Volume 105 1996 > Volume 105, No. 2 > A Polynesian game of swings, by Henri Lavondes, p 201-216
A POLYNESIAN GAME OF SWINGS 1
The swing has long ceased to be considered merely a child's game. The importance of swings and swinging in the myths and rituals of so many different peoples shows that these themes are prominent in human behaviour and thought. The problem has long interested researchers. Frazer set about collecting rites involving swings, and discussed them in a section of The Golden Bough. Even though he accounted for several of them with his customary penchant for sympathetic magic, these rites left him perplexed. For example, concerning the swinging rituals aimed at ensuring plentiful harvests, he declares: “In such cases the notion seems to be that the ceremony promotes fertility, whether in the vegetable or the animal kingdom; though why it should be supposed to do so, I confess myself unable to explain” (Frazer, 1983:188). In The Naked Man, Lévi-Strauss (1971:367-407 and passim) devotes an important passage to the place occupied by the swing in American Indian myths. Finally, in an article published in Man in 1978, Gell discusses the role of the swing in rites among the Muria. He places the swing in an entire ensemble of ritual practices which bring into play the sense of balance. He shows how feelings of dizziness can bring about special states of religious awareness. For Gell, then, rites involving swings belong to a group of religious practices having a neuro-psychological base involving the vestibular system and brain mechanisms linked to it. Of course, these few indications do not cover all the processes and developments on which Gell bases his extremely appealing hypotheses.
My present purpose is different. I of course completely agree with Gell's statement (1978:246) that “brain, mind and body are inseparable”. I find, however, that his article accords too little importance to the mind. I intend here to bring to light cognitive processes linked to properties of the swing which hold meaning for the mind. In other words, if through their religious practices and myths, people show an unexpected interest in the swing, it is not only because this device can stir up sensations of a particular kind, but also because it is “good to think”. At any rate, this is what I shall try to show by examining a number of Polynesian myths involving swings. But first it would be useful to review a few general data.
The approximately 25 cases of rites involving swings collected by Frazer make it possible to sift out a few general points. First, the distribution of the phenomenon is practically world-wide. The existence of this type of rite has - 202 been confirmed on three continents: Europe, Asia, and America, to which Oceania should be added. Curiously, ritual use of the swing, as far as I know, seems to be absent in sub-Saharan Africa. Core areas include the Baltic countries, the Mediterranean region, the Indian sub-continent, and a group centred in Indonesia. Moreover, still according to Frazer, rites with swings seem to be directed towards three types of ends. First, there are the rites which are celebrated to ensure abundance (harvests, hunting, fishing). Then, there are those which mark the changing of the seasons, an end often associated with the first type, and logically so. Finally, the swing is called into play, though more rarely, in shamanism.
Let us return briefly to Gell's article. Besides the ideas which form his central hypotheses, he brings up a number of interesting points very relevant to this discussion. In particular, he emphasises the contrasting connotations attached to the swing in the Indian sub-continent. The swing is simultaneously associated with the tranquillity of a child's game, with the dizziness, the “voluptuous panic” of which Roger Caillois speaks (1967 :68), and with the suffering and risks of ascetic mortification. We find this same ambiguity concerning the swing in Polynesia, to which we shall now turn.
Seldom observed in ritual, the swing appears in Polynesian myths in several different forms: a simple vine on which one swings; a treetop swaying back and forth; the classic swing made of a single rope on which a board is attached that one sits astride on; and more or less complex forms related to the “giant stride”.
Let us first examine the problem of ritual use of the swing in Polynesia. I have only found three examples, and all three are pertinent to the discussion for different reasons. The most interesting case is found among the Maori. There, during a funeral ceremony, a swing-like apparatus, the moari or mōrere (“giant stride”) was used. A pole was raised, often on the edge of a cliff or next to deep water, and a number of ropes were tied to the top, often, it would seem, on a device which allowed them to rotate freely. “Each rope was grasped by a person, and all went flying round the pole describing a fairly wide circle” (Best l924a:89). Elsdon Best(1905:74;1924a,II:90;1924b:141; 1924c,I:237; 1925:23-8) gives no fewer than five versions of the circumstances under which he came to learn of the ritual usage of the moari. We will retain one of the most detailed accounts. Two clans of the Tuhoe tribe were at war, and the Tawhaki clan had lost several of its members.
The Tawhaki folk evidently considered themselves too weak to wreak vengeance, and so contented themselves with equalising matters in a very singular manner. They erected two moari, and composed a short song to be sung by the swingers as they whirled round. Both swings were named, and - 203 each was furnished with eight ropes. “No,” remarked the old man, who had been named after one of the slain in order to keep memories alive. “Of course it was not an act of blood vengeance, or even a real equivalent for our loss; it was done simply to dispel grief, to end all brooding over the disaster; hence it was said to be an avenging of the deaths of our people. When encountering such extraordinary acts as the above, shall it be said that we understand the mind of barbaric man? To mourn for the dead, and avenge them by swinging on a rope, would scarcely appeal to civilised man”. (Best 1924a:90)
But are we dealing here with a rite, or with the accidental occurrence of a unique event? The ample information given elsewhere by Best (1925:23-8) on the different types of moari and their role in the Maori culture gives us cause for doubt. It seems that Best was too troubled by the strangeness of the phenomenon he was describing to be able to consider its ritual nature.
For Tahiti, we have a description of the classic swing in Ellis (1969 ;228). Queen Marau (1971:50), in telling a love story, describes a device called tahoro in Tahitian, very similar to the Maori moari.
Two strong ropes were tied onto a very tall iron tree bent towards the sea. The competitor… grasped in one hand two thick roots tied to the ends of the ropes, and with the other hand he held his partner. The swing traced a circle about eight meters wide around the tree.
The tahoro was really a great test of strength, in which the more robust men showed off; on many occasions it was a chance for a young man to win the girl he desired.
Marau's description apparently does not correspond to a rite, but to a simple game, practised during certain festivities, which was a privileged means of finding romantic partners. But this passage from the queen's Mémoires is important, since it was precisely in such a context that the swing was most frequently evoked in Polynesian myths. A comparable use of the swing seems to have existed in Hawai'i, if we judge from Malo's brief indications (1951:233) under the category “sundry minor sports”: “Lele koali, swinging on a swing suspended by a single line, for which purpose the strong convolvulus vine, koali, was most often used. When permitted, youths of both sexes delighted to enjoy this sport together, the girl seated on the lap of the boy and facing him.”
In the Hawaiian Islands, there is no doubt about the ritual nature of the famous Makahiki, the cycle of festivals which marks the beginning of the new year. An important moment of the cycle was “the custom of divining the prospect of future bounty. This was done by means of a great net that was filled with food and then shaken to make the contents fall through the meshes. - 204 The prospect of abundance or scarcity in the coming season was indicated by the quantity of food which fell upon the ground. The rite was called the ‘net of Maoloha’” (Handy 1927:303). There is no question of a swing here. What appears to be essential is the shaking of the net, which is also emphasised in the myth of origin associated with the rite. Nevertheless, Malo (1951:51), from whom Handy drew inspiration, is more explicit: four men “lifted the net and shook it back and forth to make the food drop through the meshes, such being the purpose of the ceremony.” It seems plausible to suggest that the back-and-forth movement corresponds to swinging, and is ritually meaningful, considering the frequency of fertility rites involving swinging in the Austronesian area. Furthermore, as we shall see shortly, there is a Polynesian myth in which the swing is unquestionably linked to the theme of abundance. However slight these indications from rites seem to be, they prove interesting when assembled together.
I have had access to a dozen Polynesian myths or legends involving swings. This group can be arbitrarily yet usefully divided into two groups. In the first, the swing is related to various subjects. In the second, it is associated with events in the love life of human couples. We will begin with a myth of the first type, from the Marquesas Islands, which, as a matter of fact, is what originally sparked my interest in the swing motif. Six versions have been collected, one by Karl von den Steinen (1933:27-8), one by Samuel Elbert (Ms.:258-60), and four of my own. Four of these versions contain the swing motif. Here is a synthetic summary of this group:
Pa'etini, chief of the small island of Ua Pou, performed feats of magic. Birds obeyed him and brought him water and fish, and, by merely cooking in a Polynesian oven the fleshless head of a pig abandoned among the ferns, he was able to obtain a whole, fat pig. But when a foreign chief arrived from another island and asked him to perform these exploits in his presence, he was unable to do so. The foreign chief then preceded to demonstrate his own mana. He called his pig Makaia'anui, seven arm-spans long, who, at his master's command, swam to Ua Pou and died, supplying so much meat for a feast that Pa'etini's followers could not finish it all. When it came time to drink kava, the well-known Oceanic beverage, Pa'etini asked two young girls who were swinging (mu'e'e, murere, to swing, a swing) on a tiare branch up on the highest peak on the island to urinate into the visiting chief's cup of kava. According to some versions, the girls were supernatural creatures from whom Pa'etini received his powers. At this, the foreign chief was outraged and caused the two impertinent girls to fall to their death. The foreigner then returned home. As for Pa'etini, he lived in shame.- 205
The detailed analysis of these versions clearly shows that what is at stake in the competition between the two Polynesian chiefs is the very basis of their power: the ability to ensure a plentiful food supply, thanks to a privileged relationship with the supernatural entities which control it. The swing motif is likely to come up when a link must be forged between high and low; between the sky, where rain forms and where the supernatural beings who control it live, and the earth, where plants grow and where men who are nourished by them live; between the real world of everyday experience, and the inaccessible, imaginary world of religious beliefs. My hypothesis is that the swing expresses such unions in virtue of its first characteristic feature: the semi-circle that the swing describes in space by its swinging motion links high and low, and far and near. Such a hypothesis, obvious enough through mere common sense, is not particularly original. It was implicitly stated by Roger Callois, whose invaluable intuitions no doubt greatly stimulated Gell's reflection, when Caillois wrote (1967 :28): “In Vedic India, the sacrificing priest swings on a swing to help the sun rise in the sky. The swing's motion is supposed to link heaven and earth. It is compared to the rainbow, another link between heaven and earth.”
Of course there are many other things besides swings which can express a union between high and low, between the sky and earth, between divine and human. The motif of the swing is relatively rare, whereas the others are extremely frequent: for example, the rainbow motif mentioned by Caillois, or the ascension up to the sky by climbing a tree, which can also magically grow higher. It would be useless to draw up an exhaustive inventory of the various items likely to appear in Polynesia in mythical contexts where there is a joining of sky to earth, or vice versa. Here I mention only a few of the plentiful examples: being transported by a bird; the kite (another example of a kind of play used in ritual); the beard of an elderly heavenly being which hangs down to earth; the ascent up to the sky on a trail of smoke, etc. Kirtley (1971:270-9) offers other examples.
In the southern part of the New Hebrides archipelago, where the mythology has incorporated considerable Polynesian influence, Tama Kaia, either the son (on Emae) or the grandson (on Efate) of the famous Polynesian cultural hero Maui, performs exploits involving the swing. Having discovered the existence of a grandfather who has fire in his knee, he plays a swinging game which allows him to “see all islands”. He then forces his grandfather to swing as well, and breaks his knee, which he then replaces with a bamboo joint. Then, from his swing, he hooks rocky outcrops, which in turn become islands. He thus accomplishes two of the exploits which elsewhere are attributed to Maui himself (from Guiart - 206 1973:119). In an older version recorded on Efate and cited by Katherine Luomala (1949:221), the swing appears only in the context of fishing on the islands. There again, the swing is involved in the transfer of a cultural possession, fire, which is passed from the divine world to the human world, and in the emergence of islands in movement from low to high. In the previously cited myths, the existence of two distinct worlds is implicit. In our second group of myths, these two worlds are explicitly evoked.
In this second group of myths, a human couple is separated, either because of sentimental conflict, or due to a series of unfortunate events brought about by obscure forces. The woman finds herself cast into the land of the dead, and the hero sets out on an Orphic quest to try to bring her back to life. Such myths are known to exist among the Maori of New Zealand, on Rarotonga in the Cook Islands, in Hawaii, and, in a very weak form, in Tahiti. One of the Maori versions originally recorded by John White has been summarised by Edward Handy (1927:81). This is the story of Hutu, who was so good at throwing the lance(teka) and spinning the top that the princess Pare fell in love with him. 2
“Once, when the lance which he had thrown led Hutu to Pare's door, the young noble-woman, whose heart had been won by the youth's skill and presence, revealed to him her admiration and love and invited him to enter her house. But he refused her, and departed. Overwhelmed with shame, she” … “hung herself. Hutu, remorseful, fearful of the people's anger, determined to save her soul in the world below.” … Aided by Hine-nui-te-po (Great-lady-of the night), whose favour he managed to win, “Hutu arrived safely in the world below, and inquir[ed] the whereabouts of Pare.” … “Although the girl knew that Hutu had come and was seeking her, her shame led her to conceal herself. In the hope of luring her from her house, he organised contests in top spinning and javelin throwing, games which he knew she loved to watch. But never did she appear. At last Hutu, sore at heart, said to the others, ‘Bring a very long tree, and let us cut the branches off it.’ This done, ropes were plaited and tied to the top, and the crown of the tree was bent down to the earth by the people's tugging at the ropes. Hutu climbed into the top, and another man sat on his back. Then Hutu shouted, ‘Let go!’ And the tree flung the young adventurer and his companion high into the air. Delighted at this exhibition, all the people shouted with glee. This was too much for Pare and she came to watch the new game. Finally she said, ‘Let me also swing, but let me sit on your shoulders.’”
“Exuberant, Hutu answered, ‘Keep hold of my neck, O Pare!’ The top of the tree being again drawn down, it was released on the signal and flew skyward with such a rush as to fling the ropes against the under side of the upper world where they became entangled in the grass at the entrance to the realm of shades. Climbing up the ropes with Pare on his back, Hutu emerged into the - 207 world of light. He went straightway to the settlement where the dead body of Pare was lying, and the spirit of the young chieftess reentered her body and it became alive.”
The device used by Hutu combines features of the swing, the “giant stride”, and what could be called a tree-catapult. This last motif is found on its own in New Hebrides in a myth involving the Polynesian hero Tafaki, recorded by J. Guiart (1973:75) on Makura. The moari of the Maori already described could combine the three effects, as an informant quoted by Best (1925:25) expressly indicates. The couple, separated first by misunderstanding, then by death, is reunited thanks to a swinglike apparatus which is first a means of seduction, and then a means of communication between the underworld of the dead and the upper world of the living. Another closely related Maori myth is cited by Hare Hongi (1896:116-9) in the original language, to explain the allusion made to it in a funeral lament, which is highly significant.
The myth is about a brother, Miru, and his half-sister, who lived far apart from each other. Upon learning that he had a sister, Miru managed to join her, covering the distance separating them by successive throws of the javelin (teka). His sister, ignorant of their relationship, fell in love with her brother, who remained indifferent to her. In her pain, she hanged herself. Miru paddled his canoe to the place where the souls of the dead leave the earth to go down to the world of the dead. There, he plunged into the ocean, went on a subterranean journey, and finally arrived in the kingdom of the dead. Once there, he spun a top to attract the attention of his sister, who at first shunned him. Then he erected a moari and swung on it in the presence of the dead. The sister finally succumbed, and joined him. They swung together, higher and higher, aided by the dead. At the highest point, he captured the soul of his sister in his net, let go of the swing, and alighted at the place where his canoe was anchored. His sister came back to life.
It is interesting to note in this myth the association of the top and the swing. We will later come back to this point. The disjunction of the couple due to misunderstanding is reinforced by a social disjunction (as brother and sister, they could not unite), and by a spatial disjunction (they lived far away from each other).
The same situation is found in a closely related Hawaiian myth from Westerwelt's collection (1915:224-40). In addition, the author gives in the appendix (without naming its source) Hare Hongi's text. The myth has been greatly revised by Westerwelt for literary reasons, but remains useful for our purposes.- 208
The god Ku had two children by a human wife. The boy, Hiku, lived on a mountain, while his sister, Kewalu, lived on the seashore. They never left their respective domains. One day, Hiku heard the faraway noise of a crowd's enthusiastic applause. He learned that it was in honour of the surfing exploits of a princess of incomparable beauty. In spite of his mother's pleading, he went down from his mountain to the shore for the first time in his life. Though he had never surfed before, he proved to be so adept at the sport that Kewalu fell in love with him immediately. The brother and sister were married, as was the custom in Hawaii among high-ranking persons. But after a certain time had elapsed, Hiku felt the urge to return to his mountain home. He abandoned Kewalu, who hanged herself in despair. Hiku, full of regret and aided by his divine father, left to search for her in the land of the dead. He descended by a rope held by his father Ku, that he left hanging in place. In the land of the dead, Hiku was involved in numerous adventures that I will not go into here, including a game of quoits (kulu). Hiku made a loop out of the end of the rope, sat on it with Kewalu on his lap, and began to swing, to the great joy of the dead who appreciated the distraction. At the same time, Ku slowly, gradually hauled up the rope. When they realised that Hiku and Kewalu were escaping, the dead jumped up to try to hold them back, but in vain. Kewalu was resuscitated, and the couple was the origin of the Hawaiian royal family.
Another version of this story is found in the collection of Thrum (1907) and was summarised by Handy (1927:82). The romantic Tahitian tale as told by Queen Marau (1971:138-63), and already mentioned above, could be considered a weak form of the myths of this group. All the episodes take place in the world of the living, and the swing, akin to the “giant stride” of the Maori, as already described, is simply a means for a very noble ari'i to seduce the princess of his choice, and to steal her from the cousin to whom she was promised. However, in two other myths of the same group, in which a disjointed couple is reunited, the swing plays a role which is quite different.
The first of these two myths comes from a collection that, though little known, is particularly valuable for the mythographer, due to the wealth of mythic themes in the lengthy but, unfortunately, often confusing narratives. The collection is the repertoire of a Rarotongan, Te Ariki-tara-are (1918:78-98), published in the Journal of the Polynesian Society. Here is a very simplified summary of the myth.
Ngata-ariki was in love with Ngaro-ariki, whose name, very appropriately, meant “vanished princess”. Besides the difficulty arising from the fact that they were both already married, Ngaro was the victim of a series of distressing and dramatic misadventures. First, she was thrown into a thorny thicket by four malicious individuals. Next, she was disfigured by Ngata's - 209 ex-wife, and trampled by Ngata himself, who failed to recognise Ngaro in the miserable creature who turned aside his javelin. Finally, while bathing, she was carried off by freshwater crabs to Avaiki, the land of the dead. Ngata, desperate, decided to go in search of her. The god Tangaroa sent him a stage down from heaven, by which he was able to descend into the land of the dead. Ngata was able to join Ngaro, and the two came back up again thanks to the stage. The people of the land of the dead climbed up trees and tried to pull Ngaro back down with poles, but the couple managed to escape. On hearing of their return, their own countrymen sought a means to see them. They set up a swing (moari), and asked Ngata and his wife to swing. Ngata swung first, then forced Ngaro to do the same, though she was very unwilling. She swung for a while, her husband pushing her back and forth. Then they retired to their home, where they collapsed into a deep sleep. While they were sleeping, a supernatural fisherman who had seen first Ngaro's reflection on the water while she was swinging, and then had seen Ngaro herself on the swing, kidnapped her, and carried her, still asleep on her mat, to the land of the setting sun. Ngata set out to find her, and, thanks to the magic stage, was able to rescue her and bring her home, where they lived happily together for a time. Then one day, Ngaro went on a journey, and left their child in Ngata's care. The child cried non-stop, and though Ngata tried everything, the child could not be consoled. When Ngaro returned, the child's voice had become like that of a bird. Ngata held the child out to Ngaro, saying, “That is you, this is me; I am leaving for good.” He leapt from tree to tree, his body becoming covered with feathers. In the form of a pigeon (rupe), he flew to Avaiki, the land of the dead.
In this story, the couple's multiple disjunctions become more and more serious, until, finally, the lover, who has progressively lost his human form and become an animal, departs, with no hope of return, for the land of the dead. The function of the swing is quite ambiguous here. First of all, it is no longer the principal instrument for uniting disjointed couples, for passing from the land of the dead to the land of the living, or from the residence of supernatural beings to the world of humans. In this myth, a stage furnished by a god and used as a hoist fulfils this purpose. The swing is redundant, a mere detail that has become particularly useless since the passage from the world of the dead to the world of the living takes place before the swing enters into the picture. In this myth, in which the swinging occurs in the human world of everyday life, the swing appears to be only a vestige, a residual motif recalling in only a very rudimentary manner the part it plays in other myths of this group. Indeed, it probably is a vestige, but it is also more than that. Another, more satisfying interpretation is possible. The swing in this case is seen as an instrument of selection. Ngata, the husband, comes out of the swinging episode unscathed. For Ngaro, on the other hand, the swing is the - 210 instrument of a new disappearance. It is again involved in seduction, but in contrast to the preceding myths, the person seduced is not a woman but a detested, male supernatural being. The seduction is indirect, via an image; its consequence is a horizontal rather than a vertical abduction; and its result is the separation of the woman from her true lover. Whereas in the previous myths the swing had a beneficial role in an atmosphere of festive and joyous sensuality, in keeping with its ludic character, here it becomes a dangerous instrument of evil consequences. These sinister connotations of the swing become even clearer in an episode of a Maori myth.
In this myth, from the famous Grey collection (1854:46-61), one of the episodes contains the theme of the disjunction of a human couple, and of the swing's intervention as a means for the husband to rescue his wife from the supernatural universe where she is held.
The famous hero, Tawhaki, whose exploits are related by so many Polynesian narratives, married a celestial woman who had fallen head over heels in love with him. A daughter was born of their union. Tawhaki, carrying the infant after the baptism ceremony, complained that it smelled awful. Its mother, having overheard his words, flew off to the sky with the baby, but not without giving Tawhaki a final warning: he should be wary of the swaying vine, and prefer the one that is steady.
Tawhaki left for the sky with his brother Karihi. They met an old blind woman counting taro roots and twirling a weapon over her head. The brothers avoided this danger by lying on the ground. Tawhaki struck the old woman in the face, and she recovered her sight. Having become benevolent, she repeated the warning about preferring the fixed vine to the mobile one. But Karihi heedlessly took hold of one of the loose vines. The wind blew him to the horizon's edge, then another blew him to the opposite horizon. A rising wind blew him up to the sky; a descending wind hurled him back towards earth. Tawhaki cried out to his brother to let go of the vine, and Karihi arrived back on the ground safe and sound; however he then returned home. Tawhaki went on alone, climbing up a vine fixed solidly to the ground, and eventually found his family.
As in the preceding myth, two characters, in this case two brothers, are opposed, one destined to failure, the other to success. The selecting mechanism is exactly the same for the two brothers: a vine leading up to the sky. But one of the vines is stable, “its strands embedded in the earth”, while the other, also hanging from the sky, is mobile, not attached to the ground, and “swaying back and forth”. This description exactly fits the Maori swing called tārere, a child's game, undoubtedly, but sometimes rather dangerous as well (Best, 1925:85). In this myth, then, one of the features of the swing is retained: its movement is associated with danger and failure.- 211
Our second hypothesis is that, besides its property of joining high and low, and near and far, a second property of the swing also holds meaning for the mind: its pendular, its periodical motion. It is possible that in India this oscillation is associated with seasonal rhythm. In Polynesia, it translates the hardships and dangers which are inherent in all attempts to pass from the world of men to the world of supernatural entities, the often underground world of the dead, or the celestial home of the gods. Thus it is not surprising to find blocking a hero on such a voyage other obstacles besides the swing which are animated with a beating, clapping motion. A well-known motif of this type, very widespread in mytho-logy, is that of Symplegades. This motif owes its name to two rocks situated at the entrance to the Bosphorous Strait which, since the time of the Argonauts' expedition and the quest for the Golden Fleece, beat against each other, crushing any ship which tried to get through. Lévi-Strauss demonstrates in The Naked Man (1971:357-77), that this motif, related to the swing, “belongs most certainly to the oldest mythic tradition known to man” (1981:414). It is frequent in Polynesia, and has several variants: two rocks which beat against each other in the middle of a road which the hero must take (Lavondès, 1964:15-8); two rocks located at the gates of Havaiki, the kingdom of the dead, “which slid[e] back and forth at a fast rate of speed, smashing together with force enough to break to bits any object unfortunate enough to be caught between them” or “a shaft of flame which rose and fell” (Elbert ms: 16-7). It is precisely in the versions of the legend of Tahaki recorded by Jean Guiart (1962:120; 1973:69-79) that there appears a rich collection of such variants: two rocks, two nettle bushes whose leaves flap together, two coconut trees which do likewise, two pigs who strike each other with their tusks, two geckos, two knives, etc.
Not all periodical motions are swinging or swaying; they also include rotating movement. Therefore it is not surprising to find rotating objects obstructing the road to the supernatural world. A first example is found in the Maori version of the myth of Tawhaki: the old blind woman twirling an arm above her head. The rotation theme also makes a rather strange appearance in a Tokelau myth in which a spinning house, like the swing, is the particularly dangerous means of communicating with the supernatural.
A woman who had the habit of exposing herself naked to the sun's rays morning and evening was impregnated by the rays and gave birth to a son. The boy grew up, and when his wedding grew near, wanted to tell his father the Sun about it. On the way to see his father, he caused an old blind woman continually counting taro roots to recover her sight; she in turn offered him advice. He climbed a very tall tree and faced three ordeals along the way: biting insects, pinching crabs, and winds which almost made him let go of the tree. From high where he was perched, he called - 212 to the sun and informed him of his marriage plans. The sun gave him a gift, ordering him not to open it until after the wedding. In order to get the present, he was told “to go down from the tree and to go to a certain place where he would find a house spinning round; it would also cant up one side every now and again. When it did this he was to slip inside, and in order to come out again he was to seize a similar opportunity.” The young man thus found a package, and in spite of his father's order, could not resist opening it on the spot. He discovered a magnificent pearl-shell which reflected the daylight in such a dazzling manner that the Sun himself was blinded. So in order to punish his son, he had him eaten by sharks. After a number of episodes in which many men perished, the pearl-shell became a bonito lure, one of man's most useful and valuable cultural possesions.
Here again, as in the two preceding myths, two different means of communicating with the supernatural are confronted. The first, the tall tree which is climbed by overcoming obstacles met along the way, is classic. The other, the spinning house, is quite exceptional—as far as I know it is the only example in Polynesian mythology. Like the swing in the story of Ngata and Ngaro, its presence is apparently redundant and superfluous, since the hero has already returned to the ground when the spinning house comes into play. Nevertheless, like the swing Maui's son swings on to obtain fire, the spinning house is justisfied in that it shows how difficult and dangerous acquiring a cultural possession as brilliant as the sun can be. The pearl-shell when worked by men's hands becomes a bonito lure, an instrument crucial for subsistence in Polynesia, loaded with symbolism, and called by many different names depending on the subtle variations in its lustre (Nordhoff, 1930:240-3), on which its power to attract bonito, and thus its efficiency, depend. Moreover, the imaginary house in the myth, spinning on itself and tilting to one side every so often, cannot but call to mind a very real objet which also spins and tilts its axis to describe a “cone of precession”. This object, very widespread in Polynesia, must also have been so in Tokelau, and it is highly probable that at some time during the myth's elaboration, the image of the top was present in the minds of the narrators. Among the Maori of New Zealand, the top, an object crafted with great care and having several different forms, is not just a child's toy.
In the Bay of Plenty and probably elsewhere according to Elsdon Best (1925:89), the top was a ritual object. “The ceremonial spinning of humming tops occurred in connection with the function of mourning for the dead. A lament was sung, at the conclusion of each verse a number of tops were spun; the humming sound made by the tops is said to have been compared to the wailing for the dead that forms so prominent a feature of such functions” (Best 1924c, I:237). So now we have come full circle. Among certain Maori - 213 tribes there were two kinds of rites involved in funeral rituals: one made use of an elaborate form of swing, the moari or giant stride; the other a kind of top. Best appears more willing to acknowledge the ritual nature of the top than that of the swing, perhaps because the Maori were able to offer him a more rational explanation of the former than of the latter.
I myself am tempted to believe that beyond the conscious, rationalised explanations formulated by the Maori, a cluster of unconscious associations, such as those uncovered here in examining the dozen myths, may have played a part in the emergence of ritual behaviour in which the swing and the top are employed during funerals. It is as though, just when a final separation was taking place between loved ones, a certain comfort was gained by evoking the mythic times when a hero, by using symbolic means of communication with the supernatural, was able, at great peril, to bring the dead back to the land of the living.
This is not the place for further discussion on little known rituals involving tops and swings, which in any case are marginal in Polynesia. It is time to return to the myth and draw a conclusion. The interpretations I have offered can perhaps be criticised for being systematically, diametrically opposed to Gell's position, and for favouring the “mind” in the “brain, mind, body” triad. I should point out, however, that the body and physical sensations can also be called on to interpret the mythic material presented here. The dizziness brought on by swinging, scarcely mentioned by Gell, can be agreeable, voluptuous, even erotic.
In Polynesia, such sensations, which remain implicit in the studied texts, do not lead to ecstasy, or trance, or identification with the Divine. But they do allow us to explain the seductive powers of the swings in our myths, and the fact that seven out of ten of the myths relate the romantic adventures of a human couple.
To turn to the mind, we have seen that two characteristics of the swing were retained: its power to join high and low, near and far, and thus our world and other worlds; and also the rhythmic nature of its swinging movement, associated in particular with the dangerous character of such unions. Concerning this last point, the swing can be said to have one or some of the properties Lévi-Strauss (1971:596-611) attributes to ritual. Just as ritual proceeds to fragmentation and repetition in a desperate attempt to retrieve a continuum, the swing appears as a means to endlessly add on to the limited back-and-forth trips of the swing, in a no less desperate attempt to bridge the unbridgeable gap between the real and the imaginary. The swing thus has the property of referring to two contradictory notions: the possibility for men and supernatural beings to join together, and also the difficulty, the danger or even the impossibility of such a joining together. It is just this ambiguity - 214 which makes the motif of the swing so rich, and perhaps accounts for its diverse manifestations on so many different planes: from vague sensuality to confirmed eroticism; from a state of well-being to pain and danger; from a happy to a difficult or even impossible union of the sexes; from an easy, fruitful meeting between men and cosmic powers to their disappointing or even impossible meeting.
There remains the problem of the oft-stated link between the swing and the notions of fertility and plenty. Though this was the starting point for this investigation, I admit to being no more able than Frazer to propose an explanation. So much the more so because the Polynesian material relevant to such a study is limited to a single occurrence, the Makaia'anui myth. I shall still, however, hazard an hypothesis, or rather suggest a direction for further study. What links the swing to prosperity could be this. Physically, the swing is tied to sensuality, to sexuality, and thus to humankind's fertility and abundance. Mentally, the swing is associated with the fruitful meeting between people and the supernatural powers responsible for abundance and for Nature's fertility.
Finally, I do not wish to close without observing that the swing also pursues a splendid career in our own modern, Western society, in Arts and Letters and in their contemporary derivations in the field of advertising. It is most often associated with sensuality, as, for example, in Renoir's painting entitled “The Swing” (1876), or in poetry, where swinging and swings are frequent. Here are three final examples, however, in which the swing's mysterious power to link heaven and earth, humankind and the supernatural, resurfaces in the same manner as in the Polynesian myths just analysed. In his film, “The Wings of Desire” (1987), Wim Wenders takes up the old theme of a celestial being in love with a mortal. An angel who has descended from heaven would give up its divine nature for the love of a magnificent human creature swinging on a trapeze. Next, the Moroccan writer Driss Chraïbi (1972:87), in his novel La civilisation, ma Mère (Civilisation, My Mother!) about two brothers who try to acquaint their mother with the joys of life by taking her to the fair, writes “Mama spun on a wooden pig, slid on a roller coaster, experienced the ascent and the dizziness of an motorised swing, screaming for fear and for joy, her hair a plume streaming up to the sky”. I shall close in a more subdued tone by citing a poem of Paul Verlaine written in a prison in Mons, Belgium, where he was sentenced for having injured his friend, the poet Arthur Rimbaud, with a revolver. In his torpid state following this disaster, he seems to have brought together into a hypnotic swinging motion the two “nothings” which enclose all human existence: birth and death.- 215
Voilà. Perhaps along the way I have also shown that the gulf that separates the “barbaric” from the civilised man, to use Best's expression, is not as wide nor as deep as this prominent ethnographer thought. Maybe to cross it we need … but a swing!
1 The swing has been the subject of a lecture given in a seminary at the University of Paris X - Nanterre in and in a colloquium co-sponsored by the Center for Pacific Island Studies and Anthropology Department, University of Hawai'i at Manoa, in November 1989. Many thanks to all those who contributed to the successive drafts with suggestions and references. I am very grateful to Margaret Buckner for her fine translation and to Catherine Siegel who kindly read the final manuscript.
2 On this story and other related versions, see Thornton 1984.