Rapa Nui and Rongorongo: Isolated and Elusive

written by Professor Wessex

Volume thirty-five of this biannual journal focuses on Polynesia, specifically on the tiny island community of Rapa Nui, otherwise known as Easter Island. It features a collection of recent academic articles and studies on the topic, including Maeve Kyteler's bold compilation of all known contributed meanings, as well as a brief explanation of Muggle classification systems, among many others.

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An Inventory of Rongorongo’s Magical Meanings

Chapter 3
An Inventory of Rongorongo’s Magical Meanings

British Museum of Magic

Since Pozdniakov and Pozdniakov’s breakthrough in assembling the working script in 2007, many scholars in the fields of linguistics, magianthropology, and ancient studies are in the preliminary stages of assigning meaning to the glyphs in the Rongorongo corpus. However, due to limited understanding, progress is a bit of a crawl. Assorted studies from different researchers across the world have been trickling in, but very limited work is being done to expand upon previous studies; magianthropologists are largely working in isolation, not in concert. The basic meanings uncovered while studying the script have only been expanded upon slightly, and any meanings that have been hypothesized since those originals have largely been ignored by scholars in the field in favor of highlighting theories of potentially new meanings or new interpretations of the working script’s theories. While this may work in some areas of study, Rongorongo is a bit of a unique beast and requires a different approach.

Therefore, this article will attempt to cobble together the various meanings so far uncovered by researchers from all walks of life. While many seasoned magilinguists and magianthropologists may find fault with the wholesale acceptance of any and all proposed meanings that have been noted in peer-reviewed journals, the author sees it merely as a necessary first step towards furthering Rongorongo studies. Via this article, attention can be brought to these various meanings and their time in the spotlight may provide opportunities for them to be entirely proven or disproven.

There is, naturally, some issue with including nearly-proven assertions and gut feelings side-by-side in the same compilation. While all meanings included here were part of various academic studies and published in peer-reviewed articles, some of these meanings may be only vague guesses according to the article in which they featured. However, this is a necessary danger of a project of this sort. It is for this reason that the author highly recommends reading further and perusing the list of works cited so as to fully understand the context of a given meaning.

Below, you will find the working script presented as reference before each glyph is treated and examined separately. All pertinent academic theories on each glyph will be compiled separately as individual entries.

As is common with ancient glyphs, many different and seemingly unrelated meanings are attributed to m01. It was first proposed to represent wood (likely with relation to the spell tablets themselves) by Pozdniakov and Pozdniakov during their preliminary studies in order to develop the working script (2007). Since then, that meaning has been extrapolated upon to indicate “something that nourishes the land, or provides for the people,” based upon the Rapanui civilization’s reliance on wood (Bargarran, 2007). Most recently, an additional meaning has been suggested by an Australian researcher that sees similarities between this symbol and other Polynesian imagery proposing that it may have something to do with the measurement of time, or potentially of physical attributes like weight or length (Bagshaw, 2009).


The working script was oddly quiet about any meanings of this glyph, saying only that they believed it was part of a string of glyphs that functioned as a beauty spell (Pozdniakov & Pozdniakov, 2007). Following this, Tupou has extrapolated upon this meaning to include the indication of awe or admiration (2007). The only other meaning of note, though not highly supported, hypothesizes its meaning of pillar (Luzarches, 2005).


Originally left very vague and named as “a plant” (Pozdniakov & Pozdniakov, 2007). Additionally, Elettra Grimassi has studied in great depth -- along with many other plant-based signs -- in order to see if the original species can be discerned. Her current hypothesis details a specific, though still hypothetical, fern with magical properties that was used in many rituals (2008).


The working script quite authoritatively established the meaning of this glyph as either rudder or oar, even going so far as to extrapolate from those meanings to some more specific, related concepts including direction, propulsion, and steering (Pozdniakov & Pozdniakov, 2007).


Pozdniakov and Pozdniakov cite this glyph as indicting pride or vanity (2007), whereas Grimassi speculates that it may have represented the hauhau tree, also known as Triumfetta semitriloba, a plant used to make clothing (2008). In another twist, Macrae lists over six new potential meanings for the rune based on his hypothesis that the signs in 000 - 099 of Barthel’s number system are peculiar in they have extra potential meanings. These hypothesized meanings include: government, contribute, blow, dew, light, fair, and rise (2009).


Another plant documented by Grimassi as part of the Solanum genus. Based on her comparison between other plants in similar climates and the myths and oral traditions of the Rapa Nui, she believes this represents a plant that was used to ward off starvation, despite the fact that it was actually poisonous. Oral tradition tells of the need to boil it for fifteen days in order to remove the poison, which resulted in an edible, though ultimately very bitter plant (2008).


It’s general resemblance to the reimiro of the Rapa Nui easily earned it this meaning, but according to a newer study from magiarchaeologist Janne Schreiber, it may also indicate magical strengthening whether of intent or of an actual, physical object (2008).


One of the few glyphs with actual names, Bagshaw coined the name raa for this rune, meaning sun based on common Polynesian depictions. She built upon this meaning to hypothesize other nuances including move, star, fire, and even dig (2009).


Pozdniakov and Pozdniakov initially indicated thoughts that this glyph likely had some correlation with the sky (2007). However, it was not until Vaha Tupou’s studies of other potentially existing cults that the meanings of heaven or, “the abode of gods” were put forward (2007).


The mysterious phenomena of Rongorongo has attracted attention from those well outside of the usual magianthropological circles. Yosips piece on potential magical creatures depicted in the glyphs is just one example of this, as he posits that there may be evidence to suggest the existence of a magical cousin to the garfish native to the area (2005). However, “spear” and “weapon” are more commonly considered meanings as per Orsini’s recent study (2009).


Initially left mostly alone by Pozdniakov and Pozdniakov, other than to indicate its frequent association with magic, Ommin Macrae seems to think it may have some relation to the concept of being surrounded somehow (2009). On the other hand, Bargarran suggests that this is an image of crossed sticks, which indicates a relation to the stories of fire discovery and its first uses on the island (2007).


Interestingly, this glyph has been ignored by researchers other than in its initial discussion by Pozdniakov and Pozdniakov. In their working script, it is hypothesized to indicate the spell tablets, which notes the fluting that was common on them (2007). It seems that the majority of the academic society find this to be a suitable meaning and have not looked into it further.


Featured prominently in Tupou’s study of the possibility of other tangata cults, he hypothesizes the meanings of the otherworld and this world coming together, and the possibility of this glyph being used heavily (and denoting the presence) of an unnamed divinatory cult (2007). In addition, Macrae also speculates meanings of reconciliation and potentially peacemaking (2009).


While the working script cites this fourteenth glyph as indicating merely a canoe or that spells might have been applied to one, further meanings have been extrapolated (Pozdniakov & Pozdniakov, 2007). Via the research of Viannah Bargarran, she has suggested adding the meanings of cradle and beginning of life based on the importance the Rapanui placed on sea travel and its place in their mythologies, particularly in the founding of their island (2007).


In another of Bargarran’s theories, she feels this symbol of outstretched arms may indicate nurturing and a mother goddess figure. Briefly, she also suggests it may work on a very simple level as an indicator of a female, whether as the target of a spell, or the person casting (2007).


The Russian father-daughter duo list this glyph as being a trap or cage for birds or fish, though that it may also have the more abstract extrapolated meaning of “holding” or “obstacle” (Pozdniakov & Pozdniakov, 2007). In addition, Orsini suggests it may take on the meaning of bay or anchorage in some contexts (2009).


The meaning of this glyph is even more elusive than most, with only guesses offered (and admitted as such). In Pozdniakov and Pozdniakov’s working script, they hesitantly cite it to mean water (2007), while Bargarran suggests a more abstract meaning of the underworld (2007).


Another plant in the Solanum genus, this one has been identified with some amount of certainty, as the plant still exists and enjoys use by the Rapanui. Grimassi lists it as Solanum nigrum, otherwise known as black nightshade and notes that it is used for tattooing, and for its fruit, though other parts of it are utilized in poisons (2008). She notes that any of these meanings might be possible for the glyph when used in magic.


While A Herbological Study of Rapa Nui’s Symbols and its author was unable to identify the exact identity and name of this plant, Grimassi firmly proposes that this glyph indicates a tree (and likely a fruit-bearing one), though one that seems to be extinct (2007). Later, this meaning was expanded upon to potentially signal that something was to be made sturdy, or that something was nourishing (Orsini, 2009).


As Bagshaw notes in her study, the night sky was of great importance to the Rapanui people, as they did not count the passage of time with days, but with nights. Because of this, they had different names for each night of the lunar month, similar to to the practice of having different days of the week. As she notes, this is important due to the fact that each night was associated with definite activities and omens revolving around fishing, planting, birth, and weather. She proposes that it may often be combined with other signs to denote these omens, though she does not go into detail about what this may look like. Additionally, she agrees with the working script’s assessment that this sign, on its most basic level, can mean both “night” and “moon” (2007).


While Pozdniakov and Pozdniakov explain this glyph’s meaning as flight (2007), Macrae provides reasoning to suggest that he thinks the sign better indicates shelter or the concept of home (2009).


Uniquely, Pozdniakov and Pozdniakov’s treatise on the working script outlines multiple meanings, though related, for this glyph, including “to come forward,” “origin,” and “hole” (2007).


This is one of the few signs upon which multiple researchers building on each other’s arguments. Pozdniakov and Pozdniakov assign this glyph the meanings of “look” and also “sight,” an assessment with which Tongan magianthropologist Tupou agrees, though he also expresses the opinion that there may be more of a divinatory slant to those meanings than the basic definitions (2007).


As posited by Pozdniakov and Pozdniakov in their working script, the glyph is thought to mean both life and death, as well as growth (2007).


The working script assigns this a general meaning and indication of the cult of the scribes -- tangata rongorongo -- as well as for the script used by the scribes (Pozdniakov & Pozdniakov, 2007). In addition, Schreiber points to some evidence to suggest that this glyph may also refer to histories or genealogies, or perhaps even the protection of descendants (2008).


This glyph is thought to be used in spells to increase rainfall by Pozdniakov and Pozdniakov (2007). However, it has not been investigated or mentioned by any other researchers to date.


Another symbol that has been part of some interdisciplinary overlap, both Yosip and Bargarran agree that it is likely that m27 means feathers, though they disagree on whether lightness and/or flight may also be implied (2006, 2007).


While there was certainly no influence on Rongorongo from civilizations as far removed, geographically and chronologically, as ancient Egypt, there is little argument that this symbol represents a leg and/or a foot and can mean that the spell is to target these areas. In addition to this meaning as proposed by Pozdniakov and Pozdniakov, Chiloé notes that this sign may also indicate migration, movement, and swiftness (2008).


Similar to the above, and to the meaning of the similar sign in ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics, this symbol also represents the arm and the hand as proposed by Pozdniakov and Pozdniakov (2007).


Originally thought to be a variant of many hand and arm-related glyphs, Pozdniakov and Pozdniakov instead identified it as an indicator of animosity, potentially indicating a feud or fighting (2007).


This glyph has been recommended to represent ceremonial staffs in order to imbue them with magic (Pozdniakov & Pozdniakov, 2007). However, it has also been expanded upon to potentially represent the power of the chieftain, a chieftain on his own, or, more abstractly, just a symbol of maleness in the patriarchal society (Orsini, 2009).


It was hypothesized by Yosip that this glyph may be a depiction of a now extinct magical creature, though she has not been able to provide any more details on that topic. It is believed that the more accurate conclusion, supported by Pozdniakov and Pozdniakov is that it represents an abundance of food, along with fullness, fatness, and satisfaction (2007).


The meaning of palm tree, proposed by Grimassi and readily accepted by the academic community at large, has been the main meaning ascribed to this glyph for a significant amount of time (2008). However, more recently, Bargarran has proposed that it may mean something akin to “dark nights” indicating a particular period of time in the lunar monthly calendar of the Rapanui (2007).


The working script originally left this glyph without a meaning, as the authors were unable to discern the meaning, though they were able to detect magical significance. However, due to the work of Orsini, the meaning of change is generally attributed to this rune, though the meaning he actually described was “something different,” or “something changed” (2009).


The initial assessment of the working script indicated that this sign represented either a kind of plant or even the idea of plants in general (Pozdniakov & Pozdniakov, 2007). Since then, neither Grimassi nor anyone else has been able to narrow that guess down into something more specific and isolate a particular plant or use that it might have served.


This sign’s original meaning of bone, as indicated by Pozdniakov and Pozdniakov, has undergone a fair bit of expansion (2007). By the estimation of Macrae and Orsini respectively, it is proposed to encompass the meaning of burial as well as serving as a memorial or indication of ancestors (2009, 2009).


In an idiomatic expression, Pozdniakov and Pozdniakov assigned this glyph the meaning of “low-hanging fruit,” in an attempt to encompass the ideas of ease, luck, and opportunity (2007). Since then, it has also been suggested that laziness might be a suitable interpretation as well (Bargarran, 2007).


As per the working script by Pozdniakov and Pozdniakov, this glyph is hypothesized to indicate something about the moai (or perhaps the moai themselves). The pair were unsure whether it could be related to protection or blessing of the stone statues, or if it had to do with the inherent characteristics of the moai, like being steadfast (2007). In 2009, Bagshaw proposed that it may also indicate the reverence for or passing of a chieftain.


This glyph is thought to represent the god of sea and magic, Kanaloa, as is supported by Pozdniakov and Pozdniakov, Bagshaw, and Bargarran (2007, 2009, 2007). This god takes form of squid or octopus and is paired with the god Kane, in terms of ruling over related areas like the sea and the underworld.


In 2007, Pozdniakov and Pozdniakov proposed the meanings of brain and mind to go with this sign. This symbol was further latched onto by Macrae who intimated the meanings of think, sleep, and dream (2009); and Tupou, who suggests a potential meaning of vision or prophecy (2007).


This glyph is largely shrouded in mystery -- which is saying something when speaking of the already puzzling script of Rongorongo. However, since its assignment to the working script of magical significance, Schreiber has proposed a potential meaning of sacrifice (2008).


Once we arrive at the higher end of the working script, Chiloé frequently comes into play. In addition to Pozdniakov and Pozdniakov’s vague meaning of “humanoid figure” (2007), he has also suggested the dual meanings of warrior and god (2008).


Here, Pozdniakov and Pozdniakov suggest that this glyph represents an action related to the production of offspring, though they are unsure whether it is the act of procreation or birthing (2007). Along the same vein, Chiloé advises that the symbol might also mean general growth as well as multiplication or bounty (2008).


In a slightly unexpected bout of simplicity, the single suggested meaning for this glyph -- sea turtle -- has never been expanded upon, challenged, or made to compete with other equally potentially viable meanings (Pozdniakov & Pozdniakov, 2007).


This anthropomorphic figure is thought to express the action of eating or taking something into the body. Additionally, it is proposed that it could simply mean food (Pozdniakov & Pozdniakov, 2007).


This is the only glyph in Pozdniakov and Pozdniakov’s working script which they openly suggest the idea that there may be variants with the same meaning (though they do not openly oppose the idea, they typically keep that kind of speculation away from their analysis). This is owing to the large number of bird-like glyphs found in Rongorongo. With this in mind, this glyph is held to potentially represent the frigatebird and tangata manu in equal likelihood (2007).


As noted above, this is one of the few potentially expressed “variants” on the theme of the tangata manu as proposed by Pozdniakov and Pozdniakov. Additionally, they propose that based on its use, it may be referring to ceremonies and rituals, potentially even representing a specific kind of headdress (2007). In his studies, Tupou also propones that it may have indicated another cult that was different from, though related to, the tangata manu, perhaps some sort of cult of nobility (2007).


A fair bit of confusion exists surrounding this glyph. While Pozdniakov and Pozdniakov do present one possible meaning in the form of “exhaustion” or “sleep,” their own analysis is hesitant at best (2007). Chiloé also proposes the potential meaning of “neck,” though again, not very authoritatively (2008).


For this glyph, Pozdniakov and Pozdniakov directly attribute their magical meaning to Thomas Barthel. While this is certainly not the only glyh in which Barthel’s analysis had some influence, it is one of the few which has not been altered to better fit the scope of ancient magic and/or Rapa Nui magical culture. The aforementioned meanings include both fish as well as war casualty (Barthel, 1990).


While some argue that this glyph must represent its pictographic meaning of a shark (Bagshaw, 2009), most choose to support a more nuanced approach, encompassing meanings of anything to do with sharp points, such as thorns, spears, or rocks (Orsini, 2009).


This glyph is more widely recognized as representing a shark, though in the sense of the shark god rather than the mundane sea creature. This god was said to protect fishers from the dangers of the sea, as well as represent strength. Therefore it is these meanings that this glyph is thought to represent (Bargarran, 2007).


This glyph is theorized to be a stylized representation of the demigod Maui’s fish hook. However, it is unknown what meanings would come from this, as neither Bargarran nor Pozdniakov and Pozdniakov have proposed further extrapolation (2007). However, in mythology, Bargarran notes that the hook is generally tied into miracles, impossible deeds, god-like strength, and valor (2007).

Works Cited:

Bagshaw, T. A Comparison of Polynesian Imagery. 2009

Bargarran, V. A Look at Rongorongo Meanings through the Eyes of Rapa Nui Mythology. 2007

Barthel, T. Wege durch die Nacht (Rongorongo-Studien auf dem Santiagostab). 1990

Chiloé, U. Anthropomorphic Signs in the Rongorongo Corpus. 2008

Luzarches, S. Ancient Architecture and Rune-Based Magic. 2005

Pozdniakov, E. & Pozdniakov, K. A Proposed Working Script of Rongorongo. 2007

Grimassi, E. A Herbological Study of Rapa Nui’s Symbols. 2008

Macrae, O. The Wideness of Functions of 000 - 099. 2009.

Orsini, L. Logographs and Ideographs: A Study of the Abstract Alongside Pictographic Scripts. 2009

Schreiber, J. Artefacts, Archeology, and their Role in Unmasking Rongorongo. 2008

Tupou, V. Studies of Additional Tangata Cults. 2007

Yosip, A. Magical Creatures from Strange Symbols: A Magizoologist’s View on Some Rongorongo Glyphs. 2006
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