Amazing articles on just about every subject...


Melanesia Mythology - Culture Hero Tales

( Originally Published Early 1900's )

ONE of the most noteworthy features of Melanesian mythology is the prominence of tales relating either to two culture heroes, one of whom is, as a rule, wise and benevolent, while the other is foolish and malicious; or to a group of brothers, usually ten or twelve in number, two of whom, one wise and one foolish, are especially outstanding. Thus a rudimentary sort of dualism is developed which stands in rather marked contrast to Indonesian mythology, while showing points of contact with Polynesian and Micronesian ideas.

In New Britain we have already seen how To-Karvuvu unsuccessfully imitated To-Kabinana in the making of woman; and in the local forms of the myth of the origin of death it was To-Karvuvu who cried and refused to recognize his mother when she had shed her skin and become rejuvenated, so that he was thus directly responsible for the entrance of death into the world. A few other examples of his foolishness may be given from the same region. According to one of these tales, To-Kabinana and To-Karvuvu were one day walking in the fields when the former said to the latter, "Go, and look after our mother." So To-Karvuvu went, filled a bamboo vessel with water, poured it over his mother, heated stones in the fire, killed her, and laid her in the oven to roast, after which he returned to To-Kabinana, who asked him how their parent was and if he had taken good care of her. To-Karvuvu re-plied, "I have roasted her with the hot stones," whereupon his brother demanded, "Who told you to do that?" "Oh," he answered, "I thought you said to kill her!" but To-Kabi-nana declared, "Oh, you fool, you will die before me. You never cease doing foolish things. Our descendants now will cook and eat human flesh."

On another occasion To-Kabinana said to his brother, "Come, let us each build a house," and accordingly each constructed a dwelling, but To-Kabinana roofed his house out-side, while his foolish brother covered his on the inside. Then To-Kabinana said, "Let us make rain!" so they performed the proper ceremony, and in the night it rained. The darkness pressed heavily on To-Karvuvu so that he sat up, and the rain came through the roof of his house and fell upon him, and he wept. In the morning he came to his brother, saying, "The darkness pressed upon me, and the rain-water wet me, and I cried." But when To-Kabinana asked, "How did you build your house?" the other replied, "I covered it with the roof covering inside. It is not like yours." Then they both went to look at it, and To-Karvuvu said, "I will pull it down and build like yours." But his brother had pity on him and said, "Do not do that. We will both of us live together in my house." Many of the evil or harmful things in the world were the work of the foolish brother. One day To-Kabinana carved a Thum-fish out of wood and let it float on the sea and made it alive so that it might always be a fish; and the Thum-fish drove the Malivaran-fish ashore in great numbers so that they could be caught. Now To-Karvuvu saw them, and asked his brother where were the fish that forced the Malivaran-fish ashore, saying that he also wished to make some. Accordingly, To-Kabinana told him to make the figure of a Thum-fish, but instead the stupid fellow carved the effigy of a shark and put it in the water. The shark, however, did not drive the other fish ashore, but ate them all up, so that To-Karvuvu went crying to his brother and said, "I wish I had not made my fish, for he eats all the others"; whereupon To-Kabinana asked, "What kind of a fish did you make?" and he replied, "A shark." Then To-Kabinana said, "You are indeed a stupid fellow. You have brought it about that our descendants shall suffer. That fish will eat all the others, and he will also eat people as well."

The characters of the two brothers are seen to be quite clearly distinguished, To-Karvuvu being in these tales (as in many others from this same area 6) foolish or stupid rather than designedly malicious, although his follies are usually responsible for the troubles and tribulations of human life; whereas To-Kabinana, on the other hand, appears as actively benevolent, his well-intentioned deeds in behalf of mankind being frustrated by his brother. Tales of a similar type have been collected at one or two points on the German New Guinea shore,' but appear to be much less common than among the coast population of New Britain. From British New Guinea few tales of this sort seem to have been collected,' although stories of the wise and foolish brothers are very prevalent in the Solomon, Santa Cruz, and Banks Islands and the New Hebrides, where they are of the second type, in that, instead of the usual two brothers, we have a group of ten or twelve.

In the Banks Islands to Qat is the great hero, and many tales are told of him and his eleven brothers, all of whom were named Tagaro, one being Tagaro the Wise, and one Tagaro the Foolish." In the stories told in Mota, all seem to have combined against Qat and endeavoured to kill him; but in Santa Maria, another island of the group, Qat has his antithesis in Marawa, the Spider, a personage who in Mota seems to become Qat's friend and guide. Thus, according to one tale," when Qat had finished his work of creation, he pro-posed to his brothers, Tagaro, that they make canoes for them-selves. Qat himself cut down a great tree and worked secretly at it every day, but made no progress, for each morning, when he came back to his task, he found that all that had been done the previous day was undone, and the tree-trunk made solid again. On finishing work one night, he determined to watch, and accordingly, making himself of very small size, he hid under a large chip which he carried away from the pile that he had made during the day. By and by a little old man appeared from a hole in the ground and began to put the chips back, each in the place from which it had been cut, until the whole tree-trunk was almost whole once more, only one piece being lacking, namely, that under which Qat had hidden him-self. Finally the old man found it, but just as he was about to pick it up, Qat sprang out, grew to his full size, and raised his axe to kill the old man who had thus interfered with his work. The latter, however, who was Marawa in disguise, begged Qat to spare his life, promising to complete the canoe for him if he would do so. So Qat had mercy on Marawa, and he finished the boat, using his nails to scoop and scrape it out. When the canoes were finished, Qat told his brothers to launch theirs, and as each slipped into the water, he raised his hand, and the boat sank; whereupon Qat and Marawa appeared, paddling about in their canoe and surprising the other brothers, who had not known that Qat was at work.

After this, the brothers tried to destroy Qat in order that they might possess his wife and canoe. "One day they took him to the hole of a land-crab under a stone, which they had already so prepared by digging under it that it was ready to topple over upon him. Qat crawled into the hole and began to dig for the crab; his brothers tipped over the stone upon him, and thinking him crushed to death, ran off to seize Ro Lei and the canoe. But Qat called on Marawa by name, `Marawa! take me round about to Ro Lei,' and by the time that his brothers reached the village, there was Qat to their astonishment sitting by the side of his wife." 15 They tried to kill him in many other ways, but Qat was always the victor, and their plans were frustrated.

The element of the opposition of the wise and foolish brothers is better brought out, it seems, in the New Hebrides, where Tagaro becomes the chief actor and is pitted against Suqematua. "Tagaro wanted everything to be good, and would have no pain or suffering; Suqe-matua would have all things bad. When Tagaro made things, he or Suqe-matua tossed them up into the air; what Tagaro caught is good for food, what he missed is worthless." In a neighbouring island 18 Tagaro is one of twelve brothers, as in the Banks Islands, and usually another of them is Suqe-matua, who continually thwarts him. In Lepers Island 19 Tagaro and Suqe-matua shared the work of creation, but whatever the latter did was wrong. Thus when they made the trees, the fruit of Tagaro's were good for food, but Suqe-matua's were bitter; when they created men, Tagaro said they should walk upright on two legs, but Suqe-matua said that they should go like pigs; Suqematua wanted to have men sleep in the trunks of sago palms, but Tagaro said they should work and dwell in houses. So they always disagreed, but the word of Tagaro prevailed. In this latter feature we have the exact opposite of the conditions in New Britain. Tagaro was said to be the father of ten sons, the cleverest of whom was Tagaro-Mbiti.

In another portion of this island Tagaro's opponent, here known as Meragbuto, again becomes more of a simple fool, and many are the tricks that Tagaro plays upon him. One day Meragbuto saw Tagaro, who had just oiled his hair with coconut oil, and admiring the effect greatly, asked how this result had been produced. Tagaro asked him if he had any hens, and when Meragbuto answered that he had many, Tagaro said: "Well, when they have roosted in the trees, do you go and sit under a tree, and anoint yourself with the ointment which they will throw down to you." Meragbuto carried out the instructions exactly and rubbed not only his hair, but his whole body with the excrement of the fowls. On the following day he went proudly to a festival, but as soon as he approached every one ran away, crying out at the in-tolerable odour; only then did Meragbuto realize that he had been tricked, and washed himself in the sea.

Another time Tagaro placed a tabu upon all coco-nuts so that no one should eat them; but Meragbuto paid no attention to this prohibition, eating and eating until he had devoured nearly all of them. Thereupon Tagaro took a small coconut, scraped out half the meat, and leaving the rest in the shell, sat down to await the coming of Meragbuto, who appeared by and by, and seeing the coconut, asked Tagaro if it was his. "Yes," said Tagaro, "if you are hungry, eat it, but only on condition that you eat it all." So Meragbuto sat down and scraped the remainder of the nut and ate it; but though he scraped and scraped, more was always left, and so he continued eating all day. At night Meragbuto said to Tagaro, "My cousin, I can't eat any more, my stomach pains me." But Tagaro answered, "No. I put a tabu on the coconuts, and you disregarded it; now you must eat it all." So Meragbuto continued to eat until finally he burst and died. If he had not perished, there would have been no more coconuts, for he would have devoured them all.

At last Tagaro determined to destroy Meragbuto, and accordingly he said, "Let us each build a house." This they did, but Tagaro secretly dug a deep pit in the floor of his house and covered it over with leaves and earth; after which he said to Meragbuto: "Come, set fire to my house, so that I and my wife and children may be burned and die; thus you will be-come the sole chief." So Meragbuto came and set fire to Tagaro's house, and then went to his own and lay down and slept. Tagaro and his family, however, quickly crawled into the pit which he had prepared, and so they escaped death; and when the house had burned, they came up out of their hiding-place and sat down among the ashes. After a time Meragbuto awoke, and saying, "Perhaps my meat is cooked," he went to where Tagaro's house had been, thinking to find his victims roasted. Utterly amazed to see Tagaro and his family safe and sound, he asked how this had happened, and Tagaro replied that the flames had not harmed him at all. "Good!" said Meragbuto, "when it is night, do you come and set fire to my house and burn me also." So Tagaro set fire to Meragbuto's house, but when the flames began to burn him, Meragbuto cried out, "My cousin! It hurts me. I am dying." Tagaro, however, replied, "No, you will not die; it was just that way in my case. Bear it bravely; it will soon be over." And so it was, for Meragbuto was burned up and entirely destroyed.

Two points of special interest in connexion with these tales deserve brief discussion. One of the most characteristic features of Polynesian mythology is the prominence of the Maui cycle; and if we compare these Polynesian tales with the Melanesian stories of the wise and foolish brothers, there is a suggestion of some sort of relationship between them. To be sure, the similarity lies mainly in the fact that in both regions there is a group of brothers, one of whom is capable, the others incapable or foolish, whereas the actual exploits of the two areas are different. Again, it is only in New Zealand that even this slight amount of correspondence is noticeable. In spite, how-ever, of this very slender basis for comparison, it seems, in view of the relative absence of this type of tale from the rest of the Pacific area, that the suggestion of connexion between the two groups of myths is worth further investigation. This is especially evident in view of the second of the two points to which reference has been made, i. e. the similarity between Tagaro, the name of the Melanesian brothers in the New Hebrides, and the Polynesian deity Tangaroa, who appears in several guises, i. e. as a simple god of the sea in New Zealand, as the creator in the Society and Samoan Groups, and as an evil deity in Hawaii. It is not yet possible to determine the exact relationship between the Polynesian Tangaroa and the New Hebridian Takaro, but it is probable that there is some connexion between them. It may be that the use of the name in the New Hebrides is due wholly to borrowing during the comparatively recent Polynesian contact; 25 but on the other hand, it is possible that Tangaroa is a Polynesian modification of the Melanesian Tagaro. The general uniformity of the conceptions of Tagaro in Melanesia, contrasted with the varied character of Tangaroa in Polynesia, adds considerable difficulty to the problem. The final elucidation of the puzzle must wait, however, for the materials at present available are not sufficiently complete to enable us to draw any certain conclusions.

Home | More Articles | Email: info@oldandsold.com