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Trobriand Islands Mythology

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Qat has many associations with the sea and like another seafaring hero from the Trobriands he built a great canoe inland far from the sea. The Trobriander's canoe flew but Qat's tore a channel for itself to the shore and he departed, apparently forever, with many of the good things of the island.


In many parts of Melanesia, particularly Vanuatu, the encroachments of the Europeans took place with the same mixture of brutality and indifference that marked the process elsewhere in the Pacific. In other places, especially in New Guinea, the encounter was more gradual and even today there are isolated communities where contact remains minimal. In those communities the way of life of the people has been hardly touched by the ways of the European, and their myths, especially in their ritual re-enactment, continue to reinforce the intricate bond between themselves and nature upon which their survival depends. Yet such mythological systems are not static; they reflect the limited social change which occurs continually to all societies no matter how isolated. In the many other Melanesian societies that are in transition and have been effected by contact with a culture at vastly different as the European, myth has a dynamic role as an accessory to social change. And attempts to explain the white man's coming and his superior material culture are often based on old mythological themes.

The people of Tanga who live in a scattering of hamlets not far inland from the north coast of New Guinea have a myth about a certain woman who had no husband to protect her. One day she left her daughter alone and a stranger came and killed the child and buried the body. The woman learnt the whereabouts of the grave in a dream. She recovered the body, and carrying it in her string bag, wandered from village to village until she found a place to bury it and a man, the younger of two brothers, who would marry her. She had two sons by her new husband.

Small Massim pendant, Trobriand Islands.

By and by she visited the daughter's grave. Parting some coconut fronds she found salt water flowing from the grave, and fish swimming. The woman took some water and a small fish as food for her family. The results were miraculous. Overnight her son grew to manhood. Her husband's elder brother was envious and wanted the same for his son, so she directed him to the grave. Instead of taking a small fish the foolish man seized a large eel-like one. Immediately, the ground quaked and water thundered forth from underground, forming the sea and separating brother from brother. After a while the two brothers re-established contact by floating messages to each other written on leaves. It soon became apparent that the younger brother was able to invent and make wonderful things like boats with engines, umbrellas, rifles and canned food while the elder brother could only make copies. The narrator's conclusion was that this was why some people were black and ate yams.

For the people of Tangu this was no idle take, nor was it a recollection of past beliefs for the benefit of a stranger. It was one of the several versions of a myth offered the visiting ethnologist Dr. K. Burridge in 1952, in conversations about the rites of the cargo with the object of obtaining the white man's goods or 'cargo' for themselves. It is not really possible to say why the Tangu choose this particular theme of the release of the sea but perhaps it is worth seeing how it is handled elsewhere in Melanesia. For the way in which myths change under stress of contact demonstrates well the how and why of myth-making: the way in which elements are re-algned, re-interpreted and invented.

Early Massim pigs, Trobriand Islands.

This theme of the release of the sea is widely known all over Melanesia and is obviously of considerable antiquity. On the island of Dobu in Massim, New Guinea, it was believed that when the sea was released all the beautiful women were swept in a flood to the neighbouring Trobriand Islands while the ugly women were scattered inland in Dobu.

In these examples and in many others like them the consequences that flow from certain kinds of anti-social behaviour or disobedience seem to be much more important than the explanation of how the sea originated. So it is not surprising that in many other places besides Tangu this type of myth has been adapted and re-interpreted to account for the differences between white and black men.


Before the coming of the Europeans the Melanesian's knowledge of the world seldom extended beyond his immediate neighbours with whom he traded and fought.

The Trobrianders, who were fine sailors and took part in extensive overseas trading expeditions, had a broader world view that encompassed the few hundred square miles of ocean which they called Pilolu. Beyond this to the south and west were the lands of people with wings and people with tails; to the north they knew vaguely of a country of ordinary men - probably New Britain - and another extremely dangerous land, the island of women.

Each small community had its own unique way of looking at the world. Each had its own coterie of mythological beings whose names were seldom known beyond its borders. But the events to which these beings were involved tended to be associated with a number of shared archetypal themes. The way in which stock incidents, elements and themes of myths became linked in a kalaeidoscopic variety of combinations tempts speculation about the cultural layers they belong to and draws attention to the complexity of the area's cultural history.    

Emergence from underground

The northern Massim is a relatively homogenous culture area and there it is believed that the life which existed below ground was exactly like the one above, so that the people who emerged brought with them the rules governing conduct as well as the knowledge of special skills and magic lore. Amongst the Trobrianders, for example, each small sub-clan had an ancestress who emerged with her brother from a particular spot sited in a grove, grotto, lump of coral or rock. With each of these holes of emergence were associated certain territories including garden land and seashore so that each particular myth determined land usage and inheritance. One particular site on the peninsula of Kirawina was especially renowned because from it came the first creatures to emerge on earth. They were the iguana, the dog, the pig and the snake - the animal ancestors of the four principal clans.

Two Trobriand Islands Massim spirit figures believed to represent the two brothers as part of the band of brothers series of mythological representations of this particular item of Melanesian mythology.

Within the area, however, other beliefs both conflicted and merged with these beliefs. Various creative activities were sometimes attributed to Tudava, the roaming culture hero who taught the Trobrianders the techniques and magic of gardening. He distributed the knowledge according to the reception he received in each place, and this is why some lands only grow coconuts while others are rich in yams and other root crops. Some myths claim that Tudava was the first person to emerge in Kirawina, and that as the others came out he gave to each his totem. At that time Kirawina was the only land in existence so Tudava created the neighbouring islands by casting stones into the sea. Other versions of Tudava's life say that he was the child of an abandoned woman who was magically impregnated by a drop of water from a stalactite. The child grew up rapidly and destroyed the ogre who had driven the other people away.

The band of brothers

In the islands of the New Hebrides 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 of evil intent of one or all of them. In many other stories the emphasis is placed on the 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 Tanaro, who are from the Banks Islands. Many regard Qat as the counterpart of Polynesian Maui.

Similarly Qat's personality is fundamentally Melanesian. He fishes up land like Maui but in many ways he is closer to Nareau of Micronesia, especially when he plays the trickster. Like Nareau he has a companion, Marawa, who takes the form of a spider. On the island of Santa Maria in the Banks Islands Marawa countered Qat's life-giving activities by making death. Qat shaped men and women from dracaena wood and 'beguiled them into life' by dancing and beating a drum. Maraw did the same, but when his figures began to move he buried them in a deep pit. After seven days he dug up the lifeless rotting bodies and since then men have died.

Qat has many associations with the sea and like another seafaring hero from the Trobriands he built a great canoe inland far from the sea. The Trobriander's canoe flew but Qat's tore a channel for itself to the shore and he departed, apparently forever, with many of the good things of the island. The first white men encountered were instantly recognised as the returning Qat and his companions. Although there are other views about his ultimate fate there is almost universal agreement that he came into existence on the island of Vanua Lava when his mother, a stone, burst asunder. The stump of the tree cut for his canoe still stands there and many features of the landscape bear the marks of his passing. As well as having created lands, trees, rocks, pigs and men he is also said to have made women in the same way as the tall hats are made for the Qatu ceremonies; that is by making a frame of rods and rings covered with swathes of sago palm.

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 twittered he took a piece of red obsidian and cut through Night, making the dawn.

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. On the small island of Malo as Takaru, the ruler of the sky world, he mirrored his Polynesian namesake the great god Tangaroa.

The sky-maiden

Both Tangaro and Qat steal their wives in the classical manner of the "swan maiden" stories. Qat came upon a group of sky maidens bathing and bid 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 banyan root wound, and 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 to safety.


There is a belief in dual souls, one of which goes to an after-world usually situated wither on an island or uderground while the other takes various forms.

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By Jane Resture
(E-mail: -- Rev. 21st May 2002)