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Tahiti: Cult platform ( marae ) in the Arahurahu valley
Idol (To'o) of the god Oro

The Arioi were an order- like structured secret society of the Society Islands , especially the island of Tahiti , with hierarchical structure, esoteric doctrine of salvation and cultic and cultural functions. Both men and women of all social classes belonged to it, although the number of men predominated. The Arioi worshiped the god of war Oro , whom they regarded as the founder of their order.

Polynesian society

To understand the Arioi and comparable secret societies on other islands in the South Seas , an understanding of the Polynesian social order and religion in classical times, i.e. H. before the European discovery, necessary. In most of Polynesia , society was strictly hierarchical and stratified into several social levels. This gradation was not the same everywhere, but you can find it on Tahiti, Samoa , Hawaii , the Marquesas , the Austral Islands , the Cook Islands , right up to Easter Island , in the most distant tip of the Polynesian Triangle .

There were essentially three castes on the Society Islands :

  • the nobility , in Polynesian ari´i or ariki , at the head of society. They made up the big landowners. At the top were the ariki rahi (German: the great ariki), the sovereigns who were recruited from the old noble families. In Tahiti there were eight of them, each headed a tribe . For the inheritance of the title less sex, but rather it was birthright decisive.
  • the free, Polynesian raatira , that were essentially the small landowners, craftsmen, boat builders, tattooists and artists. During the war they were the closest followers of the Ariki. The boundaries between the Raatira and the lowest levels of the small nobility were fluid.
  • the hearing , Polynesian manahune , who cultivated the fields, depending on the landlords. Most of the products had to be taken away.

The rulership system of the Society Islands shows features of both medieval European feudal society and of Hindu caste society .


The structure of the Order of the Arioi was a reflection of the hierarchical society of Tahiti. There were several degrees, Moerenhout speaks of eight degrees to which one could ascend through initiation . While admission to the order was relatively easy at first, advancement was associated with growing demands. In theory, all levels were open to all social groups, but in practice the highest ranks of the Arioi were reserved for the highest ranks of the nobility. The upper echelons were occupied by priests, mostly later sons and daughters of the higher-ranking noble families, the guarantee that the Arioi formed the special support of the absolutist ruling houses.

Each of the Society Islands had its own Arioi group, each associated with a special place of worship ( marae ), and its own superior. The very highest head was the superior of the order of Raiatea , since the Marae Taputapu-Atea, the holiest of all cult platforms in Polynesia, was located there.

The Society Islands had special houses where the Arioi lived, where they met and which served as guest houses when Arioi visited other islands. 27 Arioi houses were recorded for Tahiti.


Members of all social classes could be accepted into the federal government. Whoever wanted to become a member had to be obsessed with Oro. This was shown by the fact that he pushed into a meeting of the Arioi in a state of trance. If the Arioi considered the candidate suitable, he was accepted. The decisive factors were physical beauty, knowledge of religious texts and skill in recitation, dance and pantomime.

With initiation, the new member acquired the right to wear tapa bark fibers in certain colors and tattoos , starting with a small ring-shaped pattern around the ankle. As the ranks rose, the tattoos became more ornate and extensive.

Ruling chiefs easily belonged to the Arioi and did not have to undergo initiation and arduous ascent.


As long as they were not married, the Arioi lived in sexual freedom, a behavior that must have appeared particularly disreputable to the prudish missionaries of the 19th century. After the establishment of a marital union, however, the promiscuity ended . The connections of the Arioi had to remain childless, rather a contradiction in a society whose religion was largely shaped by fertility cults. If a child was expected, it was aborted or killed immediately after birth. The main reason for infanticide was the endeavor to prevent descendants of higher-ranking people with such lower class in order to keep the ruling lines "pure". Another reason may be found in the peculiarity that in Polynesian society the firstborn son automatically inherits part of the father's reputation and the father loses his reputation through his birth.

“In general, they remain active in society until they are 30 to 35 years old. Then they let one of their children live and thereby exclude themselves from all the privileges of an Arioi. "

- William Ellis : Z uverlässige messages from the third and last voyage of Captain Cook and Clerke in the royal ships Resolution and Discovery, in the years 1776-1780. Translated from English , Frankfurt 1783

Functions of the Order

The functions of the order within Polynesian society were of both religious and power-political importance, the latter through representation and display of splendor for the glory of the ruling houses.

Since the reports of European explorers and missionaries naturally had to be limited to the publicly perceptible actions and outsiders were excluded from the rites at the marae by making them taboo , it is not known what role the Arioi played. What is certain, however, is that they were involved to a significant extent in all religious acts.

The involvement of the Arioi in the large festivals, often lasting several days, was publicly perceptible. The reputation of the Ariki depended largely on the generous distribution of gifts to the people. The products delivered by the serfs were redistributed - mostly in splendid display at lavish celebrations. This served the self-portrayal and representation, the more generous a chief was, the higher his prestige was. The organization of such festivals with dance performances, plays and singing was essentially the task of the Arioi. On the other hand, they also benefited from the gifts distributed and were also rewarded with tapa bark fiber. The most lavish festivals were the visits of the Arioi to other islands. James Cook witnessed such an event in 1774. A large fleet of magnificently decorated boats, about 50 arioi in each, had come to Raiatea from the island of Huahine :

“At noon on May 24th, we anchored in the port of the island of Ulietea [Raiatea]. There were a multitude of canoes on the beach, and each hut housed as many people as it could hold. They were Erroys [Arioi], members of the society that holds together closely and who held one of their meetings here. Sometimes they move from one island to another, feasting, drinking and indulging in debauchery. They were all people of class, chiefs, it seemed. They had come from Huahine in seventy canoes and had brought with them loads of food and pepper roots [for kava preparation]. "

- James Cook : Cook's trips around the world - report based on his diaries , Leipzig 1966, pp. 232-233

Above all, however, the Arioi were the guardians and transmitters of tradition. In a society that knew no script, it was important to publicly proclaim, preserve and distribute the religious texts through constant recitation.

Their valve function within the social fabric should not be underestimated. The absolutist rule of the Ariki usually brooked no objection. However, the Arioi largely enjoyed the freedom of fools during their performances , so that they could criticize the secular and religious superiors in a playful and joking manner.

The image of the Europeans

In the depictions of the early European visitors, who dominated our image of the South Seas societies well into the 20th century, the erotic aspects of the Arioi culture were emphasized, even overemphasized. It must be taken into account that these reports came predominantly from missionaries and that even scientifically educated travelers like Forster and Moerenhout were firmly rooted in the prudish society of the late 18th and 19th centuries.

The following description of the Arioi from James Cook's diary from his first voyage in 1769 may serve as an example:

“Many of these people form intimate bonds and live together as husband and wife for years, and the children who are born during this time perish. They are so far removed from hiding this activity that they see in it rather a kind of freedom from which they believe quite a lot to be credited. They are called Arreois and hold meetings at which the men amuse themselves with wrestling matches, etc., and the women meanwhile perform the improper dance mentioned, in the course of which they let their desires run free, but I believe the appearance of propriety true. "

- James Cook : Discovery trips in the Pacific, the logbooks of the journeys 1768-1779, translation from English, Tübingen-Basel, 1971

Fertility cults took a central role in the Polynesian religion. In this respect, all behaviors that appear permissive to Europeans were closely linked to religious acts.

Succession organization

The European missionary work of the Society Islands in the first half of the 19th century meant the end of the Arioi. They were bitterly opposed by the missionaries because of their practices, which were decidedly contrary to Christian teaching.

But the end did not come suddenly. Partly incorporating Christian ideas, but otherwise traditionally Polynesian structure, the Mamaia group was formed as its successor. The name means "rotten fruit" and was used in a discriminatory way. The sect originated in Tahiti in 1826. The initiators were two local deacons from the London Missionary Society named Teao and Hue. The chiliastic movement spawned visionary prophets who allegedly had apparitions of God and Mary but also claimed to be obsessed with Oro and Tane . In 1831 the Mamaia succeeded in temporarily driving the missionaries off the island of Raiatea. There were also uprisings in Tahiti in 1832, but with the help of the French they were bloodily suppressed. In 1833 the Mamaia were exiled from Tahiti. After Teao's death in 1842, the movement was lost.

Secret societies on other islands

Societies that are partially comparable to the Arioi can also be found on other islands of Polynesia and Melanesia, for example:

  • the Kaioi in the Marquesas
  • the hula schools ( halau ) in Hawaii
  • as regards women, the aualuma and taupou , the girls' communities of Samoa


  • Wilhelm Emil Mühlmann: Arioi and Mamaia. An ethnological, sociological and historical study of Polynesian cult associations. , Franz Steiner Verlag Wiesbaden, 1955
  • Wilhelm Emil Mühlmann: The secret society of the Arioi: a study on Polynesian secret societies, with special consideration of the screening and selection processes in Old Tahiti , Brill-Verlag Leiden 1932.
  • Hans Nevermann: Gods of the South Seas , Spemann-Verlag Stuttgart 1947

Individual evidence

  1. JA Moerenhout, Voyages aux îles du Grand Océan , Paris, 1837
  2. ^ T. Henry: Ancient Tahiti, Berenice P. Bishop Museum Bulletin 48, Honolulu 1928
  3. Gerhard Müller, Horst Balz, Gerhard Krause (eds.): Theologische Realenzyklopädie, Volume 27, Berlin 1997, p. 32