From Marist Studies
Jump to: navigation, search

doc. 849 — 4 December 1849

Letter from Pierre Trapenard to Ernest Téallier, notary

Partial translation by Charles Girard SM

Mythology of Woodlark Island (Muiu, Moiu) – the story of creation

Their traditions on the origin and creation of their island, as obscure as these may be, are not without some interest. They leave no doubt for anyone who believes in the holy scriptures that this people formerly had relationships with the people which God had chosen from all eternity to reveal his divine secrets and to make the depository of his holy ordinances. It is true that these traditions have been considerably altered, but under that thick veil of error and superstition, many incontestable truths can be uncovered. These truths have been preserved and transmitted by them in several ways. Some say that three powerful and illustrious men made the world, which consists of their island and the surrounding islands. They were three famous travelers, called Tudave, Gereïn, and Marita.[1] Tudave was the most powerful and the most remarkable. The other two, though equal in power, were only his associates and companions. Tudave worked everything. These three powerful spirits went wandering in the midst of the waters in their canoe. They traveled through the formless world in the midst of darkness. Here we think we can hear the holy scriptures telling us: The earth, when it came out of nothingness, was formless and completely bare, without trees, fruits and any ornamentation. The darkness covered the face of the abyss of the water, and the spirit of God hovered over the waters.[2] The three illustrious travelers in their voyage stop suddenly, create, organize and adorn the Guavags and Massims Islands, situated to the west. After they had put people in those islands and given them the means of subsistence and taught them various ways of doing things, they embarked on their great canoe and headed east. Soon they stop. They create and adorn the island of Woodlark by a decree of the all-powerful will of Tudave. This island was populated all of a sudden and covered with trees, fruits, animals, taro and yams. The greatest abundance reigned among the inhabitants; nothing was missing for their happiness. They are the most fortunate men on earth. Once this work is finished, the three climb back in their canoe and advance still further toward the east. They stop once again for the last time. They create and embellish the Nades Islands, situated to the east of Woodlark. After finishing this great work, they retire to an enormous rock which, by enchantment, they bring up from the bottom of the waters between the Nades Islands and Woodlark. These three powerful spirits begin a great rest. Tudave is still living; he is immortal. As for the other two, no one knows what happened to them.
Others tell the story differently; they recognize quite well our three powerful figures about whom we have just spoken. They keep the same names, but they have them act differently. According to this latter version, these three great spirits are equal in power; all three are creators and law-givers. As in the other version, they say that these spirits went wandering about over the seas, that they create and embellish the Guavags and Massims Islands,[3] that they fill them with inhabitants. After they finish this work, they get back into their great canoe, a chief’s canoe, but at the bottom of the boat there was an enormous stone. When night approaches, Gereïn, one of the three, pulls up the enormous stone from the bottom of the canoe, throws it into the sea, and all of a sudden, the most surprising of marvels, the stone gets bigger and becomes an enormous rock which rises far above the surface of the waters. Our three illustrious travelers draw their canoe to the rock. Lying down on the hard surface of this rock, they have a mild and happy sleep and repair their strength. As the daylight begins to appear, our three figures cast their canoe into the water, climb back inside, pull back the rock which again becomes a stone, put it back into the canoe and continue their voyage.
When they arrive on Woodlark they find this island covered with sand and without any earth, and the inhabitants in the most horrible misery. This proves that when the first inhabitants came ashore on the island, it had only recently emerged from the waters and still bore every trace of a land which had only begun to be formed. Our three illustrious travelers, at the sight of this bare and arid land and of the sad plight of its inhabitants who lived only on rats, snakes, fish and crocodiles, are touched with compassion. They question the few men of the island who ran up at the sound of their arrival about their sad destiny. These men answer that they are the most unfortunate men on earth. So then, Gereïn, one of the three, removes a leaf from the tree which he holds in his arm, takes a little sand, puts it in the leaf and then spreads it over the whole island; and suddenly through the most surprising of wonders, the island is covered with earth such as it can be seen today. Our famous strangers then ask them what they want for food, whether they want taro with yams or only coconuts; they answer that they will be content with taro and some yams. So Gereïn takes a taro, plants it, and a new wonder occurs. All of a sudden, the island is filled with taro and yams. In his generosity, Gereïn grants them a few coconuts but only a small amount. He then prohibits any further eating of rats, snakes and crocodiles. A great question is proposed by our powerful figures, a very important question on which depends the entire happiness of the island’s inhabitants; they ask them if they want the taro and the yams to grow by themselves and without work, or if they prefer to work. This question surprises them and greatly embarrasses them. At the sight of their trouble and indecision, our law-givers consult each other, deliberate among themselves in order to decide what would be more useful and advantageous for these people. They decide that laziness has disastrous consequences for man’s happiness and that idleness only makes them malicious and miserable. So, they tell them that henceforth they will eat their bread by the sweat of their brow. Then they divide the inhabitants into families. They give each family a name, a title and a bird as emblem; each tribe has its protector-bird which ought always to direct them. Then they establish chiefs and impediments to marriage. I do not know if these impediments are nullifying or prohibiting; but it is certain that the children of the same family cannot marry each other and their carnal and illegitimate union is treated as infamy. Here it seams that we are reading from the eighteenth chapter of Leviticus. “But you must keep my laws and customs, you must not do any of these hateful things, neither native nor stranger living among you.[4] ... No man among you shall approach a woman who is united to him by proximity of blood to uncover with her through an incestuous union what modesty commands to be hidden.[5]
Something uncommon and particular distinguishes this people. Only the women can transmit the name, title and emblem; the men do not count in this. Thus, if the mother is the daughter of a chief, her children will be chiefs, even if the father were only a simple commoner; and even if the father were a descendent of a chief’s family, his children would be only commoners if the mother were from a family of commoners. I very much approve of this way of doing things because one can be quite sure that a given child descends from a given mother, while it would be very rash to say that a given son descends from a given father, because there is such great moral corruption here. And if this law were generally observed all over the world, it would deliver a great many consciences from the obligation of restitution. With rules given for all that, our great spirits prescribe a form of dress for the inhabitants who were completely nude. The women are ordered to cover themselves henceforth with a belt of coconut-tree leaves, one foot long. The men cover themselves with the bark of a tree which barely hides their nudity. When all this is finished, our three extraordinary men climb back in their canoe and, without forgetting their stone, head off toward the east.
When they arrive in the Nades Islands, they find the inhabitants in the same state as those of Woodlark; they work the same wonders. They ask the same questions, but these people are lazier and answer they would be content with coconut since it grows without trouble and without work. Gereïn is dissatisfied with this choice and becomes very indignant. He says they are lazy. He scolds and disparages them. And in his anger he picks up a sea shell, divides the land into seven or eight different islands, separated only by straits. When the inhabitants hear Gereïn’s scolding, they rebel in turn. Tudave is seized with fear. He does in his pants, and from that there comes a very beautiful stem of very succulent bananas. Despite their power, our three illustrious travelers are forced to climb back into their canoe and put out to sea. Night overtakes them; they throw out their stone which changes into a rock, they sleep on it, and they do not haul it back up. I can still be seen today. There is the history of creation according to our poor natives. Here everything is obscure, but it all bears the stamp of more authentic and rational traditions.

Table of Contents


  1. According to Pier Ambrogio Curti, L’isola Mujù o Woodlark dei geografi nell’Oceania (Milano: Editori del Politecnico, 1862), p. 28), these three were really only a single man: Gerein (Geren) would have come from the Guavak Islands (otherwise called the Guavags Islands or the Jouvency Islands); in Moiu he was called Tudave (Tudar or Tudav) and in the Nada (Nadl or Naadl or Nades) Islands, Marita (Maritta).
  2. Summary of Gn 1:1-6.
  3. Cf. doc. 695, § 5, n. 1.
  4. Lv 18:26.
  5. Summary of Lv 18:6-18.

Table of Contents