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Wednesday 9 November 2022

The Turtle and the Shark

      Once upon a time, on the West Samoan island of Tutuila, by the village of Vaitogi, lived a woman called Fonoea, old and blind, with her little granddaughter. One day, having been neglected during a famine, she announced that she was going to commit suicide. But, she added, if they ever wanted to see her again, they should go to the cliffs and call for her. Of course, they took no notice. However, she got her granddaughter to lead her to the cliff, whence they both jumped in. At that point, she was turned into a large turtle, and the little girl into a small shark. The villagers were horrified, of course, but they remembered her promise, and so they called upon her in song to came back. And she did. Even since then, whenever they summon her, the turtle and shark will return.
      That is a famous Samoan legend. You will easily find it if you do a web search, even on the Wikipedia. It was first recorded by a missionary in 1884, who treated it as a pagan superstition. But is it?
      Fast forward to the early 1950s. For eight years E. J. Edwards had been the principal of a theological college on the neighbouring island of Malua when he first heard about it. One of his students from Tutuila told him how he had visited Vaitogi [pronounced vy-tong-ee] with a party of fellow students. Having heard the story from the villagers, they asked to see a demonstration. The following day they went out with a party of men, women, and children, and not for a minute did they expect to witness it. But they did. When the children chanted a strange song, a turtle and young shark appeared in the heavy sea below. They saw them with their own eyes.
     That inspired Mr. Edwards to research the story, and having found the 1884 report, he made a visit to Vaitogi with a party of students. Then followed the usual ceremonies of speeches and the presentation of food with which visitors are normally welcomed in Polynesia. Eventually, he raised the issue of the turtle and the shark. The eyes of the village chiefs lit up, and when he asked if he could watch a demonstration, they enthusiastically agreed. He was taken aback. He had expected co-operation, but also evasions and reservations. Instead, when he asked when would be a convenient time, they immediately answered, "Now!"
      So as they called the children, and the whole party set off towards the cliff, he kept thinking there must be a snag somewhere. Perhaps in the end one of the chiefs would apologize and say that the tide or the weather was wrong. The weather was fine, and almost cloudless, and the waves 30 feet [9 metres] below rolling in to thunder against the rocks. The crowd began singing in dirge-like monotone. Suddenly, less than a minute later, they stopped, and called out, "They're coming!" There was a great amber turtle heading towards the shore, and circling around it, a very young shark. The hair began to rise on the back of his neck.
      One must admit that it would be uncanny for a wild sea creature to immediately appear when summoned, but accompanied by a vastly different companion .... Yet there was more.
      The singers called upon the turtle to dance. "Apa, apa laumei - dance, dance, turtle," they cried, and in complete bewilderment, I watched the turtle begin to undulate on the water in a sort of reptilian hula-hula. Then the people requested the turtle to raise its flippers - and again it responded. Lying on the surface of the sea in the brilliant sunlight, the turtle raised its flippers high out of the water.
      While the villagers kept on singing the turtle kept diving and returning in a seemingly tireless display of aquatic acrobatics, while the shark swam to and fro a little farther out. Then, abruptly, the singing stopped and the creatures disappeared as suddenly as they had come. Once more the ocean was undisturbed and empty.
       Looking for a "logical explanation", Mr Edwards asked if they ever fed them. No. Did they call them up regularly? No, only now and then. When the people were out fishing, did they ever see them? No. They only came when called. The chief then told him that, during the war, some U.S. marines used to get the children to call them up regularly, upon which they would shoot at them, or pepper them with stones. The two creatures, quite sensibly, decided to stay away after that, but now that they were respected, they were coming back.
       The following day, he was talking to "one of the ablest and most intelligent of the young Samoan leaders," who informed him that the turtle and shark were not real, but spirits.
       In various places there exist individuals with a plausible claim of having occult power over certain wild animals. Such was the African ant whisperer, which I documented six years ago. In that essay I also documented how the ability of the shark callers of New Ireland is waning. The porpoise callers of Kiribati no longer ply their trade. However, this particular skill appears to be still going strong. In early 2009 or 2008 a group of students from Brigham Young University went to Samoa to make a documentary and, lo and behold! they watched the summoning of the turtle and shark.
      I wonder how long this will last. Eventually, this skill will also die out, and one day the world will assume that such things never happened.

Reference: E.J. Edwards, 'The Dancing Turtle', The Wide World, pp 232-5, Sept. 1956 in Australia, Aug. 1956 elsewhere.

1 comment:

  1. Here's a YouTube video made by BYU students: