The Birdman Ceremony took place every year at one of the most dramatic and beautiful places on Easter Island, known as Orongo. The purpose of the contest was to obtain the first egg of the season from the offshore islet Motu Nui. Contestants descended the sheer cliffs of Orongo and swam to Motu Nui where they awaited the coming of the birds. Having procured an egg, the contestant swam back and presented it to his sponsor, who then was declared birdman for that year, an important status position.
Here is a legend that tells the story of how this unique Birdman Ceremony originated. Makemake was known as the god of fertility and the chief god of the “Tangata manu” or birdman cult. The legend could be found in the book Pacific Island Legends. Enjoy!
Makemake and the Birds of Easter Island
On the island of Mataveri lived many people and their gods. The people fought many wars, killing and eating one another almost without cease. One of the reasons they fought was to get more food. Mataveri was a small island and it had little food. The people ate mostly fish, and it gave them a sour disposition.
“I wish we could taste something new. Something tasty.” Over and over the people wished for change, but nothing happened.
At that time a priestess lived in a cave near the water. In this cave she kept her most precious objects. She watched them day and night. She looked for signs that would tell the future, or reduce suffering, or win the favor of a particular man of woman.
One of her most precious objects was an old skull. This skull had been sitting in this cave for longer than anyone knew. Perhaps, it had been there at the beginning of the island itself! The priestess treasured the skull. She sensed its unusual power. She did not want anyone to take if from her.
At one time, between all of the tribal wars and fighting, there was a great storm. Huge waves rolled higher and higher. The waves were bigger than any person had ever seen. The greatest of these waves rose up over the island. As if called, the wave crashed into the priestess’s cave. The wave lifted the skull and carried it far out into the sea.
The priestess saw her precious skull floating away. She tried to swim and catch it. The skull floated almost as if by magic. Whenever she got close, the skull floated faster.
It floated on and on until it reached a place right in the middle of the ocean. There it washed ashore on the island of Matirohiva. The priestess, using the last of her strength, collapsed on the beach just a few feet from her treasured skull.
When she awoke, she was surprised. A man stood looking at her. Finally, he spoke, “Who are you? Why did you come to this place?”
“I am looking for my skull,” she replied.
The man looked at her curiously. “That is not a skull. That is the god Makemake. I am called Haua, who will be a companion for Makemake.” With that, the man tenderly lifted the skull and carried it to a special place on the island.
Once on Matirohiva, Makemake came out of the skull and took form. He and Haua were constant companions. They fished and hunted all over the island. Makemake especially enjoyed having birds to eat, for there had been no birds on the island of Mataveri.
Makemake often shared his food with the old priestess. One day she asked him, “Why don’t they have good food like this to eat back on our old island?”
Makemake did not know the answer to this question. He asked Haua, “Why don’t you and I chase some of the birds back to Mataveri? The people there would like them. They have no birds of their own to eat.”
Makemake and Haua did just that. They rounded up a whole flock of sooty terns. They drove them across the ocean to Mataveri.
Indeed the islanders were pleased. They thanked Makemake and Haua over and over. Then they ate the birds. The islanders did not use common sense. Before long, all of the birds were eaten and gone. They returned to their old diet, hoping Makemake would return soon with more birds for them to eat.
A few years later, Makemake and Haua decided to check on Mataveri and see how the birds were doing. When they arrived, they could not find a single remaining bird. All the birds were gone. Makamake was puzzled. He and Haua rounded up another large flock of terns and drove them back to Mataveri. This time he instructed the islanders to allow them to lay eggs so there would be more birds for them to eat.
Soon the terns built many nests, and laid many eggs. The islanders were not sure what to make of all this. One day they discovered something wonderful. The eggs were good to eat! Now the islanders thanked Makemake and Haua for both the birds and for the eggs. Then they ate them all. Every one. Every bird and every egg. Then they waited for Makemake to bring more.
“Well,” said Makemake. “It has been a few years. What say, Haua. Shall we go back to my old island and see how our birds have done?” Haua agreed. They set off at once. When Makemake and Haua arrived on Mataveri they again found no trace of any birds. Makemake questioned the people sternly, “Didn’t I tell you to allow them to lay eggs?”
“Oh we did,” answered the people. “And we thank you for that because they were very delicious.
“WHAT?” thundered Makemake. “You ATE the eggs?”
That evening Makemake and Haua puzzled over the problem. “First they ate the birds. Then they ate the eggs. These people just don’t think! They don’t understand anything about birds.” Haua agreed.
Then they had an idea.
The very next day Makemake and Haua drove a third flock of sooty terns from Matriohiva. This time they put all the birds on Motunui. Motunui was an empty island just across the water from Mataveri. Here the birds could build their nests and raise their young. The men could capture and eat just a few of the birds at a time. The rest would be safe.
Even to this day there is a great celebration on Easter Island on the day the first egg of the year is discovered. The discoverer ties this egg on his head and swims with it back to Mataveri. He is honored as the “Bird Man” for that year. The rest of the eggs are left in peace.