Monday, January 16, 2017

War and Peace and Puffer Fish (Following folktales around the world 8. - Vanuatu)

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

Once again, the story collection I found focuses on the oral tradition of a single island (Nguna) among the many that make up Vanuatu. Still, it was a very detailed sample. 

Nguna Voices
Text and culture from Central Vanuatu
Ellen E. Facey
University of Calgary Press, 1988.

This volume seems to have originally been the author's dissertation. It has all the trappings of an academic publication, with detailed chapters on linguistics, translation, culture, etc. While the introductory texts were a little dry, they contain all the information one could possibly wish for. And then some. What I loved about it was that the author transcribed the oral stories in a way that reflected the telling - text was broken up into lines based on the rhythm of the oral performance, worlds were stretched for length ("a long, loooong time ago"), or bold for emphasis, and sometimes we even got notes on the telling style ("[The storyteller makes a sweeping gesture]"). Short of doing an actual video recording, this was an amazing way of giving the reader a sense of the oral tradition in its original form.


I loved the legend of How the slit-drum was discovered. According to the story, in the beginning people did not know how to dance, and "theirs was an empty existence." One day a man went to his garden to cut sugarcane, and heard a bird pecking at the stalks. He began to dance to the rhythm of the pecking, and loved it so much he decided to copy the effect by cutting the canes and hitting them with sticks like the bird had done. People soon picked up the new fad, and slit-drums (see on the left) were created from trees.
The glossary at the end of the book told me that the bird called tapesu (the first drummer in the world) was probably a Purple Swamphen (see on the right). Pretty.

I especially liked that the many tales of inter-clan warfare were interspersed with stories about making peace. One of them told about two wise chiefs, Mariori and Masiloa, who ended the disputes by organizing a great big feast to all people. At the end of the feast, they divided everyone into new clans based on what they brought to the table: They had a fish clan, an octopus clan, a coconut clan, etc. (I imagine if disputes were settled like this today, I'd permanently be a member of the "I burned the pastries, but I brought soda?" clan).
In another tale, fish waged war on each other - or at least prepared to, but the whale showed up in the last moment and managed to pacify everyone. However, since the war was cancelled, they did not know what to do with all the weapons... until the Puffer Fish volunteered to take them all on. He has been kind of prickly and dangerous ever since.
The volume ended with two charming animal tales. In one, a turtle saved a dove who drifted out to sea - in exchange, the dove (with the help of a rat) rescued the turtle when people wanted to turn him into food. The other tale told about a hen whose eggs had been stolen by a snake, and how the ants helped her get the eggs back (after all the larger animals were ruled out, because she was afraid they would trample the eggs int he fight). The ants managed to bite the snake to death little by little...


There was a "magical wife" story - here, the beautiful woman was found on the seashore, and taken home by a fisherman (who hid her in the pig pen from his wives). Eventually she returned to her underwater home (like all magical wives do), but she left the power of divination to her husband.
Once again, I encountered the trick of covering one's eyes with something shiny, in order to avoid being devoured by a monster in your sleep - in this case, the heroes of the story put pieces of coconut on their eyelids. There was also a beautiful story about the journey of the soul to the next life. It was believed that the soul of the deceased would go to a tree that stretches out above the seashore, wait for the sixth wave to crest, and then jump down into the underwater realms of spirits.

Where to next?
Fiji. That will be out last stop in Melanesia.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for posting this. I'm always on the lookout for real peace stories in folklore; I'll try to get this book.