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MELANESIAN MYTHOLOGY

NEW CALEDONIA

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There are examples of hereditary chieftainship in Melanesia, particularly in New Caledonia and Vanuatu, but social control by a consensus of adult male opinion is much more usual.

Before the coming of the European, the Melanesian knowledge of the world seldom extended beyond his immediate neighbours with whom he traded and fought. Each small community had its own unique way at looking at the world. Each community had its own coterie of mythological being whose names were seldom known beyond its borders. But the events in which these beings were involved tended to be associated with a number of archetypal themes. The way in which stock incidents, elements and themes of myths became linked in a kalaeidescopic variety of combinations tempts speculations about the cultural layers they belong to and draws attention to the complexity of the area's cultural history.

         

Over many thousands of years successive waves of predominantly Oceanic Negroids and later Austranesians (a Caucasiod and Mongoloid mixture) moved out of southeast Asia into New Guinea and through the chain of Melanesian archipelagos which stretch south to New Caledonia and Vanuatu and east to Fiji. Each group of immigrants either mixed with their predecessors who formed hybrid groups or pushed them into less hospitable regions. This was a process that was constantly modified by external pressure such as minor migrations, warfare, trade and intertribal social gatherings resulting in the diffusion of the various mythology.

Almost everywhere in Melanesia the largest political unit is the village but the important social unit is the kinship group whose influence can extend beyond the village. There are examples of hereditary chieftainship in Melanesia, particularly in New Caledonia and Vanuatu, but social control by a consensus of adult male opinion is much more usual.   

This ceremonial act with jadeite blade from New Caledonia
served as a chief's symbol of authority and was said to have
 been used by him in rain-making ceremonies. 

The Melanesians do not possess the sort of social stratification typical of Polynesia, where a nobility claimed a descent from the gods. The typical Melanesian is not concerned with a hierarchy of deities nor does his mythology unfold a sequence of creation. Rather he is more concerned with the origin of his own social group or his clan. This knowledge establishes its identity, determines whom he calls brother, and whom he may marry and the young people for whom he is responsible.

Throughout Melanesia the snake appears in mythology as a symbol not only of fertility but also of aggression. From New Guinea to Fiji, there are stories about snake relatives who reward kindness or avenge ill-treatment. Sometimes men, animals and plants are produced from their slaughtered bodies. In New Caledonia, the theme of the ogre-killing child is apparently absent although it is common in many other parts of Melanesia.    

In New Caledonia, the classical "swan maiden" story is present in their mythology. This story or theme is found in parts of western and northern New Guinea and Vanuatu as well as New Caledonia. This scattered distribution suggests that it has been absorbed independently in each other place in Melanesia. The "swan maiden" theme concerns how a person sometimes referred to as Qat came upon a group of sky maidens bathing and hid one pair of wings so that one girl had to remain behind. One day, Qat's mother reproached her daughter-in-law and the girl wept, her tears washing away the earth covering her wings. She put on the wings and flew away. Qat shot an arrow into the air wound with a banyan root which he climbed up to follow her into the sky. He met a man hoeing a garden and begged him not to disturb the root until he was safely down again. However, as he descended with his wife, the root snapped and he plunged to his death, while his wife flew safely away.

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Jane Resture
(E-mail: jane@janeresture.com -- Rev. 15th March 2010)