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A Pattern of Islands

Lost Paradise

Lost Paradise

Movement-of-Clouds, the little girl of Tabiang who had taught me party manners, had a grandmother, Nei Tearia, renowned for her authority as a teller of histories. Tearia was a straight, gaunt old woman, high-nosed and keen-faced as a Red Indian warrior. When she went shopping at the Company's trade-store, she would cover herself with a frilled Mother Hubbard of white cotton. But at home in her own lodge, she went proudly naked save for a short kilt of smoke-cured weeds about her waist. She told her stories in a low recitative, sitting very erect, eyes closed to look into the past, while Movement-of-Clouds gently brushed her flowing mane of silver hair. There were scarlet flowers in her ear-lobes whenever I went to see her.

When I had known her for about a year, she told me the myth of man's expulsion from the Happy Land of Matang. Fifteen years later, when she was well over seventy, I took the script back to her for checking. She repeated the story at that second sitting word for word as she had given it before, and I complimented her on the feat. Her austere face was lit by a smile, but she replied soberly (I took down her words), 'Sir, and shall it be otherwise? Each karaki (history) has its own body from the generations of old. These are the words of our grandfathers' fathers, and thus we pass them on to our children's children. page 46How should I change the words that my grandfather gave me as the contents of my mouth?'

Her story of the expulsion from Matang is the myth of a dread being called Nakaa the Judge, the keeper of the gate of death, the law-giver, whose sentence of old drove men forth from the Happy Land and first brought death among them. It is, in parts, astonishingly like the tale of man's fall in Eden; but the grandfather from whom she had it was never christianized, and, for the rest, I found its main elements widely enough known among pagans up and down the Gilbert group to put its native purity beyond doubt. Its moral teaching and the conception of Nakaa as a judge were basic to the ancestor-cult of the Gilbertese theogony.

The godlike beings who sprang with Au of the Rising Sun from the branches and roots of the Tree of Matang (or the Tree of Samoa, as the uninitiated called it) were democratic deities; there was no competition for supremacy among them. But this had not always been so. Far back in the history of the Gilbertese forefathers – or one branch of them – Au had been the head of a theocracy.

Traces of the sun-god's former glory were still easy to see in my day. His clan, significantly named Karongoa of the Kings, enjoyed sacred privileges at every ceremony held in the community speak-house called the Maneaba of Karongoa. Under the shade of that roof, the first portion of every communal feast, the first word and the last word in every debate, belonged to its members. The stud of coral in the middle of the Maneaba's eastern side, against which the clan had its immemorial sitting place, was called faai – the Sun. No man dared contradict a final word whispered – it must always be whispered – from that seat, for fear the Sun might pierce his navel. Although, in ordinary life, the men of Royal Karongoa might be reduced anywhere, by the accidents of faction warfare, to a state of indigence and even bondage, custom still preserved their ritual pre-eminence intact within the precincts of their own maneaba.

The picture reflected as in a glass, darkly, from these stubborn remnants of power outworn, backed by the proud name of the clan, is that of a caste of royal priests who enjoyed sacred page 47privileges and dictated final wisdom in whispers from before an altar-stone in the temple of a sun-god named Au. There is much to support the inference in the secret myth of Au's rise into heaven from the depths, in the names of Au-North and Au-South for the northern and southern solstices, in the hidden rituals that governed the building of the maneaba of Karongoa, in the rites performed by the elders of the sun-clan for the fructification of Au's tree, the pandanus and the eating of its first-fruits.

But the key truths were held concealed down the ages by the clans of the Sun and the Moon, to whom they belonged, and Au – save for his fabled promise to return one day to his people, and the glamour that folk-lore shed upon him as the prince of lovers and far-voyagers – was neither greater nor less for the clans at large than any other hero-god born of the Tree of the Ancestors. Each clan of the Company of the Tree cultivated the guardian spirit of its own branch.

There were a number of offences which angered the tutelary shades and closed their ears to a man's entreaties for good crops or te mauri, which is to say, the blessed state of health, prosperity and freedom from the threat of evil spells. The heaviest moral crimes were those of incest and of dishonouring the paternal totem, of desecrating the shrines or refusing to honour the bones of recently dead ancestors, and of failing to perform the pious rituals for straightening the way of a near kinsman into paradise.

Yet, though the ancestral gods made it their business to avenge such sins among the living, they took no part in the judgement of the dead, and none among them was regarded as the originator of the moral code. The law-giver and ultimate judge was Nakaa. Nakaa the Judge was neither fruit of the ancestral Tree nor progenitor of any human stock, but absolute spirit. All wisdom was his. His unsleeping eye could count even the waves of the sea or the grains of sand upon the beach. Not even the Spirits of the Tree themselves could stand before him without fear. It was as much for dread of his eye as for anger of their own that they executed his justice upon living men and women. And when a man died, page 48it was not they, but Nakaa, whom his lonely ghost had to face.

Nakaa sat forever at the narrow gate between the lands of the living and the dead. He held a net in his hand to ensnare all who approached the gate, and beside him was a pit with a row of stakes at its lip. Strangulation in the net was the fate of the ghost whose living kin had neglected to do over his dead body the rituals ordained by Nakaa. Impalement upon the stakes was the price paid in the end by the neglectful kin. The same awaited the incestuous and the eaters of their totems, the desecrators of shrines and those who honoured not their fathers' bones. Strangled and impaled alike were flung into the pit. But the strangled were at least dead forever. The impaled writhed in endless torment down in the nether blackness.

But there was reward for the virtuous. If the ghost was sinless, not even Nakaa could deny him passage to the Land of Shades. He passed through the gate, and onward thence across the sea, to be gathered with his ancestors in the lands of Bouru and Marira, Mwaiku and Neineaba, below the western horizon. Only the perfection of Matang could never be his, because of man's disobedience to Nakaa in the beginning of time.

'Thus runs the history,' said Tearia.

'In Matang of old dwelt Nakaa the Judge, and he had lordship over all the people. The spirits of Matang also bowed before him, for they feared to look into his eyes. But no land ever seen by man was as beautiful as that land. It was great, it was high: many were its mountains; all manner of trees were there, and rivers of fresh water. The trees were heavy with fruit; there were lakes also with abundance of fish. No hunger, no thirst were in that place, never an ill wind visited it, and the people knew not death.

'Nakaa had his dwelling below a mountain, in a spot that was very fruitful. And behold! he planted two pandanus trees there, very wide and tall. One tree stood in the north, the other in the south. He said, 'The men shall be gathered under the tree in the north and the women shall be gathered under the tree in the south.' And so it was; the men turned north, the women turned south; each company turned away with its own happiness; and there was neither death nor grey hair among them.

page 49

'But there came a day when Nakaa was to go on a journey. He gathered the men and the women together in the midst between the trees, and behold! they looked on each other's bodies.

'And Nakaa said to all of them, "I go on a journey. See that ye turn away from each other when I am gone, the men to north, the women to south." He said again, "This is my word: there shall be no traffic between the men and women when I am gone." He said again, "There is a mark that I shall know when I return, if perchance the men play together with the women." Those three commands spake Nakaa before he went on his journey.

'And when he was gone, the men returned to their tree in the north, and the women returned to their tree in the south, and each company abode with its own thoughts. So it was for a long time. But their hearts were not at ease, for they had looked on each other's bodies. As it were, their hearts were turned over within them.

'And after a long time it was night, and a south wind moved in the trees. Cool was that wind and sweet with the scent of the flowers of the women's tree. And the scent was blown upon the company of the men where they lay sleeping in the north. Behold! the men stirred; they awoke; their hearts were drawn to the women. They arose. They said together, "We will go play with the women, for the scent of their tree is sweet." See them now! They go forth, they are running, they are beneath the tree of the women, they are playing with the women beneath the tree. Alas! the mark of Nakaa is upon them, but as yet they know it not.

'And after that, time was not long ere Nakaa returned. He arrived, he stood in the midst between the trees, he called the people to him, saying, "Come, gather here before me." They heard his word. They came to bow before him, and when they bowed he took their heads between his hands. He lifted the hairs of their heads with his fingers, he searched here, he searched there; and alas! he found his mark upon them; he saw grey hairs among the black, and he knew they had not hearkened to his word. He said, "Ye have played together under the women's tree," and the people answered nothing.

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'And Nakaa said again, "Because ye could not hearken to my word, ye shall leave the land of Matang for ever."

'Then the men and the women entreated him, saying, "Drive us not forth. If thou hadst not gathered us together, we should not have looked upon each other's bodies, and our hearts would not have been overturned. This was thy work." So also the spirits of Matang spoke for them.

'And his heart was softened, but only a little; he said, "Sometimes ye shall see Matang in dreams. Yet ye shall not come near it. Think not to land upon its shores." And when the people wept, he said, "Enough! There shall be no return to Matang."

'He said again, "Here be two trees, the men's and the women's. One of them ye shall take with you, the other shall remain. Which tree do ye choose?" And the men answered, "We choose the trees of the women." And Nakaa said, "Ye have chosen the tree of Death. So be it. The tree of Life shall remain in Matang. Ye shall have Death always with you. And because this is my tree that ye take with you, the ghosts of your dead shall find me sitting at the gate between the lands of the living and the dead; and none shall escape my net or my pit whose way has not been straightened according to my word."

'And he gave them the ritual that is called Te Kaetikawai (The Straightening of the Way), saying, "Perform this over your dead, that they may escape my net and ye may escape my pit." And he said, "Let no man lie with his sister, or eat the totem of his fathers, or do dishonour to his father's bones if he would escape the stakes of my pit." And he said again, "Ye shall bury your dead in mats plaited by women of the leaves of the tree of Death. That is also my word to you." These were the judgements of Nakaa when the people had chosen their tree; and we have done his will from that day to this, lest the spirits of Matang turn away from us; for the spirits of Matang fear the eye of Nakaa.

'And when the people lifted the tree of the women to take it away, Nakaa plucked leaves from it. And he wrapped up in the leaves all the sicknesses and pains known to mankind – tooth-rot, and stomach-ache, and rheumatism, and coughing, and fever, and fading away – a multitude of ills; and he pelted the page 51heads of the people with the leaves; and those things have been with us ever since.

'Alas! there is no return to the shores of Matang, no, not even in dreams. But Au of the Rising Sun will return to us one day with his Company of Matang, for this he has promised. And the gate of Nakaa is not shut for us when we die, for if we obey his words it will lie open before us, and the way will be straight to Bouru, and Marira, and Neineaba. And there we shall be happy, for there the ancestors await us, and we shall be gathered with them for ever.'