Wednesday, 17 May 2017

The Story of Ngendei

Poor Ngendei, the Earth-balancer... Tormented by Pele, barely hanging on, wobbling around on the globe he is supposed to be supporting... If we descend into the original Fijian mythology from which Ngendi comes, however, it's really Pele who should be on the lookout!

Degei, also called Ndengei, is the supreme god of ancient Fiji. The first of the Fijian gods, he created the islands and peopled them, determines the fate of his people in the afterlife, and provides for them as they live, blessing them with fruits and rains... Or tormenting them with floods, famine, and devastating earthquakes. Like nature itself, Degei's moods change from kindly to wrathful, from provider to judge, jury, and executioner.

Fiji's coastline. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

In the beginning, there was only Degei and his friend, the hawk Turukawa, living on the Island of the Gods amidst a vast, endless, twilight sea. The island itself is unknown to mere mortal humans, but may be seen, if one is lucky, on the edges of twilight. Though enjoying the company of his friend, Degei found this to be a silent and lonesome world, for being only a hawk, Turukawa could not speak. Eventually, one strange day, even she disappeared.

Fiji goshawk. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.
Degei went looking for his friend, and eventually found a nest she had built, in which were two abandoned eggs. He took the two eggs to his home and cared for them until they hatched. From out the eggs came not hawks, but the first humans. Wanting the best for them and fearing for their safety, Degei moved the pair of newborns to a Vesi tree and built shelters for them. Vesi (Intisia bijuga) is a native tree to the Fijian islands, and also a tree at risk from illegal logging and resource mismanagement.

Logging vesi trees. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.
The great serpent planted trees around his children so they would have food to eat, and taught them the ways of nature. Degei commanded that the bananas he planted could be eaten, but the taro and yams could not. These latter roots needed to be cooked, and these first humans had not yet been taught to use fire. For the time being, taro and yam were the foods of the gods, but eventually they were taught this secret too. Knowing all he had to teach them, Degei left them to thrive on their own, have their own children, and begin Fijian civilization. Soon the world would be filled with chatter and activity!

History may intersect with mythology in the latter half of the story. With the first humans and their own children and grandchildren in tow, Degei created the island of Viti Levu - the largest of the Fijian islands - and established the village of Viseisei. This is regarded as the oldest Fijian settlement and where the first Melanesian mariners landed on the islands.

Fijian beach. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.
Eventually Degei left the people and settled himself into a cave in the Nakauvadra Mountains of northern Viti Levu. In this cave on the summit of mount Uluda, Degei meets his people again as their judge for transition into the afterlife. Some are sent to the paradise of Burotu, but most are cast into a lake. At the bottom of this lake is Murimuria, where appropriate rewards and punishments are dispensed to the deceased.

Viti Levu's hill country. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.
Though the creator of humans, their provider, and their judge in the afterlife, Degei is not a good and caring figure. As in many nature-based pantheons, the gods of Fiji are as fickle as the storms and the seas and the land are. As a snake, Degei corkscrewed himself into the Earth, and when he shifts and turns, the Earth itself shakes. When his anger is kindled against humankind, he sends great storms and floods. Not even bats and birds were permitted to remain near Degei's cave, because their noise irritated him so.

Still, the people of Fiji respected so powerful a deity. An important ceremony in Fijian life is the yaqona (pronounced "yagona"), in which a bowl of the drink kava prepared from the roots of the pepper tree is prepared and presented to guests of honor. The kava is served in a bowl made from the vesi tree, which makes their depletion such a matter of concern for Fijian traditionalists. The drink is prepared in front of the guest of honour by pulping the tree roots, adding water, and the straining out out the pulp. The same guest of honour receives the first bowl to drink, but the first bowl that is poured is committed to Degei, as the greatest honour.

Kava roots. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.
Tanoa bowl, in which kava is served. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

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