Background: Y.G.M. is a 49-year-old Filipino woman who works at Nye Partners in Women’s Health as the office manager. She was born and raised in Quezon City in the Philippines, and lived there until she was 25 years old. Y.G.M. self-identifies as Filipino, and as a result of her upbringing, Filipino culture is very engrained into her personal beliefs. She attended college at Mirian College, and received a bachelor’s degree in Communication Arts. Y.G.M. then immigrated to Chicago, Illinois with her family in 1997, and got her first job working at Citibank in River Forest, Illinois. She now lives with her husband in a suburb of Chicago.
Main piece: So in the Philippines mythology – the creation – there’s this one region up north that it says like creation started first – there were like three gods – Bathala, who was the caretaker and then Ulilang Kaluluwa and Galang Kaluluwa. So those three gods did not know each other, then when Ulilang Kaluluwa met Bathala (the caretaker, which is one of the gods) they um kind of competed with each other and um he um like a how do you call that – was into a fight with Bathala to see who was the best and then finally he dies, so he was buried and the third god, which Bathala met – they were getting along with each other – he also died. So when those two – when Bathala buried those two gods, then um he saw that there was like from the buried bodies like a tall tree grew with like a round nut and then from there he opened – Bathala opened that nut – which is like a coconut and then it looked like inside eyes, nose, ears so that’s when he kind of figured out that he got lonely that he has to create man and woman. So that’s where creation started in that thing. From the trunk of the coconut – that’s where he built the house – the house for men and women that he created. And the leaves of the coconut and the food for those people they got it from the coconut juice and the meat – that’s where he fed the people with those from the trees. So that’s where creation started.
Performance Context: This story would typically be told to Filipino children to teach them more about Filipino folklore, myths, and legends.
My Thoughts: I think that because the coconut is such a symbolic and important element in this creation myth, it shows how vital and central the coconut is to Filipino culture and the Filipino people. The central theme of the coconut may also reflect that the Filipino people have a tradition of making their livelihood through agricultural goods, and they find pride in this.
So this is known as the legend of the coconut tree, or the legend of Hina and the Eel King. It’s a story my grandfather used to tell me as a kid, and was told to a lot of kids in Tahiti. Their grandparents or older people who still speak Tahitian most often tell it to the kids at home. So it goes something like this: Once upon a time, a long, long, time ago, there was a beautiful girl named Hina. She had the longest, silkiest hair in the district, and she made her parents proud because of her beauty, and brains, and – well, she was perfect. By the time she turned 16, she had been promised to marry the Prince of Eels, and it was supposed to, how do you say it? Well back in the day marriage was more of a social-economic thing, so her marriage was supposed to bring together the people of the oceans and the rivers and the people of the earth. But Hina was very repulsed by her fiance’s looks, so one night she ran away and found refuge with the god of hunting and fishing, whose name was Hiro. She told him her story, and he was so baffled by her beauty and so into her story that he decided to help her. He made a fishing line with her hair, then they went out to the river and fished the Prince Eel. After they caught him, and before Hiro killed him, the eel told Hina that whether she wanted it or not, she would kiss him. Hiro cut the eel in piece and put his head in leaves and put it in a leaf basket and gave it to Hina for her to keep, and he said “Until the head is gone, do not put the basket on the ground.” So she went back to her village, happy that she didn’t have to marry him. One day they went down to the river and everybody was bathing, and all of Hina’s friends were calling her to the water, and she said she couldn’t, she had to keep an eye on the eel head. But it was really hot so she thought, “what will happen anyways?” So she put the basket on the ground, and when she got out of the water she found that in the place of the eels head was now a tree that looked very much like an eel – It had a long trunk and hair-like leaves at the top – and she didn’t think it was a bad thing. But not long after the dry season came, and everybody was running out of water, and she found these fruits, coconuts, and heard from the fruit that there was liquid in it. So she started drinking the liquid and was drinking from the coconut when the head of the eel materialized – the coconut has three holes, so it was two eyes and the mouth of the eel – and the eel said, “I told you one day you’d kiss me.” And that’s the story of Hina and the King Eel.
My grandfather used to tell it far better than I do. He threw in Tahitian words, but I don’t remember them now. I used to tell this story to my little brother, but I think even he thinks I’m a bad storyteller. But when I was a little girl, I used to think that when I drank a coconut I was really kissing the King Eel. I think eels are disgusting so I stayed away from coconuts for a while.
Tam grew up in Tahiti, and her family has been there for many generations. Her grandfather, the one who told her this story, was the primary storyteller in her family. He spoke Tahitian, but Tam does not, so the Tahitian-language elements have been lost. But according to Tam this was her favorite story, and her grandfather told her it quite often. And after he passed, she took it upon herself to tell it to her little brother to keep it alive.
I never really thought the coconut looked like a eel, but I guess if you look at it after hearing this story you can kind of see it. I found the fact that traditional elements of the story were lost over generations is becoming very common. With this age of technology and transformation, I feel like a traditional culture/heritage can be lost more easily. I know for me, at least, I didn’t really even know much of my own cultural folklore until this project. And I even think Tam recognized the fact that the legend lost some cultural value between her grandfather telling her the story and her telling her brother the story. But at least she’s keeping it going!
Contextual data: My informant (my roommate) told me this story late at night when I asked him if he could think of any stories his parents had told him when he was younger. Another of our friends was present, and she was laughing for much of the performance. According to my roommate, his father told him this story about a coconut thief and two lovers–all of whom have horrible fates–as a joke when they were driving in the car a couple years ago. His father was goofing around and trying to make him laugh, so we can assume this story is usually told as an attempt to be funny. My informant’s father is from Vietnam, and he presumably heard this story there. The following is an exact record of our conversation:
Jackson (me): All right, why don’t you tell me that story that you just told me?
I (my informant): Ok, so once upon a time, there was a Vietnamese farmer. Within his backyard, or farm, or whatever you want to call it, he had a coconut tree. Umm, one day a thief decided that he wanted to steal some of the farmer’s coconuts, so he snuck into the backyard, climbed the really high tree, and . . . umm . . . used his knife to cut off a few coconuts, and put them . . . uhh . . . he tied them around his waist and held a few. And then, underneath the tree was a couple kissing, and when the thief had too many coconuts he accidentally dropped one and it fell onto the man’s head, and he bit off the girl’s tongue. So the girl eventually died of blood loss in her mouth, and the man died of concussion, from the coconut falling on his head from meters above the ground.
I: And, ultimately, the thief was tried for burglary [laughing] and eventually put into jail. The end.
J: [Laughing] All right, do you remember who told you that story?
I: My dad.
J: Uhh, did he mean it as a joke, or like a—
I: I think . . . I think he was just like joking around, but it’s definitely a story that he heard in Vietnam at one point in his life.
J: Ok, so your dad’s from Vietnam?
I: Yeah, he moved over in the 70s—to the U.S. in the 70s.
J: Do you think that the story has a meaning behind it, or something like a moral?
I: Uhh . . . don’t kiss under a really high coconut tree?
I: Umm . . . pay attention to your surroundings. Like, if the farmer was actually paying attention, then the thief would have been caught before all this stuff happened and umm the couple would have avoided a tragic fate. And the thief shouldn’t have been so greedy as to grab so many coconuts and dropping them to the ground.
J: Does the story have any personal meaning for you?
I: [Laughing] Umm . . . don’t stand under a coconut tree . . . or any dangerous objects.
Even just judging by our reactions (and that of my other friend who was present), the story is meant to elicit laughter, but it does so through very dark humor. It’s all about people doing things with bad connotations–a thief stealing coconuts and a couple having a romantic rendezvous late at night–and then getting into trouble because of it. As is the nature of all contemporary legends, this story may or may not have actually occurred, but the details have undoubtedly changed as it has been passed on. I think my informant is right about the meaning behind the story; it’s about being aware of your surroundings, but, beyond that, I think it’s about not doing what you shouldn’t be doing. It’s definitely black comedy, and it’s entertaining to listen to, but, in the end, everyone has something bad happen to them almost as punishment for what they’re doing right before. And who knows? As a contemporary legend, it could have actually happened.