What's in a name? The dwarf planet with a story to tell...

The planet MakeMake hit the news this week as astronomers have finished a report after they obtained an important first look at the dwarf planet, which was discovered in 2005.

MakeMake is one of five such dwarfs in our Solar System, including former planet Pluto (demoted to the status of a ‘dwarf planet’ in 2006).  Four planets share this status: Ceres, Haumea, Pluto, Eris and Makemake. Unlike planets, dwarfs lack the gravitational muscle needed to clear their orbits of other astronomical objects. Recent investigations lead scientists to establish that MakeMake has no atmosphere.

It was, however, the chosen name of the this dwarf planet, which got me thinking (and not just because it was one of the questions on last week’s BBC News website’s 7 days quiz!). It was because I recognised the name as one of the gods of Easter Island, one of the world's most isolated inhabited islands. We have had a few items from Easter Island on the shop floor here at It’s a nomad life which have lead me to do a bit of investigating of my own…!

Easter Island was named by Roggeveen, a Dutch man who saw it for first time on the Easter Day of 1722. Located in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, there are just 3,304 island inhabitants. Its closest inhabited neighbour is Pitcairn Island (which you might remember from my first blog post!). 

The indigenous people of the island are the Rapa Nui, who settled on the island between 300 and 1200 AD. Makemake in the Rapa Nui mythology of Easter Island, was the creator of humanity, the god of fertility and the chief god of the "Tangata manu" or bird-man cult. In fact it was a bird-man cult figure (pictured) that made me want to find out more!

MakeMake was revered by the Rapa Nui people. He was a warrior god and a fertility provider. The ancient civilization was always short of food, so the prayers to the gods became directed to him. As well as the creator of mankind, Makemake was also regarded patron of the bird-man cult, the principal festival of Easter Island, and was worshipped in the form of sea birds, which were considered his incarnation. His material symbol, a man with a bird's head, can be found carved in hundreds of petroglyphs on Easter Island, human figures with the heads and tails of birds, into the rocks. The annual celebration involved contestants racing to collect the first Sooty Tern (sea bird) egg of the season from the islet of Motu Nui and swim back to Rapa Nui. The festival appears to have been deeply religious and the race was probably held so men could reach the exalted state of a bird man.

For people living on an island as isolated as Easter Island, the birds soaring over the churning surface of the sea must have appeared to possess god-like powers. The bird-man cult is thought to have originated in the 16th century, and seems to have been unrelated to the Moai cult (you may have seen the famous and impressive giant statues associated with this cult). In fact conflicts between different lineages on the island are thought to have brought internal wars, when the Moai cult started being demolished and the cult of the bird-man became the most important one.

The bird-man cult eventually declined in popularity after the island adopted Christianity in the 1800s. But its memory was not erased and it is still present in decoration of the island's churches.

It’s amazing to think that a new planet can lead us to think about the past.  And given the name of our shop in Shrewsbury, it seemed particularly apt that the astrologers using the telescopes across Brazil and Chile watched as the dwarf planet MakeMake blocked the light of distant star Nomad, for about one minute in 2011.

I have always wanted to go to Easter Island. Maybe it was written in the stars!

 

Victoria Crook

It’s a nomad life

 

You can come and see this piece and lot’s more at It’s a nomad life, 14 Wyle Cop, Shrewsbury www.itsanomadlife.com.

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Vicky Vicky

Vicky runs local antiques business It's a nomad life with her partner Sam Handbury-Madin. The shop, which moved from Wyle Cop to Green Lane in 2015, sells Tribal and Asian art and collectables from around the world. Vicky is a Shropshire lass, who moved back to Shrewsbury in 2008 after time spent in Italy, London and St. Andrews (where she studied archaeology and ancient history). She met her husband Sam on her return and they opened It's a nomad life in 2012, combining their love of travel and old things! Vicky also works as a Freelance Fundraising Consultant.

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