South Sea Island Folktales: Sina and the Eel

Sina and the Eel

South Seas Myths

In many places in the South Seas there is a myth of origin of the coconut tree (Cocos nucifera) and its nut.   It is a popular and well known tale in Oceania with many different variations found from region to region. Names and details vary from region to region but there is a similar structure and story-line in many of these tales.   It should be noted that in the folklore of the people of Samoa there is a legend they call “Sina ma le Tuna” which tells of the origin of the coconut tree and in the Samoan language, “Tuna,” means, “eel.” (1) Presented here are two versions of folktales that deal with this myth.  The first is from the island of Savai’I, Samoa and the second comes from American Samoa.  

The Savai’l Samoan Version

This folktale begins with a girl named Sina who was famous around the South Seas for her loveliness.  The King of Fiji, who was known as the Tui Fiti, heard of her beauty and was intrigued.  Although he was much older than Sina he decided he had to meet the beautiful one in person to see if all he had heard was true.  Calling on his Mana, which is his own personal magic, he transformed into an eel and swam to the island home of Sina.  Discovering the village pool was used by all the villagers as a communal bath he slithered into its waters hoping Sina would come to bathe.

Concealing himself at the bottom of the pool he waited patiently hoping she would enter the pool.  Many of the villagers came to the pool to bathe but he remained hidden knowing that these were not the beautiful one he sought. Eventually, the most beautiful girl he had ever seen or imagined entered the pool to bathe.  Immediately he knew it was her for such outstanding loveliness could only belong to the famous Sina, the beautiful one, he sought.   He lay at the bottom of the pool staring up through the water at her lovely face.

Eventually, Sina felt a peculiar sensation and noticed the eel staring at her.  Taken by surprise she became angry, shouting in Samoan, “E pupula mai, ou mata o le alelo!” which means, “You stare at me, with eyes like a demon!” (2). However, after the initial alarm Sina noticed the eel did not look dangerous or aggressive.  In fact it actually seemed very nice and friendly so she took it home for a pet.

Many years passed and the King of Fiji lived happily as Sina’s pet enjoying the love and attention she unknowingly lavished on him as an eel.  Nevertheless, the king was growing older and with age his magic weakened and he found it harder to keep his eel form.  Therefore, he decided that it was time to reveal his true identity and explain himself to her. 

He told her how he was the Tui Fiti, the King of Fiji, who had heard of her great beauty and come to see it for himself.  To make the long sea journey from Fiji to Sina’s island home he had transformed himself into an eel so that he could swim the great distance. In this way he could wait in the pool until she arrived and he could see her.  Once he had seen her he fell in love. 

Realizing he was too old and she would rightly reject him he had kept his eel form so that she would not recognize him as an old man.   He had been overjoyed when she had taken him as a pet because he would remain always near her and enjoy her love and care.  Sadly, because of his great age, his magic had grown weak and he could not keep his eel form much longer and would die.  Therefore, he wished for her to plant his head into the ground near her home. Sina had loved him greatly as her pet and was heartbroken when he died and granted his wish.

From his head there grew the first coconut tree.  On a coconut there are three round marks which look like two eyes and a mouth.   When the coconut is pierced to drink the milk through one of these holes the milk is taken through the pierced hole through the drinker’s mouth.  According to the legend, whenever Sina took a drink of coconut milk from a coconut she was kissing the mouth of the eel.

In Samoa in the village of Matavai, in the district of Safune on the island of Savai’i,is a fresh spring pool. This pool is called, Mata o le Alelo, from the words that Sina first spoke to the eel and is still strongly associated with the legend.

An American Samoan Version

Another version from American Samoa tells how the King of Fiji, heard heard of the beauty of Sina and decided he wanted her for his wife.  However, she lived on a distant island so using his magical power he transformed himself into a young eel and swam all the way from Fiji to Sina’s island home (3).

One day as she was out foraging for shellfish along the seashore she noticed the young eel looking at her from a rock pool.  She thought it looked harmless and had a friendly face and being quite small would make a nice pet.  Therefore, she caught it and put it in the container she used for her shellfish and took it home.

She kept it in a bowl in her home and carefully nurtured it and it became very placid and affectionate towards her.  Under her care it soon grew too big for the bowl so she placed it in a spring near her home.  However, the eel soon grew too big for the spring and she did not know what to do with it.  She asked her mother who suggested she put it in the large freshwater spring the villagers used as a communal bath.  Sina thought this a good idea as the large pool would give the eel space to grow and be free so she placed it in the pool and it hid its self at the bottom.

All the villagers used the pool to bathe but none of them ever seemed to notice the eel. It would come out of hiding to greet Sina as soon as she stepped into the water.   It grew very long and big but was always very affectionate towards her and very playful with her yet no one seemed to notice its presence.  One day the eel became too boisterous and playfully wrapped itself around Sina in a loving embrace.  This frightened her and after that she would not bathe in the communal pool.

From then on she bathed in the small spring near her home.  This was fine at first but somehow the eel found out where she was bathing and appeared in the water as she bathed.   Still no one else could see the eel and its behaviour alarmed her and began to make her angry and frightened.  

Determined to escape the eel, one morning just before dawn, while her family still slept, she quietly left her home to walk to the next village.  It was good distance and she would stop at a spring along the way for a refreshing drink and to cool down and rest.  To her dismay at every spring she stopped at the eel would appear staring out of the water at her.   This terrified her and she continued journeying from village to village trying to escape the eel.  Each time she stopped at the springs along the way it would appear.  Where ever she went the eel appeared and it was growing longer and longer and to her fear and bewilderment, no one else could see it.  

There came a time when it left a pool she had found it in and wriggled onto the land and followed on behind her like pet dog.  Wherever she went it followed her and still no one else could see it.   On her wanderings she came across a group of people having a meeting.  In desperation she ran and sat between the two lead speakers. 

This surprised everyone but the eel had now grown as long as a person. Now everyone could see and hear it and all sat terrified at the strange creature.  It slid through the crowd to rest before where Sina was sitting between the two speakers.   Raising itself up to look her in her eyes the eel said,

“Sina, my beautiful one, please forgive me!   Know now that my true shape is that of a human.  I am the King of Fiji.  I have used my magic to attain this eel form you see me in now.  I took this form when I first heard of your beauty and grace that I might swim the great distance from Fiji to your home on this island to see you for myself.

My intention was to woo you and win your love but I now see that the form I took frightened you and I am sorry.  After so much traveling and keeping this form my magic and power is all used up.  I am tired and my death draws near. Before I die I wanted to explain these things to you hoping you would think better of me. 

In compensation for alarming you I have a valuable gift to offer you.  When I die cut off my head and plant it outside your home.  It will soon grow into a tree that will be of great value to you and your people.  It will have long green leaves that can be used as a fan to cool you in the summer’s heat.  

These leaves will also provide good covering for the roofs of your homes.  The leaves, bark and wood you will find will have many uses that will be of great service to people.  It will also bear a nut that gives food and a nourishing drink.   The nut will have three marks that resemble human features.  To drink from the nut puncture one of these holes and you will pour its milk from its mouth!”

With that it died.  Sina felt sorrry for the King of Fiji and thought perhaps if she had known the full story in the first place things might have turned out differently.  She did as he had asked and planted his head.  As he had foretold a tree grew from it bearing long green leaves and a large nut.  The tree and the nut proved to be extremely useful to humans and became an important part of their lives.  It spread beyond Sina’s isle to neighboring islands and beyond often carried by humans and some times carried by the sea.  The same tradition of kissing the eel when drinking from the coconut applies to this legend as well.

© 21/07/2021 zteve t evans

FURTHER PUBLICATIONS BY ZTEVE T EVANS

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright July 21st, 2021 zteve t evans

12 thoughts on “South Sea Island Folktales: Sina and the Eel

    • Hi Leigh, terrific to hear from you! I agree about the king he seems a bit dodgy and I like the creative explanation for the holes in coconuts. Anyway, thanks for commenting, greatly appreciated!

  1. Pingback: South Sea Island Folktales: Sina and the Eel – Glyn Hnutu-healh: History, Alchemy, and Me

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