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!