Melanesian mythology

Mask worn in dances in which the participants represent ghosts and spirits. The mask is made of a light bamboo frame, covered with tapa or beaten bark-cloth. The fringe covers the wearer down to the ankles. Elema tribe, Gulf of Papua, New Guinea. Peabody Museum, Cambridge, Massachusetts.
These Tanna people of Vanuatu consider Prince Philip to be divine.

Melanesian mythology is the folklore, myths and religion of Melanesia — the archipelagos of New Guinea, the Torres Strait Islands, the Admiralty Islands, Solomon Islands, New Caledonia and Vanuatu. Professor Roland Burrage Dixon wrote an account of the mythology of this region for The Mythology of All Races, which was published in 1916.

Since that time, the region has developed new cults and legends as a result of exposure to western civilisations and their missionaries. These include the cargo cults in which the natives attempt to restore the supply of material goods which were a side-effect of the campaigning in this region during the Pacific War.


Melanesia falls into two geographic divisions: New Guinea with the smaller adjacent islands forming one, and the long series of islands lying to the north and east of it, from the Admiralty Group to New Caledonia and Fiji, constituting the other. From the anthropological point of view the population of the Melanesian area is exceedingly complex, being composed of a number of different racial types. While detailed knowledge of the area is still too fragmentary to render conclusions other than tentative, it may be said that at least three groups can be recognized. Presumably most ancient and underlying all others, though now confined to certain of the more inaccessible parts of the interior of New Guinea and possibly to some few islands of the Eastern Archipelago, are a number of Negrito or Negrito-like tribes in regard to which we thus far have only the scantiest details. The bulk of the population of the interior of New Guinea, of considerable stretches of its southern, south-western, and northern coasts, and of portions of other islands forms a second stratum known as Papuan. Mythological material from them is exceedingly scanty. The third type is that which occupies much of south-eastern New Guinea, together with part of its northern and north-western coasts, and forms the majority of the inhabitants of the islands reaching from the Admiralty Islands to Fiji. Strictly speaking, the term Melanesian should be applied to this group only; and from it and the Papuo-Melanesian mixtures the greater part of the myth material at present available has been derived.

It is quite evident that no adequate presentation of the mythology of the whole Melanesian area, using the term in its broader geographical sense, can as yet be made; the most that can be done is to present an outline of the material derived from what is clearly the latest stratum of the population and to supplement this, when possible, by such fragmentary information as we possess from the older Papuan Group. Of Negrito mythology, here, as in the case of Indonesia, absolutely nothing is known.


The material on the mythology of Melanesia, though incomplete and fragmentary, appears rather clearly to prove the existence of two distinct strata, one of which may be called Papuan, the other Melanesian. The former is best represented among the Kai tribes of the region north of Huon Gulf in German New Guinea, as well as by the Baining and Sulka of northern New Britain, and may be traced, more or less plainly, among the remaining coastal tribes of both German and British New Guinea; whereas it is much less apparent in the Banks Islands, the New Hebrides, and Fiji. The Melanesian stratum, on the other hand, is perhaps best developed in eastern Melanesia, i.e. Santa Cruz, the Banks Islands, the New Hebrides, and Fiji; though it is well represented throughout the New Guinea littoral districts, among the coast tribes of northern New Britain and in the Admiralty Islands. What has been called the Papuan type of mythology seems to be characterized by a relative absence of cosmogonic myths, by the prominence of ghosts, and by a general simplicity and naivete; and this category also appears to show an extensive development of tales of local distribution only, corresponding to the discreteness and lack of relationship on the linguistic side. The Melanesian stratum, on the other hand, exhibits a considerably greater evolution on the side of cosmogony, an especial fondness for cannibalistic tales, and a rudimentary dualistic character which is revealed in the many stories of the wise and foolish culture hero brothers. Further examination of this Melanesian type seems to indicate that it is by no means a unit, although, because of the character of the material, any conclusions must be wholly tentative. The following grouping is suggested:

  1. myths of general distribution throughout Melanesia;
  2. those confined more or less strictly to New Guinea and the immediate vicinity; and
  3. those similarly restricted in their distribution to Fiji, the New Hebrides, and the Banks and Santa Cruz Islands.

If now, instead of limiting our view to Melanesia alone, we include the whole of the Oceanic area and endeavour to discover the relationship of Melanesian mythology to that of the adjacent sections, it appears that, whereas of the two main types (the Papuan and Melanesian) the former shows little in common with any of the other Oceanic regions, the latter, on the contrary, exhibits numerous and interesting relationships with Indonesia, Micronesia, and Polynesia, and some even with Australia. The Melanesian type of incidents which reveal similarities with these other areas may be divided into four groups:

  1. those whose resemblances are only with Indonesia;
  2. only with Polynesia;
  3. with both Indonesia and Polynesia; and
  4. with Micronesia.

The first of these groups is represented much more strongly in New Guinea than in the eastern archipelago; and in New Guinea it is far more prominent on the northern coast than on the southern. It would seem to manifest influences from Indonesia which, in the course of migrations eastward, did not extend beyond Melanesia, and which were greater in New Guinea and its vicinity than in the eastern and more distant archipelagos. The second group—rather unexpectedly—is, like the first, more prominent in New Guinea than farther east, but is better represented on the south coast than is the first group. From the character of the incidents and their distribution in Melanesia and Polynesia this group itself would appear to comprise (a) incidents preponderantly Melanesian, borrowed by the Polynesian ancestors and carried with them into Polynesia, and ring 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) 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 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 proposed to his brothers, Tagaro, that they make canoes for themselves. 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 himself. 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." 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 Suqe-matua. "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 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 " 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; Suqe-matua 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 coco-nut 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 everyone ran away, crying out at the intolerable 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 coco-nut, 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 coco-nut, 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 coco-nuts, 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 coco-nuts, 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 become 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, however, 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; 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.

Miscellaneous tales[edit]


A very common class of tales in Melanesia deals with cannibals and monsters, and our discussion of the general or more miscellaneous group of myths may well begin with examples of this type. As told by the Sulka, a Papuan tribe of New Britain, one of these stories runs as follows. Once there was a cannibal and his wife who had killed and eaten a great many persons, so that, fearing lest they should all be destroyed, the people resolved to abandon their village and seek safety in flight. Accordingly, they prepared their canoes, loaded all their property on board, and made ready to leave; but Tamus, one of the women of the village, was with child, whence the others refused to take her with them, saying that she would only be a burden upon the journey. She swam after them, however, and clung to the stem of one of the canoes, but they beat her off, compelling her to return to the deserted village and to live there alone. In due time she bore a son, and when he grew up a little, she would leave him in her hut while she went out to get food, warning him not to talk or laugh, lest the cannibals should hear and come and eat him. One day his mother left him a dracaena-plant as a plaything, and when she was gone he said to himself, "What shall I make out of this, my brother or my cousin?" Then he held the dracaena behind him, and presently it turned into a boy, with whom he played and talked. Resolving to conceal the presence of his new friend. Pupal, from his mother, he said to her on her return, "Mother, I want to make a partition in our house; then you can live on one side, and I will live on the other" and this he did, concealing Pupal in his portion of the house. From time to time his mother thought that she heard her son talking to someone and was surprised at the quantity of food and drink he required; but though she often asked him if he was alone, he always declared that he was. At last one day she discovered Pupal and then learned how he had come from the dracaena. She was glad that her son now had a companion, and all three lived happily together.

Tamus was, however, more than ever afraid that the cannibals would hear sounds, and suspecting the presence of people in the deserted village, would come to eat them; but the two boys reassured her, saying, "Have no fear; we shall kill them, if they dare to come." Accordingly, making themselves shields and spears, they practised marksmanship and also erected a slippery barricade about the house, so that it would be difficult to climb. When they had completed their preparations, they set up a swing near the house, and while they were swinging, called out to the cannibals, "Where are you? We are here, come and eat us." The cannibals heard, and one said to the other, "Don't you hear someone calling us over there? Who can it be, for we have eaten all of them." So they set out for the village to see what could have made the noise, the two boys being meanwhile ready in hiding. When the cannibals tried to climb the barricade, they slipped and fell, and the boys rushing out succeeded in killing them both after a hard fight. The children then called to the boy's mother, who had been greatly terrified, and when she came and saw both the cannibals dead, she built a fire, and they cut up the bodies and burned them, saving only the breasts of the ogress. These Tamus put in a coco-nut-shell, and setting it afloat on the sea, said: "Go to the people who ran away from here, and if they ask, 'Have the cannibals killed Tamus, and are these her breasts?' remain floating; but if they say, 'Has Tamus borne a son and has he killed the cannibals, and are these the breasts of the ogress?' then sink!".

The coco-nut-shell floated away at once and by and by came to the new village built by the people who had fled years before. All occurred as Tamus had foreseen, and through the aid of the coco-nut-shell and its contents the people learned the truth. When they discovered the death of the cannibals, they were overjoyed and set out at once for their old home; but just as they were about to land, Pupal and Tamus's son attacked them, and the latter said, "Ye abandoned my mother and cast her away. Now, ye shall not come back." After a while, however, he relented and allowed the people to land, and all lived together again happily and safely in their old home.

Another cannibal story which introduces interesting features is told in the New Hebrides. There was once a cannibal named Taso, who came one day upon the sister of Qatu and killed her, but did not eat her because she was with child. So he abandoned her body in a thicket, and there, though their mother was dead, twin boys were bom. They found rain-water collected in dead leaves, and shoots of plants that they could eat; so they lived, and when they grew old enough to walk, they wandered about in the forest until one day they found a sow belonging to their uncle Qatu. He came daily to give it food, but when he had gone, the boys would eat part of the sow's provisions. Thus they grew, and their skins and hair were fair. Qatu wondered why his sow did not become fat, and watching, discovered the tmns and caught them; but when they told him who they were, he welcomed them as his nephews and took them home with him. After they grew bigger, he made little bows of sago fronds for them, and when they could shoot lizards, he broke the bows, giving them larger ones with which they brought down greater game; and thus he trained them until they were grown up and could shoot anything. When they were young men, Qatu told them about Taso and how he had murdered their mother, warning them to be careful, lest he should catch them. The twins, however, determined to kill the cannibal, so they set a tabu on a banana-tree belonging to them and said to their uncle: "If our bunch of bananas begins to ripen at the top and ripens downwards, you will know that Taso has killed us; but if it begins to ripen at the bottom and ripens upwards, we shall have killed him."

So they set off to kill Taso, but when they came to his house, he had gone to the beach to sharpen his teeth, and only his mother was at home. Accordingly, they went and sat in the gamal the men's house, to wait for him, and lighting a fire in the oven, they roasted some yams and heated stones in the blaze. Thereupon Taso's mother sang a song, telling him that there were two men in the gamal and that they should be food for him and for her; so the cannibal quickly returned from the shore, and as he came, he moved his head from side to side, striking the trees so that they went crashing down. When he reached the gamal he climbed over the door-rail, but the boys immediately threw at him all the hot rocks from the oven and knocked him down, and then with their clubs they beat him until he was dead, after which they killed his mother, and setting fire to the house over them, went away. Now Qatu, hearing the popping of the bamboos as the house burned, said, "Alas, Taso has probably burned the boys!" Hastening to see what had happened, however, he met them on the way and heard from them that they had killed Taso and had revenged their mother whom he had slain.

Although greatly feared, and capable of destroying people in numbers, the cannibals are usually pictured as stupid and easily deceived, as shown in the following two tales. In a village lived four brothers, the eldest of whom one day took his bow and went out to shoot fish. Those which were only wounded he buried in the sand, and so went on until his arrow hit and stuck in the trunk of a bread-fruit-tree; whereupon, looking up and seeing ripe fruit, he climbed the tree and threw several of them down. An old cannibal heard the sound as they dropped and said, "Who is that stealing my fruit?" The man in the tree replied, "It is I with my brothers," and the old ogre answered, "Well, let us see if what you say is true. Just call to them." Accordingly, the man shouted, "My brothers!" and all the fish that he had buried in the sand, replied, so that it sounded as if many men were near; whereupon the cannibal was frightened and said, "It is true, but hurry up, take what you will, only leave me the small ones." So the man took the bread-fruit, gathered up the fish which he had buried, and went home; but when his brothers begged him to share his food with them, or at least to give them the skins of the fish, he refused, telling them to go and get some for themselves.

The next day the second brother went off, followed his brother's tracks, imitated his procedure, and came back with fish and fruit; the third brother did the same on the following day; and then it came the turn of the fourth to go. He, however, failed to bury the wounded fish, but killed them, and when the cannibal asked him to call his brothers, there was no reply. "Aha," said the cannibal, "now I have got you. You must come down from the tree." "Oh, yes!" said the youngest brother, "I shall come down on that tree there." Quickly the ogre took his axe and cut down the tree, and in this way he felled every one that stood near. "Now, I surely have you," said he, but the youngest brother replied, "No, I will come down on your youngest daughter there." So the cannibal rushed at her and gave her a fatal blow; and thus the man in the tree induced the stupid monster to kill all his children and his wife and lastly to cut off his own hand, whereupon the man came down from the tree and slew the ogre.

The following story presents striking features of agreement with certain Indonesian tales. A man and his family had dried and prepared a great quantity of food, which they stored on a staging in their home; and one day, when the man had gone off to his field to work, a cannibal came to the house, and seeing all the provisions, resolved to get them. So he said to the man's wife, who had been left alone with the children, "My cousin told me to tell you to give me a package of food." The woman gave him one, and he hid it in the forest, after which he returned and repeated his request, thus carrying away all the food which the people had stored. Finally he seized the woman and her children, shut them up in a cave, and went away, so that when the husband returned, he found his house empty. Searching about, he at last heard his wife calling to him from the cave where she had been imprisoned, and she told him how the cannibal, after stealing their food, had taken her and the children. Hard though her husband tried, he could not open the cave, but was forced to sit there helpless while his wife and family starved to death, after which he returned to his town and plaited the widower's wristlets and arm-bands for himself. One day the old cannibal came by, and seeing him sitting there, he admired the plaited ornaments which the man wore, but did not know what they were. He asked the man to make him some like them, and the widower agreed, saying, "You must first go to sleep, then I can make them properly." So they went to seek a suitable place, and the man, after secretly telling the birds to dam up the river, that the bed might be dry, led the cannibal to a great tree-root in the channel of the stream and told him that this would be a good place. Believing him, the cannibal lay down on the root and slept, whereupon the man took strong rattans and vines and tied the monster fast, after which he called out to the birds to break the dam and let the flood come down the river. He himself ran to the bank in safety, and when the cannibal, awakened by the water which rose higher and higher, cried out, "What is this cold thing which touches me?" the man replied: "You evil cave-monster, surely it was for you that we prepared all the food, and you came and ate it up. You also killed my wife and children, and now you want me to plait an arm-band for you." Then he tore off his own arm-bands and signs of mourning and threw them away, while the water rose above the head of the cannibal and drowned him.


The theme of the woman abandoned by the people of the village, one form of which has already been given, is very common in Melanesia, and another version presents several interesting features for comparison. A woman named Garawada one day went with her mother-in-law into the jungle to gather figs. Coming to a fig-tree, Garawada climbed up and began to eat the ripe fruit, while she threw down the green ones to her mother-in-law. The latter, angered at this, called to Garawada to come down, but when she reached the fork in the tree, the old woman, who was a witch, caused the forks to come together, thus imprisoning her daughter-in-law, after which she went away and left her. For many days the woman remained in the tree, and finally bore a son; but after a while the child fell to the ground, and though his mother feared that he would die, he found wild fruits and water, and lived. One day he looked up into the tree and discovered his mother, and from that time he gave her fruits and berries in order that she might not starve. Nevertheless, he longed for other companions, and one day he said to his parent, "Mother, teach me my party that I may sing it when I find my people, and that thus they may know me." So she taught him his spell:

"I have sucked the shoots of dabedabe;
My mother is Garawada."

The child then ran off to seek his way out of the jungle. Once he forgot his song, but after hastening back to relearn it, he hurried away again and came to the edge of the forest, where he saw some children throwing darts at a coco-nut which was rolled upon the ground. He yearned to play with them, and making for himself a dart, he ran toward them, singing his charm and casting his missile. Not being used to aim at a mark, however, he missed the coco-nut and struck one of the children in the arm, whereat, thinking an enemy had attacked them, the children all ran shrieking to their homes. The next day he came again, and this time the children fled at once, but though he followed, he was unable to catch them, and so returned a second time to his mother. The children now reported their adventure to their parents, and the father of one of them determined to go with them the following day and hide that he might watch what happened. Accordingly, when the little jungle-boy came the third time, the man ran out and caught him and asked him who he was; whereupon the boy told him the story of his mother's bravery, and how he himself had grown up alone in the jungle, and then sang his song:

"I have sucked the shoots of dabedabe;
My mother is Garawada"

At this the man said, "Truly thou art my nephew. Come, let us go and set thy mother free." So they went with many of the villagers and cut down the tree, for they could not separate the branches; but as the tree fell, Garawada slipped away and ran swiftly to the beach, and there, turning into a crab, crawled into a hole in the sand. Her son wept, because he knew that his mother had left him, but his uncle led him back to the village and took him into his own home, and the children no longer were afraid to have him for a playfellow.

The theme of the swan-maiden, which perhaps occurs in parts of Polynesia and widely in Indonesia, seems quite well developed in the New Hebrides. According to the version told in Lepers Island, a party of heavenly, winged maidens once flew down to earth to bathe, and Tagaro watched them. He saw them take off their wings, stole one pair, and hid them at the foot of the main pillar of his house. He then returned and found all fled but the wingless one, and he took her to his house and presented her to his mother as his wife. After a time Tagaro took her to weed his garden, when the yams were not yet ripe, and as she weeded and touched the yam vines, ripe tubers came into her hand. Tagaro's brothers thought she was digging yams before their time and scolded her; she went into the house and sat weeping at the foot of the pillar, and as she wept her tears fell, and wearing away the earth pattered down upon her wings. She heard the sound, took up her wings, and flew back to heaven.

Another version adds that the returning sky-maiden took her child with her; and when Tagaro came back to find his wife and son absent, he asked his mother regarding them, her reply being that they had gone to the house and wept because they had been scolded about the yams. Tagaro hurried to the dwelling, but seeing that the wings were gone, he knew that his wife and child had returned to the sky-land. Thereupon he called a bird and said, "Fly up and seek for them in their country, for you have wings and I have not." So the bird flew up and up and up, and perched upon a tree in the sky-country. Under the tree Tagaro's wife sat with her child, making mats, and the bird, scratching upon a fruit pictures of Tagaro, the child, and its mother, dropped it at their feet. The boy seized it, and recognizing the pictures, they looked up and saw the bird, from whom they learned that Tagaro was seeking them. The sky-woman bade the bird tell Tagaro that he must ascend to the sky-land, for only if he should come up to her would she agree to descend to earth again. The bird carried the message, but Tagaro was in despair, for how, without wings, could he possibly reach the sky? At last he had an idea. Quickly making a powerful bow and a hundred arrows, he shot one of them at the sky. The arrow stuck firmly, and he then shot another into the butt of the first, and a third into the butt of the second, and thus, one after another, he sent his arrows, making an arrow-chain, until, when he had sped the last one, the end of the chain reached the earth. Then from the sky a banian-root crept down the arrow-chain and took root in the earth. Tagaro breathed upon it, and it grew larger and stronger, whereupon, taking all his ornaments, he and the bird climbed the banian-root to the sky. There he found his lost wife and child, and said to them, "Let us now descend." Accordingly, his wife gathered up her mats and followed him, but when Tagaro said to her, "Do you go first," she replied, "No, do you go first." So Tagaro started, and they followed; but when they were halfway down, his wife took out a hatchet which she had concealed and cut the banian-root just beneath her, so that Tagaro and the bird fell to earth, while she and her child climbed back again to the sky.

In its distribution the story of the Isle of Women presents a number of elements of interest. According to the version from New Britain, a man one day set some snares in a tree to catch pigeons. One of the birds was caught, but succeeded in tearing the snare loose and flew away over the sea. The man, thinking to secure it, followed it in his canoe, and after having paddled all day and all night, in the morning he saw an island and the bird perched upon a tree. Carefully concealing his canoe, he started after the bird, but hearing people coming, he hurriedly climbed into a tree and hid himself. The tree stood directly over a spring, and soon many women appeared, coming to get water. One of them preceded the others, and as she stooped to dip up water, she saw the reflection of the man in the surface of the pool; whereupon she called out to her companions, "I will fill your water-vessels for you," for she did not wish the others to know that there was a man in the tree. When all the vessels had been filled and the women had started to return home, she secretly left her sun-shield behind; and after they had gone a little way, she said, "Oh, I left my sun-shield! Do you all go on, I will catch up." So she went back to the spring, and calling to the man to come down, she asked him to marry her, and he agreed. She took him to her house and secreted him there, and thus she alone of all the women had a man for her husband; for all the rest had only tortoises. In due time she had a child, at which the other women were envious and asked her how her human child had been born but she refused to disclose her secret, although by and by she confided to her sister that she had found a man and agreed to let her also become his wife. When later her sister bore a child, the other women were again curious, and at last discovering the secret, each and every one of them wished to have the man for her husband, and they paid the sisters to let them all marry the man and become his wives; so that the man had very many spouses. After the man's first child had grown, he determined to leave the island; and accordingly, uncovering his canoe, which he had concealed, he paddled away to his own home, where he saw the signs that were put up in the house of the dead, for all thought him drowned. It was evening when he reached his village, and as he rapped on the drum to let his wife know that he had returned, she called out, "Who is there?" to which he answered, "It is I." She lit a torch and came out of the house and looked at him; but was angry, and saying, "You are the one who caused us to spend all our bead-money in vain on your funeral ceremonies, while you have been living shamelessly with other wives, she seized an axe and struck him so that he died.

Of tales in which inanimate objects become persons or act as such, and which arc apparently characteristic of the Melanesian area, we may take an example from German New Guinea. One night, while two women were sleeping in a house, a tapa-beater transformed itself into a woman resembling one of the pair, and waking the other, said to her, "Come, it is time for us to go fishing." So the woman arose, and they took torches and went out to sea in a canoe. After a while she saw an island of drift-wood, and as the dawn came on, perceived that her companion had turned into a tapa-beater, whereupon she said: "Oh, the tapa-beater has deceived me. While we were talking in the evening, it was standing in the corner and heard us, and in the night it came and deceived me." Landing her on the island, the tapa-beater paddled away and abandoned her; but she sought for food, and found a sea-eagle's egg which she held in her hand until it broke and hatched out a young bird, for which she cared until it grew large. Then the bird would fly off and get fish for her to eat, and also brought her a fire-brand, so that she could cook her food. Her great desire, however, was to return to her home; but when the bird said that he would carry her to the shore, she doubted whether he was strong enough. Then the bird seized a great log of wood and showed her that he could lift that, so she finally trusted him and thus was borne safely back to her own island. Her parents were delighted to see her, and she petted and fed the bird who had taken care of her so well; but since the sea-eagle could not be content, it flew away. Then the woman told her parents how the tapa-beater had deceived and kidnapped her; and her father was angry, and building a great fire, he threw the tapa-beater into it and burned it up.


Equally typical of Melanesia are the many tales of ghosts; and an example from the Kai, a Papuan tribe of German New Guinea, runs as follows. One day a number of brothers who were gathering material for making arm-bands had climbed into a great tree, when the youngest made a mis-step, and falling to the ground, was killed. The other brothers, who could not see what had happened because of the thick foliage, called out, "What was that which fell?" The ghost of the dead brother, however, still stood in the tree and said, "I stepped on a dead branch which broke," and thus lying to his brothers, he descended from the tree before them, wrapped his body in leaves, and hid it. When his brothers came down, the ghost went along with them, but on the way he suddenly said, "Oh! I forgot and left something at that tree. Wait for me till I get it." Accordingly, they waited while the ghost went back, picked up his body, and brought it along, but hid it again before he came to the place where his brothers were. Then they all went on toward the village; but after a while he repeated the trick several times until his brothers, becoming suspicious, watched and found out how they had been deceived. Thereupon they all fled, and coming to the village, cried out, "We have seen something mysterious. Shut your doors." So all the people obeyed, all but an old woman and her grandson, for she had not heard the warning and left her door open.

By and by the ghost came, carrying his body on his back. He tried to throw his corpse into the first house, but it struck against the closed door and fell down again; so he picked it up and cast it at the next with like result. Thus he tried them all until he came to the last house, in which the old woman lived; and here, because the door was open, the ghost succeeded and threw his body into the house. Quickly the old woman seized the bundle and tossed it out again, but the ghost caught it and hurled it back. Thus they continued to send the body to and fro; but at last the old woman seized her grandson by mistake and threw him out, at which the ghost cried, "That is great! Now you have given me something to eat." The old woman then said, "Throw him back again," but the ghost replied, thinking to cheat her, "Do you first throw out my body. Then I will throw him back." So they argued until dawn was near, when the old woman shouted, "The dawn is coming. Does that mean something for you or for me?" Since the ghost replied, "For me!" the woman delayed until the day had come. The light of the sun put the ghost in danger, so he threw the grandson back and received his own body in return; but being no longer able to conceal himself, he was changed into a wild taro-plant, while his body became a piece of bark.


In many parts of Melanesia a type of tale is found which seems to be rare in Polynesia and Indonesia, but is, on the other hand, common in Australia, i.e. the stories told to account for peculiar markings or characteristics of different animals, plants, or inanimate things. In the Banks Islands it is said that a rat and a rail, once finding a gariga-tree full of ripe fruit, disputed which should climb the tree. At last the rat went up, but instead of throwing ripe fruit down to the rail, he ate them himself and tossed down only stones. Finding that the rat refused to give him any fully ripe fruit, the bird said, "Throw me down that one. It is only red ripe," whereupon the rat took the fruit and tossed it at the rail, so that it hit him on his forehead and stuck fast. The rail was angry, and as the rat came down from the tree, he thrust the unfolded leaf of a dracaena into the rat's rump, where it stuck fast. So the tail of the rat is the leaf of the dracaena that the rail put there, and the red lump on the head of the rail is the gariga-fruit which the rat threw at him.

In Lepers Island in the New Hebrides the origin of good and bad yams is given as follows. One day a hen and her ten chickens came across a wild yam, which got up after a while and ate one of the chickens. The survivors called to a kite, which said to the hen, "Put the chickens under me," and when the yam came and asked the kite where the chickens were, the bird replied, "I don't know." Thereupon the yam scolded the kite, and the latter, seizing the yam, flew high into the air and dropped it to the ground. Then another kite took it up and let it fall, so that the yam was broken into two parts; and thus the two kites divided the yam between them, whence some yams are good and some are bad.

The story of how the turtle got his shell is told as follows in British New Guinea. The turtle and the wallaby, being hungry one day, went together to the hombill's garden and began to eat his bananas and sugar-cane. While they were thus engaged, the birds were preparing a feast, and Binama, the hornbill, asked one of them to go to the shore for some salt water with which to flavour the food. Several made excuses, for they feared that an enemy might kill them, but at last the wagtail agreed to go, and on the way passed through Binama's garden, where he saw the wallaby and the turtle feasting. The turtle was much frightened at being discovered and said, "Your master bade us eat his bananas, for we were hungry." The wagtail knew that this was not true, but said nothing, got the sea-water, and returning to the village by another path, cried out, "Friends, the turtle and the wallaby are eating in our master's garden." Then all the people were angry, and getting their spears, they ran and surrounded the garden. The wallaby, seeing his danger, made a tremendous leap and escaped, but the turtle, having no means of flight, was caught and carried prisoner to Binama's house, where he was tied to a pole and laid upon a shelf until the morrow, when Binama and the others went to get food to make a feast, at which they intended to kill the turtle. Only Binama's children were left in the house, and the turtle, speaking softly to them, said, "Loosen my bonds, O children, that we may play together." This the children did and then, at the turtle's request, got the best of their father's ornaments, which the turtle donned and wore as he crawled about. This amused the children and they laughed loudly, for the turtle had put a great bead necklace about his neck and shell armlets on his arms and a huge wooden bowl on his back. By and by the people could be heard returning; and as soon as the turtle became aware of this, he ran swiftly to the sea, while the children cried out, "Come quickly, for the turtle is running away!" So all the people chased the turtle, but he succeeded in reaching the sea and dived out of sight. When the people arrived at the shore, they called out, "Show yourself! Lift up your head!" Accordingly, the turtle rose and stuck his head above water, whereupon the birds hurled great stones at him and broke one of the armlets; they threw again and destroyed the other; again, and hit the necklace, so that the string gave way, and the beads were lost. Then for a last time calling to the turtle to show himself, they threw very large stones which fell upon the wooden bowl on his back, but they did not break it, and the turtle was not harmed. Then he fled far away over the sea, and to this day all turtles carry on their backs the bowl that once was in the house of Binama.

From New Britain comes the following tale of the dog and the kangaroo. One day when the kangaroo was going along, followed by the dog, he ate a yellow lapua-fruit and was asked by the dog, when the latter came up with him, "Tell me, what have you eaten that your mouth is so yellow?" The kangaroo replied, "There is some of it on yonder log," pointing to a pile of filth; whereupon the dog, thinking that it was good, ran quickly and ate it up, only to hear his companion laugh and say, "Listen, friend, what I ate was a yellow laptua- fruit like that; what you have eaten is simply filth." Angered at the trick played upon him, the dog resolved to have his revenge, and so, as they went on toward the shore, he ran ahead and buried his forepaws in the sand. When the kangaroo came up, the dog said: "Gracious, but you have long forepaws! Break off a piece of your long paws. I have broken off a piece of mine as you see, and now mine are beautiful and short. Do you do likewise, and then we shall both be alike." So the kangaroo broke off a piece of each of his forepaws and threw the pieces away, whereupon the dog jumped up and said, triumphantly, "Aha! I still have long forepaws, but you have only short ones. You are the one who deceived me and made me eat the filth," and as he uttered these words, he sprang at the kangaroo and killed him, and ever since the kangaroo has had short forepaws. In several cases the parallelism between the Melanesian and Australian tales of this type is very striking; its significance will be apparent later.


This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Dixon, Roland (1916), "Oceanic", The Mythology of All Races, Boston: Marshall Jones, Vol. IX, pp. 101–150 |chapter= ignored (help)



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