Tattoos: Polynesian Tribal Tats

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Tatua and Ta'unga

One of the ways Polynesian religion was and still is culturally manifested is through the wearing of beautiful and intricate tattoos. Historically tattooing was a prominent part of many Polynesian cultures and was closely tied to religion. Because it was such a widespread cultural practice it can be seen as an important cultural manifestation of traditional Polynesian religion.

In their article entitled “The Lost Connections: Tattoo Revival in the Cook Islands” John Utanga and Therese Mangos delve into the history and religious significance of tattooing as well as how they were traditionally administered. In reference to tattoos or "tatau" as they were known through most of Polynesia Utanga and Mangos write, “tattooing was only practiced by skilled craftsmen called "ta'unga" or "tufuga." Strict rules known as "tapu" surrounded the wearing of tatau and rituals to appease the Polynesian gods were always performed by the ta'unga before he--and it was strictly a male domain--began his task.” This particular statements shares a number of parallels with what I have read about indigenous religions in the book “Experiencing the World’s Religions” by Michael Molloy. For one the mention of how strict rules or “tapu” regulated the wearing and administering of tattoos coincides with what the book refers to as taboos. This is a common attribute found in many indigenous religions. To further support this point Malloy writes that taboos among indigenous religions, “frequently relate to sex and birth”(Malloy). Among the inhabitants of the Cook Islands this meant only males could be ta’unga or those allowed to apply the tattoos.

Prince Giolo was the first Austronesian brought to Europe in 1692. He and his mother were bought as slaves on the island of Mindanao by English privateer William Dampier. Originally from the island of Miangas previously Philippine territory but award
Prince Giolo was the first Austronesian brought to Europe in 1692. He and his mother were bought as slaves on the island of Mindanao by English privateer William Dampier. Originally from the island of Miangas previously Philippine territory but award | Source

Spiritual Protection & Social Status

Another interesting parallel that supports the book and also what I have learned about indigenous religions from it is the fact that rituals aimed at appeasing the gods were performed before the administering of the tattoos. This demonstrates the religious significance of the practice. One of the most outwardly religious interpretations of the purposes of tattoos according to Utanga and Mangos was that, “The wearing of tatau was…deeply ingrained in the spirit world where they were sometimes regarded as powerful talismans to ward off evil.”(Utanga and Mangos) The tattoos also had more practical purposes. Men wore tattoos during times of war to communicate what tribe they belonged to and by women because it was seen as making them more attractive. (Utanga and Mangos) Regardless of the many different reasons, “The application of ta-tatau was a ritual symbolizing "mana"--a kind of innate tribal authority--and beauty while offering spiritual protection and exclaiming the wearer's identity.”(Utanga and Mangos) The fact that this practice exclaims the wearers identity also demonstrates its deep religiousness because many indigenous religions and religions in general offer a sense of identity and place in the universe and among others.

This practice was very widespread among Polynesians originally but was next to destroyed with the arrival of Europeans and in particular Christian missionaries on many islands. Samoa however was one island that never stopped practicing it. I have a friend who is Samoan and although he was born in the United States his parents are originally from Samoa. Both he and his father have Samoan tattoos. His father received his the traditional way through beating the pigment into the skin and his tattoos cover a large portion of his body, which was common traditionally. I have talked to him about the process and why they did it that way and a lot of what he said supported that fact that it is used as a means of identity and that the intense pain of the process helps to add religious significance to it.

The religious tattoos prevalent among the Polynesian islands are one strong way these people had to find and communicate their place in the world and a source they went to for spiritual protection. It is a very strong cultural manifestation of their native religion. It has also become more widespread among many of the islands that discontinued its practice recently.

Works Cited

Works Cited

Utanga, John and Therese Mango. “The Lost Connections: Tattoo Revival in the Cook Islands.” Lexis Nexis. Web. 11 Feb. 2011.

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