Who Is Ḷainjin and When Did He Live?

Who Is ainjin and When Did He Live?

A lot of you have asked me this question. Ḷainjin is the main character in Man Shark, the first book in my series Legends of Ḷainjin. Unlike some of the mythical characters in Marshall Islands folklore, he was an actual historical figure.

As legend has it, he was the son of Tarmālu, the famous traditional navigator. She left him in the care of others to lead her fleet of proa from the shelter of the Wōtto Atoll lagoon out into the open ocean to save them from the certain destruction of an oncoming typhoon. As director of the Marshall Islands Alele Museum for ten years in the 1980s, I oversaw the videotaping of a vast trove of oral literature told by Marshall Islanders. Oddly enough, neither these stories nor stories I have heard elsewhere reveal Tarmālu’s destiny.

What we do have is an elaborate navigational chant or poem called the Ikir an ainjin. This song records all the sea marks around the periphery of the Rālik and Ratak chains of the Marshalls. Legend says he developed this chant while searching for his mother. Passed down among the navigators from teacher to apprentice, the chant was set apart from other stories as esoteric knowledge known to only a few. The language of the ikir, much like that of the famous Jebwa spear dance, is ancient and contains many words of either unknown or secret meaning. By “ancient,” I mean pre-contact for certain. However, the ikir does give us two important clues as to Tarmālu’s destiny. First, it does not reveal whether Ḷainjin found her or not. Second, the chant unambiguously begins at Ngadik, off Pohnpei.

It would not be right to reveal what I know about ainjin and not tell you about the man who taught me to recite the first thirty-two lines of his poem. The man’s name was ōtima. Translated, it means “Man Steamer.” He lived at the end of Rongelap Village with his wife and children and was my informant for only a few months. He objected when I made recordings with other orators on the island and refused to tell me more. I did not realize at the time that a navigator would jealously husband an apprentice and demand absolute loyalty.

Before directing the Museum of the Marshall Islands, I spent four uninterrupted years on Rongelap doing research for my book Man This Reef, a translated biography of a storyteller. I left the audiotapes I used in this work of translation with the Alele Museum, and my friend Joe Murphy published the book at his Micronitor Press. The museum sold the book as a fund-raiser for many years, but it is currently out of print.

The first line of Ḷainjin’s chant is “Kajike wa in jen likiej in Ngadik.” Translated, this means “Steer your boat off the east reef of Ngadik.” That is an atoll southwest of Pohnpei. There is also an area on Pohnpei — on the east side of the island, southwest of Nan Madol — called Ngadik. Whichever place the chant refers to, the next lines seem to mention the iel, or tideways, of Nan Madol. Then there are references to sakau drinking. Then references to their hosts digging up taro and providing provisions for their trip home. Given the pre-contact period of the chant and the broad swath of islands and atolls it encompasses, it is not surprising that a navigation chant would mention Pohnpei. That the chant begins off Pohnpei and devotes twenty-three lines to the place seems to add to its significance as a destination for Ḷainjin.

What is Nan Madol, when was it built and what significance does it have for Marshall Islanders living seven hundred miles to the east?

“Nan Madol” means “within the intervals,” referring to the tidal canals between the city’s man-made islets. The islanders constructed the walls of these islets of gigantic hexagonal basaltic crystals and filled them with coral stones gathered from the reef and adjacent shores. These columnar crystals formed naturally during the island’s volcanic birth from the sea as its lava flows cooled and formed the basaltic cliffs visible today.

The unique thing about Nan Madol is that the islanders did not build the city beneath one of the cliffs where the gigantic crystals lay but miles away, out on the fringing reef of Temwen Island, off the east coast of Pohnpei. The city is 1.5 km long by 0.5 km wide. The ancestors of the people of Pohnpei moved thousands of these crystals to where they currently lie. The total weight of the stones alone, estimated at 827,000 tons, would take modern-day moving equipment years to move. That is, if there were roads and bridges where there are none.

Today much of the city has been laboriously freed from the mangrove that had overgrown and encompassed it these last centuries since its abandonment. When I first visited there in 1971, the hacking out of the mangrove jungle surrounding the city had just begun, and I could approach the area for only a few hours at high tide by boat. Yet even then, viewing only a small portion of the city, the immensity of human effort required to transport the stones and construct the high walls astounded me. The city clearly represents the remains of a society and a supportive economy many times larger than those of modern-day Pohnpei.

Nan Madol

Archaeologists tell us that construction of Nan Madol began sometime after the birth of Christ and ended around 1500, when a period of dissolution began. In my novel, Ḷainjin would have lived toward the end of this period. Many have inferred from archaeological evidence and perhaps historic oral accounts that Nan Madol was some sort of a religious center occupied by a class of “priests.” However, a bird’s-eye view from the 1911 map published by German ethnologist Paul Hambruch leaves little doubt that there was much more activity here than religious ceremonies and burials. This map shows only the largest of the ninety-two or so man-made islets and the walls surrounding them. If this was but a mortuary site, what were these walls protecting?

Unfortunately, the map does not clearly show the bay north of the city. You see the white outline of this bay labeled “reef” on the eastern edge of the map. This corner of the city was obviously a harbor of sorts. The natural reef surrounding the adjoining bay provides protection from the easterly swells generated by the trade winds. The bay’s entrance is about 0.5 km wide, and the bay provides nearly 0.8 km of such protection. Yet Madolenihmw harbor to the northwest provides even more protection. Why did they not build the city there?

Why did the islanders decide to build their city on the fringing reef anyway? This required transporting not only the stones from the mainland but also both food and water. The answer may have something to do with the mangrove that surrounds the shores of Pohnpei and has, even now, crept out to recapture the city. Was the city built out upon the reef to escape the mangrove’s clutches? Imagine the economy that must have been in place to support such an effort. If the men were busy transporting stones and the women and their daughters busy feeding their men, and if the boys were out gathering the protein necessary for afternoon and evening meals, who was left to fashion the hooks and lures and fishing line? Who gathered the stingray barbs for spear fishing? Who plaited the fine mats needed for sleeping or the coir sennit needed for house construction? These items, time consuming to produce, were the stock in trade of the atolls surrounding Pohnpei. If the islanders built their city on the edge of the reef as a center of trade to attract atoll-dwelling traders, then the whole concept starts to make more sense.

Did the Pohnpeians and Marshall Islanders share a history of trade? Marshallese has two words for “trade” and one word for “buy”: wia. Pohnpeian has four words for “buy,” including the Pohnpeian word net, “to trade.” Both languages have borrowed foreign words over the years, but these two terms appear to be indigenous. If trading had started during the German or Japanese periods, the islanders would have adopted foreign words.

These two languages share many words in common. Is this because the people had common ancestors? Probably, yet we cannot rule out prolonged and consistent contact over the centuries. We know that the people to the west of Pohnpei were navigators, and so were the Marshall Islanders. You would think that a destination like Nan Madol, built on the edge of the reef, would attract them to Pohnpei’s shores. During this period, we also know that the Melanesians, to the west, had developed very sophisticated trading circles consisting of dozens of trading centers and hundreds of miles of open ocean between them. I will place this piece of the puzzle for you in later articles.

Modern-day Pohnpeians and Marshall Islanders do not think of themselves as traders, and I am not one to blame the missionaries for ruining their culture. The missionaries had good reason to preach as they did, and the people had good reason to adopt their teachings. But I do believe that a trading culture could have been one of the things set aside due to the influence of the missionaries. The remnants of Melanesian “big man” culture and its theme of feeding others must have been a strong aspect of the cultures of Pohnpei and the Marshall Islands. So the missionary message that it was better to give away than to sell could have been the death knell for whatever barter system prevailed at that time. Going back a thousand years prior to the introduction of Western diseases, populations were no doubt much larger. Present-day islanders have only a vague idea of what their ancestors’ culture was like back then. However, they do have their oral literature, and this reveals a great deal. Let’s hope that anyone who still knows Ḷainjin’s complete ikir records it at the museum. Too much has been lost.

One conclusion seems obvious. A likely result of all the industrious transportation of building materials on Pohnpei was the development of commerce. Such specialized effort at stone fitting must have bred other specializations that led to commercialization. It was no doubt commerce that attracted ainjin. Nan Madol must have been a trading center with the thriving economy necessary to support such transport and construction over a sustained period. It was the most obvious place to search for his mother or to seek knowledge of what had happened to her fleet of proa from any survivors. This assumes, of course, that Ḷainjin would have lived around the same time that the city was under construction.

In Man Shark, I introduce Ḷainjin as a character and hypothesize what life might have been like in the Marshalls during the period he would have lived. The novel begins at the end of the famous search for his mother. The prequel to Man Shark, coming out next fall, will tell an adventure story of what could have happened as Ḷainjin searched for her across the vast expense of the Pacific.

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