Marshallese Legends and Traditions

The story of Aao


Irilik was a great Irooj, long ago in the Marshall Islands, and his descendants are there today. He ruled over many islands and lived in Eb, a beautiful land of fruits and flowers, of happy life and pleasures. [9] In Eb, the trees were taller, the leaves greener, and the flowers brighter than anywhere else. The lagoons were filled with the best of fish.

In such a land, Irooj Irilik was happy, but he wanted one thing more. He wanted to bless his favorite son, Pejwak, in a special way. Irooj Irilik had many children. Some of them would take the forms of birds. One of the Irooj's sons was luckier than Pejwak. He was Jekad, who was smaller and quicker than Pejwak.

"Jekad will always look out for himself very well" said the Irooj. "It's my simple, friendly Pejwak whom I wish to bless. What can I find that will give him good fortune, that will make him handsome and clever, and that will last forever for him, his children, and his children's children?"

Irilik talked about it with wise men. "Pejwak doesn't need anything " some of them said. "An Irooj and his family have everything."

"Oh, no, not everything "replied the Irooj. "Sometimes a person born in a lowly family is more handsome, more clever, and more lucky than an Irooj's child."

"That's true" agreed his friends. "How can that be?"

"It's because such a person has aao" said the Irooj. "Just that one thing, aao!"

The Marshallese word aao is something like the English word "halo." The person with aao has a special glow, a shine, about his person. The Marshallese thought that aao, like a halo, was fastened to the head or floated above it. "It's a rainbow, rising over a person" they said.

A man with aao has a fine personality. There are women with aao. They charm all those who come near them. No one can explain aao, but all feel it. It brings luck too. A fisherman who always catches fish is said to have aao. He and his family will never go hungry.

"I must send a messenger to get some aao and have it put on Pejwak's head" the Irooj said.

He learned that the only aao in the world was near the island of Jemo, far to the north of Eb. It was kept in the throat of the great Mother Eel. She lived in a deep cave in the ocean, near Jemo. She was a large sea monster, the mother of fish, giant eels, and human beings. But she was dangerous, for she ate both fish and men. No ordinary person would dare to reach into her mouth and take out some of the aao.

"I'll have to send a giant to get it" said Irooj Irilik.

In those days, there were giants, ghosts and other monsters on earth. Irilik called one of them, an enormous giant.

"Go to Jemo Island and get some aao" he said. "Put it on Pejwak's head."

The giant started from Eb, wading northward in the Pacific Ocean. He was so tall that the water came up only a little above his knees. To get to Jemo Island, he had to wade around among many of the Marshall Islands . He tried to squeeze himself between the atolls of Jaluit and Ailinglaplap, but there wasn't enough space. They were only about a hundred miles apart.

Then he tried to get between Ailinglaplap Atoll and Namu Atoll, but that was impossible too. He tried to push his body between the atolls of Namu and Kwajalein, but he couldn't get through there, either. At last, he had to go between Kwajalein Atoll and Rongelap Island, which are about two hundred miles apart. He could just squeeze through.

He went north of Likiep Atoll to the island of Jemo. He found a wise man named Lawin Bikar, sitting outside his thatched house, making rope from fibers. As he rolled them upon his leg, his hand went back and forth, back and forth. [10]

The giant sent by Irooj Irilik was so large that he hid the sun, but he was still not so large as Lawin Bikar. Lawin was so large that the wind, made by his hand passing over the rope, blew the giant backwards, clear out of sight in the ocean. And when he moved his hand the other way, the wind brought the giant back to him.

The giant blew back and forth for quite a while. Finally, Lawin Bikar stopped rolling the rope fibers.

"Who are you, and what brings you here?" he asked.

"I'm from Eb, and Irooj Irilik sent me" replied the giant. "He wants me to bring back aao for his son, Pejwak."

Lawin Bikar said "Well, there is only a little aao in the world, and it's in the mouth of the great Mother Eel."

"Where does she live?" asked the giant.

"In a deep hole at the end of the reef" replied Lawin Bikar.

The reef lay ten miles north of Jemo Island. The giant started to walk along on the top of it, but there were hundreds of eels lying there, children of the great Mother Eel. They bit his feet, and he ran back.

"What's the matter? Didn't you get the aao?" asked Lawin Bikar.

"No, the eels on the reef bit me" said the giant.

"Then I'll go with you" said Lawin Bikar.

He picked up the giant from Eb and put him under the belt of his leaf skirt, like a doll. He didn't walk. He jumped quickly from one spot to another, so the eels could not bite him. The giant was terribly frightened, for the eels rose up and snapped all around him. He hung on tight to Lawin's belt, so that he wouldn't fall and be eaten.

When they got to the end of the long, rocky reef, they saw the great, ugly head of the Mother Eel. It came out above the water from her cave among the rocks of the ocean. Her mouth was open. Lawin Bikar took the giant out of his belt and put his head into the water.

"Swim under the water and get some of the aao from the eel's mouth" he said.

The giant would not do it. He shook like a child when he saw the huge mouth and terrible sharp teeth of the Mother Eel. Lawin Bikar picked up the giant and swung him close to the mouth of the eel, back and forth, back and forth. The eel opened her mouth wider with each swing.

The poor giant nearly died. He was afraid to put his hand into the eel's mouth and take out the aao, so Lawin Bikar did it.

When the eel's mouth was wide open, he put in his arm and reached far back in her throat. With his finger, he took some of the aao. It was shiny, white, and sticky.

"Here it is!" he cried, holding up his finger.

Then he carried the giant back across the reef and gave him the aao to take back to the land of Eb.

The giant waded back, holding the aao on his finger. He remembered that the Irooj had said to him: "When you come back, I'll send my son Pejwak to meet you. Put the aao on top of his head."

When the giant got back to Eb, a small dark sea bird came flying. He recognized it as one of the sons of Irooj Irilik. He didn't see that it was smaller and quicker than Pejwak. He didn't know that it was Jekad, the clever one. He had come, ahead of his brother, and had met the giant first.

"Greetings, my good friend!" Jekad said, trying to talk like his brother.

"Are you Pejwak?" asked the giant.

"Yes" said Jekad.

And so the giant spread the aao over the top of Jekad's head. It was Jekad who received good looks and good luck. With the white aao on his head, he flew away to the west.

Then along came a larger, dark-brown bird. "I'm Pejwak" he said to the giant. "Have you aao for me?"

"Oh, oh, I've been fooled, I've been fooled!" cried the giant. "I've given your brother the aao!"

He looked at his finger and saw that just a little of the aao was still there. He put it upon Pejwak's head. There was just enough for two lines of white, from front to back, one on each side. So Pejwak also had aao, but his luck was not so good as Jekad's, and he was not so handsome.

Pejwak's descendants can be seen today in the Marshall Islands. They are large, dark sea birds, that are slow in catching fish. [11] But they are quite tame, and the people like them. They have lines of white on the sides of the heads.

Pejwak kept on being the favorite son of the great Irooj, Irilik. In olden times, when the Marshallese heard the Pejwak crying before sunrise, they said "There will be plenty of food and fruit this year. Pejwak has just come from his father Irilik in Eb and told us."

When they heard that crying before dawn, the Irooj and the people came together and gave prayers of thanks to Pejwak and Irilik for the coming harvest. The priests talked to the people. Afterwards, there was a happy feast.

The aao on Jekad's head brought him luck. It passed on to his children and his children's children. They too can be seen in the Marshall Islands today. They are small, dark sea birds, each with a white cap on its head, that looks something like a halo. [12] They are handsome birds that move fast, and they are the best fishers among all the bird children of Irilik.

As they fly over the waves, their bright eyes look into the blue water. Their beaks are turned downward, ready to snatch. Each dive brings up a fish.

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Bibliographic citation for this document

Spennemann, Dirk H.R. (1998). Marshallese Legends and Traditions Second edition. Albury:
URL: http://marshall.csu.edu.au/Marshalls/html/legends/le-1-4.html

CONTACT:
Dirk H.R. Spennemann, Institute of Land, Water and Society, Charles Sturt University, P.O.Box 789, Albury NSW 2640, Australia.
e-mail: dspennemann@csu.edu.au


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