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MELANESIAN MYTHOLOGY

VANUATU

In some parts of Melanesia, including the northern Vanuatu islands, there is a belief in dual souls, one of which goes to an afterworld usually situated either on an island or underground while the other takes on various forms. The route taken by the souls of the dead to the afterworld is usually well defined. If a spirit from Aurora in Vanuatu does not belong to the graded society or Suckwe he is as nothing and hangs like a flying fox from a tree.

         

The theme of the ogre-killing child is a common one on the island of Tanna. The myth is told that all the people of the island of Tanna in the southern New Hebrides (Vanuatu) were devoured by an ogre except one woman who hid under a tree and sustained herself on a root. She swallowed a stone and produced twin boys. They succeeded in killing the ogre whose name was Semsem by making him run the gauntlet of a series of weapons spread out across the island. They asked some birds to fly into his wounds and out of his mouth to test if he was really dead. When the birds reappeared, their plumage was red, so that the twins packed the body up and the people hidden by the ogre came to life again from the pieces.

vanman.jpg (9877 bytes)

A representation of an ancestral spirit, modelled in clay
on a vegetable fibre base. Such figures were carried on staves
by ceremonial dancers. The spirit was actually believed
to be present in the figure on such occasions.

The central characters in a number of Melanesian myths are two brothers, who although they have different names from place to place tend to be associated with the same mythological theme. They often share the laurels in ogre killing stories but sometimes victory is achieved because of one brother's superior strength and astuteness. In other stories, it is this very difference between the brothers' abilities which determine the outcome of events.

In the islands of Vanuatu, the antagonism between two brothers is extended to rivalry within a group. Usually one of these brothers, either the eldest or the youngest, has a creative role but frequently he is thwarted by the stupidity or evil intent of one or all of them. In many other stories, the emphasis is placed on his tricky behaviour or the element of conflict. The most famous of these bands of brothers is most certainly Qat and his eleven brothers all called Tangaro. Many regard Qat as the counterpart of Polynesian Maui; however Maui himself appears in the southern islands of Vanuatu. On Aniwa he is Ma-tshiktshiki, on Efate Maui-tukituki, on Erronan Amoshashiki, and on the Polynesian outlier of Santa Cruz he is Mosigsig. The only feat which these heroes share with their Polynesian namesake is land fishing. All their activities are typically Melanesian, including the defeat of ogres and the release of the sea.

Similarly, Qat's personality is fundamentally Melanesian. He fishes upland like Maui but in many ways he is closer to Nareau of Micronesia especially when he play the trickster. Like Nareau, he has a companion, Marawa, who takes the form of a spider.

A favourite story about Qat describes how he made night because his brothers were tired of perpetual daylight. First, he visited I Qong, Night, and returned with the necessary equipment, then he taught his brothers how to sleep and when the cocks crowed and the birds twitted he took a piece of red obsidian and cut through Night making the Dawn.

Image available upon request

This female figure carved in tree fern is a symbol
of the lon bul grade of south-east Ambrim.
Membership of each grade involves social responsibilities
as well as prestige and privileges.

In most Vanuatu islands, similar adventures were attributed to Tangaro (Tahar, Taharo, Takaro, Takaru). On some islands Tangaro had no brothers, only a contrary companion called Suqematua. In others, he had ten or twelve brothers and the maverick Suqe as well. Very often, he had the status of a deity.

Both Tangaro and Qat steal their wives in the classical manner of the "swan maiden" story. Qat came upon a group of sky maidens bathing and hid one pair of wings so that one girl had to remain behind. One day, Qat's mother reproached her daughter-in-law and the girl wept. Her tears washed away the earth covering her wings and she put them on and flew away. Qat shot an arrow-chain into the sky down which a banyon root wound, and he climbed after her into the sky world. He met a man hoeing a garden and begged him not to disturb the root until he was safely down again, but as he descended with his wife, the root snapped and he plunged to his death, while she flew safely away.

vanhorns.jpg (14740 bytes)

In the New Hebrides (Vanuatu) social status depends on a man's rank in the graded society. He makes his progress from grade to grade by payment - in pigs whose upper incisors have been removed, so that the lower ones develop into tusks which can then grow into a complete circle after penetrating the lower jaw; this takes seven years. The semi-circular tusks in the jawbone illustrated here are much prized. (British Museum) 

In some parts of Melanesia, including the northern Vanuatu islands, there is a belief in dual souls, one of which goes to an afterworld usually situated either on an island or underground while the other takes on various forms. The route taken by the souls of the dead to the afterworld is usually well defined. If a spirit from Aurora in Vanuatu does not belong to the graded society or Suckwe he is as nothing and hangs like a flying fox from a tree. In addition, the fate of a man's soul depends not only on his own conduct but also on the care with which his relatives carry out the necessary funerary rites.   

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(E-mail: jane@janeresture.com -- Rev. 5th October 2009)