Serpents of Austronesia

A Māori dragon-serpent or taniwha (purple)

A Cham dragon-serpent or nag(a) (beige)

Serpents of Austronesia

One of the interesting things about Austronesian -speakers and people is the symbol of the serpent. One of the reasons why its a bit odd is because the serpent appears in art and in legends in the Eastern part of Austronesia (Hawai`i, Aotearoa-New Zealand, Tahiti, and Rapanui)–places that do not have snakes at all. In Austronesia, its depiction goes back to the BC era (thus predating the Aztecs and Mayans) and basically has the same characteristics and style. Normally the serpent (taniwhā in Māori, kihā in Hawaiian, naga in parts of Southeast Asia, etc) is depicted with hands (3 to 4 fingers), aquatic, and with a beak-like mouth.

In legends, the serpent is often a shape shifter and can be good or bad. It is also seen as being immortal and in some cases, an ancestral guardian spirit for a particular royal family or tribe. With the Chams of Viet Nam and Cambodia, the naga was one of the major symbols of the Champa Kingdom and a protector of their people. Among the Māori of Aotearoa (New Zealand), it is also not uncommon to see serpents decorated in the beams (or ribs) of a marae or ceremonial meeting house. The Waikato iwi or tribe in the western part of Aotearoa is said to have been protected by eight taniwhā, which is why they could never be conquered.
In the island of Mindanao in southern Philippines, in the house beams of the houses of the Maranao, the
naga is often depicted in house beams as a protector, though due to Islamization the depiction has become more abstract than it used to be. Also in Mindanao, according to the John Garvin’s Manobos of Mindanao (published by the US National Academy of Science in 1931):

The story of the creation of the world varies throughout the Agúsan Valley. In the district surrounding Talakógon creation is attributed to Makalídung, the first great Manóbo. The details of his work are very meager. He set the world up on posts, some say iron posts, with one in the center. At this central post he has his abode, in company with a python, according to the version of some, and whenever he feels displeasure toward men he shakes the post, thereby producing an earthquake and at the same time intimating to man his anger. It is believed that should the trembling continue the world would be destroyed.

In the same district it is believed that the sky is round and that its extremities are at the limits of the sea. Somewhere near these limits is an enormous hole called “the navel of the sea,” through which the waters descend and ascend. This explains the rise and the fall of the tide.

In Hawai`i, on the other hand, kihā were sometimes depicted in petroglyphs and in hula particularly on the island of Moloka`i. One of the patron deities of King Kamehameha I was a deity known as Kihāwahine (“Dragon Woman”). This deity was said to be shape shifter who appeared as a green dragon and in a green sarong as a woman. The devotees and priestesses (males were not allowed to become priests under this deity) normally refrained from wearing green in deference to her when approaching one of her shrines. One of the major attributes of this particularly deity was that her favored priestesses and devotees were said to have the power of prophesy and be able to shape shift–attributes a warrior-king like King Kamehameha would have desired.

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