Aroha by Hinemoa Elder

Ancient Voyagers, An Oral Storytelling Culture

Recently I read and shared my thoughts on Christina Thompson’s, Sea People, a non fiction collection of historical explorations of the Pacific and various attempts to recreate the voyages of the ancient navigators of Polynesia. It finishes with the exhilarating re-enactment of a 2,500 mile canoe voyage led by a descendant, using non-instrument navigation, proving what many Europeans had seen the result of but denied was possible in such challenging seas.

Some of the most challenging journeys were made by the Maori on their ocean going waka canoes, carrying them across Te-Moana-nui-a-Kiwa, the Pacific Ocean to New Zealand, the most southern point of the Polynesian triangle. And it is from this culture that another descendant, Hinemoa Elder shares some of their ancient wisdom through a modern day interpretation, finding meaning and encouraging others to find theirs too.

Maori wisdom for a contented life lived in harmony with our planet

Aroha is the Maori word for love, but look a little deeper and we learn that it is a concept, described by Hinemoa Elder as a deeply felt emotion and way of thinking that encompasses love, compassion, sympathy and empathy.

Aroha Maori Wisdom Hinemoa Elder

A compound word, ‘Aroha’ includes the parts Aro, Ro, Hā, Oha.  Words that contribute additional layers of meaning:

ARO is thought, life principle, paying attention, to focus on, to face or front
RO is inner, within, introspection
HA is life force, breath, energy
OHA is generosity, prosperity, abundance, wealth

This little book of Maori proverbs and wisdom is an attempt to reconnect to the wider meaning of an ancient word.

They are called whakatauki and are a way to connect to the words of Maori ancestors, an oral history passed down.

a portal, a doorway into the ancient, sacred energy of aroha, the timeless wisdom of Maori culture.

They provide insight and can be interpreted by the reader, offering an alternative perspective with which to look at the world and a reminder of our connection to nature and our duty to care for her abundant resources that are under threat. 

Aroha Hinemoa ElderThere are 52 whakatauki, one for every week of the year and it’s a book that can either be read through or dipped in and out of randomly. The sayings are grouped into four themes, each one explained at the outset of that section and further inspired by toi whakairo, the Maori art of carving:

  • Manaakitanga – te aroha ki te tangata

care, respect and kindness towards other and ourselves

  • Kaitiakitanga – te aroha ki a Papatunuku

love for our world

  • Whanaungatanga – te aroha ki nga hononga

empathy and connection between people

  • Tino rangatiratanga – te aroha ki te tika

the pursuit of what is right, self-determination

Many of the proverbs refer to nature, the sea, the forest, observations of how it is, that we can think about and reflect on in our own lives.

Hinemoa Elder translates the saying literally, then offers an alternative in English that better reflects her own interpretation of it. She then writes a two or three page conversation-like reflection on what it brings to mind for her. Some of them like this one below, have the kernel of a myth inside them, combining story and nature to bring a lesson.

wp-1624958913074.jpg4. 

Ko te Mauri,

he mea huna

ki te moana.

The life force is hidden in the sea.

Powerful aspects of life are hidden in plain sight.

This refers to an ancestor who cast his traditional feathered cloak into the sea, a treasure, that is still there, out of sight, said to signify the ongoing presence of those that have gone before and to the hidden gifts that reside within us, that we have forgotten, that can be awakened with a little effort and reflection. You can reclaim them.

Remember your hidden powers, your true self, and bring it into the light.

There are many more to discover, it is a very easy read, full of nuggets of cultural wisdom and it is especially good for young people to read,  clearly having been written and partly inspired by her encounters with youth.

Highly Recommended.

Sea People by Christina Thompson

In Search of the Ancient Navigators of the Pacific

Growing up in rural/coastal New Zealand and being immersed in Maori culture from the age of 5-12, the myths, legends, stories, cultural practices have always resonated with me.

Perhaps because I was so young, or because there was a clear connection to the landscape and environment that rang true, the geography of New Zealand was part of the mythology, that curious blend of enchantment and reality; it made sense to a child.

Sea People In Search of Ancient Navigators of the PacificA Polynesian Connection and Resonance

I read Sea People not so much out of that European curiosity to discover where people originated from, but for the familiarity of that “way of seeing” through the oral tradition of storytelling, of describing things from where I see and what I see around me, not from the lofty heights of above looking down.

My curiosity in all honesty, lay too in wondering if a woman’s perspective and approach might be different.

As the number of oral cultures in the world has diminished, interest in them has grown, and one of the most intriguing questions is whether there might be such a thing as an ‘oral way of seeing’, a  worldview common to oral peoples that might be different in some generalizable way from the worldview of people in cultures with writing.

I loved it.

Like her own mixed family, the author Christina Thompson straddles the masculine/feminine, Polynesian/European aspects and shares something that goes back over all the approaches to Polynesia from the earliest eyewitnesses of 1521 to the brilliant modern day reconstructions of Polynesian canoes, that set sail with a crew of experimental voyagers, trained in the old non-instrument methods of navigation, to re-enact the voyages of the ancient Polynesians.

map-polynesia-frontThe Polynesian Triangle is an area of ten million square miles, defined by the three points of Hawai‘i, New Zealand and Easter Island. All the islands inside this triangle were originally settled by a clearly identifiable group of voyagers: a people with a single language and set of customs, a distinctive arsenal of tools and skills, and a collection of plants and animals that they carried with them wherever they went.

Sea People tells the story of these remarkable voyagers and of the many people—explorers, linguists, anthropologists, folklorists and navigators—who have puzzled over their astonishing history for more than three hundred years.

There is a reason the remote Pacific was the last place on Earth to be settled by humans: it was the most difficult, more daunting even than the deserts or the ice.

cottages in the middle of beach

Photo by Julius Silver on Pexels.com

Written in six parts, chronologically, we follow the thinking of the different eras, immersing in the exploration and research studies of the time, travelling through all the speculation, attitudes, reverence and mystery of a very Eurocentric enquiry, until recent times when those of Polynesian heritage themselves, as decolonization and indigenous rights movements were gaining strength worldwide, demanded representation and respect in these constant intellectual probings.

The first parts look at the various European explorations, their intentions, their reception, discoveries and the kind of records they kept about they witnessed. It also shows the difference in their encounter(s) when they befriend and take a Polynesian navigator with them, bridging a cultural divide, that had often resulted in violence previously.

Much has been made in histories of the Pacific about the problem of observer bias. Early European explorers saw the world through lenses that affected how they interpreted what they found. The Catholic Spanish and Portuguese of the sixteenth century were deeply concerned with the islanders’ heathenism; the mercantile Dutch, in the seventeenth century were preoccupied with what they had to trade; the French, coming alone in the eighteenth century, were most interested in their social relations and the idea of what constituted  a “state of nature”.

Part Three looks at some of the stories the Polynesians told about themselves and the difficulty their European visitors had in understanding and interpreting them.

Europeans and Polynesians, it would seem, had very different ideas about the purpose of narratives and the relative meanings of “falsehood” and “truth”.

The Polynesian Art of Non-Instrument Navigation

For me that was the highlight of the literary journey, when Nainoa Thompson, a young Hawaiian, did all he could to learn the old ways, studying the stars, the winds, reading the waves and ocean swells, the imagined island, all the techniques known that had been passed down, to navigate like the ancient mariners, great ocean distances with nothing but what nature offered to guide them.

And in the face of disbelief by all the European sceptics who’d come before, unable to embrace the paradigm of this ancient skill, they succeeded, using practical sea voyaging, no computer simulation or dusty pottery references or annals of research; a brilliant touch of reality and reaching back through the generations of ancestry.

It was a stunning achievement. Without maps or charts or instruments or recording devices, without even paper and pen, an apprentice navigator – the first from Hawai’i in at least half a century – had piloted a canoe more than 2,500 miles, spanning more than thirty-five degrees of latitude.

A wonderful history and a beautifully accessible read. While it is inevitably limited due to being addressed from within those same structures that European exploration came from, and written by an outsider (albeit married to someone from the region), it provides a valuable insight into that outsider view and representation of centuries of exploration.

It will lead very nicely on to my next read, appropriately, the inside view from Dr Hinemoa Elder in her book of Maori wisdom, Aroha.

Sea People Christina Thompson

Christina Thompson

A dual citizen of the United States and Australia, she was born in Switzerland and grew up outside Boston and spent a decade living in Australia. Since 2000 she has been the editor of Harvard Review and teaches writing at Harvard University Extension. She lives outside Boston with her husband and three sons.

Sea People won the 2020 Australian Prime Minister’s Literary Award, the 2020 Victorian Premier’s Literary Award, and the 2019 NSW Premier’s General History Award. Her first book, Come on Shore and We Will Kill and Eat You All, was a finalist for the 2009 NSW Premier’s Literary Award and the 2010 William Saroyan International Prize for Writing.

Further Reading/Listening

NPR Interview: ‘Sea People’ Examines The Origins And History Of Polynesia by Ilana Masad

Read More Co: Author Interview: Christina Thompson

Potiki by Patricia Grace

Brilliant. Republished in 2020 as a Penguin Modern classic, originally published in 1986, a year before the New Zealand government finally recognised Māori as an official language, I hope many more people get to read this poignant novella.

Literature Awakens the Past

This book evoked so many thoughts, memories and dug up much buried deep within me, that it was at times difficult to concentrate on the story. I read and reread pages and deliberately took my time, scribbling in the margins, remembering stories and experiences from my primary school days, learning the Māori language, flax weaving, poi dances, sticks, songs, the legends and the gods, occasional participation in marae activities, including school attendance of a funeral for someone important in the community, and the cautionary tales of the taniwha.

Potiki – the last born

Maori culture literature New Zealand Potiki ClassicPotiki is the story of a family and the encroachment on their lives of the now dominant culture that is trying to usurp their way of life, a land developer wants to turn their coastal ancestral land into a holiday park, and will use whatever tactics necessary to do it.

In some ways the new culture has already succeeded in subverting their own, colonial style education conditions young minds, severing them from their language and traditions, causing divisions within the community as some are enticed by the individualism and material benefits of a capitalist mentality.

Told in three parts, the story is narrated by Hemi, his wife Roimata and the son they bring into their family Toko, raising him with their three children.

Each of them have their own stories, James’s of the earth and the universe, Tangimoana’s of the sea, Manu, in fear of disappearing, can not find his stories.

Roimata worries for Manu when he is due to start school:

What would be right then for a little one who called out in sleep, and whose eyes let too much in? What would be right for one who didn’t belong in schools, or rather, to whom schools didn’t belong?

Nurturing Stories and Life

Rather than go out to become a teacher as initially planned, she becomes the keeper, listener and narrator of stories, a writer and reader of stories, enactor, collector and maker of stories. Of continuity.

Then I knew that nothing need be different. ‘Everything we need is here. We learn what we need and want to learn, and all of it is here,’ I said to Hemi, but he had always known it. We needed just to live our lives, seek out our stories and share them with each other.

Their home, their land and community is under threat from outsiders, who covet their location and do everything they can to entice them to give it up, to sell, using the offer of money, then more threatening measures to get what they want.

Two cultures collide, but only one side is listening, the other is used to getting their way, is used to their tactics winning over. This family and community understand too well what they will lose if they let go of their land, they have already witnessed it. And though it is not them that fight, for their way is to talk openly, there are others who will intervene.

Ancestral Lands and the Tangata Whenua

Hemi worked the land in his youth but went out to work when his grandfather passed on. Now there is no job, he is back to caring for and caretaking the land.

They still had their land and that was something to feel good about. Still had everything except the hills. The hills had gone but that was before his time and there was nothing he could do about that, nothing anyone could do. What had happened there wasn’t right, but it was over and done with. Now, at least, the family was still here, on ancestral land. They still had their urupa and their wharenui, and there was clean water out front.

It is a new era, there is more determination which created hope, that turned into confidence and created an energy to confront the situation and demand the protection of the language, customs and way of life wherever possible.

Land, their homes, the meeting house, the food-house, the cemetery are part of a community that allows its members to leave or return, to be independent knowing they can come back to a place where family can come together, a refuge for the lost and broken.

The Gift Inherent Within All

Toko is visionary, a child that almost wasn’t, one with a special gift, who sees the stories changing and will become part of the story that is carved into the meeting house, remembered in wood and in the eloquent words of Patricia Grace’s reflection on the loss of an extraordinary one.

We have known what it is to have had a gift, and have not ever questioned from where the gift came, only sometimes wondered. The gift has not been taken away because gifts are legacies, that once given cannot be taken away. They may pass from hand to hand, but once held they are always yours. The gift we were given is with us still.

Shared narratives move from one to another in a spiral, in the way of their culture, detailing their progress and regression, their ability to support and nurture and their deceptions, their desire to make the other understand, and their failure to be heard or respected.

It is not a tale with a logical solution, but a demonstration of the cultural differences that exist in Aotearoa, New Zealand and how the actions of those in power, with their single agenda, affect a people whose way of life, customs and beliefs are different.

Further Reading

Patricia Grace, Biography – NZ novelist, short story writer and children’s writer of Ngati Toa, Ngati Raukawa and Te Ati Awa descent.

NZ History – Te reo Māori recognised as official language, 1 August 1987

Circe by Madeline Miller

Retelling Greek Myths From an Awakened Perspective

Greek Myth of Circe Odyssey UlyssesOriginally published in 2018, Circe is a reimagined version of one of the ancient Greek myths, which have been variously retold through the ages, but possibly never quite in a voice like Madeline Miller’s that brings a feminine perspective and knowing, to fill in the gaps and flesh out a story that reconsiders some of the motivations the exiled  protagonist Circe might have operated under.

I enjoy well handled myths and fables and the classical Greek myths are among the longest-lived continuing to inspire much creative output. I love the voyage of discovery a retelling takes the reader on, igniting our curiosity to seek out and understand a set of characters more, finding their origins, the connections.

Last year I read Icelandic author Sjón’s The Whispering Muse, introducing me to Medea, Jason and The Argonautica, an epic poem by Apollonius of Rhodes, (Hellenistic poet, 3rd century BC). I read and reviewed Miller’s award winning The Song of Achilles, but I wasn’t nearly as animated by it as Circe.

Review

I absolutely loved the book and the evolution of the character Circe from a somewhat insular, jealous nymph, not really knowing her place in life, though her gesture towards the punished Prometheus was a clue; to her fully fledged, capable, learned, wise woman self that is revealed when she lives in isolation on the island Aiaia.

I decided to read the book straight through before looking up Circe in Myths of Greece and Rome by H.A. Gueber, because I knew Miller was going to tell us her story from Circe’s perspective and I wanted to absorb that without any  pre-conceived influence.

It starts off slowly as Circe is living in the Halls of the Gods, she is the daughter of Helios the Sun God, who rides his chariot cross the skies each day, ensuring the sun rises and sets on time the world over and her mother Perse, a naiad (a type of female spirit, or nymph, presiding over fountains and bodies of fresh water).

Her family don’t pay her much attention and in her lonesome wanderings she encounters a mortal, the fisherman Glaucus, whom she begins to meet secretly and worrying about his future, she creates a bed of flowers wishing he might transform into a God, so he can become immortal like her.

However, once he enters the Halls he is distracted by all the other beauties, no longer seeking Circe out, upset she seeks revenge against one of the nymphs Scylla, creating a spell to turn her into what Circe believes is her nature within, and Scylla becomes a multi-headed sea-monster.

Beautiful Scylla, dainty-doe Scylla, Scylla with her viper heart.

Photo by James Wheeler on Pexels.com

Circe is punished by her father and exiled to the island of Aiaia, which doesn’t sound too bad, despite being alone, there is a well equipped home with self-cleaning capabilities, plenty of plant, animal and bird life and rather than a dog, she befriends a lioness, who sleeps at her hearth.

I learned to recognise the different blooming vines and gaudy roses, to spot the shining dragonflies and coiling snakes. I climbed the peaks where the cypresses speared black into the sky, then clambered down to the orchards and vineyards where purple grapes grew thick as coral.  I walked the hills, the buzzing meadows of thyme and lilac,  and set my footprints across the yellow beaches. I searched out every cove and grotto, found the gentle bays, the safe harbour for ships. I heard the wolves howl, and the frogs cry from their mud…I was drunk, as the wine and nectar in my father’s hall had never made me. No wonder I have been so slow I thought. All this while I have been a weaver without wool, a ship without the sea.

From the moment she is exiled, something changes, Circe comes into her own and without the distraction, drama and judgement of the halls she has left behind, she begins to listen to her intuition and develop her knowledge of plants and remedies, experimenting with tinctures and seeds and leaves. Developing a skill that was not divine, not magic, something ‘made and worked, planned and searched out, dug up, dried, chopped and ground, cooked, spoken over and sung.’

For a hundred generations, I had walked the world drowsy and dull, idle and at my ease.  I left no prints, I did no deeds. Even those who had loved me a little  did not care to stay.

Dragonfly Nature Circe

Photo by Marian Florinel Condruz on Pexels.com

She discovers her inner power and outer skill through practice. But as we know, solitude becomes less of a novelty over time and when visitors arrive she is happy to see them; Hermes checks in on her, bringing a prophecy, punished daughters are sent to do time and it is said that Odysseus himself will come, a turning point in her story.

In the origins of the story, she is perceived as evil, as if when she cast her spells upon these men who arrive by ship, she has no reason. They who feast at her table, drink her wine and then discover she is a woman alone without a husband – before able to act on their dishonourable intentions – are turned into four legged swine.

It takes little stretch of the imagination to read between the lines, however things change when Odysseus sends his men ahead of him and arrives later alone, no surprise that he who acts with respect toward the hospitality offered meets a different fate.

There was always a leader, he was not the largest, and he need not be the captain, but he was the one they looked to for instruction in their cruelty.  He had a cold eye and a coiling tension. Like a snake, the poets might say, but I knew snakes better by then. Give me the honest asp, who strikes me if I trouble him and not before.

There is so much more to the story, but it is one that has to be read and experienced. Brilliantly written, inspired by the epic tales but told in a compelling way appropriate to the 21st century when the woman’s story is given voice, being listened to and shared, rising to bring balance to a skewed narrative of the past.

Madeline Miller Answers Questions on her Inspiration

What classics did she rely on to write Circe?

The Odyssey Emily Wilson TranslationAlong with the Iliad and the Odyssey, I also drew on Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Vergil’s Aeneid, the Argonautica, the Telegony, Euripides‘ Medea, Sophocles‘ Philoctetes’, Tennyson’s poem Ulysses, Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida, and lots of small pieces from all kinds of other scattered places.

I like to throw open the doors, and read everything I can about all the different figures, not just the protagonist. I never know where I might find the key detail that animates the character in my imagination, so I try to look everywhere.

In most tellings Circe is depicted as an evil sorceress, you chose to show her humanity and make her likable, why?

Circe has been portrayed as a two-dimensional villain in most post-Homeric works. In the Odyssey itself, however, she’s actually a much more balanced and complex character. Yes, she’s frightening, and yes, she turns men to pigs, but after she and Odysseus become lovers she offers to help him and his men, giving them shelter and helping them heal from their griefs for an entire year. Her house is the only place in the Odyssey that Odysseus doesn’t agitate to leave; his men have to come and remind him that it’s time to go.

Then, when he tells her he’s leaving, Circe doesn’t try to keep him, nor even complain about his going. She instead offers him vital help and advice on the difficult road ahead. She ends up, in fact, being one of the most helpful people he encounters!

So I think it’s very interesting that she’s been made into such a villain. It has much more to say about our fear of powerful women than it does about Homer’s poetry. Even the detail of Circe’s connection to humanity comes from Homer–he calls her “the dread goddess who speaks like a human.” I wanted to return to that complexity, and expand it further.