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from Scholarly Contributions
to Chant Discoveries and Translation
Long ago, on a tiny island located in the most remote location of the Pacific and perhaps the world, a people migrated who brought with them scrolls of a mysterious hieroglyphics. This sounds like the beginning of a science fiction adventure, but it is a reality and riddle integral to human history. Their original migrating chief’s name was Hotu Matua and their island, Te Pito te Henua, the End of the Earth. Admiral Roggeveen and his crew introduced the island, today’s Rapa Nui, to colonial Europe on Easter Sunday, April 5th, 1721 and so they called it Easter Island.
From perhaps 500 c.e. Te Pito o te Henua grew to a few thousand inhabitants. The Gonzalez expedition of 1770 found a bountiful island with several gardens, one measuring 1.5 miles by 0.75 mile, filled with sugar cane, sweet potatoes, taro, yams, white gourds and more. The islanders were skilled in fishing while casting nets from the shore, cliff diving with spears and deep sea Tuna fishing.
There was a vibrant ceremonial culture on Rapa Nui with a yearly Tangata Manu Bird-man Egg Hunt. The clan that found the first egg layed by the Sooty Tern would crown their chief as king of the island for the entire year. The clan chose a youthful contestant who was required to swim two kilometres to the island of Motu Nui, the seasonal nesting site. A tattooing rite of passage initiated this ceremony, with a great procession decorated with costume, dancing, feasting and chants. Tohunga priests read the most sacred chants from tablets of this mysterious hieroglyphs, called Tohau rongorongo writing boards. A sample of a Rongorongo writing tablet is given below:
Holding these tablets the Tohunga recited their prayers for a successful Tangata Manu Egg Hunt from stone prayer houses in the ceremonial village of Orongo high atop the volcano crater, Rano Kao. Below is an illustration of the appearance inside one of these prayer houses from the perspective of the Tohunga reciting the incantations directly off of a Rongorongo board.
To understand what is written on these tablets it is important to clarify the purpose of this prayer house and its sacred artifacts. There are four artifacts illustrated. The tablet itself in the lower left contains chants that assist the Bird-man in his swim to retrieve the first egg of the Sooty Tern, called the Tavake by the islanders. Some of these chants are deciphered syllable by syllable, word for word in the chapters below. In the lower right is a stone with a Bird-man carving. He is carrying the first egg and, therefore, represents the winning contestant of the Tangata-manu egg hunt. Painted on the ceiling of the stone house is a depiction of twin birds like a mirror image. One bird represents the deity of the Sun, the Creator. Rapa Nui called this primary bird-deity Tavake, Taha or Taa. Elsewhere in Polynesia this Creator and bird deity of the Sun is called, Tane. The Tangata-manu contestant is called to become the mirror reflection of this divine bird. And in retrieving the first egg of the Sooty Tern laying season, the Tangata-manu is symbolically retrieving the life that the Creator bestows upon the island for the entire year. Curiously, there is an eight-foot-tall moai statue half buried in one of these sacred prayer houses.
This statue is called, Hoa Hakanana’ia, the hidden friend. Are the carvings on the back of the Hoa statue a key in deciphering the Easter Island Tablets? This research will confirm that this statue is a key to deciphering the Easter Island tablets. These back carvings point us to a broader Polynesian mythology in our attempts to decipher the Rongorongo tablets. Notice the two birds with broken wings carved on the back shoulders. In Polyensian lore, Mu and Weka are birds with broken wings that nourish the trickster hero, Maui-potiki.
Are the carvings on the back of the Hoa statue a key to decipher the Easter Island Tablets?
Figure: Hoa Hakanana’ia[i]
Hoa Hakanana’ia, illustrated above, is the moai statue Katherine Routledge was looking for when she said, “(The Bird Cult)… is doubly interesting if it can be proved to have had at least some connection with the great statues.”[ii] This statue was central to the recitation ceremony of Orongo village, since it was located in the sacred and tapu stone houses where the Tohunga fasted and prayed for the Tangata-manu who were swimming to retrieve the first egg.
Also connecting the statue to the Rongorongo writing boards are the Rongorongo carvings on the stone giant’s back. For example, as illustrated there are three power oars on the back of the statue. The princes of the island would carry ceremonial oars, called Ao, during the Tangata-manu procession up to Orongo village. Polynesian oars, called Rapa, are carved onto the Rapa Nui tablets several different times. One such Rapa oar is illustrated below as a Rongorongo glyph on this large Reimiro neck ornament of the Rapa Nui Chief.
Figure: Reimiro neck ornament of Easter Island chief carved with the Rapa oar.
The Reimiro neck ornaments were worn by early Easter Island royalty. Does the carving on the chief’s neck ornament identify a Polynesian word or name ending in Rapa? The Maori identify the guardian of ocean migrations as Tuhinapo-Rapa. The syllables of Tu-hi-na-po unravel from the appearance of this Reimiro glyph where each section forms a syllable from the symbol it signifies, starting from the bottom two legs: TU (representing to stand); HI/hianga (to stoop or to fall); NA/nao or wha (to feel for/to reveal); PO/poi (a ball) = TU – HI – NA – PO + the RAPA oar as the Guardian of Ocean Migrations as described in the mythology of the New Zealand Maori (Dansereau, 2011; Tregear, 1891). The Easter Islanders have retained enough words in the old Rapa Nui dictionary to confirm: Tu (to crush); Higa (to fall); Naonao (a mosquito or one who feels for); Popo (a ball). Like the Rosetta Stone, the parallels from known history help to unravel formerly unknown symbols. Does the Reimiro glyph with the Rapa oar identify a means of translating Rongorongo tablet syllables and words?
Does the Reimiro glyph with the Rapa oar identify a means of translating Rongorongo?
A similar process is used for the interpretation of all Rongorongo hieroglyphs: the Rapa oar serves as a flag glyph; the study of these flag glyphs lead to Rosetta Stone like parallels in the broader Polynesian mythology; syllables begin to verify themselves as they continuously fit into the words and sentences of these Rongorongo chants. This method of decipherment has identified several chants and enabled the decipherment of significant portions of the Rongorongo tablets in the chapters below. These chants also helps to unravel the remarkable mystery of the Tangata Manu Birdman Ceremony as they relate to the 887 giant statues on this island.
This map of Rapa Nui illustrates the location of Orongo village beside the Rano Kao crator and close to the island of Motu-nui, where the Sooty Terns seasonally nest. The contestants of the Egg Hunt represent various chiefs from corresponding tribes and clans across the island. The first to find the egg enables his own chief to rule the island for the year. The contestant is then given a sacred house beside Rano Raraku, the volcano crater where most of the 887 statues were carved. He lives at this house, called Orohie, in solitude and prayer. For the entire year the islanders must bring food offerings to feed him like a young bird fed by his parents. Do these Birdman analogies in Rapa Nui ceremony appear in the symbols carved on the Rongorongo writing boards?
There is a relationship between the carving of the statues and the tattoo carving at the beginning of the Tangata-manu ceremony. That is, not only the birds, but also the statues themselves are models for the rite of passage of the Tangata-manu. The numerous statues hatch from the volcano quarry, much like young birds. These statues are transported to the coastal grave platforms, called Ahu. The largest of these platforms rests on the shore near Rano Raraku and is called, Ahu Tonga-riki. Upon Tonga-riki stand 15 moai statues averaging 15 feet in height. Together, the 887 moai statues appear to represent a giant mythical landscape. This landscape is found in broader Polynesian mythology again telling of the exploits of Maui the trickster hero and deciphered from the Rongorongo tablets for the first time in the chapter below called, Maui’s Ball Game – the Tattoo Soothing Chant.
Do the Birdmen in Rapa Nui ceremony appear carved on the Rongorongo writing boards?
Review of Scholarly Contributions
The reason we can read these preliminary chants of rongorongo is because we stand on the shoulders of giants. The underlying hypothesis in this research is to acknowledge that the foundations for the initial stages of deciphering Rongorongo have been laid by the work of numerous scholars spanning close to 150 years of dedicated work. My only hope is that this direction also honours the original and contemporary inhabitants of Easter Island, Polynesia and Indigenous communities around the world trying to offer their essential voice in a world facing ecological decline. Credit is given primarily to the priests who wrote the tablets, their ancestors who taught them how, and their children whom they taught.
Where Metoro gave us ure or expanded te tangata ure huki,
Melka presents that the phallus expresses “the act involved
in the Old Rapanui phrase: ki ‘ai ki roto ki (“copulated
with”), is a silent determinative, or a taxogram...[xxv]
This work on the Statistical Analysis of the Santiago Staff of
Melka is a well researched addition to Rongorongo studies and
gives us an edge toward the decipherment of the staff.
Contributions of ancient Polynesian context on the Rapa Nui tablets, include the works of chiefs and scholars such as: Dan Whata of Te Arawa, Te Rangikaheke, Maurice Bloch, Eric Schwimmer, Elsdon Best and Sir Peter Buck, Louis Bouyer, Bruce Biggs, F. Allan Hanson, Michael Shirres and Prytz Johansen. The late Michael Shirres presents an understanding of Maori spirituality and passage-rites via the use of karakia prayers. It stands to reason, since the languages of the Maori and Rapa Nui have much in common, Maori customs and spirituality can identify parallels with those of early Rapa Nui to aid in understanding the symbols of the Rongorongo writing system. Of the sourcing of karakia prayers, Shirres writes:
Te Rangikaheke the system (of Maori karakia rites) is based on the study of about 500 karakia found in the major Maori manuscript collections of Grey, White, Shortland and Taylor. There are karakia from all the tribal areas, though over half come from two areas, Te Arawa and Wanganui.[xxvi]
Perhaps the Rapa Nui tablets contain a form of transferable karakia chants as yet undeciphered. 1915 was the last chance to interpret the tablets from Tomenika, who in waning health was unable to give Katherine Routledge the keys to the rongorongo writing.[xxvii] What remains are twenty-three preserved tablets containing some portion of rongorongo writing, which leaves us with, as Jacques Guy wrote, ‘very little’ direct information to decipher these tablets. Something else is needed.
In essence, a new interpretive possibility is what this research is presenting. This is an interpretation of rongorongo that considers how Indigenous World-view is culturally played out on the Rapa Nui tablets in terms of their origin stories, language and commonalities with other Polynesian islands. The decipherment of the Rongorongo tablets is a proof that this Indigenous World-view can assist modern scienctific methods in the acquisition of knowledge.
Once this Indigenous knowledge helps to identify the symbols and potential prayers or portions of Polynesian chants on the tablets, an attempt at identifying the language on the Rongorongo tablets can be made. This research agrees with certain scholars listed above who believe there are syllables found on the writing boards.
Proof that syllables are used on the tablets is given by Davletshin who writes that when the rongorongo glyph portions “form sequences ABAB, BABA, AAAA and AAA strongly suggests that the sign has a syllabic (phonetic) value” and “such word combinations, for example, ‘fish fish fish fish’ mean nothing in any language (compare with TB700=700=700=700, Small Santiago Tablet [verso], Line 5; Atua-Mata-Riri Tablet, (Side b, Line 4).”[i]
Figure: Reimiro neck ornament of Easter Island chief carved with the Rapa oar.
For example, the Large Reimiro neck ornament contains the four syllable word, TU-HI-NA-PO with a logographic RAPA oar as described in the Introduction above. Not only is a potential syllabus being formed, but the manner and order in which the syllables fall is also confirmed.
For this glyph, Tuhinapo-Rapa, section 1, contains the one syllable, TU/to stand, which appears in the bottom of the glyph; section 2, contains three syllables, HI/to stoop + NA/to grasp + PO/ a ball, which may be designated as 2a upper centre, 2b upper left and 2c upper right; section 3 contains the Rapa oar on the right side of the glyph; section 4 contains a cut off appendage with no syllable used. This type of syllabic sequence will be explored in the chapters below.
[i] Davletshin (2002). Ibid. P. 7. Pozdniakov & Pozdniakov (2007). Pp. 3-36. Their work in statistical analysis has convinced them of a rongorongo syllabary system.
To review the entire draft of Deciphering Rongo Rongo, which includes the decipherment of over 10 chants found on the tablets, a verifiable syllable chart, and a Rongorongo glossary - a first of its kind for the Rapa Nui writing system, please proceed to the following link:
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