Ia, fa’alogo mai.
That’s what our elders would say to get children’s attention before telling a fascinating tale, especially an old Samoan myth or legend.
I missed out on that experience growing up, so I wanted to hear a few of those stories while I’m here in Samoa. When I asked around at various family gatherings, though, I got mostly blank stares. I guess childhood was too long ago for my relatives…or maybe we’re not learning our folklore much anymore, not even in Samoa..?
Finally an aunt said, you know the best person to ask about that? And she introduced me to Donna Ioane.
Along with her parents and siblings, Donna runs a holistic style primary (elementary) school. The learning environment at Le Amosa is based on Samoan values, and surprisingly, it’s the only school in Samoa these days that delivers classes entirely in the Samoan language. Traditional myths and legends are just a part of the curriculum here.
The day I met with Donna, I was in the mood for a love story. What’s that one about the mountain and the tears again? It’s a very popular Samoan legend, but I couldn’t remember the details.
Donna laughed and explained that she’s reluctant to share legends associated with landmarks (like mountains, rivers, caves and waterfalls etc). Landmarks belong to villages and villagers can be precious about their stories. If you’re going to tell a legend from a village you don’t belong to, you’re going to raise a few eyebrows and quite possibly some objections.
But I insisted – everybody knows this story anyway, right? The one with the tragic love, and the river and the big strong man…
Donna graciously relented and, with a slightly wary but keen smile, launched into story mode.
Fa’alogo mai, Samoana. This is the legend of Mt Vaea and Loimata o Apaula (as told by Donna Ioane with lots of healthy elaboration by me).
And so the story goes…
A couple from the Vaimauga area (near Samoa college) had two sons: Vaea and Va’atausili.
Vaea was especially large in stature. He was big, Donna says, like Andre the Giant, and as he grew into young adulthood, his strength attracted a lot of attention – and challengers. Vaea welcomed them. He knew that no one could ever defeat him.
Vaea’s parents were fishing on the ocean one day when they came across a boat load of brothers. Some people say these three young men were from Fiji, but Donna believes they were local. The rest of the story suggests they didn’t live too far away. In any case, the old couple overheard the brothers plotting. They’d learned about the powerful Vaea, knew of his arrogance, and were on their way to teach him a lesson. As it would be dark by the time they reached the shore, they planned to rest on the beach and challenge him in the morning.
The couple rushed back to warn Vaea, who immediately went to see about these men. He found them sleeping in their canoe on the beach and, with one hand, lifted the boat up and perched it high atop a tree.
The next morning, the groggy young men bailed water out of their canoe (it must have rained, I guess) but couldn’t hear it splash against the surface of the ocean. They were shocked awake when they heard Vaea’s huge, bellowing laugh and realized how high above the ground they were. Please, they begged Vaea, release them. But Vaea wasn’t about to let this go. He crouched, ready to attack the insolent men when a woman’s voice stopped him in his tracks.
What the brothers hadn’t realized was that their sister, the beautiful Apaula, had stowed away on the boat with them. She only revealed herself now to plead on their behalf. Please, Vaea, she implored. Have mercy. She apologized for her brothers and begged the giant to release them.
Apaula didn’t have to say much more because Vaea was already smitten. He agreed to forgive the young men if they allowed their sister to stay and become his wife. The brothers eagerly consented and scurried away home without her.
Vaea must have had some other great qualities because it didn’t take long for Apaula to fall in love with him. They adored each other as they set up their life together, and soon they were expecting their first child.
As was customary for them, Apaula’s brothers returned to take her back to their own island where she would give birth. Vaea reluctantly let his heavily pregnant wife go, but stood for a long while at Savalalo, the advantage of his height allowing him to observe their entire journey. As the boat neared its destination, Vaea saw in the distance Apaula go into labor and give birth. Then before he could do anything about it, he watched in horror as Apaula’s brothers killed the newborn boy and threw his remains into the ocean. It with their ultimate revenge for the mockery Vaea had made of them earlier.
Vaea was overcome with grief. In his sorrow, his motions slowed and he soon stopped moving altogether. The giant’s limbs began to petrify, and by the time Apaula returned to her husband, he had almost completely turned into a mountain.
Just before his mouth fully solidified, though, Vaea asked his heartbroken wife to do one more thing for him. She needed to find his brother, to have him avenge their little family. Apaula found Va’atausili in the Savai’i village of Falealupo. He was a scrawny figure merrily chasing butterflies on the beach, and she wondered how this little man could possibly defeat her terrible brothers. Va’atausili reassured Apaula, then went into a nearby cave. He emerged transformed into a ferocious beast and set off to hunt his baby nephew’s murderers.
Apaula returned to Vaea, but the giant was a still and cold mountain now. She cried so many tears at the sight of him that she became a long and narrow river that winds around what was once her husband’s body.
Today, they are are landmarks near Apia (in what village?) known as Mount Vaea and Loimata o Apaula (the tears of Apaula). You can also still see the spot in Savalalo where Vaea stood to watch his wife set sail with her brothers, and the Va’atausili’s cave is still in Falealupo.