Rituals and Resources on Easter Island

When the Dutch explorer, Jakob Roggeveen, came to Easter Island in 1722 he observed—that is before his men gunned down a dozen of them—the islanders lighting fires in front of the Moais. They were kneeling before the figures like modern day monks clasping their palms together before the Buddha. It was the Roggeveen encounter that led a 52 year old sprightly islander to row out to meet Captain Cook a quarter of a century later when his ship moored off Ranga Hoa and ask: Have you come to kill us?

That question reported in Cook’s diaries sticks in my memory. It is so straightforward, so to the point. Its implication is: We recognize that you are willing and able to kill us. We merely want to know what to expect. This is a question one might put to a god; for example, to the god who asked Abraham to sacrifice his son, Isaac, or to the god who went Abraham one better and actually sacrificed his only son. Cook had the good graces to say no.

The downfall of Moai worship coincided with the rise of the Birdman cult whose central ritual involved retrieving the first egg laid by the Sooty Tern, a migratory bird that returned to Motonui every summer in September. Motonui is a tiny island several hundred yards offshore. Several hopu manu—those chosen to take part in the ritual—prepared for the competition by retreating into hand-made windowless chambers, so small a five-foot hopu manu couldn’t stand up in one. After weeks of isolation, at the designated time, the hopu manu climbed down the steep sides of the Rano Kao volcano, swam out to Motonui, waited for the birds to lay, grabbed an egg and tried to return to Easter Island without breaking it. The first one back did not become the Birdman of the year. He was merely the agent of the real Birdman. The real Birdman would then go into isolation for an entire year. His spouse could not visit him for 5 months. He could not bathe during that entire time and during that time he was covered in white paint, his head shaved and his finger and toenails uncut.

Whatever the significance of this complicated rite, it supplanted the Moai cult for a time only to die itself. The last race for the Sooty Tern egg was in 1862.

I think the reason for all these rituals, from Moai to Birdman to our own, is that for most people life is a crushing deprivation. The resources one commands are never enough. Deprived of real income, rituals are a way for people to acquire a different kind of income, psychic income. It is not surprising to me that as the resources on Easter Island diminished, one set of rituals, which had failed them, gave way to another set of rituals, which also failed them. I think resources and rituals are, in general, inversely proportional: the fewer a nation’s resources, the more influential its rituals. In the United States today, for example, I credit the rise of the religious right (pun intended) with the fact that median income levels have essentially been stagnant for the last quarter of a century, this during a period when the migration of wealth to the top 2% of our society has been unprecedented.

Perhaps one doesn’t have to go halfway around the world to experience the decline of Easter Island.

Click here to listen to this entry in audio