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In the Society Islands, mourning has a costume

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Immense, glittering with mother-of-pearl and wrapped in tapa and feathers, the morning costume from the Society Islands is among the most spectacular material productions of Central Polynesia. This costume is the heva tūpāpa'u. It is exceptional in more than one way, as much for its materiality as for its prominent place in the funeral rites of the ari'i - the chiefs.

An exceptional composite artefact...

Fewer than a dozen complete copies of heva tūpāpa'u are present in museum collections. The oldest and best preserved is undoubtedly the one held in the British Museum. It is believed to have been collected in Tahiti by Captain James Cook in 1774 during his second voyage (1772-1775) and has benefited from careful restoration and scientific analysis in 2018. Highly representative of this typology of artefact, it is through describing the object that we will discuss the heva tūpāpa'u.

Heva tūpāpa’u, British Museum (Oc,TAH.78.o), bedore 1774, © The Trustees of the British Museum

While the heva tūpāpa'u is a remarkable object in many ways, it is remarkable at first glance for its size and scale. The example preserved in the British Museum is no less than two and a half meters high! These very large costumes covered the entire body of the master of ceremonies who wore them. What is striking is the diversity and preciousness of the materials used to make them. Tapa – beaten bark cloth –, mother-of-pearl and feathers are mainly present on these costumes.

Video made by Clémentine Débrosse in December 2018 on the occasion of the exhibition Reimagining Captain Cook: Pacific Perspectives at the British Museum in London.

The heva tūpāpa'u can be divided into three main constituent elements: tapa elements that cover the wearer's body, a breastplate and a mask.

The tapa elements may differ between costumes. They are usually composed of several tiputa - ponchos of tapa - tightened at the waist by a belt of twisted tapa. Attached to the front of the costume is a kind of tapa apron decorated with rows of thin polished coconut shell disks. A cloak of tapa or feathers could also be added.

Elements of a heva tūpāpa'u, British Museum (Oc,TAH.78.o), before 1774, © British Museum

The pectoral, on the other hand, consists of a crescent-shaped wooden board, the pautu, on which five discs of pearl oyster mother-of-pearl are held. On the British Museum copy there are also black feather elements. Suspended from the lower part of this board is an iridescent plastron, the 'ahu-parau, formed of a thousand mother-of-pearl platelets pierced at the ends and arranged in rows by means of thin vegetable cords.

Detail of the heva tūpāpa’u, British Museum (Oc,TAH.78.o), before 1774, © The Trustees of the British Museum

 

 

 

 

 

 

The sparkling mask, the parae or pareu is made up of several discs of pearl oyster mother-of-pearl joined together by cords of plant fibres. It is topped with a large fan of phaeton tail feathers. A small hole is made in one of the mother-of-pearl pieces to allow vision. The mask is held to a tapa cap that allows for stability.

Parae mask, British Museum (Oc,TAH.78.c), before 1774 © The Trustees of the British Museum

... of very high value

Some of the materials used to make the heva tūpāpa'u were highly prized and difficult to obtain, further increasing the preciousness of the costume. For example, pearl oysters were traded at high prices with the Tuamotus and hunting phaetons proved very difficult as they nested on cliff sides.1

These materials, from the plant, animal and marine world, contributed to the strong symbolic and sacred value of this costume. Feathers, for example, are associated with the divine and with the person of the chief in Polynesia. Mother-of-pearl is very often used in representations of the divine, notably for its iridescent aspect and its link to the sea.2

The production of these costumes also required considerable skills and work. One can imagine the technical mastery and the incalculable amount of work required to shape and assemble the mother-of-pearl pectoral plates!

Detail of an 'ahu-parau, British Museum (Oc,LMS.89), early 19th century, © The Trustees of the British Museum

Heva tūpāpa'u were among the most valuable possessions of the chiefdoms. During his first voyage (1768-1771), Captain Cook was impressed by these costumes and tried to buy one for many valuables, but the Tahitians refused to part with it. It was only in exchange for a large quantity of red feathers collected in Tonga - feathers that were extremely prized in Polynesia - that the Tahitians agreed to exchange some of them to Captain Cook during his second voyage (1772-1775).

Heva tūpāpa’u, Pitt Rivers Museum (1886.1.1637) © Clémentine Débrosse

A costume worn in the Society Islands during the funeral rites of an ari'i

These costumes were worn in the Society Islands on the occasion of the mourning of an ari'i - a chief. In Polynesia, the ari'i were considered to be directly descended from the ancestors and deities of their lineage, from whom they derived their legitimacy. They possessed a great deal of mana, that generative energy linked to prestige and the Po, the world of the deities and the dead. Their person was considered extremely sacred and was linked to many prohibitions, the tapu (this Oceanian term is the origin of the word"taboo", commonly used in French). The making of heva tūpāpa'u is associated with the development of the cult of the god 'Oro in the second half of the eighteenth century in the Society Islands, which gives this deity a prominent importance. Identified with 'Oro, the Tahitian ari'i saw their power and sacredness reinforced.3

Heiva no te tata matte or dress of a chief mourner at Otaheite, anonymous draughtsman, British Museum (1982,U.1602) © The Trustees of the British Museum

The heva tūpāpa'u costume appeared during the funeral rite of the same name. 4 This took place a few days after the death of an ari'i, and followed a phase of ritual lamentation during which the dead person's relatives and other unrelated people came to the body to lament and inflict ritual lacerations. The body of the deceased, wrapped in tapa, was then laid out on a raised platform in the centre of a temporary shelter, built on the marae - the ceremonial space.

A Toupapow with a corpse on it, engraving by William Woollett after William Hodges, British Museum (S,1.50), 1777, © The Trustees of the British Museum

During the heva tūpāpa'u rite, a master of ceremonies, the heva, donned the spectacular mourning costume. This could be a priest or family member of the deceased. Armed with a kind of spear edged with sharks' teeth, the paeho, he would walk through the chiefdom territory, accompanied by neveneva, young men armed with spears and coated from head to toe with a black soot-based mixture. The master of ceremonies also carried a tete, a pearl oyster shell clapper with which he warned of his arrival and scared off the inhabitants. The members of this group had the right to injure and even kill those who were in their path. This violence, linked to anger and the pain of mourning, was accepted by the community, which took refuge in the houses and marae (ceremonial space) to escape it. The heva tūpāpa'u could last for several weeks and it ended when the inhabitants of the allied districts came to put an end to it. When the master of ceremonies removed the costume, the grief was considered marau - faded or over.5 During the heva tūpāpa'u rite, a master of ceremonies, the heva, donned the spectacular mourning costume. This could be a priest or family member of the deceased. Armed with a kind of spear edged with sharks' teeth, the paeho, he would walk through the chiefdom territory, accompanied by neveneva, young men armed with spears and coated from head to toe with a black soot-based mixture. The master of ceremonies also carried a tete, a pearl oyster shell clapper with which he warned of his arrival and scared off the inhabitants. The members of this group had the right to injure and even kill those who were in their path. This violence, linked to anger and the pain of mourning, was accepted by the community, which took refuge in the houses and marae (ceremonial space) to escape it. The heva tūpāpa'u could last for several weeks and it ended when the inhabitants of the allied districts came to put an end to it. When the master of ceremonies removed the costume, the grief was considered marau - faded or over.5

 

Paheo,  British Museum (Oc,LMS.90), © The Trustees of the British Museum

Some keys to understanding the heva tūpāpa'u

An impression of gigantism, the glitter of the mother-of-pearl, a strong contrast of colours and a large white halo surrounding the mask: the heva tūpāpa'u creates a very strong visual impression that participates in the extraordinary character of the homonymous ritual. This ritual can be understood as a manifestation of the grief of the loss of an ari'i, as well as an assertion of their power.

Drawing of a mourning master by Herman Spöring © The British Library

Funeral rites help to accompany the process of the deceased ari'i becoming an ancestor. The heva tūpāpa'u rite and the mourner's costume had an active role in this process. 6 It should also be remembered that periods of mourning are liminal periods of contact between the everyday Ao world and the Po world, that of the deities and the dead from which the mana comes. They were therefore affected by numerous prohibitions, the tapu, which the master of ceremonies ensured were respected.

These costumes refer to very complex symbolism. Alain Babadzan, in Les Dépouilles des Dieux : Essai sur la religion tahitienne à l'époque de la découverte, raises awareness of the plurality and difficulty of interpretations relating to the heva tūpāpa'u. Alain Babadzan and Ruth Satinsky in particular offer numerous interpretations of these costumes which they base on Tahitian representations of the world.7

Some elements of the costume thus directly evoke the Po. To take just one example among many, we can think of the symbolism of the blinding character of the mask that Alain Babadzan puts forward. The wearer of the mask is indeed almost blind, and his eyes are replaced by blinding mother-of-pearl discs. The author links this characteristic to the myth of the hero Tafa'i who descends to find his father in the Po. Both he and the guardian of the Po, Uhi, are blind, and will regain their sight through Tafa'i.8

It was also the disorder of the inter-regnum that the heva tūpāpa'u ritual dramatised, not least in its highly warlike nature and the dread it caused among the inhabitants. 9 At the end of the heva tūpāpa'u rite, calm was restored, the long bones and skull of the deceased were removed for preservation, and the investiture of a new ari'i could take place.

Model of heva tūpāpa'u, Musée d’histoire naturelle de Lille (990.2.986), © Musenor

The heva tūpāpa'u suits are spectacular and valuable artefacts that held a major place at the time of mourning for an ari'i in the Society Islands.

These costumes held a real fascination for Europeans in the 18th and 19th centuries, who frequently depicted them. Joseph Banks, the botanist on James Cook's first expedition, even got to participate as a nevaneva, - accompanist to the master of ceremonies - in a heva tūpāpa'u on 10 June 1769. 10 The Lille Museum of Natural History holds a model of a heva tūpāpa'u about 50 centimetres tall in its collections. 11 This unique piece was made in the first half of the 19th century, probably at the request of a very curious European.

Heva tūpāpa'u are iconic artefacts of Polynesian heritage. The process of restoring and analysing the British Museum copy was an opportunity for collaboration and knowledge sharing between London and Tahiti. This exceptional heva tūpāpa'u is one of the iconic objects that the British Museum has agreed to loan to the Museum of Tahiti and the Islands on the occasion of the forthcoming reopening of its permanent exhibition hall. After more than 250 years, this stunning mourning costume will be back to its place of origin, in Tahiti, for a few years!

Gabrielle Maksud

Cover picture: Young girl and master of the mourning ceremony, attributed to Tupaia. © The British Library

1 BABADZAN, A., 1993, Les dépouilles des dieux : Essai sur la religion tahitienne à l’époque de la découverte, Paris, Maison des Sciences de l’Homme, p. 151.

2 To learn more about the symbolism of materials in Polynesia and their link to representations of the divine, go to here

3 The cult of 'Oro and the organization of Tahitian society in the 18th century are particularly described and analyzed in HENRY, T., 1952, Tahiti aux temps anciens, Paris, musée de l'homme, publication n°1 de la société des océanistes, and in BABADZAN, A., 1993, Les dépouilles des dieux : Essai sur la religion tahitienne à l'époque de la découverte, Paris, Maison des Sciences de l'Homme.

4 One of the earliest descriptions of a heva tūpāpa'u rite is thanks to Joseph Banks, the botanist on Cook's first voyage (1768-1771), see BANKS, J., 1962, The Endeavour journal of Joseph Banks, 1768-1771, vol. 1, edited from the original manuscript by BEAGLEHOLE, J.C., Sydney, Angus and Robertson, p. 289. The description of the funerary rites of the ari'i, present in HENRY, T., 1952, Tahiti aux temps anciens, Paris, musée de l'homme, publication n°1 de la société des océanistes, pp. 298-301 also constitutes a main source for the understanding of the heva tūpāpa'u.

5 HENRY, T., 1952, Tahiti aux temps anciens, Paris, musée de l’homme, publication n°1 de la société des océanistes, p. 300.

6 SATINSKY, R., 2008, « Heva tupapa’u, costume et rite de deuil des ari’i tahitiens », In : Asdiwal, Revue genevoise d’anthropologie et d’histoire des religions, n°3, 2008, p. 100.

7BABADZAN, A., 1993, «Troisième Partie – Parae les yeux de l’aveugle », In : Les dépouilles des dieux : Essai sur la religion tahitienne à l’époque de la découverte, Paris, Maison des Sciences de l’Homme, pp. 143-217. See also: SATINSKY, R., 2008, « Heva tupapa’u, costume et rite de deuil des ari’i tahitiens », In : Asdiwal, Revue genevoise d’anthropologie et d’histoire des religions, n°3, 2008, pp. 98-115.

8 BABADZAN, A., 1993, « Chapitre X – Le voyage de Tafa’i au pays des morts », In : Les dépouilles des dieux : Essai sur la religion tahitienne à l’époque de la découverte, Paris, Maison des Sciences de l’Homme, pp. 167-179.

9 BABADZAN, A., 1993, « Chapitre XII – Anthropologie politique du deuil », In : Les dépouilles des dieux : Essai sur la religion tahitienne à l’époque de la découverte, Paris, Maison des Sciences de l’Homme, pp. 191-206.

10 BANKS, J., 1962, The Endeavour journal of Joseph Banks, 1768-1771, vol. 1, édité depuis le manuscrit original par BEAGLEHOLE, J.C., Sydney, Angus and Robertson, p. 289. Voir aussi : SALMOND, A., 2012, L’île de Vénus, les Européens découvrent Tahiti, traduction de Jean-Pierre Durix, Pirae, Au vent des îles éd., pp. 210-213.

11 Musée d'histoire naturelle of Lille, Inventory number: 990.2.986.

Bibliography: 

  • BABADZAN, A., 1993. Les dépouilles des dieux : Essai sur la religion tahitienne à l’époque de la découverte. Paris, Maison des Sciences de l’Homme.
  • BANKS, J., 1962. The Endeavour journal of Joseph Banks, 1768-1771, vol. 1, édité depuis le manuscrit original par BEAGLEHOLE, J.C. Sydney, Angus and Robertson.
  • HENRY, T., 1952. Tahiti aux temps anciens. Paris, musée de l’homme, publication n°1 de la société des océanistes.
  • HOOPER, S., 2008. Polynésie : Arts et Divinités (1760-1860), catalogue d’exposition. Paris, Musée du Quai Branly.
  • KAEPPLER, A., 1993. « La Polynésie ». Dans KAEPPLER, A., KAUFMANN, C. et NEWTON, D., L’art océanien. Paris, Citadelles & Mazenod.
  • Polynésie la 1ère, s. d., « Costume de deuilleur, statue A’a et autres objets emblématiques du patrimoine bientôt de retour à Tahiti », France info. https://la1ere.francetvinfo.fr/polynesie/costume-de-deuilleur-statue-a-a-et-autres-objets-emblematiques-du-patrimoine-bientot-de-retour-a-tahiti-1104610.html. (Derrière consultation le 15/11/2021.)
  • PULLAN, M., 2019, « Reimagining a Tahitian mourning costume », The British Museum Blog, 31 Mai 2019. https://blog.britishmuseum.org/reimagining-a-tahitian-mourning-costume/. (Derrière consultation le 15/11/2021.)
  • PULLAN, M., 2020, « Sharing knowledge in Tahiti : reflections on the chief mourner’s costume », The British Museum Blog, 14 juillet 2020. https://blog.britishmuseum.org/sharing-knowledge-in-tahiti-reflections-on-the-chief-mourners-costume/. (Derrière consultation le 15/11/2021.)
  • SALMOND, A., 2012, L’île de Vénus, les Européens découvrent Tahiti. Traduction de Jean-Pierre Durix. Pirae, Au vent des îles éd.
  • SATINSKY, R, 2008, « Heva tupapa’u, costume et rite de deuil des ari’i tahitiens », In : Asdiwal, Revue genevoise d’anthropologie et d’histoire des religions, n°3, 2008, pp. 98-115.
  • Tahiti Nui Télévision, 2019, « Visite d’une délégation du British Museum », Youtube, 18 nov. 2019, 5 min 57. https://youtu.be/FjkJGS9n-qk. (Derrière consultation le 15/11/2021.).
  • The British Museum, 2019, « New investigations into the Tahitian Mourner’s Costume », Youtube, 17 juin 2019, 12min 53. https://youtu.be/y3d8VroLRP8. (Derrière consultation le 15/11/2021.)
  • The British Museum, s.d., « Costume; Cloak. Oc,TAH.78.b », The British Museum. https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/E_Oc-TAH-78-b. (Derrière consultation le 15/11/2021.).

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