Folk-Lore/Volume 4/Melanesian Folk-tales

Folk-Lore/Volume 4
Number 4 (December)
Melanesian Folk-tales.
by Robert Henry Codrington


Story of Lata.

(Sta. Cruz.)

BEFORE Lata was born, an eel foretold that he would eat it. After his birth, his father caught the eel, cut off its tail, and gave it to the child to suck. When Lata was two days old, his father and mother went kite-fishing, and left the child covered under a wooden bowl. The parents were blown away out to sea, and the child grew by himself alone under the bowl. When he was grown, he saw the light under the edge of the bowl, threw it off, and came out into the light. Then he made himself toy canoes with larger and larger leaves in succession, till he made one in which he could sail about, and then, seeing a tree, began to cut it down for a real canoe. Every day, as he ceased working, one Ginota came and replaced what he had cut. At last he was unable to do so, because a chip had fallen into Lata's bag; so he waited till Lata came back in the morning, when the rattling of the chip in his bag betrayed him, and the two agreed to work together. The tree was properly shaped and carried down to the village, the various parts and sails made and fitted, and the proper feasts given to the people. When the canoe was launched, Lata's mother cautioned him against certain fish which would jump into it and break it; but these he caught in a net and brought back for her to cook. Next she warned him against a shark, and this he killed with a sharp stake. Then she warned him against a giant clam, and in his next voyage he found his canoe being carried by a current into the jaws of an enormous shell. He saved himself by thrusting an upright log between the jaws, dug out the fish, and carried it to his mother to cook. Next she cautioned him against a bird which would swoop upon him and pierce him with its beak. He saved himself from this by setting up a banana-stalk in the canoe, while he hid himself below; the bird swooped and fastened its beak in the banana, Lata seized it, broke its wings, and took it to his mother to cook. His mother then warned him of one thing more, a huge sea monster, like a whale, which swallowed down canoes. Into this monster's stomach Lata was carried by a current which sucked in his canoe with sail standing; and in it he found a man and woman who had eaten their clothes and their hair for hunger. To feed them he made a fire with the wrecks of the canoes lying about, and cut off some of the whale's liver to roast. Lavalu, the monster, cried out that he was killing him; and Lata answered, that if he wished to live he must carry him home. This he did, making so high a tide that he was stranded on the shore of Sta. Cruz. Lata dragged out his canoe, and gave Lavalu over to the crabs. His mother next warned him of a tide that would break his canoe; but he took out hermit crabs, which bit the waves, so that he passed through safely. Then his mother warned him of the Tapakola at Nupani. He sailed, therefore, immediately to Nupani, and was invited by the Tapakola to her house, where she sat in ambush for him over the only door left open, intending to kill him as he stooped to enter. He pushed open another door, and came in unhurt. All the night she watched to kill him when asleep, but, though he slept, he had covered his eyes with shining shells, which made him appear to be awake. In the morning he invited Tapakola to come with him in his canoe, and drowned her on the voyage home.

The next adventure of Lata, in which he deceived a snake, is not of much interest.

After that his mother bade him remember that there remained the great Land Crab at Netepa (Taumako in the Duff group). He sailed thither, and was invited by the Crab into its house, where, as before with the Tapakola, he escaped the ambush set for him by pushing open one of the shut doors. Then Lata, seeing the skulls of men devoured by the Crab, painted himself red, white, and black, so much to the Crab's admiration that it desired to know how it could be done. He undertook to produce the same beautiful effect, and persuaded the Crab to mount on the stage over the hearth, and to sit there while he lighted the fire and heaped on wood. The Crab turned red with the heat—the first stage, as Lata assured it, in the beautifying process; then the claws dropped off, and the Crab died. One claw he ate, the other he took home to his mother.

His further adventures, as he sailed about escaping from dangers and deceiving enemies, are very numerous.

The Story of Hole-in-his-Back.

(Saddle Isle, Banks' Group.)

A party of boys were up in a tree eating the fruit. All went off but two brothers, the elder of whom warned the younger not to throw the kernels on the ground, lest that should happen of which their father had warned them; but he let a fruit drop himself, and immediately appeared under the tree Hole-in-his-Back himself, and begged the boys to throw him down some fruit. At first they were afraid, but after a while threw him down a bunch, which he caught in the hole in his back as in a sack. In this way he received all the fruit on the tree; then he begged them to come down to him, and, with much fear, they consented. He took them to his abode, a cave without an entrance; and, when he came to it, they heard him say: "Close, cave! be open, cave!" The cave opened, and they went in. He bade them stay while he went to get them food, and, as he went out, they heard him say: "Open, cave! be close, cave!" and the mouth of the cave shut close upon them. On his return, they heard him open the cave's mouth with the same words, and he brought out of the hole in his back, in which he had stowed them, a pig and yams, which they cooked, and he ate raw. Thus they lived in the cave, while their parents and friends in the village counted the days for their death, ate the death-meals, and then forgot them. One day, when he was longer absent than usual, they agreed to try whether the cave would open and shut for them, as it did for him, at the sound of the same words, and they found that it would.

Now there was one part of the cave which Hole-in-his-Back always, when he went out, forbade them to go near; and here, when at last they ventured to approach, they found a heap of conch trumpets; and this was the reason why he had forbidden them to go there, because, being a Vui, he was afraid of the sound of a conch-shell trumpet. The boys began to plan a way of escape, and accordingly prepared for themselves tamate dresses, in which they proposed to show themselves in the village blowing shell trumpets, after the fashion of the tamates whose dress they were assuming. Accordingly, when all was ready, they put on each his tamate hat, and took each his conch trumpet in his hand, and waited for the return of Hole-in-his-Back with his pig and food. They heard him coming; they heard him saying: "Close, cave! be open, cave!" and, as the cave's mouth opened, before he could say a word, they ran out blowing their trumpets. He ran away affrighted, and they chased him into the village, through the village to the beach and on to the reef, blowing their trumpets as they ran; from the reef he leapt into the sea, the water poured into the hollow in his back, and he was drowned. The boys returned and made themselves known again to their parents in the village.