Easter Island Revealed

Photo of moai by Ian Sewell - - Easter Island, CC BY 2.5,

I learned, like many of you, about the iconic stone heads on Easter Island in school when I was a child. You've at least seen photographs of these heads sitting on the island and if you know anything about Easter Island, it is probably the statues, called moai, that were created by the early Rapa Nui people.

Easter Island (Rapa Nui) is a Chilean island in the southeastern Pacific Ocean, at the southeasternmost point of the Polynesian Triangle. The name "Easter Island" was given by the island's first recorded European visitor, the Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen, who encountered it on Easter Sunday (5 April) in 1722, while searching for Davis or David's island. Roggeveen named it Paasch-Eyland (18th-century Dutch for "Easter Island") and the island's official Spanish name, Isla de Pascua, also means "Easter Island".

But in recent years,  the Easter Island Statue Project (EISP) has undertaken efforts to excavate and study some of the Moai, and revealed previously hidden portions of the statues.

Because they were set deep into the ground, their bodies have been obscured over time. The archeologists dug around the statues and discovered that the torsos of the statues are covered in undecipherable ancient writings. And there are more statues than just the famous heads - more than 900 monolithic human figures carved from rock.

The production and transportation of the moai are remarkable creative and physical feats. The tallest moai erected, called Paro, was almost 10 metres (33 ft) high and weighed 82 tons. The heaviest erected was a shorter but squatter moai at Ahu Tongariki, weighing 86 tons.

Many of the moai toppled after European contact when islander traditions radically changed. Though moai are whole-body statues, they are often erroneously referred to as "Easter Island heads." This is partly because of the disproportionate size of most moai heads and partly because, many of the iconic images for the island showing upright moai on the island are the statues on the slopes of Rano Raraku, many of which are buried to their shoulders. Some of the "heads" at Rano Raraku have been excavated and their bodies seen, and observed to have markings that had been protected from erosion by their burial.

All but 53 of the more than 900 moai known to date were carved from tuff (a compressed volcanic ash). There are also 13 moai carved from basalt, 22 from trachyte and 17 from fragile red scoria. At the end of carving, the builders would rub the statue with pumice.

Rano Raraku is a volcanic crater located on the lower slopes of Terevaka in the Rapa Nui National Park on Easter Island. It was a quarry for about 500 years until the early eighteenth century, and supplied the stone from which about 95% of the island's moai were carved.

What did they symbolize to their builders? According to Wikipedia:
Many archaeologists suggest that "[the] statues were thus symbols of authority and power, both religious and political. But they were not only symbols. To the people who erected and used them, they were actual repositories of sacred spirit. Carved stone and wooden objects in ancient Polynesian religions, when properly fashioned and ritually prepared, were believed to be charged by a magical spiritual essence called mana." Archaeologists believe that the statues were a representation of the ancient Polynesians' ancestors. The moai statues face away from the ocean and towards the villages as if to watch over the people. The exception is the seven Ahu Akivi which face out to sea to help travelers find the island. There is a legend that says there were seven men who waited for their king to arrive.
The Rano Raraku area is in the protected World Heritage Site of Rapa Nui National Park.

A Zealot and His Wife

I have had a long interest that is more historical than religious about the life of Jesus of Nazareth. I heard Reza Aslan interviewed about his book Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth and I knew it was a story I'd want to read.

Aslan first did a bachelor’s degree is in religious studies with a minor was in biblical Greek. He then did graduate work at Harvard University in world religions, and a Ph.D. from UC Santa Barbara in the sociology of religions. He also has an MFA from the University of Iowa.

In this story from 2000 years ago, we follow an itinerant Jewish preacher and miracle worker who walked across Galilee and gathered around him followers to establish what he called the “Kingdom of God.”

He is a revolutionary. His movement threatened the established order. Like others of his time, he was captured, tortured, and executed as a state criminal.

What first caught my interest in Aslan's interview was that his disillusionment with the Bible stories grew as he studied them because of the inconsistencies of the stories told in the gospels, both those we know "officially" and others including the gnostic gospels.

The book puts Jesus back into his era. This first-century Palestine was filled with many Jewish prophets, preachers, would-be messiahs, miracle workers and magicians. It was the age of zealotry, which was a fervent nationalism that made resistance to the Roman occupation a sacred duty incumbent on all Jews.

The entire story is filled with contradictions. Jesus was a man of peace who told his followers to arm themselves with swords. He gave public displays of exorcisms and healings, but told his disciples to keep his identity a secret.

But the early Christian church portrayed Jesus as a peaceful spiritual teacher rather than a politically conscious revolutionary.

In another book, No god but God , Reza Aslan explains Islam. That is a topic that is also ancient but certainly is highly topical now. 

My reading of his books and further online searching led me to discover stories of "Jesus’s Wife." Though it sounds like a chapter from The Da Vinci Code, Aslan also discusses in Zealot  the women who followed Jesus.

Was Jesus Christ married to one of them? A scrap of manuscript suggests that he had a wife.
“The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife” papyrus  (Karen L. King / Harvard / AP)
It is a 1300-year-old scrap of papyrus that has the phrase “Jesus said to them, My wife.” It is written in the ancient language of Coptic.

When the Harvard historian of early Christianity, Karen L. King, presented the papyrus in 2012 at a conference in Rome, it caused a lot of interest and controversy. And the controversey seems to still be ongoing.

No manuscripts before had mentioned Jesus being married. The scrap of writing suggested that the complete manuscript might describe a dialogue between Jesus and the apostles over whether his “wife” was “worthy” of also being a disciple.

Was that woman Mary Magdalene? Aslan says that for a Jewish man of that time not to be married when he was in his thiries would have been very unusual. Jesus’ marriage would have been arranged by his parents, probably between his 16th and 30th birthdays. In rabbinic literature the age of twenty is given as the upper limit of marriage, and it was especially important for aspiring teachers and religious leaders.

portion of da Vinci's Last Supper
In The Da Vinci Code book and movie, the suggestion that sets the book in motion is that da Vinci painted the truth and showed Jesus next to his wife, Mary Magdalene. A character in the book says "The individual had flowing red hair, delicate folded hands, and the hint of a bosom.  It was, without a doubt … female."  Art historians have pointed out that da Vinci had painted other masculine biblical characters with a feminine appearance. In Saint John the Baptist , St. John the Baptist, who was described in writings as quite masculine in appearance, is painted quite feminine with long flowing hair and delicate hands.  So, is that Mary Magdalene at the right hand of Jesus, or a feminized John the Apostle? Obviously, da Vinci was not a witness to any "last supper" and if he did insert Mary, then where is the twelfth apostle that was described as being there? “And when the hour had come, He sat down, and the twelve apostles with Him.” (Luke 22:14)

Aslan doesn't really say that Jesus was married. Of course, many Christians refute Aslan's other claims. I saw articles online that claim his book is a Muslim view of Jesus. Conservative Christians also hated the recent Noah film for inserting what they saw as a a message about climate change. They were outraged by Martin Scorsese depicting Jesus as having sexual fantasies about Mary Magdalene in 1988’s The Last Temptation of Christ.

To humanize Jesus is to take him away from being a messiah or son of God. If, as Aslan posits, Jesus was married, was not a "virgin birth," that he was a Zealot who did not want to start a religion and that Jesus did not conceive of himself as partly divine - then we have some problems with the religions that believe those things to all be true.

A Destitute King With No Country

I had a dream last night about Orson Welles, who I have written about here several times before. In the dream, he was doing a magic trick. He asked me to give him a coin. I placed a quarter in his gloved hand. He closed his hand and then opened it to reveal a key. He said, "This is what you were looking for, isn't it?"

I went downstairs, made my coffee and went online and did a search on his name. I thought that perhaps this was the day he was born or had died. It is not either of those. I searched on "Orson Welles magician" and it brought up links to the documentary about him by that name. Magician: The Astonishing Life and Work of Orson Welles is a film I had not seen. I had tried last year unsuccessfully to find it on some streaming services.

But there it was, on YouTube, for free - perhaps not legally, but I watched it this morning. If it is still available and you have an interest, watch the version below (but go full screen).

And there is a brief scene in the film that is pretty much my dream. Somehow, that bit of film was in my head, and now I have rediscovered it.

If the embedded video isn't working, the film is available for purchase.
Magician: The Astonishing Life and Work of Orson Welles 
and many of his films as actor and director that are referenced in the documentary.