The Tahiti Traveler

The marae, a culmination of Polynesian history

A relatively recent settlement, French Polynesia, however, is full of archeological treasures, vestiges of the time of chiefdoms and ancestral religious rythes. This month, the application for registration of the marae “Taputapuatea” (Raiatea) to the UNESCO World heritage is placed. If accepted, it would constitute actual international recognition for this other cultural attraction of French Polynesia, often poorly recognized…its culture. E-Tahiti Travel offers a quick overview of these cultural landmarks. Welcome to Polynesia marae, temples of Polynesian civilizations.

The marae, witness of the first Tahitians

The history of Pacific civilizations was written rather late, thanks to the geographer Malte-Brun in the early 19th century and then Dumont d’Urville and a few archaeologists who attempted to reconstruct the Pacific enigma, gradually placing their research of Polynesia the center of a triangle between Hawaii, New Zealand and Easter Island. Today, this relatively recent history – the peopling of Polynesia dates back to 600 or 800 AD – documented through the remnants inherited from the time of chiefdoms and polytheistic ceremonies. These ancestral remains, are the “marae”, these stone esplanades used as ceremonial areas where one can read and feel the origins of Polynesia.

What is a marae?

A place of the divine and temporal power, the marae was the symbol of the importance of leadership it exhibited. The buildings, large terraces blending basalt and coral slabs roughly hewn, were overhung by a “ahu”, which formed a small pyramid floor reserved to the priest, “tahu’a” and the chief, “ari’i” . There were also the “unu” wood sculptures with geometrical forms representing men or animals. The unu symbolized the family who owned the marae.

The marae was also where the Polynesians performed sacrifices that were to attract the favor with their gods and give them the “mana” divine force responsible for health, balance, fertility. Visitors are fascinated by the size of the marae that one can observe in the Society Islands, the visitor will be especially awed to discover that human sacrifice was practiced here during the pre-European period…

The marae of the Society Islands

A Marae can be classified according to their importance: international, national, or local.

Raiatea, in the Leeward islands, is nicknamed the “Sacred Island”. It is indeed here that is the most important marae in the archipelago of the Society islands. It is thought that even 1,000 years ago, Taputapuatea was THE spiritual center of the entire eastern Polynesia (Society Islands, Tuamotu, Cook Islands, even New Zealand and Hawaii). It is also here that it was believed that the god Oro resided, the famous god of war and fertility, the most powerful of the Polynesian pantheon …

The “national marae” is the most important marae of an island, the expression of power and solidarity woven around the ari’i nui, kind of cultural and ceremonial head of an island. Common people could see him on the day of its inauguration, then they never must return. Indeed, the uninitiated population, can not watch a god without dying …

The district marae, known as the marae mataeina’a, was of the same shape as the national marae but smaller format. At this marae were attached titles and genealogies of the families of state leaders. Here, events are celebrated related to ari’i and his family.

13 marae of the Society islands






Crédit photo : Grégory Boissy, Philippe Bacchet