The Wayback Machine -
Micronesia - Aspects of Yap



According to Yapese mythology, the island of Yap, a long time ago, contained only a few people. There was only one chief and he was worshipped by the whole island which was populated by a mixture of people and ghosts. The chief heard about a very beautiful lady who was a ghost and stayed on a stone outside of the village. She was very evasive and each time the people tried to capture her, she would hide under the stone. The chief brought together all of his workers and slaves to try and work out how the ghost could be captured. As it turned out, there was a man in a group who had his eyes in the back of his head and so when he was going forward, he appeared to be going backwards.

A plan was devised which involved flying kites to distract the lady while the man would walk up and capture her with a net while he seemed to be walking in the opposite direction. The plan was successful and the beautiful ghost-lady was taken prisoner and brought to the chief.

The lady's name was Leebirang and the chief was Rugog, and they were soon married. Leebirang however became very lonely and so her mother came to visit her. All of the people of Tomil, one of the islands of Yap, were told by the chief to feed the mother, who had a great appetite. This they did, however, they soon got tired of it as the mother ate so much. The mother then had to steal sugar cane from the chief's garden. When the chief discovered that his sugar cane had been stolen, he set a trap and the mother was caught in it. This caused a great typhoon to hit the island with the seas being so high that everyone was washed away except for Leebirang and Rugog.

The chief and his ghost-lady eventually had seven sons and they were distributed among seven municipalities of Yap, and this is how the islands became populated again. In the 18th century, it is said that the chief's grave was dug up in order to find out how tall he had been. It was discovered that he measured over 7 feet and was the tallest among Micronesians. A dance was composed for him that is still performed on Yap today. 


Yapese people are known throughout Micronesia for their skill in traditional dancing. Dances are performed whenever there is a feast or on special occasions such as the marriage of a chief. It is not just one section of the society who dances but rather everybody is expected to know how to dance. As soon as children are mature enough to learn the instructions, their parents began teaching them.

Male dancers, Yap.

n some dances, men, women and children perform together. In others, only men do the dancing. Men, women and children dance together in the famous Yapese stick dance and the marching dance. A very common dance, the standing dance is performed by men and boys and when women perform the standing dance, the men and boys are not allowed to participate.

On Yap, men from different municipalities often compete with each other in dancing competitions. Men and women do not normally compete against each other as each specializes in different dance forms with the women being particularly adept at the sitting dance.

In the caste system of Yap, different castes are not permitted to compete against each other but rather they compete amongst themselves. Lower caste members cannot dance whenever they choose but must wait for an occasion when they are asked to do so by higher caste members. There was also a very common standing dance that is performed by women in the low caste. They can only perform when the chief tells them and they cannot dance in the chief's building. Whenever the chief wants them to perform, he will announce the date and the place where the dance will be held so that everyone can come and watch.


One unique feature of Yapese society is the traditional Yapese money of which there are five important kinds. The first of these is called Mmbul money which is about 2 feet in diameter. The second type is Gaw money which is very long and can be up to 10 feet in length. The third type, Ray money, comes in various sizes with the larger ones being 12 feet high and 12 feet wide. Shell money is called Yar and also comes in different sizes with the largest one being about 10 inches long and 5 inches wide. Finally, Reng money is quite small and is only about 1 foot in diameter.

The different kinds of money have different values. Among Gaw money, one called Angumang is the most valuable because it was the first one brought to Yap. Among the Yar shell money, one called Balaw is considered to be of most value. With Reng money, the largest and brightest, are best. A Ray money, called Rayningochol, is valued because it was brought to Yap from Palau by raft. Each item of Mmbul money has the same value.

Some Yapese money come from Yap and some from distant places. Mmbul is from the municipality called Aalipebinaw on Yap. Gaw was brought to Yap from an island called Ganat near Pohnpei. It is believed that Yar was brought from New Guinea while Ray comes from Palau and Reng from Yap.

Traditionally, Yapese money had many uses in the past, some of which are still practised today. For example, Ray is still used to buy land and the Yar shell money is still used to buy a bride. Money was also used to give others at dances - this was not meant to buy anything but simply to say thanks because the people were happy.


Magic has always played an important part in the lives of the people of Yap. Different magicians used their skills for different purposes while some magic is used for good purposes and other magic is the opposite. For example, one magician may use his skill for rain and when there is a drought, it is said that he can bring rain in a few days. He can also control typhoons by keeping them away from the islands or getting rid of them when they come. In doing this, the material he uses is a piece of stone. He can turn the stone in different ways to cause rain to come or typhoons to leave. Another magician has a special talent to deal with sickness and if people have an epidemic disease, the Yapese elders will ask the magician to get rid of it.

The people of Yap will go to a magician whenever something happens to them. For example, when someone is in trouble and it is known by the man who the person is that has caused the trouble, he will go to a magician for help. Magic will be used to solve the problem. However, the magician must first be paid and it is very expensive to buy magic that is to be used against another person. Also, on occasions, magic may be used by one village against another.

Magic can also be used in affairs of the heart. For example, a man may use magic on a woman he desires who does not care for him. He will go to the magician and receive a special solution which he must try and spread on the woman. This will make her change her mind and fall in love with the man. This solution can also be used by a woman if she wants a particular man to fall in love with her.

In doing their work, the magicians of Yap use many materials. Some of these are eggs, coconut fronds, crabs, bones, small stones and plants. In making magic, magicians will first find the particular material required for an offering to be made to the spirits. They place the offering in a shrine while holding coconut fronds that they can shake many times. They will speak to the spirit, call on their relatives who have died, and will speak the language of the spirit rather than in Yapese.

There are two different kinds of shrines associated with magic rituals on Yap. The first is called Tocue, which means altar in Yapese. This shrine belongs to a single magician and is located in a corner of his house. The second shrine is called Taliw and is much larger and belongs to an entire village or municipality. Taliw is not often used to make magic as it is considered to be a highly sacred place and magicians must get permission to use it. Only a magician can go near Taliw.

There are five main types of magicians on Yap. The responsibility of Ganiniy is to bring rain. Trur brings luck in fishing while Plaw has the power to bring success in navigation. Yaw is responsible for bringing victory in war while Dafngoch, has the power to increase population.


The vegetation of Yap is similar to that of the other high islands of Micronesia. Mangrove swamps exist on most of the shoreline with coconut groves beyond the swamps. The vegetation on the hills is mixed often consisting of forest, grasslands, bush and coconut palms. Large forest trees grow to about 40 feet tall on the mountain tops and about 75 feet in valleys. A large proportion of the hills and flatlands are covered with grass.

Yapese economy remains mostly at the subsistence level even though the land provides an abundance of food. The main occupations of the people are gardening, harvesting and fishing. The popular food grown are taro, yams, sweet potatoes, bananas, breadfruit, papaya, oranges, coconuts and pineapples along with tobacco. The people also raised chickens and pigs which are usually eaten at feasts.

The farming system on Yap is similar to that of some of the other high islands in Micronesia. Cultivation on the hills and uplands is usually done in small plots by individual families who find a different plot from one year to the next. The main food in the Yapese diet is taro which is normally grown as swamp taro or wet-land taro. Taro growing can be continued in the same plot by the addition of quantities of organic matter from one year to the next. Most of the crops grown are for local consumption.

A complicated system of land ownership and rights has evolved on Yap. There is no common land to be farmed with many landowners having tenants who pay no rent and make a subsistence living from the land. These people are obliged to give the owner something if the crops are raised for a profit. Selling of land is almost unknown with most property changing hand through inheritance. In the Yap caste system, the higher castes own the land and it is usually farmed by the lower castes.

The Yapese are excellent fishermen, and in conjunction with the crops grown on the land, the people of Yap are fortunate to have a healthy and varied diet throughout the year. 

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