Oceanic Mythology (Polynesia section)

Oceanic Mythology, Roland B. Dixon, 1916


I’m excited to be finished with Australia and moving on to New Zealand! When I started the blog I was thirty books into my reading list, and now I’m only 14 ahead of the blog–I’m catching up (Of course, this means I will soon have to either start reading faster, posting less often, or coming up with something to write between books). Anyway, New Zealand was a great reading list and it’s too bad it had to start off with the resounding thud of Roland Dixon’s Oceanic Mythology. I’ve already read and reviewed the section of this book that deals with Australian mythology, and I don’t have much to add here. Starting off with mythology, especially when it comes to New Zealand and French Polynesia, has proved really helpful for understanding later literature. On the other hand, I don’t think I can fight my way through any more of Dixon, even though there are still sections on Melanesia, Micronesia, and Indonesia which would, I’m sure, be relevant to future readings. But it’s devastatingly boring. The problem, I think (beyond the spurious scholarship that doesn’t know if it wants to be straightforward storytelling or anthropology) is that Dixon takes stories that would have been passed down orally, as epic poems, and writes them in dry, soulless prose, stripping them of everything that makes them beautiful. Reading Tahitian literature (which is what I’m currently doing, 13 books ahead of where I am on the blog), I get a sense of how beautiful these tales can be–from the transcribed poetry in Les Immemoriaux and the newly-composed poems in Chantal Spitz’s L’Île des Rêves Écrasés–and it makes me realize what a disservice Dixon has done to them.

The best parts of Dixon’s Polynesia sections–and the only segments that were directly translated from Polynesian songs–were transcriptions from other works. As an example, the following passage on the creation of man, taken from John White’s The Ancient History of the Maori, a compilation of Maori oral history commissioned by the English government in 1887 and published in Maori with English translations:

Seeking, earnestly seeking in the gloom.
Searching–yes, on the coastline–
On the bounds of light of day.
Looking into night
Night had conceived
The seed of night.
The heart, the foundation of night,
Had stood forth self-existing
Even in the gloom.
It grows in gloom–
The sap and succulent parts,
The life pulsating,
And the cup of life.
The shadows screen
The faintest gleam of light.
The procreating power,
The ecstasy of life first known,
And joy of issuing forth,
From silence into sound.
Thus the progeny
Of the Great extending
Filled the heaven’s expanse;
The chorus of life
Rose and swelled
Into ecstasy,
Then rested in
Bliss of calm and quiet.

A lot of the best material seemed to come from Sir George Gray’s earlier work, Polynesian Mythology, so after struggling through this book I decided to move on to Gray and see if he could make it a little more interesting. More on that in the next post.

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