Tuesday, June 19, 2012

The Cassowary Woman

A folklore narrative that has intriqued me and other scholars is the cassowary women narrative. It is a folktale with lessons for the tellers, listeners, and researchers.
The forest is home to cassowaries. On a sunny day the cassowaries took off their cassowary skin to bathe in a river. They become human women after they took off their cassowary skins. They swam in the river the whole day.
A male hunter stumbled on to the site. He hid nearby and watched in amazement. He decided to steal the smallest of the cassowary skin. He hid the cassowary skin and himself.

When it was time to go, the women put their cassowary skin back on and became cassowaries again. They all left except for the youngest cassowary; she did not find her cassowary skin.

She began to cry until the man came out of hiding. He asked the young woman, naked and alone in the forest, how she got there, and why she was naked. The woman told him in her grief that she was looking for her skin and whether he had seen it.

He said he had not seen whatever she meant by her skin. He felt sorry for her. He made a grass skirt with cordyline leaves for her to wear. He said, since she was lost she could go with him to his village and live with him as his wife. He promised to look after her. She resisted the proposal by arguing that she was a cassowary woman and would not marry a human. The man convinced her that even if it was true he didn’t care, as she was the most beautiful woman he ever saw.

The woman and the man went home as husband and wife. In that union they had a son. The human husband was always out hunting. He never brings any of his game home. He lied to his wife and son. One day the child stumbled on to the mother’s cassowary skin hidden in a secret corner of the house. He showed his mother the curious thing. The mother on seeing it cried all day. She did not tell her son what it was.When her son rested she wore the cassowary skin and became a cassowary again. She left the human society to her world again. Her human son stayed in his father’s village.

The cassowary woman story is not entirely unique in Papua New Guinea, as it occurs elsewhere in the world. Donald Tuzin’s study of the cassowary woman Nambweapa’w’s story in Ilahita village of the East Sepik Province makes interesting connections of this story to a universal folklore motif of the “swan maiden”, which is said to be the oldest and earliest known love story on earth. Tuzin writes that the earliest version is known as “Urvasi and Pururavas, in the Rig-Veda (ca. 3000 B.C.), the “swan maiden” appears to have spread to numerous European folk traditions. The motif is prominent in northern Europe and the British Isles, appearing in Celtic texts from ancient Ireland, in the Icelandic and other Norse sagas, and in various old Germanic and Slavic versions”.

The motif has been the structure in which Tchaikovsky based his ballet Swan Lake and this also appears in “the courtly love imagery of medieval France, Les belles dames sans merci and the fairy mistresses sung in the lays of Lanval and Graelent, all of which “are transplant adaptations of old Celtic swan maiden tales” (Tuzin 1997: 72; Cross 1915).

This motif appears also in the “Lady of the Lake” from Arthurian legend, “Orpheus and Eurydice of Greek and the saucy mermaid from “The Eddystone Light”—they too, draw their magic from the same ancient well of imagination” (Tuzin 1997: 72). The idea appears in “La Llorana, the tormented, ghostly mother figure who haunts the pools and fountains of Mexico, maybe a darker adaptation of the same tradition. And in recent study of the swan maidens, demon lovers, and related motifs, Barbara Fass Leavy (1994) identifies Nora, the main character in Ibsen’s play A Doll’s House, as yet another avatar of this age-old idea” 

This motif also appears in Asia Pacific folklore: The swan maiden tales are extremely common in the island societies of present-day Malaysia and Indonesia. Scholars  such as Dixon (1916) Lessa (1961) identified India as the source of this tradition, as well as that of Europe. Thematic similarities and known historical contacts suggest that from the Malay Archipelago the motif fanned out in a broad easterly direction. Swan maidens are found in cultures of Philippines and Micronesia; along the north coast of New Guinea; in Vanuatu, New Caledonia, southern and Eastern Australia; and in New Zealand, Samoa, and elsewhere in central Polynesia (Tuzin 1997: 73).

The swan maiden served also as a measure of diffusion of cultures and peoples.  It is found in many parts of the world, where it has been long established. We know it to be present in Europe, Iceland, Turkey, Arabia, Iran, India, Ceylon, Assam, Burma, Siam, Annam, Tibet, Mongolia, China, Japan, Siberia, native North America, Greenland, Tunis, Algeria, Morocco, Zanzibar, and West Africa. There are written evidence of the motif in Indian literature dating back to a time before the settlement of much of Oceania.

This theory, of course, is questionable, as the swan maiden theme could have been indigenous to Oceania.  According to Tuzin, “the known antiquity of the Indian version has nothing to do with the possibility that swan maiden stories arose independently in the Pacific and elsewhere. And yet, spontaneous generation on such a vast scale seems highly improbable. At least as far as the southwest Pacific is concerned, the pattern of geographical distribution and thematic fidelity across diverse societies strongly favors a history of diffusion, and with local modification, from immediate Malay sources,” (1997: 73).

There are valuable lessons in our traditional folklore we must preserve for future generations. I have used the cassowary women story as a structure of reading the indigenous writings of Oceania.

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