Thursday, March 1, 2018

The Island of Women (Amis)

Shalawan was a young fisherman who lived in an Amis village on the eastern coast of Taiwan.

On one very ordinary day like so many thousands of others, Shalawan said goodbye to his wife and took to the sea in his dugout canoe to catch fish. On this particular day, he had been able to catch more than his usual share of fish within a short period of time.

He was heading out a little farther when he spotted ahead a small island he had never seen before. He was already hungry, so he decided to head for the island and cook some of the fish for his lunch. He beached the canoe, walked onto the shore with some of his catch, and looked around for some firewood. He saw some driftwood, gathered it, and started a nice little fire.

The fire had not been burning for long when suddenly Shalawan sensed the need to turn around.

To his shock, he saw his canoe, the canoe he thought had been safely secured, floating far out to sea, too far now for him to go out and retrieve. He next felt movement below his feet and looked all around. He discovered that it was not the canoe that had left the island but rather the island had left the canoe.

The island was on the move. Only that it wasn't really an island upon which Shalawan stood--it was some kind of huge whale.

I'm in for it now, he thought. If only I hadn't started that fire and burned the whale's back! He quickly put out the fire and looked down at the whale, saying, "Sorry, Whale! Sorry!"

He thought about his predicament. There was no way he could swim out to his canoe, which, in any case, had now disappeared below the horizon. No, he decided, he'd stay put. He would ride along with the whale because that was all he could do.

Squatting down on the immense back of the whale, he watched and turned his head to look in all directions as the whale glided across the sea.

Soon, the whale stopped alongside a huge island--or was it only an island once again?

Island or not, Shalawan decided to hop off the whale and take his chances on this larger mass in the middle of the ocean. He wiped his brow and was ready to celebrate being still alive when he suddenly heard loud whoops. He turned and looked all around to find himself completely surrounded by bamboo rifle-bearing women all clad in grass skirts, whooping and hollering but otherwise displaying no obvious emotions on their faces.

From out of the encirclement stepped several of these armed women warriors. They grabbed Shalawan by the arms and shoulders and frog-marched him towards a grove of low trees near the shore. Into the grove they went and then stopped before a large grass hut, the home of their chief.
They pulled and shoved him inside. The chief and these female warriors next treated Shalawan to a bounteous array of seafood delicacies and fruits. Shalawan ate these foods up, while the chief and her warriors just had soup.

After eating, Shalawan was given a grass mat and told to rest, which is exactly what he did.

He had a wonderful sleep in this warm, dry hut, but then he was awakened at the break of day and hauled off to a pen where hogs were kept. He was then fed the same slop given to the hogs.

They're fattening me up like a pig, thought Shalawan. Do they intend to slaughter me like one as well?

He became very sad and anxious about what would happen next; he also began to think of his wife, his home, and his native land. Would he ever see them again?

Night and day he was kept in this pen and fed the same food as the hogs. His fearsome and worrisome thoughts continued to plague him, and he began to lose hope . . . until something happened

It was a few days later, early in the morning. While still in the pen, he found a knife. In the dying darkness, he had seen something gleaming on the ground just beyond the bamboo poles that made up the pen.

It was a knife, all right; not some stout, thick-bladed weapon or farm tool, but a knife, nonetheless. Had the ancestors heard his silent cries, witnessed his distress, and delivered the knife?

He leaned as close to the bamboo poles as he could until his flesh practically encircled the poles painfully,  and he stretched out his arm as he had never done before.

He grabbed the knife!

He looked around. No one was about. He immediately went to a corner of the pen and cut some of the fiber cords that bound the bamboo poles. He was soon able to push the poles apart wide enough for him to make his escape. He slipped through the opening, ran into the woods, and then back towards the same stretch of shore from which he had landed on this strange island of fierce women.

Something was waiting for him by the shore--the whale, the same whale that had brought him here. It seemed to be waiting to take him back home to his coastal village.

There was only one way to find out if he would be going home.

He got on his knees, faced the whale, and thanked the creature.

Then, he said, "Whale, please, let's go back home!"

He jumped upon its back, and in his mind he could somehow hear the whale speak to him.

"If you become too wet, " the whale seemed to say, "tug on my ears, and I shall swim higher above the surface . . ."

"That's fine," replied Shalawan. "I'm ready to go if you are!"

And off they went.

During the course of the journey, Shalawan had to tug on the whale's ears five times; otherwise, he would have drowned. The whale, each time its ears were gently pulled, would then raise itself higher in the water to make sure Shalawan was safe and comfortable.

By and by, they finally reached the coast where Shalawan had made his home. He thanked the whale again and climbed down from its back. Once Shalawan was on the shore, the whale turned around and disappeared into the sea.

Shalawan looked around at the landscape, the village, the people. He recognized nothing or anyone.  Had he arrived back at the right place? Yes, he had; however, no one recognized him. No family member or friend came out to greet him; everyone he encountered was a stranger. He sought out the oldest village elder he could find to recount his story to this very old man. Maybe he--this elder--had heard of a Shalawan who had been lost at sea.

Shalawan told the elder his tale from beginning to end. The result? The old man just laughed and dismissed him with a wave of the hand.

"A nice children's fantasy story," the elder said.

"But all this really happened!" insisted Shalawan. "I really did use to live here! I was part of this village. Won't anyone please believe me?"

Then, Shalawan thought of something. He had once buried a millstone behind his own hut. He convinced some of the skeptical neighbors who had by now heard his tale to go with him to locate where his hut had once stood and the spot where the millstone had been buried. This would prove,
he reckoned, that he had once been a villager too.

With some effort, he located what appeared to be his own hut, so they went around the back. He and the men then dug and dug, and they hit something with their tools--a millstone.

Now the villagers believed that Shalawan was one of their long-lost sons. Everyone he had once known was now dead, gone--but not quite. A very old woman with a cane hobbled over. She took one look at him, held out her arms, and cried, "My Shalawan! My Shalawan!"

This was Shalawan's wife, his very own wife who had been very young the last time he had seen her. Now realizing that he too had become very old, Shalawan stepped forward and took his wife into his arms, crying along with her.

The entire village now celebrated his return. The villagers roasted a hog in honor of the whale that had brought their brother and son home.

This is why from that day forward, just after harvest, Amis people will mix pork and salt into sticky rice cakes and throw them into the stream that goes into the sea. In this way, they honor the whale that had rescued Shalawan and returned him back home.

Lin Daosheng, ed. 原住民神話故事全集 [Collected Myths and Stories of the Taiwanese Aboriginal Peoples]. Vol. 2. Taipei: Hann Colour, 2002; pp. 139-142. Jian Mingmei & Huang Aizhen, "女人島"  [Island of Women] in 質樸傻趣 [Unadorned Silly Pleasures], Sun Yiwang, ed; Taipei: WanJuanLou Books, 2014 [Kindle Paperwhite].

This story, like the Japanese "Urashima Taro," the Celtic "Oisin," countless other Celtic tales, and some UFO accounts, has the motif of missing time. Our concept of time keeps us bound to our earthly affairs; when we step out of these nature-imposed bounds (i.e. when we dare to venture into fairyland purposefully or accidentally or when we refuse to adhere to what "everybody else does"; for a modern spin on the latter, but not a time-lapse story, read Shirley Jackson's "The Summer People") there will be a dear price to pay, whether it means missing time or something else.

The image of a strong primeval woman comes across very strongly though fleetingly here. The Amazons in this story are glimpses of the indomitable, intimidating, dangerous female aspect lurking in the recesses of the unconscious and in fiction and folklore, manifesting itself due to compensation or repression. The Lin Daosheng version hints these women are cannibals. 

The image of the whale, in very ancient times, was conflated with the dragon and was regarded as a great, massive brute capable of gulping up and ingesting physical being itself (see "Whale" in The Book of Symbols: Reflections on Archetypal Images; Ami Ronnberg and Kathleen Martin,  eds.; Köln: Taschen, 2010; p. 204). Here, the whale is not malevolent, though its sheer size, bulk, and mere presence lead to Shalawan's misadventures and loss of time.  

A whale's "ear," so to speak, is internal, not external like our own outer ears. 

Motifs: B472, "Helpful whale"; D1890, "Magic aging"; F112, "Journey to the land (island) of women"; F377, "Supernatural lapse of time in fairyland"; F565.1, "Amazons: Women warriors"; J1761.1, "Whale thought to be an island. Sailor (Fisherman) lights fire on its back; R7, "Men (Man) held captive in the land of women"; R211, "Escape from prison"; R245, "Whale-boat: A man is carried across the water on a whale."

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