Thursday, December 8, 2016

Sailing from story to story (Following folktales around the world 4. - Marshall 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

Still wandering across the many many islands, and island nations of Micronesia. 

Stories from the Marshall Islands
Bwebwenato Jan Aelon Kein
Jack A. Tobin
University of Hawaii Press, 2002.

So far, this book was hands down the most difficult read of the entire challenge. It is an excellent publication, but very academic when it comes to the texts themselves. It contains 90 traditional tales from the Marshall islands (from creation myths to folk beliefs), and each comes with extensive footnotes, references, linguistic explanations, and brackets within brackets inside the text. The latter made reading a little frustrating at times. Many stories are printed both in English and in Marshallese, and there are abundant footnotes, so it was not as long a read as it might seem. What it was, however, was informative. I learned a whole lot about the history, culture, language, society, customs, flora, and fauna of the islands, and whenever something was not clear in a story, I could trust the author to explain it in the comments or the notes. All in all, it was a challenging but rewarding experience.


Outrigger boat and a frigate bird
I especially loved the legends and tales concerning navigation. I love sailing, and seafaring stories, and the book had plenty of both. There was one about twelve brothers who arranged a boat race to an island, but none of them wanted to take their mother along... except for the youngest, who was rewarded with the mother's secret knowledge of how to build and use a mast and a sail. This story (About a woman named Loktanur) was not even the only one when navigation was a woman'd gift. In another one, a young girl named Litarmelu was taught by mysterious men how to navigate the sea between the islands. They towed her, with her eyes closed, all over the place, and occasionally they asked her to tell where they were exactly, just by the movement of the water under the boat. It was a long and detailed story of trial and error - beyond being an origin tale, it also doubled as educational text for passing down knowledge about navigation signs. Navigation signs, as I learned from the ikid (story-songs) in the book, can be many things, from the shape of waves to animal behavior (frigate birds, porpoises, turtles, etc.) or island landmarks.
I also liked the historical story of how an American ship got wrecked near the islands in 1883, and how the Marshallese helped the Americans survive and fix their ship. I especially appreciated that the author attached the other half of the story from the ship's journal... Apparently, while the Americans were scared of the indigenous people, the encounter ended up being fairly friendly.
Frigate bird
I enjoyed the tale titled Low Tide, in which two women were tricked by an octopus, and then retaliated by cooking it. The octopus' gigantic mother came out of the sea to take revenge on them, but they ended up chopping it into pieces. I am a sucker for a good giant octopus fight, apparently... In another intriguing story, a man had to find a way to tell his own wife and a shape-changing demoness apart - and he picked wrong (despite obvious signs, such as the demoness could not cook). It took a while for that story to reach a happy ending...
I loved the moment in the creation myths where two deities, after creation was done, came down to Earth to tattoo colors on all living creatures. From the same myths I also learned that the Marshallese have dozens of words for every phase of the life of a coconut palm...
And, of course, the Marshallese have their own Trickster too. His name is Etao (a word also used for mischievous mortals).


Maui is now also a
Disney hero
The most interesting connection in the book was not a parallel - but rather, an actual visit from another mythology. Maui, the famous Polynesian trickster-hero shows up in one of the stories to have a competition with local heroes... and loses. I don't often see characters from other cultures visiting like this; but I guess all the seafaring was bound to mix some of the stories, and of course cultural pride would not allow the visitor to best the local heroes. There were also Marshallese legends of fishing up islands from the bottom of the sea, so the mixing definitely involved more than some trickster-versus-trickster.
There was also a "magic flight" story (The legend of Anidep) in which the girl running from a demon threw coconuts back over her shoulder. Bursting open, the coconuts released thousands of ants. The demon apparently loved ants so much that he had to stop and gather them all - which reminded me of European fairies and witches that tend to do the same.
In the tale titled The boy who met Jebro, a fisherman encountered a canoe with seven identical boys that turned out to be Jebro (the Pleiades) itself. They gave the secret of eternal life to the boy, who lived several lifetimes until he decided to divulge the secret - and turned into dust on the spot. This reminded me of several "eternal life" tales from around the world, such as Oisin, Urashima Taro, or all those folktales where telling a secret makes you turn to stone.
There was also a completely random tree-climbing octopus in one of the tales, which reminded me of this stellar piece of Internet tricksterness.

Where are we going next?
The Republic of Kiribati.


  1. I like the bit about Maui showing up and competing with a local hero. It reminds me of in comics how characters like Thor and Hercules would interact. In ancient times when scholars would meet people from a culture that worshiped a different pantheon, they'd usually just assume they were the same gods with different names. Being an American boy raised on comics, I like the crossover concept more.

    1. Yes, I like folklore crossovers too :) There are not many of them, but they are fun!

  2. I admire what you have done here. I like the part where you say you are doing this to give back but I would assume by all the comments that this is working for you as well.
    sailing greece