Rapa Nui’s Delight


A bit of word association made me think it would make sense to incorporate Easter Island into my Oz story about the Easter Bunny, which meant I had to do a little bit of research to find out more about the island than that it’s the place with the giant stone heads. The name comes from the fact that it was discovered by a European explorer, the Dutch captain Jacob Roggeveen, on Easter Sunday in 1722.

This was not the first island to be named that way. A list on Wikipedia refers to Christmas, New Year’s, Pentecost, Candlemas, and Michaelmas Islands; as well as several named after months or days of the week. Of course, these names are all quite Eurocentric. The current Polynesian name for Easter Island is Rapa Nui, or “Big Rapa.” There’s also a Rapa Iti, or “Little Rapa,” in Polynesia. This doesn’t appear to have been its original name, though, and earlier names have been translated to such fanciful phrases as “Land’s End” or “Navel of the World” (a name also applied to Delphi). Despite its pleasant-sounding European name, the inhabitants of the island are known to have undergone a lot of hardship over the centuries, including famine, deforestation, and the slave trade. And I don’t think it ever had jellybean trees. Legend speaks of a founder named Hotu Matu’a, who arrived from elsewhere in Polynesia on a canoe, and to whom the chiefs traced their ancestry. The giant stone carvings with disproportionately large heads have been the subject of conspiracy theories, from alien visitation to Rapa Nui originally being part of the sunken continent of Mu.

Local myths have it that the gods enabled the moai to walk to their current positions, but a more likely explanation is that the people used wooden rollers. In fact, this might have been part of the cause of the deforestation.

So why carve giant stone heads that use up valuable natural resources? The prevailing theory appears to be that it was a form of ancestor worship. Some moai are incomplete, suggesting that people stopped making them rather abruptly. Some of them were also toppled in battles between clans.

Whatever religion the moai represented appears to have been gradually replaced by the cult of the Tangata Manu, or Bird Man.

People with the heads of birds were common carving subjects on the island, usually related to the creator god Makemake.

He was a fertility deity, commonly associated with birds, and one myth has him creating humans out of dirt and a woman from a man’s rib, most likely embellishments from after Christianity reached the place. Makemake is also the name of a dwarf planet discovered soon after Easter 2005.

Its nickname was Easter Bunny, and it received its official name as a reference to Easter Island. Anyway, an annual competition involved several prophetically chosen contestants swimming to nearby Motu Nui to retrieve a sooty tern egg, then swim back to Rapa Nui and scale a cliff. The winner would be declared the bird-man, a sort of honorary king. So, yes, egg-hunting was quite significant on Easter Island, although as far as I know there was no bunny involved. And despite his nickname, Robert Stroud never successfully retrieved a tern egg from Motu Nui. This dangerous contest was suppressed in the 1860s, and is the subject of a Rasputina song.

This entry was posted in Christianity, Conspiracy Theories, Easter, History, Holidays, Music, Mythology, Pacific, Religion and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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