by Belinda Gore
Easter Island has always seemed a remote and mysterious place, home to giant heads embedded in a grassy hillside facing the sea. Surprisingly, the island is part of Chile even though it is 2800 miles from the mainland and is much more Polynesian than Chilean. Last year when I was invited to return to Chile to teach again, I began to see articles and photographs about Easter Island everywhere. Then there was the National Geographic article revealing that the heads were attached to bodies that when unearthed exposed a precise posture unlike other ritual postures we know. In November a wonderful group at a postures workshop in Grand Rapids Michigan encouraged me to use the income from that workshop to buy a ticket, and I emailed my friend Margaret who has been living in Chile for the past 25 years. She was due to retire in May and return to the U.S. to live. Since she always talked about making the trip to Isla de Pasqua, as it is called in Spanish, or Rapa Nui as the local people call their home, i guessed she might want to accompany me. I was right.
Margaret arranged a four day trip for us, and after teaching my workshops at Tremonhue, near Santiago, my husband John flew back home and Margaret and I began our big adventure. We left on April 8 on an early morning flight from Santiago, and arrived in the early afternoon after flying five hours – and two time zones – due west over the Pacific Ocean. The closest land is an island 1900 miles further west and Easter Island is the most remote land mass on the planet. Wow. The huge jet landed on one of the longest runways in the Pacific thanks to a NASA project to prepare for a possible landing of the Challenger mission years ago. By comparison the airport was tiny, informal, and thronged with drivers from local hotels with bright yellow leis, ready to transport us to our various lodgings. Ours, the Hotel Vai Moana, was a series of cabanas in a garden full of flowering bushes and overlooking the sea. We were in paradise for sure.
We were booked for two half-day and one full-day tour of the island, a smart move since most of the roads are deeply rutted dirt lanes. Plus we had an outstanding tour guide, Daniela, who generously talked with me in English after sharing information with the other eleven passengers in our van, all Chilean. Well, not exactly true, as we were joined later by a Finnish captain of a cargo ship whose Spanish was about as good as mine, meaning we really appreciated hearing Daniela’s stories in English.
Easter Island is about 77 miles across at the widest part and was originally inhabited by Polynesians who presumably came to the island in boats, a possibility proved by Thor Heyerdahl several decades ago. The land was divided at one point among a number of tribes and they all created very large sculptures of their ancestors or their elders who would become ancestors eventually. The sculptures, called moai, had huge heads and smaller bodies that were mostly in a posture similar to the one Felicitas named the Calling the Spirits Posture, but with the fingers held together rather than spread. There are three other postures that we have found as well, that will be published in the book Margaret has written about Mapuche (a Chilean indigenous group) and Easter Island postures. Daniela share with us that the tradition was for the tribe to position the moai on a platform known as an ahu and the bones of the dead were interred beneath it. The moai were “brought to life” and then white coral eyes inserted into the head, indicating that the spirit of the ancestor was now living in the moai. It was understood that the ancestors could channel Mana, the life energy, to the land and the people, and they would watch over their people to protect them.
I encourage you to read Felicitas’ article on giantism as she hypothesized about the Nazca Lines, huge drawings scratched into the rock in a remote location in nearby Peru. The maoi got larger and larger before they finally were toppled in favor of another way of calling upon the spirits: “The Nazca Lines: A New Hypothesis,” in Jewels on the Path: A Spirit Notebook, Volume II.The Cuyamungue Institute, Santa Fe, NM, 1994, pp. 54-63.
The time came when populations were growing and there was competition for land, so was broke out among the tribes. It was a powerful move psychologically and energetically to topple the moai of the other tribes, and so when the later Europeans arrived, there were no standing moai, only a few heads standing in the grassy hillside below the quarry where they had been carved. Teams of scientists from various countries have taken on projects of restoring groups of moai, by at many sites they are still lying broken beside the ahu platforms.
After the moai were destroyed another ritual system replaced them as the spiritual focus of the islanders. I will write more about the Bird Man cult in a later newsletter.
On our last night Margaret and I heeded Daniela’s recommendation to attend a traditional Rapa Nui feast and dance. Daniela’s husband is one of the dancers and a dedicated member of the group who is working to sustain the traditions of the Rapa Nui people. Several of our small group who toured together also came to the event and stood in line with us as we had our faces painted for the celebration. Everyone in the troupe had beautiful and exotic tattoos, and I was determined to get one myself. See the arm of the young man who is painting my face?! The next morning I walked a few miles to the best tattoo artist on the island, only to find that his shop was closed and he was on the mainland. So no tattoo.
The performance group played drums, guitars, and other stringed instruments while the entire audience arrived, then the musicians – jack’s of all trades – ritually dug into the pit in the middle of the room, unearthing vegetables and fish, pork and chicken that had been cooking underground for the day. We had a fabulous feast with lots of Chilean wine then moved to the performance space for dances and more dances by the entire troupe. We loved it and were immensely satisfied that we had had the fu
ll Rapa Nui experience. I bought Margaret a t-shirt of the moai and she bought me a poster of wonderful drawings of the moai, perfect souvenirs of our trip.
You will enjoy her book when it is available next year at the the Centennial Celebration at the Institute.
She and I will both be there too!