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MICRONESIA MYTHOLOGY

 KIRIBATI

Stories telling the history of the Gilbert Islands (Kiribati) were passed from mouth to mouth, and from generation to generation. On every island there were, and are, certain families known for their skills as story tellers. The story tellers do not always agree and different families and islands often have different versions of the same story. Furthermore, the myths from some islands progress systematically through the creation process while those from other islands tend to omit some details on some aspects of creation.

Despite these many differences, however, there are obvious similarities. The creation story that follows is based mainly on the traditions of Beru and other islands whose legendary history is closely associated with that island.

NAREAU THE CREATOR

Long, long ago, there was Nareau. Nareau means 'the spider'. He was a god, but a god who could do human things. No one knew his origin, from where he was, or who his parents were. He was floating in space all alone, sleeping.

While he was floating, he dreamt that somebody called his name, "Nareau, why do you lie like that doing nothing?" Nareau was very surprised to hear somebody call his name. He opened his eyes to see who it was. He could not see anyone. There was nobody there. His name was called yet again, for the third time. He began to realise that there was no one calling his name but that it was just a dream. When he woke the third time, he began to stretch his arms and legs and yawn and sneeze.

He then said, "Who calls my name?" Nobody answered, for he was alone and no one else was there. He began to look around. He saw nothing but emptiness. When he looked down, he saw a sealed object floating below him. It was Te Bomatemaki (The Earth and Sky Sealed Together).

NAREAU THE CREATOR AND TE BOMATEMAKI

When Nareau the Creator saw Te Bomatemaki floating far below he was very curious about it, and to satisfy his curiosity he descended and stood on it and looked at it carefully. He thought of opening it to see what it was like inside.

Taking his tail called Kaweten bukin Nareau (The Barb of the Spider), he walked about on Te Bomatemaki with his tail, first to the north and chanted:

I stamp, I stamp,
Over the skies to the northward;
There are neither spirits nor men;
But only I,
The Powerful Nareau.

He repeated the same process till he had completed four rounds in Te Bomatemaki, first to the north, then to the south, to the east and to the west. When he had done this he noticed that nothing had happened. There was neither a crack nor an opening on the surface of Te Bomatemaki. He thought again, and eventually tried to slit it open. He crouched down and started to slit Te Bomatemaki with his tail, while chanting these words:

Dense, dense, rock, rock,
Crack of what? Crack of rock,
Crack of what? Crack of boulder,
Is the Powerful Nareau
Oh! Let it crack.

He repeated the same process three times. As a result, a crack appeared on Te Bomatemaki, and he forced it open with his tail: the 'Barb'.

After he had pulled out his tail there remained a hole on Te Bomatemaki. He put his right hand into the hole and felt sand. He picked it up. Then he it put in his left hand and felt water. Having looked at these, he took sand and water and combined them to form stone. He put the stone back into the hole and said "You will stay there as Na Atibu (stone). Lie with Nei Teakea (Emptiness) and bear Nareau Tekikiteia (Nareau the Wise)." From the union with Na Atibu, Nei Teakea became pregnant and gave birth to Nareau the Wise, in accordance with the instructions of Nareau the Creator.

Nareau the Creator was on Te Bomatemaki while Nareau the Wise was inside it. Now they could talk to each other. Nareau the Creator commanded Nareau the Wise to stay on his father, the Stone (Na Atibu).

As time passed, Nareau the Wise asked Nareau the Creator, "What can I do inside here? It is too low and I cnnot move about." In reply, Nareau the Creator said, "Ah! You are right. You had better lift it up a little."

Then Nareau the Creator left to Nareau the Wise the responsibility for completing the task of creation.

SEPARATING THE EARTH AND THE SKY

When Nareau the Wise had lifted the upper portion of Te Bomatemaki a little higher, he was aware of himself and his surroundings. When he looked around he saw stiff bodies lying beneath the cover he had raised. They were spirits just as he was. He called this cover Robungini Karawa or (The Darkened Image of Sky).

The first task which Nareau the Wise had to do was to raise the cover even higher. So he went to the stiff bodies lying inside and broke parts of them to make them flexible so that they could move. He also noticed that they could not speak, so he chanted these words:

Why lying, why lying.
Crowd-of-spirits (bunanti)
Within Te Bomatemaki
Arise for we'll converse
Speak for we'll speak.

When they began to converse, Nareau the Wise knew that these spirits had life in them. Therefore, he gave them names that he thought suited them. Some of these names were:

Uka (blowing - the essence of moving air)
Nabawe (antiquity - the essence of age)
Karitoro (push into heap - the essence of energy)
Kanaweawe (lofty - the essence of dimension)
Ngkoangkoa (long, long ago - the essence of time)
Riiki (coming into existence, growing - the essence of procreation)
Auriaria (rising, coming from afar - the essence of light)
Nei Kika (the octopus)
Nei Tituabine (the sting ray, the cockroach)
Nei Tewenei (the comet)
There were many others.

After Nareau the Wise had given them names, he went to Nareau the Creator to seek advice as to how to separate the earth and the sky. He was advised to try alone, at first using his power of magic.

Nareau the Wise returned to the inside of Te Bomatemaka and began his work. He then chanted this prophecy:

Speak of the sky and move it.
Speak of the sky and lift it.
Rest it on its pillar, Te Kaintikuaba (The Tree of Life)
May fruits of this, my sceptre, come forth.
Speak Riiki, speak Nei Tituabine,
For Samoa the first land.
And Beru the second land.

There are different versions of which was the first land and which was the second. Those from Beru and Nikunau have Samoa as the first of all lands and then Nikunau have Samoa as the first of all lands and then their respective islands as the second. Those from Tarawa and Tabiteuea say that their island was the first to be created. The actual creation of lands is explained in the next chapter about the Tree of Life.

After Nareau had chanted those words, the upper portion of Te Bomatemaki lifted a little, and the crowd of spirits, who by then could speak and understand, were able to move. Nareau the Wise told them that they should co-operate with him to lift it further, thus separating the sky and the earth. They agreed, and pushed upwards while together they shouted encouragement, "Let's push together, oh!"

During this process, some were chopping at roots of the cover which were stuck onto what was to become the earth. Others held Te Bomatemaki in shape as it started to expand.

When most of the people inside had reached as high as they could and were unable to raise the skies any further, Nareau the Wise called one named Kanaweawe (lofty) and asked him to lift it by himself. When he had reached his full height and could not raise it any higher, Nareau the Wise called Riiki (who had the power to grow) and who was lying on his stomach near by. Riiki replied that he was hungry. So Nareau went to Nei Kika (the octopus) who had ten legs and took off two of them (thus leaving her with eight) and gave them to Riiki to eat. Nareau the Wise tapped on Riiki's chest while he was eating.

With the tapping he chanted these words:

The taps for Riiki's breast:
To implant courage,
And to make him stand.
Firm be his hands,
Firm be his feet,
Firm be his body,
We shall strengthen him.
Lift the sky,
Lift the sky,
Lift higher and higher still.
Let's all lift together, oh!

As Riiki lifted the upper portion of Te Bomatemaki, Nareau the Wise ran below to the north and assisted him by chanting:

Lift yourself Riiki and lift,
Let there be a tail,
Oh! Let there be a tallest.
I shall run under the skies to the south.
I think I will meet northerly wind,
She shall bear my children.
A crowd of spirits in the north,
Let there be north.

When Nareau the Wise stopped running northwards, Riiki shouted from above to him, "How is it?" Nareau replied, "Raise it higher." Riiki obeyed. Again Nareau resumed running, this time in the opposite direction, chanting:

Lift yourself Riiki and lift,
Let there be a tail,
Oh! Let there be a tallest.
I shall run under the skies to the north.
I think I will meet southerly wind,
She shall bear my children.
A crowd of spirits in the south,
Let there be south.

Riiki again shouted from above, "How is it?" Nareau replied, "Raise it higher," and Riiki continued. Nareau now ran in a westerly direction and then to the east chanting the same words. Thus, he created North, South, West and East, and Bunanti or the Crowd of Spirits.

Now he Crowd of Spirits could move freely, although Riiki had not yet reached his maximum height. The only thing which was lacking was light. There was a weak light produced once Te Bomatemaki was raised, but it was not bright enough to see easily and it would not have been sufficient even if Riiki had raised himself higher.

Therefore Nareau the Wise appealed to Nareau the Creator, who was above Te Bomatemaki, and was ordered to slay Na Atibu, his father, from whose body sufficient light could be created.

THE SUN, THE MOON AND THE STARS

Nareau the Wise slew Na Atibu, his own father, and laid him down with his head towards the east. He pulled out his father's right eye and threw it to the eastern portion of the sky and it became the sun. He pulled the left eye and threw it into the western sky and it became the moon and its task was to help the sun to give light. He took the ribs and threw them into the midst of the sky. They shattered into minute particles which became stars. The myths of some islands, such as Nikunau, suggest the stars were created from Na Atibu's head.

THE WEATHER

Nareau the Wise then took his father's right hand and threw it northward and said, "Go and become the northerly wind, and you shall be associated with strong winds, rain and bad weather." He then pulled off the left hand and threw it southward and said, "Go and become the southerly wind, and you shall be associated with light winds and calm days. These will be days to labour for food."

Then he tore off the right leg of his father, Na Atibu, and threw it westward and said, "Go and become the westerly wind, and you shall be associated with fine days for navigation."

Nareau the Wise gathered all the intestines and threw them upwards and they became people. The spine, and the remnants of flesh and skin, remained to become Te Kaintikuaba and Samoa, the first of all lands, respectively.

Nareau the Wise went back to Riiki and asked him to raise the sky as high as he could. As Riiki tried to do this, Nareau the Wise stamped hard on his tail, Riiki jerked with pain and carried the upper portion of Te Bomatemaki to its present height and he stayed there in the sky as Aiabu (The Great Milky Way).

The earth, the sky, the sun, the moon, the stars and the weather had all been created by Nareau the Creator and Nareau the Wise, and their world was inhabited by spirits. Now we turn to the creation of lands and people.

These stories of the creation emphasize the Samoan migration which has come to dominate the traditions today. This is to be expected as that migration came more recently and brought new ideas and ways of life. Other stories, particularly in the northern islands, tell of connections with the Marshallese and other Micronesians with whom the Gilbertese (I-Kiribati) have older common origins of language, biology and culture.

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(E-mail: jane@janeresture.com -- Rev. 3rd April 2009)