Marae : the roots of Polynesian Society

While Today’s Polynesian Marae might appear to be simple piles of stones. Before europeans began to colonize the Polynesian Islands at the end of the 18th century, these edifices played a fundamental role in traditional society/ More than just temples, Marae were the sites where all important decisions were made and were the centers for social, political and religious activities.

The importance of MaraeMarae Taputapuatea

Ancient Polynesians were polytheists, with each island, family and profession having their own gods. Gods had specific functions that were different yet com plementary. The marae had the essential function of allowing humans to communicate with the world of the gods and Polynesians came to these temples to honor the gods and ask them to influence events such as the quality of their harvests or successes at war. Only on marae could the atua - the gods - be called down through priest led rituals and become embodied in sculpted idols. When the gods came to Earth, they gave men mana, the divine strength responsible for health, balance, fertility and more. lt was thought that all success came from mana and a lack of mana meant certain failure. Prolonged absence of the gods on earth weakened the mana, so they had to be called regularly and this could only be done on marae. Rituals were the only way to amass mana and were therefore essential to the Polynesian way of life.

Obtaining MANA

Only the tahu’a - the priest - could perform these essential rituals. To get results, the tahu’a would make offerings to the gods since mana was only given in exchange for something else : in essence it was a system of gift exchange. In Polynesia, gift giving was seen as a communication between gods and men, since in the Polynesian culture a gift given almost mechanically meant a gift received in return. The best gifts would entice the gods to be generous to men and the biggest gift that the Polynesians could give the gods was human flesh in the form of human sacrifices. ln the Society Islands, human sacrifices were only performed in specific circumstances and only took place on the marae of district chiefs. These were gifts of great value to the gods, who would reciprocate honorably with a gift of similar importance such as increased mana, plentiful fishing, military victory or similar.

Marae DesignMarae Ari'i

A common marae has a stone-paved rectangular yard, with an ahu (an altar of vertical stones) inside; the ahu can be one level or multi-storied. ln the Society Islands, marae were built with stones, blocks of basalt rock or coral slabs. Small rocks were piled up to make the wall that enclosed the yard. The ahu was shaped like a small, pyramid and was reserved for the tahu’a and the chiefi called the ari’i. The center of the platform had “backrest” stones on which the priest and the chief sat to pray. There were also unu, geometric-shaped wood sculptures representing men or animals, which symbolized the family who owned the marae. The marae was surrounded by several buildings, such as the fare ia mahana (the house of sacred treasures). Mame varied in size and importance, but the
basic design was almost always the same. Polynesians were not just religious : their lives were ruled by sacred tapu, regulations that were decreed by the gods and communicated to the population by the tahu’a. The marae, which were extremely tapu, still exude the mysteries that were handed down to them through generations of Polynesian customs. To this day, many beliefs surround these crumbling places of worship.

Map of the Society Islands MaraeMap Marae

  1. Ahu
  2. Upright stones
  3. Unu
  4. Fata Rau (offering platform)
  5. Fata ai’ai’ (offering platform)
  6. Pahu (percussion instruments)
  7. Ho’e (oar)
  8. Tira (stick)
  9. backrest stones
  10. Tahua (yard)
  11. Fare va’a (outrigger canoe storage)
  12. Fare Atua (House of the gods)
  13. Fare Ia Manaha (Sacred treasure house)
  14. Fare Tupapa’u (House of the dead)


The Pacific was first settled by Polynesians, who sailed to eastwards on large canoes some 4000 years ago. Scientists estimate that French Polynesia’s archipelagos were colonized around 500 AD. The construction of the earliest marae in the Society Islands is thought to date from the 15th century; from here marae were spread to the rest of the archipelagos.

Oral Polynesian history tells us that the culture in these islands came close to extinction with the arrival of the Europeans in the 18th century and the establishment of Christianity in the 19th century. With the arrival of new beliefs and a new way of life, the remaining Polynesian beliefs and those that belonged to them were swept away. lronically, most of what we know about early Polynesian civilization comes from the first Western explorers. Then, in the early 20th century archeological research in the Society Islands began to uncover many sites from the quick-growing vegetation, saving them from oblivion. ln this way the ti’i (the equivalent of the Marquesan tiki), petroglyphs and sacred marae, were brought to into the light once more. Through continued archeological reconstructions, both locals and visitors are beginning to understand the complexities and incredible richness ofthe Polynesian culture.

MARAE the link between god and man, and man and earthMarae

Marae are found on all islands ln French Polynesia, although there are some differences in architectural structure, the materials used and the rituals that were held at them. ln the Marquesas, people called their places of worship me’ae. One purpose of marae throughout the islands was to provide a sort of a property deed between the people and their fenua (land). On every piece of family land, family marae were built to show that the land had been inherited and belonged specifically to that family. Later on such marae were a way for Polynesians to prove ownership and mark their property boundaries after Europeans arrived.

Different types of Marae

  • International Marae

Taputapuatea was the most important marae in the Society Islands and its reach extended throughout Polynesia; it is thus considered an intemational class marae. Over 1000 years ago, the reputation of Taputapuatea was so far-reaching that it is said most people in Polynesia (from the Society Islands, Tuamotu, Cook Islands, and even as far as New Zealand and Hawaii) considered it the seat of spiritual power. One reason for the maraes vast influence is that the island of Raiatea, formerly known as Havai’i, is said to have been the cradle of Ma’ohi civilization. Traditional lore says that Polynesians navigators left from Raiatea to settle the other islands of the Pacilic.

  • National Marae

This is Huahines most important marae. It was presided over by the ari’i nui a cultural and ceremonial chietthrough whom the marae would transmit its power and solidarity. This marae was the spiritual center for all districts on the island and was used to celebrate the various stages of an ari’i’s life, such as puberty or coronation, and to prepare for important events like war.

  • Local Marae

District marae were called marae mata’efna’a and were shaped like national marae but were smaller in size.The titles and genealogy of the district’s chief were linked to this marae, and it was used for celebrations conceming the ari’i and his family.

The family Or ancestral marae
Marae Tupuna, family marae, were like a home base for families. Family names were given to the marae and this was the way in which one could prove land ownership. Each slab in the wall  surrounding the marae represented a family member and was used as a prayer bench. Ceremonies for family events such as births or deaths were held there.

The social Marae
The clan marae, called the marae o te va’a matauna’a, was extremely important because it joined the people as part of a community. The clanspeople met at these marae for prayer and gave offerings on behalf of their community in times ofjoy or during epidemics and hard times. This type of marae genealogically linked people together in solidarity with other islands.

The specialist Marae
These were rather small marae, sometimes holding only one prayer stone. Professionals, including medicine men, canoe builders, fishermen and more, prayed here to their specific gods in hopes of bettering their trade.

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