Oral story-telling is a popular and important pastime in Fiji that helps to keep alive the myths from the old religion, as well as legends about more modern figures in Fiji’s history. So when in Fiji, pull up a stool (or a woven mat) beside the fire, grab a bowl of kava and Fijians will tell you a tale… a tale of Pacific gods, of indigenous plants and animals, of cannibals who ate their enemies during war time...
One popular Fijian creation myth that explains the existence of human life on the islands is of the ancestral snake god, Degei. In the beginning, Degei lived a lonely life with only Turukawa, the hawk, as a friend. One day, Turukawa disappeared, and Degei went in search of her. He came across Turukawa’s bird’s nest, in which he found two abandoned eggs that he promptly took to his own house to nurture. After several weeks of nesting, the eggs hatched to reveal two tiny human bodies. Degei raised the humans, grew vegetation in order to feed them and told them stories that revealed the nature of all things.
After a good deal of time, Degei traveled through the ocean with the humans and their progeny and landed in Lautoka where he established the village of Viseisei, which is believed to be the first Fijian settlement. According to legend, Degei created Viti Levu and the smaller surrounding islands and now lives in a cave in the Nakavadra mountain range in Viti Levu. Newly dead souls pass through Degei’s cave and he determines whether they will be sent to paradise or flung into a lake to await punishment.
Degei is the most powerful god in the pantheon (or “Kalou”) of deities that make up the old Fijian religion. Other gods in Kalou include Degei’s son, Rokolo, the patron of carpenters and canoe-builders, Ratumaibulu, who ensured and health and abundance of crops, and Ravuyalo, who was known for obstructing the newly dead from their journey into the afterlife. Most of the gods who were widely recognized and venerated throughout the islands were not viewed as gentle or caring but rather as indifferent to the affairs and troubles of humans.
Fijian mythology is also rife with stories about its history of cannibalism. Possibly the most notorious of Fiji’s cannibals was the 19th century chieftain, Ratu Udre Udre, who is buried off of King’s Road in northern Viti Levu. Udre Udre was known for practicing cannibalism even after Fiji had officially ceded to Great Britain and its people had widely accepted Christianity. Although some legends claim that Udre Udre ate over 9,000 people, the actual estimate is probably closer to 900.
In 1849, some time after Udre Udre’s death, Reverend Richard Lyth, who was staying in Viti Levu near the chieftain’s former territory, came across a row of 872 stones placed side by side. Lyth then asked Udre Udre’s son, Ravatu, about the stones and was informed that each stone represented a human being that the chieftain had eaten. According to Udre Udre’s son, the father had a voracious appetite and had a taste for very little other than human flesh. He would keep beside him at all times a box of cooked and preserved human meat and would consume it all himself, sharing with none.