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Manu narratives of Polynesia: a comparative study of birds in 300 traditional Polynesian stories

Abstract : In all traditional Polynesian societies, birds engaged humans’ imagination with their songs, their colours and their power of flight, especially because of the absence of large land mammals in Polynesia. Manu (‘birds’ in most Polynesian languages) were also very powerful symbols. This thesis aims to offer a comparative study of the role of birds in traditional Polynesian narratives and to find commonalities between stories from different Polynesian island groups, in order to provide, through textual analysis, a picture of the spiritual, material and emotional relationship of Polynesian peoples with birds in pre-European times. A corpus of 300 bird-related Polynesian narratives has been assembled. Those were, for the most part, collected and published in the 19th and 20th centuries by travellers, government officials, ethnographers, missionaries, anthropologists and linguists. The texts have all been summarised, and the recurrent themes and motifs involving the birds have been analysed in depth. Though ‘Polynesia’ is understood as comprising all the island groups within the Polynesian Triangle as well as the Polynesian Outliers, references have also been made to stories originating from other parts of Oceania. The analysis of the texts suggests that birds appear in the stories in a variety of roles. Some narratives are purely ‘animal stories’ without human characters. These account for and give meaning to the physical, vocal and behavioural characteristics of a given species, Polynesian peoples having developed their own bodies of belief to explain a bird’s behaviour and appearance. However, birds also play a part in stories about the origin of the world and of humankind, and they appear in many traditions as message-bearers sent by a deity to warn or advise humans, as guardians and protectors, as cherished pets, but also as giant man-eating birds. These findings demonstrate that birds are far from being restricted to the ‘animal story’ genre: any type of Polynesian narrative may involve manu. Birds engaged Polynesian peoples’ imaginations in such a way that all their narratives could lend themselves to featuring feathered creatures as dramatis personae.
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Contributor : Raphael Richter-Gravier <>
Submitted on : Tuesday, November 5, 2019 - 4:36:45 AM
Last modification on : Monday, October 19, 2020 - 11:07:24 AM
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Raphael Richter-Gravier. Manu narratives of Polynesia: a comparative study of birds in 300 traditional Polynesian stories. Social Anthropology and ethnology. University of Otago; Université de la Polynésie française / Ecole doctorale du Pacifique, 2019. English. ⟨tel-02346314⟩

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