Page:A Lady's Cruise in a French Man-of-War.djvu/329

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FEATHER-GODS.

It really is very difficult, in presence of such peaceful, kindly people, and such settled forms of civilised Christian life, to realise what different scenes were witnessed by the earlier visitors of this lovely isle at the time of its discovery by Captain Wallis in 1767, and Captain Cook's subsequent visit.

It was in March 1797 that the first band of missionaries arrived here in the Duff, landing on Tahiti near Point Venus, where at first they were kindly welcomed by King Pomare, Queen Idia, and the chiefs, who seem to have expected that they would prove not merely sources of wealth, by distributing barter, but also able assistants in the art of war.

But when the new-comers were found to be men of peace, and their mission that of teaching, they soon fell in the estimation of the natives, and for many years they struggled, apparently in vain, to stem the tide of idolatry and of such evil practices as infanticide and the offering of human victims to the feather-gods, as the Tahitians called their idols, because they were generally adorned either with the scarlet feathers of a small bird, or the long tail-feathers of the man-of-war or tropic bird.

As quicksilver attracts gold, so was it supposed that this gay plumage became the very incarnation of the god; therefore, when a tribe went forth to war (and of course desired that the presence of their god should be with them) they held a solemn service at the temple, and then took perhaps only one feather from off the principal idol, and placed it in the ark prepared for it on the sacred canoe, which formed part of every fleet. Then, till the close of that expedition, all worship was addressed only to the feather-symbol, and no sacrifices or prayers were offered at the marae, lest the attention of the god being divided, he should return to the land, forsaking the warriors.

At other times, however, he was present alike at every domestic shrine which possessed a feather brought from the great temple. For, as other nations have carried sacred symbolic fire from the altar, to sanctify their domestic hearth or their family temple, so did these Tahitians year by year assemble at the great national temple, bringing with them offerings of the precious feathers.