Marshallese Legends and Traditions


Before the RiPalle (the Europeans) came to the Marshall Islands, the knowledge that the Marshallese people possessed was handed down orally. Nothing was written down; there were no alphabet letters, no written words, no books. Yet each generation remembered their history and customs and told their children, who in turn passed it to their children. For centuries oral traditions were passed from generation to generation in this way. The stories were gradually modified and changed as time went by, fitting the needs of the time. But who tells these stories now? Who remembers them and passes them on to their children?

Young people in the Marshall Islands today spend much of their time in school. They are not at home with their elders learning in the traditional way, as apprentices watching their parents and grandparents fish and cultivate the land, cook and weave, build canoes, navigate the ocean, heal the sick with plant medicine. Today they learn different skills at school, sitting in class, far away from where they can hear traditional story-telling. Then, when at home, they listen to the radio and watch television and video movies for entertaining stories about Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and cowboys, and little mermaids. All but forgotten are Lijebake the Great Mother Turtle, the clever trickster Letao, the Crab and the Needlefish, the youngest brother Jabro.

As Marshallese society moves from an oral to written culture it would be very unfortunate to lose the traditions and legends, the stories, that tell us so much about the culture before the time of the RiPalle and before Christianity. This is the reason for Bwebwenatoon Etto.

Many stories have been written down in different places in the past. Some were first recorded over a hundred years ago, others only in the last few years. Some were written down for scientific, "ethnographic", reasons, others were specifically put in language for children. As a collection, they contain a wealth of information on the social system, customs, religious beliefs, habits and general way of life in traditional Marshallese culture.

In order to better understand the stories that are to follow, it is helpful to know something about the broad structure of the society when they were formulated. This introduction aims to give just such a general background, as well as we know it from the information that was recorded about the traditional way of life on first contact with the people of the Ralik and Ratak chains of atolls, the islands that later came to be called the Marshall Islands.

There will also be a brief history of contact with foreigners and the changes that were made to society and the way of life, including a history of the collection and writing down of the traditions and stories.

Finally, the introduction will end with an explanation of the way this book, Bwebwenatoon Etto, has been organized-the division of the legends into categories and so on. All of which will hopefully add to the understanding and enjoyment of the stories themselves.

To begin at the beginning, the low lying islands offered a challenging, and in many ways inhospitable, home for the original inhabitants when they came here about two and a half thousand (2500) years ago. To survive in this environment, on limited land with limited fresh water and limited animal and plant life, a unique way of life was developed. This included ways to sail, ways to fish and grow food crops, ways to relate to other people, indeed, ways to behave within families.

The focus of life was the extended family household. Each household was on one piece of land called a wato, which stretched from the lagoon side to the ocean side of the island. This ensured that within each wato a family had access to all the types of plants that grew on the islandĚthe coconut and pandanus trees that grew near the waters edge, the breadfruit trees and taro that grew inland. Each family would also be able to get to the water from their own land for fishing. Coconut, pandanus, breadfruit, taro and fish were the food to survive on.

Daily, men were responsible for fishing and gathering the food. At different times they also had to build canoes and houses and sail great distances. They became expert navigators.

Women had the task of preparing the food, including preserving food for times when there were no fruits on the trees (such as making bwiro from breadfruit). They also cared for the house and the raising of the children, and became expert weavers of clothing and sleeping mats and so on.

These family activities took place within another structure: the social structure. Each wato belonged to a family which in turn belonged to a bwij (lineage) and a jowi (clan). All the family households on an island were pulled together into a society of shared ideas and behaviours through the bwij and the jowi.

The bwij has always been matrilineal. That is, the lineage and the ownership of the land descended from a woman in the family. Every person had a birthright of land through the bwij. However, it was not individual ownership of land-the rights and responsibilities of each person depended on the position of the individual within the bwij, and the position of their bwij within the social classes that developed.

The traditional classes in society were distinct: chiefs and commoners. Among the chiefs, the irooj laplap were the ones with the most power. Then there were the irooj erik the lesser chiefs, and finally the kajur, or commoners. The irooj laplap were considered almost sacred, godly. Others stooped over and approached on their knees to show respect, and always obeyed the orders of their high chief. The irooj laplap received the best food, had the right to the best land in the island, and had as many wives as they wanted. In return for these privileges, they were responsible for leading the people in general community work as well as on sailing expeditions and in war. Their power was normally in one part or the whole of one atoll alone. If a particular high chief was successful in war he could conquer and control several atolls.

The lesser irooj shared the power and many of the privileges of their irooj laplap, but to a limited degree.

The people who did the actual work on the land, the fishermen, sailors, and fighting men, were the kajur. A kajur with special skills in navigation, as a warrior, medicine man, or such like would be highly respected and given a higher status, being called itok.

Within this pyramid structure, women belonged to the same class as their father and their husband. It is said they were highly respected. It is difficult to add anything more about women in this area. Some early explorers recorded information about the society they saw in the Marshalls, knowing that the coming of the RiPalle would change it. But they were men, and they asked a lot of questions about men and very few about women.

We do know intermarriage between classes was not allowed and the classes were made clear by the way the people dressed and the types of tattoos they had. It was a very rigid hierarchy.

Mentioned earlier was a second social unit beyond the bwij, the various irooj and kajur lineages. This was the jowi or clan. There were at least forty-four clans spread over the atolls and though it couldnĚt be remembered how members of a jowi were related by blood, members considered themselves related.

The religious beliefs in traditional culture were very different from now. There were no temples or churches, no idols and no powerful priests, but a belief in gods who inhabited different objects and places, and who had different powers. Some gods were believed to have created the world or particular islands; some gods helped humans.[1] For example, a yearly celebration was performed with chants and offerings for Wullep, a god who would improve the pandanus harvest. Ghosts and spirits and other supernatural beings were also part of the belief structure.

This all changed when the European explorers began to take an interest in the northern Central Pacific. It is probable that Marshallese had been in contact with the people of what are now the Federated States of Micronesia (formerly the Caroline Islands), Nauru, and Kiribati (formerly the Gilbert Islands) for a long time, but it wasnĚt until the first half of the sixteenth century that white men sighted the islands. And it wasnĚt until the 1830s that they were named the Marshall Islands, in honour of Captain John Marshall who travelled through the atolls in 1788 en route from Australia to China, with Captain Thomas Gilbert. Before this the two chains-Ratak and Ralik-were not joined; there was never a name for them as one group.

The European ships usually passed through the atolls usually without stopping. Then in the early nineteenth century a greater interest was shown. The Russians sent out a scientific expedition under Otto von Kotzebue, and they collected a lot of information about the traditional way of life.

However, most of the early contact was with whalers. Ships that were hunting whales for their oil wanted to get food and water from the islands, but their coming was not always peaceful. There were brutal killings on both sides.

The next group of RiPalle to come, and a group that made great and quick changes to the Marshallese society, were the missionaries from the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions ("Boston Mission"). They first came to Ebon in 1857, bringing Christianity, schools, western clothing, and a new way of life. Unfortunately they did not describe the traditions and beliefs of the people as they found them. They were only interested in changing them.

Close behind the missionaries came copra traders, and occasionally beachcombers. They brought with them different foods, and goods like clothing and ironware to sell in return for copra and beche-de-mer. They also brought alcohol, prostitution, syphilis, and many diseases that killed a great many Marshallese. The Marshall Islands could never be the same again.

By 1905 a German Catholic priest named Father Augustin Erdland said sadly that the people had lost exact knowledge about the meaning of their ancient traditions. Erdland was one of a handful of Germans who tried to record as much as they could about Marshallese culture, fearing it could all be lost. This included many legends and traditional stories.

Johann Kubary in the late nineteenth century (he worked for a German merchant Cesar Godeffroy) and Dr. Augustin Kr•mer in the early twentieth century (under the German South Seas Expedition) collected more myths and legends.

During this period (1885-1919) the Marshall Islands were officially part of the German Empire. There were German traders, missionaries and administrative officers living in the islands (most notably Adolph Capelle who arrived in 1861 and later, together with JosÔ deBrum bought Likiep Atoll) but they ruled indirectly, through the irooj laplap and the irooj on each atoll. By stopping all warfare and using the most powerful chiefs at the time, they froze the positions of the irooj laplap in relation to each other. Before this happened positions changed depending on success in war.

A war outside the Marshall Islands changed everything. After World War I, Japan was given a mandate by the League of Nations, an international body, to rule all the island nations of Micronesia. This meant more changes to traditional Marshallese society. The Japanese brought in a system of direct rule, with many community officials and administrators from Japan. They by-passed the irooj laplap when undertaking projects and carrying out orders.

Then, yet again, a new group of RiPalle came to the Marshalls bringing new ideas and even more change. After World War II, in 1945, the United States of America was given Micronesia to care for in a United Nations Strategic Trusteeship.

Cultural change was then rapid. Money fully replaced traditional exchange of goods, schools were put on most atolls, children came to central atolls for high school education. These centers, Majuro and Ebeye, became "urbanized" with shops and bars. The majority of the population of the country is now in these two places.

The culture we see today evolved during this time. Many of the following stories were also written down in this period by interested Americans: Roger Mitchell, Keith Chambers, Eve Grey.

In 1979 the Marshall Islands adopted its own Constitution, becoming a Republic; in 1986 it became an independent country under a Compact of Free Association with the United States; and in 1991 the U.N. Trusteeship was officially ended. With independence has come the growing recognition that the traditional way of life is disappearing. Customs have been, and are being, lost under influence from outside the islands. And who will the Marshallese people be without their old values and traditions?

Bwebwenatoon Etto was compiled and published to try and fill a gap. It does not claim to contain all legends and traditional stories-only those that had already been written down somewhere. On reading, for example, it would seem there are far more stories from Ebon and Ailinglaplap than any other atolls. This is simply because many of the Marshallese the original story-collectors talked to came from Ebon and Ailinglaplap. Just as many legends were told in other atolls. They have not yet been recorded. They may already be lost.

The legends and stories that we do have can be divided into several categories - groups of stories that are in some way similar. Legends of Creation all explain the origin, the beginning point of things we see around us - canoes and sails, stars and trees and fruits; while the Origin of Islands and Places group specifically tell about the beginning of the land and natural features in the land - pools, coral outcrops, fertile areas and so on. Letao and Jemeliwut is one big section as there are many stories involving these two brothers and their adventures. Tales of Social Custom tell us something about rules of behaviour, as do Animal Tales, though they have animals instead of humans for characters and can be read purely for fun. Lastly, stories within the Oral History category are different again, as they are believed to be true events remembered by the person who told the story.

Each section will begin with a longer, more detailed introduction to the group of stories.

This book was initially compiled for use in High Schools in the Marshall Islands and is not an academic study, nor a systematic assessment of variations in story-telling. Thus, when several slightly different versions of the same story were found, the most comprehensive was included, or several were merged into one continuous narrative.

It needs to be stressed that the oral traditions reproduced in this volume were recorded at different times, most of them at the turn of the century. Since then the perception of what is or was traditional has undergone a dramatic shift. Most story tellers, and in fact most people through all times, refer to their own parentĚs or grandparentĚs generation, when saying that something was traditional. We have to keep in mind that what was traditional to the people of the turn of the centurty thus reflects the values and ideals of the 1830s to 1860s, the time before the Christian missionaries came and the white traders settled on these atolls; whereas what people today call traditional reflects the values prevalent at the turn of the century, after 40 years of mission teaching of Christian beliefs and values and after 40 years of economic and cultural change.

Finally, a series of footnotes on different points in the stories was put together and placed at the end of each story. Many explain Marshallese words used in the stories. Others give more details on a subject, details that are not needed to enjoy the stories as they stand, details that provide further background to the stories or components of the stories and legends. While the editors attempted to provide a comprehensive coverage, these notes cannot and should not replace a proper ethnography.

Hopefully the narratives will give enjoyment for the stories they tell and the insights they give into the culture of the Marshall Islands.

Jane Downing

Albury 1997

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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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