6: Mythical Islands in Pacific Islander Traditions
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Many Pacific peoples have a comprehensive body of oral traditions. Of course today, because the traditional way of life is falling apart in many places under relentless pressure from outside forces, oral (and many other) traditions are being forgotten. In such places, the indigenous people sometimes need to thank, however anathemic this might be, some of the earliest Europeans to visit them, who recorded at great length oral traditions of all kinds, particularly belief systems, traditional knowledge, kinship systems and genealogies, and myths. Had these records not been made, many Pacific communities would be much the poorer today for the concomitant lack of knowledge.1 An important consideration in assessing the authenticity or otherwise of particular details in oral traditions, both those recorded historically and those still known within particular communities, is the likely degree to which outside influences played a role in altering the content of these traditions. Clearly, the more sustained contacts a society had with people from elsewhere, particularly people from different cultures, the more likely it is that their oral traditions became diluted and are therefore less authentic than those from societies that remained comparatively isolated. For example, it has been argued that the oral traditions of isolated Niue Island in the central South Pacific are more authentic than those on other islands in the region because Niue’s 2,000 years or so of human occupation was characterized by “isolation rather than interaction with other islands or archipelagoes.”2 In the modern Pacific, there are many communities where one might reasonably assume, because of the degree of historical interaction with outsiders and the associated acculturation , that few authentic myths remain alive. Conversely there are islands and island groups where, because of continued relative isolation, many oral traditions remain little changed in essence and in the social context of their delivery from the way they were hundreds of years ago. Mythical Islands in Pacific Islander Traditions 6 mythical islands in pacific islander traditions 87 Pacific Islander oral traditions contain many tales about vanished islands. Typically such an island is recalled as a faraway place of origin for a particular group of people. Sometimes the geological and the environmental consequences of the island’s disappearance are recalled , highlighting their impacts on particular communities and explaining the need for them to move. The cause of the island’s disappearance is frequently attributed to a particular event, sometimes involving a god, although gods are more commonly claimed as being involved in island appearances, not disappearances. The most common of these myth-motifs is that involving the demigod Māui, who is reputed to have fished up islands across the Pacific using his magic fishhook.3 Oral traditions about vanished islands could be argued as having a higher probability of being authentic than traditions that concern other, less memorable, events. Instinctively it may be felt that the fact of an island disappearing, particularly if that disappearance was catastrophic and/or abrupt, is a subject worthy of embodiment into oral tradition, which may attract less subsequent embellishment than a less-remarkable story. Yet in Pacific Islander myths, many mentions of vanished islands appear as almost incidental details, leaving one to wonder whether they ever existed or whether their disappearance was so long ago that it has literally become a footnote in history. This chapter deals exclusively with those islands in Pacific Islander traditions that are adjudged, on the basis of information available to me, never to have existed. Yet in many of the island groups from which such mythical islands have been reported, our knowledge of the natural environment is such that there may well at one time have been island disappearances , partial or total, from which details of these myths have been drawn. Table 6.1 lists those vanished Pacific Islands for which (most) evidence suggesting that they could once have existed comes from oral traditions. Of the sixty-two listed, forty-one are regarded as unsatisfactorily authenticated and therefore classified in this book as largely fictional or mythical; they are discussed in this chapter. The remaining twenty-one islands are regarded as satisfactorily authenticated and are discussed in chapter 9. A few Pacific Rim societies, commonly in East Asia, also have traditions about mythical islands. One such tradition from the AD 712 Kojiki (Record of Ancient Matters) concerns the origin of Japan and is considered to be an authentic tradition of the people living in those islands before the eighth century. In this tradition, the origin of habitable...


Subject Headings

  • Geographical myths -- Oceania.
  • Oceania -- Geography.
  • Lost continents -- History.
  • Geographical myths -- Pacific Ocean.
  • Pacific Ocean -- Geography.
  • Islands of the Pacific -- History.
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