USC Digital Folklore Archives / Posts Tagged ‘origin myth’
Legends
Material
Myths

The Legend of Maui

Context:

I was once again wandering the streets and perusing the shops on Front St in Lahaina, HI with my mother. I was looking at some fishhooks that were carved from bone when the shopkeeper came to me. We got to talking, and I told her that I had heard of one possible origin to the practice of wearing fishhooks, when she offered up another reason for the practice, and told me the legend, the myth, of how the Hawaiian Islands came to be.

 

Myth:

Maui, a demigod, was out fishing one day with his brothers. They paddled far beyond their usual fishing grounds. Maui then flung his fishhook, one that was similar to these [see picture above for a decorative example] that he had carved from bone. When he got a bite, he instructed his brothers, who were earthly, to paddle as hard as they could but not to look back behind them. His brothers, who were jealous of Maui’s status as a demigod, turned around and saw that Maui was pulling up, not a fish, but land out of the sea. As soon as they looked, they were amazed, and they stooped paddling. Because they stopped paddling, the land stopped rising out of the sea, so instead of getting a great continent, all Maui got was a small chain of islands in the Pacific. Maui was furious at his brothers, as he wanted a great continent. Thus the Hawaiian Islands came to be.

 

Analysis:

This myth reveals several things about the Hawaiian people. First is that they are a fishing people. They rely on the sea, and thus their fishhooks are incredibly important. Second is the fact that the fishhook is made from bone. Bone, especially whalebone, was considered to be able to become an extremely lucky fishhook. Also, Maui is not just a Hawaiian mythical figure. He features in myths and legends from New Zealand – such as the legend that tells of how New Zealand’s terrain formed; why it is so hilly – and from other areas of Oceania. This can be key in discovering the migration patterns of people into Oceania – how the ancient peoples spread from mainland Asia and Australia into such far-flung and isolated island chains in the middle of a vast body of water. By tracking where similar mythological and legendary figures crop up, such as the demigod Maui, anthropologists and archaeologists can track migration patterns and possible origins for the people of these far-flung and isolated Pacific Ocean Island chains. Furthermore, this myth demonstrates how central to the Hawaiian culture fishhooks are/were. The tourism industry presumably caught wind of this importance and began to make “authentic” Hawaiian fishhooks to be worn as ornamentation and sold as “traditional” Hawaiian jewelry/ornamentation, despite fishhooks never being worn by the Hawaiian people. Nowadays, practically every gift store, souvenir shop in the islands sells fishhooks, and it has become “traditional folk” jewelry.

Folk Beliefs
Myths
Narrative

The Baobab Tree

Item:

“The Baobab tree, also known as the upside-down tree, is a strange looking tree that grows in low-lying areas in Africa and Australia. The Baobab is also called the upside-down tree because when bare of leaves, the spreading branches of the Baobab look like roots sticking up into the air, as if it had been planted upside-down. Legend holds that god Thora took a dislike to the Baobab growing in his garden, so he threw it out over the wall of Paradise on to Earth below, and although the tree landed upside-down it continued to grow. Another story goes that when the Baobab was planted by God, it kept walking, so God pulled it up and replanted it upside down to stop it moving. Bushmen believed that any person who plucks the flowers will be torn apart by lions, because there are spirits in the flowers. When water is drunk, in which the Baobab’s pips have been soaked, this serves as protection from crocodiles and the drinker will be mighty.”

Context:

The three items of folklore I collected from this informant were the only three out of all the items in my collection that were not a result of face to face interaction. The text above was sent to me, from the informant, via email. I also corresponded with the informant over the phone to receive the context behind her stories. That said, the informant, who lived most of her life in South Africa (she moved to Dallas, Texas with her family in the 90’s), heard all of these stories about the Baobab trees from the trackers who would lead the safaris she went on in South Africa. The trees did not grow where she grew up near Johannesburg.

Analysis:

In the first two stories about the tree, I see an expression of the traditional subject of minor myths; explaining why things are the way they are. In the folk beliefs of the bushmen, however, I see an intense tie to their surroundings. The tree, for them, is an extremely important part of their relationship with nature. In addition to these stories, the informant sent me some factual information about the tree: “The Baobab has a special role in Africa. Elephants, monkeys and baboons depend on its fruit (the vitamin C content of one fruit is the equivalent of 4 oranges); bats pollinate them by crashing into the flowers while chasing insects; bush babies also spread the pollen; the pollen can be used as glue; the seeds are rich in protein, calcium, oil and phosphates – they can also be roasted and ground like coffee beans; young leaves have a high calcium content and can be used as spinach; the trunk is fibrous and can be woven into rope mats and paper; beer and tea can be made from the bark, but you need a strong constitution to drink either.” These facts demonstrate the many ways in which the tree is used, by humans and animals alike. That said, all of these things the tree does augments the tie between it and the bushmen that is expressed in the stories.

Myths
Narrative

Korean myth: Tiger and bear

“So there was this prince-king who was living in the area that is now Korea. And one day, a bear and a tiger came along and wanted the king to turn them human. The king said he would do it if they went into a cave for a hundred days and ate nothing but onions. I think there’s another version where they have to eat only garlic. But anyways, they take on the challenge. But the tiger quit partway through. The bear made it through all the hundred days, and when it came out, the king turned it into a beautiful woman and married it, and their children became the Korean people.”

My informant thinks she first learned this myth at home, but she heard it again recently in a class on Korean culture. She suggested that the bear’s perseverance reflected Koreans’ conception of themselves as an overall determined culture. Also, Koreans use a lot of onions in their cooking, and onions are healthy and a very natural food. She does note, however, that tigers seem to be more important in Korean culture, and are generally portrayed as more fierce and noble in Korean art, while bears sometimes represent laziness.

This is an origin myth and its details reveal how the Koreans think of themselves. They come from the union of a powerful, magic-wielding king and an animal that proved its determination and commitment by eating healthy but not necessarily pleasant food for an extended period of time.

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