Thursday, November 17, 2016

Whale vs Octopus, and other creature features (Following folktales around the world 2. - Federated States of Micronesia)

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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

Micronesia was an interesting country to pick a book for. Most folktale collections contain stories from geographical Micronesia, including independent island countries such as Palau or the Marshall Islands. This book mostly had stories from the islands of the Federation, with a few exceptions, so I decided it was close enough to count.    

Micronesian folktales
Roger E. Mitchell
Asian Folklore Institute, 1973.

This is a folklore publication, containing 81 tales collected by the author himself. Therefore, it has everything a reader, storyteller, or researcher could wish for: A detailed introduction about Micronesia's history; notes on tales and tale types, including the name of the storytellers; and each story comes with a short introduction pointing out its cultural elements and explaining some of the foreign terms, symbols, and beliefs. The stories have been transcribed from oral telling, which makes them both fascinating and sometimes hard to follow. I loved all the rich details about customs, sea life, the flora and fauna of the islands, and the many beliefs of spirit creatures.

I know. That's a squid, not an octopus
One of the most powerful stories in the book was, without the doubt, The battle of Whale and Octopus. Octopus' child was mocked by Whale's children saying that his father is weak and shy. As a response, Octopus challenged Whale to an epic battle (that he won). At first, I thought it was going to be one of those "weaker party wins by trickery" folktales... but it wasn't.
Micronesia, however, does have tricksters (who doesn't?): One is Rat, and one is a god named Olofat. The latter starred in a fun little story about recovering the stolen eyes of a chief's son (who used to take them out when he went swimming). Classic trickster.
Of course there is no ocean story collection without mermaids and dolphin girls. The former was a girl who borrowed scales from fishes because she wanted to live in the sea; the latter were playful spirits that granted their human lover the medicine for curing sick dolphins and whales. There was also a story about the origin of the coconut that I really liked - one of the gods volunteered to be reborn as human, and turn into a coconut palm after being buried. The other gods threw him a going-away party.
Handsome Micronesian chicken
I liked the story about a girl who was courted by various Micronesian birds, and her parents rejected all of them - they wanted her to marry a Heron, because they are hard workers, and not a Chicken, even though chickens are handsome. In the end, the girl chucked her dowry at the Herons' head, and went to live happily with the Chickens anyway. Herons did not get a good rep in many of these tales - there was even a story about a giant, man-eating monster heron.
Some stories were darker than others. One legend explained that in the ancient days people did not know that women could give birth naturally - they performed C-sections on pregnant mothers, killing them in the process, until a girl from a distant island taught them how to deliver a baby naturally. Another tale talked about a mother who was abandoned by her husband and died in labor. She turned into a spirit, and she continued to take care of her son, along with other spirits of women who suffered the same fate.
Other tales were definitely humorous, or at least had very endearing moments in them. One was about a foolish navigator who, when told to follow a star, stood in the back of his canoe, trying to point the prow at the sky, until it sank... The most WTF moment of the whole thing was the tale of a giant that got defeated and torn apart until only his rectum was left. The rectum washed up on a beach, and, according to the legend, it is still there. It came with a warning: Don't play with the giant's rectum, it brings storms and bad luck...

One of the most surprising parallel I found was for the tale titled The trapped adulterers. It mirrored the myth of Ares and Aphrodite almost perfectly. Instead of a golden net (that Hephaestos drops on top of the lovers to trap them), in this version there was a mosquito net. Still, the story was pretty much the same.
There was also a Micronesian version for Tortoise and Hare - this time, it was Hermit Crab and Needlefish swimming a race. Obviously, the former won, with the help of his family. Similarly, "Hansel and Gretel" this time happened with a little girl and two witches, who realized just in time that the girl was their own granddaughter, and raised her instead of eating her (whew).
And to wander away from European examples: I found an interesting parallel to "Raven steals the light" from the Pacific Norhwest - this time, it was Olofat the Trickster who pretended to be the baby of a chief's daughter.
There were, of course, smaller motifs that I recognized from other parts of the world. I found a giant fish swallowing children whole; mother cutting open the stomach of a spirit that ate her seven kids children; an island that turned out to be a giant fish; people walking on water; people stealing the Moon; even people eating soap bought from the Americans because they thought it was food (the latter two showed up in the Papua New Guinean volume as well). I was especially intrigued to find another story about a big mechanical bird that was built to rescue a stolen wife (I have parallels from Sri Lanka and Tibet).
And, of course, any collection with a vagina dentata folktale is a good one (bonus point to the author for having an entire chapter of erotic folktales). In this case, it was sharp clam shells instead of teeth. Still, ouch.

Where to?
Next stop is the independent island republic of Palau.


  1. Luckily I don't live in Micronesia, because the heron is my favourite bird. ;) To me it seems very weird that a rooster would be considered more "handsome" than a heron. Then again they are probably different breeds of chicken and herons that might look different. Are chicken even native or micronesia?

  2. Wow, that's quite an array of stories. The childbirth one freaks me out. I mean, how could they not know about natural childbirth and go directly to the cutting? :O