Monday, November 22, 2021

Tales of the Sea Nomads (Folktales of Asian minorities 2. - Moken)

As a sequel to the Following folktales around the world reading challenge, I decided to start reading minority and indigenous folktales. You can find previous posts here, and you can follow the challenge on Facebook here.

Rings ​of Coral
Moken folktales
Jacques Ivanoff
White Lotus Press, Bangkok, 2001.

The 44 stories in this book were collected in the 1980s from the Moken people, sea nomads who travel in their ships among the islands between Thailand and Myanmar. The introduction tells us about their lifestyle, the islands, the storytelling tradition, and the collection process. It was fascinating to read about the connection between the collector and the Mokens - like the shaman who secretly recorded an extra myth that the collector only found on the tape after he returned home. The Moken believe their epics have power: some of them can even summon a storm. The introduction lists the storytellers, many of whom were members of the shaman's family, but knew different stories.
Each tale comes with end notes, which are vital (but you have to turn the pages back and forth a lot). There are some black-and-white and some color illustrations too.


Several stories were about the origin of taboos and traditions. For example, in the story of Péma Alang a husband told his wife what not to do while he was harvesting swallow nests (combing hair summons sharks, shaking clothes makes wind, etc.). The wife did not listen, and her husband fell to his death in the caves. In another legend a captain, also called Péma, did not give respect to the monkeys of Surin Island (monkeys are revered by the Moken), and tried to fight them, so the monkeys, led by a spirit, bit him to death. In the story of Pinang and the Sea Spirit a mysterious woman climbed aboard a man's ship, and they fell in love. The woman told him not to kill anything that "comes from the sea and has eyes." (Especially turtles, although he wasn't sure if she was a turtle or a dugong spirit). Surprisingly, the husband kept the taboo.
Naturally, ships and sailing played an important role in the stories. I was fascinated by the legend of the crying rope, where a sea snake bit a ship's rudder, and its venom was so potent that it killed everyone on board. Then, a rope came to life, slithered into the noses of the dead, and brought them back to life. That rope has been considered a living spirit ever since.
According to Moken belief, the ebb and tide are caused by a giant crab that lives in a cave under a sky-high mango tree. The tree has other inhabitants as well: a Gaurda bird nests among its branches with its daughter, and below it lives a beautiful woman who seduces sailors and feeds them to the sharks.
In one legend the Moken sailed west, to reach the Land of Amber, and reached the Ficus that grew all kinds of food. There, they got shipwrecked, and the three Moken ancestors made their way back home three different ways: one on the back of a ray, one on the back of a giant bird, and one on an Indian ship.
I also liked the story about an evil giant who killed a woman and took her place; the woman's spirit turned into various things, and finally her son managed to break the spell, winning back his parents.

Image from here


In the epic of Nyonya, sung in the Malay language, Nyonya marries a man named Jawan Moda after her husband's death. When the new husband cheats on her, she flies home to her parents. Her husband follows, and manages to win back her respect by defending her island from an invading army with the help of monkeys and bears. The battle reminded me of the Ramayana.
Awang the Frog was a frog husband tale, complete with an epic battle, while the story of Kaét was a snake husband story (there were multiple of those in the book). Kaét's father killed her snake lover many times, but he kept coming back to life, and finally the woman, disappointed by her father's cruelty, took her family and moved up to the sky.
The legend of Kechot and Death was about a woman who met walking dead people on an island. The dead asked her to ferry them to another place, but she refused - that is why people do not come back to life after their death anymore.
As for tricksters: There was a Mouse Deer story, but it was pretty jumbled, as if the storyteller only remembered parts of it. At the end of the book, however, among the stories from other collections I found an excellent Mouse Deer and Tiger tale, with tricks I have not heard before.

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