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The Fijians: A Study of the Decay of Custom

The Ndengei Myth

The Ndengei Myth

Ndengei is supreme among the Kalou-Vu (original gods), and his authority was recognized by the whole of Vitilevu and its outlying islands, and by the western half of Vanualevu. The oldest tradition in which his name occurs mentions him as one of the first immigrants with Lutu-na-somba-somba, but his fame far exceeded that of his companions, and so many myths gathered about his name, that when the first missionaries arrived he had come to be a counterpart of Zeus himself. In serpent form he lay coiled in a cavern in the Kauvandra mountain above Rakiraki, and when he turned himself the earth quaked. Enormous offerings of food were made to him by the Rakiraki people. Several hundred hogs and turtle were carried to the mouth of the cavern, which the priests approached, crawling on their knees and elbows. One of the priests then entered the cave to proffer the request. If it was for a good yam-crop he would reappear, holding a piece of yam which the god had given him; if for rain, he would be dripping with water; if for victory, a fire-brand would be flung out in token that the enemy would be consumed, or a clashing of clubs would be heard, one for each of the enemy that would be slaughtered. Beyond the limits of his own district he had scarcely a temple, and little actual worship was paid to him, though in the great drought of 1838 King Tanoa of Mbau sent propitiatory offerings to him; and even in Raki-page 134raki itself, there is a humorous song in which Uto his constant attendant, is represented as visiting the public feasts for the god's portion, and returning to Ndengei with the rueful intelligence that nothing but the under shell of the turtle was allotted to him. In some versions Ndengei has the head and neck only of a serpent, the rest of his body being of stone. He is the creator of mankind, but he has no emotions, sensations, or appetites except hunger.1 Another version describes him as sending forth his son, Rokomautu, to create the land. He scraped it up from the ocean-bed, and where his flowing garment trailed across it there were sandy beaches, and where the skirt was looped up the coast was rocky. He also taught men how to produce fire.

When the missionaries first attempted the conversion of Rakiraki the people thought that Christianity was a mere variant of their own cult of Ndengei, using the following argument: Ndengei=the True God; Jehovah=the True God; therefore, Jehovah=Ndengei. Many years later the false prophet, Navosavakandua, whose career is set forth hereafter, used a similar argument to prove that his teachings did not clash with those of the missionaries, but were merely a newer revelation.

Ndengei was a purely Melanesian deity, and therefore, as. I have said, the whole of Abraham Fornander's argument of a settlement of Polynesians in Fiji from the second to the fifth centuries A.D., which is founded on the fallacy that Ndengei was of Polynesian origin, falls to the ground.2 For the serpent-worship indicated in the serpent form of Ndengei, on which he lays so much stress, is a modern gloss, and, even if it had been ancient, it would have proved no connection with the Polynesians, since snake-superstitions are common throughout Melanesia.

The great saga of the war in Nakauvandra is far older than the myth ascribing serpent form to Ndengei, and there the god figures as a splenetic and irascible old man, as no doubt he was in his remote earthly career. I take the story from

1 Williams, Fiji and the Fijians, p. 21.

2 The Polynesian Race, pp. 44, 167, 168.

page 135the version written down by Ilai Motonithothoko, to whom I have referred elsewhere. When Ndengei had grown old the settlement on the Kauvandra mountain consisted of several villages, one of which belonged to Rokola and his carpenter clan, and the grandsons of the first arrivals were grown men. In the village of Nai-lango-nawanawa, on the slopes of the mountain, lived two twin grand-nephews of Ndengei, named Na-thiri-kau-moli and Na-kau-sambaria, who having brought down a pigeon with an arrow without injuring it, clipped its wings and tamed it. They gave the bird the name of Turukawa, and every morning and evening, and at flood-tide and ebb-tide, its cooing resounded far and wide over the mountain. Old Ndengei, hearing its voice, sent a messenger to ask the youths to give it to him, but they were absent from home, and the messenger, assured by their father that their consent was not necessary, took the bird to his master. Ndengei wanted the bird for a practical purpose. Elderly Fijians are somnolent, and the pigeon's cooing at sunrise was useful in arousing him from slumber.

Next morning the twin brothers were startled at hearing their pigeon cooing in Ndengei's village, and when they heard that it had been taken away without their consent, they flew into a rage, crying, "Sombo! is this to be the way with us children of men?" And they made ready their bow, which was called Livaliva-ni-singa (Summer-lightning), and set forth to shoot Turukawa. And when they drew near the banyan-tree in which he was perched, they doffed their turbans; therefore the place is called Ai-thavu-thavu-ni-sala (the Doffing-place) to this day. And they shot an arrow at Turukawa, who fell dead to the ground. And they drew out the arrow, and went to the carpenters' village, Narauyamba, because it was fortified, and their own village was not fortified.

For four days Ndengei missed the cooing of his Awakener, and he sent Uto, his messenger, to see what had become of him. And Uto came to the banyan-tree, and found the body of Turukawa, and saw the arrow-wound, and said, "There is none who would so forget Ndengei as to kill his Awakener but the twin brothers whose bird he was. Why have they page 136gone to live at Narauyamba, except it be because it has a war-fence?" And he told Ndengei his suspicions. Then he went to the brothers and questioned them, and they said, "Yes, we did shoot Turukawa."

Then Ndengei sent to them to come to him, and they refused. And his anger blazed up within him, and he cried with a terrible voice, "Go, tell them to depart to a land where I am not known!"

But this also they refused to do, and Rokola ordered his carpenters to build a war-fence of vesi timber, very high, with neither joint nor chink in it. And when Ndengei knew that the carpenters had entrenched themselves, he sent messengers to Rokomouto to come and help him.

Then there was war in Kauvandra—such a war as has never since been seen in Fiji. Joined to Ndengei were Rokomouto and his clan, who had settled on Viwa, and together they laid siege to the fortress. Many heroes fell on either side, but never a warrior could storm the wall of vesi built by the carpenters. But now Rokola devised a dreadful engine of war. Before the gate of his fortress there was a ragged rift in the mountain-side. He sent out his warriors to cut stout vines in the forest, and suspended a bridge of twisted vines over the chasm. From the tops of two stout posts, planted within the fortress, he stretched ropes that appeared to be mere supports to the bridge, but were in reality a trap such as the men of Notho use when they would snare wild duck in their taro-beds. For when a man trod upon them he was caught fast in a noose, and the defenders hauled suddenly upon the ropes, and swung him high over the rampart into their midst, where they could club him at leisure. Then warriors were sent out to flee before the enemy to entice them on the bridge, and many were caught in the trap, and swung into the fortress to meet their doom. Thus were Ndengei's forces dispirited.

There were traitors in Ndengei's camp, who were conspiring with the enemy, and carrying food to him by night. These men were seized, and being found guilty on their own confession, were exiled from Kauvandra for ever. They left the page 137mountain, some going towards Matailombau, others towards Navosa. Now, when Ndengei saw that he could not prevail against the fortress, he sought out one Mbakandroti, a man related to the carpenters, who had chosen to take part with Ndengei against his own kin, and bade him devise a plan for betraying the fortress. That night a spirit appeared to Mbakandroti in a dream, and told him to cut down a vungayali-tree that grew close to the rampart. And when he had related his dream, one Vueti was appointed to cut it down. He had scarce laid his stone axe to the root when water began to gush forth from the wound. All that day the water poured into the fortress, and by nightfall it was knee-deep, and rising still. So the carpenters took counsel, and resolved to ask pardon of Ndengei, since the gods were with him. So Ndengei took counsel with his chiefs, and they said, "These craftsmen are too valuable; we cannot destroy them; let them be exiled!" The fountain had now become a mighty river flowing southward from the mountain, and the craftsmen built them canoes in haste, and embarked, and sailed down the stream till they came to a new land, and there they settled. These are the ancestors of the carpenter clan at Rewa.1 But there was no pardon for the twin brothers; to their exile there was to be no limit. Yet, for Rokola's sake, they were given time to build their canoe. And Rokola built them a vessel such as has never since been seen in Fiji, and named it Nai-vaka-nawanawa (the Lifeboat), and sailed away down the stream into the western ocean, and were never heard of more; only the prophecy remains that one day they will come again. It will presently be related how the false teacher Na-vosa-vakandua turned this prophecy to account.

1 This was the Fijian deluge. There are traditions of great floods within historical times. One of them, about 1793, purged the land of the great Lila epidemic. The waters rose over the housetops; hundreds were swept away, and the silt left by the receding waters raised the alluvial flats of the Rewa river several feet, a statement that is borne out by the fact that a network of mangrove roots underlies the alluvial soil at a depth of four or five feet. This flood was preceded by a great cyclone. Traditions of great floods are preserved by almost every primitive people.