Stories from the Tanimbar Islands

Fishing Boats on Sera

There are a great many wonderful stories from the Tanimbar Islands. Perhaps the most famous of all these stories is that of Atuf, Tanimbar’s culture hero who speared the sun into a million pieces. This page has will have links to a few of my favourite Tanimbarese tales including Shit Baby, The Sacred Pool, which was told to me by a friend in the village of Lorulun, and Crab Girl, a particularly beautiful story collected by Petrus Drabbe in his ethnography.

These are all retellings, and they differ in some details from the originals. Nevertheless they retain the basic structure and flavour of the Tanimbarese versions.

The Sacred Pool

In Tanimbar, something around fifteen people a year are killed by buffalo. An English naturalist I had met in Saumlaki had insisted that they were peaceable, even shy, creatures, and that they did not attack unless provoked. Nevertheless, it paid to be circumspect whilst walking at night, and these impressive creatures were still the object of considerable fear.

How Tanimbar came to be populated with buffalo in the first place remains, like many things, a mystery. One scholarly account makes the claim that they were brought to the islands by sea, lashed into dugout canoes with ropes. I suspected that the author of this theory had never stepped into a dugout canoe, let alone one with a buffalo lashed into the stern. The thought of being in such a flimsy craft in the open sea, with a buffalo as cargo is nightmarish to the point of being inconceivable. The Tanimbarese have their own stories to account for the presence of these lumbering beasts in the islands. Some involve underground tunnels or feats of magic, but this tale from Lorulun tells of how they became about as the result of a forbidden love affair.

Once, when there had been no buffalo in Tanimbar, there lived a young man of low birth. One day he was walking on the shore and he saw a girl fishing on the reef with a spear. She was beautiful, adorned with richly coloured ikat cloth, the daughter of a noble family. The two of them spoke and they fell in love. Knowing that the girl’s parents would never give their consent to the match, they decided to elope into the forest.

On the appointed night, the young man crept up to the maiden’s house. Noble houses in those days were raised upon stilts to deter snakes, rats and other vermin, the entrance being up a short ladder and through a trap-door. The young man crept under the house and called softly to her. His beloved, who had not slept a wink out of fear that she might miss him, slipped out of the house and descended the ladder to where he was waiting. Taking each other’s hands, their path lit only by the light of a full moon, they stole deep into the thick forest, on fire with a passionate longing. Eventually they came upon a beautiful glade. The grass was soft and in the centre of the clearing a pool of dark water reflected the moon. The two lovers walked to the pool’s edge. It looked clear and cool. With trembling hands they stripped off each other’s clothes until they stood pale and naked in the moonlight.

Just as they were about to leap into the water, out of the pool jumped a fish with a loud plop! The fish did not, as is usual, fall back into the water, but remained hanging in mid-air, fixing them both with a beady and rather supercilious glare. The couple stood open mouthed as the fish began to speak.

‘Do not bathe in this pool,’ said the fish, ‘It is a sacred pool, and I warn you to keep clear.’

With this piece of advice, the fish fell back into the water with another loud plop! and was gone. The lovers looked at each other, hesitating for a moment, but who has ever heeded the advice of a mere fish? What advice, however, wise, will turn the hearts of lovers in the heat of their passion? The couple plunged into the water.

As soon as the water touched their skin, they felt their pale young bodies began to blacken and swell. Their skin seemed to be thickening, turning leathery. They felt their snouts pushing forwards and growing in size. Their arms and legs started to change shape, and from the bases of their spines, tails began to protrude. Their breath became ill-smelling and rasping, and from their temples emerged pairs of pointed horns. The lovers tried to cry out in horror, but the only sound that came from their mouths was a hollow bellowing.

The two buffalo stood in the pool, snorting in bewilderment. Then they climbed out on to the bank to stand, dripping and confused, in the glade. Taking no notice of their discarded clothing lying on the ground, with a flick of their tails they turned and trotted into the forest.

Crab Girl

Sangliat Dol

Once a mother gave birth to eleven sons. Her twelfth child was a daughter, but when she came to be born, she was born in the form of a crab.

One day, her brothers decided to set out on a long sea journey, as young men will, and they said to their mother, ‘Bring us our sister the crab, because we want to travel with her.’

Their mother refused. ‘If anything happens to my daughter on your journey,’ she said, ‘I would hold myself responsible, and would surely die of grief and shame.’

Her sons, however, were persistent and eventually their mother relented. Her children left their village the next day. They put a bucket of water in the bows of the boat, and in the bucket they put their sister. When she was safely stowed, they set off for the open sea. When they were out of sight of land, their sister shed her skin and became human. The brothers emptied the bucket of water into the sea having no further use for it, and with the water they threw out their sister’s skin, where it fell into the sea.

Deep in the ocean, a huge fish swallowed the skin, and found it very tasty indeed. The skin of this creature is delicious,’ it mused, ‘but surely if I can find who it belongs to, the flesh will be even tastier!’ Thinking this, the fish went in pursuit of the canoe.
Catching up with the boat, the fish came to the surface and said, ‘Give me the child whose skin was so delicious. I would like to sample its flesh.’

‘We don’t have the child with us,’ the brothers lied as the girl hid in the bottom of the boat. The fish, however, saw through their deception.

‘You liars!’ it spat. ‘If you do not give the creature to me, I will capsize your boat and then all of you will die.’ So the brothers, seeing that there was nothing else for it, threw their sister over the side to her watery fate.

The fish carried the girl to the horizon, where it left her. Presumably, it then went off to look for something else to complement this feast. Stranded on the gloomy horizon, the girl was distraught. Dark snakes writhed around her feet. She dreaded the return of the fish. Just as she was about to lapse into despair, however, the sun rose, and with the sun came hope.

‘Elder brother sun!’ she cried out. ‘Take me away from here. Lift me up on your back as you rise.’

But the sun could not help her. ‘O my little one! I am hot and if you come to me you will surely be cooked. Wait for the moon, your elder sister the moon. The moon will help you.’

The crab daughter waited, shaking in fear, but eventually the moon rose.

‘Oh!’ she called. ‘Elder sister moon. Lift me up as you rise into the sky.’

And the moon said: ‘Come!’

The girl went to the moon, but she was afraid of the snakes.

‘Younger sister, do not be frightened. The snakes will not harm you if you come straight to me,’ the moon called.

So the crab daughter went to the moon and climbed onto her back.

As the moon rose, she was lifted from the horizon up into the safety of the sky. Before long, they were high over her home village. The crab daughter saw her house far below, and said to the moon. ‘Elder sister moon! Put me down here! This is my village.’

The moon lowered the girl to the earth on a golden hook, until she was low enough to clamber into the branches of a huge mango tree on the outskirts of the village.

The following day the girl’s mother was going to relieve herself in the fields when she heard a voice crying, ‘Mother! Mother!’ She ran to the voice, weeping, and there in the branches saw her daughter.

‘Mother, it’s me, your daughter!’ cried the girl. And when the mother had recognised her daughter again – for she had changed much on her voyage since she lost her skin – she fetched her down from the tree and, holding her in her arms, she wept.

Adapted from the ethnography of Petrus Drabbe.

Shit Baby

Once there lived a husband and a wife. They had been married for four years, but had not yet borne a child. As a result, they lived in discontent. One day they went out to the plantation to work. The husband told his wife that he needed to go into the forest to cut a new ridge-pole for the house. He slipped out of sight between the trees, leaving his wife alone.
When he had gone, his wife went to relieve herself, finding a secluded spot in which to squat. From her excrement she made a small ball, and out of this she began to fashion a baby, moulding it carefully so it could become human. Indeed, when she had finished her work, she saw that it was a truly beautiful child, and so she took it up in her arms and awaited the return of her husband, dandling her offspring on her knee. The child gurgled with pleasure in the sunshine.

When her husband returned, he was astonished. ‘Where did you get that baby from?’ he demanded.
‘I bought it,’ his wife answered quickly. Her reply seemed to satisfy the curiosity of her husband, who lifted the new child onto his back. The three of them returned home to the village.
When the child was two months old, its parents went once more into the plantation to cut grass. As the baby was still very young, and would only be an encumbrance in their work, the mother left it in the care of an old lady of the village. She gave the old woman very clear instructions. ‘My husband and I are going into the plantation to cut grass,’ she said, ‘and will be back later in the day. We are giving you our child to look after. But you must remember one thing: if the child cries, whatever you do, do not bathe him.’ So saying, they went into the forest.

No sooner had they left than the child began to bawl, and try as she might, the old woman could not stop its wailing. ‘There can be no harm,’ she eventually decided, ‘in giving him just a little wash, so that he will be able to sleep all the better. Then I will be able to put him to bed clean and happy.

The old woman went to prepare a basin of water to wash to baby. She took the child up into her arms, and began to pour the water over his head. As soon as the first drop touched the baby’s skin, however, the little child turned back into a pile of human excrement again. The smell was revolting.

The old woman dropped the recently dissolved baby and ran from the house, laughing and spitting, muttering to herself, ‘This child must have come from shit!’ When the other women of the village heard all of this commotion, they too came out of their houses, and gathered around to see what all the fuss was about. The old lady told the other women what had happened and they all laughed uproariously, until they almost split their sides.

Translated and adapted from the telling in Nangin Tanemprar.