HORUS VOL I. Issue 2
...more Myths Monuments and Mnemonics:
A Visit To Easter Island
By David Griffard
The pristine beauty of Easter Island, sparsely populated and largely free of the signs of modern civilization, rises from the Pacific 27° South of the equator and over 2, 000 miles West of the coast of Chile. The
population, about 1800, lives in Hanga Roa, the town that lies along an inlet on the southwest coast. The remainder of the island, about 14 miles at its longest and 8 miles at its widest point, is basically as it was
found by European seamen in the early 1700s.
Once the source of several active volcanoes, it now stands peacefully alone and quiet. The gentle whispers of wind, the rush of surf against the lava rock shoreline and the distant calls of high-flying seahawks
lend a timeless quality to the hushed green land.
At the northern edge of town is visible evidence of an ancient civilization, now largely lost to history, that once prospered here. Ahu Tahai is typical of more than 100 similar ahus - ceremonial temple platforms
- on the island, characterized by the strange great stone figures which seem to stare eternally into the distance.
More than 600 of the figures, called moai had been carved from the rock of a single volcano and transported to all corners of the island. Tourists have looked, wondered, and imagined strange and alien sources
for these figures including the ever present visitors from outer space.
Most stood between 10 and 2 5 feet high though a few have been found nearly 40 feet tall that weigh at least 50 tons. How these massive monuments were moved across the rocky terrain and raised upright on
their platforms without modern equipment is still a matter of speculation. The engineering problem was further complicated by the placement of a separate piece, a stylized native topknot hairdo, on the heads of
many of the figures. These were carved and transported from another quarry that supplied the rich red stone used exclusively for this part of the statues. The largest of these weighed 10 tons and had been raised
32 feet to top a 50 ton statue.
A common native legend tells that the statues were not transported at all, but moved by themselves, through the magic of an old witch, from the mountain where they were carved. Other traditions say that the
stone giants were pulled over the ground by heavy ropes, using small stones as rollers.
Modern theories suggest they were raised to the standing position by gradually prying up one end with wooden levers while wedging supporting rocks underneath until the statue was upright. How the statues
actually were transported and erected, and how the red topknots were placed on their heads is still unknown.
At Tahai, five of the giants stand together, backs to the sea, atop their ahu. Nearby, others in the ceremonial center keep a solitary vigil. Their broken condition reflects a native tradition that a rebellious
population had toppled all the idols on their faces and broken many in pieces. The few ahus where the moais are standing have been restored by modern archaeologists.
Who the people were and how they first arrived on this remote spot has been the subject of much conjecture. Peruvian slave raids in the 1860s nearly destroyed the island's population. Ancient stories preserved
by the few descendants who survived, as well as some observations recorded by the first European explorers have provided some light but often raise more questions than they answer.
Archaeological research on the island has not been extensive but some broad outlines of the puzzle have been worked out. Thor Heyerdahl's pioneering expedition turned up evidence of a more ancient culture
than the one which raised the present statues. When the settlers first arrived is uncertain but, according to Carbon- 14 estimates, a thriving population had been established by around 400 A. D.
Their particular style of stone construction and sculpture resembled a type already found in ancient Peruvian ruins. This suggested to Heyerdahl and the archaeologist in the expedition that the original culture
might have come from South America - from the East rather than from the Pacific islands in the West as generally believed. This interpretation of the evidence has not been accepted fully but, as Heyerdahl had
demonstrated in his famous raft voyage, wind and ocean currents certainly could have brought South Americans here.
[*!* Image: Ahu Tahi]
It was at some later time that the culture which made the giant statues seemed to sweep across the land. This may have resulted from major religious or social reforms within, or have been stimulated by
migrations from other Pacific islands. The actual land of origin of Pacific Ocean culture on Easter Island has not been firmly established nor has its time of arrival.
In a final phase, not long before the island's rediscovery in 1722 by a Dutch navigator, the ancestors of the present Polynesian population ceased to erect the giant statues and eventually pulled down the existing
ones. An internal revolt seems to have occurred in which the ruling party was overthrown by an angry rebellious population. It signaled a general cultural decline that continued into the period of the island's
rediscovery by Western civilization.
The death blow to the culture and its ancient history was dealt, as noted above, by the slave raids from Peru. Thousands were carried away to labor collecting the rich supply of guano fertilizer on islands near
the Peruvian coast. The handful that survived to return home brought disease which decimated the remainder of the population. Only a hundred or so remained alive when missionaries arrived and gathered
them all in the village of Hanga Roa. The natives were Christianized and Spanish became the basic language of the island.
So ended the course of Easter Island's isolated history. For over 1500 years civilization had survived here, evolving its own unique cultural forms until its creative vitality was consumed by an internal social
conflict. When the Dutch navigator, Jakob Roggeveen arrived off the coast of the island on Easter Sunday, 1722 (and so named it "Easter Island") the natives could not have suspected the irony of the
coincidence - that their own ancient culture soon would suffer death, later to be transformed and resurrected into the Christian world. The irony seems greater when we learn that the Peruvians' first devastating
raid on the population occurred on Christmas Eve, 1862.
When Father Eugenio Eyraud, a priest from Ecuador, arrived in 1864 to establish his mission only a few survivors remained to recount the past of Easter Island. Coupled with observations and stories recorded
by the Dutch and by later European explorers, these tales are all that is left in human memory of this remote island-cosmos.
Together, the record unfolds a dream-like saga, a mixture of the mythical and the real which, like the dream of an individual, often contains clues to memories long forgotten. Though the moais now stand mute
and mysterious, their time in the Sun is recalled in the ancient tales that preserve the collective dream of Easter Island.
The drama opens with the legend of Hotu-Matua, the hero who led the original contingent of settlers to the island from an unknown place called Marae Renga. One version of the story tells that a great
catastrophe was in progress and that Hotu-Matua's expedition sailed to escape the destruction in their homeland. According to the legend, an enraged god, Uoke, was causing widespread natural disaster.
Accompanied by violent storms, earthquakes, and volcanic eruptions, the angry god used a giant lever to pry up land from beneath the sea which sank again when he moved to a new place. He worked with
such fury and force that great chunks of earth were hurled above the surface. Just before reaching Easter Island, the great lever broke and the cataclysm ceased. Hotu-Matua had embarked on his epic voyage
with a small group - his family and the principal craftsmen of the land - in two large ocean-going canoes. They carried plants and animals essential to survival and eventually found refuge on this tiny island-cosmos.
Another version of the story gives a different circumstance and motive to the migration. Hotu-Matua had been defeated by his brother in a war for the throne of Marae Renga and sailed in search of new
territory. This seems the more realistic version and so is taken more seriously by scholars but the source and the primacy of either version remains in question.
In either case, it is the first and probably the most ancient version that is of most interest here. However the story came to Easter Island, it really speaks of another land and another time that ended in a natural
catastrophe. Though the cause was attributed to divine rage, the effect was described in natural terms - a period of severe storms, violent earthquakes, and the eruption and sinking of land in the sea. A great
ancestor hero, whose name suggests he possessed a special spiritual power, saved his family and a few skilled craftsmen by a desperate voyage into the unknown. This part of the Hotu-Matua legend so
resembles many from other parts of the world that its presence in the traditions of Easter Island, supposedly isolated during its long history, is remarkable.
A horrendous cataclysm in nature, total destruction of the homeland, preservation of the seed of new life in a perilous journey, the chance arrival in a new land and a new start - all are elements of a common
theme in myths far older than the entire history of Easter Island. Whatever role the historical Hotu-Matua played in founding the island, this part of the legend echoes a more ancient tradition.
The Mesopotamian "Epic of Gilgamesh," now believed to date back more than 2000 years B.C., contains a story that differs in local details but otherwise seems very much the same. Again the cause is
perceived as divine anger and the effects are described as a natural calamity of storm, violent earthquakes and flooding of the land. "Even the gods were terrified" at the scene of destruction, made more vivid by
the seven judges of hell who "raised their torches, lighting the land with their livid flame." The hero braved the unknown deep in an ark to save his family, the craftsmen, and, in this case, all the animals of the
The parallels in the Hotu-Matua myth to this epic, to our own story of Noah, and to similar legends of other cultures clearly mark it as belonging to the earliest traditions of humankind. For however long this
tiny kingdom evolved in isolation, this story and other traditions that were preserved, link the basic beliefs of people on Easter Island to a general mainstream of mythico-religious ideas shared by other ancient
cultures. This common area of human mental life has not been explained to everyone's satisfaction because of opposing beliefs about the cause of these shared traditions.
At one extreme legends like Hotu-Matua's are attributed entirely to human imagination. In this interpretation the accounts of great catastrophes in Nature that characterize so many myths stem from extremely
exaggerated descriptions of local events said by the victims to have destroyed the whole world. Tales from survivors, handed down for generations, became sacred lore and traveled to other areas of the world
with the spread of civilization.
In another view it is theorized that people share the same types of primitive beliefs because such ideas are inherent in the human mind. When psychoanalysts discovered that dreams often occur which contain
myths unknown to the dreamer, some proposed the concept of a collective unconscious mind. Unlike the personal unconscious which develops in individuals, the collective unconscious had evolved with the
human brain. These patterns of thought, symbolism, and ritual, therefore, emerge spontaneously through the power of instinct during the cultural development of all people.
A third view holds that these collective nightmares of cataclysm stem from actual events in history. The sacred legends and myths of world destruction are ancient dream-like memories of cosmic disruptions,
such as the near collision of the Earth with a massive celestial body that occurred in an early phase of human history. In this view, the common elements in ancient tales of cosmic catastrophe were created
neither by globe-trotting imagination nor evolved instincts; they resulted from common experience.
This last interpretation, also derived from the field of psychoanalysis, oddly enough is the least popular among scientific thinkers. It avoids the unwarranted and somewhat dehumanizing assumption of the first
explanation - that humankind simply was deluded by imagination. It also avoids the need to invent instincts whose source evolved outside conscious experience to explain collective myths of cosmic disorder.
Yet the straightforward interpretation that common ideas about celestial cataclysm resulted from common human experience has struggled against decades of scientific opposition. [Some of the reasons for this
historical bias are discussed in Alex Marton's article, this issue.]
Some scientific thinking has turned in this direction - the age of the dinosaurs now is theorized to have ended in catastrophe caused by a comet - but to imagine events of similar magnitude in historical times
has remained a generally unacceptable thought, especially among astronomers. Only the most adventurous recently have agreed that celestial disorders do seem to be the best explanation for these otherwise
The idea still is resisted vigorously by most but the general thought has reached a dim consciousness in established astronomy. Death stars, colliding asteroids, giant comets, and other forms of cosmic
destruction now are proposed by some astronomers to have played major roles in the geological history of the Earth and, in some cases, human history.
However one rationalizes their source, these common myths and legends of natural catastrophe show clearly that fear of calamity from the skies lies at the core of ancient myth ico-religious thought. The planets
and stars themselves were gods; their paths and the cycles of time marked off by their orbits were the sacred knowledge of priests and shamans. Temples and monuments were designed to align with significant
points in these cycles and sacrifices, often with human victims, were offered periodically to maintain the continuity of Natural order.
To hear the strains of these common myths in the traditions of Easter Island suggests that its culture may not be so strange and unique as the centuries perhaps millennia - of isolation have implied. We suspect
that here, as in other ancient cultures, the monumental stonework and its meaning will be found to reflect a major emphasis on astronomical observation and measurement as well as worship of the heavens.
[*!* Image: Anakena]
As the legend goes, when Hotu-Matua and his group made landfall on Easter Island, they first touched shore at a small beautiful beach on the North coast. They named the island Te Pito o te Henua "the Navel
of the World." The Inca had honored their city of Tiahuanaco with the same name. The Greek Omphalos echoes the term as do equivalent titles in other ancient cultures. In each case the concept was an
integral part of the cosmology and represented the conceptual geographic center where Earth and Heaven interact. It stretches credulity beyond reasonable limits to rationalize the presence of the term on Easter
Island as coincidence or to imagine that it had some unrelated meaning.
Another hint that astronomy was a major element of Easter Island's civilization is given by a common native name for the land - "Eyes that Watch the Skies. " Whether this refers to the behavior of the
priesthood or to the heavenly gaze of the stone statues they had made, or both, the name itself implies that astronomical observation was a primary activity on the island. Again, the idea resonates with names
for the priestly skywatchers of other lands. The Aztecs called an astronomer priest the "wise man who studies heaven" and Mesopotamians used similar terms for theirs. The priests of Easter Island, who shaved
their heads and wore large balls in their pierced, stretched earlobes, were most probably astronomer priests.
Heyerdahl recounted reports that the Sun was observed at Orongo, a stone ceremonial enclave built on top the rim of a volcano on the southwest coast. The Dutch who discovered the island observed that the
natives built fires before the great statues and seemed to be worshiping the Sunrise. But whether this practice was tied to a formal astronomy and whether the ceremonial centers themselves were aligned
astronomically has not been established. As of last March, formal archaeological research on this specific question was just beginning with precise measurements being taken for later analysis by computer.
While exploring the island for this article, Some measurements were taken which, though far from precise, offer some preliminary estimates in favor of intentional astronomical alignments of the monuments.
The estimates were made with a small field compass and therefore, may contain several degrees of error in measurement from the actual value. The readings from the magnetic compass were converted to true
North by adding the appropriate correction (15°) for the location of Easter Island. Because of the rough measurement procedures, the resulting alignments were assumed to fall within a reasonable range of the
true value. The range was set arbitrarily at five degrees above or below the compass reading.
With these limitations in mind, readings from the grand ahu at the legendary landing site of Hotu-Matua (now Anakena) suggest it may be oriented in connection with both Sunrise at the winter solstice (our
summer solstice) and Sunset at summer solstice. Originally eight of the stone effigies stood with military precision along the oblong pointed-oval platform atop the ahu, their vigilant gaze toward the southeast.
The long axis of the platform runs northeast-southwest and is inclined at an angle of about 23° from a due East-West line. At winter solstice on Easter Island the Sun rises 26.3° North of East and at summer
solstice sets likewise to the South of West. The difference of 3.7° is within the 5° margin above or below the compass reading adopted to compensate for measurement error. Viewed to the northeast, the
alignment of the platform seems to point toward a V-shaped space between two hills on the horizon where the winter solstice Sun would be seen to rise. The use of distant natural formations such as this for
sighting the rising of the Sun more precisely was a common practice among ancient astronomers.
[*!* Image: Anakena; possible solstice alignment of the ahu]
[*!* Image: "Bunker" dwelling, Ahu Tahai]
[*!* Image: Window shaft, Ahu Tahai]
At Ahu Tahai structures said to have served as dwellings have orientations and characteristics strongly suggesting astronomical alignment was a main interest in their design. On the hillside above the main
platform, the rounded stone wall of a bunker-like structure contains narrow shafts several feet long that lead to an inner chamber. The ceremonial city of Orongo atop the nearby volcano, was built of similar
From inside the shaft, the view toward the horizon is reminiscent of the window shafts in the "Observatory" tower at Chichen Itza in the Yucatan and may well have served a similar purpose. One of these
seemed to be aligned toward the North (shaft alignments were particularly difficult to estimate because of the darkness at the inner end), another toward the West and two opened onto the northwest. The
northernmost of these seemed to focus on two of the independently mounted moais in the ceremonial center.
Next to the bunker a low row of stone bricks form an elongated, pointed oval with an opening in one side that also seemed to focus toward the same two moais. These were apparently foundation bricks for
another type of dwelling in which reed poles were anchored in holes bored vertically into the stones. The reeds were bent and secured together at the top to form the base of a thatch-type roof. The structure here
seems much too small to have served as a family dwelling and was more probably a ceremonial structure. The long axis alignment of the oval, like the moai platform oval at Anakena, again runs northeast-southwest and probably relates to the solstices. Seen from here, the summer solstice Sun would sink into the ocean at a point within the chosen error tolerance of the long axis compass reading.
The general orientation of both the window shaft of the bunker and the entrance of the reed hut toward the two independent moats seems to call attention here. On the platform directly in front of the moai with
the red pumice topknot restored, there is a small circle of 42 evenly spaced stones with a single open space facing the statue. The importance of such stone circles and their astronomical significance can still be
observed in Polynesia. The Navigator, a supremely skilled seaman whose office holds religious significance as well, uses such circles of stone as a training aid in teaching the next generation the art of stellar
navigation. The circle symbolizes the surrounding horizon and the individually named stones mark the position of rising or setting points of significant reference stars. The knowledge itself is considered sacred
and has been handed down in this basic form for untold generations.
Perhaps the most telling are the seven giants at Ahu a Kivi which, unlike the other ceremonial platforms, was erected inland and faces toward the sea. The long axis of the pedestal platform runs NorthSouth
while the statues themselves face West (again, within the 5° range assumed for measurement error). On the two days of the equinox each year, when the Sun sets directly in the West, these seven stone sentries
with "eyes that watch the sky" solemnly witness the events.
[*!* Image: Ahu Akivi]
[*!* Image: Ahu Akivi, moai #2 from left]
[*!* Image: Ahu Akivi, equinox sunset]
In their present condition there is little to suggest the former grandeur of their appearance or the ceremonies performed at the platform on those days. In addition to the topknot, the statues had realistic eyes
made of pieces of shell fitted in the sockets and they were draped to their bases with royal robes during the ceremonies. The whole effect gave them a startlingly lifelike quality according to the early European
visitors who saw them fully adorned.
They now stand isolated on a grassy hillside, restored to duty by the archaeologists but no longer objects of reverence and formal, sacred ritual. One great figure seems to weep for the lost centuries when the
faithful direction of his gaze confirmed to his subjects that the day of the equinox was coming to a close. This day, as he looked with empty eyes toward still another equinox Sunset there were no grand
ceremonial robes, no offerings, no songs, no worship. There was only the wind and a single foreign sojourner at the ahu to confirm his faithful witness of this once sacred moment in time.
As the time for which he and his companions were created approached, one could sense the intelligent purpose behind his gaze, and imagine the former brilliance in his lifelike eyes as they directly reflected the
last rays of the Sun at equinox. At Sunset, their brilliant glow was dimmed but as they had done before dawn, the never-sleeping "eyes that watch the sky" continued to record the march of stars and planets that
set directly in the West on this special day of the Sun cycle.
The seven companions now stand their watch bereft of glory, without the headdress of authority, without their ceremonial robes, and blind; no longer rewarded with offerings or the adulation of the multitudes.
Yet they diligently maintain silent testimony that those who once fashioned them did so with intelligent purpose. They encoded in stone not only their objective knowledge of measurement and astronomical
observation, but also the sense of mystery and awe with which they honored it.
But we may be too insensitive to the centuries of human memory symbolized here if we believe our weeping friend mourns only the loss of this objective knowledge and the material rewards and adulation it
brought. Rather, perhaps it is the loss of the shell eyes with which to perceive the compelling beauty of the living sky and Earth at these special moments that he Mourns.
As the Sun settles toward the ocean at equinox, its rays fall full face on the seven faithful watchers who, even without eyes, can feel the warmth of the golden light directly ahead and know they have been
successful once again in preserving the memory of this cardinal day of the celestial order.
It would not be fair to say anything fully scientific has been established by the crude measurements used here. Yet they suggest that when carefully analyzed, the placement and alignment of the ceremonial
platforms, the location of particular moais, and the orientations of other structures will reveal a systematic ground plan based on the knowledge of astronomical cycles.
If this proves to be true, the uniqueness attributed to the monumental works on Easter Island lies only in the artistic form. Its purpose and the knowledge it encodes would be consistent with that of ancient
cultures around the world which have practiced a refined system of astronomical observation and calendrics as a form of worship. It will bring the realization that, even in so remote a place, the knowledge
gained from the "eyes that watch the sky" was as important to the civilization of Easter Island as to others of the ancient world.
Some of the sense of mystery engendered by the strange stone giants over the years may dissipate when their role as astronomical markers is established precisely. But it may well be replaced with a new sense
of wonder and astonishment at the degree to which the ancient peoples of Easter Island had developed their knowledge of the sky, the cycles of the celestial bodies, and their perception of the relation of the
heavens to things here below - this tiny beautiful land at (the Navel of the World.)
[*!* Image: the Navel of the World. The real mystery may just have begun.]