Up and early, we headed to the top of the caldera that anchors the western tip of the island. This volcano, whose rim at its center is a mile wide, and whose bottom, 600 feet below, is filled with huge reed matts covering much of the surface of water that reaches ninety feet deep at the caldera’s center, was the jumping off point (literally) for the bird man cult.
This cult may have had more ancient predecessors, but it flourished in the wake of the fratricidal wars that tore Easter apart in the sixteenth century, when the large palm trees disappeared and life on the island became a bloody conflict over scarce resources. The cult seemed to offer a way of reducing conflict. Each year, on a ritually appointed date just before a colony of sooty terns returned to small rocky island a few hundred feet from the base of the caldera, swimmers would race down the slope of the volcano and defy powerful currents to reach the island and find the first tern eggs of the season.
The athletes were sponsored by well to do men on the island, and when the winner returned to the ritual site with the precious egg, his boss would be appointed island king for the year, with almost absolute power over the feuding clans. Although a seemingly clever solution to the problem of conflict, it did not always work well: rival clans would resist the boss’s edicts, and those edicts themselves were often so arbitrary and self-serving that they led to new conflicts. Christian missionaries eventually put an end to the cult. I strongly believe that religion and ethics (in the sense of reasoned systems of thought aimed at reducing social conflict) often go together, but the Birdman Cult shows once again that (religious) solutions can sometimes be worse than the problem.
Returning to the Eco Lodge for lunch, we grabbed our hand luggage and headed to the airport for the next leg of our journey, a ten-hour flight to Western Samoa, with one stop for fuel in Papeete Tahiti. At the airport, we had to be screened, but since there were no other departures, we immediately walked across the tarmac to our waiting jet.