A Polynesian Wedding
Text & Photography by Eric Pasquier
The bride wore a coconut shell bikini and the groom was in feathers.
Polynesian weddings today incorporate many elements of the ancient culture of the islands, although the elaborate rituals that used to accompany wedding ceremonies were lost when Europeans colonised the islands.
ERIC PASQUIER looked for the echoes of the past in a Polynesian wedding today.
Before the arrival of Europeans, before the Bible changed everything, Polynesia was a collection of well-ordered societies where everyone had his or her place – where life was punctuated by elaborate rituals and rites of passage.
Weddings marked the beginning of adulthood and were necessarily complex, colourful and completely incomprehensible to the average Westerner. Sadly, the more ‘pagan’ of these rituals invited the disapproval of the bible-bashers and are no longer practised.
Until recently a renaissance in socio-cultural heritage, a new-found pride in the self, has led to a revival in at least some of the ancient traditions.
The concept of marriage – till death us do part, and all that – is daunting even for the most committed of lovers.
A 15-year-old boy may find his mind-boggling at the idea, yet that is the age at which a boy becomes a man by taking a bride here.
The shift from one phase of life to the next is very abrupt in the Polynesian islands. A child may play freely, goes from one parent to the other without ever really being exposed to much discipline, is generally pampered and left to roam in nature.
A man, on the other hand, is responsible for his wife, his family, the tribe and so on. Getting married was the only real way to become a man – a rude awakening for most boys, and not just because of the sex… In return, though, they got much higher social status and were taken seriously in all village affairs.
The process of choosing a partner for life was rather intricate – much more so than has previously been thought. Ethnologists and historians have concluded that, while there is no written codex, the oral history was very elaborate.
There were strict rules governing who chose whom, the choice of mate, her family, social status and so on.
While it’s easy to say that incest is taboo the world over, the definition of incest differs widely – in Polynesia, the definition encompassed more than in the west, with second cousins twice removed or even cousins by marriage being off-limits to the enamoured suitor.
And the boy always chose the girl. Both future spouses had to belong to the same social class, and the boy’s choice would almost always be guided by his parents. Sometimes they vetoed his decision, believing him to be too immature for such a momentous decision that would affect the rest of his life.
All these conditions fulfilled, the boy took the next – literal – step when he arrived at the door of his future father-in-law to ask him for his daughter’s hand in marriage. Impressing the in-laws was as crucial here as it is elsewhere, and it always helped to carry a few gifts to keep them sweet – pigs were always a good idea, and fabric usually went down well with the mother-in-law.
Once all parents were happy with the deal, and all arguments about guest lists, caterers and flower arrangements were out of the way, the wedding plans start rolling. Like in the west, the richer the family, the more sumptuous the wedding. The lower classes, not being able to afford all that posh nonsense, usually made do with an informal agreement that bound the couple into wedlock.
The groom would first, of course, make his introductions at his bride’s family, and gifts would be given, but after that, a bed was set up inside and the couple could pretty much get on with consummating their marriage.
The next morning a pig would be slaughtered and the party would begin – after 24 hours of eating and drinking, the neighbours and friends finally stumbled home. The couple could then choose with whose family they wanted to stay.
With wealthy families, on the other hand, pomp and circumstance played a much larger role in the wedding ceremony. On the eve of the wedding, an enormous feast was held at the groom’s father’s house and guests could admire the presents given by the bride’s parents to the happy couple. Which, for obvious reasons, put much pressure on the bride’s family – the presents had to be good (parsimony is anathema), but not so good as to show the groom’s parents up as poor relations. It was – and is – a delicate balancing act.
Enter the clergy – well, the Atioi, a great wise priest respected by all. He would unite the couple at the groom’s family marae – the household place of worship. The marae was where all Polynesians held their religious ceremonies and weddings – and human sacrifices when this was still practised.
With great solemnity, the Atioi would spread out a large piece of fabric onto the ground near the marae, on which the couple could sit much like on a picnic blanket. Family members then sat on the ground near them. The groom’s mother would often have to wound herself by scraping her forehead so that some of her blood was offered to the couple. The Atioi then slaughtered a pig, offering it to the gods, the fabric was picked up from the ground again and offered to the – now very proud – husband. This would be a soft souvenir from a memorable day.
Then there was a massive party – or rather two parties, with women and men segregated for their respective feasts. More pigs were slaughtered, there were much dancing and singing, costumes were elaborate – the headdresses, in particular, were impressive, and the couple were blessed repeatedly.
Despite this, divorce proceedings are not the monopoly of the west – in Polynesia too, couples divorced. The person of authority who had originally approved the marriage could just as easily break it up if one of the couples asked him to. The possessions were then divided up equally between husband and wife – no prenuptial agreements were needed here – which included the children: the girls went with the mother, the boys with the father. In a small community, there was, however, not much chance of childhood trauma of separation; mum and dad lived just up the road, three huts to the left.
All this was to disappear. When bible-wielding missionaries discovered there were still pagan natives around whose souls were apparently just crying out to be saved, despite existing perfectly well without Christianity for millennia, local rites of passage would not survive long. Along with Christianity came western governance and the need to register one’s marital status with the civil authorities. Almost overnight, all the pig-slaughtering, fabric-giving, forehead-bloodying and headdress-balancing that went along with weddings disappeared from local cultures.
In fact, the wedding per se has lost much of its popularity, with around 50 percent of Polynesian couples opting out of marriage completely. Living together and having children is considered enough.
At the other extreme is a revival of traditional practices. And not only among Polynesians – Westerners too, who want the romance of the South Seas, come here to be married; not least Dustin Hoffman who renewed his vows here several years ago. Renewal of vows is a popular choice among honeymooners, if you are planning a romantic wedding on Tahiti remember that you have to be a French citizen for your ceremony to have legal status.
Dressed in the traditional get-up, couples celebrate their vows to the bubbly, joyful music of the islands; many will acquire tattoos and participate in traditional dances. There are several hotels on Tahiti, for instance, which offer the wedding package, complete with beach-side ceremonies at sundown and gently swaying women with flowers in their hair.
Sadly, these ceremonies no longer have much to do with the old ways; the wedding is no longer a rite of passage from boy to man, from girl to woman, to be taken seriously by all. On the other hand, getting married on a beach does beat shivering outside the local registry office on a cold day…