French Polynesia, considered "Paradise on Earth", was explored by Captains Cook and
Bligh, but they were made truly famous by
the paintings of the artist, Paul Gauguin,
and by the words of author, James A. Michener.
Divided into the Windward Islands (Iles du Vent), and the Leeward Islands (Iles Sous le Vent) they were given their stylish name by Captain
James Cook in 1769, when he named them after
England's Royal Society- and Royal islands they certainly are!
Most of these rugged islands are volcanic
in origin, with a few small coral atolls
mixed in. Of these, the most recognizable
names are the legendary islands of Bora Bora,
Huahine, Moorea and Tahiti.
Current day Tahitians maintain their heritage
and traditions of their Maohi ancestors.
Oral history recounts the adventures of gods
and warriors in colourful legends where javelin
throwing was the sport of the gods, surf
riding was favoured by the kings, and Aito
strongmen competed in outrigger canoe races
and stone lifting as a show of pure strength.
The open-air sanctuaries called marae were
once the centre of power in ancient Polynesia.
These large, stone structures, akin to temples,
hosted the important events of the times
including the worship of the gods, peace
treaties, celebrations of war, and the launch
of voyages to colonize distant lands.
In celebration of ancient traditions and
competitions, the annual Heiva festival,
held in July, has been the most important
event in French Polynesia for the past 122
years. Tahitians gather from the islands
to display their crafts, compete in ancient
sporting events, and recreate traditional
and elaborate dance performances.
The word tattoo originated in Tahiti. The
legend of Tohu, the god of tattoo, describes
painting all the oceans’ fish in beautiful
colours and patterns. In Polynesian culture,
tattoos have long been considered signs of
beauty, and in earlier times were ceremoniously
applied when reaching adolescence.
Music and Dance
The beauty, drama, and power of today’s
Tahitian dance testify to its resilience
in Polynesian culture. In ancient times,
dances were directly linked with all aspects
of life. One would dance for joy, to welcome
a visitor, to pray to a god, to challenge
an enemy, and to seduce a mate. Dance is
still accompanied by traditional musical
instruments such as thunderous drums, conch
shells, and harmonic nasal flutes. The ukulele
is the modern day musical instrument.
The skills of the ancestors’ artistry
are kept sacred and passed on by both the
“mamas,” the guardians of tradition
and the matriarchs of Tahitian society as
well as by skilled craftsmen. Items include
weaving, quilting, wooden sculptures and
bowls, drums, tapa, carvings, and hand-dyed
Centuries before the Europeans concluded
that the earth was round, the great voyagers
of Polynesia had already mastered the Pacific
Ocean. Aboard massive, double-hulled outrigger
canoes called tipairua, they navigated by
stars and winds. Today, the canoe still plays
a role in everyday Tahitian life and is honored
in colorful races and festivals throughout
Tropical flowers seem to be everywhere on
the islands, particularly in the hair of
Tahitians. Hibiscus blossoms are worn behind
the ear or braided with palm fronds into
floral crowns. The Tiare Tahiti flower is
used in leis for greeting arriving visitors
and returning family. Tradition holds that,
if taken, women and men wear a flower behind
their left ear.