PEOPLES AND GODS
History is a symphony of myths and legends. From the beginning, man's intelligence sketched the myths that would enable him to explain what he discovered, and from these myths collective memory built the legends that would make it possible to pass on the story.
When the Argonauts sailed east across the Black Sea to the Caucasus, and Odysseus west to the Pillars of Hercules, they broadened the limits of an earthbound sea already teeming with myths; and their adventures were handed down from generation to generation until Homer's poetry molded them at last into history. When the Polynesians sailed east across the Pacific to Easter Island and west across the Indian Ocean to Madagascar, their legends also went with them, but, unfortunately, they lacked a bard. Greeks and Polynesians, two antipodal peoples, explored more than half the world, yet they never met. They were very different, but their gods and their stars had much in common, for man seems to find similar solutions to similar problems wherever he may be.
The Greeks lived in walled cities, usually dominated by an acropolis, and their homes looked inward, not at the street but at an enclosed courtyard. The Polynesians, on the other hand, lived under wide thatched roofs, held up by open colonnades of palm wood. Their villages stood near the beach and generally included a house for meetings and for visitors, the manaeba. Though the Greeks watched jealously over their families and their property, the Polynesians usually owned at most a palm mat on which to sleep, with perhaps a small coffer at its head for a few belongings; all the rest was owned by the tribe. The Greeks buried their dead deep under great tumuli, such as can still be seen in Mycenae; the Polynesians buried them in small tombs right in front of their houses, and their children played on the tombs.
Each people sailed in character with the way each lived. The prudent Greeks usually sailed along coasts or toward the visible peaks of high islands, preferably in daytime and in summer. At night, or when the weather threatened, they pulled their ships up on the beach, singing to the rhythm of the waves, which helped raise the ship out of the water. (Caribbean fishermen still do this.) The Polynesians, on the contrary, were blue-water sailors, always ready to probe the deep.
Homer's world was a green ring of earth surrounding the known seas, the eastern Mediterranean and the Aegean. Around this world roared the Infinite Ocean, which fed the seas through two Rivers of Ocean, one from the east, where Helios, the Sun, rose from the Elysian Fields, and the other from the west, where he descended into Hades. The Polynesians' world, on the other hand, was the all-encompassing Ocean.
Mythology and its daughter, science, have always known whence life first came. To those who listen, the Gregorian chant of the waves speaks as clearly of gods as does the multitudinous rocking of the atoms, and it was out of the Infinite Ocean that the gods arose. In Babylon and in Egypt, Nun and Apsú floated above the all-encircling waters. In Hesiod's theogony and in Homer, Gaia, the Earth, and Uranus, the Sky, were born of Ocean, which was chaos, and engendered all the gods. For Polynesians it all began with Io, the waters; and the waters begot Rangui, the heavens, and Paapa, the earth. Even in Genesis, the Spirit of God moved first over the waters. And the Kogi Indians, Colombia's great mythologists, begin their story of creation with these words: "When all was dark, our mother was the Sea."
Having flown formation with an eagle down the god-infested canyon of Delphi, I myself need no further evidence for the ancient legends, and Homer's gods are easy to understand. But they are difficult to explain because the very word God obstructs the explanation in modern terms. The Greek gods are not otherworldly spirits but an integral part of society, an essentially feudal one in which everyone is subject to a superior being, or master of an inferior. There are servants, squires, chieftains, kings, tutelary spirits, nymphs, demigods, and gods; and within this framework one might do better to speak of "overlords" than of gods.
Since they form part of a tightly knit hierarchy, the Greek gods are always present to illuminate everyday things like bread and wine and death, with that transcendence necessary to sanity that we so lack today. When they want to be equivocal they use omens and signs, such as those that are interpreted through bird lore; but when they wish to be clearly understood they simply disguise themselves as men or women and speak. There is no question as to the gods' existence; the only question concerns their unpredictable behavior, for they are imperfect gods, and therefore quite real. One might say that whereas we have to make do with an imperfect faith in a perfect God, the Greeks were more comfortable with their perfect faith in imperfect gods. It is always difficult to seek perfection without first making one's peace with imperfection.
These imperfect gods act exactly as such, their always human reactions simply magnified by their wonderful powers, unlimited by the laws of nature but often limited by the desires and actions of another god. This has quite distinct advantages, not the least of which is that the gods, in order to avoid chaos, must enter into contracts or covenants not only with one another but also with men, thus laying the foundation for all subsequent justice by simple do ut des (tit for tat). This tradition lasts all the way to the covenants that underlie the Jewish, the Christian, and the Muslim faiths. In a world thus ordered, men also live according to a series of bilateral agreements with other men and simply pay the price whenever an agreement is broken, or, in the last resort, blame the gods. They can afford to live by a moral code (mores means "manners") rather than by what we would call ethics, and they can be virtuous and noble for reasons more sensible than the nagging avoidance of a sense of guilt. Revenge is to be feared more than guilt, and since an offense only breaks a bilateral contract, a third party such as the state can be quite lenient. We, on the other hand, always seem ready to unload our problems on the state and to throw morals out of the window, the young bent on replacing manners with fashion; the old, morals with money.
With the gods, a Greek minds his manners by offering the proper sacrifices at the proper times, which is pleasant because these ceremonies always include good food and drink for all. The word sacrifice does not imply denial; it simply means "to make sacred," and the ancients, while sacrificing, usually thought more of pleasure, while we think instinctively of pain. With his fellow men, a Greek minds his manners by willing observance of the laws of hospitality, which assume a joyously sacramental value because all strangers are wards of Zeus; by respecting his neighbor's property, his wife, and his slaves; and by giving the dead proper burial so that they may expediently cross the River.
Jason's and Odysseus' gods belonged to a third generation. Cronos, the Titan, had long since emasculated Uranus, his father, whose severed genitals had struck from the surf off Cyprus the spark that became Aphrodite, goddess of passion. In the next generation, Odysseus' patron, Athena, the goddess of intelligence, was born out of a Libyan lagoon while her father, Zeus, devoured her mother, Metis, the goddess of wisdom, so that Athena, like Aphrodite, would belong only to her father. In myth, as in everyday life, order and disorder must work together, Athena to bring light to men's eyes and Aphrodite to blind them.
Zeus loved not only goddesses but also women, and from these and from many other heaven-and-earth unions came a great court of demigods, nymphs, and sirens, among whom two great families stand out, those of the first heroes. Our very simplified family tree of the gods shows that those who adorn the earth and the sea with their adventures, like Odysseus, are descended from Hermes, the messenger, the voyager; and those whose caution leads them to treachery, like Jason, are descended from Poseidon, the treacherous sea.
Though the Polynesians left no epic poems, it is clear from their legends that their gods acted in much the same way as those of the Greeks. Rangui, the heavens, and Paapa, the earth, begot Tawhiri, god of storms; Tane, god of forests; Tangaroa, who stirred up the oceans and separated the fish (ika) from the reptiles (tute), and Tuu the warrior, forefather of man (Tiki) and woman (Hiné), whom he created out of red earth. His descendant, Mauí, would be the Polynesians' Odysseus. These second-generation gods of Polynesia were locked with their brothers and sisters in the dark embrace of their parents, and like the Titans of Greece, they decided to dethrone their progenitors. Together, they forced them apart, and ever since, at daybreak, the fragrance of Paapa's breast rises to heaven, and Rangui's lonely tears fall to earth as dew. Our diagram of Greek and Polynesian gods shows how strikingly similar they were. There were, of course, exceptions; gods enjoy exceptions.
A Polynesian legend tells us that the chief of one of the islands passed on after bequeathing his crown to whichever of his sons won a great prau race. When preparations were being made on the beach, his widow, Liktanur, came down with a long bundle under her arm and asked to be taken along. None of her sons agreed to be burdened with this "excess baggage" except the youngest, Jabro, whose chance of winning was nil. Off paddled the praus with Jabro bringing up the rear, until a breeze sprang up astern. Then Liktanur unpacked her bundle and brought out two long bamboo poles, some coconut-fiber ropes, and a triangular palm mat, which she rigged as a sail. Then she taught Jabro how to sail with the wind and how to steer with his paddle. Amazed, and paddling like mad, the eldest brother, Timur, saw Jabro's prau sail ahead to win the race in three days. Ever since, Polynesians have used the claw sail.
Another legend tells us that Mauí was stillborn because his father, Makea, forgot his prayers. Mauí was buried on the beach at the edge of the sea but was rescued and revived by the sorceress Hiné. When he grew up, he "went into" her, and he went out again only when he heard the song of a bird, and discovered death. Then he took a fire nail, which he had inherited from his ancestors (Mahu), and started such a conflagration that the god Tawhiri had to send enough rain to flood the world.
One day, Mauí got tired of being left behind when his older brothers went fishing and decided to hide under the floorboards of their prau. Once at sea, his brothers did not dare pitch him overboard, so they let him throw out a magic fishhook made out of a jawbone, which his godmother Muri-Ranga had given him, and it took Mauí only a few minutes to get a bite. But when he tried to pull in his catch, he could not move it, not even with the help of his brothers, who complained that the rising sun was in their eyes. Finally Mauí's catch came out of the water, and it was . . . an island! From then on Mauí was always invited along, and whenever he threw out his magic fishhook, he brought up another island, always with the rising sun in his eyes. When someone doubts this legend, Polynesians ask: "If Mauí did not fish up the islands, why are there seashells on their summits?"
Because the rising sun was always in their eyes, Mauí decided to tie it down, but he only succeeded in slowing its transit. The sun, in fact, lags behind the stars about a day every year, a good example of how the legends explained not only earthly phenomena, such as the Polynesian migration through the islands, but also astronomic facts useful for navigation (the Polynesian name for the sun ends in "-ra," like the name the ancient Egyptians gave it).
Excerpted from Beyond the Edge of the Sea by Mauricio Obregón. Copyright © 2002 by Mauricio Obregón. Excerpted by permission of Modern Library, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.