Fiji Myths and Legends

FJ
Degei the Snake God

The tradition of gathering friends and family together to tell tales of life’s adventurers has been embedded in the culture of Fiji for generations. Some of these myths and legends have stood the test of time, provoking a deeper sense of connection between themselves and their ancestors, helping us to find order in things that have happened to us, and making sense of the events of a random world. The stories that have been passed down from father to son can sometimes be seen as simply the creation of an overworked imagination. However, many of these seemingly impossible tales do…

Through time, these stories were surely embellished, as they were originally communicated solely via word of mouth, and it was only much later that they were written down for a more consistent record. As the storytellers, they would add their own experiences of life and understanding to the text. This could be seen as a dissolution of the original, but it can also be seen as an evolutionary step of the original story gaining greater significance. With the main stem of the text still intact, the slight alterations and changes to the original provide greater relevance to current circumstances, crossing not just generations but cultures as well. Stories also allow us to share information in a memorable way, which might have helped our ancestors cooperate and survive. By telling a story rather than merely reciting dry facts, we remember the details more clearly.

The act of calling the sea turtles on the island of Kadavu is still practiced; the two women for Namuana who had been changed to turtles lived on in the water of the bay. It is their descendants today who rise when the maidens of their own village sing songs to them from the cliffs above. We have accompanied a handful of these short stories below. Enjoy…

Degei the Snake God

The greatest of all Fijian gods was Degei, the Snake god. In the beginning, he lived alone, without friends or companions, and the only living creature he knew was Turukawa the hawk. Although the hawk could not speak he was the constant companion of the god.

One day Degei could not find his friend and looked everywhere for him. Days went by and at last one morning, he spied the hawk sitting in some long grass. Gladly, he welcomed the bird but, to his consternation, she ignored Degei and commenced building a nest. Disappointed, he retired to his house and the next day went back to the nest and found two eggs. He then realized the hawk had found a mate and that he had lost her affection. So scooping up the eggs he took them into his own house and kept them warm with his own body. After several weeks of nurturing the eggs and wondering what would happen two shells broke and there were two tiny human bodies.

Degei built them a shelter in a vesi tree and fed them on scraps of food. They grew quickly, but there was nobody to teach them except Degei. He did not understand children but when they were hungry he fed them and to save himself from work he planted banana trees and root crops close to them. He also talked to them and told them about the secrets of nature. Eventually, the children were fully grown and all this time had been unaware of each other’s presence as Degei had placed them on opposite sides of the tree.

One day the man left his shelter and as soon as he saw the maiden held out his arms to her and told her Degei had made them for each other and that their children would populate the earth. So Degei showed them how to cook the root vegetables in an earth oven (Vocabulary).

Sometime later they were blessed with a little baby and Degei also was very happy as he knew that because of loneliness men and women had come into the world and would worship him as their god.

According to Fiji Cultural Legend Degei also created Viti Levu and all the small islands.

Dakuwaqa the Shark God


Dakuwaqa the Shark God
Dakuwaqa the Shark God | Image: Supplied

One of the best-known gods in Fijian legends is the fierce sea-monster Dakuwaqa. He was the guardian of the reef entrance of the islands, fearless, headstrong, and jealous. He frequently changed himself into the form of a shark and traveled around the islands fighting all the other reef guardians.

One day he set out for the Lomaiviti group and after emerging victorious from this area he decided to set out for Suva. The guardian of the reef here challenged Dakuwaqa and a great struggle took place. There was such a disturbance that great waves went rolling into the mouth of the Rewa River (Map, Vocabulary section) causing valleys to be flooded for many miles inland.

Dakuwaqa once more emerged as the victor and proceeded on his way. Near the island of Beqa his old friend Masilaca, another shark god, told him of the great strength of the gods guarding Kadavu island and slyly asked Dakuwaqa whether he would be afraid to meet them. Like a shot, Dakuwaqa sped off towards Kadavu and, on nearing the reef, found a giant octopus guarding the passage. The octopus had four of its tentacles securely gripping the coral and the other four were held aloft. Rushing furiously in, Dakuwaqa soon found that he was being almost squeezed to death as the octopus had coiled its tentacles around him. Realising his danger Dakuwaqa begged for mercy and told the octopus that if his life was spared he would never harm any people from Kadavu wherever they may be in any part of Fiji waters.

So the octopus released him and Dakuwaqa kept his promise, and the people of Kadavu have no fear of sharks when out fishing or swimming.

Even today when local fishermen go out for a night’s fishing they reverently pour a bowl of yaqona into the sea for Dakuwaqa.  The high chiefs of Cakaudrove are considered the direct descendants of Dakuwaqa and their totem shark will appear to the reigning chief on occasions when momentous news is about to the announced. (Audio)

YouTube Video: The Shark and the Octopus


Video: Culture Corner – The Shark and the Octopus

Fiji Firewalkers

Many years ago on the island of Beqa (pronounced Mbengga), a tribe called Sawau lived on a mountain village called Navakeisese. In this village, there lived a famous storyteller known as Dredre, who regularly entertained the members of the tribe with his stories. It was customary for the people of the village to bring gifts to Dredre in appreciation for his entertainment.

On one occasion when asked what gifts he would like, he requested each person in the audience to bring him the first things they would find while hunting the next day.

One of the warriors of Beqa called Tui-na-Iviqalita, went fishing for eels (rewai) in a mountain stream. The first thing he caught, felt like an eel, when he pulled it out of the mud, it assumed the shape of a Spirit God.

Tui was extremely pleased and set off to present his catch to Dredre, the storyteller. The Spirit God, however, pleaded for his life and offered all manner of gifts in exchange. These Tui refused until finally, the Spirit God offered to give him power over fire and this offer aroused his curiosity.

To prove his gift, a pit was dug and lined with stones, and a great fire was lit on the stones. When the stones were white with heat, the Spirit God leaped down on the stones and called Tui to jump in with him. Finally, he plucked up enough courage and was surprised that he did not feel any effect from the heat. The Spirit God then told him that he could be buried for four days in the oven without suffering any injury. However, Tui was afraid to do so, saying that he was quite satisfied walking on the stones. To this day members of the Sawau tribes are able to walk on white hot stones and direct descendants of Tui-na-Iviqalita still act as Bete, or high priest, of the fire walkers of Fiji.

Sacred Turtles of Fiji


Turtles of Fiji
Turtles of Fiji | Image: Getty Images

On the island of Kadavu (pronounced Kandavu) one of the larger islands of the Fiji Group and some fifty miles by water from the capital city of Suva, is the Fijian village of Namuana. Namuana nestles at the foot of a beautiful bay adjacent to the Government Station in Vunisea Harbour. Here the island of Kadavu narrows down to a very isthmus and by climbing the hill behind Namuana village one can stand on the saddle and look out to the sea to the south and to the north. Legend says that in the days gone by the warriors of Kadavu slid their canoes on rollers up over the narrow neck of land to save the long journey around the east and west of Kadavu island.

The women of Namuana village still preserve a very strange ritual, that of calling turtles from the sea. If you visit Namuana village to see the turtle calling, your schooner anchors in a beautiful bay right under the cliffs of a rocky headland. You land on the beach and then either sit on the rocks under the bluffs on the beach or climb a rocky tract to a point some 150 or 200 feet up the rock face. Here you have a splendid view and find assembled all the maidens of the village of Namuana singing a strange chant. As they chant, if you look very carefully down into the water of the bay, you will see giant turtles rise one by one to lie on the surface listening to the music.

This is not a fairy tale and actually does take place and the water in this area is forbidden for the fishing of turtles.

Another interesting sideline to this performance is that if any member of the nearby village of Nabukelevu is present, then the turtles will not rise to the surface of the bay and turtle calling will have to be abandoned.

As is usually the case with such strange ceremonies and customs in Fiji, the turtle calling is based on an ancient legend of Fiji still passed on from father to son among the Fijian people of Kadavu.

Many, many years ago in the beautiful village of Namuana on the island of Kadavu, lived a very lovely princess called Tinaicoboga who was the wife of the chief of Namuana village. Tinaicoboga had a charming daughter called Raudalice and the two women often went fishing on the reefs around their home.

On one particular occasion, Tinaicobaga and Raudalice went further afield than usual and waded out onto the submerged reefs which is just out from the rocky headline to the east of the bay on which Namuana village is situated.

They became so engrossed with their fishing that they did not notice the stealthy approach of a great war canoe filled with fishermen from the nearby village of Nabukelevu. This village is situated in the shadow of Mount Washington, the highest mountain on Kadavu island. Today, Mount Washington is well known to mariners because there is a splendid lighthouse there warning them of the dangers of the rocky coastline.

Suddenly the fishermen leapt from their canoe and seized the two women, bound their hands and feet with vine and tossed them into the bottom of the canoe, and set off in great haste for home. Although they pleaded for their lives, the cruel warriors from Nabukelevu were deaf to their pleading and would not listen to their entreaties.

The Gods of the sea, however, were kind and soon a great storm arose and the canoe was tossed about by huge waves which almost swamped it. As the canoe was foundering in the sea the fishermen were astounded to notice that the two women lying in the water in the hold of the canoe had suddenly changed into turtles and to save their own lives, the men seized them and threw them into the sea.

As they slipped over the side of the canoe the weather changed and there were no more waves.

The Nabukelevu fishermen continued their journey back to their home village and the two women for Namuana who had been changed to turtles lived on in the water of the bay. It is their descendants today who rise when the maidens of their own village sing songs to them from the cliffs.

The translation of the strange song which is chanted on such occasions is as follows:-

“The women of Namuana are all dressed in mourning
Each carries a sacred club each tattooed in a strange pattern
Do rise to the surface Raudalice so we may look at you
Do rise to the surface Tinaicoboga so we may also look at you.”

You may doubt the truth of the legend, but you cannot doubt the fact that the chanting of this strange song does in fact lure the giant turtles to the surface of the blue waters of the bay near Namuana village on the island of Kadavu.

The strange power of calling these turtles is possessed only by the people of Namuana village and it is true that should a member of their traditional enemy tribe from the village of Nabukelevu further down the coast be present, then no turtles will rise.

Tagimaucia flower


Tagimaucia flower
Tagimaucia flower | Image: Supplied

In the high mountains of Taveuni, known as Fiji’s Garden Island, there is a beautiful lake of considerable size. A flowering plant called Tagimaucia is found only on the shores of this lake and any attempt to transplant the vine has failed. The Tagimaucia is one of Fiji’s most beautiful wildflowers, the bunches of red flowers have a small white center. The legend of the Tagimaucia flower goes something like this.

In a hill above the shore lived a woman and her little daughter. One day the little girl was playing when she should have been working. Her mother kept asking her to get on with her work but she ignored her mother and kept on playing. Annoyed, the mother seized a bundle of sasas (mid-ribs of the coconut leaf) which she used as a broom, and spanked her daughter. “Go on, get out, you naughty girl. Go out and I don’t want to see your face again.”

The little girl was so upset that she sobbed and ran away. She kept on running not realising where she was going. Her tears blinded her and as she ran along she blundered into a large climbing plant that hung from a tree. It was a thick green vine with large green leaves but there was no flowers on it. The child became entangled with the vine and could not get free so she stayed there, crying bitterly.

As the tears rolled down her cheeks they changed from salt tear to tears of blood which fell on the stem of the vine and turned into lovely flowers.

At last the little girl stopped crying and managed to free herself from the vine and went back home. She was delighted to find out that her mother had forgotten her anger and so they lived happily together again.

Red Prawns of Vatulele


Red Prawns of Vatulele
Red Prawns of Vatulele | Image: Supplied

Long ago on the island of Vatulele there lived a very beautiful chief’s daughter called “Yalewa-ni-Cagi-Bula” or Maiden-of-the-Fair-Wind. So beautiful was she that every eligible chief who visited Vatulele sought to take her as his bride. Yalewa-ni-Cagi-Bula however, was hard to please and on every occasion she scornfully refused to accept their approaches.

Not far away on the mainland of Viti Levu lived a very handsome and dashing chief’s son who was heir to the throne of mainland tribes. He had heard of the beautiful daughter of the chief of Vatulele and decided that she was worthy to be his wife.

Finally, after much preparation, our bold young chief set off, laden with gifts, to seek the favours of yalewa-ni-Cagi-Bula. He was well received by the chiefs of Vatulele, and confidently, he produced the special gift which he had personally carried from his mainland.

This gift consisted of the greatest delicacy known to Fiji Islands, a bundle of giant prawns from the coastal streams of Viti Levu, cooked to a tasty turn in coconut milk. Such a delicacy could be expected to melt the heart of any Fijian maiden – but not so on this occasion.

Her face clouded in anger and with flashing eyes, she commanded ladies in waiting to seize him and take him to the highest cliff on the island above the “Caves of the Eagles” (known in Fiji as Ganilau) and cast him out into the sea.

As he tumbled down the cliff to the sea his gift of bright red prawns fell from his hands into a rocky pool at the base of the cliff, and the leaves in which they were wrapped fell among the rocks around the pool.

Our bold young chief survived the fall and returned sadly home to end his days pining for his lost love. Every day he would go down to the sea and look towards the south where on a clear day, he could just make out on the horizon a dark line which was Vatulele.

Fiji Legend tells us that on one occasion he even began to build a bridge of stone to span the sea between Vatulele and Viti Levu and the remains of this bridge can still be seen jutting out to sea near the village of Votualailai.

The end of the story is as interesting as the beginning for where the red prawns fell into the rocky pool they came to life and to this day the pools under the cliffs on Vatulele are filled with bright scarlet prawns and in the crevices of the rocks grow the leaves in which they were wrapped.

To the Fijians of Vatulele these bright scarlet prawns known as “URA-BUTA” or “cooked Prawns” are sacred and may not be harmed in any way. They firmly believe that any who dare defy the TABU will surely be shipwrecked. And this is the Fiji cultural legend of the Red Prawns of Vatulele.

How the Fijians learned to build their canoes


Double canoe off Moala Feejee Islands Septr 26th 1849
Double canoe off Moala Feejee Islands Septr 26th 1849 | Image: Supplied

“THEY tell me,” said old Tui Nayau, ” that you have been to the hill of Kau-vandra, where stands the temple of Degei, the Great Serpent, In the old times our -fathers feared that spot, and reverenced it greatly, for there dwelt the Great Serpent whom they worshipped.

” In those days Bau was not the greatest kingdom in Fiji, as it is now. There were then no boat-builders among us, and our fathers made no canoes, for they knew not how to fashion them. They were living in a wretched way, each tribe dwelling apart in its own land; for there were no canoes wherewith to sail from one island to another. So the Great Serpent took pity upon them, and chose a tribe whom he called ‘ The Boat-builders,’ and then he taught the art of canoe-building, giving them also the entire rule over Great Fiji, so that in those days they were a great and powerful people, and Bau was of little account. “And indeed it was easy for them to become great, for they alone of all the dwellers in Fiji knew how to build canoes; so that men came from afar, begging to be taken as their servants, that they too might learn how to make the wonderful vessels which would carry men over the waters in safety. Thus, in the course of time, they grew proud and haughty, and were often disobedient to the Great Serpent; but he bore with them, for he loved them well.

“Now the Great Serpent dwelt on the hill of Kau-vandra, in Great Fiji; but all the country round about he gave to the tribe that he had chosen; and they built their town on the top of a high hill, where they dwelt in safety, for no enemy could get at them; and often did the god come among them, and talk with them, teaching them many things, so that they were wiser than all other men. These days were good days, for they dwelt in great peace and plenty.

“When it was evening, the Great Serpent used to go to a cave in the hill of Kau-vandra, and there laid him down to sleep. When he closed his eyes then it was dark, and men said, ‘ Night has come over the land; ‘ when he turned himself over in his sleep, the earth shook, and men said, ‘ It is an earthquake; ‘ and at the dawn of day, when he opened his eyes, then darkness fled away, and men said, ‘ It is morning.’

“Now there was a beautiful black dove, whose duty it was to awake him when it was morning. It slept always on a ‘ Baka ‘ (or banyan) tree, which grew hard by the mouth of the Great Serpent’s cave, whence its voice, ‘ Kru, kru, kru, kru,’ always roused him when it was time for the night to depart, and for the day to come over the land. Then he would get up, and call across the valley to the Boat- builders, saying, ‘ Rise up, my children, and work; for the morning has come.’

“Therefore Rokola, chief of the Boat-builders, and Kausam-baria, his brother, hated the dove; for they had grown proud and idle, and they said, ‘ Why should we thus work, work, work forever? Work is for slaves, but we are chiefs, great and mighty. Let our slaves work, for they are many; as for us, we will rest. Come, let us kill the dove; and if the Great Serpent be angry, let him be angry. We will fight with him; for we are many and strong, and he is but one, though he is a god.’

“So they took their bows and arrows and crept beneath the banyan tree, where the dove was sleeping. Then said Rokola to his brother, ‘ I will shoot first. If I miss, then do you shoot; ‘ and his brother replied, ‘ It is well. Shoot. I am ready.’ So Rokola shot, and his arrow pierced the breast of the dove so that it fell dead to the ground, and the two brothers fled away to their town.

“When the Great Serpent awoke from his sleep, he wondered that he did not hear the voice of his dove; so he came forth from his cave, and looked up into the banyan tree, saying, ‘ Ah, the lazy one, must it be my business to wake you nowadays? But where are you ? ‘ for he saw that she was not in the tree, on the branch where she always sat.

“Then, looking on the ground, he spied the dove, with the arrow sticking in her breast. Great was his grief for the dove, and great also was his rage; for he knew the arrow of Rokola, and, shouting across the valley with a terrible voice, he cried, ‘ Woe to you, Rokola, and unto you all, O Boat-builders, ungrateful ones, because you have killed my dove! Now is your kingdom taken away? and given to the children of Bau. And I will scatter you among all the peoples of Fiji, making you their servants.’

“But the Boat-builders shouted back across the valley: ‘ We fear you not, Great Serpent. We are many, and you are but one, though you be a god. Come, let us fight together. As we have served your dove, so also will we serve you; for we fear you not. Great Serpent, though you be a god.’ And they built a war fence, strong, wide, and high; whilst the Great Serpent sat on the hill of Kau-vandra, mocking them, and crying aloud, ‘ Build your fences strong. Carry them up to the sky; for a god is your enemy.’ They also defied him, for they trusted in their war fence, and in their numbers.

“When they had finished, Rokola shouted across the valley, ‘ It is done. Come, let us fight, that our children may say in the days hereafter, ” Our fathers ate the Great Serpent, the god who lived on the hill of Kau-vandra.” ‘

“Then the god arose in his wrath, and threw his club up into the sky, and the clouds were broken in pieces, and fell down to the earth in a deluge of rain. Many days did the rain continue — it was not like the rain which now falls upon the earth, but a great and terrible pouring out of waters — and the sea rose, flowing in over the land, a dreadful sight. Higher and ever higher rose the wave, till it swept away the war fence of the Boat-builders and their town with all its people. Rokola and many more were drowned; but many also (some two thousand, perhaps) floated away on trees and rafts and canoes, drifting along hither and thither over the waters, till they landed, some here and some there, on the mountain tops which were still above the waves, and begged their lives of the dwellers n the lands, who had fled thither before the rising waters. So that, when the sea went back again to its own place, they were taken down into the valleys in every kingdom, and became the servants of the chiefs, building their canoes, as at this day.

“As for the banyan tree, on which the dove used to sit, it was carried away by the great flood to Vatu-lele. Now Vatu-lele, in those days, was nothing but a reef, like Navatu, with no land upon it; but so much earth was still clinging to the roots of the banyan tree, that it became a land, and men came and dwelt thereon.

“And this is how we, the men of Fiji, learned to build our canoes.”

Footnotes

  • Chinese whispers | is an internationally popular children’s game. It is also called transmission chain experiments in the context of cultural evolution research and is primarily used to identify the type of information that is more easily passed on from one person to another. Players form a line or circle, and the first player comes up with a message and whispers it to the ear of the second person in the line. The second player repeats the message to the third player, and so on. When the last player is reached, they announce the message they heard to the entire group. The first person then compares the original message with the final version. Although the objective is to pass around the message without it becoming garbled along the way, part of the enjoyment is that, regardless, this usually ends up happening. Errors typically accumulate in the retellings, so the statement announced by the last player differs significantly from that of the first player, usually with amusing or humorous effect.
  • Earth Oven (LOVO) |  The term ‘lovo’ also refers to the underground oven that is used to cook the feast. The lovo is often reserved for special occasions in Fijian villages and is a core part of the local culinary arts.  This traditional technique involves digging a pit into the ground and placing hot coals inside. Various ingredients, from meat to vegetables and palusami (taro leaves filled with corned beef, onions and coconut cream) are then wrapped up and placed over the coals. Everything from fish to chicken and pork can be cooked in a lovo and will also sometimes also be bundled up in banana leafs to retain their moisture.  Once the food is inside, the pit is covered in banana leaves, soil or potato sacks and left to slow cook for several hours. Once time is up, the pit is unearthed to reveal deliciously cooked, tender food. (Jean-Michel Cousteau Resort)
  • Rewa River |  is the longest and widest river in Fiji. Located on the island of Viti Levu, the Rewa originates in Tomanivi, the highest peak in Fiji, and flows southeast for 145 km to Laucala Bay, near Suva. (Wikipedia, 2022)

References

  • Pinimg, I. (2022). Degei the Snake God [Photograph].
  • (2017). Fiji Firewalkers [Photograph]. Getty images.
  • Jean-Michel Cousteau Resort (2019). WHAT IS A FIJIAN LOVO? Fiji Resort. Link
  • Social Plug – Fiji. (2020, December 26). The Shark and the Octopus – A Fijian Legend [Video]. YouTube. Link
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