Ahu Ula: The First Feather Cloak. The story of a Polynesian psychotherapist.
Legends of the South Seas, Copyright Antony Alpers 1964. Thomas Y. Crowell, New York; Johnson and Alcock, London.
KAKAA L AN EO, the high chief of this land, Maui, had runners in his service at Lahaina who would take his messages across the land as straight as birds. Swift men, these kukini. Up the mountain; over the rocks; down the cliffs; through the streams, through the bush; straight, direct. The ariki valued them, rewarded them well with food and garments. Among our people it was said: Send a kukini of the chief to Hana and he will be back before a fish in the umu is ready to be turned over.’
The main theme is given in the first sentence, repeated in the second sentence (‘… as straight as birds. Swift men …’) and subsequently repeated many times: earth-bound humans seemed to fly. Like animals, our feet are on the ground, but our minds fly through the air as though we were spirits. Every work of art – music, dance, literature, poetry, painting – addresses this contradiction: art is constructed out of, or linked to, the concrete (a poem prefers words which have concrete meaning) but embodies something immaterial.
Though the Polynesians had no metals and no writing and, while migrating across the Pacific, had forgotten pottery, their myths were sophisticated works of art. The umu mentioned above is an earth oven (first a pit, then fire-heated rocks, then leaves, then raw food, then more leaves, then earth). It serves here as a sly reminder that runners could be cooked and eaten.
Male Figure. Mangareva, French Polynesia, Wood. 18th-early 19th century.
The same idea is expressed by the Crucifixion, in which spirit (god-the-son) was nailed to wood and planted in earth. The Last Supper has a similar meaning: through bread and wine, the disciples took Christ’s spirit into their mortal bodies.
Eleio was the swiftest runner Kakaalaneo had. He could run round Maui three times in a day. If he was sent to Hana on the far side of the land the people said, ‘He will be back before a fish is cooked on one side.’ He was therefore sent away for kava when the meal was to be cooked; he chewed the kava on his homeward journey. Yet if Eleio was delayed, then his chief, who expected much, was angry, threatened death.
Again, Eleio ran like a spirit but might be killed.
A story includes repetition because the teller, though likely unaware of it, held a central theme which evoked a series of different images. In dreams as in stories, repetition is objective internal evidence which reveals meaning, like the Rosetta Stone.
Eleio was a skilled kahuna also; his family were kahuna, he was well instructed in their arts. He knew the chants that heal. Also, he could see spirit-people. He could make a person’s spirit go back into the dead body, so long as the rotting had not started. These things about Eleio were known in all the land. The spirit-people knew them also.
Another repetition-by-image (a body rots but its spirit does not), together with the explicit statement that Eleio healed by reconciling spirit with body. He was a shaman, the equivalent in his culture of a psychotherapist in ours.
When Eleio was going to Hana by the north side of this land a spirit-woman used to run after him. Three times this wailua pursued Eleio; she wanted him to return her to her body. She frightened him, that spirit-person, but his sister Pohaku helped him. Pohaku turned round and lifted up her skirt, showed her bottom to the spirit-woman, made her run away for shame. Afterwards Eleio went to Hana by the south side of the land.
Another reminder that Eleio ran like a spirit but was human. His sister’s bottom shamed the spirit-woman, perhaps because the spirit did not shit!
One day Kakaalaneo sent Eleio to Hana for the kava that grows in that place. The people said : ‘Eleio will be back before the meal is ready for the chief.’ Eleio left, ran swiftly, ran direct.
Another sly reminder of what would happen if swift Eleio were not back on time.
Soon after leaving Olowalu, as he was climbing up Aalaloloa, he saw ahead of him a beautiful woman. This woman went as fast as he did. Eleio hastened, but the woman kept always ahead of him; whatever he did she kept her distance. His pride was gnawing him. She led him over the rocks and mountains, down the cliffs, through the streams and through the bush, until they-two came to the cave of Hanamanuloa at Kahikinui, beyond Kaupo.
Repetition: his running was inspired by a spirit.
Then he caught her; that person let him catch her at the entrance of a puoa which stood in that place. He seized her as she was entering that tower of bamboo where corpses of chiefly persons are laid to rot.
Again, bodies rot.
Eleio snatched her garment at the entrance; she turned to him, cried, let me live. I am not human, I am spirit. Inside here is my house.’ Said Eleio, ‘I know already that you are a wailua. No human person could run more quickly than I, Eleio.’
Here it is explicit, he runs like a spirit.
The wailua said to him, ‘Let us-two be friends. Over there in that house which you can see live my parents and my relatives. Go and ask them for a pig, for tapa cloth, some fine mats, and the feather cloak. Tell them you have seen me and say that I told them to give these things to you. The ahu ula for which you will ask them is not yet finished. It is only so-wide, but it will measure two tall men in width when it is finished. There are enough feathers and fibre for the netting there to finish it, these things are in the house. Tell them to finish it for you.’ Then the wailua vanished, that woman disappeared.
The list goes from body to spirit. The pig was all body but domesticated. Tapa-cloth (made from pounded tree bark) and fine mats (woven plant fiber) were cultural products. The cloak was rare and symbolized the spirit (feathers) of chiefdom. A chief symbolizes the highest authority in the personality, its center and circumference, which Jung called the Self, the personality’s potential and unity. The cloak was unfinished because the realization of the Self is always a work-in-progress.
Eleio went into the puoa and climbed to the platform. The body of the girl was there, the rotting had not yet started…
In rotting as in cooking, flesh disintegrates (unlike spirit).
… He left that place, ran to the house to which that wailua had pointed. A woman wailing. It was this circumstance that caused delay:
Mourning, like every emotion, lies in a middle zone. It integrates spirit (for example, memory) with body (for example, tears); it reconciles death with the spiritual meaning of the dead.
In the same way, when a couple fights over a concrete matter (who does the dishes), it helps if each can admit their emotion: “I am hurt because you …” or “It made me mad when you … “. They transcend their fight, restore the spirit of love, by sharing emotion.
[Eleio said] ‘I here am a stranger, but I had a travelling companion who led me to that puoa, then disappeared.’
The woman stopped her wailing, called to her husband, told him what was said. Eleio asked them, ‘Does this house belong to you? ‘It does.’ Then Eleio said: ‘My message is to you. My travelling companion who was running with me owns a hog the length of a tall man, a pile of fine Paiula tapa-cloth, and a pile of fine mats. She also has a feather cloak which is not yet finished. You are to finish this cloak with the things that are here to finish it, and all these belongings you are to give to me. She has told me to ask you for them.’
Then Eleio described that spirit-person, and the woman and the man knew that their daughter who was dead had adopted this kukini as her brother, by giving him her precious things. In their own thoughts, therefore, they-two looked upon him as their son, and they said that they would kill the pig and make a feast.
Another repetition: the daughter’s spirit sent her mortal family a message, just as Christ sent a message to his disciples. Also, a reminder that pigs are mortal.
Said Eleio: ‘Wait. Are all these people here your friends? ‘They are our relatives. They are the uncles, aunts and cousins of the wailua who has adopted you.’ ‘Will they do what you ask them to do?’ ‘They will.’
Therefore Eleio told the relatives to build a large lanai, to be covered entirely with ferns and ginger, maile and lele. All these sweet-scented plants were to be used in that arbour. ‘At one end of the lanai you are to build an altar.’ All the people came to their work, the men and women and the young. That lanai was soon completed.
Then Eleio told them, ‘Cook the pig.’ He ordered them also to bring red and white fish, black and white fowls, and bananas both lele and maoli, and to place all these things on the altar. ‘All the men and women then must remain in their houses, to assist the prayers. The children, the pigs, the fowls and dogs are all to be kept silent. Take the children inside. Put the animals in dark places. Those men who have to work are to be mindful of the gods.’
Eleio’s work was psychological healing. It needed all possible energy and reverence.
Then that kukini sped away, he ran to Hana and pulled up two bushes of the kava of Kaeleku, that plant for which his high chief Kakaalaneo had sent him on his errand.
He returned to the place before the pig was cooked.
Another sly reminder that, to Kakaalaneo, Eleio was toast.
Next kava was made …
A paradox and another repetition. Eleio stole time from his outer (concrete) chief but, with kava, performed a ritual for his inner (spiritual) chief. Inner work drains energy from the outside.
… and when all the preparations for the feast were complete, Eleio went away some distance from the people, he went to be alone …
Solitude is for inner work.
… Then the people understood the intention of Eleio, they knew that he was going to perform the kapuku and restore the wailua of that young woman to her body.
Eleio went apart, he made his invocations. All the people were quiet in their houses to assist the prayers. Then Eleio caught the spirit again and took it to the puoa, climbed to the platform of the corpse. He placed that spirit against the insteps of the feet, pressed hard, he spoke his chants. The spirit was going in, returning to its former place; but when it came to the knees it would not go any further, because the rotting in the stomach had begun. The wailua did not want to touch that mess. Eleio spoke his potent chants, he called upon his gods and pushed the spirit up the legs beyond the knees. At the thigh-bones, that spirit stopped, refused. Therefore Eleio worked at his chants; he got the spirit past the stomach to the throat. It stopped again, refused.
Here were the relatives around, the father, mother, uncles and male cousins. They gathered on the platform with Eleio, spoke their prayers as well. After much work Eleio got the spirit past the neck, then the girl gave a sort of crow. This made all persons hopeful. Eleio worked, worked at his chants, he got the spirit down the arms, past the elbows and wrists. It struggled to be put through these places, then it gave in—was back in the body. That girl was alive, sat up.
They took her to the ceremonies of purification, cleaned away the stomach…
Symbols of psychotherapy: dead or corrupt parts of the personality are vivified by spirit, that is, with insight, constructive attitudes, and loving relationship. The work is hard and meets repeated resistance.
…Then that girl was taken to the lanai where the offerings were laid. These things were presented to the gods, who took what they required of them. Could not be seen, that part of offerings. Then all the people feasted on the food, as guests of the gods.
Through the ceremony of the feast, human and spirit were now in right relationship.
After the feast the tapa cloths and fine mats; the feather cloak as well—these things were brought out and displayed to Eleio. Said the father : ‘Take the woman you have made alive again. Have her for your wife and remain here with us. You will be our son, loved by us as she is.’
Marriage would celebrate the union of spirit and body.
But Eleio said, ‘No, I will take her into my care, but as for a wife she is worthy of a higher one than I. Give her to me and I will take her to Kakaalaneo.’
Eleio’s work is for the Self. To mature is to serve the community, not oneself, or, at the inner level, the wider personality, the Self, not the conscious ego.
Said the father : ‘She is yours to do with as you wish. You made her live. But know that you have parents here, and that this house is yours.’
The father underlined the mortal level. Like Christ’s mortal family.
Then Eleio told them to finish the cloak. All those who could do feather-work sat down to this task; that wondrous cloak was soon completed, full to its size.
The Self requires much labor,
When the cloak was finished, they told him that the name of the girl was Kanikaniaula. They-two then set out together for Lahaina, carrying with them the cloak, and the remainder of the kava of Kaeleku for the chief.
Their going was slow on this journey, for Kanikaniaula had only the strength of a woman, not a spirit. Said Eleio, ‘I am late returning.There is danger. My chief commands my death.’
They arrived at Launiupoko. Said Eleio: ‘You wait here in the bushes while I go on alone. If by sunset I have not returned, then I am dead. You are to return to your people. But if I am not dead, I shall return here soon.’
He came on to Makila, near Lahaina, saw some people heating an emu to cook food. They were the high-chief’s servants. When they saw Eleio they began to tie him up and roast him alive, …
… as Kakaalaneo had ordered them. But he put those people off with this word: “Let me die at the feet of my master.’ Thus Eleio successfully passed those servants of Kakaalaneo, passed the oven that was heated for him.
He arrived before his chief. “How is it that you are not yet killed as I ordered? …
… How did you get past my servants?’
Said Eleio: ‘The slave wished to die at the feet of his chief, if he must die. But sir, this would be a great loss to you, for I have brought with me that which will make your name known to the generations’ …
Repetition: Eleio served the community, that is, the wider personality.
… Then Eleio took his bundle off his back, unrolled the mats and the tapa, showed his chief the cloak of scarlet feathers.
It was the first ahu ula seen by the people of this land. All were amazed, the chief was greatly pleased. The kava which Eleio brought was used that evening in the offerings of Kakaalaneo to the gods.
Then Eleio told the rest of it. Said the high-chief, ‘Bring this woman.’ Kanikaniaula was brought from her hiding place. The chief desired her; took her for wife…
The royal marriage which, Jung said, symbolized the union of yin and yang, wholeness, the goal of inner development.
… Thus the highest chiefs of this land Maui trace their descent from Kakaalaneo and Kanikaniaula, and they wear that sacred cloak on ceremonial occasions.
Repetition: Eleio served Self.