Sacred Texts  Pacific  Index  Previous  Next 

p. xi


THE myths and tales in this volume have been gathered from all parts of Oceania, and it may be wise, therefore, at the outset to indicate just what area is included in our survey; to sketch very briefly the character of the peoples and the environment in which they live; and to state the general plan and purpose of the book.

The use of the term Oceania is, and has been, rather variable. By some it is taken to include only the smaller Wands of the Pacific Ocean, comprised for the most part within the limits of Polynesia and Micronesia, while others extend the application of the term so as to include also Melanesia as well as the whole group of the East Indies. In the present case it is this latter usage which is followed, and the great island-continent of Australia, together with its appendage of Tasmania, is further added. Thus by Oceania will be meant all island areas, great or small, from Easter Island to Sumatra and from Hawaii to New Zealand.

This great region may, for our purposes, be conveniently divided into five sections: (1) Polynesia, which may be roughly defined as including all the islands lying east of the 180th meridian, together with New Zealand; (2) Melanesia, comprising the huge island of New Guinea, together with all the islands and archipelagos extending therefrom to the east and southeast as far as Fiji and New Caledonia; (3) Indonesia, which includes all the islands often spoken of as the East Indies, and extends from the Moluccas on the east to Sumatra on the west, and from Java and Timor in the south to the northern extremity of the Philippines; (4) Micronesia, composed, as its name implies, mainly of small islands, and occupying the area

p. xii

north of Melanesia and east of the 130th meridian of east longitude; and lastly (5), but by no means. least in importance, Australia, together with Tasmania.

As compared with all the other great divisions of the world, Oceania is unique in that, if we exclude Australia (which, although an island, is so enormous in size as to lose all insular characteristics), it is composed wholly of islands. These vary in size from mere reefs or islets, only a mile or so in diameter, to great land masses, like New Zealand or Borneo, whose areas are to be measured by hundreds of thousands of square miles. Some are low coral atolls elevated only a few feet above the surface of the sea; others are volcanic and mountainous, their summits rising into the realms of perpetual snow. Although the greater part of Oceania lies within the tropics and has the usual features of tropical environment in the way of climate, flora, and fauna, it extends here and there far into the temperate zone, and the snowy New Zealand Alps, with their huge glaciers, suggest Switzerland and Norway rather than anything else. In New Guinea, Borneo, and (to a less degree) in a few other islands the same great contrast in environment is produced by elevation alone, and one may thus pass from the barren peaks and snows of the highest ranges down through all the intermediate stages to the hot tropical jungle and fever-laden swamps of the coasts. Australia, in its vast expanses of terrible deserts, again presents a striking contrast to the other parts of the area, although one of a different sort.

The native peoples of the Oceanic area are almost as varied as are its natural features and environment. Some, like the recently discovered New Guinea pygmies or the now extinct Tasmanians, serve as examples of the lowest stages known in human culture. With their black skins, ugly faces, and short woolly hair they are in striking contrast to the often little more than brunette Polynesians, with their voluptuously beautiful forms and faces and long, wavy hair, or to the lithe, keen-faced, straight-haired Malay, both of whom attained to no mean

p. xiii

development on the material as well as on the intellectual side of their respective cultures.

The origin, evolution, and affiliation of the various peoples of Oceania is a problem whose complexity becomes more and more apparent with increasing knowledge. While anthropologists are still far from satisfactorily explaining these matters., it is patent to all that the ethnic history of the region involves the recognition of a series of waves of migration from the westward, each spreading itself more or less completely over its predecessors, modifying them, and in turn modified by them, until the result is a complex web, the unravelling of which leads us inevitably back to the Asiatic mainland. It is obvious that, while migrations on land are not necessarily conditioned by the stage of culture of a people, in an island area, especially where the islands are separated by wide stretches of ocean, movement is impossible, or at least very difficult, for peoples who have attained only the rudiments of the art of seamanship. A glance at the map will show that, so far as Indonesia, much of Melanesia, and Australia are concerned, the difficulties in the way of the migration of a primitive people are far less than in the case of Micronesia and Polynesia. In the former areas, indeed, some land masses now separated were in comparatively recent times joined together, so that migrations were then possible which now would be difficult for a people without knowledge of any means of navigation; but to reach the widely separated islands farther out in the Pacific would have been impossible to those unprovided with adequate vessels and skill to use them. Thus we are forced to assume that it was not until man had attained a considerably higher development than that shown by the Tasmanians or Australians that these outlying and isolated parts of the Oceanic area could have been inhabited. It is indeed probable that they were, of all the occupied portions of the globe, the last to be settled.

From what has been said it may be seen how fertile and

p. xiv

fascinating a field Oceania presents to the student of anthropology. In the following pages we are concerned, however, with one aspect only of the whole complex of human culture, namely, mythology. In order to make clear the differences between the various portions of the area, each of the five subdivisions will be considered by itself alone, and also in its relation to the others, while, in conclusion, an attempt will be made to sum up these results and to point out their wider bearings. Throughout the purpose has been, not only to sketch the more important types of myths, but to draw attention to resemblances and similarities between the myth-incidents of one area and another. In the present state of our knowledge the conclusions which are drawn are, it cannot be too strongly emphasized, only tentative--they must stand or fall according as they are substantiated or disproved by further material, both mythological and other.

A word may be said in regard to the method of treatment and point of view here adopted. In indicating similarities and suggesting possible relationships, individual incidents in myths have been largely taken as the basis. The author is well aware how easily such a method may lead to wild and impossible conclusions; the literature of mythology and folk-lore affords only too many examples of such amazing discoveries; but where caution is observed, and due regard is paid to known or probable historical associations, the evidence to be derived from a study of the distribution of myth-incidents is often reliable and corroborated by collateral information derived from other fields. It should also be pointed out that in the following pages we have endeavoured to present only the myths themselves, and have purposely refrained from all attempts at rationalizing them or explaining this as a lunar, that as a solar, myth. Such attempts are, we believe, almost wholly futile in the present state of our knowledge of Oceanic mythology, culture, and history. A dextrous imagination can evolve either a lunar or a solar explanation for any myth, and one needs to

p. xv

have but little personal experience with native peoples to realize how hopeless it is for the civilized inquirer to predicate what the symbolism of anything really is to the native mind. The study of mythology has, in the last few years, also demonstrated to what a degree all myths are in a state of flux, new elements and incidents being borrowed and incorporated into old tales and modified to accord with local beliefs and predispositions. Thus, what starts out, perhaps, as a solar incident may come to be embodied in another myth of quite different origin, and in so doing may wholly lose its former significance; or an entire myth, originally accounting for one thing, may become so modified by transmission that its first meaning becomes lost.

Lastly, we may again point out that at present the available material is still so imperfect that all conclusions must be accepted with reserve. Not only are there large areas from which no data whatever have been collected (and even some from which, owing either to the extinction of the population or their greatly changed manner of life, none can ever be obtained), but very little, comparatively, of what has been gathered has been recorded in the language of the people themselves. Misunderstandings, conscious or unconscious colouring of statements to accord with preconceived ideas of what the people ought to think, statements made by natives who obligingly tell the investigator just what they think he wants to hear--these and other sources of error must be eliminated so far as possible before we can be sure of our ground. In spite of all this, however, it is worth while to take account of stock, as it were, and to see, as well as we can, where we stand. By so doing we may at least recognize the gaps in our knowledge and be spurred on to try to fill them while yet there is time.

Next: Part I. Polynesia