Tattooing in the Marshall Islands

Tattooing in Marshallese folklore

Given the importance of tattooing in the social system of the Marshall Islanders, it is not surprising that tattooing one way or the other appears in the folklore. In the following we will reproduce three stories in full.

The incomplete tattoo is the only documented Marshallese folktale which has tattooing as its focus. It is the story of the happenings to two incompletely tattooed young men.

A peculiar use of tattooing is made in the folktale The jealous father, which is about a chiefly son who grew into very large size. [325] In this tale the father, an irooj executes the tattoo himself and strikes very deeply, thereby killing his son. It is unclear whether the tale means just that, or whether it more generally indicates mortality in tattooing. This tale may also partially make use of the word play between ngi as in its meaning of "tattooing chisel" and ngi in its meaning as "being so angry as to revenge" or simply "to revenge". [326]

The story of Lojeik is in fact oral history and tells how tattoos also marked people as individuals.

The incomplete tattoo


All islanders went to Jaluit; they went to be tattooed as the time for the tattooing ceremony had come. Two young men from the eastern part of the atoll had not been completely tattooed: they had not been given the dots. They went over land to the eastern part of the atoll, both going on foot. Women saw both of them and said "The young men who are coming there carry a full string of parrot fishes!" [328] "What do the women say?" "They talk of parrot fishes!" "Take the fish at the bottom of the string and take the flower headband of the last woman!" The other women were angry about this and hit that women. [329]

As the young people went to Eneanij [330] the began to tattoo themselves. They called their motheräs younger sister from Imuej. [331] The older brother said: "Bring our sleeping mat from our aunt!" And the younger brother went.

"What do you want?" "I am here to get my and my brothers sleeping mat!" "Take this roughly woven mat for your brother! Take the finely woven mat for yourself!" [332 ]

As he went, both laid down. The older brother got angry, jumped into the sea and swam. The younger brother said: "Brother, come;"" Both swim, these people drift eastwards. What type of weather will there be if we swim away from land? What is there in the current? A large fish., which follows the swell!" Both drifted ashore at Majuro.

The daughter of an irooj came to the lagoonal shore and took both as husbands. Both slept and a woman came to eat them. The woman was called Lejeneneamemoujlin. The inhabitants of the island woke up, and the chiefäs daughter said: "Make food for these two!" The people made and brought food. The old woman, however, said, "Lejeneneamemoujlin has eaten this small little parrot fish!" "What does the woman say?" "Uncover their mats!" O dear, both were dead.

It is quite possible that this folk tale refers to the tattooing ceremony conducted in 1859 on Jaluit, to where a large number of people came from Ebon. [333] It is likely that on that occasion all people from Jaluit Atoll, who were desireous to have a tattoo or complete their tattoo, would also attend.

The jealous father

Once there was a woman who became pregnant. When she gave birth, she bore a son. This son was a giant. He was so tall and big that no one on the island could match his size. After three days, his father became afraid of his powerful son, and he decided to get rid of him. One day the old man decided he would kill him by tattooing him while he was still very young.

On the fourth day the father took the boy from his mother and they went to a place called Jabo. When they got to this place, the father built a small hut for his son. Then he laid his son down on the ground and started to slice him up. The father began to cut the boy from all directions. While the father was cutting his son into small pieces, the mother began to sing this chant to her son: "Drelbo Jabo, try not to move or wiggle under the coconut tree where your father put you."

Then the son answered: "How can I keep still, since they are cutting me into small pieces?"

After the father had finished slicing his son into small pieces, he picked up two of the largest slices and said "Eat this or eat that." He was imagining that he was cutting a tuna fish.

He sent a large piece to the mother so she could eat it. But instead of eating it, she put it in a basket and hung it on a Pandanus tree. When they hung it up, the flesh in the basket began to sing. It sang: "Liji-we-a, Loma-o-a, Loko-rok-a. They killed me and hung me at the ocean side of Jabo, Lijini." The mother, Lijini, heard the voice and asked everybody in the house to keep listening. Then the flesh sang again: "Liji-wi-a, Loma-o-a, Loko-rok-a. They killed me and hung me at the ocean side of Jabo, Lijini."

The mother and the people in the house went and found where the voice came from. When they lowered the basket, the flesh was still moving while singing its song. Then the mother picked up the flesh and asked her grandmother to accompany her. They went to the ocean side, where the body was still hanging. They took the body and put it in a pool on the reef. Then they sprinkled salt water on the small pieces and they sang a chant. They sang: I want his soul, his soul. I want his soul, his soul. When I look at it, his arms grow. I want his soul. When I look at it, his legs grow. I want his soul. When I look at it, the whole body grows.

Then the boy got up, and his whole body formed again. He tried to eat his mother and the grandmother, [334] but when they sang the chant again, the boy became human once more. Now the boy was very angry because of what they had done to him. He went into the woods and brought back some sticks.

He gave them to the women and told them to strike them together to make a drumming sound. The women began to strike the sticks while they were singing their song: Cut down a coconut trunk and bring it in. Cut down a Pandanus trunk and bring it in, A weapon for the giant boy to use. Crack! All the way to the ocean side. Crack! All the way to the lagoon side. Crack! Right to the center of the village.

Then the boy pulled out a large coconut tree from the ground and threw it. The tree flew into the village and destroyed many houses. They sang again: Cut down a coconut trunk and bring it in. Cut down a Pandanus trunk and bring it in, A weapon for the giant boy to use. Crack! All the way to the ocean side. Crack! All the way to the lagoon side. Crack! Right to the center of the village.

The boy pulled out another coconut tree and threw it to the village. The tree flew into the village and destroyed many more houses. Later on the boy himself reached the village, and he was standing in front of his father. Then he turned to his mother and asked "Mother, what shall I do to my father?" The mother replied "It is up to you, son." But the father said to his son "Donät kill me, son. I will be your servant." Then the boy asked his mother again "What shall I do to my father?" And the mother replied "Itäs up to you, son." The father stood up and begged him "Donät kill me, son. Iäll fish for you."

The son turned to his father, saying "Now I am a man, and all these things you are telling me, I was supposed to do for you, because you are my father." After Drelbo Jabo had talked to his father, he picked up a big tree trunk and dropped it on his father and he died. When the father died, [335] his son became the ruler of the island.

This story is from Arno Atoll. Jabo is in Arno, and today all the trees at the ocean side of Jabo are short trees. There are no tall trees because here is where the boy Drelbo was cutting drum sticks for his mother and the grandmother.

The Story of Lojeik

Lojeik was a man who lived on Enekoien, Ebon Atoll. One day a whaling boat arrived and came near to the barrier reef on the ocean side of Enekoien. The man Lojeik swam to the whaling boat and climbed on board. There was little wind and the whaling ship slowly tacked to and fro. Lojeik did not return to the island of Enekoien. The whaler belonged to an America company and took Lojeik to America. Lojeik stayed in America for 10 years until the time when the boat returned again to Ebon.[336]

The people on Ebon had forgotten the man Lojeik. They thought that the whalers on the boat had beat up Lojeik and that he had died during the time that the boat was on the ocean side of Enekoien. When the ship once more returned to Enekoien the islanders went to the small boat coming ashore from the whaler and helped bring it up on to the beach under the coconut trees. The people of Enekoien did not recognize Lojeik because he was wearing foreign clothing and he was just like the foreigners from the whaling ship. On the island where they were, the men islanders said together "men, let us choose which person we will each fight, and kill the foreigners." During this time Lojeik had not forgotten Marshallese and he said to the islanders "Watch out if you kill us because we will shoot you." But during this time there had never been guns brought to the Marshall Islands, and the islanders didnät know what a gun was. When they heard Lojeik speak Marshallese they said "one of the foreigners (RiPalle) knows the language of our islands" and they were very surprised.

All the men of Enekoien said "the man (Lojeik) is lying, and we will prepare to each fight until all are dead and no one can escape." The man Lojeik said to them "do you see the pieces of wood we are holding, they are not wood but they are for fighting." "You won't be able to go against us." When the people didnät believe Lojeik, he gave them a warning, and told them to look up at a certain coconut tree because the foreigners were going to shoot at the tree and show them how powerful the guns were.

After they shot at the coconut tree and the palm fronds, coconuts, and the heart of the coconut tree all fell to the ground, and then Lojeik said "that's what will happen to you if we shoot you. All of you will be gone and dead. There wonät be one man, woman, old man, old woman, child alive, if we shoot you." Every foreigner had his own gun that was the kind Lijjikolkol. Now during this time when the islanders were thinking this over, there was a woman who came who was Lojeik's younger sister. She heard Lojeik speak Marshallese, and she said ñwho is the man who knows our Marshallese language?" The woman, the younger sister of Lojeik came close to Lojeik and looked at him closely and studied his face. When she recognized that this man looked like her older brother and they had thought that the whalers had killed him, she then asked "who are you?" Lojeik was not anxious to reveal who he was, and he said to the woman who was his younger sister "I come from close to heaven."

The woman who is Lojeik's younger sister now began to really recognize Lojeik and she wanted to look to see if this man had a tattoo on his chest. The tattoo she was looking for was a bunch of spears tied together. When she said to Lojeik to show his chest, Lojeik unbuttoned his shirt and the woman saw the tattoo and recognized that this was her brother Lojeik.ØThe woman cried and held her brother and said "It's true this is Lojeik." Lojeik stood in the middle of all the people and showed that it was true, that he had returned from America where he had disappeared to many years ago from Ebon.

This is the end of the story about the man Lojeik.

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Bibliographic citation for this document

Spennemann, Dirk H.R. (1998). Tattooing in the Marshall Islands 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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