The Stretching Trees of Polynesia

In a previous post I examined Polynesian trees of the dead. This month I’ll be looking at another aspect of Polynesian tree lore; the concept of ‘stretching trees’ – trees which stretch to provide a pathway between the earth and the skies or between this world and the world of spirits.

The American anthropologist Martha Warren Beckwith cited a number of South Sea islands which have such beliefs. For example, in a Samoan story, a boy climbed up a tree to reach the moon and in a tale from Tonga, a child visits his father in the sky via a stretching tree. In Mangaia, the god Tane climbs a tree to the sky, “from which he shakes down nuts upon his own homeland” (Beckwith, (a), p. 486). Kupuas, supernatural beings or demigods, could take the form of trees. Myths from Hawaii, the Marquesa islands, Rarotonga and the Tuamotus mention a kupua tree called Niu-ola-hiki or Niu-loa-hiki which acted as a pathway between earth and the land of the gods or between children and their ancestors (Ibid., p. 484).

In Rarotongan, Marquesean, and Tuamotuan myth, a stretching tree provides the route for “a divine child” to travel from earth to heaven or to faraway lands (Beckwith, (b), p. 27).

Betel_Nut_Tree

Types of tree

The species of tree which stretches skywards is mentioned in some Polynesian myths and stories. In San Cristobal, Areca (Areca catechu) trees appear as stretching trees (Beckwith, (a), p. 484). In the Hawaiian story of the demigod Maui, Maui’s uncle transforms himself into a coconut tree (Cocos nucifera) which reaches to the heavens so that Maui can visit Makali’i, his father, who resides there (Ibid., p. 478). In tales from the Banks Islands and Tonga, Casuarina trees (Casuarina equisetifolia) stretch to save the god Qat and his brothers from Qasavara, a giant intent on eating them.

 

Next time… it’s back to West Africa to meet a spirit who teaches the lore of the forest.

Sources

Martha Warren Beckwith, Hawaiian Mythology (reprint, with a new introduction by Katherine Luomala, Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1970, of orig. edn, New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 1940).

Martha Beckwith, “POLYNESIAN MYTHOLOGY”, The Journal of the Polynesian Society, vol. 49, no. 1 (193), (1940), pp. 19–35. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/20702789. <accessed 6 Jun. 2022>

 Image credits: Betel nut tree by Ridip, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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