Catching A Wave
Just as our conversations about Norse and Celtic mythology did not follow a timeline, our exploration of the legends of Oceanica or Oceania will not follow a ship’s course or airline flight path. In other words, we are going to go island hopping. I hope you will join me as we explore the mythology of this wonderful part of the world.
Today we are catching a wave to Polynesia. Polynesia is a wife and diverse section of the Pacific region and is thought to have been populated by people from Taiwan approximately five hundred years before European explorers reached the area. Polynesia is comprised of different island nations such as American Samoa, the Cook Islands, Kiribati, French Polynesia, Niue, Samoa, Tonga, and Tuvalu.
The diversity of Polynesia hints at the richness of Polynesian myths. The Cook Islands are a nation of fifteen islands which cover more than 2.2 million square kilometers or 1,375,000 miles in the Pacific Ocean. Although many have never heard of Kiribati due to its remoteness and poverty, the sun has no problem finding it. In fact, the sun rises first here every day.
Polynesia’s mythology is a vast treasure trove of oral literature, based upon priestly castes and hereditary rulers. The influence of the stories is found in the mythologies of New Zealand and Hawaii. There also many variation of the same myth. Polynesian gods such as papa and Rangi are characters in stories along with Tangaroa, the Tahitian creator and Maori’s deity of the seas.
The remotest island of Polynesia is Rapa Nui, better known as Easter Island. Tangaroa is also a deity on Rapa Nui. Legend tells Tangaroa landed on the island in the form of a seal only to be killed, cooked, and eaten by islanders who refused to see him as a god.
The variations of the these stories have a common bond with our modern world. After all, that is one of the reasons these stories still speak to us, delight us, instruct us. But what can the myths of Polynesia teach us? For one thing, they emphasize the importance of respecting our environment. Polynesian mythologies are rich in a diversity of deities with gods, heroes, demi-gods, and tricksters. One of the most popular characters in these myths was Maui, the name of one of the islands of Hawaii.
One of my favorite myths of this region has to do with food. (Not surprising if you are a long-time reader of this blog and yes, recipes will return during Advent.) One of the most basic good crops in Polynesia is the root vegetable known as the yam, a fraternal twin to the sweet potato. The Maori myth, one of several touting the origin of the yam, describes how the deity Rongo-Maui traveled to heaven to visit his brother Wahnui. Wahnui was the guardian of the yam. Rongo-Maui stole the yam, hiding it in his attire. He returned to earth and later his wife Pani became pregnant. She gave birth to a yam which Rongo-Maui shared with all of mankind. Thus this first yam became a staple in the Polynesian diet.
The yam is high in dietary fiber although the sweet potato tends to be higher in nutritional value. Both are high in potassium, vitamins A, B6, and C. There is even evidence they can reduce cholesterol levels. Eating a yam once a week can give birth to a healthier life. Living the goodness of one’s beliefs also gives birth to greater goodness and everyone’s life needs that.