Marshallese Legends and Traditions

Letao and the Great Mother Turtle

Letao, the clever god, who sometimes lived on earth as a human being, had an elder brother. He was called Jemeliwut, which is the Marshallese word for "rainbow".

When they were young men, the two brothers went on a sailing trip to find their mother, who was a goddess. She had become the Great Mother Turtle and lived in undersea places in the Pacific Ocean. Her name, Lijebake , meant a special kind of turtle, which carries on its back the most beautiful turtle shell.

It was Letao who first thought of finding her. "She can give us magical power" he said.

They heard that Lijebake was living in the ocean east of the island of Bikar , far to the north. Bikar Atoll lay lonely and apart in the Pacific Ocean. It had low, sandy islands covered with thousands of birdsž eggs, turtle eggs, flapping little baby birds, crawling little baby turtles, and their parent birds and turtles.[39]

Almost every foot of the sands was covered with them. Hundreds of large sea turtles crawled from sea to land and back again. When a strange sound frightened the birds, they rose in a thick cloud that darkened the sky. Then they went slowly back to the sands and water again.

The two brothers sailed to Bikar Atoll. Jemeliwut said "Ižm thirsty, but I donžt see any drinking water here."

"Wait awhile" said Letao. "Our mother will give us some."

Lijebake came out of the sea and met her sons. She was glad to see them. "Wežre thirsty, Mother" said Letao.

"Ižll bring some drinking water" she said.

Although Lijebake lived in the ocean, she liked to drink fresh water. She kept some in a basin. She brought it to her sons. The basin was rather dirty on the outside, and Jemeliwut would not drink from it. "It isnžt clean" he said.

"Oh, Ižll drink from it" said Letao. He shut his eyes, so that he couldnžt see the dirt, and drank.

Then Lijebake thought that her younger son, Letao, was the better man. She gave each son a piece of turtle shell to wear.

The one that she gave Letao was made of fine shell from around her shoulders. The one that she gave Jemeliwut was made of the poorer shell that grew near her tail. She gave Letao wonderful powers, even the power of life and death.

Letao was happy. He could change himself to a leaf, a tree, a child, a fruit, a fish, a monster, a pretty girl, or anything else. But when Lijebake, the great Mother Turtle, gave her son Letao, magical powers, she forgot to make him wise and kind. He often used the power of life and death for sport or cruelty.

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Bibliographic citation for this document

Spennemann, Dirk H.R. (1998). Marshallese Legends and Traditions Second edition. Albury:

Dirk H.R. Spennemann, Institute of Land, Water and Society, Charles Sturt University, P.O.Box 789, Albury NSW 2640, Australia.

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