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Melanesian Mythology

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Melanesian society does not possess the sort of social stratification typical of Polynesia, where a nobility had a vested interest in establishing their descent from the gods. The typical Melanesian, if such a person exists, is not concerned with a hierarchy deities nor does his mythology unfold a sequence of creation.

In many parts of Melanesia, particularly the New Hebrides (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 contacts remain minimal. In these communities, the way of life of the people had been hardly touched by the ways of Europeans, and their myths continued 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 in all societies no matter how isolated. In many other Melanesian societies that are in transition and have been affected by contact with the culture as vastly different as the European, myth has a dynamic role as an accessory to social change. Attempts to explain the white men's coming and his superior material culture are often based on old mythological things.

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Before the coming of the European, the Melanesian's knowledge of the world seldom extended beyond its immediate neighbours with whom he traded and fought. Amongst the semi-nomadic Arapesh who lived on the mountains to the north of the Sepik River, the world was vaguely thought of as an island. The coastal Busama of the Huon Gulf saw their districts as the centre of the world shaped like an upside-down plate, and believed that anyone who travelled beyond the neighbouring territories had to climb the vault of heaven which was "solid like thatch".

The Trobian Islanders, 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 land 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. The earliest hybrid group in Papua New Guinea, the Papuans, are mostly found in the western areas of the south coast of New Guinea and in parts of the interior. A scattering of Papuan elements, including languages, are found in some nearby islands as well as in New Britain and New Ireland and the Northern Solomons. A Papuo-Melanesian mixture predominates towards the eastern extremity of New Guinea and the neighbouring small archipelago. The further one moved south the more elements predominates that can be called Melanesians, though distinctions can be made between coastal and bush people.

Melanesian society does not possess the sort of social stratification typical of Polynesia, where a nobility had a vested interest in establishing their descent from the gods. The typical Melanesian, if such a person exists, is not concerned with a hierarchy deities nor does his mythology unfold a sequent of creation. So earthbound is he that he neglects almost completely the more "elevated" themes which inspire the myths of Polynesia and Micronesia. He is not so much concerned with the origin of all men as with the origin of his own social unit, his clan and his moiety or his totem. This knowledge establishes his identity and defines his mode of behaviour; it determines whom he calls brother, and whom he may marry and the young people for whom he is responsible.

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Melanesian's cosmological beliefs tend to be vague and unformulated but most Melanesians do conceive of a time in the "beginning" when mythical beings dwelt on earth. In some places, these primal beings came from the sky, in other places they emerged from underground or merely came from somewhere else. The world was seen as apparently already in existence and they did play a part in shaping it. Sometimes, this included raising the sky. Almost always it included making or releasing the sea. The Iatmul of the Sepik River area say that the dry land was created when a spirit put his foot upon mud. 

Belief about man's origins were many and varied. Some myths say he came into the world fully grown either from the sky or from underground or was released from a tree. Other myths say he was created from clay or sand or that he was carved from wood. These mythical beings who acted as creators were not the sole creators, for each clan or sub-clan within the group had its own view. For example, some Kiwaians believed that their "father" was the crocodile and a modern account of the story had been written by Mea Idei from Boze near the Binaturi River. He tells how a being called Ipila carved a human figure out of wood and brought it to life by painting the face with sago milk. First the eyes open, then the nostrils quivered and the "man" made a noise like a crocodile. His name was Nugu but he was not satisfied until Ipila made three more men as companions for him. These men refused to learn the things Ipila wanted to teach them and turned their backs on him. After a while, two of them became tired of only eating sago and started to kill animals for food. Almost at once, they turned into half-crocodiles. Neither the animals nor Nugu and the other man wanted any more to do with them so they tried to make some of their own kind. But they found that they could only make men because Ipala sequently altered their work. From these new men are descended the people who claim the crocodile as their father. Ipala was so angry with his first creation, Nugu, that he condemned him to hold the earth on his shoulders for ever. The narrator concludes that these events explain why his people only know what they know - not why they are alive, nor what is happening beyond their part of the world.   

The Keraki Papuans of the southwest coast often say that there is a sky world from which the first beings came - these were called Gainjin. All agree that they went back into the sky when their time on earth was finished. The exception was the two Gainjin animals, Bugal the snake and Warger the crocodile, who still haunt the bush. An excess of rain is regarded by the villagers as a sign that the sky beings are displeased. They fear that the great rattan cane which supports this aerial world will one day break, so during heavy storms they stand ready to defend themselves in case any of the sky beings should tumble down.

There are many stories about how man was released from a tree. There are two Keraki mythologies, each associated with its own sacred site, and in one of the Kuramangu stories a sky being, Kambel, was curious about the unintelligible sound which issued from a palm tree and he cut it down, releasing the people. In the evening, a shiny white object rose from the palm and slipped from his grasp into the sky. It was his son, the moon. (Both father and son are associated with the moon).

There are also many stories about how man emerged from underground. The northern Massim area is a relatively homogenous cultural grouping 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.  Among the Trobiand Islanders, for example, each small sub-clan had an ancestress who emerged with her brother from a particular spot sighted in a grove grotto lump of coral or rock. With each of these hole 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.

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's brother's superior strength and astuteness. In other stories it is this very difference between the brothers' abilities which determines the outcome of events.

In a tale from Mekeo in New Guinea, one brother only has fruit to eat while the other eats meat. The former spies on the latter, and sees him enter a hill which opens at his command and then closes it behind you. A little later he emerges with a wallaby and two scrub hens. When the foolish brother tries to do the same thing, he was too slow and all the animals escape. The two brothers begin to fight but their wives separate them and send them off to fight an ogre instead.

One of the great heroes of the Kiwai Papuans was Marunogere. Before he taught them how to build their great communal houses - some exceed 300 feet in length - they lived in miserable holes in the ground. As soon as the first ceremonial house was built, he inaugurated it with a moguru or life-giving ceremony, which also aims at making men great fighters. The ritual with a dead pig did make the men great warriors and it was re-enacted yearly in the moguru when young boys crawl over the corpse of a wild boar decked out in the finery of a fighter. Marunogere also bored a hole in each woman to give her sexual organs and in the evening he was content to die after he felt the gentle rocking of the great house as the men and women were locked in the first sexual embrace. This part of the myth provided the sanction for the ritual initiation, during the moguru of the young boys and girls into adult sexual life.

For the Melanesians, the bush and sea around him is made dangerous by a great variety of supernatural emanation. There are special ghosts like those of beheaded men whose wounds glow in the dark. There are also the spirits doubles of living men. The mountain Kukukukus of New Guinea tell how a boy was approached by a spirit with the face of his mother's brother, who pierced his nose septum and inserted a bush fowl's bone. His real uncle found him and took him home. It was noticed soon after that he became a great fighter, so henceforth initiation included the nose piercing ceremony.

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By Jane Resture
(E-mail: -- Rev. 9th May 2002)