Bwaidogan Myths of Origin

  • Nataša Gregorič Scientific Research Centre of the Slovene Academy of Sciences and Arts


Among my first impressions of Goodenough Island were from the air as my plane descended towards Vivigani airstrip. High rugged and forested mountains wreathed in wispy cloud, green grassy patches dappled here and there with sandy brown, coral shelves alternating with mangrove swamps marking the coastline, clumps of coconuts, indicating human settlement. The southeast coast of Goodenough curls like the tail of a snake forming the tranquil little bay on which the hamlets of Bwaidoga are strung like shells. Names of these hamlets are invariably related to the land (babi) where the houses and sitting platforms (tuwaka) are constructed. The first ancestors usually built these platforms. Such sites are therefore linked to myths of origin and are one of the main determinants of people's perceptions of themselves (Young 1968: 335). 

Before introducing my analysis of myths of origin of Bibiavona and Aiwavo clans, I shall refer to Young's (1983a: 11) classification of Goodenough Island oral literature into four categories or types: kweli ("spells, songs and chants"), laumamala ("orations, sermons, and other rhetorical public speeches"), ifufu ("stories of any kind") and neineya ("heritable, owned, magic-bearing myths which tell of the exploits of ancestors, heroes, demigods or dema"). In his monograph on Kalauna mythology, Young focused on neineya. These important myths are imbued with ancestral forces and provide "narrative vehicles for systems of magic" (ibid.: 12). Neineya are secret in their nature, and are witness to people's historical movements and therefore pertain to landscape. Myths are narrated with discretion as to time and place and in theory they are told only to a restricted audience - those who have the right to hear them as genealogical related "owners".

During my relatively short stay in Bwaidoga the meanings and secrets of neineya were not wholly revealed to me. When referring to important myths my informants used the more general term ifufu. Since there is a distinction between stories that are owned by clans and those that are not, I will use the term myths for the stories of origin that are owned by people.

Bwaidogan myths are not simply linear narratives containing conclusion that are often moral in character. They are lived and embodied in people's thinking and practices and are therefore linked to the ancestral customs (dewa), genealogical histories and daily life (as, for example, the myth about the serpent Motabikwa mentioned in the epigraph of this paper). The story about Motabikwa (alias Matabawe or Motalai), the half-human snake who resentfully leaves the island taking with it all the wealth, is one the most widespread myths - not only on Goodenough Island but throughout the Massim region. This story can be seen as representing a basic principle of Bwaidogan culture. As David Lalaoya of Waikewala says, the snake is believed to be responsible for all the misery, unhappiness, poverty and loss of knowledge about kastam. The myth of the serpent that leaves the island in unuwewe (resentment) comes in many different versions that vary according to the area where they are situated.