Updated: Jan 20
This Tahitian version of the story of Tafa‘i is from Teuira Henry’s Ancient Tahiti
Not long after Tahiti was moved away from Ra‘iatea,1 there lived in the district of Mahina (Clear-Gray) in Tahiti-To‘erau (North-Tahiti) a fine elegantly formed woman of high rank, whose name was Nona (Of-hushed). She had long carnivorous teeth, and as she had acquired the terrible propensity for cannibalism, which obtained for her the sobriquet of Vahine‘ai-ta‘ata (Man-eating-woman), her husband, who was high chief of the house named Tahiti-To‘erau, forsook her, and she lived alone in her home shaded with coconut trees on her own hereditary land near the sea. There she gave birth to a beautiful little girl, whom she named Hina (Gray) and whom she brought up tenderly, as befitted her rank, concealing from the child the human prey which she procured for herself.
At the foot of the great projecting cliff of Tahara‘a (Barrenness), conspicuous for its red clay, is a great cave bordering on the sea, forming a tunnel open at each end, through which pedestrians can pass at low tide so as to save going round the hill, and it is famed to this day as Nona’s hiding place, where she waylaid passers-by and slew them to eat, sometimes cooking and sometimes devouring them still warm and bloody.
In the days of Nona, people gradually became very scarce in that region, and homes lay mysteriously desolate. But a handsome young man named Mono‘i-here (Favorite-perfumed-oil) had escaped the wily woman, and he had become much attached to her daughter Hina, whose affections he won as she verged to beautiful womanhood. They clandestinely met at a cool sequestered spot, called Oro-fara (Fara-fern), where there is a spring, called Rati (Splash), which watered Hina’s bathing pool-still called Te-hopura‘a-vai-o-Hina (The bathing pool of Hina)-and close by a cave, which in their time it is said, was not known to exist, as at their bidding it opened and closed in the solid rock.
Protecting the Bay of Matavai (Face-of-water) is a broken line of reefs, called the Chain-of-Light-Rocks (To‘a-tea), and there Nona, who was an expert fisherwoman, frequently went to obtain fish for herself and her child. While she was thus employed the two young people, Mono‘i-here and Hina, met, feeling safe and free. Hina had the habit of carrying a basket of food to her lover when he was concealed in the cave, and in approaching him they would exchange the following passwords:
Hina. “Mono‘i-here is the man, Hina is the woman!”
Mono‘i-here. “Where is your mother, Nona, with long teeth?”
Hina. “She is on the long reef, on the short reef, catching fish for us, my lover. Oh foundation of rock, break open!”
Then the rock would burst open and out would come the lover, and they would pleasantly while the hours away until the time approached for Nona to return home, when Mono‘i-here would either return to the cave or go to his home in the distance, as circumstances guided, always cautiously avoiding an encounter with her.
But there came a time when the mother began to miss the food and so wondered how her daughter could consume so much in her absence, and she determined to solve the mystery. So one day, after cooking their usual supply of food, she feigned indisposition and went to bed, then she snored deeply and appeared to be in the soundest sleep. Finally Nona saw her daughter stealthily approach the food, take out choice morsels, place them in a basket, and go noiselessly out. When Nona saw the course girl was taking she took a short cut, halting here and there to keep sight of her, until she turned up into the shady nook; then Nona, arriving before her, ascended into a pua tree, where she could see and hear unobserved. As Nona had never known of the existence of the closed-in cave, she was soon astonished at what she witnessed, and she repeated to herself the passwords, so as to remember them. She kept motionless until the lovers had held their interview and parted, when she quickly descended from the tree and returned to her bed at home, while her unsuspecting daughter leisurely followed and found things there just as she had left them.
The following day, after partaking of food and putting some by, Nona took leave of her child, saying she was going to prepare torches for night-fishing. But she quickly went to the lovers‘ haunt, and standing by the cave she spoke, imitating Hina’s tone as nearly as she could. But Mono‘i-here, detecting the fraud, replied: “You are not Hina; you are Nona the woman with long teeth!”
But she had learned the magical words, and fiendishly said: “Oh foundation of rock, break open!”
Then the cave opened. She entered quickly, seized the hapless young man, and killed and feasted on him. She looked for his heart but could not find it, and leaving his bones and vitals thrown together she left the cave, which closed after her, and she returned to prepare her torches as she had planned.
Meanwhile, Hina went with her basket to the cave and was surprised when no response came to her from within, and as the rock opened at her bidding she encountered the ghastly spectacle in the cave. What remained of Mono‘i-here was still warm, and Hina at once sought for and found the heart, which was still pulsating. This she placed next to her own heart and guided by it went home to act.
In the absence of her mother she got the trunk of a banana tree and laid it in her bed to counterfeit her body, and to simulate a head upon her pillow at one end of it she placed an ‘a‘ano (coconut-water-bottle). Then she covered all up in her tapa sheet and fled in fear from the home of her childhood, until she arrived at the adjoining district of ‘Uporu (Ha‘apape or Point Venus). Still guided by the pulsating heart of her lost lover, she stopped at the house of a fine young chief, named No‘a (Sweet-odor), who was famed for his hairy though handsome person and who with all his household received her cordially, and she was at rest.
When Nona returned home with her torches she prepared supper, and thinking Hina was having a nap in her bed she called her; but no voice came. After calling several times, Nona became enraged and threatened to eat her daughter. But as there was still no response she furiously exclaimed: “Here I come, O Hina; will devour you!”
So saying, she rushed to the bed, laid hold of the banana effigy of her daughter, and bit into it through the sheet, when, to her great surprise, she found that the girl had outwitted her, and she exclaimed: “Ah, you have escaped!”
Early on the following day, Nona set out to recover her daughter. Ascertaining the course she had taken, Nona went on and on enquiring for Hina until she also arrived at the house of the hairy chief, No‘a. When she saw Hina, she made a rush to seize her, but the chief seeing how terror stricken the girl was, and hearing her say that Nona was a savage woman and would kill her, he intercepted Nona’s grasp. Then with muscular strength, Nona grappled to strangle him; but he overpowered and strangled her and so ended the life of the famous Nona of the cave of Tahara‘a.
In course of time, Hina who married her protector and deliverer, gave birth to a son, who was named Pu-a‘a-ri‘i-tahi (Cluster-of-first-small-roots).
Another son, named Hema (Deceived), followed and she had no more children. The two boys became fine young men, and they were adepts in surf-riding. One day as they were preparing to go out for their sport, the mother asked the elder son, Pu-a‘a-ri‘i tahi, to dress her hair. But he did not comply, and she said, “Ah, your wife will not be a woman of distinction.”
Then, as Hema came by, she asked him to dress her hair, which he readily did. As he combed out her long glossy locks and braided them, he discovered a louse and taking it out he showed it to her. She said: “Your wife will be a notable woman.”
As time went on, Pu-a‘a-ri‘i-tahi took to himself a wife named Te-‘ura (Redness), and she bore him five sons, named, Arihi-nui-apua (Great-enchanted-cord), Ta-oe-a-pua (With-deviation-of-dolphin-head), Orooro-i-pua (Rub-dolphin-head), Te-mata-tui‘au-ia-ro‘o (The-changing-eye-of fame), and Te-mata-a‘a-ra‘i (The-eye-that-measured-the sky).
The son Hema obtained a goddess for a wife in the following manner:
One day his mother told him to go in the early morning and dig a hole in the eastern bank of Vai-po‘opo‘o (Hollow-river) at Ha‘apape (Point Venus), in which he must conceal himself, and then he would see a beautiful woman from the netherlands who would come to a pool close by to bathe. He would find her very strong, and so he must catch her from behind unawares by her hair and before putting her down carry her past four houses in bringing her home.
So at daybreak Hema went and did as directed, and just as the first rays of the sun appeared he completed his hiding place and concealed himself within it. In a little while he saw approaching from an opening in the earth the goddess described. She quietly entered her bathing place, dived and swam in the water, and when she had bathed herself and wrung out her long flowing hair, which covered her graceful form, she stood upon the bank adjusting it close by Hema with her back turned towards him. Then he approached her, quickly twisted some hair around his wrist and thus secured her as she strongly endeavored to escape him. He at last bore her up in his arms and was carrying her homewards when, after passing two houses, she begged to be released. So he let her go, thinking she would walk by his side. But in a moment she sped away and disappeared through the opening in the ground which closed after her.
Hema returned home dejected, and when he told his mother what had happened she told him to go again the following morning for the goddess, taking heed not to release her until they had passed four houses in coming home. He could not eat that day from overanxiety to obtain the beautiful wife, and before daybreak he was again in his hiding place by the river awaiting her return. She came earlier than on the previous day intending to avoid the intruder, and hastily she bathed herself and stood again upon the bank near Hema, who then caught her as before and carried her, struggling to be released, all the way home.
Finding that the people of the upper world had seen her in company with Hema and that they regarded her as his wife and becoming attached to him and all his, she consented to remain with them, and she, a goddess married Hema a mortal man, according to the religious rites of their time. The name she received in this upper world was Hina-tahutahu (Hina-the-magician), because of her supernatural origin and her power to do many wonderful things, such as healing the sick, reading people’s thoughts, and foretelling things to happen. She bore Hema two children, Arihi-nui-apua (Great-enchanted-net-cord) and a giant red-headed (‘ehu) child, who was hairy like his grandfather and whose names were Ta-fa‘i-‘iri-‘ura (By-revelation-the-red-skinned), Vai-ta-fa‘i (Fixed-by-revelation), and Ta-fa‘i-uri-i-tetua-i-Havai‘i (By-revelation-piloting-in-the-sea-of-Havai‘i), evolutions of appellations that were caused by the development of circumstances, but all of which have resolved themselves in Tahiti and other groups into the name Tafa‘i simply.
At an early age Tafa‘i showed that he inherited from his mother supernatural powers and that he was in touch with the gods; the elder son was simply an earthly chief and was obscured by his illustrious brother. The early childhood of the two boys was pleasantly spent with their cousins and other children, their chief amusement being top spinning, sailing little canoes ih shallow water, light ball playing, and bathing and swimming.
But a time came when they wanted new games. Tafa‘i’s cousins made balls of clay, which they rolled along the ground, and the first one whose ball cracked in revolving became the loser in the play. So Tafa‘i asked his mother how to make solid balls, and she directed him to get fine-grained sand from the sea to mix with the clay and then to dry the balls well before using them. This he did, and when he went to play with them, his cousins cried: “Ah, dear Tafa‘i, come and let go yours.”
But he answered: “No, the first must be first, and the last must come in last.” So they rolled their balls in regular turns until all were cracked but Tafa‘i’s and he became the winner. So it happened that to the great vexation of the others he always won the game.
Then they took a fancy to the game called totoie (toy canoe), in which was used a stick sharpened at one end, and steadied at the other with a rudder made from the rib of a coconut leaf. The toy was placed on the surface of the waves a little way out in the sea, whence it floated to the shore, and the winner in this amusement was the one whose totoie arrived on shore first. Tafai’s mother directed him to make his toy of a piece of convolvulus stem, which being very light proved a great success, and again he came out victorious. Then his cousins were so vexed and jealous that they fell upon him and stunned him, so that they thought he was dead, and they buried him in the sand. But his mother, knowing at once what had happened, went to the spot where he lay apparently lifeless and resuscitated him. But when questioned about the matter, he tried to screen his cousins.
So it happened that as Tafa‘i grew up he excelled in everything he did; and that out of spite and jealousy his cousins often used violence upon his person and left him as dead just as often his mother rescued him and restored him to life, and he never complained. At last his father, Hema, becoming aggrieved at the unkind treatment of his son by his nephews, took leave of this world and went down to Po (Darkness) to live.
When Tafa‘i was still a youth, his mother imparted to him all her magical powers, which he received by opening his mouth over the crown of her head, and then he felt prompted to do great deeds and to travel, which his mother let him do with suitable men.
At length Tafa‘i reached man’s estate. A great red man was he, modeled by the gods. He had bright curly auburn hair, his head and shoulders towered above all other tall men in Tahiti, he had penetrating brown eyes, his hands were large and strong, and his fingernails were long and pointed. Whenever he walked his majestic tread left footprints upon the most hardened ground. He became famous throughout the land for his wisdom and skill in all he did. Without tuition he excelled in every art of his time, and his bravery and generosity won for him the respect and love of all in Tahiti, so that he was unanimously elected toa-upo‘o-tu (chief-warrior) by all the warrior chiefs contemporary with him.
Tafa‘i ’s first great deed for the good of his country was the cutting of the sinews of this fish, Tahiti, to render it stable, and after accomplishing this he said they must cut the sinews of all the islands around Tahiti, which were detached parts of the fish, and that they must also go on and draw up new land from the sea. So a great double canoe was built, which he named the Anuanua (Rainbow), and valiant navigators and a priest were chosen to accompany him. He himself was the pilot and astronomer. He took his ta‘o (an ironwood shoulder spear 12 feet long and pointed on both ends), which no other man in Tahiti could lift, and his paddle, which no one else could wield; and he prepared a great long line of ro‘a, attached to an immense wooden fishhook, which was filled with magic at his touch. His men prepared their fishhooks and lines, which he also enchanted, and after the usual religious ceremonies they set out to sea.
They went northwest to little Tahiti (Mo‘orea-the-offshoot), and they thrust their spears into its quivering sinews and made it stable; they went southwest to Maia‘o-iti (Little-claw), which had fallen away from Mo‘orea, and soon made it stable. They went north of Tahiti and found the islets of Tetiaroa (Standing-afar-off) struggling to rise above the foaming sea. So they threw down their hooks and drew them up one by one. Then with their spears they cut the sinews and fixed the islets in their present positions. They went on eastward and found that Me-tu (Standing-thing; the island of Meti‘a) was already fixed in its place. Then Tafa‘i said they must go to other regions and fish up land, and they came to the Tai-o-va‘ua ( Shaven-sea ) and there beneath the mighty breakers, found the extensive Tuamotu Archipelago, which they fished up and which ever since has remained as beautiful atolls and islets fringed with beds of coral of all hues and with pearl oysters. To these he added the high Mangarevan group and other hilly islands eastward that were also struggling to rise.
They went on exploring the trackless ocean northward and drawing up islands, which they discovered by observing the sea dancing over them, until at last they perceived a mighty commotion apart from all others, and on approaching it they found the Hawaiian group all huddled close together beneath the surface. Tafa‘i first drew up Ai-hi (Bit-in-fishing, now called Hawaii), whose high twin mountains rose from their watery bed and went on rising until they reached an amazing height and were lost among the clouds, and whose shores extended beyond the horizon. Owing to the great volcano perpetually burning, this island was afterward named Havai‘i-‘a (Burning Hawai‘i) by the Tahitians to distinguish it from the island of Havai‘i to the south. Tafa‘i next drew up Maui, which he named Maui after the hero, Maui of eight heads, who detached the sky from the earth. This island also rose to a wonderful height. So they went on until all the islands were drawn up, and then those intrepid navigators went south and returned with people to dwell on the beautiful new land, bringing with them their gods, their chiefs and bread-fruit and other plants.2
At length the emigrants of the north and their kindred in the south, regretted that they were so widely separated from each other, and Tafa‘i, who had returned home, conceived a plan to remove the Hawaiian islands to the south. He and his seaman prepared strong ropes, and invoking the gods to their aid they attached each island to the canoe. When all was made ready, Tafa‘i warned his people to be guarded against breaking the sacredness of the spell that was to pervade their great undertaking. No one must speak or look back when in motion, on pain of displeasing and losing the aid of the gods. The great canoe moved off drawing the ropes, united in one, each man plying his paddle and looking steadily ahead, when soon a magical spell caused the islands to yield and follow in a most orderly manner, and onward they went.
Shouts of applause which the navigators were rejoiced to hear, arose from the land but they swerved not from their purpose and still kept silence. All nature chimed in rejoicing, and above the sound of the steady breeze and rippling sea arose the chorus of people and birds singing, cocks crowing, hens cackling, dogs barking and occasionally pigs grunting, while overhead the sea gulls screeched their contentment. Still the mariners did not look back, nor did they speak, and the islands moved on.
But finally the sound of hula drums and flutes arose, with songs of rejoicing from the people, and this so stirred the hearts of the seamen that all except Tafa‘i could no longer contain themselves, and with one common impulse they stood upon their seats and looking back began to dance and sing also, when suddenly the charm was broken, the ropes snapped, and they were forsaken by the gods! As a result of the impetus, before the islands became stationary, Havai‘i-‘a went forwards and Kaua‘i and Ni‘ihau backwards, the middle islands remained close together, and detachments from the island coasts formed islets. In vain did the seamen and people offer invocations and oblations to the gods to return, nor did the prayers of Tafa‘i, who was blameless, prevail. So they were obliged to abandon the enterprise, and the Hawaiian islands have remained forever an isolated group, standing grandly away in the north.3
The next great thing Tafa‘i determined to do was to explore the interior of the earth and recover his father from the region called Po. His mother agreed to show him the road down, and his brother, Arihi-nui-apua, begged to be allowed to accompany him, and no fear of hardship on their way could dissuade him from his purpose, as he had smitings of conscience for having been one who had caused his father to leave this world.
Hina-tahutahu caused the earth to open for the travellers, who after passing through long tunnels at last came to an open place where they saw a house, which was inhabited by an old blind woman called Uhi (Yam). By this time Arihi-nui-apua, who unlike Tafa‘i was merely mortal, became very tired and hungry. So they went quietly into the house, where they found Uhi setting out her food to eat, talking to herself as she did so. She laid together two pieces of breadfruit, two pieces of taro, two packages of pota (taro-top-spinach), two cups of coconut sauce, and two cups of water. Then as she was eating Arihi-nui-apua took one portion of each thing before her and ate also, so that when she felt for more she found nothing and at last exclaimed: “Who is this little maggot that has come here to Po?”
Tafa‘i answered: “It is I, Tafa‘i.”
The old lady said: “Ah, be seated properly.”
She took a beautiful thing that was covered with ‘ura (red) feathers, which Tafa‘i motioned his brother not to touch. This was her fishhook, which was attached to magical cord, and as she threw it out Tafa‘i evaded it; but Arihi, fascinated with its beauty, picked it up, and as she pulled it in, caught him under the arm. She drew him to her like a fish, and he drew back with all his might, running in centrifugal motion. Feeling grieved for his brother, Tafa‘i exclaimed: “Oh Uhi, set aside your fish lest the great shark approach you! His friend [shark] is in the sea.”
There were sharks and whales in the sea and a great octopus in a grotto ornamented with trumpet shells.
But Uhi replied exultingly: “He shall not escape. This is the fishhook Puru-i-te-maumau (Sodden-by-holding-fast), and the line, Shark-in-the-Milky-Way, not that of Hina.”
Then Tafa‘i seized the line and rescued the prisoner, and the old woman finding her hook loose exclaimed: “Ah! There is a person here by me, can you restore my sight?”
Tafa‘i replied: “I can restore it.” So saying, he took a coconut and cast it on her eyes, and immediately her sight was restored.
The old woman saw the young men for the first time and expressed her pleasure at seeing them. When she inquired what service she could render them for this great cure Tafa‘i asked her to tell them where his father dwelt and what she knew about him. Uhi replied that Hema dwelt farther on in a forest, where the gods heaped their garbage, that they had taken out his eyes and given them as toys to the girls who braided mats for the orators; and that they had filled his eye sockets with excrements of birds. Then she charged two little attendants to accompany the two brothers, who went to rescue the poor man. Finally they arrived at the woody region where Hema was, and quickly snatching him up Tafa‘i bore him away in his arms with all the speed that his wide strides could give and before any of the gods were aware of it the three fugitives from the lower regions arrived safely up in this world of light. Tafa‘i bathed and clothed and fed the unfortunate Hema, and though blind, Hema was made happy with his wife and children, with whom he then found his brother’s family on most friendly terms.
Some years had elapsed after the travels of Tafa‘i when the fame reached Tahiti of Te-‘ura-i-te-ra‘i (Redness-of-the-sky ), a beautiful princess in south Havai‘i-‘a, who was to be obtained as a wife only by some valiant hero. Tafai’s cousins, the five sons of Pu-a‘a-ri‘i-tahi, decided to go as aspirants for her hand, so they prepared a double canoe for that purpose. Tafa‘i told his mother that he wished to go also, and so she took a coconut blossom sheath and laid it upon the sea, and it developed into a beautiful single canoe, which they named Niu (Coconut) and which was soon made ready for the voyage. His mother told him that his ancestral shark, Tere-mahia-ma-hiva (Speedy-travelling-with-fleet), would accompany him, and that he should address it as his guardian ancestor, which he agreed to do.
The two canoes set out together. The double one was well manned with seamen, a pilot, and an astronomer; the single one had Tafa‘i alone, escorted by the faithful shark, and it soon went far ahead of the other. Finally when the five brothers approached the shores of Havai‘i-‘a, they saw awaiting them their cousin Tafa‘i, who was the first to greet them on landing. The royal family of South Havai‘i-‘a was soon apprised of the arrival of the young chiefs who had come to offer themselves to the princess, and they were well received by them.
In the course of a few days the prowess of the young Tahitians was put to the test, and the beautiful young Hawaiian princess was herself chosen to be umpire for them. They were all girded and armed with spears for the encounter. First they were told to pull up by the roots an ‘awa tree which was possessed by a demon, and which had caused the death of all who had attempted to disturb it. Each man was to come forward according to his age. Beginning with the eldest, Te-ura-i-terai said: “O Arihi-nui-apua of Tahiti, come and pull up this ‘awa, and chew it to drink and intoxicate Havai‘i.”
He went forward and thrust his spear in the stump of the tree, which like a living thing immediately darted forth its roots and pierced and killed him. Then came forward the second brother, Ta-oe-a-pua, who met with the same fate, and so it was with the three older brothers, Orooro-i-pua, Te-mata-tauia-ia-ro‘o, and Te-mata-a‘a-ra‘i. Seeing that they were all dead, the princess said to her parents: “That will do perhaps.”
But the parents replied that the last man must try. Then it was Tafa‘i’s turn and the princess said: “O Tafa‘i, pause! Tafa‘i with red skin, who raised up Hawai‘i, born to Hema, my sympathies! Come and pull up this ‘awa, and chew it to drink and intoxicate Hawai‘i.”
The noble red giant advanced undaunted and thrust his spear at arm’s length into the stump of the ‘awa. As the roots moved forwards to pierce him, he held tight the end of the spear, and they twisted around it like the arms of a devilfish, while he pushed the spear farther and farther into the taproot until the whole plant yielded. He drew it out, raised it still attached to the spear, beat and bruised the roots until they became powerless, and laid it down. Then he turned to his cousins lying lifeless upon the ground, and to the amazement of all the spectators he restored them to life.
Soon the Tahitians were ready to make the drink from the ‘awa roots, and as it was customary to have a feast on such an occasion, they asked for a pig and necessary accompaniments. To this the royal family willingly agreed, and the pig they were to have was the renowned Mo‘iri (Whole swallower), a monster that swallowed live things whole and whose fame had long ago reached Tahiti. The slaying of this scourge to humanity was to be the last test of dexterity to which the young men were to be put; and they were to advance again according to their ages. So the young men, girded for the encounter, stood with their spears, and with sennit in their hands to tie the pig. The princess called out: “O Mo‘iri, be sennit bound!”
Then rushing out of the woods, amid a cloud of dust which flew up under its heavy tread, came the terrible snorting and grunting monster.
As the first champion dashed forward to catch the feet and throw the pig down, he was swallowed whole, and one after the other of his brothers shared the same fate, their spears making no impression upon the thick hide of the animal. But as Tafa‘i advanced, he thrust his spear down into the throat of the pig as it opened its great jaws to swallow him. The pig was slain, and immediately Tafa‘i caused it to render up his five cousins, whom he once more restored to life. A great shout of applause rent the air, and Tafa‘i was unanimously acknowledged to be the greatest hero that Havai‘i-‘a had ever seen. The pig was the principal feature of the great feast that followed, and all ate of it. The ‘awa that the Tahitians made was pronounced excellent and it rejoiced the hearts of the drinkers.
Finally the time came for the hero of the day to claim his bride. The king and queen looked expectantly at Tafa‘i and the princess, who had conceived great admiration for him and was willing to give him her hand. But what was their surprise when in the name of himself and his cousins he bade them all farewell, saying: “Now fare you well. We are returning to our own land.”
Then the Hawaiians of the South realized that they had offended the Tahitians by their rigid treatment, and they could not prevail upon their visitors to change their purpose. Soon the Tahitians departed in the same way that they had come.
When they returned home after their fruitless errand, the Tahitians no longer aspired to seeking famed beauties of other lands, but took suitable wives from among their own countrywomen. Tafa‘i married a fine young chiefess of North Tahiti, named Hina (Gray), famed for her beautiful raven hair, which when let loose, flowed down in waves to her feet and covered her graceful, majestic form; and their attachment for each other was strong and lasting.
Tafa‘i was prompt to go wherever duty called him in his own land and also in other lands and, as old records everywhere show, was beloved for his goodness and kind, generous deeds. On one occasion when he returned home from a long voyage he found to his great grief that his wife was dead. She had just suddenly died, and her body, still warm, was lying in state upon an altar in the ancestral marae (place of worship), guarded by the priest and elders of the family. Soon, in his sorrow, he determined to contend for her even with the gods! So he inquired of the priest whither her spirit had fled, and he told Tafa‘i that it had left their sacred precincts and was now with the spirits of other departed ones at Tataa about twenty miles west of ‘Uporu, which was their place of rendezvous on Tahiti before taking flight for Paradise or Hades in Ra‘iatea.
Tafa‘i lost no time in seizing his great paddle and launching out into the sea his single canoe (Niu); and then he swiftly darted over the smooth water within the friendly reef and arrived at Pa‘ea just at dusk, the right time to meet the souls departing. There he found that his wife’s spirit had left some time before for Mount Rotui (Soul-despatching) on Mo‘orea, whither the spirits went to take their final departure for Te-mehani (The-heat) in Ra‘iatea, which was the last place whence they could return to this world.
Onwards he sped across the channel to Mount Rotui, towering steep and high up into the clouds, and soon he was upon its summit. But there too he found that his lost Hina had gone on some time before! With unshakeable purpose, Tafa‘i descended the mountain and again took to his canoe, and in the dim light of the waning moon, aided by a favorable breeze, he made his canoe almost fly across the wide channel that separates the windward islands from the leeward group. Then he took the shortest route up to Te-mehani and he did not stop until he arrived at the spot on the mountain plateau where the roads radiated, one to the cliff on the right, called the “Stone of Life,” from which spirits ascended to Rohutu-no‘ano‘a (Paradise-of-sweet-odor), somewhere up in cloudland above the highest mountains of Ra‘iatea and the other to the cone on the left, from which they descended down in the yawning crater of Te-mehani, which led to Po (Darkness).
The moon was almost setting and the morning star was heralding the day when Tafa‘i arrived at that place and was met by the god Tu-ta-horoa (Stand-to-permit), who guarded the roads. Tafa‘i inquired if Hina, his wife, had passed by, and to his great relief the god replied that she had not yet come. But he told Tafa‘i to be quick and conceal himself in the bushes in a precipitous nook close by and that he must rest to gain strength for his undertaking to capture her in her flight, as that was the last place whence spirits could be recalled to this world. Breathlessly Tafa‘i seated himself in his hiding place, and just as he recovered breath from his late exertions he heard leaves rustling a little way off, and the god told him to be ready, as Hina had just arrived.
Soon Tafa‘i perceived the tall, familiar form of his wife with her hair streaming down her back, and as she arrived upon the ridge of the rock by which he stood she drew back as she scented a human being. Just as she was about to ascend into the air to fly to the Stone of Life, where she would have escaped him, he made a desperate leap up onto the ledge and into the air and caught her by her flowing hair with his long fingernails. Hina struggled to be released, as she was intent on going to the happy spirit world, but her husband held her fast, and when Tu-ta-horoa told her that her time had not yet come to leave this world she was prevailed upon to remain longer with her husband. So they returned to ‘Uporu, and as soon as Hina re-entered her body, which was still well preserved, and opened her mortal eyes, there was great rejoicing in their home and in all the district over the safe return of Tafa‘i and his wife from the border of the spirit world.
It is not recorded in Tahiti that Tafa‘i ever again went away from his native land, but it is stated that he and his wife lived long and happily together and that to them was born a son whom they named Vahi-e-roa (Far-off-place), probably in commemoration of the long voyages of Tafai‘i to strange lands.
In the manuscript dictionary by Mr. Orsmond, under the heading of the name Tafa‘i are found these words: “A god was Tafa‘i of red skin, who raised up Havai‘i. Charming is the legend of Tafa‘i.” In Tahiti his memory is perpetuated in the form of the beautiful club moss (Licopodium clavatum), named rimarima Tafa‘i (fingers of Tafa‘i ), which is said to have sprung from his fingers after he left his earthly body and which grows prolifically among the ferns over all the islands; the spores of the plant are called Maiuu Tafa‘i (fingernails of Tafa‘i), which they are said to resemble.
The story of Hema and Tafa‘i is told throughout Polynesia. He is known as Kaha‘i in Hawai‘i, Tawhaki in Aotearoa, Tahaki in the Tuamotus, Ta‘aki in Rarotonga, and Tafa‘i in Samoa. (See Beckwith, pp. 238-258, for summaries of the variants of this tradition.)
In the Hawaiian ‘Ulu-Hema genealogy, Hema is said to be the ancestor of Maui chiefs. He was the son of ‘Aikanaka (“Man-eater”; cf. Nona, the cannibal grandmother of Hema in the Tahitian version). He was raised in Hana, Maui. A chant tells of his birth and his deeds. After the birth of a son named Kaha‘i (Tafa‘i), Hema sailed to Kahiki to get the ‘ape‘ula (red tapa; or apo‘ula, wreath of red feathers) for his son. During the voyage, Hema was seized by a bird and died in Kahiki. Kaha‘i sailed in search of his father, learned of his death, and returned to Hawai‘i (Kamakau 139-143).
1. The story of how the upwind islands of Tahiti Nui move away from Ra‘iatea is told in Peter H. Buck’s Vikings of the Pacific: According to one tradition, Tahiti and the other upwind islands in the Society group were created from the land between the islands of Ra‘iatea and Taha‘a. The story goes that in preparation for a ceremony for ‘Oro, the war-god, kapu were imposed on the the district of Opoa: no cock could crow, no dog bark; no person or pig could leave its dwellings. The wind died off and the sea grew calm. However, a young girl named Tere-he went bathing in a river. The gods drowned her for breaking the kapu. A giant eel swallowed her and was possessed by her soul. The angry eel tore up the land between Ra‘iatea and Taha‘a and swam to the east, becoming the windward islands of Tahiti; its back fin formed the mountain of Orohena, which dominates the western end of Tahiti. Another fin fell off and became the island of Mo‘orea. Other bits of the fish became the islands of Meti‘a, Te Tiaroa, and Mai‘ao-iti.
Buck interprets this story as meaning that the people who settled the windward islands of Tahiti had fled Ra‘iatea because of the tyrannous, oppressive rule of the priests of ‘Oro. The drowning of Tere-he may have been an actual event that caused her people to flee.
2. The tradition of Hawai‘i-loa by Kepelino and S.M. Kamakau (Fornander, Vol. VI, 266-281) attributes the discovery and settlement of Hawai‘i to a mariner named Hawai‘i-loa. A second version of the Hawai‘iloa tradition is found in Kepelino’s Traditions of Hawaii (Honolulu: Bishop Museum, 1932, 74-77) under the title “Hawaii-nui.” A discussion of this tradition is found in “The Legend of Hawaii-Loa” by Bruce Cartwright (Journal of the Polynesian Society, Vol. 38: 1929, 105-121).
3. In Hawai‘i the story is told of the demi-god Maui’s attempt to pull together the islands of Kaua‘i and O‘ahu-the two major islands that are the farthest apart.) Like Tafa‘i, Maui failed because a helper (or his brothers) looked back after being told not to. (For the Maui story, see J. Gilbert. McAllister’s Archaeology of Oahu. Honolulu: Bishop Museum, 1933; 126-7; Lyle A. Dickey’s “Stories of Wailua, Kauai” in Hawaiian Historical Society, Twenth-fifth Annual Report, Honolulu, 1917; pp. 17-18; and Thomas Thrum’s More Hawaiian Folk Tales, Chicago, 1923; 248-