Thursday, December 1, 2016

Tales in color and style (Following folktales around the world 3. - Palau)

Today is Folklore Thursday on social media! If you want to find out more, follow this link, or click on the #FolkloreThursday hashtag on Twitter! Hosted by @FolkloreThursday.

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

It is getting more and more difficult to find books for the islands I'm looking at. This time I accidentally ran into a small little volume in a digital archive. The upside: You can read it online too!

The Palauan handicraft guidebook, and 30 Storyboard stories
Goree Ramarui, Rita Limberg
Palau Community Action Committee, 1970.
(Online here)

This tiny collection is only 24 pages long - but it still contain the condensed version on no less than 30 folktales and legends, and even the bare bones are very much enjoyable. The book(let) opens with introducing the traditional crafts of Palau, ending on storyboards.

Storyboards are a traditional Palauan art form - they are essentially traditional stories carved out in a narrative, visual format. They used to decorate the rafters of men's gathering houses, but recently they have also been produced in smaller, more portable sizes for trade. According to the book, there are more than two hundred commonly carved stories - out of which these 30 were selected. The most popular ones were marked with an asterisk. Even in their condensed form, each tale included their most recognizable visual elements. For example, in the storyboard below you can see the tale of the magic breadfruit tree - the tide would push fish through the hollow trunk and the hollow branches, so it was easy for people to gather them. Eventually, as usual, envy and greediness ended the good times (you can read the story in the book). I was happy when I found this picture and recognized the story.

source of image

One of my favorite stories was the one about a "dandy," Ngiratumerang, who was accused by other men of being a coward. In order to prove them wrong, he went and found a master to teach him the martial arts. In the next battle, he killed five of the enemy's best warriors, proving everyone wrong. I especially liked the way he proved his courage to the master: He climbed a tall, thin betel nut tree until it bowed all the way down and he had to reach the top upside-down.
Another fun story was that of Skin and Bones, who used to be brothers. One day, they were attacked unexpectedly. Since Bones did not want to drag his skin-sack brother after him, he put Skin on like a shirt... and ever since then, we have skeletons inside out body.
This was by far not the only amusing story in the book. I also liked the one where a god fought another god by throwing various sea creatures (including rabbitfish) after him. Or the one about how two young lovers discovered the 15-day nesting cycle of sea turtles, because an unsuspecting turtle made off with the girl's discarded grass skirt, and only appeared again 15 days later...
There was even a tale about where the first dugong came from. According to legend, she had been the daughter of an overbearing mother, who eventually ran away into the sea.

Picture from here
I found a tale very similar to the fruit bat boy story in the Papua New Guinean collection. In this case, the single mother was rescued by her human son and owl daughter from a terrifying sea serpent.
I found another version about the origin of Palauan money (see image on the right). I also learned that the legendary Yapese giganic stone coins were also brought from this island. I also found a second version about how women originally gave birth via C-section - in this one, it was not another girl who taught them better (like in the Micronesian collection), but the spider-god husband of a pregnant woman. There was another monster-heron (this time, defeated by a spear-throwing technique learned from actual herons), and another vagina dentata, this time with two biting eels hidden in the wife's lady parts... I expected to see more Palauan stories repeated from the previous collection, but I was happy to find that most of the 30 were new to me. As short a read as it was, it was definitely enjoyable.

Where to?
The Marshall Islands.


  1. I guess folk tales and the like is what happens when people don't have TV and resort to their own imaginations and stories passed down to them. I doubt whether there is much of a tale-telling tradition in the U.S. or most other media saturated areas.

    Arlee Bird
    Tossing It Out

    1. Actually, folktales well predate the appearance of television :) Also, the USA has a whole lot of tale-telling that is still happening today. I have a bibliography of American folktales that I usually hand out to my students.