Moai Culture Education

Driving both the exhibitions and the educational content of this website are four Easter Island myths: the myth of creation, the myth of movement, the myth of power, and the myth of presence. There is at least one of these myths contained in every example in popular culture in which the moai have been depicted. These myths are fictitious accounts or stories that have imagined explanations for the perceived riddles of the moai. However, the moai are not alone when considering the myths of Easter Island, with popular culture also drawn to the myths that surround rongorongo, Makemake, moai kavakava, and the birdman cult. A focus of the exhibitions has been an attempt to understand the ways in which these myths operate. This extends into this website and, as it develops, projects for educational use will be featured below and will work in conjunction with the Popular Culture page.

The Moai and the Myth of Creation

EDF nuclear energy, French magazine advert, 2008

Easter Island is, geographically, very isolated from the rest of the world. Its remoteness from the main sources of mass culture and popular interest in the moai - Western Europe, Japan, and the USA - has encouraged the myths. Also, many aspects of the island's history continue to be debated and theorised, allowing for alternative ideas to be proposed.

The magnificence of the moai, their size, craftsmanship, and great quantity, has been part of the myth of creation. Added to this is their uniqueness, their archaeological age, and the enormity of the human endeavour in carving the moai from volcanic rock and then transporting them into positions around the island. With little known for so long about the culture in which they had been produced, countries from afar fantasised that they were the creation of people with a power exceeding ordinary humans. They also fantasised about why they were created. Within popular fiction, the moai are repeatedly shown to be 'not of this world'. They are the creation of powerful wizards, or an ancient civilisation that connects them to the construction of the pyramids in Egypt, or the legendary lost continent of Mu in the Pacific Ocean. Most commonly, this myth of the moai sees them as associated with outer space.

Ian Conrich

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The Moai and the Myth of Movement

Keroro Gunsou (Sgt. Frog), Japanese animation

Elations dietary supplements, US magazine advert, 2001

There is a popular myth that the moai are able to come alive: that they can walk, talk, see, and hear. The humanisation of the moai has been aided by mythical accounts that present the island as uninhabited and abandoned. The human-looking moai fill the gap that remains once the native population has been removed. Furthermore, fantasies that present the moai as from another world, or belonging to a mysterious and forgotten civilisation, play with notions of the stone figures slumbering, frozen in time and waiting for the moment in which they will be required to awaken. Their lack of animation lends them to the myth that they can be animated with their subsequent behaviour tending to involve one of two extremes: humour or aggression.

The myth of movement connects with the debate as to how did the moai arrive in their positions. Archaeologists have presented different proposals as to how the moai were moved. The legend amongst the islanders that they 'walked' is given dramatic realisation in popular fiction where the moai are shown literally rising up and striding across the island. In reality, some of the moai were given eyes made of coral, which allowed them to 'see', a power which is captured in fiction where they are depicted as watching and waiting. The moai also have large ears and the Easter Islanders living there today believe you should never gossip next to the figures, as they will hear what you are saying.

Ian Conrich

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The Moai and the Myth of Power

Monster Maulers (aka Kyukyoku Sentai Dadandam) fighting genre computer game, by Konami, 1993

Moai the Great, Cardfight!! Vanguard trading card game, volume 6

The presence of such monolithic structures, and the ability for them to even be moved and erected has led to a myth of power, whereby whoever created the moai must have been of incredible strength. The moai are said to have 'walked' to their positions, but in some fiction it is proposed that they flew, with an ariki (an Easter Island great chief) exhibiting the controlling power. In popular fiction, the ariki can be distorted and become an excuse for introducing wizards or witches to the stories. Corruption tends to follow, with the discovery of the source of this strength - found within the island - presenting huge power to mere humans.

Power is also part of the fantasies that have imagined why the moai exist. In fiction, the maoi have been perceived as waiting for an immense event, and depicted as conductors for unknown forces, or conserving a great energy that can be channelled or abused. In the role-playing game-book the Shadows of Yog-Sothoth, a Lovecraftian form of the occult foregrounds rituals and human sacrifices as necessary to restoring power to the moai. Lightning-like bolts of power bring the moai alive, but if a player sees them move or their eyes open, they lose a number of Sanity points. Most commonly, the moai are presented as sentinels, powerful guardians, or as impressive weapons. Positioned at intervals around the island and looking to the distance, they are imagined to be part of a sophisticated defence system with the mouth of the moai firing laser blasts.

Ian Conrich

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The Moai and the Myth of Presence

Inflatable moai, Toronto

Hong Kong advertising postcard for Heineken Lager, 1998

The iconic form of the moai has inspired many fantasies where they are imagined emerging elsewhere. The moai are so heavy, so far away, and so difficult to transport, that there is in foreign cultures a popular appeal in placing versions in alternative environments nearer to home, partly as a desire perhaps to possess or transfer their mystique. Similarly, there is a powerful effect in placing different carvings in the spaces next to the moai on the island, or remodelling the moai to incorporate a new design. In fact, these stone giants are so prominent and such an essential aspect of Easter Island's geography, that to have them reconfigured, replaced, or re-emerge elsewhere, can create disorder, irony, or surprise.

Artist Max Ernst saw the surrealist effect in placing a moai head on a woman's body, an image (later imitated by pop artist Richard Hamilton) that is intended to be disruptive through its incongruity. The bizarre is further explored in the children's novel The Weird Zone: Revenge of the Tiki Men!, where, in a small American community, moai are erupting through the ground and "popping up all over town". Actual examples appear within outdoor games of crazy-golf, where a replica moai can be built into the course as one of the obstacles. Even more common are the many replica carvings that can be purchased as garden objects or fish tank ornaments, to be placed within the bushes of a suburban home, or alongside the plastic treasure chest or sunken galleon, as a miniature mystery of the deep. As extraordinary carvings, the greatest power of the moai is in situ, and advertisers have exploited their presence to establish products such as Red Hook beer, Heineken lager, and Camel cigarettes as being of equal wonder.

Ian Conrich

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The Rongorongo Tablets

Sketch showing the glyphs on side B of the rongorongo tablet known as the 'London tablet' after its location - the British Museum, London. Note the writing direction, with every other line upside down.

A concept of a rongorongo scribe based on reports made by early visitors to Easter Island. The outline of the glyphs was done first with a piece of obsidian (volcanic glass). Afterwards, a shark's tooth was used to make the outline more distinct. Some tablets are 'fluted' meaning that channels were carved in to the wooden surface before the glyphs were carved, possibly to protect the inscription from surface damage, or one theory is that the scribes were mimicking the structure of the banana leaf, which they may have used for practice. Illustration © Martyn Harris, 2010.

Another part of the extraordinary history of Easter Island, are the rongorongo inscriptions, of which only 26 tablets and artefacts exist since many were destroyed through war and fire. They are now scattered around the world's museums and archives, and nearly 150 years since their discovery they remain undeciphered. Significantly, the islanders are the only Polynesian group to have possessed a written language before the arrival of the missionaries. The term rongorongo possibly comes from te kohau rongorongo, meaning 'the stick of the rongorongo men', although there is still some debate.

The script is classed as a boustrophedon writing system (as the ox plows), in other words, the reader starts from the bottom-left corner, and reads along to the end of the line, whereby the tablet is turned 180 degrees to continue reading. This may have enabled continuous chanting, or prevented the reader from missing a line of glyphs.

The rongorongo tablets were discovered by Joseph Eugéne Eyraud, who went to Easter Island in 1864 to establish a Catholic mission. During his stay he noticed wooden boards wrapped in leaves, suspended from the rafters of the huts. According to local legend, the first king, Hotu-Matua, possessed the knowledge of this language, and brought with him 67 tablets containing lists, folk stories, records of ancestors, and accounts relating to the lands from where they had migrated.

Knowledge of rongorongo was restricted to the chiefs, the sons of those chiefs, and certain priests or teachers. There was a special day each year when the rongorongo were chanted aloud in front of the ariki (great chief). If a mistake was made when chanting, the tablet was confiscated from the pupil, who would be led away by the ear.

Martyn Harris

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Rongorongo in Comic Books

Lais und Ben 1 (Comic Art: Hamburg, 1990)

Considering that rongorongo is not widely known, comics depicting moai often weave the glyphs into the story, where they are discovered as an arcane language inscribed into architecture, at the base of the statues, or as tablets found around the island. The inscriptions act as a key to activate the moai, or a piece of alien technology. They can also function as a strange spoken language drawn in speech bubbles, for example in the German comic Lais und Ben, reviewed here. The rendition of the glyphs range from the abstract to accurate, showing that some artists must have had access to photographic material, even though research was minimal at the time. The truest representation of the glyphs is found in the Belgian comic Bob Morane: Les Géants du Mu [Bob Morane: The Giants of Mu], where they appear as a design on a cave column, the remnants of a sophisticated lost civilisation.

House of Mystery, no. 85 (April 1959), DC Comics

Despite the fact that rongorongo remains undeciphered, the glyphs in the comic books are often translated in a matter of minutes (or seconds if you are Captain Marvel) by the hero, or a companion - such as a bearded academic. The decipherment reveals a message from a doomed civilisation reaching out to humanity. Equally common is the theme of an alien race warning humanity to change its ways or face self-annihilation, or that the visitors will return some day upon fulfilment of an ancient prophecy.

The Mexican comic Aunque Usted Lo Dude (If You Hesitate) follows earlier research on the destruction of the tablets. According to this comic, the missionaries discover the tablets buried beneath the moai and they order them to be burnt. In one panel a missionary is depicted overlooking the burning tablets, as he utters, "these are vestiges of a pagan cult hell". Interestingly, it was Bishop Jaussen, of the same order, who saved many of the tablets from destruction and became the first to attempt a decipherment in 1893.

Martyn Harris

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Makemake and moai kavakava

Ushuaïa: Les Aventures de Nicolas Hulot, Tome 1 - Le Trésor des Moaï,
by Pascal Bresson and Curd Ridel (Glénat, 2010)

Whilst the moai dominate the landscape of Easter Island, as well as the myths and the popular images, there are other powerful carvings that are a significant part of the local culture. These include the Easter Island supreme god, Makemake, and moai kavakava, a haunting figure who initially appeared in spirit form to a king.

Unlike the long ears of the moai, Makemake is distinctly small-eared, and he is only ever depicted as a face, mask or as large concentric eyes. Makemake is a protector – of migratory birds – but also a fiery god, whose anger is accompanied by thunder. His image appears as petroglyphs – rock carvings – sometimes with paint added, which emphasise this god’s presence on cliffs, outcrops, boulders, and in caves. Moai kavakava is notable as a full-length human-like wooden carved figure, with a skeletal protruding rib cage, a bald head, and short chin beard. The legend says that King Tu’u ko Ihu was so haunted by the spirits that he encountered that he carved their likeness into wood. The carvings became part of the island’s rituals and were sometimes seen worn around the necks of individuals during festivities.

The French comic book Ushuaïa is unique in centralising moai kavakava’s image within popular fiction. As a figure that stalks the island, he lurks in bushes and caves and pounces on innocents. As a dagger-wielding fiend, who in this story is called a “monster”, he also appears in the hero’s nightmare.  Beyond such appearances, moai kavakava is an occasional image in popular fiction, where his skeletal form exoticises spaces as a carving – collected, exchanged, or gifted. Makemake similarly occurs irregularly in popular fiction and as an image it is only part of background designs that draw upon the unique petroglyphs of the island. The children’s novel, Racing for the Birdman, is one of the few stories to foreground Makemake. In one chapter, ‘Makemake’s Choice’, the god tries to warn the hero of danger by sending an electric shock to his arm, whilst unleashing thunder followed by red rain.

Ian Conrich

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The Birdman Cult

Motif of the birdman (manu tangata), wooden carving with eyes made of shells, bought on Easter Island in 2003.

Scooby Doo! World of Mystery, no.26 (2005), De Agostini UK.

It is believed that towards the end of the period of moai construction on Easter Island, the cult of the birdman (tangata manu) emerged as a new force in establishing social and political order. With a broken ecosystem brought about by the severe loss of forestry, whoever was crowned birdman each year had the power to control elements of the remaining food stock on the island. Just off Easter Island are three islets, the largest of which is Motu Nui (translated as Big Island), where each spring the sooty tern (manu tara) would nest. At a south-western point of Easter Island near to Motu Nui is a clifftop site called Orongo, where selected servants or warriors would prepare for the birdman race. This extreme competition involved climbing down a steep cliff, and swimming across shark-infested waters to Motu Nui, where the speckled egg of the sooty tern was sought. The first warrior to locate an egg intact, would announce his victory from a rock called the Bird's Cry and return to present the egg to his chief, who would be proclaimed the new birdman for the year and viewed as a man-god. With the arrival of missionaries who discouraged the practice, the last birdman was proclaimed in either 1866 or 1867.

Birds have been an important part of the culture of Polynesia, and none more so on Easter Island, with bird characters visible in the rongorongo scriptures. Hundreds of petroglyphs of the birdman (part man, part bird) are found around the island, with the greatest concentration at the clifftop edge of Orongo, at a sacred point called Mata Ngarau. The birdman race has been popularised most explicitly in the fiction film Rapa Nui, which distorts part of the history for dramatic impact. The intensity of the competition has also seen it being the inspiration for popular fiction such as the children's book Racing for the Birdman, in which a sacred egg is stolen. The birdman has also appeared in comic books, which present it as a powerful or mysterious figure, who lurks within the island landscape as a bird-costumed commanding priest or as a masked subversive.

Ian Conrich
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