Thursday, 8 January 2015

Creation Mythology: Polynesia - Part One


Today we are going to begin looking at the creation mythology of the Polynesians.  Polynesia itself means ‘many islands’ and the area of the Polynesian Triangle covers roughly 16 million square miles of Pacific ocean, including thousands of islands.  These islands include Hawaii, Samoa, New Zealand, Fiji, Tahiti, and Tonga, although there are many, many more.  While Polynesian creation mythologies have many similarities, they also have many differences.

Map of Polynesia, Micronesia & Melanesia
 
New Zealand and Maori Creation Mythology

The Maori people have inhabited the island of New Zealand since the 1200s and their mythology concerns ‘profound spiritual matters and the nature of Being itself.’  The following creation story involves the union of Rangi (Heaven) and Papa (Earth), with some versions including the supreme being Io.
 
Rangi and Papa by dreamsnotover
Papa and Rangi

At the beginning of time, Rangi and Papa, the sky and the earth, were lovers, and a number of children were born from their union but remained confined between their two bodies.  Papa gave them refuge in the roomiest places between her breasts and under her armpits, and she became known as Mother Earth.  As the children grew, they became extremely frustrated by the darkness and their cramped position and began complaining to each other.  Of all the children, there were six that dominated the group.  Tanagra (the fish), Rongomatane (the ‘Kumara’, or sweet potato), Haumiariketike (the rhizome of the bracken fern), Tanemahura (the trees and birds), Tawhirimatea (the wind), and Tuamataunega (the human).  Tuamatauenga was ferocious and suggested that the parents be killed.  At first this suggestion was well received, but Tane felt compassion for his parents and, after skilful oration to the council, had the proposal changed to separating the two from each other.
But not everyone agreed and Tawhitimatea whistled out his disapproval: ‘You are playing with foolish ideas here between the two; we are hidden and safe from harm.  Haven’t you already said they are our mother and father?  Be careful Tane, you speak words that shame us.’
Others spoke in turn and said that they wanted light and room to stretch their cramped limbs.  ‘We need freedom and space,’ they shouted.
The children eventually agreed to have Rangi pushed away into the distance so that they could remain with the earth-mother.
Tawhirimatea blew as hard as he could, but with little effect, so the council pushed the Wind aside.  Rongomatane, the father of cultivation, stood up and, pressing his shoulders against Rangi, their sky-father, tried to straighten himself.  They heard him puff and pant in the darkness, but nothing happened.  Then Tangaroa, the sea, added his strength, and then Haumiatiketike (wild food), and finally Tuamatauenga (war) assisted, but to no avail.

Tane Mahuta's Triumph by Jane Crisp
Tane, the forest, rose to his feet, and for as long as he could hold his breath, he stood silent and still.  Then, gathering all his strength, Tane stood upside down and, with his hands on Papa and his feet firmly placed against Rangi, straightened his back to thrust upwards.  A low moan was heard through the earth-mother as Rangi’s arms were wrenched loose from grasping his lover.  With a loud scream, Rangi was hurled upwards, and the angry winds rushed in to fill the space that opened between Rangi and Papa, sky-father and earth-mother.
Then, as Tane and his brothers looked around, the brightness of the light swept across the landscape and they saw for the first time the beauteous curves of their mother.  But, as Rangi grieved for her, his tears dropped upon her and a silver mist came to cover her bare shoulders.  Although Tane had separated his parents, he loved them both and set to work to clothe his mother with a beauty that had not been known before, not even in their dream during the time in the darkness.  Being creative was all new to him, and he made numerous mistakes.  Tane brought his own children, the trees, and set them upon her.  He was as a child without education, whose wisdom had not been born out of experience, and he planted some trees with their tops in the soil and their bare white roots in the air, and these were stiff and unmoving in the breeze.
As the tired Tane rested against one of these trees, he frowned at the strange sight.  Where could he put the birds and insects that would bring glowing colours, joy, and laughter to the forest?  He took a giant kauri tree and pushed it over, planting its roots firmly in the soil.  There the kauri spread a glorious crown of leaves that made music in the breeze, and Tane knew this was right.
So the earth became a beautiful place, and the Maori people emerged from the bush to live happily in the open spaces.  However, Tane saw that Rangi was cold, grey, and miserable, thrust out into space as he was, and he felt sorry for his desolate father.  Tane took the red sun and placed it one Rangi’s back and attached the silver moon to his front.  Still there was something missing, Tane thought, and he searched up and down the ten heavens until he found a bright-red cloak.
However, being exhausted after the long search, he rested for seven days before he took the cloak and spread it over the earth from east to west and north to south.  Still Tane was not satisfied.  Although Rangi glowed brightly, Tane felt that the cloak was not worthy of his father, so he stripped it off.  A portion of the cloak had somehow become stuck to Rangi, and it tore off, and it is this piece that can be seen during some sunsets and some dawns.
Rangi and Papa were happy except for a time at night when Marama, the moon, was slow to appear and everything became dark again.  At one such time, Tane told them that he would go and search for some adornment to brighten them both.  When he heard a mysterious sigh from above, Tane knew that they were well pleased and set off in his search.
Tane wondered what jewels he could find for his parents, and he remembered the Shining Ones, who played in the great mountains at the very end of all things.  He travelled quickly to the end of the world, and even further out into the unknown, from where he could not see even the smiling face of Papa.  There on the great mountain Mauganui he met his brother Uru, and together they watched Uru’s children, the Shining Ones, playing in the sand at the foot of the mountain.
A Basket Full of Stars artist unknown
When Tane told Uru all that had happened, he too was deeply moved and roared out so that a sound like thunder rolled down the mountainside, and the Shining Ones came running up the slope towards the two brothers.  As Tane watched them glowing, twinkling, and lighting up the mountain grotto, he smiled.  Seeing what delight the children gave to Tane, Uru gave him a basket stuffed with the glowing lights.
The Tane picked the basket up and flew swiftly towards his father, Rangi, and placed a sacred light in each corner of the sky, and five glowing ones he placed in the form of a cross on Rangi’s chest.  Other tiny children of light he attached to Rangis cloak, but he left the rest in the basket, which can be seen hanging in the heavens with all the soft lights.
That next night, and every other night since, when the sun sank to have its rest, Tane lay on his back and watched his father shake out his robe till the heavens were filled with these adornments, the beauty of Rangi and the glory of the Shining Ones.

 
Creation Mythology of Nauru

The next myth we will look at comes from the Polynesian island of Nauru.  The myth tells of Areop-Enap, the spider god of Micronesia, who created the heavens and the earth, and resembles the ‘earth-divider’ creation myths of several North American Indian and Central Asian peoples.  Some versions of this myth have Old Spider swallowed by the clam shell; sometimes she enters the shell on her own; sometimes Old Spider is helped by a caterpillar; other versions have a worm help her.



Areop-enap by Alan Baker
Old Spider and the Clam Shell – Version 1

Before the sun and the moon and the land were made, there was nothing but sea and a vast emptiness above, and in this vast emptiness floated Old Spider.
One day, looking down from her lofty position in space, Old Spider saw a giant clam shell, drifting on the sea.  She reached down and examined the curious object to see if she could open it, but she could not, so she tapped it to see what was inside, and the shell made a hollow sound.  Old Spider chanted a magic charm over the shell and the two halves of the shell parted like the unfurling of a flower bud, and Old Spider slipped inside.
Inside the shell all was dark as pitch for there was no sun or moon to light it.  It was cramped, too, so that Old Spider could not stand up and hat to bend herself double to fit into the small space in which she found herself.  She began to explore the interior and feeling her way in the dark, she at last came upon a smooth, rounded object with a coil-like form – it was a snail.
She took the snail, and, in order that some of her magical power might pass into it, she placed it under her arm and slept with it there for three days.  After this time, she set it free to wend its slimy way.  Then she hunted around the interior of the clam shell once more, and this time she found another snail, even bigger than the first, and she treated it in the same way.  Then she turned to the first snail, who had not gone far for, as you know, snails are very slow, and she asked it:
‘Can you make this room a little bigger so that we can stand up?’
The snail said it could, and no sooner said than done.  The halves of the clam shell parted just enough to allow Old Spider to stretch her legs at last.
But it was still very dark inside the shell, so Old Spider took the first snail and set it in the upper half-shell of the clam, and made it into the moon, setting it in the place where the moon rises.  Now there was a little silvery light to see by, and in this light Old Spider saw a large worm.
She asked the worm the same question she had asked the snail:
‘Can you make this room a little bigger so that we can stand up?’
A Giant Tridacna Gigas Clam
The worm said it could, and no sooner commanded than begun.  With all the strength of his mighty body, the worm pushed and stretched and heaved until gradually, bit by bit and with a good deal of creaking and groaning in the joints and sockets of the shell, he had prised the halves wide open.  The upper half, raised high above his head, became the sky.  The lower half became the land.  The effort of this work caused the worm to sweat profusely, and his salty sweat ran from his body and collected in the lower shell, where it became the saltwater sea.  At last, with his task accomplished, the worm felt his strength ebbing away from him and he lay down and died.
Now sky and moon, sea and land were formed, but there was still one thing wanting, and that was the sun.  So Old Spider took the second snail, the one that was larger than the first, and placed it in the east of the sky, in the place where the dawn first comes, and it became the sun that lights the day.
And this is how, so the people of the islands tell, Old Spider made the world from a clam shell, many, many years ago.

 
Twig Mimic Caterpillar by melvynyeo
Old Spider and the Clam Shell – Version 2

At the beginning of creation, Areop-enap was shuffling around looking for food in the darkness.  Here she came across a clam which swallowed her and she found herself trapped inside.  The clam refused to open its shell, but, as luck would have it, Areop-enap encountered Rigi the caterpillar.  The spider cast a spell upon Rigi to make him strong, and he pushed up against the upper shell with his legs against the lower shell, but still the clam would not open its shell.  Rigi became hot and his sweat pouring into the lower shell, making the sea.  The salty sweat made clam thirsty and clam had to open its shell.  Areop-enap made the sky from the upper shell, and the Earth from the lower shell.  A snail which had also been trapped in clam’s shell was set high in the sky to become the moon.  Areop-enap used clam’s flesh to form the islands, weaving them with silk to create the plants and trees.  Sadly, Rigi, exhausted from his battle with clam, drowned in the sea.  Areop-enap wove a cocoon of silk around his body and set him in the sky as the Milky Way.

 
Creation Mythology from the Islands of Tonga

The islands of Tonga lie some 400 miles southeast of the Fiji Islands.  They are believed to have arrived in around 1000BC and are possibly descended from the people of Fiji.  There are very few Togan creation myths and, quite unlike the creation myths of many other cultures, in all of them the main elements of the Earth – the sky, moon, sun, stars, sea and land – are already in existence.  These myths also include Pulotu, the underworld. 

 
The Birth of the Gods and the Creation of the Land

In the beginning Limu (seaweed) and Kele (vase or receptacle) floated upon the surface of the ocean, entwined with one another.  The floated like this until they reached Pulotu and here they gave birth to Touiafutuna (a large female, metallic stone).  Touiafutuna awoke there and made a sound which can be likened to a thunderbolt across the great sky.  As she made the sound, Touiafutuna split apart and a set of twins emerged – the male was called Piki and the female Kele.  Time passed and again Touiafutuna began to tremble and groan, and she this time she brought forth three sets of twins – Atugaki (male) and Maimoa-alogona (female), Tonu-uta (male) and Tonu-tai (female), Lupe (a dove) and Tuku-hali (a sea turtle or snake).  The first set of twins came together in union and brought forth a son called Tau-fuli-fonua, and a daughter called Havea-lolo-fonua.  The second set of twins also came together in union and brought forth two daughters, who they called Vele-lahi and Vele-sii.  The last pair, Lupe and Tuku-hali had no children. 
Tau-fuli-fonua and Havea-lolo-fonua came together in union and brought forth a son, Hikuleo.  It was then that Vele-lahi and Vele-sii realized that they had no husbands and so they became the wives of Tau-fuli-fonua.  They gave birth to sons, Tagaloa and Maui. 
Tagaloa by Munzies
The three grandsons made the decision to divide the world between them.  Hikuleo took Pulotu, Tagaloa took the sky, and Maui took the earth, and they became the gods of each – although Hikuleo had power that spread across the earth as well as Polotu.  They, between them, commanded Tuku-hali to live in the sea and Lupe to live upon the land.  And this is the origin of the gods.
Tagaloa looked down on the earth from his place in the heavens and became tired of just looking upon water.  He commanded his son, Tangaloa Tufunga, a woodworker, to throw his leftover wood chips down to earth.  After a time, Tagaloa sent Tagaloa ‘Atulongolongo, his pet bird, down to the earth to see if he could find land.  On the third attempt, the bird spotted the beginnings of an island forming in the great ocean.  This island was called ‘Eua, and all the other islands were also formed from Tangaloa Tufunga’s leftover wood chips.
On another occasion, Tangaloa ‘Atulongolongo, as he flew through the sky, dropped a seed which fell upon the island of ‘Ata.  Here it grew into the creeping vine.  When the bird returned, it found the vine had rotted and within the rotting mass was a fat, juicy worm.  The bird pecked the worm into two pieces and from the pieces came the first two men of Tonga.  They were Kohai and Koau.  Another small piece of the work transformed into another man, Momo.  The god Maui saw that the men were without wives.  He travelled to Polotu and found the three men wives, and these couples became the ancestors of the Tongan people.

Maui by g0b1in

There are differing versions of the myth in which Maui, Tangaloa, or Tangaroa created the islands by fishing them out of the sea.  It is said that the islands would have formed as one great land had the god’s line not broken, leaving his act incomplete.  In another, Maui fished the land from the ocean as a single mass and hung it from a rope, only the rope snapped, leaving the mas broken from its fall and so forming the islands of Tonga.  It is believed that the islands would have sunk back beneath the sea, if Maui hadn’t slid beneath them prop them up.

Another myth from the islands of Tonga is perceived as ‘somewhat gruesome’ and is ‘an example of creation through the division of a primordial entity.’  However, the myth ‘serves to establish the sacredness of the sun and moon,’ which embody the divine child of the creators.

 
The Divine Child
 
In the beginning, all was dark.  In the darkness Vatea and Tonga-iti fought one another over a child.  Both gods said that the child was theirs.  After much argument, they finally managed to come to an agreement – they would cut the child in half.  Vatea took the top half of the child and squeezed it into a ball before launching it into the sky, where it transformed into the sun.  Tonga-iti took the second half and repeated the process, squeezing it into a ball and throwing it into the air.  But Tonga-iti’s half of the child lay upon the ground, bleeding for some days and this is why the moon is pale.

 

That’s all for today.  Tomorrow we will continue looking at the creation mythology of the Polynesian people.

 

Creation, Myths Old and New by Collin Jamieson

The Oxford Companion to World Mythology by David Leeming

The Mythology Bible: The Definitive Guide to Legendary Tales by Sarah Bartlett

Handbook of Polynesian Mythology by Robert D. Craig

Creation Myths of the World: An Encyclopedia by David Adams Leeming

Pacific Island Legends: Tales from Micronesia, Melanesia, Polynesia and Australia by Bo Flood, Beret E. Strong & William Flood

Religion and Cosmic Beliefs of Central Polynesia, Volume 1 by Robert W. Williamson