Volume 65 1956 > Volume 65, No. 1 > Myth and blackmail in the Western Carolines, by William A. Lessa, p 67-74
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University of California at Los Angeles 1

OFTEN THERE has been a tendency to impute too much to the uses to which mythology can be put. Ample warnings have been sounded against its misuse in historical reconstruction, in probings of the subconscious mind, and in the symbolization of natural phenomena. I do not propose to dwell on these shortcomings, but I do wish to call attention to a particular example of overemphasis on myth with respect to its role in maintaining political dominance.

The political dominance in question is that which is exercised by the people of Yap—specifically the people of Gagil district on that island—over certain subject islands to the east. These islands are small in size and population, being mostly atolls. With respect to Yap, to which they must send tribute, they hold a position of low caste. 2

It has been asserted that Yap maintains its hold over these islands through threats of retaliation based on three Carolinian myths. I here propose to describe these myths, explain their alleged perversions, and properly evaluate their significance in political affairs.

The first of the trio of stories is the Motikitik myth. This is a Carolinian version of the famous Maui cycle of Polynesia, and has been reported for several islands: Pulo Anna, 3 Palau, 4 Yap, 5 Ulithi, 6 Fais, 7 Lamotrek, 8 and Truk, 9 as well as the Nukumanu (Tasman) group 10 in Polynesia. Two of its principal motifs, namely, the descent to the underworld and the fishing up of islands, are clearly represented in Micronesia.

According to this myth, which we can here reduce to its common denominators, a woman named Lorop secretly procures food for her three sons. One of the sons, Motikitik, discovers that she uses a magical formula to descend beneath the sea. Using this same formula, he follows her, disguised as a bird. His mother says that as a consequence of his act she must now die, and gives him instructions for her burial. - 68 He dutifully carries them out. He then goes fishing with his two brothers and succeeds in raising up an island from the depths of the ocean. His brothers are jealous and dispute his right to the land that he has fished up. In order to settle the argument, the three young men ask their mother to adjudicate the conflicting claims. She decides in Motikitik's favour, for, whereas the others have been contemptuous of her and refused to help bury her, he has shown her filial devotion.

What are the implications of this story? The people of Yap are said by the people of Fais, the island fished up by Motikitik, to own this hook and to use it to maintain control over them. The way in which Yap came to possess the hook is told in a tradition current on Fais. Motikitik lost the hook while on the way from Fais to nearby Ulithi. A native of one of the islands of Ulithi (Falalop) found the hook and took it to Yap, knowing of its wonderful power. But then he too lost it. Afterwards it was taken to the village of Gatschapar by the wife of a Yapese chief. There it was put into the care of the priest. According to the tradition, which is known on several islands, if this hook were to be lost or destroyed, the island of Fais would sink once more to the depths of the ocean from whence it came. For this reason the people of Fais are said to live in fear of Yap, and suffer themselves to remain under its sway. 11

We may now briefly pass on to the second of the three allegedly extortionist myths. It is not really a story at all, and we know very little about it. All we have is a brief notation contained in a publication dated 1873, 12 telling us that there exists on Ulithi a myth similar to that of Motikitik but dealing with a goddess names Isserie and an axe said to be buried in Yap. When the axe is dug up the islands of Ulithi stand in danger of being swallowed by the sea.

The third of the three myths comes also from Ulithi and pertains to Bagau. She created the islands of Ulithi and there gave birth to a son, Yonelap or Iongelap. His father lived on Yap, and Yonelap went there to stay with him, while his mother remained on Ulithi. His parents gave him more than fifty islands, including Ulithi, Fais, and all the other islands of the Carolines east of Yap, as well as some of the islands of the Marianas. (These islands are specifically named in the account.) Yonelap went to Ulithi, where he lived for a while on several islands. He planted a coconut tree. It grew, and from the ripe nuts he extracted oil which he took with him to Gatschapar on Yap. One day he wanted to revisit Ulithi, both to learn how his palm was getting along and to see his mother. But the people on Yap would not let him go. Instead, some of them went themselves to Ulithi to visit Bagau. She made oil, sails, and mats and told the people who had come from Yap that they should take them to her son when they returned, for these things belonged to him. And so it happened. When Yonelap received the gifts they had brought from Ulithi he said they were good, and that in ten months they must go back and fetch other things made by - 69 his mother. Meanwhile, Yonelap gave the people turmeric, taro, and various kinds of food to take as a return gift to his mother on Ulithi.

Now, says the myth, the natives of Ulithi must bring to Yap all the same things that the people of Yap had anciently obtained from there. Yonelap's mother is cross and wicked. If the islanders were to stop their tribute payments, they not only would get sick, but the plants would dry up, the fish would keep away, and the canoes would be blown off their courses. Yonelap visits the Ulithian islands occasionally, and he joins the crews of the tribute ships when they are on their way home. When the canoes are expected, the natives clean up all the land around thir houses and decorate the huts with turmeric, so that Yonelap will be satisfied. 13

These, then, are the three myths, together with the explanations which the natives themselves append to them. We shall now inquire as to how far some writers have gone in accepting them as explanations for the dominance which Yap holds over Fais, Ulithi, and other islands.

No one, of course, maintains that Yap's original ascendancy is explained by these myths, so that this question can be ignored. But there are on record several assertions by scholars to the effect that these myths are used by the Yapese to instill fear among their subjects and force them to go obediently to Yap on periodic tribute voyages.

For example, of the Motikitik myth, Professor Luomala 14 says:

Yap chiefs keep the Feis Islanders subdued and regular in bringing their share of gifts by threatening to destroy the talisman of the life spirit of Feis. This magical symbol on which the fate of Feis rests is Maui's fishhook.
A Japanese writer, Matsuoka, 15 goes a step further and says that not only the people of Fais but also those of Ulithi are kept subject by this myth.

Of the Isserie story, Tetens 16 says: “With this belief, Yap keeps this group [Ulithi] also in continuous tributary obligation.” Luomala 17 echoes this sentiment with the assertion:

Yap business men seem to have been aware of the value of folk-lore to capitalism, for they have revised another popular Caroline myth, the plot of which need not concern us, to terrorize Mogmog [Ulithi] into bringing gifts promptly.
Hambruch, 18 one of the members of the Thilenius expedition who visited Ulithi early in this century, is in essential agreement with this point of view.

Finally, of the Bagau myth, we have already seen that Hambruch claims he learned that the people of Ulithi would be punished by Bagau - 70 if they were to stop making their tribute payment to her son. He even implies that all the numerous other islands also mentioned in the myth would be punished. We have in this case, then, an attempt to explain how all the islands of the Yapese empire, and not Fais and Ulithi alone, are kept under the thumb of Yap.

To recapitulate what we are supposed to have learned thus far: Fais is held in subservience by the Motikitik myth, while Ulithi is held down by the Motikitik, Isserie, and Bagau myths. In addition, many other islands, all belonging to the Yapese empire, are kept in subjugation through the fears induced by the Bagau myth.

I would like to cast some doubt on the efficacy of these myths. First of all, the natives themselves do not really emphasize them as much as writers would have us believe. The threat of retaliation in connection with the Motikitik myth is found only on Fais. When I was on Ulithi and heard the story, I was merely told that the hook is now on Yap; there was no mention of the dire results that would follow from its loss. After all, why should Ulithi be so fearful of what happens to Fais? Raconteurs on Pulo Anna, Palau, Yap, Lamotrek, and Truk do not even say the hook is on Yap, let alone that its misuse could sink an island.

As for the Isserie myth we know very little—no more than is contained in the offhand comment made by Captain Tetens and repeated later by Hambruch. While I was on Ulithi I never heard of the axe. In all fairness I should say that I never inquired about it; yet it would seem strange that none of my highly reliable informants would have known about it and yet failed to mention anything so ominous to their welfare. The impact of the myth must therefore be minimal.

The Bagau myth is certainly important and closely associated with the controls exerted by Yap over the outer islands. Yet I doubt that it is any longer of much efficacy. It was not mentioned to me when I was on Ulithi, where I did special research on the relation of that atoll to the Yapese empire. Most damaging of all is the fact that this story appears only on Ulithi and not on Yap.

In my opinion we must go beyond mythology to understand why the subordinate islands continue to permit themselves to be dominated by Yap. I believe that sorcery and economics are more important sources of blackmail than are myths. When the tributary islands show signs of weakening in their obeisance to their overlords, they are visited by magicians (tauptop) from Yap who perform rituals designed to bring on pests, disease, drought, and typhoons. 19 This is not the place to go into these rituals, which in any case are secret and not well understood by the intended victims themselves; but I want to emphasize that when they were discussed with me by Ulithian informants they were told in a spirit of belief and apprehensiveness. If more concerning these rituals does not appear in the literature it is probably because ethnologists were unable to find informants who could speak at all comfortably about them.

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Economic reasons are no less powerful than magical ones in keeping at least the nearby tributary islands contained. Should the low caste peoples kick over the traces they would stand to lose greatly desired sources of raw materials. Yap is a “high” island and can supply timber, turmeric, yams, betel nut, and other materials and foods not found on the atolls. Some of these are real necessities, while others help alleviate the monotony of their own diet and supplies. Informants on Ulithi specifically told me what a loss it would be not to be able to procure materials from Yap. 20

Not all the tribute and gifts sent to Yap are political in character. Many of them are actually religious offerings to Yonelap. These offerings do not seem to be made because of coercion but because the tributary islands feel that Yonelap belongs as much to them as he does to Yap. It will be recalled that this deity was born on Ulithi, and the people of that atoll claim him as their own. They send him gifts because they feel he helps them, and not because they fear Bagau. Therefore we must add this voluntary element to the magical and economic ones, and partly discount the punitive implications of the Bagau myth. I should add that actually the system of religious offerings, or mepel, is far more complex than I have indicated. Each lineage on Ulithi and the other subordinate islands is required to send tribute to the ancestral ghosts of each of their overlord lineages. Yonelap is merely one of the ancestral ghosts to which offerings are sent. 21 In any case it is this web of religious obligations and rituals which helps orient the outer islands towards Yap.

In addition to all this I would like to point out, as I have already done elsewhere, 22 that the status of the subject islands is not as disadvantageous as one might gather from the literature. It is true that the subordinate islands have status as members of an inferior caste, but they are usually well provided for when they are on Yap. In fact, there is some feeling in my mind that they get far more from Yap than they give, for they are provided with food and shelter when staying there and laden with gifts when they return home. The Bagau myth itself provides a charter for this reciprocity, which is organized into a highly complex scheme.

In conclusion, we can agree with Malinowski's well-known thesis that myth acts as a charter for ritual and other institutions. It here validates a caste system bound up with political control, landownership, and religion. It of course did not create the status quo but merely reflects a situation of uncertain origin—conquest, perhaps. We can also agree with Radcliffe-Brown's parallel dictum, namely, that myth helps maintain the social order in existence. In the case of the western Carolines it does so by giving sacred meaning to old-established structures and interactions. But I do not see how we can agree that in the case in question myth is powerful enough to blackmail islands into - 72 acquiescing in their inferior status. To be sure, such a colourful explanation has some elements of truth but the real answer lies in the more prosaic factors which I have submitted.

I cannot help but append to my formal paper some remarks made by John L. Fischer and Ward H. Goodenough at the time it was presented, and later expanded in letters they were kind enough to send me.

Speaking from the point of view of Puluwat, one of the tributary islands farthest east from Yap which he visited in 1950, Dr. Fischer says: “Several Puluwat informants were very emphatic in saying that the only reason for sending tribute to Yap was fear of Yap sorcery, which would bring certain calamities on the whole island: typhoons, sickness, and crop failures … I do not believe I specifically asked about mythical or religious reasons for sending tribute to Yap but remember being surprised at the time that they were not volunteered.” Thus, Dr. Fischer's remarks would tend to support my view that sorcery does seem to be the instrument of blackmail.

But Dr. Fischer has some views which are somewhat at variance with mine, although I think that they are not irreconcilable. We can dismiss without discussion his feeling that Yap's dominance over the other islands is not due to conquest. I only mentioned conquest in passing as a possibility and do not have strong convictions one way or the other. More important is his statement to me that the Puluwat people told him they get no economic benefits from Yap, obtaining their turmeric, for example, from nearby Truk. They even used to send some of it to Yap, where it was more highly prized than the local product because it was redder. However, he admits that the picture may have been very different in the old days, when the people of the low islands of the central Carolines used to stop at Yap on the way to Guam after the latter island was occupied by the Spanish. They may have got hospitality and guidance on Yap, and perhaps been able to acquire metal tools and other European trade goods by using that island as an intermediary with Guam. I feel that if we accept the probability of a former economic connection with Yap, we must also consider the possibility that this initiated an attitude that has not been dispelled over the years, even though the original basis disappeared.

Dr. Fischer confesses to a nagging uneasiness over the general implications of my paper regarding the efficacy of myths in culture. He recognizes that some are told without their being deeply believed in or considered vital; but he says it is a plausible possibility that the myths I cite are in the process of secularization and while not effective now they might formerly have been so. He asks for some reassurance from me that I have not gone too far.

I give this reassurance whole-heartedly, for I firmly believe in the over-all importance of mythology in influencing behaviour—a point I constantly reiterate in my teaching. My references to Malinowski and Radcliffe-Brown were meant to be sympathetic to their views. But I want to repeat what I said in my concluding remarks: the myths in - 73 question were not powerful enough a few years back, when I was in the Carolines, to be effective as blackmail. I also want to repeat that I do not see why the people of the more eastern islands—Puluwat would be here included—should be cowed by a threat to Fais or Ulithi, as in the case of the magic hook and the axe myths. (As I write this I wonder if there really ever was an axe tale or if the story of Isserie, briefly alluded to, is not the result of a misunderstanding of the Motikitik myth by Tetens. I have scoured the literature and only he mentions the myth. Nor have I been able to find any other reference to Isserie, a “goddess” who surely would have been known on some of the other islands of this tight-knit archipelago.) As for the Bagau myth the reader will recall that I did point out its importance, especially because it concerned itself with a wide number of islands; but I repeat that I feel it is no longer effective.

A suggestion by Dr. Fischer which I find appealing is that perhaps all three of the myths I have cited were actually taken seriously and used as blackmail at a distant time when the Gagil empire of Yap was more compact and included perhaps only Fais and Ulithi. As the empire expanded, he suggests, it would have been difficult to devise similarly acceptable myths for each island, especially if they were brought into the orbit rapidly. In that case sorcery would have been a more practical form of blackmail, and as sorcery came to be more emphasized the local myths might well have lost their force. Dr. Fischer develops his suggestion more fully than I have space for, and I regret that I cannot present its details.

Dr. Goodenough's remarks are confined to one point alone, namely, the question of conquest. He too feels that this is not what brought about the dominance of Yap over the islands in its orbit. Rather, he says, it was phychological causes. The outer islands were awed by the greater strength and sophistication of Yap, and it was to their advantage to cultivate its good will. They did so voluntarily, and the Yapese welcomed the feeling of superiority it gave them. Since Dr. Goodenough's comments, as he himself points out, are not critical to my discussion I shall not present them any further, although I hope that they may be developed extensively elsewhere. I should add, however, that he does make a passing reference to the importanc of the atoll's dependency upon trade with Yap, a point I have insisted upon.

  • BOLLIG, Laurentius, 1927. Die Bewohner der Truk-Inseln.… “Anthropos Ethnologische Bibliothek,” Bd. 3, Heft 1. Münster i. W., Aschendorff.
  • BORN, L. 1903. “Zwei westkarolinische Sagen.” Mitteilungen aus den deutschen Schutzgebieten, 16: 264-268.
  • DAMM, Hans, 1938. Zentralkarolinen, 2. Halbband: Ifaluk, Aurepik, Faraulip, Sorol, Mogemog. “Ergebnisse der Südsee Expedition, 1908-1910,” Georg Thilenius, ed., II. Ethnographie, B. Mikronesien, Vol. 10, Part 2. Hamburg, Friederichsen, De Gruyter & Co.
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  • EILERS, Anneliese, 1935. Westkarolinen, 1. Halbband: Songosor, Pur, Merir. “Ergebnisse der Südsee Expedition, 1908-1910,” Georg Thilenius, ed., II. Ethnographie, B. Mikronesien, Vol. 9, Part 1. Hamburg, Friederichsen, De Gruyter & Co.
  • FISCHER, John L. Unpublished manuscript in the Bernice P. Bishop Museum, Honolulu.
  • KRAEMER, Augustin F. 1947. Zentralkarolinen, 1. Halbband: Lamotrek Gruppe, Oleai, Feis. “Ergebnisse der Südsee Expedition, 1908-1910,” Georg Thilenius, ed., II. Ethnographie, B. Mikronesien, Vol. 10, Part 1. Hamburg, Friederichsen, De Gruyter & Co.
  • LESSA, William A. 1950a. “Ulithi and the Outer Native World.” American Anthropologist, 52: 27-52.
  • — — 1950b. “The Place of Ulithi in the Yap Empire.” Human Organization, 9: 16-18.
  • — — Unpublished manuscript.
  • LUOMALA, Katherine, 1949. “Maui-of-a-Thousand-Tricks: His Oceanic and European Biographers.” Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum, Bulletin 198.
  • MATSUOKA, Shizuo, 1927. Mikuronesha minzoku-shi [An Ethnological Study of Micronesia]. Tokyo, Oka Shoin.
  • MUELLER, Wilhelm, 1918. Yap, 2. Halbband. “Ergebnisse der Südsee Expedition, 1908-1910,” Georg Thilenius, ed., II. Ethnographie, B. Mikronesien, Vol. 2, Part 2. Hamburg, Friederichsen, De Gruyter & Co.
  • SAFERT, Ernest, and DAMM, Hans, 1931. Luagiua und Nukumanu, mit Anhang über Sikayana, Nuguria, Tauu und Carteret-Inseln. 2. Halbband: Soziale Verhaltnisse und Geisteskultur. “Ergebnisse der Südsee Expedition, 1908-1910,” Georg Thilenius, ed., II. Ethnographie, B. Mikronesien, Vol. 12, Part 2. Hamburg, Friederichsen, De Gruyter & Co.
  • SEMPER, Karl, 1873. Die Palau-Inseln im Stillen Ozean. Leipzig, Brockhaus.
  • TETENS, Alfred, and KUBARY, Johann, 1873. “Die Carolineninsel Yap oder Guap nebst den Matelotas-, Makenzie-, Fais- and Wolea-Inseln [bearbeitet von Dr. E. Gräffe],” Journal des Museum Godeffroy, 1: 84-130.
1   This paper was presented at the Fifty-fourth Annual Meeting of the American Anthropological Association, held in Boston, Mass., in November, 1955.
2   Lessa, 1950a, 1950b.
3   Eilers, 1935: 218-219.
4   Semper, 1873: 335.
5   Krämer, 1937: 378-381; Müller, 1918: 526-527, 527-528.
6   Damm, 1938: 360-361; Tetens and Kubary, 1873: 125-126; Lessa, unpublished MS.
7   Born, 1903: 265-267; Krämer, 1937: 381-383.
8   Krämer, 1937: 168-169.
9   Bollig, 1927: 236-237; Fischer, unpublished MS.
10   Sarfert and Damm, 1931: 385-386.
11   Damm, 1938: 356; Tetens and Kubary, 1873: 125-126.
12   Tetens and Kubary, 1873: 126-127.
13   Damm, 1938: 353-354.
14   Luomala, 1949: 222.
15   Matsuoka, 1927: 193.
16   Tetens and Kubary, 1873: 127.
17   Luomala, 1949: 222-223.
18   Damm, 1938: 356. Damm edited Hambruch's notes.
19   Lessa, 1950b: 17.
20   Lessa, 1950a: 43.
21   Lessa, 1950a: 37-38.
22   Lessa, 1950a: 1950b.