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A Pattern of Islands

8 — Creation Myth

Creation Myth

Taakeuta of Marakei, the teller of histories, was an elder of Royal Karongoa. This meant that nobody dared contradict him when he sat in the maneaba talking about the creation story. The sun had a habit of piercing the navels of people who questioned the truths uttered from Karongoa's seat. Cross-legged under the shadow of the sun-stone, he discoursed as irrefutably as a High Priest or Oracle, and he loved it.

The urge to tell stories used to seize him every month anew, round about the full moon. That was his vigorous season, because of the prayer he never failed to make to the young moon page 176on its first or second day's setting. His ritual was a very simple one. He went to stand on the western beach, in silence first of all, with hands outstretched palms-up towards the shining crescent. There was no other right way to begin, he told me once, for this was a tataro (a supplication) not a magic spell. The moon was above all constraint of sorcery's mumbo-jumbo; so he always stood mutely pleading at the start. Then, with statuesque gestures of the standing dance, he broke into a low-voiced chant:

Moon-o! Moon-o-o! Uphold my age, I beg thee.
Moon-o! Moon-o-o! Give me my months, I beg thee.
   A month, two months, three months,
Moon-o! Moon-o-o! Give me my seasons I beg thee.
   A season, two seasons, three seasons,
    a hundred-e-e!
Moon-o! Moon-o-o! Give me my years, I beg thee.
   A year, two years, three years, a

And, as the moon waxed bigger, he felt the virtue of his prayer surging up like a great wave within him; so that, on the eleventh or twelfth day, the weight of his eighty years was as nothing upon his shoulders, and all the generations of his fathers began to shout in his blood, saying, 'Arise! Gird on thy most beautiful waist mat. Take thy staff and thy pipe. Go forth to the maneaba and tell of the wonderful things of old.'

You would find him sitting in the seat of the sun at any time between forenoon and dusk, a big-boned, gaunt old man with the torso of a time-worn Achilles and the head of a saint, surrounded by listeners as massive and venerable as himself. His adopted grandson would be lying at his feet, ready to fill his pipe or bring him food at command. If you were wise, you would carry a small offering with you, for then he might tell you a story of your own choosing. It depended on what you asked for. Karongoa-of-the-Kings had its own peculiar versions of the basic traditions, which were not for the ears of outsiders. The Karongoa cosmogony was wrapped up in the myth of the sun-page 177hero Au, the Lord of Heaven, who had risen from the depths into the sky on the crest of a pandanus tree. The other clans were allowed to know nothing of Au except under the name and style of Auriaria, a simple clan ancestor.

And so, whatever rendering of the creation-story you heard from Taakeuta in public, you could be quite sure that it was not Karongoa's private version. Indeed, his own navel would have been in danger of impalement by a sun-ray had he ventured to throw that one away on outsiders. The Creators of whom he spoke under the sun-stone were called Naareau the Elder and Naareau the Younger. These, you might say, were the popular First Causes as opposed to Au, the priestly one.

If, as I have supposed, Royal Karongoa was once, in days and lands but darkly remembered, a caste of royal priests who dictated the articles of popular belief from a temple of the sun, it must have been a very wise priestcraft. The heritage of doctrinal tolerance that it handed down through the ages to old Taakeuta and his rustic peers was, at all events, a liberal one. The elders of Karongoa, as I knew them, insisted publicly upon nothing but the barest essentials of dogma about Naareau the Elder and Naareau the Younger. That allowed scope for a stimulating variety of orthodoxies.

A man was free to think, if he liked, that Naareau the Elder was a being evolved from the void through a genealogical series of abstractions and things; or he could begin with an absolute Naareau seated alone in the void from all eternity. Original matter could be a chaos of stuff tunelessly coexistent with the god in the void; or, alternatively, a mixture of elemental things directly created by him; or, alternatively again, the result of an evolution totally distinct from him. Naareau the Younger could be the son of the Elder, born of his sweat, or his finger-tips, or a tear of his right eye; or he could be the descendant of a genealogical series beginning with a woman and a man created by the First of All. And so on, multitudinously. All along the line, the conflicting notions of a unique creating power and a creation self-evolved out of the void were found overlapping each other in the popular cosmogonies.

Every elder of every clan claimed outside the maneaba that his page 178particular rendering of the story was the one and only truth. They argued together about their pet cosmogonies as earnestly at least as the physicists of civilization about their cosmologies. But when they took their differences to Taakeuta sitting by his sun-stone, he never failed to send them away friends. He would listen to each side's story in total silence and whisper at the end (Karongoa always whispered its judgements), 'Sirs, there was Naareau the First of All and there was Naareau the Younger. They did what they did. No man knows all their works. Enough! let each family turn away content with its own knowledge.' Having said which, he would treat them to an account radically different from either of theirs and, usually, quite unlike the last I had heard from him. But I found in the course of years that he never mixed his versions. He handed out each one intact, as it had come to him down the generations.

I pass on now the first rendering he ever gave me.

Dusk was falling as he told his story. All his audience save only myself had straggled away to the evening meal. Odours of cooking mixed with sea-scents and the eternal perfume of lilies hung poised in the maneaba's sanctuaried gloom. The rumour of a chanted song came drifting in from far away.

Taakeuta began, as he always began, 'Sir, I remember the voices of my fathers. Hearken to the words of Karongoa …

'Naareau the Elder was the First of All. Not a man, not a beast, not a fish, not a thing was before him. He slept not, for there was no sleep; he ate not, for there was no hunger. He was in the Void. There was only Naareau sitting in the Void. Long he sat, and there was only he.

'Then Naareau said in his heart, "I will make a woman." Behold! a woman grew out of the Void: Nei Teakea. He said again, "I will make a man." Behold! a man grew out of his thought: Na Atibu, the Rock. And Na Atibu lay with Nei Teakea. Behold! their child – even Naareau the Younger.

'And Naareau the Elder said to Naareau the Younger, "All knowledge is whole in thee. I will make a thing for thee to work upon." So he made that thing in the Void. It was called the Darkness and the Cleaving Together; the sky and the earth and the sea were within it; but the sky and the earth clove together, page 179and darkness was between them, for as yet there was no separation.

'And when his work was done, Naareau the Elder said, "Enough! It is ready. I go, never to return." So he went, never to return, and no man knows where he abides now.

'But Naareau the Younger walked on the overside of the sky that lay on the land. The sky was rock, and in some places it was rooted in the land, but in other places there were hollows between. A thought came into Naareau's heart; he said, "I will enter beneath it." He searched for a cleft wherein he might creep, but there was no cleft. He said again, "How then shall I enter? I will do it with a spell." That was the First Spell. He knelt on the sky and began to tap it with his fingers, saying:

Tap … tap, on heaven and its dwelling places.
It is stone. What becomes of it? It echoes!
It is rock. What becomes of it? It echoes!
Open, Sir Stone! Open, Sir Rock!
It is open-o-o-o!

'And at the third striking, the sky opened under his fingers. He said, "It is ready," and he looked down into the hollow place. It was black dark, and his ears heard the noise of breathing and snoring in the darkness. So he stood up and rubbed his fingertips together. Behold! the First Creature came out of them-even the Bat that he called Tiku-tiku-toumouma. And he said to the Bat, "Thou canst see in the darkness. Go before me and find what thou findest."

'The Bat said, "I see people lying in this place." Naareau answered, "What are they like?" and the Bat said, "They move not; they say no word; they are all asleep." Naareau answered again, "It is the Company of Fools and Deaf Mutes. They are a Breed of Slaves. Tell me their names." Then the Bat settled on the forehead of each one as he lay in the darkness and called his name to Naareau: "This man is Uka the Blower. Here lies Naawabawe the Sweeper. Behold, Karitoro the Roller-up. Now Kotekateka the Sitter. Kotei the Stander now" – a great multitude.

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'And when they were all named, Naareau said, "Enough. I will go in." So he crawled through the cleft and walked on the underside of the sky; and the Bat was his guide in the darkness. He stood among the Fools and Deaf Mutes and shouted, "Sirs, what are you doing?" None answered; only his voice came back out of the hollowness, "Sirs, what are you doing?" He said in his heart, "They are not yet in their right minds, but wait."

'He went to a place in their midst; he shouted to them "Move!" and they moved. He said again "Move!" They set their hands against the underside of the sky. He said again, "Move!" They sat up; the sky was lifted a little. He said again "Move! Stand!" They stood. He said again "Higher!" But they answered, "How shall we lift it higher?" He made a beam of wood, saying, "Lift it on this." They did so. He said again, "Higher! Higher!" But they answered, "We can no more, we can no more, for the sky has roots in the land." So Naareau lifted up his voice and shouted, "Where are the Eel and the Turtle, the Octopus and the Great Ray?" The Fools and Deaf Mutes answered, "Alas! they are hidden away from the work." So he said, "Rest," and they rested; and he said to that one among them named Naabawe, "Go, call Riiki, the conger eel."

'When Naabawe came to Riiki, he was coiled asleep with his wife, the short-tailed eel. Naabawe called him; he answered not, but lifted his head and bit him. Naabawe went back to Naareau, crying, "Alas! the conger eel bit me." So Naareau made a stick with a slip-noose, saying "We shall take him with this, if there is a bait to lure him." Then he called the Octopus from his hiding place; and the Octopus had ten arms. He struck off two arms and hung them on the stick as bait; therefore the octopus has only eight arms to this day. They took the lure to Riiki, and as they offered it to him Naareau sang:

Riiki of old, Riiki of old!
Come hither Riiki, thou mighty one;
Leave thy wife, the short-tailed eel,
For thou shalt uproot the sky, thou shalt press down the depths.
Heave thyself up, Riiki, mighty and long,
Kingpost of the roof, prop up the sky and have done.
Have done, for the judgement is judged.

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'When Riiki heard the spell, he lifted up his head and the sleep went out of him. See him now! He puts forth his snout. He seizes the bait. Alas! they tighten the noose; he is fast caught. They haul him! he is dragged away from his wife the short-tailed eel, and Naareau is roaring and dancing. Yet pity him not, for the sky is ready to be lifted. The day of sundering has come.

'Riiki said to Naareau, "What shall I do?" Naareau answered, "Lift up the sky on thy snout; press down the earth under thy tail." But when Riiki began to lift, the sky and the land groaned, and he said, "Perhaps they do not wish to be sundered." So Naareau lifted up his voice and sang.

Hark, hark how it groans, the Cleaving Together of old!
Speed between, Great Ray, slice it apart.
Hump thy back, Turtle, burst it apart.
Fling out thy arms, Octopus, tear it apart.
West, East, cut them away!
North, South, cut them away!
Lift, Riiki, lift, kingpost of the roof, prop of the sky.
It roars, it rumbles! Not yet, not yet is the Cleaving Together sundered.

'When the Great Ray and the Turtle and the Octopus heard the words of Naareau, they began to tear at the roots of the sky that clung to the land. The Company of Fools and Deaf Mutes stood in the midst. They laughed; they shouted, "It moves! See how it moves!" And all that while Naareau was singing and Riiki pushing. He pushed up with his snout, he pushed down with his tail; the roots of the sky were torn from the earth; they snapped! the Cleaving Together was split asunder. Enough! Riiki straightened out his body; the sky stood high, the land sank, the Company of Fools and Deaf Mutes was left swimming in the sea.

'But Naareau looked up at the sky and saw that there were no sides to it. He said, "Only I, Naareau, can pull down the sides of the sky." And he sang:

Behold, I am seen in the west, it is west! There is never a ghost, nor a land, nor a man; There is only the Breed of the First Mother, and the First Father and the First Beginning;

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There is only the First Naming of Names and the First Lying Together in the Void;

There is only the lying together of Na Atibu and Nei Teakea, And we are flung down in the waters of the western sea. It is west!

'So also he sang in the east, and the north, and the south. He ran, he leapt, he flew, he was seen and gone again like the lightnings in the sides of heaven; and where he stayed, there he pulled down the side of the sky, so that it was shaped like a bowl.

'When that was done, he looked at the Company of Fools and Deaf Mutes, and saw that they were swimming in the sea. He said in his heart, "There shall be the First Land." He called to them "Reach down, reach down-o-o! Clutch with your hands. Haul up the bed-rock. Heave!" They reached down; they hauled up the First Land from the bottom of the sea. The name of it was Aba-the-Great, and there was a mountain that smoked in its midst. It was born in the Darkness.

'And Naareau stood on Aba-the-Great in the west. He said to his father, "Na Atibu, it is dark. What shall I do?" Na Atibu answered: "Take my eyes, so that it may be light." Then Naareau slew his father and laid his head on the slope of the mountain that smoked. He took his right eye and flung it east: behold! the Sun. He took his left eye and flung it west: behold! the Moon. He took the fragments of his body and scattered them in the sky: behold! the Stars. He took Riiki the Great Eel; he flung him overhead; and behold! his belly shines there to this day, even the Milky Way.

'And Naareau planted in Aba-the-Great the beam of wood that had lifted the sky: behold! the First Tree, the Ancestor Sun. The spirits of the underworld grew from its roots; and from the whirlpool where its roots went down to the sea grew the Ancestress, Nei Nimanoa, the far-voyager, from whom we know the navigating stars.

'And when it was light, Naareau made Aba-the-Little in the west and Samoa in the south. He planted in Samoa a branch of the First Tree, the Ancestor Sun, and ancestors grew from it. They were kings of the Tree of Samoa, the Breed of Matang, the company of red-skinned folk, whose eyes were blue – Auriaria page 183and Nei Tituaabine, Tabuariki and Nei Tevenei and Taburimai. And Auriaria was king of the crest; and his children were Kanii and Batuku who reigned beneath the Tree.

'And Naareau plucked the flowers of the tree of Samoa. He flung them northwards and where they fell, there grew Tarawa, Beru, Tabiteuea, and a multitude of islands between south and west, not to be numbered. All the lands of the earth were made by Naareau the Younger. Who shall know the end of his knowledge and his works? There is nothing that was not made by him.

'So at last all things were finished according to his thought. He said in his heart, "Enough. It is finished. I go, never to return." And he went, never to return.'