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Oceania, Polynesia, and Hawaii

by Daphne Elliot

Writers often use the word Oceania to cover that vast geographic area of t he Pacific Ocean which includes The Philippines and Indonesia in the west, the Hawaiian Islands in the north , Easter Island to the East, and Australia and New Zealand to the South, with all the islands, archipelagos and land masses in between.

For the purposes of this encyclopedia, use of the name Oceania will include only New Zealand to the South, Micronesia, Melanesia and Polynesia in the middle, all the way north to the Hawaiian Islands, and west to Easter Island.

This geographic area, excluding the Hawaiian Islands, is often referred to as the South Pacific. It is a huge area, with land masses as large as Australia, as well as a myriad of archipelagoes strung together as well as spread out, often isolated from each other by thousands of miles of ocean, dotted with hundreds of islands, some isolated, some close together. The Hawaiian Islands, for instance, at the top of this triangle, are over four thousand miles from the bottom of the triangle, New Zealand, while New Zealand is more than three thousand miles from Easter Island to the east.

The Hawaiian Islands are not strictly in the South Pacific. They lie in the North Pacific. However, their first settlers were emigrants from southern parts of the South Pacific, and were Polynesian.

All of this huge area is referred to as Oceania. The triangle covered by Hawaii at the top, New Zealand at the bottom, and Easter Island to the east is generally referred to as 'Polynesia.'

The ancient history of the area is dim. Before the fourteenth century there is nothing written about it. During the fifteenth century, and subsequently, migrations of peoples generally considered to have come from the southwest, populated the islands from New Zealand all the way north to the Hawaiian archipelago, ultimately blending in with the existing populations, of which very little is known. The Polynesian word kanaka, or taneka means, "those who have been before," and also today means "native born," indigenous.

Hawaiian culture is an adaption of that which the Polynesians migrating there brought with them. Coming from various islands throughout Oceania makes Hawaiian mythology rich and complex. When the first Polynesians arrived at the Hawaiian archipelago, it is believed that it was not populated. The Polynesians, seeing the great beauty of the place, called it 'Hawaii', which means 'heaven'. In their mythology it is said that the old and infirm are rewarded with life after death in Hawai'iki, translated as "The Old Homeland."

All of the religions of Oceania and Hawaii have much in common; their stories of creation, their gods and goddesses, heroes and monsters. In fact scholars who have studied the classics of Greek Mythology find many concepts and story lines be similar to the myths from Oceania and Hawaii.

For further information, see the entries titled 'Oceania/Polynesia Creation Myths', as well as that titled 'Hawaiian Creation Myths'.

Poynesian mythology »