13 Most Famous Polynesian Gods and Goddesses
The ancient Polynesian gods and goddesses that we are about to explore were revered extensively throughout the Polynesian region, which includes more than 1,000 islands dotted across central and southern Pacific Ocean.
Their shared love for the sailing probably explains why many of those islands had similar traditional and religious beliefs, including the vast number of gods and goddesses. As it was common with many ancient civilizations, Polynesians believed that their gods and goddesses intervened in the everyday lives of the people, and in some cases, some of them were called upon to secure victories for the tribe against enemy tribes.
Take the example of Ku, the Hawaiian god of War who many believed to have a powerful burning mace that held the souls of the people he vanquished. The sun deity Maui is the hero-trickster demigod in Polynesian mythology who had a very soft spot for the human race, bestowing upon them many gifts. Then there is the Polynesian goddess Laka, the deity in charge of love, fertility and beauty, whose worship was prevalent on the various Hawaiian Islands.
From Pele, the Hawaiian goddess of fire and volcanoes, to Marama, the goddess of the moon and death, the following are the 13 most famous Polynesian gods and goddesses (ranked in an ascending order):
Being the goddess that resides atop Mount Kilauea, one of the world’s most active volcanoes, the Hawaiian goddess Poli’ahu is considered one of four deities of snow. She is also famed for being one of the daughters of creator deity Kane.
As the goddess of snow, Poli’ahu is said to cause snow fall across the mountain in winter seasons. In spring, she causes flowers to blossom.
Poli’ahu has many siblings, including Na-maka-o-Kaha’I and Pele. According to some accounts, she waged a brutal war against Pele over the control and ownership of Mount Kilauea. Being a fiery goddess, Pele would unleash copious amounts of hot, burning lava across the mountain to spite Poliahu, who would then douse it with her snow.
In the Polynesian pantheon, Tangaroa is the god of the sea who was responsible for parting the sky from the earth. The earth was said to be the manifestation of the earth goddess Papa, while the sky represented the Maori god Rangi. Tangaroa was the son of Papa and Rangi. Prior to the birth of Tangaroa, Rangi and Papa were in a state of perpetual union.
In Maori religious beliefs, as well as other Polynesian religious beliefs, Rangi was revered as the god of the sky. He is also the chief consort of the earth goddess Papa. The love Rangi (sky) had for Papa (earth) was so strong that the two deities were locked in a very strong embrace until their children (led by Tangaroa, the sea god) separated them. Another name of Rangi is Ranginui.
The relationship between Rangi (sky) and Papa (earth) can be compared to the one that exists between ancient Egyptian deities Nut (sky) and Geb (earth). Similarly, ancient Greek deities Uranus (sky) and Gaia (earth) also had that kind of symbiotic relationship and close bond.
READ MORE: 13 Most Famous Ancient Greek Gods and Goddesses
A Hawaiian god of peace, music, knowledge and foods, Lono’s closest equivalent in the Greek and Roman pantheons could be said to be the god Apollo.
Lono is a member of the famous Hawaiian trinity of gods, which includes brothers Ku and Kane. Together with his brothers, Lono created human beings. His role in the creation story was to bestow upon the humans fertile lands so that the humans could fend for themselves.
His association with cultivated foods led some Polynesian cultures to believe that he was the goddess of agriculture. In some accounts, his tears (over the loss of his mortal wife Kaikilani) fall as rain between October and February.
By virtue of the belief that Tane was a son Rangi (sky) and Papa (earth), Tane was associated with many Polynesian deities. A forest and light god, Tane is credited with creating the tui bird and a number of other animals. In some myths, it was believed that Tane even created man. This will explain why his name means “man” in Maori.
A water goddess, Na-maka-o-Kaha’i is the older sister of the fire goddess Pele. Hawaiians and many other Polynesian cultures believed that she is the exact opposite of her sister. After her sister Pele tried to seduce her husband, Na-maka-o-Kaha’i sent Pele packing. From then onward, Na-maka-o-Kaha’i and Pele became sworn enemies. Also known as Nāmaka, she is believed to send huge waves to douse fires caused by her younger sister Pele.
Ku, the Hawaiian god of war, who many believed has a powerful burning mace that he used to hold the souls of the people he killed. He is a brother to Kane (the creator god) and Lono (the god of music and knowledge). And for his consort, Ku took the goddess Hina.
According to the myths, Ku frequently comes to the rescue of many Hawaiian gods, especially during wars. He was also heavily involved (along with his brothers) in the creation of human beings. It’s said that Ku was responsible for creating the bodies of humans before Kane breathed life into the body.
Commonly known as the “Eater of islands”, many Polynesian islands believed that Ku could be pacified through human sacrifices. Ku’s thirst for carnage and war could be compared to the appetite the Greek god of war Ares has.
Another popular deity in the various Polynesian pantheons is Papa, the earth goddess and mother of many of the Polynesian deities, including Tane and Tangaroa. Papa’s name translates to “earth” in Maori and in many other Polynesian languages.
Papa, also known as Papatuanuku, is also famous for being the wife of the sky god Rangi. As stated earlier, for a long time, Rangi and Papa were believed to be joined together in a cosmic embrace. However, their bond was later broken by their children.
In the strictest sense, Maui is not a full-fledged god. Instead, he is revered in Polynesian pantheons as a demigod and the deity of the sun.
It was believed that the sun at one point rose and set too quickly, thereby making the days very short. Maui intervened by disciplining the sun, making it hang in the sky a bit longer. This resulted in the Hawaiians having a bit longer periods of sunshine in order to go about their daily activities. His association with the sun meant that it was believed that he rises and sets every day.
Maui is revered for the strong love he has for humans. He even once tried to get an elixir so that the humans could become immortals. However, he failed. That said, one cannot help but notice the parallels between Maui and the ancient Greek trickster god/titan Prometheus. Like Prometheus, Maui was a big supporter of the human race, often going to great lengths to make humans more civilized and advanced. He was also known for playing several tricks on the gods.
Laka in the Hawaiian pantheon is believed to be in charge of love, fertility, and beauty. In simple terms, Laka could be equated to the ancient Greek goddess Aphrodite.
Hawaiians credit the goddess Laka with the creation of the Hawaiian hula dance. In addition to be in charge of everything that is beautiful, Laka uses her magic and light to make plants and trees in the forest blossom. As a result, she has been associated with fertility, including fertility in humans.
Whenever Hawaiians dance the hula dance, it is believed that they do it in honor of the goddess Laka.
In some accounts, Laka is the daughter of Kane; this means that she is a sister to goddesses Pele, Na-maka-o-Kaha’I, and Poli’ahu.
According to Hawaiian myths, Kane, also known simply as “man”, was the creator deity. In Maori beliefs, Kane is often associated with Tane, the god of light and forest.
Among many Polynesian people, Kane is the chief patron of the pantheon. He is also the god of wild foods, especially those from the forest.
Kane fathered a number of children, including Pele, Poli’ahu, and Na-maka-o-Kaha’i. Kane was the one who drove out the goddess Pele from the heavenly realm (Hunamoku) following the goddess’ attempt to seduce her sister’s husband.
As the creator god, Kane, with the help of his brothers, created human beings. He is said to have created humans out of red and white clay.
Due to her association with death, the Polynesian goddess Marama was not as beloved as other Polynesian deities. Regardless, Marama was still a very feared goddess among many Polynesian people. In addition to being the deity of death, she was also known for being the deity of the moon, time, and in some cases fertility.
Among Hawaiian gods and goddesses, Pele, the goddess of fire and volcanoes, is revered the most. With her abode in Kilauea, Pele was the kind of god Polynesians knew not to mess with as her fury sometimes knew no bounds.
The daughter of Kane, this goddess sometimes gets a bad rap for her failed attempt to seduce her sister’s (Na-maka-o-Kaha’i) husband. Following the incident, she was banished.
On her way out of her family’s home (i.e. heaven), Pele is said to have caused the appearance of huge volcanoes on every Hawaiian island. She later made her home at Mauna Loa. At a staggering height of 13, 676 feet, Mauna Loa is the world’s largest active volcano.
Mauna Loa is one of five volcanoes that make up island of Hawai’i. The remaining four are Kohala (which is extinct), Mauna Kea (dormant for now), Hualalai (dormant for now) and Kilauea (active).
More Polynesia culture Facts
Polynesia was derived from an ancient Greek word – polys – which means “many”. The narrower definition of Polynesia includes islands such as Tonga, Samoa, the Māori, Hawaii Islands, Tahiti, Cook Islands, Fiji, Tahiti, Niue, Tonga, and Tuvalu.
The Polynesian Triangle comprises Hawaii, Easter Island, and New Zealand. Many Polynesian islands have a number of things in common, including languages, cultural practices, and traditional beliefs. The islands are also famed for having a tradition of sailing. In the ancient times, the sailors relied heavily on the stars in the night sky to guide them at sea.
The Polynesians were/are a huge believers in animism. They believed that every item – be it animate or inanimate object – has a sacred and supernatural power called mana. According to the belief, that power could either be good or evil. Regardless, mana in Polynesian belief is considered the vital force that makes things/people distinguished. The mana an object or individual possesses varies from one individual or object to another.
Many of those great gods of the Polynesian pantheon – like Tangaroa, Tu, and Lono – were usually worshiped in their own way. In some cases, gods like Ku required human sacrifices. On the other hand, gods like Pele and Marama could be appeased with chants and recitations. Feasting and drinking, ritual sex, and fasting are some of the other ways that some Polynesians worshiped their gods and goddesses.