Poised on the edge of a cliff in the village of Orongo, the Hopu wait for the signal to swim 2 kilometres of shark infested waters between Rapa Nui and Motu Nui in a hunt for the first Sooty Tern egg of the season. This is the Birdman ceremony of Easter Island.
The Hopu were appointed by the contestants revealed in dreams to the ivi-attuas. The ivi-attuas were prophets. The contestants were chiefs of local kin-groups. Each Hopu was the honored representative of his chief in a contest to win total power for his tribe over all other tribes.
While the Hopu risked their lives to reach the islet of Motu Nui where they would search for the first Sooty Tern egg, the chiefs represented by the Hopu would enjoy ritual dances, songs and prayers on Orongo.
The hunt began every September Equinox and ended with the loud bellow of a Hopu to his chief who would be waiting back on Rapa Nui.
The first Hopu to find an egg would shout his chief’s name before swimming the perilous 2km of shark infested waters and scaling the volcanic cliff back to Orongo to courier the egg in a headband back to Rapa Nui.
Many Hopu would perish in the ritual Birdman hunt but the rewards were great for the victorious tribe which would be given dominance over all other tribes and control over the island’s resources.
Exact details of the ritual vary. Some accounts say the Birdman shaved his head, painted it white or red then lived in seclusion for a year; another account says the Birdman lived in a ritual house for 5 months and was brought gifts by his kin-group; other accounts say wars ceased during the egg hunt but after the hunt the victorious group would raid the other groups for kinsmen to sacrifice and eat.
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