Jeffrey Sissons, The Polynesian Iconoclasm: Religious Revolution and the Seasonality of Power
Today, one is asked to contemplate the end of the world on a regular basis. This seems to be an era of iconoclasm and iconoclasts in both the senses of image-breakers and radicals. It brings latter-day moderns in touch with a moment in Polynesian history when sacred chiefs encountered Christian missionaries. In this book, Jeffrey Sissons returns to this moment of radical change. He focuses on a series of events at the turn of the 19th century that he terms the Polynesian Iconoclasm. In this period, several chiefly societies in eastern Oceania, including Hawai’i, Tahiti, and Raratonga, destroyed their temples and god-figures, and then just as suddenly invited ministers of the London Missionary Society in, and built chapels and churches throughout their lands, practically on the very same sacred sites they had just destroyed. Through careful reading of missionaries’ reports and chronicles of Polynesian elites after the fact, Sissons reconstructs the sequence of this iconoclasm and finds that it follows a seasonal pattern that regulates the relationships between commoners, priests, and chiefs in all these places. In other words, rejection of the old religion came in the traditional time for anti-structure, taboo-breaking, and sacrifice. The season of makahiki, as it is called in Hawai’i, or matari’i-i-nia in Tahiti, comes between November and January, when Pleiades rises. When it sets in May, the hierarchy of sacredness among chiefs, priests, and commoners is reasserted, and new temples are opened. The Polynesian Iconoclasm was then part of a cycle of destruction and renewal, and more importantly, an expression of a particular kind of Polynesian hierarchical dualism of sacred and profane, which binds all people, in different ways, in a single whole.