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Mahana-no-Atua (Day of the Gods) (detail), Paul Gauguin 1894 [Public Domain Image]

Noa Noa

by Paul Gauguin

Translated by O. F. Theis


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When I was studying ethnography at UCLA, the instructors spent a lot of time drumming into us the necessity of being a detached observer. "Going native" was considered the ultimate slur against a fellow anthropologist. And yet, some of the best information that we have about some societies comes from travelers who have "gone native" in a big way. Case in point, the French artist Paul Gauguin, and his luminous description of a season in Tahiti in 1891.

This slight travelogue of an artists' journey into the heart of the primitive both enthralls and informs. Written as a potboiler after he returned to France, there are two distinct parts of this book. The first part is an extended narrative of Gauguin's entry into the slow rhythms of Polynesian village life. Late in the book we hit folklore paydirt. In an extended passage, Gauguin's Tahitian child-concubine relates to him the Tahitian cosmogony, with a number of myths, legendary genealogies, ethnoastronomy, and a deluge story. Gauguin remarks on how advanced the Polynesian lore seems, particularly their belief in evolutionary processes and knowledge of the spherical nature of the Earth. This is consistent with the Hawaiian Kumulipo. While not a scholarly dissertation by any means, this portion is a well written discussion of Tahitian beliefs.

The book ends with Gauguin sailing back to France. As foreshadowed here, he returned to the South seas. He died and was buried in the Marquesas in 1903.

This text is also available in the French original from Project Gutenberg. Because the book has no chapter divisions and is comparatively small (140Kb) it has been posted as one big file.

Title Page
Noa Noa