#14 The Native Culture in the Marquesas

Coconut Rites for Suicide
Marquesan Legends: Tahia-noho-uu
     (E.S. Craighill Handy, 1920-21, 1923, 1930)

Coconut Rites for Suicide

The most approved of all marriages was between cross cousins, though this was not a fixed rule of marriage. For a man to marry his deceased brother’s wife or a woman her deceased sister’s husband was highly approved though not obligatory.

I was told in Pua Ma’u that a man and a woman who desired to make a proper marriage should be related in some way, for two reasons; first, in order to keep all the property of each within the family and to prevent its distribution; and secondly, so that a man’s wife could wash her husband’s waist cloth, or beat the cloth for his loin cloth. (None but a man’s relatives could touch his loin cloth.)

When a woman undertook to live with a man, she placed herself under his authority. If she cohabited with another man without his permission, she was beaten or, if her husband’s jealously was sufficiently aroused, killed. It often happened that later the man himself was killed for revenge by the woman’s family. I have been told that a native woman was, and is, always proud when her husband beats her, because by the strength of his jealousy is measured the strength of his devotion. If a woman was unhappy with her husband, she could return home or she could go to live with another man, in which case there would be likely to be trouble between the two men. According to Père Jean peaceful separation by mutual agreement was rare. It seems evident, however, from discussion of the matter with informants, that separation was common and violent results on account of excessive jealousy very uncommon. If a woman were overwhelmed with sorrow and jealousy on account of the unfaithfulness of a man, it does not appear that she would attempt to revenge herself either on the other woman or on her husband, but rather that her grief would lead to suicide by taking poison or hanging herself. Discussion of this matter with informants leads me to believe that such a course was by no means infrequent with women. Père Jean says that women sometimes followed this course with the intention of returning after death as vehine hae, or evil spirits, to haunt the surviving husband and his new wife.

According to Père Pierre, objects were cursed by being named either after the head, which was the most sacred part of the body, or after the private parts of a woman, which were the most profane. If a house were so named, its inmates could no longer live in it. If a dish, clothes, or weapons had been so cursed, they could no longer be used, but were thrown upon some sacred pavement. In like manner, the phrase to roro (your brain) was applied to persons or objects as a curse or an insult. This was not, however, regarded as being as potent as naming after the head.

When a woman desired to kill herself she accomplished it by means of the rite called niu vahi. She took a coconut to a sacred place and broke in into two parts, saying, “This part is for — [a god’s name], that part for my pudendum.” Her death would result from her having named one-half of the coconut for the god and the other for her private parts.

Marquesian Legends: Tahia-noho-uu

The name of the husband was Tuapu. Hina-te-ii was the name of the woman. The child had grown [in the womb] three months, when the husband went away and took a new woman. (This woman is not named). The woman with child, a daughter was born to her, Tahia- noho-uu by name. That girl grew. Her body was sweet scented entirely, even her urine was sweet scented, her ex- crement was sweet scented. As this girl grew the boys sought her favors. These boys carried the good word concerning the girl to another tribe. When the peo- ple had heard this good word about this girl, the father, Tuapu [who did not know it was his daughter] also heard, and desire came upon him.

Afterwards he went up to look at her. There was great famine in the land, and all the men had gone up on the mountain ridges seeking food yams and tree fern ; the old men were gathering ihi leaves in the valleys. In three nights the people would return from the moun- tains. When the vigorous men went up the mountains, the girl’s mother and her brothers, Namu and Tikaue, went up also. When Tuapu heard this, that the mother and brothers had gone, he came to the girl’s house. The girl looked at the man but she had no idea it was her father. She thought nothing unusual was going to happen to her. The father took the girl to him.

(The mother having returned is told of her daughter’s intercourse with the man, whom she recognizes from the description to be the girl’s father.)

The mother said to the girl, “You sleeping mat, you loin cloth, you dis- eased head ! !” And the mother took her robe, and went to bathe. When she was finished bathing, this woman put on her robe, put a sweet smelling wreath on her neck, took her ceremonial stafif, and her tortoise-shell crown, her ornament of white hair, and her fan different from all others. This woman departed, and went to her affianced husband. And she cried out loudly, “Tuia (affianced), he tuia!” Her former husband heard the voice of his woman, crying out to him. When she arrived at the house of the recent husband, he desired her. He pur- sued her far, and when he came up with her, he drew near to her, and she be- came very angry, and insulted her for- mer husband, “You sleeping mat, you woman’s loin cloth, you stench ! ! What do vou mean by lying with our daugh- ter?'” The father said, “Tut, tut, tut!” And the woman said, “Don’t talk back at me,” and she went after him, after her recent husband. The husband fled before her, and the woman took after him, and she caught her recent husband, and they went back up to their house. When they came up to the house the girl saw them and was afraid for she knew this was her man. The mother said to her daughter, “Here is your father.” The girl was ashamed.

They two (man and wife) went into their room. They did their work during those days, and stopped. When men would arrive at the house, their work was simply sleeping (they would find them all asleep). The woman (girl) was in the house, and never came out. One half of the house was occupied by the mother and the father the other half by the girl and her mother’s brothers.

Now this girl had no food. The wind only was her food. When the mother had heard that the daughter had lain with her father, she forbade the coming of any man again to her daughter.

The chief Tu-Tona was preparing for a voyage to Nukuhiva. The business of the uncles of the girl was searching all round Hivaoa for a handsome husband for her. Not a thing did they find, not a good man did they see. This girl then said to her uncles, “It would be well if you two would go to Nukuhiva and find a good looking husband for me.” Her uncles replied, “Yes, Yes.” The girl said to her uncles, “Prepare sweet scented things for me, red pandanus seed, phosphorescent fern (Ffungus) that smells sweet, pita stem, gardenia, mahatuhi and mahapoa leaves, wild ginger.” Then she said, “Climb up and get me two coco- nuts.” Then the girl said to the uncles, “Scrape well the meat of one coconut and put it with the sweet scented things.” The uncles set themselves to obtain these sweet scented things for the girl, sweet smelling necklaces of one kind and an- other, until they had brought together every kind of scented thing there was. They put them inside a vessel and cov- ered it over well. The girl then said to Tikaue, “Come here. Go and tell Namu to take that coconut that is not scraped.” Namu took the coconut. Then the girl said to Namu, “Split the nut on Tikaue’s head.” So Namu seized the nut ; one, two times he struck it on the head of Tikaue, but the nut did not break. But Tikaue’s head ached ! Then Tikaue said to Namu, “It will be a good thing for me to break this on your head.” The coconut passed into Tikaue’s hands, and he struck it on the head of Namu. And the nut broke. When they had broken it, the girl took one half and put it against her skin. When she observed that in whiteness her skin was like that of the flesh of the coconut, she said to her uncles, “The half like this coconut in whiteness, that is my half.” (When you find a man with skin as white as this coconut, that is my mate). The uncles replied, “Yes. yes.” [A play on the word vahana which means “half of a thing” and “husband”.]

Everything was ready. The uncles went to the chief, Tu-Tona. They said to the chief, “It would be well if we went along with you to Nukuhiva.” Tu- Tona replied, “Yes, yes.” Then he said, “Make ready your things.” Namu and Tikaue replied, “Our things are all ready.” Then they asked, “What night is it we start on this voyage?” Said Tu-Tona, “Hotu-nui [the fifteenth night of the moon] is the night.” The uncles returned to the house of the girl, and said to her, “The chief wants us to go with him.” The girl was pleased.

When that night came, that is Hotu- nui, Namu and Tikaue went to Tu- Tona’s. There gathered with them seven twenties of men at the chief’s house, the people who were to accompany the chief to Nukuhiva. The chief had one reason for going on this voyage, Namu and Ti- kaue had another. In the night of Hotu- nui the canoe set out and the mat sail was put up. As the canoe put out that evening the sea was calm. But the mana of that girl raised a strong wind, so that in a single night that canoe had arrived at Nukuhiva.

Then the report came in Nukuhiva, “Here is a strange canoe, with seven twenties of men on board” ; and the re- port, “It belongs to the chief, Tu-Tona, from Hivaoa.” The chief at Nukuhiva was pleased, and his people too. They cooked food, they cooked pig, they cooked poke, they cooked popoi — all kinds of food. Then the invitation went to the chief and his people. So they all went to the place of the chief at Nukuhiva. They feasted on the food at this chief’s.

Namu and Tikaue always had another thought on their minds. Their work was looking for a man with white skin. Not one did they see. Tu-Tona and his people were all sleeping together in one house ; but some of them kept amusing themselves with the food. That was fest- ival food, for they were making a great feast.

The Nukuhiva people were enjoying themselves being tattooed. Tua was the: night for the showing of the tattoo de- signs. They went to bathe at the third crowing of the cock. Namu and Tikaue were watching them all the time. As they bathed, the people made the sound of the poko. [Holding the left elbow crooked against the side, and clapping the right hand upon the cavity thus made.] But they did not see any lightning (light skinned youth). As dawn was approach- ing they heard another poko. So they went to have a look. Then they saw lightning, a handsome young man ! Ti- kaue said to Namu, “Go and get the gourd with the coconut in it.” Namu got it. He came with this thing, and the two of them went to this youth’s. Then said this handsome youth, “Who are you two?” “We are a couple of the men from Hivaoa.” The youth then asked, “What are you after?” Namu and Ti- kaue replied, “We came hither to look at you, and when we saw you we recog- nized you as a handsome youth.” Then Namu said to Tikaue “Come here.” Na- mu then took the coconut, and struck it on the head of Tikaue, twice he struck it, but the coconut did not break. When the youth perceived what they were doing, he thought that the nut could be broken quickly with a stone. He thought to him- self, “These must be a couple of fools”. Sick indeed was Tikaue’s head ! And the youth laughed. Then Tikaue said to Namu, “It will be well now if I try breaking it on your head.” So the nut passed into the hands of Tikaue, and he struck it on Namu’s head. The nut broke. When the white meat was put next the skin of the youth, just alike were the two in whiteness.

Then the youth asked, “What of it, this similarity?” Then Namu and Tikaue said, “This is the likeness of your woman.” The youth perceived that this was a very beautiful woman, so he said, “That is my woman, old fellows.”

Then Namu and Tikaue opened the vessel filled with perfumes. As it was opened, the sweet smelling things spread all about Nukuhiva. Heretofore there had been at Nukuhiva no sweet odors, none grew there. From the opening of this vessel perhaps seeds of sweet smell- ing plants fell, and since that time these perfumed plants have grown in Nuku- hiva.

The vessel was given to the handsome youth. The people from Hivaoa smelt the perfume. When Tu-Tona smelt it, he’ asked of Namu and Tikaue, “Does that thing belong to Tahia-noho-uu ?” They replied, “Yes, yes.” Then the chiefs of Hivaoa and Nukuhiva chatted together. The Nukuhiva chief said, “Now we know what a lovely odor it is. This dwelling where the strangers are staying is to be divided by means of a piece of tapa, and one half of it is to be for the use of this youth, while the other room will be for the strangers.”

In the morning the visitors put on their loin cloths and went to see the feast which was at the dance area. The drums were sounding, they were singing the ptie chant, dancing the haka. When the visitors were gone to see the feast, Tikaue and Namu and this handsome youth were still in their room occupied in bedecking themselves. The father and the mother of the youth had come to the feast to see their son, but he was not to be seen, he did not come right away. Then the three of them arrived, Tikaue and Namu and this beau, everybody at the feast saw him, he was like lightning, very hand- some, very sweetly perfumed, his dress scented throughout. They came from above and below when he came upon the dance floor, the sound of ‘ the drums ceased, all the festive folk stopped still, doing nothing but marvelling at this lovely j’outh. The women desired him ardently. Just two haka did this beau dance, one along one side of the dancing- floor, one along the other side.

Namu and Tikaue said, “Let’s get ready.” When the youth had gone, the vim of the festive folk was gone ; they said, “The beau has fled, who else is there to look at?” So the tribesmen went to eat the feast. By means of their power- ful mana Namu and Tikaue produced a great wind, the West Wind. The Hivaoa chief, Tu-Tona, said, “This wind is a good one for our departure for Hivaoa ; we can bear down eastward.” The tribesmen said to chief Tu-Tona, “Let us get ready, it’s a good wind.” The chief replied, “Then make ready, the food is all finished. In the morning we shall sail.”

Namu and Tikaue were making ready the things of the youth. They were al- ways thinking of something diff^erent from the rest of the tribesmen, always doing something different. That night all was ready for the departure for Hivaoa. In the evening Namu went outside and sang like a komao bird. When the folk inside the house heard the sound of the komao, they said, “Friends, it is dawn. So let us get ready to go.” But Tu-Tona said, “It is evening.” Others said, “The komao has sung.” Namu came into the house and Tikaue went outside, and then sang like a rooster. It was a real roost- er’s crow. Then the tribesmen said, “It is certainly dawn. Let’s go.” Namu and Tikaue said to the handsome youth, “Come, we will hide you in the canoe.” So they went, the three of them.

Later all the tribesmen came with the chief. They climbed into the canoe, and let out the mat sail. They shoved off and the canoe sped away. In the depth of the night they departed from Nuku- hiva. In the morning, when it was scarcely dawn, they came to Aihoa (on the northern coast of Hivaoa), and the wind dropped. Then they began to bail out the bilge water ; and they saw that there was yellow stain on it.

Then the chief said, “Oh Namu, oh Tikaue, what’s this on the bilge water? And what of your brother-in-law?” Ti- kaue and Namu replied, “Yes, yes.” Then Tutona was angry, and he said, “What do you conceal your girl’s husband for?” Not a word came from Namu and Ti- kaue. Then Tikaue and Namu revealed their son-in-law, and the tribesmen mar- veled greatly.

Then they paddled the canoe. In two strokes of the paddles the canoe was on the sand at Atuona. While the canoe was off Aihoa, Tu-Tona said to the hand- some youth, “Do you see that white thing?” The youth revealed himself flashing like lightning. The woman did likewise, from the beach at Atuona. Tikaue and Namu landed, the youth go- ing first.

The old man went behind him crying out, “The affianced, the affianced. The handsome youth of Tahia-noho-uu from Nukuhiva.” Crying thus they went all the way up to their house.

They arrived at the house. As they came close to the dwelling, the youth saw two women, both of them white, one just like the other, both of them beauties. The youth did not know which was his wom- an. The mother of his woman called out to him, and he called back. She said, “Come, come hither my son-in-law.” Then his woman rose and embraced her husband, and they pressed noses, and all went inside the house. After coming in- side the house, the woman took the half coconut, and touched him with it to see if he matched it in whiteness. Exactly like the half coconut was he.

Now the father of this handsome boy had been searching in Nukuhiva for his son. The folk of Nukuhiva said to him, “Your boy has been stolen.” For six moons this handsome lad lived with his woman. Then grief came upon him for his father and mother, and he said to his woman, “The time has come for me to go to Nukuhiva to see my mother and father.” The woman replied, “I am willing. However, you must come back in one moon. When one night beyond one moon has elapsed and you have not returned, I shall die.”

The husband re- plied, “Yes, yes.” The husband then went. With his ar- rival in Nukuhiva, his family was very happy. They said to him, “What is the new word from Hivaoa?” The hand- some lad replied, “I have found a beauti- ful woman. There is not a woman like her here in Nukuhiva.”

His woman was counting the days. Came the thirty days to an end, and this husband of hers had not come back. Then she wept for him. And spoke thus, “My husband does not come back.” Then said this woman to her uncles, Namu and Tikaue, “Climb the coconut trees, two trees, one for pani (scented oil for the head), one for hoho (scented oil for the body).” The uncles came with the nuts. Said that girl to them, “One scrape one nut, the other scrape the other.” The scraping (of the meat) finished, she made pani for her head with one nut. After- wards she anointed her body with (the oil from) the other nut. Then she said to the uncles, “I crave crabs.” [Kaki refers to the craving of a pregnant woman for a particular food.] She sent the uncles to get some crabs, because she wanted to get them out of the way. When she was alone, she wanted to hang herself.

As they were going to get the crabs, Tikaue struck his foot against a stone on the road. Said Tikaue to Namu, “Come on, let’s return. Our niece has strangled herself.” When the uncles arrived at the house, their girl was dead. When they saw that she was dead, each of them climbed a coconut tree, and each precipitated himself headforemost down upon the ground, for each had the idea of killing himself. But when they leapt, they did not kill themselves. They climbed the coconut trees again, flung themselves down again. They did not die!

Three nights after the woman had died, her ghost came to her husband in Nukuhiva. When the spirit of the woman came to her husband, he wept continu- ously. The woman said to her husband, “You are weeping mightily for me, my husband.” Then the husband saw his woman, and they embraced, and pressed noses, and wailed over each other. The husband said to his woman, “How did you get here?” The woman replied, “I who am here, my husband, have died.” Then the husband was seized with fear. He said “You can’t be dead. Your body is good.” “Nevertheless,” said the woman, “I have died. However, you must say, my husband, to your family that they are to collect coconuts, to grate wild ginger, to scrape coconut meat, to go in search of kaupe (Carissa grandis) flow- ers, to bring some kokuu (Indian lilac) fruits. All these things are to be put together and the juice from them squeezed into a trough.” When the mem- bers of the family had disappeared, look- ing for these things, the woman said to her husband, “Now shut off our room with a piece of cloth ; and tell them that after three nights they are to take away this curtain of tapa.”

When three nights had passed, the hus- band took away this piece of cloth, and the woman was alive. Then the family saw that this girl was alive again. When they had seen her in the room, they thought, “How did this new woman get here?” The husband said to them, “That is my work, during the three nights I made this room tapu to you.” His rela- tives marveled greatly at this very beauti- ful woman, and they were pleased. Then they knew for a fact that the woman of this handsome man of Nukuhiva was a beauty.

They lived together. In one moon a child was growing in the woman’s womb, in nine moons a boy was born. Tahia- noho-uu named it Tuapu. That child grew, another grew in the womb, and a girl was born. The mother gave it the name of her mother, ] lina-tai-ii. Again a child was growing in her womb, and a boy was born. It was given the name Te – poea – Hiva – Oa (The-beau-of-Hiva Oa). Again another child grew, a girl was born. Hers was her mother’s name.

When the first-born had come to the age of five years, Namu and Tikaue went in search of tortoises down in the sea. They wanted tortoises of that kind be- cause they were making a large stone platform in which to hide away the body of their girl who had died a long time before. [Tortoises were valued as offer- ings to the gods.] Now the soul of this woman who had died a long time be- fore in Hivaoa saw from Nukuhiva the work of Namu and Tikaue. Then said this ghost to her husband, “Now is ap- proaching the time of my death.” Then the husband asked, “What makes you know your death is near?” “I looked, my husband, and saw Tikaue and Namu in search of tortoise, and making a great paepae in which to put away my dead body.”

When the work on the paepae was fiinished at Hivaoa, and the tortoise had been found, the ghost of this woman long since dead said to her husband, “Now after three nights I am going to die. Now, my husband, when I am dead, bring to me the first-born child and put into his hands one piece of kava root, and one pig; give to the girl two pieces of cloth, to dry their tears for their mother.” The husband wept, because he knew she had taken no kind of sickness. He had seen that she had a perfectly firm body. He sought to find out from her what this was all about, her dying in three nights.

In the evening of the second day be- fore she was to die, she said to her hus- band, “Gather together, all of you, with the children, and put two children on one side of me and two on the other side, and let my husband stand at my head.” They all sat down and waited, and the woman lay down. The husband and the children were wailing. When the first cock crew, the feet of this woman dis- appeared. She then said to her husband, “Now my death is near. Take my legs.” The husband and the children reached for the legs and there were no legs. At second cock’s crow, half of her trunk disappeared. When full daylight vi?as near, the rest of her body disappeared, and only the head remained. Said this head to them now, “Enough, let us press noses.” And so the children pressed noses vvrith this head and afterwards the husband did the same. Then the husband twisted the hair of the head in his fingers (to hold it). Then said the head, “I am going to die, you cannot hold that hair.” When she died the head flew up on to a rafter of the house like a young green bird, and cried out, “Oe oe oe oe oe oe oe. The seeking hither of Namu and Tikaue for the soul of their niece, Tahia-noho- uu. Doing my work, going to seek my tortoise, building my paepae, carrying far my body to put it in this paepae. Oh my husband, greeting, and to our children.” Then this bird flew up on to the ridge pole of the house, and said to them, “Farewell.” They all wailed. They wailecf especially because they would not see the ghost (or corpse) again.

Three nights after the death of the mother, the children, with the tear dry- ing cloth, a pig apiece, with the kava, the woman’s dress, departed from Nuku- hiva. At Hivaoa no one knew whence they had come. Leaving Nukuhiva one morning early, they arrived at Hivaoa that very same morning. They went right up to the paepae of their mother. When they came near the paepae, the sister wailed, “Oh my mother, Tahia- noho-uu, e-e-e-e.” Now Namu and Ti- kaue, these two were in a house on the paepae. They were at work. The chil- dren climbed up on the paepae. This pae- pae was the kind that is very tapu, the kind that women should not climb up on. So when Namu and Tikaue saw a girl upon this paepae, they were extremely angry, and they took her and threw her off the top. Nevertheless, though they had been thrown off the top, the children kept climbing up. After being thrown off three times they stopped. The first- born, Tuapu, then said to Namu and Tikaue, “Why do you throw us off, I here am Tuapu, and this is my sister, Hina-ta-ii. We are bringing the kava root and the pig, gifts for our mother, and the cloth with which to dry eyes.” Then they wept.

Those two (Namu and Tikaue) then took the children, and placed them on their heads and wailed. Then they car- ried the two children to their grand- mother. It is ended. [Placing the children on the heads is a ceremonial custom by which children were honored and consecrated. Formal histrionic wailing was a sign alike of passionate joy and grief.]

[#14] E. S. Craighill Handy, The Native Culture in the Marquesas (Honolulu, HI: The Museum, 1923), pg. 100 and Marquesan Legends (Honolulu, HI: The Museum, 1930), pg. 26.

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