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From: "Nigel Price" 
Subject: (urth) Sharks in Pacific Folklore
Date: Mon, 12 May 2003 15:02:40 +0100

Curious to know more about the background to Wolfe's story "The Tree is my
Hat", I dug around in the back of the upstairs storage cupboard until I
finally found my long lost copy of Roslyn Poignant's little book on Pacific
folklore, _Myths and Legends of the South Seas_. (I also recovered our copy
of _Favourite Maori Legends_, whose title always used to make me wonder
whether there was a companion volume somewhere entitled _Less Popular Maori
Legends_...A bit like a boring old book I've got entitled _What Baptists
Stand For_. I've spent years searching fruitlessly for the allegedly far
more interesting companion volume, _What Baptists Won't Stand For_ ...But I

_Myths and Legends of the South Seas_ contains three sections: one on
Melanesia, one on Micronesia, and one on Polynesia. I searched the index and
skimmed through the whole book, hoping to discover something about Hanga the
Hammerhead and his flooded temple, but found nothing. Lots of stories of
ghosts, though, some quite bizarre. The North Point ghost story thread in
Wolfe's story would be quite typical of the islanders' beliefs, though I
gather that it is more common for the ghosts to travel west rather than
north in search of their final resting place.

Anyway, I did find this section on sharks, albeit in the Melanesian rather
than the Polynesian section of the book. I'm quoting here from p57-58 of the
Hamlyn paperback edition:

	"The islanders assered that the shoals of bonito came from across the
strait, sent by the _Maids of Bonito_, from their homes amongst the reefs
and bays of Kela, the southernmost district of Guadalcanal. The spirits of
the dead also lived in Kela in villages, invisible to all except those who,
choosing to see them, dabbed their foreheads with lime before they went

	"Sometimes, however, the souls of the dead entered other creatures; for
instance, certain famous bonito fishermen and chiefs were said to have been
reincarnated in sharks who became guardians. Every landing stage had its own
guardian shark who was invoked to protect the honour of the family, defend
the canoe house, keep rogue sharks away and escort the bonito. There was
also a special shark deity, Sautahi-i-matawa, the
Bonito-who-fled-out-to-sea, who was the protector of all Ulawa and famed for
his defeat of the winged serpent from Malaita. Sautahi was the incarnation
of a still-born baby who had emerged from the top of his mother's head. His
lifeless body was placed in a canoe, and no sooner was it set afloat than he
turned into a shark and swam away. In a similar way the relics of great
chiefs were set afloat, sealed in a hollow wooden swordfish. The first
creature that approached, usually a shark, was recognised as the chief's

	"A living man could also have a shark familiar who shared his
soul-substance and his name. Such a shark was tame in his presence and would
rub against his legs in the surf and let him ride on his back."

Not an exact fit with Wolfe's story, but highly suggestive, and certainly
the basic details of the shark guardian are there. I don't know what
reference works GW used in writing this story, but he may well have read
something similar to the above.

After the passage quoted, there follows the story of the magical child the
Lord Mweo, whose two grandmothers were shark guardians and who had himself
"a shark familiar who always stayed near him in the sea beyond the landing
stage." Again, the story is not really anything like Wolfe's, but it has got
sharks and coconut palms in it. In summary, it goes like this.

The child Mweo is thirsty and drinks the milk from all his uncle's coconuts.
When his uncle comes home and finds all his coconuts emptied, he curses Mweo
and condemns him to go to Kela, the land of the dead, and to bring back the
coconut tree belonging to Takiepu, a chief who lives there. Mweo's
grandmother sharks accomplish the mission for him, going to Kela to get the
coconut tree. Takiepu won't go near the water, so they make eight huge waves
which knock him off his feet into the water and uproot his coconut tree. The
grandmother sharks bite Takiepu's head off, and swim back to the wicked
uncle, one carrying Takiepu's head in her mouth and the other carrying the
coconut tree, which they display to all the villages they pass. When they
finally get home, they spit up the head and the coconut tree at the amazed
uncle's feet.

The tree is my trophy, rather than my hat, but there you go!

Incidentally, the quibble in Hanga's reply to the narrator question about
palm leaf hats seems to be, literally, along the lines of, "No, the leaves
are not my hat, even though you can make hats out of them. The whole tree is
my hat." As I mentioned earlier, I think that this means that Hanga's body
is buried at the foot of the tree, though it is conceivable he means only
that the tree grows over and shades the bay where he lives in the sunken
temple. In my view, the first interpretation remains preferable.



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