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MICRONESIA MYTHOLOGY

When Magellan first visited Guam in 1521, the Chamorro, who were the indigenous population of the Mariana Islands had the doubtful honour of being the first people of Oceania to receive European callers. It was not until 1668 however that the Jesuits and soldiery set about converting and subduing the islanders. Several great typhoons at the end of the 17th century were nature's footnote to the carnage wrought by the Spaniards. By 1710 an estimated population of 100,000 had been reduced to little more than 3,500. A few Chamorro escaped to the neighbouring Caroline Islands where they kept their identity as a people.

In the years that followed, the Mariana Islands north of Guam became completely depopulated. By the late 19th century, although the population of Guam had increased again, it had become a mixture of Chamorro, Filipino and Spanish stock. The indigenous language had survived but the oral traditions had been swamped by introduced elements with only fragments of recognisable oceanic themes remaining. 

This massive population loss has been attributed to a policy of genocide supposedly carried out by the Spanish military particularly following the arrival of Quiroga in 1680. This explanation however is not in keeping with the historical facts.  The principal aim of the Spanish mission was not the extermination of the Chamorro population but rather its religious conversion. Most likely the high mortality rate of the late 17th century can be attributed to the introduction of deadly contagious diseases into the archipelago along with the policy of concentrating the scattered Chamorro population into mission villages, a practice referred to as the reduccion.

It was important that the Chamorro people believed they were created by mythical beings named Puntan and Fuuna and that their ancestors issued forth from a rock formation located in Southern Guam. 

"Regarding the creation of the world, they say that Puntan was a very ingenious man who lived in an imaginary place which existed before earth and sky were made. This good man, being about to die...called his sister who, like himself, had been born without father or mother. Making known to her the benefit he wished to confer upon humanity, he gave her all his powers so that when he died she could create from his breast and back the earth and sky, from his eyes the sun and the moon, a rainbow from his eyebrows, and thus adjusting everything else."

At the time of European contact, Chamorros reportedly believed that they were the sole people occupying the earth.  

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A table for offering food to the gods, decorated
with inlaid pearl shell from Palau. (British Museum)

No other Micronesians suffered from the unwanted attentions of Europeans quite so rapidly or drastically as the Chamorro as the high islands of the Mariana Group lie in a north-south line and serve as stepping stones out of Asia into the Pacific. South of them the Caroline archipelago spread like a net from east to west for some 2,000 miles. Further east the low-lying atolls of the Marshall and Gilbert (Kiribati) Groups together with the Polynesian Tuvalu Islands form a continuous chain which extends south-eastward into Western Polynesia.

In Micronesia, as in Polynesia, rank was of some importance and, especially on the larger and more populous islands, the existence of a leisured class stimulated the development of a rich oral literature. Throughout the area myths were not only told singly but were arranged in cycles, and mythological illusions are bound in all their oral literature.  

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Female image from the Caroline Islands,
carved from wood and highly polished.

The Micronesians did not have a myth similar to that of the Polynesians about a hero like Maui who sought to obtain immortality for man. It was usually assumed that the gods had decreed that man should be mortal. The souls of the dead journey either northward or westward to the leaping place which leads either to an island of the dead or skyward, or underground.

Stories about animals as tricksters usually involve a basic cast of three characters. Favourites are the rat, the land crab and a turtle or octopus. One familiar story tells of a land crab and a rat having a quarrel, because the rat either refuses to share food or toddy, or fouls it before handing it over. The land crab waits until they go sailing before he takes his revenge and then he makes a hole in the canoe and walks off along the ocean floor, leaving the rat to drown. Along came an octopus who offers to carry the rat to the shore. On the way, the rat chews his bearer's hair. After he is safely ashore he jeers at the octopus for being bald. Sometimes the benefactor fares much worse, even being fouled by the animal he carries. In one tale, the benefactor is a turtle and the rat summons all the animals to help him kill and eat the creature who has rescued him. 

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A food vessel in the shape of a
large bird from Palau. (British Museum)

The favourite bogeyman of Micronesian Islands are cannibal spirits or ogres who are characterised by their brute strength and stupidity. They tend to come in families of ten; ten brothers, each one hand-span taller than the next or the first with one head and the second with two heads and so on. They can sometimes be driven away by blowing on a conch trumpet or simply by making lots of noise. Sometimes, the ogres who dwell in the woods so terrorise a district that has to be abandoned. This calls for the birth of an ogre-slaying child who is a special hero in Melanesia but is also well-known in Micronesia.

A popular theme in Micronesia is that of a girl who comes either from the sea or the sky to watch men dance or to steal something. She is prevented from returning home because a man hides either her wings or her tail. This simple tale conveys perfectly the islanders' delight in the narrative art. Yet it is more than an idle tale for almost always the story is used to explain the origin of certain food tabus or social customs. It is also significant in another way, for some mythologists consider that it belongs to the tale-type defined as "swan maiden"; the basis of which is that a supernatural girl loses her wings and is forced to remain on earth as the wife of her captor. One day she recovers them and makes her escape. Her husband follows her and attempts to win her back. Sometimes he succeeds.

This is a theme of tremendous antiquity; elements of which are to be found in a story from the Indian Rig Veda, recorded 3,000 years ago. Its widespread distribution in Oceania points to its early arrival in the area. Consideration of those story-elements which persists and those which are lacking in the different places is an interesting exercise in comparative mythology.  

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(E-mail: jane@janeresture.com -- Rev. 15th September 2008)