The Society Islands

Doctrines Though there are local differences in the traditional religion of the islands which make up the Society Islands (Windward and Leeward groups), the similarities are major, many of them shared with neighbouring groups - Tubuai/Austral Islands, Tuamotus, and Mangareva/Gambier group. As in most areas of Polynesia the marae, the open-air public space, was where much sacred activity took place. Some marae were large raised stepped areas, others flat, perhaps paved, with raised ahu or platform represented by images of carved wood, or stone slabs.
A striking creation story tells how an egg existed in the primordial darkness, the egg cracked and Ta'aroa emerged. The halves of the shell became the heavens and the earth, and Ta'aroa created all earthly things from parts of his body.

History The Society Islands were so named by Captain James Cook as they formed a social grouping. The religion of this part of Polynesia had about twelve hundred years to develop before Christian missionaries, Catholic and Protestant, settled from the late 1700s. After little success for the first decades, King Pomare 2 of Tahiti and then chiefs of associated groups were converted, and by about 1825 the islands could be claimed Christian.
This was not without protest, however, and battles were fought between opposing sides - supporters of the Christian church against followers of Oro, diety of war. Local adjustment movements also rose in opposition - most notabel being the Mamaia Movement (1826-1841) in Tahiti. Led by lcal prophets who preached the early coming of Christ and allowed freedom of sexual conduct and other social rules, the movement combined elements of the new teachings with aspects of the former culture.

Symbols Music, song, dance, and story-telling have been a prominent part of Polynesian social life throughout the development of the culturs to the present time. Such arts were employed to illustrate and recreate mythic stories of the spiritual beginnings of the peoples, and were part of religious ceremony. In the Society Islands professional groups of entertainers, the Arioi, travelled from island to isalnd entertaining, particularly during the season of harvest. The dances of these groups which could contain hundreds of actors, dancers, and singers frequently portrayed themes of fertility and growth in nature.
Other symbolic features of Polynesian religion elsewhere, such as the carved tiki images, and the sacred marae spaces, were also part of of religious life and practice in this region.

Adherents Varying proportions of adherents of the different Christian denominations live in the two groups. In Windward Islands, which contain the majority of the population, 35% are Protestant, 40% Catholic, 7% Latter Day Saint (Mormons and Sanitos), with smaller Christian churches (mainly Seventh-Day Adventist and Jehovah's Witness) together contributing around 8%. Figures for Leeward Islands are Protestant 63%, Catholic 13%, Latter Day Saint (Mormons only) 6%, other Christian churches 11%. (Adherents statistics from 1986 census. Cited in Encyclopedie de la Polynesie 8, "Vivre en Polynesie 1", p. 72.)

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