Myths and Legends


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Samoa is only one island group out of many in the Pacific, but it is much more than this in the legends of the Gilbertese people. It was the predominant place, the main centre which the spirits left when they moved into the Gilbert Islands. Some moved there again. This process of spirit movement went on for a long time. Then the spirits became anti ma aomata (half spirit and half human). These remained in the Gilbert Islands and only travelled within the group. Much later they changed into human beings.

Despite the variations that exists between islands in the Gilbert Group, most Gilbertese people believe their ancestors were spirits, some created in Samoa and some in the Gilberts, and that it was the movement from Samoa which populated the Gilbert Islands for the first time. Modern researchers would agree that a recent migration did probably occur from Samoa to the Gilberts by 500 to 600 years ago. They were not, however the first people to populate the Gilbert Islands.

There is a growing amount of evidence that suggests that the Gilbert Islands had been inhabited for at least 3000 years, and that the ancient origin of the migrants was Southeast Asia. The precise route that the first settlers follow to the Gilbert Islands is still uncertain, but there is little doubt today that they were part of a much larger movement of people from the Southeast Asia/Indonesia area into the Pacific.

Much of the evidence to support this is based on a study of the Gilbertese language. The Gilbertese language, for example, belongs to the very large Austronesian language family which evolved in Southeast Asia and began to spread into the Pacific about 5000 years ago. With the exception of some societies in the Solomon Islands and New Guinea, all languages in the Pacific including Gilbertese belong to this family.

A study of plant in the Pacific in recent years has also revealed some important evidence about the migrations of people. With few exceptions, all useful food and fibre plants found today in the Pacific islands originated outside the Pacific. All the important plants used by Gilbertese, the coconut, breadfruit, babai and pandanus, are native to the Southeast Asia/Indonesia area. Researchers can only conclude that they must have been brought to the islands by the early settlers.

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According to the legend of Beru Island in the Southern Gilberts and some other islands, Te Kaintikuaba was made from the spine of Na Atibu. It was a tree, in Samoa, which was the home of spirits who, together with Nareau the Wise, made the islands of Tungaru (the Gilbert Islands). They and their spirit descendants became inhabitants of these islands. Te Kaintikuaba can therefore be translated as "The Tree of Life". This is one of many versions.

Nareau the Wise saw that the branches of Te Kaintikuaba grew well on Samoa and were covered with spirits of all kinds and shapes. These spirits did nothing but laze in their places all day. The topmost was Tetaake, and first branch facing north was Baretoka's place. Tekuma, Tekoroangutungutu, Tekaai and Nei Moaine were on the branch facing south, Matang East was on the eastern branch, Matang West on the western and Kairo was in the centre of the tree. Nei Boto was at the trunk, Uruba and Teuriubaba at ground level, Akau and Nei Tira at the roots, Teimone and Matennang at the tap-root, and others were on the ground in the shadows of the tree.

The first spirit to migrate was Baretoka, who took his branch with him. He went northwards. On his way, he met Nei Batiauea, a female spirit, who had originally come from the intestines of Na Atibu, Nareau the Wise's father, whom he had killed in Te Bomatemaki. Baretoka anchored Batiauea's canoe, using his branch to prevent it from moving any further. When Batiauea's canoe was stopped so abruptly, it swung around him stretching into a curved shape. It was called Teraea or Taraea, which was the original name of Tarawa. Those two spirits lived on this newly formed island and had four children; Tearikintarawa, Kirabukentarawa, Taorobantarawa and Nei Arirei.

The second spirit to leave was Tetaake, who also flew north, to Beru looking for a place to live. Unfortunately, he had to fly elsewhere because Tabuariki, the deity of the people living in the Gilberts before the Samoan, beat him cruelly. So he went further north and landed at Baberiki, in the extreme north of the Gilberts. He died there and was succeeded by his worms, who became spirits and later travelled south again.

At this time, Nareau the Wise was in Samoa procreating with the spirits there. One day, he decided to trace the whereabouts of his two children who left Te Kaintikuaba. He left Samoa, heading north, and on his way he created a resting place by trampling the sea and uttering powerful magic. Behold, land was formed with spirit inhabitants on it. He called this island Takoronga i Nano or South Tabiteuea as it is called nowadays. Feeling satisfied with his marvellous work, he left and went further north. At last, he sighted land and this was Teraea, or Tarawa.

On Teraea, he created Tubuatarawa and its spirit inhabitants (now Buariki village on North Tarawa) and renamed the whole island Tarawa. He stayed on Tarawa and started his work of creating new lands. He used his power to create Makin, Butaritari, Marakei, Abaiang, Maiana, Kuria, Abemama and Aranuka and their spirit inhabitants. When he had completed his work, he remained and procreated with the spirits on Tarawa. Marriages also took place among the spirits so there was an expansion of the spirit population on Tarawa. Nareau the Wise was pleased with his achievements so he decided to visit other islands, particularly South Tabiteuea. He made many visits among the islands he had created using adopted personalities such as Nareau the Killer, The Flatterer, The Liar, The Terror, The Seducer and all kinds of other characters. Sometimes he may visit in search of his children's partners because he was concerned about them.

During the period in which Nareau the Wise had been visiting from island to island, many spirits from Samoa migrated to South Tabiteuea and Tarawa, procreating during their stay. Some of these spirits returned to Samoa and some remained in the Gilberts. These spirit movements went on for a considerable time.

When Nareau the Wise had had enough of these visits, he changed his name to Tematawarebwe and returned to Samoa with three of his sons, Kourabi, Namai and Buatara. On reaching Samoa, he told his sons and some of the inhabitants to carry Te Kaintikuaba away to a place he would show them. The spirits who usually inhabited Te Kaintikuaba were left behind as they were absent during its removal. The tree was carried northwards until it arrived at Teakiauma, a place in a village called Bareti, on Beru Island. The next thing that Tematawarebwe and his carriers took was the Umananti (literally Spirits' House). This was carried and placed in the central part of the island. This was the maneaba (meeting house) now called Tabontebike. Tematawarebwe remained on Beru.

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The removal of these two things from Samoa affected the remaining members of Te Kaintikuaba. They left Samoa and tried to follow the route that Tematawarebwe and his group had taken. Some of them took the eastern route, some the western and some the central path. Some flew, some swam on the surface of the sea, and others swam below the waves. A few of them never reached their destination but created, and then settled on, the islands of Nonouti, Onotoa, Nikunau, Tamana and Arorae. Nei Matennang, a female spirit, lost her way and finally reached Tarawa. Akau and his daughter landed on Tabiteuea South and remained there.


It is not possible to go into detail for all our islands, but the following brief notes may be compared with the story of Beru to indicate the range of myths and legends about the way the islands were settled.

Regarding the creation of islands, Butaritari people believe that three islets were created in the northern Gilberts at the time when the earth and the sky were separated. They also say that Samoa, Tabiteuea, Tarawa and later the rest of the Gilbert Islands, were originally clouds transformed into islands when they came into contact with a plant called Terenga, which sprouted from Awaiki, the core of the earth. This tree became Te Kaintikuaba which the spirits of Te Bomatemaki saw emerging in Samona soil. They were said to have rushed to it and remained there. The inhabitants of the islands were those spirits who dispersed from Te Kaintikuaba when it was destroyed by Teuribaba, another inhabitant. The dispersals were believed to have been to the north of the Gilberts. Their descendants later returned to the Gilberts and travelled throughout the group.

The Tabiteuea people claimed that their island was the first to be created. Creation took place at Takoronga i Nano (Tabiteauea South). They also believed that a tree called Te Ueanikai (Tree of Kings) was grown there and one of its roots emerged at Samoa to become Te Kaintikuaba. Te Ueanikai was inhabited by many spirits who often argued as to who was to be chief on the island. Nareau the Creator forbade anyone to become chief, so everyone remained equal, and the name Tabiteuea (Tabu-te-Uea) means that chiefs are forbidden. There was also the story of one migrant from Samoa who married Nei Batiauea, who had left Te Ueanikai. After meeting and being married in the ocean, they landed on Tarawa and became its first inhabitants. There were also other migrations of spirits from Tabiteuea to the rest of the Gilbert Islands.

The people of Tarawa believed that their ancestors were the first spirits and that they lived on the first created island which is now called Tarawa. They also say that Nareau the Creator created everything from this island: all the islands in the Gilberts and the continents on earth. He created the I-Matang world, the land of white-skinned spirits, and sent Nareau the Wise to care for it. He then created the Batabata world, the land of black-skinned spirits, and sent Nareau Te Kikinto (Nareau the Cunning) to supervise it. Nareau the Creator ruled that on no account should the white and black-skinned people migrate to each other's lands. If they did, trouble would occur. The Gilberts was Nareau the Creator's world and this was where he remained.

 Jane Resture
(E-mail: -- Rev. 1st June 2012)