparing the rich growth to the sylvan landscape of Europe and the colour of the rocks to the Elgin Marbles. Loeb who had been waiting anxiously, wiped the sweat from his forehead. A man next to him handed over the katoua and led him on to the centre of the stage, directly in front of the god at a distance of about ninety metres.
Silence. Silence except the ocean’s urgency eating away at the coast. A small party rowed ashore, disturbing frigate birds that lived in the cracks of the coast. They flew over Loeb's head, their small shadows rolled across the maale, over the audience and into the forest.
The American lifted the katoua above his shoulders and aimed. As he was about to throw the spear, the protectors of Limaua surprised Loeb by charging out from behind the god, shouting and wildly demonstrating the takalo, aiming their spears at Loeb, who caught a glimpse of the sharp ends and thought to himself, no way is that meeting me. At the same time he released his spear, which flew a crooked seven metres and landed in the bush. A cry of disappointment rose from the crowd. Loeb stood protesting, waving his arms around. He was feeling slightly nauseated, but mustered the strength to complain that:
—The people are making too much noise which obscured my intention.
—The warriors are distracting my concentration.
—The sun was blinding me. Look, it is right in front of my vision.
—The spear is bloody heavy and awkward to grip.
—And the bloody puppet can’t keep still.
At this moment in time we pause and marvel at the god. He has been hanging between the two trees for at least twenty minutes (the same height as Jesus). A spear has been thrown at him, and a disquieted audience waiting for the inevitable to happen is becoming agitated. This 1924 Limaua is also carved out of the puka tree, the softness of this material easily penetrated by the hardness of the katoua. Limaua’s thick kilt of the elliptical titi leaves, together with the fruit used to scent the oil, give off a thick jasmine fragrance. Around his waist he wears a fatukafa girdle, decorated with white fist-sized pudenda ovula shells that hold stones for throwing in battle. On his chest hangs an open-string necklace with an ovula shell at each end. His chest is deeply carved, while each arm close to the elbow has a string around it, also with an ovula shell at each end. His arms are bent to form an angle with the body. Hands, perhaps cupped to hold on to a weapon, are carved to show fingers. His legs end in feet with very short toes, with shingle pebbles for toenails. His torso and its inflexible head are slightly over 125 cm long, and the addition of thin legs makes the height of Limaua at least 160 cm to 170 cm, making the god taller than the warriors. To make him shake violently up and down requires the rope to be looped around his neck, while two single ropes are secured to each of his arms.
Loeb called together an urgent meeting. Dissatisfied with the organisational skills of the director, he insisted that to avoid the sun he would approach the god form the side. He demanded that the protectors of Limaua be silent and that a straighter spear be produced. It was getting late and the sun was already approaching the horizon. The audience were restless and the children asleep.
On his own terms, the American managed to sneak up to Limaua, ten metres away, to be exact. He lifted the spear up and, balancing it for a moment, threw it full force into the face of the tupua. A cry of joy arose, and the god who was alive and well was now dead.
Children woke up, frightened by the noise. Veli, Loeb’s host, ran on to the field and below the dead god took on the personality of Limaua. He convulsed wonderfully and fell to the ground. The audience who remembered the ancient song, mourned over Veli. — Tagi, ko e mate toa he ha? Ko e mate toa he kai fakaamu (Why did the warrior die? He died because they ate him bit by bit).
The audience cheered and thought Loeb was a truly great palagi.
The Potautaha clan began the long trek back to Liku. Loeb insisted they use his horse and cart. It was late when the family arrived at Pia. The god’s death was a symbol of severing ties and loyalty to Loeb and his hosts.
The god never lived again. Limaua was gifted to the Bishop Museum in Hawai’i on Loeb’s arrival in 1924. In 1937 the god was destroyed by a museum worker.
© John Pule