“Oi auē, ua maumau le vasa!” “What a pity, such a waste of ocean!”: Idiosyncrasy and wisdom in Samoan creation and funeral chants
Tui Atua Tupua Tamasese Ta’isi Tupuola Tufuga Efi
Keynote Address, Inaugural Pacific Philosophy Conference,
Pacific Theological College, 12-14 June 2018, Suva, Fiji
June the 8th last week was World Ocean’s Day. I would like to dedicate this address to all those who have and are working tirelessly to protect our oceans. The ocean is family and we have a sacred responsibility to ensure that we protect and nurture it like family.
Tulouna le lagi tuatasi! Tulouna le pogisa ma le leai!
Tulouna le lagi tualua! Tulouna le nanamu!
Tulouna le lagi tuatolu! Tualouna le efuefu!
Tulouna le lagi tuafa! Tulouna le iloa!
Tulouna le lagi tualima! Tulouna le maua!
Tulouna le lagi tuaono! Tulouna le ‘ele’ele!
Tulouna le lagi tuafitu! Tulouna le papatū!
Tulouna le lagi tuavalu! Tulouna le maa taanoa!
Tulouna le lagi tuaiva! Tulouna le mauga!
Salutations to the first heaven! Salutations to the darkness and the void!
Salutations to the second heaven! Salutations to the sense of smell!
Salutations to the third heaven! Salutations to the dust!
Salutations to the fourth heaven! Salutations to the knowable!
Salutations to the fifth heaven! Salutations to the obtainable!
Salutations to the sixth heaven. Salutations to the earth!
Salutations to the seventh heaven! Salutations to the standing rock!
Salutations to the eighth heaven! Salutations to the small aimless stone!
Salutations to the ninth heaven! Salutations to the mountain!
It might seem strange to begin with a funeral chant, but in this funeral chant is contained two key concepts, that of the vavau - the forever before, and the faavavau - the forever beyond. The connection between vavau and faavavau (forever before/forever beyond) is inextricable and relational. It is dependent and independent. There is separation but also constant movement between each other. They inform, define, name, flavour, enable, touch upon and inspirit each other. They are cyclical and temporal, physical and metaphysical, transcendent and grounded in ways that frame and nuance a Samoan conception of time-space, and the relationality or va between.
The vavau is not just about the past. It is also about the past that is never forgotten. It is a past that is the source of the beginning, the beginning of all things. Hence, the notion ‘forever before’. It is the point of break between nothing and beginning; the point that recognises conception and close bonding by marking the trauma of birth-death, in vitro and in vivo.
In the late 1800s Reverend George Pratt recorded the word as having three possible meanings, two of which are most obvious for our purposes, but the third is of no less value. He recorded that one meaning of “vavau” is as a subject word, meaning “ancient times”; that another or second meaning is as an adjective word, meaning “lasting, (or) perpetual”; and thirdly, is as a verb word, from the root word vau, meaning “to pound or bruise a person”. The third use of the word vavau can be found when describing the bonding between a loving caregiver and a child they reared, whereupon when the child dies and the caregiver becomes overwhelmed and physically distraught, witnesses would say that this was because of the pounding and bruising grief they were experiencing, “leaga fo’i na vavau mai lava e ia mai lona laititi”. Samoan languaging here privileges the metaphorical and the allusive, titillating potentialities in meaning, and although the vavau of bruising and pounding is not of the same vein as the vavau of the ancient, perpetual and lasting, there is an undeniable hint of and desire for a va or relationality between the forever-ness bond of nurturing, and the forever-ness bond of remembering.
The concept faavavau, finds its bearings from vavau. Faavavau is about both the ‘forever after’ in a linear sense, and the ‘forever beyond’ in a cyclical and transcendent sense. Faavavau is the word commonly used to translate the word ‘forever’ as used in the last line of the Lord’s prayer: “Forever and ever, Amen” … “E faavavau, faavavau lava, Amene”. Again, Reverend George Pratt’s dictionary offers three uses of the word faavavau, all of which have relevant meanings and show a direct connection to its root word vavau. The first use offered is as a verb meaning “to be perpetual, to be lasting”. The second use is as an adjective, whereby something “(is) lasting; (is) perpetual”. And, lastly, the third and very interesting use, is as a subject noun, meaning “a stone connected with a legend”. Here I am reminded of the way in which stones were used to commemorate historical events, which perhaps over time is mythologised. For example, there are large stones marking the seaside boundary between Leauvaa and Tuana’i, in Upolu. People refer to these stones as vavau because they are believed to be from a time forever before. Legend tells that during a great storm the crew and passengers of an alia (a large Samoan vessel) crashed into the boundary and turned into stone. The common assumption is that the passengers and/or crew must’ve been misbehaving to have suffered such a fate. I am not sure why in Pratt faavavau rather than vavau is associated with this meaning. But notwithstanding, there is in the unpacking of both words a sense of timeless-ness, boundless-ness and beyond-ness that nuances Samoan thinking about knowing, being, remembering and becoming.
This was not to say that in emphasising the cyclical there was no recognition of linear time nor a respect for order. Order was and is always present. It was and is present in the running of Samoan ceremonial life, as well as in ordinary every-day affairs. Recognition of temporal linearity was and is present in genealogy by virtue of order of birth. A respect for this was reflected in our Samoan codes for behavioural and relational conduct (our va fealoaloa’i, especially by the young towards their elders), in our traditional succession principles (such as alii o aiga and suli sosoo), and as well in our worship rituals (our tapuaiga) where deference is paid to those who came before.
This belief in genealogical ordering was present in the way in which creation was understood. That is, that there was a kin relationship between all life forms: between people and the environment, people and the cosmos, people and animals, peoples and their lands, peoples and their ancestors, peoples and their gods/God, and between peoples themselves. Our forebears believed that it was through an appreciation of our divine genealogical designations (our tofi) that we as humans would come to value our place (also our tofi) in the order of life and in the order of things. And, that it was through deep meditation or anapogi and moe manatunatu (fasting and dream dialogues with the spirit world) that a search for wisdom (for tofa sa’ili) would be enabled and enriched, and where an ethics of care would find meaning and growth. This ethics would teach a humility and respect for the kinship bond between all living things.
The solo o lagi a Sa Tagaloa (Tagaloa funeral chant) and the Manu’a solo o le va (Manu’a creation chant) offer ancient records of these theological and philosophical principles and values.
Solo o lagi a Sa Tagaloa – The Sa Tagaloa Funeral Chant
The funeral chant begins by acknowledging that in the beginning there was darkness and the void, which was the first heaven or level of awareness (lagi tuatasi). Then came the senses, in particular the sense of smell, which is acknowledged as the second heaven (lagi tualua). It was believed that this was the first of the five senses that gave living things a compass not only for direction and movement, but also for the development of intuition. According to my mentors the sense of smell or nanamu was the most primordial and powerful of the senses. This acknowledgement was perhaps also an acknowledgement that people were believed to have evolved from worms or maggots. For though they were considered the most lowly of creatures, they moved and survived in darkness, and were able to find food and grow notwithstanding.
Then comes the tribute to the third heaven or level of awareness (lagi tuatolu), the tribute to dust or ashes, the efuefu. This was a tribute to the volcanic origins of our islands.
Next, the fourth heaven (lagi tuafa), was a tribute to the knowable or intelligence, i.e. to iloa. It is of interest to pause here and reflect on the sequencing of these heavens, from lagi tuatolu, the third heaven, to lagi tuavalu, the eighth. Lagi tualima or fifth heaven offers a tribute to le maua or the obtainable; the sense of having something or to territoriality. Lagi tuaono or sixth heaven offers a tribute to the eleele or to the land or earth. Lagi tuafitu or seventh heaven offers a tribute to the papatū or standing rock. And, lagi tuavalu or eighth heaven offers a tribute to the maa taanoa, the small aimless stone. If the claim is, as the forebears of the Tagaloa tradition seem to assert, that each lagi or heaven represents human evolution – physically, mentally and spiritually – then how ought we to understand dust or ashes (efuefu) evolving into intelligence (iloa) and then into a sense of having, or of obtaining or of territoriality (i.e. a sense of maua), and then evolving into earth or land (into eleele), and from there into a standing rock (into papatū), and into small aimless stones (maa taanoa), before becoming the mountain (le mauga) i.e. reaching the ninth heaven, the residence of the daughter and taupou of Tagaloaalelagi, the progenitor God? How should we understand evolution or genealogical ordering here?
A possible interpretation for the sequencing of lagi tuatolu to lagi tuaiva in this way might be as follows. Starting with lagi tuafa (fourth heaven) which is about intelligence, it would seem logical to have that come before lagi tualima (fifth heaven) which is about acquisition because acquisition requires intelligence in order to happen. Lagi tualua which is about smell would logically come after darkness because of all the other lagi the only thing that can survive and be easily identifiable in darkness is smell. Thus when smell and ashes combine and join with intelligence, they as one gain the ability to obtain and make use of – in this case land, standing rocks and stones, all of which offer a habitat for life. All that is left is to then live in harmony with one’s kin until death and on death to then travel to the top of the mauga (the mountain or lagi tuaiva or ninth heaven) where final prayers and tributes would be made and the soul of the deceased would then travel into the forever beyond towards the tenth heaven, the domain of Tagaloaalelagi, the progenitor God. There is logic in this rendering of evolution. But it is obviously not aiming to be entirely literal or linear in the Darwinian sense.
This funeral chant conducts a survey of key life stages and pays tribute to the levels of discernment and growth considered important in that life journey. The point of this chant is that it is about celebrating our forever evolving-being: from the fact that we as humans evolved from nothing into something, to the fact that by the time of our death we would find strength and meaning in our humble beginnings.
The way the chant is constructed suggests that evolution be interpreted as relative; that it happens not in neat single-dimensional linear ways but in more haphazard multi-dimensional ways. Understanding what evolution is in this chant is therefore to understand the environmental surroundings of our forebears at the time, and to reflect on how they would’ve drawn from those surroundings to make sense of life and its purpose and possible beginnings. It is not farfetched to believe that what they saw was a profound interconnectedness between all living things, one premised on a kinship bond. Understanding and honouring evolution in this relational familial type way is to reconceptualise and reorient the world to see the relational as central to our evolvement as human beings.
The nine heavens commemorate both nine significant moments and levels of discernment in our development and growth as a people and a species. In this funeral chant the word lagi is used metaphorically to refer also to the nine sites or mounds that mark the resting places for the funeral procession up the mountain. In taking the deceased up the path to the top of the mountain (to lagi tuaiva or the ninth heaven) to say their final prayers of farewell, the funeral party would pause at each lagi or resting place to contemplate on each theme/symbol/ancestor. When the party reaches the top of the mauga and end point of the chant, the salutation to lagi tuaiva, the final prayers are said and the soul is then believed ready to move on to the forever beyond. It was believed that at this height their prayers would be heard by Tagaloaalelagi, their progenitor God, for it was the closest they could get to his domain in the tenth heaven, which is not in the chant for it was beyond reach and therefore beyond mention.
Lagi is a term used to describe not only the heavens or skies, as noted above, but also the head of a person. It is another term of respect, especially for the head of a chief. It is a term that in this chant nuances wisdom in a number of very Samoan ways. The Manu’a solo o le va does a similar thing with the word va.
Solo o le va – the Manu’a creation chant
This solo speaks about the beginnings of life and the relationship between living things. There are 27 stanzas in the Manu’a solo o le va. I will not recite them all. But I do offer you a copy of the full solo complete with English translations by Dr Theodore Verhaaren and myself in the appendix of my paper for your study and our discussion. For the remainder of my address I wish to focus on a few stanzas to illustrate my point about indigenous wisdom and idiosyncrasy.
The solo o le va is the only existing ancient Samoan solo that I am aware of that offers a comprehensive account of a Samoan version of creation. It is recorded in the writings of Augustin Kramer and Reverend Thomas Powell . Its long title is recorded as: “O le solo o le va o le foafoaga o le lalolagi”, which I translate simply as: “A chant about the origins of the earth”.
In thinking about the use of the word va in the title the suggestion is that for the scholars of Manu’a, who crafted this chant, they believed that in the beginning the first of all relationships (or va) was and is that between the Creator and the created. In this chant there is interplay between God, the environment, and people, and constant movement between the spiritual and the physical spaces between.
The chant starts with the breaking of waves. For four stanzas there is description after description of waves: tsunami waves, waves that smash and disperse, waves that roll and flow, waves that appear and evaporate, and so on and so forth. The image is of a force of nature that suddenly appears, breaking into one’s consciousness, then taking myriad forms, and playing myriad roles, all of which speak to an omnipresent relationship between God and the environment and people.
‘O galu lolo ma galu fatio’o,
‘O galu tau ma galu fefatia‘i,
‘O le ‘au ‘au peau ma le sologa a peau,
Na ona fa’afua, ‘a e lē fati.
The tsunami wave and the wave that breaks as it reaches its destination,
The wave which smashes and the wave which disperses,
The wave which rolls and the wave which flows,
The wave which appears to form and then evaporates.
‘O le peau lolo ma le peau ta’oto
‘O le peau malie ma le peau lagatonu.
Fierce waves and passive waves,
The calm waves and the purposeful waves.
‘O le peau alili’a ma peau la’asia,
‘O peau a sisifo mai gaga’e.
Fearsome waves, and waves that reach the shore,
Waves heading west from the east.
‘O le peau lagava’a ma le peau tagata
Ma le peau tautala ‘o lona soa ‘o le ‘au ‘au ta’a.
Waves which raise ships and reaching out for people,
The waves which talk, whose companion is a rock in the reef.
How might we think about the significance of these waves to the centrality of the relational in this creation story? We might surmise that because the ocean and its waves were inescapably present in the geo-physical reality of Manu’a, that it was only natural for them to give precedence to the ocean/waves in their creation story. Also, there may exist a possible connection between the breaking of a woman’s waters and the process of childbirth, in the ways in which these waves are being described in these stanzas. They seem like contractions that scream, ebb and flow according to an energy or imperative beyond us: i.e. like the imperative of giving birth to life. Moreover, the descriptions of these waves inscribe in me an energy and power that for a tautai (a master navigator and/or fisherman) emanates from the sea – the primary teacher of a tautai.
The solo then moves to the creation of life, beginning with the creation of the first village or place, which is of course Manu’a, and giving precedence to a once-was-great governing regime of the day, the Tagaloa regime, and to the boundaries they created.
‘Ofea le nu’u na lua’i tupu?
Na lua’i tupu Manu’atele,
Tupu Savai’i, ‘a e muli i malae Alamisi
Ma le atu Toga ma le atu Fiti
‘Atoa le atunu’u itiiti.
Where is the place which first came into being?
Manu’atele was first,
Savai’i came to be and the end part was the malae Alamisi,
And it extended to Tonga and Fiji,
And the other smaller islands.
Alamisi ‘o Samataiuta,
‘O le nofoa a Tagaloa ma lona ta’atuga.
Alamisi in Samataiuta,
Is the seat of Tagaloa and his regime.
Samataiuta ma Samataitai
Tagaloa e taumuli i ai.
Samataiuta and Samataitai,
Is the boundary of the Tagaloa domain.
‘A e lele i lona atu luluga,
Fuafua ma fa’atatau,
Le vā i nu’u po ‘ua tutusa.
When he travelled to his dominions in the west,
He surveyed and measured,
Whether the village boundaries were equal.
Tula’i i lou atu mauga ta’alolo
Tumau Tagaloa i mauga o Manu’a.
When Tagaloa stood upon his mountain the people paid oblations,
Tagaloa remains in the mountains of Manu’a.
It ends this phase of creation by returning to the ocean and the waves.
Levaleva le vasa i savili,
E lili’a Tagaloa ia peau alili.
Long did the winds blow over the ocean,
And Tagaloa was concerned about the strong waves.
The next lot of stanzas of interest here are those that talk about the creation of people. Like the Sa Tagaloa funeral chant, in this Manu’a creation chant the creation of people is told as a story of evolution.
Na fa’aifo ai le fuetagata
Na fa’atagata ai Tutuila
Ma Upolu, Atua ma Aana
‘Atoa ma le Tuamasaga.
Tagaloa sent down the creepers
To populate Tutuila,
And Upolu, Atua and Aana
Together with Tuamasaga.
Na ona gaoi fua ‘o tino,
E lē alāla, e leai ni fatumanava.
Logologo Tagaloa i lugā,
‘Ua isi tama a le fuesā,
Na ona gaoi i le lā,
E lē vaea, e lē limā
E lē ulua, e lē fofogā,
E leai ni fatumanavā.
Their bodies move,
But they cannot converse,
nor do they have motion of the heart.
Tagaloa above became aware
Life is spawned by the sacred creeper,
They move in the sun,
No feet, no hands,
No head, no face
No motion of the heart.
Ifo ai Tagaloa i sisifo
‘Ina fetala‘iga, ‘ua tu’utitino;
Fua o le fue ni nai ilo,
Na totosi a ‘au fa’asinosino.
Tagaloa came from the West
That he might bring speech and form,
The fruits of the creepers were maggots,
He pulled out the limbs and showed the appendages.
Ne’i ai se nate fa’ata’ese:
‘O le lua’i ali’i ia Alele,
‘O le alo o Tagaloa; na tafa’ase’e.
Ifoifo i malae o vevesi,
Lepalepa i malae o toto’a,
Sao ai le alofi o Tagaloa, ‘a e lomaloma.
In case there is someone who may say different:
The original chief was Alele,
Tagaloa’s son; who slid down
Down to the malae o vevesi [malae where they deliberate about war].
It was quiet in the malae o toto’a [malae where you deliberate about peace],
The chiefs wait to see who would have the first cup of ‘ava.
What was hinted at in the funeral chant is made explicit in this chant. People were once maggots and before that were vines or creepers. They moved around in the dark developing their form through their senses. Their choice of the lowly maggot and the prolific creeper as originating ancestors again speaks to what was present in their environment and how these would carry their messages or act as riddles and metaphors for what they considered important in life, i.e. the lessons of genealogy and humility for example.
The choice of words and names nuance and makes transparent a Samoan context and idiom. Here it marks the chant a Manu’a chant, one written during a time that remembered and longed for a Manu’a when Manu’a reigned supreme. Apart from the not so subtle use of Manu’a nomenclature cited in the earlier stanzas (such as Alamisi, Vevesi, Totoa, and Alele) to mark Manu’a’s pre-eminence and authorship, there is also more subtle evidence as in the use of words like fatumanava. This is a word commonly associated in Upolu today with the village of Saoluafata, who has a matai or chiefly title named Fatumanava, which belongs to the Sa Tagaloa of that village.
Behind Saoluafata are two mountains where legend has it they were formerly two friends who after a fight died and turned into these mountains. One died standing up, the other died with his stomach hanging out. The taller friend is the higher of the two mountains. The name of the mountain that looks like his stomach is hanging out is fatumanava. Like the naming of the vavau stones, the point for naming this mountain and the matai title of Sa Tagaloa in Saoluafata is to remember the relationship, the va.
The last of the stanzas for consideration here from this Manu’a chant is that which makes reference to the moon and the sun. I wish to also include in the recitation of this stanza the English translation by Verhaaren to make a point about being able to pick up on nuance and idiom. Let me begin with the Samoan:
Ifoifo le atua gau ‘aso,
Satia le fale na ato!
Se papa, le tai ‘o lua o’o atu,
Ma le masina na solo mana’o,
Ma le lā a sa tupua le fano.
In Verhaaren’s Englishing it reads:
The god comes down, bursting the rafters,
In ruins lies the house that sheltered;
Cliff and sea both meet,
Like the moon, the inconstant one,
And the sun that was formed changes no more.
Although the first couple of lines are fine, the last three require more nuancing. I suggest:
The god comes down, bursting the rafters,
In ruins lies the house that sheltered!
The sea became rock because you arrived,
And the moon with many desires,
And the sun which is the eternal riddle.
To translate mana’o as ‘inconstant’ rather than ‘desire’, which is the more common translation and meaning, is to perhaps downplay its sensuality in favour of the more staid word and its sedate reference to movement. The same with the phrase ‘tupua le fano’, which although is more commonly understood to mean ‘the eternal riddle or mystery’ is instead translated by Verhaaren as unchanging – i.e. ‘the sun that was formed changes no more’. In translating these words in this way the reader is both misled and impoverished. Perhaps Verhaaren suffered from the same colonial hang-up we have today when it comes to our ancient indigenous wisdoms.
To see the moon as synonymous with desire is to awaken to the senses and intuition the fertility of night. All of which is deeply buried in the word ‘inconstant’. Similarly, to speak of the sun as an eternal riddle is to allude to its many sides: it is not only the nurturer of life, it also destroys life. Why would God create such a paradox? Like the waves, how could one understand the workings of the sun and gain respect for its power when it could so easily destroy? These are probing questions and images provoked by the use of words and an understanding of idiom.
In the final stanza of the Manu’a creation chant, Manu’a laments its once prized position not just in Samoa but across the Pacific.
Ifo Tagaloa e asiasi,
Tagi sisifo, tagi i sasa’e,
Na tutulu i le fia tula’i.
Tupu Savai’i ma le Maugaloa, Tupu Fiti, ma le atu ‘atoa;
‘O manu’a na lua’i gafoa,
‘A e mulimuli nu’u atoa.
Tagaloa came down for a visit,
He cried in disappointment to the west and then to the east,
He cried because he had lost his standing.
Savai’i and Maugaloa’s status is in intact,
So was Fiji and the other islands of the Pacific,
Yet Manu’a had cultural and historical precedence,
And all the other countries of the Pacific come after Manu’a.
To acknowledge this is not to admit defeat but to remember the forever before, the vavau, its values and visions, forever and ever. There are many lessons about history, culture, and change in both the solo o le va and the solo o lagi a Sa Tagaloa, but the most prized is that about humility and care.
I once said that the biggest riddle, speaking as a Samoan, is within ourselves. To end let me tell two short anecdotes. They are about idiosyncrasy and groundedness: the first is about the idiosyncrasies of the Manu’a people that still linger, and the second about the need to forever remember what really matters.
In the 1920s it was common practice for the people of Ta’ū in Manu’a to wait along the shoreline near the jetty for the arrival of visiting boats or ships. They liked to assess the passengers coming off these boats. It became a social past-time enjoyed by all. One day my uncles happened to be travelling to Ta’ū and as their boat neared they saw a crowd lined up along the shoreline. Ta’ū was famous for their beautiful women, so my uncles were keen to get off. As their boat neared the jetty, sure enough there was a welcoming party of beautiful women. But when they climbed off, to their embarrassment they overheard one of them say: “Oi aue, ua maumau le vasa”! / “What a pity, such a waste of ocean!” The comment provoked a chorus of repetition by the others.
When I was a young buck bursting with ideas in my mid-20s, I remember returning home from being overseas full of excitement about what I had learned. I set off for Savaii to share with my mentors. I remember holding forth like I was God’s gift to knowledge, reciting Wordsworth, Coleridge, and my favourites at the time. After what must’ve seemed like ages, I paused to take a breath and asked what they thought. Soa Galemoa, who I used to follow around everywhere in Tuaefu, looked at me and then asked very slowly: “Ae aina”? “Can you eat it”?