Monday, January 9, 2017

Female warriors, and the roots of life (Following folktales around the world 7. - Solomon Islands)

Today I continue new blog series titled Following folktales around the world! If you would like to know what the series is all about, you can find the introduction post here. You can find all posts under the Following Folktales label, or you can follow the series on its Facebook page.

For those people that like to think of the "Pacific" as a cultural monolith, I'm going to say up front that all the tales in this book have been collected from the Baegu people, who live in the northeast part of the island of Malaita. The more than 1600 square mile island is home to more than a dozen different peoples, all with their own customs and languages. The Solomon Islands are a country that includes 6 major and more than 900 minor islands. Think about this next time you design a sci-fi world where every planet is one homogeneous culture...

Solomon island folktales from Malaita
Kay Bauman
Rutlege Books, 1998.

Kay Bauman moved to Malaita in the 1960s with her two small children and her anthropologist husband; they lived among the natives for a year. Kay learned the local language and began collecting traditional stories (even though she had no formal training in ethnography). Most tales were told to her in a shortened form, since local legends are often chanted for long hours into the night (and some were not told at all, if the elders decided she was not allowed to hear them). The book itself is a pretty well done volume - it has maps, a decent introduction, and includes bios for all the storytellers. I had some minor problems with it, such as the fact that she listed Thompson folktale motifs, but not their numbers... The most annoying feature of the book was that comments always came before the tales - apart from spoilers, they also did not make a lot of sense until one read the actual story, so I kept flipping back and forth.
All storytellers were male (apparently, women were not allowed to tell stories). One of them still remembered eating human meat from his younger days...


I have to say that women rarely fared well in these folktales. At best, they were seduced with the help of love potions, but abuse and suicide were also fairly common. The great exception was two legends about Warrior Women, a tribe of amazons who lived on a neighboring island, and turned out to be pretty badass in the stories. In one legend, they rescued two wives stolen by evil spirits; in the other, they went to war to avenge the death of one of their relatives. Their leader was called Riina, she was as smart as she was strong, and she has actually been featured on the Rejected Princesses blog.
There was also an interesting tale about the origin of bananas and sugarcane. In this, a wife refused to sleep with her husband, and was abused for it; she fled to the world of spirits, and spent time happily dancing with them. Eventually she returned with the gift of bananas and sugarcane; but when her husband abused her again, she sunk into the ground, and returned to live with the spirits. Another beautiful image was the burial of a girl who'd killed herself out of shame. The roots of a life-giving tree grew around her in her grave, and the life-water seeping from them brought her back to life; following fissures in the ground, she came to an underground river, and followed it back to the light.
Many stories involved mentions of a bride-price. Women were bought as wives, usually for shell money and porpoise teeth (e.g. "ten strings of red shell money and a thousand porpoise teeth"). The image on the left shows a Solomon Island chief with such a necklace. I didn't do the math, but I kinda felt sorry for the porpoise population...

It wasn't in the book, but here I have to note that one of my favorite mythical creatures, the Boongurunguru, is also from the Solomon Islands. You can read about it here (wonderful blog, check it out).

Obviously, I once again found a legend about the origin of coconuts, and once again it involved a man being buried. This time, coconuts, betel nuts, and sago palms all grew from the same body. Another story that reminded me of multiple European myths and legends was that of a giant pig that ran away from the people who raised it, wreaked havoc on the island, and was chased by a large group of warriors, naming places wherever they went.

Where to next?

1 comment:

  1. Very interesting tales. The world is a vast place indeed. I've noticed with some countries a lot of tales with women and children don't end well. Some cultures are less stymied by age groups and genders when telling or creating stories. Nice series you got going.