A book of Polynesian legends, purchased by a friend in a Tahitian bookshop, sparked my curiosity. I understood that in these myths lies the core of the culture of these places. In fact, many names of beaches, locales, cultural sites, temples and even people I met, mention names of ancient gods or events told in these stories. A simple mythology that feeds on the relationship with nature and places related to the sea, the sun and fishing. It is the same today – because nothing has changed in seeing a sunset on a beach or diving among the fish of the coral reef.
This first legend tells of the birth of the archipelagoes of French Polynesia, made up of the Society Islands (i.e. the islands of the Wind, among which the largest are Tahiti and Moorea; and those Leeward, including Raiatea and Bora Bora), the Austral Islands, the Marquesas, the Gambier Islands and the Tuamotu Islands.
Maui and the birth of the islands
In ancient times the islands of Polynesia formed as a shoal of fish at the bottom of the ocean. One day the god Maui, known as Maui of the thousand revolutions, had the idea to collect them into a single parcel of land. He prepared his hook and called on his brothers to launch their canoes. He commanded them to paddle out to where the land was just disappearing from view and told them to throw out the lines. The lines were out for ages but they caught nothing. Exhausted, his brothers fell asleep, so Maui cast his line and started to sing to give his hook power. He caught lots of islands. When the biggest fish, Tahiti, broke the surface, his brothers woke and cried ‘O Maui, Maui! It’s not a fish, it’s an island!’ All the fish on the line were startled and jumped off, fleeing across the sea. Since that day, the islands were dispersed over the great ocean of Moana-nui.
This second legend describes a phenomenon that I have only seen here in Polynesia: sometimes it happens that the setting sun, before throwing itself into the sea, generates darker strips of sky, as if they were ropes that keep it anchored to the ground. I often asked myself the reason for this phenomenon, until I found the answer in this story.
Maui and the capturing of the sun
Ra, the sun, decided to speed up his course across the sky so that he could wake up later and go to sleep early behind Moorea. The earth started to suffer terribly. Due to the short days there was no time to heat the ahima’a (ovens), make meals or build marae (meeting grounds). When Maui saw this he started to build strong ropes from the bark and creepers of the pandanus plant and the fibres of purau, ro’a and mati. He also wove in a lock of his sister Hina’s hair. He went out to the reef and waited at the edge of the hole through which the sun comes out of the sea. When the sun appeared he bound his strong ropes firmly to the sun’s rays, and tethered them to a rock.
When Ra saw that he was captured he fought wildly. The ropes made from bark and vines burnt through, nothing could resist the flames apart from the strand of hair from Hina. Ra pleaded to be released and promised that he would never alter his course through the sky again. Maui let him go, and to this day the sun has always risen early and set late. We can still see the cords of Maui tethered to the sun, and we show them to children today, when the sun beams pierce the dusk.
This Polynesian theogony particularly amused me. Because in its simplicity it says a lot about this people, whose culture is based on the awareness of the delicate balance that exists between man and nature.
The creation of the world
In the beginning was Ta’aroa, the only one.
He was his own creator, living alone in his shell ‘Rumia’. The shell was like an egg, revolving in infinity with no sky, no earth, no moon, no sun, no stars. But Ta’aroa grew tired of his shell. One day he gave it a shake and slipped out. Everything was still and silent, he was alone.
He broke his old shell to create rocks and sand, and with a new shell he made the great foundation of the world: Tumu-nui.
With his backbone he made the mountain-chains;
With his tears he filled the oceans, lakes and rivers;
With his fingernails and toenails he covered the fish in scales and gave the tortoise a shell;
With his feathers he made the trees and plants;
With his blood he coloured the rainbow and the sunset.
Then he brought his craftsmen with their baskets of chisels and they carved Tane the first god. And so the demi-gods Ru, Hina and Maui were born along with hundreds of others. Tane gilded the sky with stars and he set the sun there to radiate the days and the moon to illuminate the nights.
Ta’aroa decided to finish his work and created man. He had divided the world into seven levels. Man was on the lowest level. Human beings quickly multiplied and Ta’aroa was pleased to see them thriving.
Soon the bottom level was overflowing with life and the inhabitants decided to expand their domain. They made a hole in the level above, climbing upwards until they filled all the levels.
And everything belonged to Ta’aroa, master of all.