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MELANESIAN MYTHOLOGY

SOLOMON ISLANDS

In the Solomon Islands as throughout Melanesia beliefs about origins, not only of men but also of animals, plants, and social customs are frequently linked with certain archetypal themes, one of which is the myth of the ogre-killing child born to an abandoned woman.

         

Over many thousands of years successive waves of predominantly Oceanic negroids and later Austranesians (a Caucasoid and Mongoloid mixture moved out of South-east Asia into New Guinea and the chain of Melanesian archipelago which stretch south to New Caledonia and New Hebrides (Vanuatu) and east to Fiji). Each new group of immigrants either mixed with their predecessors to form hybrid groups or push into the less hospitable regions of mountain, swamp and jungle. The pattern of settlement was one of independent developers of innumerable small communities in relative isolation - a process that was constantly modified by external pressure such as minor migration, warfare, trade and intertribal social gatherings.

It is these factors that ensured the continuous diffusion of all sorts of cultural elements including myths. The manner in which certain stock incidents, elements and themes of myths became linked in a kaleidoscopic variety of combinations tempts speculation about the cultural layers they belong to and draws attention to the complexity of the area's cultural history. It is this diffusion that manifests itself in the continuing process that has produced the rich profusion of cultural patterns that characterise Melanesia today.

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On the island of Florida in the Solomons a tindalo, the spirit or ghost of a dead man who in his lifetime possessed great mana or power, was believed to retain this power after death. Sometimes a rough image was set up on a sacred spot associated with him, such as his burial place - sometimes simply in a garden, the bush, by the sea-shore, or in his village. The tindalo did not enter the image but it served as a focus for approaches of a propitiatory and supplicatory nature. Offerings of food and money were made. On this and neighbouring islands a tindalo might also take up his abode in another living creature, such as a shark, a snake, a crocodile or a frigate bird.

In the Solomon Islands as throughout Melanesia beliefs about origins, not only of men but also of animals, plants, and social customs are frequently linked with certain archetypal themes, one of which is the myth of the ogre-killing child born to an abandoned woman. Other related themes concern abandoned women who mate with animals or birds or abandoned children who are suckled by animals or birds. Very often one of two hostile brothers or one of a band of brothers is regarded as a creator. Then there are the myths about a snake relative who is killed and from whose body comes various forms.

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A carved canoe prow ornament of blackened wood inlaid
with mother-of-pearl from Maravo lagoon in New Georgia, Solomon Islands.
Attached just above the waterline, it represented the protector spirit of the canoe.

Several districts of New Ireland have stories about snakes as food producers and makers of totems and clans. One of these stories come from the district of Medina and is about Marruni the earthquake, who had a human body that ended in snake's tail which he kept hidden from his wives. One day they returned from the garden early without giving the warning signal and discovered him sunning himself. He sent them away and cut his tail into segments. He gave a clan name to some pieces and from each of these came the people of that clan. From others came birds, snakes, fish and pigs. Marruni is said to have come from the tiny offshore island of Tabar, which seemed to have been the home of the germinal culture of the area, and to have brought the malanggin or memorial rights for the dead with him from there.

Everywhere in San Cristobal there were stories about serpent figonas who were thought to be creators. Hatuibwari of the Arosi district was a winged serpent with a human head, four eyes and four breasts and he suckled all he created. The greatest of all these figona was Agunua who was thought to embrace all the others who were merely his representatives or incarnations. He made all kinds of vegetables and fruits but his brother burnt some of these in the oven, making them forever inedible. He made a male child who was helpless at caring for himself so he created a woman to make fire, cook and weed the gardens. The first drinking coconut from the tree was sacred to him.

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A carved and inlaid figure of a shark-headed man from the Solomon Islands. Sharks and other fish play a prominent part in Solomon Island Mythology.

A carved wooden image from either Mala or Ulawa in the Solomon Islands. The decoration is inlaid mother-of-pearl. The figure probably represents a spirit.

The theme of the ogre killing child is also common in the Solomon Islands. The monstrous creature who devours people has many different shapes. He may be an ogre or a giant in human or spirit form, or an animal like a crocodile. Almost always, the overkillers are twins, although occasionally the hero himself is a bird like a cockatoo. The method used to kill the ogre are various. In a story from New Ireland, there was a great devouring pig who caused the villagers to flee to the offshore island of Tabar, leaving Tsenabonpil behind because she had a swollen leg, so heavy it would have sunk the canoe. She mated with a bird and produced twin boys who killed the pig. The woman sent the pig's hair attached to a coconut leaf to Tabar as a sign. The fugitives returned and Tsenabonpil allocated them to different clans and assigned them their totems so that they would know how to behave towards one another. She also taught them magic and other skills.

A sea adaro, or spirit, represented in a wood-carving from San Cristobal in the Solomon Islands. British Museum.

 

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In some parts of Melanesia, particularly the southern and central Solomon Islands, there is a belief in dual souls, one of which goes to an after-world usually situated either on an island or underground while the other takes various forms. In parts of the Solomon Islands it passes into sharks, fish, birds, animals, men, stones and trees and as a person ages, his companions watch for a creature that buy its persistent association with him reveals itself as his future incarnation. Sometimes, the head of a man is placed in a hollow wooden shark and floated in the sea. Then the soul passes into the first sea creature that approaches it.  

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Jane Resture
(E-mail: jane@janeresture.com -- Rev. 7th October 2009)