Containing the Divine: A sculpture of the Pacific God a'a

British Museum

Based on a display at the British Museum. Sponsored by The Asahi Shimbun

In 1821, after a period of turmoil and disease on the Polynesian island of Rurutu in the South Pacific, islanders made the decision to convert to Christianity. As a symbol of their conversion, they arranged for their most sacred artefacts to be sailed 560km north to the island of Ra’iatea where they were surrendered to British missionaries. Upon arrival of the ship, missionaries unpacked the gods of Rurutu. One was of particular interest as he was described as being covered in small figures. Missionaries recorded that the figure was a deified ancestor and that his name was A’a. 

A'a is covered in 30 small figures. Some of them represent features such as the eyes, nose and mouth. Springing forth, they suggest fertility and the god’s ability to create life.

It is not known if A’a would originally have had feet, as his legs have been cut off below the knee. At some stage, the figure has also lost its penis. Whether this was removed by missionaries, or by Islanders keen to demonstrate their rejection of their former god, is not known.

A Divine Container
When missionaries first examined A'a, on the island of Ra'iatea in 1821, they found a detachable panel on his back. When removed, 24 small gods were found inside. It is unlikely that A’a was designed to contain these gods, however, as the shape and size of his cavity suggests he was created to hold the skull and bones of an ancestor. The ancestral bones had probably been removed prior to A’a leaving Rurutu and the small gods placed inside his cavity as a convenient method of transporting them to Ra’iatea. 

The 24 gods found inside A’a were a highly distinctive genre of Polynesian god known as to’o. The most common of these consisted of a central shaft of wood to which sacred materials such as feathers, barkcloth, coconut fibre and human hair were attached.

This god image was collected by missionaries at around the same time as A'a and it is likely that the gods found inside A'a would have looked like this.

Across Polynesia, feathers were imbued with divine power and used to make god images.The gods of pre-Christian Polynesia were associated with birds and several gods were said to have originally been covered in feathers. Red was considered a sacred colour, so red feathers were particularly important.

God images, like this one, were not intended to be representations of a particular god but, rather, were objects which gods could inhabit and into which divine power could be channelled.

In November 2015, this tiny red feather was found caught on a splinter inside the cavity of the figure of A’a.

The feather was taken to the Natural History Museum where experts identified it as coming from a Kuhl’s lorikeet (vini kuhlii), an endangered species found on the island of Rimatara about one hundred miles from Rurutu. The presence of a red feather, considered sacred in Polynesia, proves that whatever was stored inside A'a was of great significance.

New Discoveries
In preparation for this exhibition, Museum staff began a number of tests to try and better understand how, when and why A’a was made. Scientists removed tiny samples of wood from inside the figure’s hollow interior. These were analysed using a scanning electron microscope. Alongside the tiny red feather found in the cavity, scientists also found two further feathers, fragments of barkcloth and a strand of human hair. All of these materials were considered sacred in Polynesia and their presence confirms that whatever was stored inside A’a was of the highest value. 

The wood samples were examined and found to be sandalwood. This contradicts histories from Rurutu which state that A’a was made from pua wood (Fagraea berteriana). It is known that sandalwood’s strongly scented oil acts as a repellent to insects, so it makes sense that Islanders chose this wood to make an important figure like A’a.

On Rurutu, the Island’s Council of Elders met to discuss our recent finding about sandalwood and decided not to accept it, preferring to prioritise their own traditional knowledge instead.

Wood samples from A'a were also radiocarbon dated. They reveal that the wood dates to between 1505 and 1645.

Even allowing for the fact that the tree may have lived on for some time before being cut down to create A’a, these dates are extremely early. They prove that A’a was already a treasured ancient artefact at the point he was surrendered to Europeans.

This strand of human hair was found inside the cavity of A’a. Scientists used a scanning electron microscope to view it. Once they were able to see it close up, the distinctive scale patterns indicated that it was human.

Polynesians considered the head to be the most sacred part of the body and human hair was plaited into cords and used to create objects infused with divine power. This strand of hair may have been incorporated into one of the 24 small god images found stored inside A’a or, alternatively, it may have been used as part of the wrappings for the ancestral bones that A’a was created to hold.

The Extraordinary Life of A’a
A’a has inspired and impressed Islanders, missionaries, artists, poets, academics and museum visitors for over 200 years. His image has appeared on T-shirts and tattoos and he is requested for exhibitions around the world. When A’a first arrived in London in the 1820s, he was displayed in a museum owned by the London Missionary Society. After it closed, the British Museum acquired A’a. This registration slip was created after A'a arrived at the British Museum. The illustration shows A'a had been 'dressed'  –  a common practice at the time  –  to conceal his genitals. 

After A'a arrived at the Museum he began to be requested for loan. Curators were concerned that he may get damaged and decided to create a mould of A’a from which casts could be made.

Pablo Picasso ordered a cast of A'a and so did the British sculptor Henry Moore. Moore described the figure as a ‘remarkable technical achievement'. The poet William Empson made A’a the subject of his poem 'Homage to the British Museum'.

Today, one of the casts of A'a has made its way back to Rurutu and is on display in the Mayor's office alongside sporting trophies.

Although most people on Rurutu are now Christian, A'a continues to be revered and has never been forgotten.

Viriamu Teuruarii grew up next to the 'Tararoa marae' (sacred enclosure) where A'a would have been kept. He feels a strong connection to A'a and says: 'The story of A'a has shaped my life. I identify with him to the point that I felt it right to have his image tattooed on my body, over my heart'.

In 1989, Maurice Lenoir, from Rurutu, visited the Museum. He had travelled to London on the instruction of his father and other family members to pay his respects to A'a. When he met A'a in the Museum's stores he presented the figure with this hat as a gift.

Lenoir is a well-known dancer who has worked to preserve the traditional culture of Rurutu. When he saw A'a he recited a chant that charts Islanders' understandings of how and why A'a was created. Some Islanders believe that A'a was made at the time news of Christianity arrived in the region and was therefore specifically chosen to be surrendered to missionaries.

Beyond A'a
Despite being recognised by experts as a unique figure in Polynesian art, aspects of the figure's physical characteristics situate A'a within the corpus of known Polynesian god images. These features include the smaller figures on the body, the disproportionately large head and the rounded belly with hands placed upon it. Other well-known objects from the British Museum's collection from Polynesia share some of the features that make A'a so extraordinary.

This figure from Rarotonga, in the Cook Islands, has three smaller figures placed on its chest. Just like A'a, the figure also has a large head and a rounded stomach.

Polynesians believed that the stomach was the site of a person's intelligence and knowledge – so a large, swollen, belly represented a great mind. Unlike A'a, this figure has retained its penis, which is also large, and, along with the three smaller figures, probably signifies fertility.

The registration slip for this figure from Rarotonga records that, like A'a, it had previously been in the collection of the London Missionary Society. Historic illustrations show that this figure stood next to A'a in the showcase when they were both on display in the Missionary Society's museum.

The illustration on the registration slip shows that the figure has been 'dressed' in a grass skirt to conceal its penis.

The size and shape of the hollow interior of A'a has recently been interpreted as evidence for his use as a reliquary. It seems likely that A'a originally held the skull and bones of an important ancestor.

In Polynesia, the bones of deceased chiefs were often preserved and stored in containers such as this burial chest or 'waka tupapaku' from New Zealand. These were hidden away in remote locations such as caves, where they would not be disturbed. Like A'a, this figure has a hollow interior in which the bones would have been stored.

The discoveries revealed in this exhibition have increased our knowledge and understanding of A’a but many questions still remain. One hundred and twenty-six years after arriving at the British Museum, A’a remains a compelling but enigmatic figure.

Credits: Story

This exhibition is based on the Asahi Shimbun Displays Containing the divine: a sculpture of the Pacific god A'a at the British Museum until 30 May 2016.

Supported by The Asahi Shimbun.

More information about the display can be found on the British Museum website.

A 3D model of A'a can be viewed here, or an animated version here.

Created by Julie Adams, Curator, Oceania.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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