Male Figure. Mangareva, French Polynesia, Wood. 18th-early 19th century.
Copyright © 2000–2009 The Metropolitan Museum of Art
The tale in brief
Hema ate a red louse from his mother's head but Punga, his brother, ate a black louse. Therefore Hema's son, Tahaki, has red skin while Punga's Rikitea children have brown skin.
Nua, one of Tahaki's Rikitea cousins, takes him as her lover. Her people want to see his skin, so she tricks him into staying after dawn by filling the chinks in her hut to keep the daylight out. He walks out naked amongst the Rikitea people and they are envious.
They lure him with a diving competition though Huauri, his mother who is from the gods, warns him not to go. The Rikitea people dive first and become fishes and coral lying in wait for him. When he dives they tear off all his red skin. He goes back to his mother and sits, shamed and silent, in her house.
Nua abandons him for another man.
But Kuhi, grateful because Tahaki has earlier restored her sight, gathers up all the pieces of skin in a basket and keeps them with her in the underworld.
When Huauri judges he has learned his lesson - he is stubborn and proud - she tells him to go to Kuhi in the Po. He takes his Rikitea cousin, Karihi, who went with him before to the Po. He forgives Karihi for his envious attack.
Kuhi bids him enter her hut, not as a man but as a god. She restores his red skin everywhere except the soles of his feet; the stick insects have stolen that skin: that's why they have red arm-pits.
When the cousins travel back, Kuhi makes makes Tahaki beat the drum slowly and doubtfully, and makes Karihi confused so he cannot lead but falls behind. She seizes him and is about to eat him, but Huauri rescues him.
Karihi goes to live (below) amongst the fishes. They do not like him and he is alone and ashamed. He tries to bribe one fish by giving it markings of his own black skin, which beauty entices all the other fish to come to him for black markings. He traps them and eats them one by one. One fish, the sand-borer, escapes by hiding in the sand in the bottom of the trap.
Nua is living with Tuku. Tahaki tricks Tuku into letting him join them by transforming himself into an old man. Using magic, Tahaki makes Nua crave a special fish and Tuku goes out to catch it. Tahaki follows him, tricks him into diving for the fish, and so sees Tuku naked.
Tahaki tells Nua that Tuku's penis is crooked. Then Tahaki becomes young and red-skinned again. Nua again desires him but he rejects her. Tuku gathers friends to kill Tahaki. Tahaki ascends to the sky and leaves Nua weeping.
The complete legend with interpretations
In Mangareva more is told of great Tahaki, the grandfather of Rata. His journey to below is made again. There are women who desire him, when he shines; but Tahaki resplendent leaves Nua weeping on the shore, and ascends to the heavens. There he remains.
Method of interpretation
I describe my method also in other commentaries (see Tahaki of the red skin on this website).
I assume that the each detail of an image and each detail of the story has meaning: its meaning imbues it with energy which causes it to be retained spontaneously (unconsciously) as the story is told.
The story is not about an individual's psychology, as a dream may be, but about universal themes. Like serious literature it can speak to everyone. Thus I assume it portrays archetypes, the universal dynamic patterns - potentials of organization - by which everyone's psychology self-organizes. The story organizes itself spontaneously in the minds of its tellers thereby demonstrating how these potentials may interact. Like a dream it takes a set of characters and explores what might happen among them.
I interpret many details symbolically, that is, as Jung said, as the best possible representation of a reality which remains mysterious, which cannot be more precisely defined. The interpretation cannot exhaust the story's poetical mystery. Like an interpretation of a poem my interpretation cannot be proven objectively but must subjectively convince. When I interpret a dream by this method I rely upon a visceral affirmation from the dreamer. Here each reader must decide for him or herself whether or not my interpretation convinces.
Interpretation is supported by repetition: if a theme is important then it will be restated again and again. When we see that a series of unrelated images all support the same symbolic interpretation, then we begin to feel convinced.
Tahaki's beautiful skin
Tahaki was of this land Mangareva. His father Hema lived at Ngaheata. Punga the father of Karihi lived at Rikitea, on the far side of the land. Tahaki and Karihi were of natures unalike because of something which their fathers did when young. It was this:
One day the mother of Punga and Hema asked them to pick her head for lice. They did so, and Punga caught a black louse of the common sort, but Hema caught a red louse. When their mother said, ‘Now eat your lice,’ Hema obeyed his mother, but Punga would not. Because of his obedience Hema’s son was born with a ruddy skin, which gave him beauty in the land; but Karihi his elder cousin had only common skin.
Nua naheo was Punga’s daughter, and Tahaki desired her. It was his custom to go to her in secret in the night, and go home before the sun came up.
Now all the land had heard about Tahaki’s ruddy skin, and when word got out that he went to Nua naheo at night, those Rikitea people made a plot to catch him in her house; for they very much desired to see that kirikura.
They said to Nua, ‘We would like to see your lover’s red skin.’ And Nua, greatly pleased, agreed to do what they suggested. They therefore stopped up all the chinks and crevices in Nua’s house so that Tahaki should not know when daylight came.
Tahaki came that night, and was with Nua. Toward the day he heard the first cry of the karako, the bird that wakes us in the mornings in this land. ‘Hear that,’ he said. ‘The herald of the dawn. Night’s candles are burned out.’ He roused himself; but Nua said, ‘Must you be gone? It is not yet near day. Believe me, love, here at Rikitea those birds call out in the middle of the night.’ Tahaki therefore stayed; he rested yet in Nua’s arms.
The karako cried again, and great Tahaki stirred, but Nua said, ‘It cannot be dawn, for see how dark the house remains.’
But the birds cried more. Tahaki rose; and when the chief slid back the door he found the sun was shining on the sea, and all the Rikitea people lined up by the path from Nua’s house. Thus Tahaki naked left that house before their eyes. With pride but not with boasting did Tahaki walk between them. He had indeed a skin of gorgeous hue, with auburn hair as well; and great was the stature, great the glory, of that red chief.
After this there was jealousy in Punga’s village, that a man of Ngaheata should so surpass them all in handsomeness. They therefore resolved to get Tahaki’s skin, they made a plot to take it from that chief and make him common. And low Karihi, out of envy of his cousin, joined that plot, he schemed with Punga and the Rikitea people.
As is the Polynesian convention, Tahaki is called 'great Tahaki' throughout this story. But the details of the story reveal something more interesting.
In the beginning Tahaki is distinguished from others mainly by his red skin. This is why Nua desires him: when he loses his red skin she deserts him; when he regains his color she wants him back again. It is Tahaki’s skin that the Rikitea people envy. It is all about his looks, how other people look at him.
Miriam Webster defines beauty as the quality or aggregate of qualities in a person or thing that gives pleasure to the senses or pleasurably exalts the mind or spirit.
So Tahaki's greatness lies first in his ability to inspire others by his beauty.
We perceive beauty, in part, when contrasts, tensions and movements are integrated to form a dynamic unity (see my article on this website on great art). This is true not only for art, but also for the beauty of a person. A person’s physical beauty suggests dynamic integration in the personality. It implies vigor, love, relationship, creativity, psychological growth, and so on. Ultimately this is why physical beauty incites desire and envy.
Thus Tahaki's physical beauty hints that he is the bearer of psychological or creative distinction, that he has the potential to become a creative individual. This is everyone's creative potential, everyone's live, unique core which is often stifled or crippled and which both creative work and analysis seeks to release. Since the legend centers upon his red skin, the overall theme of the legend may be psychological or creative distinction and how it must be borne, defended and developed.
Tahaki walks naked between the Rikitea people 'with pride but not with boasting … and great was the stature, great the glory, of that red chief.' These words confirm that his personality is beautiful and show that he has high self-esteem. When he loses his red skin his self-esteem (narcissism) is injured.
At the edge of the lagoon-shelf, where the water becomes blue, they built a diving-platform, high and strong, and they sent out word to all the land that there would be a diving festival.
‘I would like to be in that,’ said great Tahaki to his mother Huauri when he heard this news, and Huauri did her best to put him off.
‘It is a plot against you because of your beauty, O my son, ’ that mother said. ‘They will steal your handsome skin, those Rikitea people.’
But Tahaki disregarded her advice, he crossed the land to join the diving festival.
Then all the haters saw him coming and they shouted, ‘Who will be the first to dive?’
‘I will,’ Tahaki cried, but the people said, ‘Who is this person? Did he help to build this platform here? He will be lucky if we let him dive at all. Let him go last!’
Then the Rikitea people dived, but none of them came up again, they remained below. By the magic power of Punga they were turned to fishes or to coral rocks, and they waited for Tahaki to arrive.
Then came Tahaki’s turn; he sprang up from that platform and he dived, all red in the sunlight, to the dim green fathoms of below. His waiting enemies were there, they darted in and tore off pieces of his skin. Tahaki twisted and he turned, and as he turned a thousand enemies took nibbles of his skin. Then the living rocks leapt up, and they too scraped off pieces of the glory of that chief, until they had it all.
Tahaki rose to breathe, he shook the water from his head and swam to shore before the crowd, his kura gone. Those people jeered. And great Tahaki, stripped of redness, strode the island to his home.
Tahaki is attacked when he seeks to display his diving prowess. He wants to show himself, even to expose his naked skin again as he dives. This is healthy narcissism working as it should; it makes him go out into the world and compete in displays of mastery: it pulls him into life. But it also makes him vulnerable to envy.
Envy operates in the unconscious (the underwater fishes and coral) in small increments which diminish him piece by piece. Envy causes death by a thousand cuts.
In the beginning Tahaki is naive and vulnerable but, after visiting the underworld, he becomes a tricky strategist, like Odysseus. Tahaki can then fight effectively to protect his narcissism.
Depression: Kohut's horizontal split
‘Well, you were right,’ he said to Huauri when he reached their house. ‘They took my skin.’ He sat in silence then; nor did Huauri speak her thoughts.
After that occasion Nua naheo was no longer flattered to be Tahaki’s lover, and she deserted him, she took another man. His other woman Tumehoehoe also turned her back upon that chief, because his red skin was gone.
Tahaki concedes to his mother that he should have listened to her and then sits in silence. These few words suggest that he is depressed. There is no sign of a grandiose defense, unlike in the previous version of the legend of Tahaki.
Tahaki remains silent: his mother waits until she ‘considers her son has learned the lesson of his stubbornness.’ Then she directs him to Kuhi in the Po. A journey to the underworld is an image of depression, so this is a repetition which helps to confirm that his silence represents depression.
When Tahaki and Karihi attempt to leave the Po, Kuhi makes their drum sound softly causing confusion, doubt and wondering: like silence, these are signs of depression, another repetition.
Karihi, who suggests the vulnerable aspect of Tahaki, is held back by the underworld (depression) and is for a second time about to be devoured by Kuhi (devoured by depression). More repetitions.
Even after Karihi is rescued from Kuhi by his mother, he returns again to a hungry underwater state (depression). Another repetition.
Thus Tahaki reacts to narcissistic injury with depression. He has to enter deep into his depression in order to recover his self-esteem. Only part of him succeeds; part of him remains trapped in hungry depression.
Narcissistic injury often causes what Kohut called a vertical split, with grandiose fantasies/hopes on one side and a profound feeling of worthlessness on the other. The injured person clings tenaciously to grandiose hopes, and may become enraged if he or she is forced to give them up, even if forced to do so by positive growth.
But narcissistic injury sometimes causes a different split - Kohut called it horizontal. Here the person is depressed, shamed, and acutely sensitive to criticism. Grandiosity is not gone but it is repressed or displaced - perhaps onto the person's children. We may call the person “thin-skinned”. Tahaki’s loss of skin and his depression suggest that he has reacted to narcissistic injury by splitting horizontally.
In both horizontal and vertical splits the injured person’s sense of self is identified with the split. Of necessity the person tenaciously resists giving it up. In a horizontal split the depression has a stubborn, tenacious quality which is different from a creative depression or a depression due to abandonment. The legend portrays the tenacious aspect of Tahaki's depression in his cousin, Kahiri. Kuhi keeps attacking Kahiri and Kahiri never fully escapes.
Distinction as unconscious creative potential
Now Punga’s and Karihi’s plot was foiled; it was foiled by that ancestress of Tahaki whom we know, old Kuhi of the blinded eyes. From gratitude for sight she saved Tahaki’s kirikura.
Those Rikitea people stole it indeed, they nibbled it off in pieces when he dived; but Kuhi as well was beneath the water on that day, she came from the Po, and sat among those people who were fishes and rocks. She brought her sacred basket, kete katorangi, and when the fishes bit off pieces of Tahaki’s skin deft Kuhi snatched them back. Each little piece she took from nibbling lips, and put it in her kete katorangi, saying to herself, ‘My young grandson gave me back my sight for this.’ She also took those pieces which the rocks scraped off; and when she had the skin complete she returned with her basket to her house in the Po te Moamua. And Huauri knew what Kuhi had performed.
As soon as Huauri considered that her son had learned the lesson of his stubborness, she said: ‘If you have courage, you will go to your ancestor in the Po.’ Tahaki answered, ‘Indeed then I shall go to Kuhi, if that is your advice. And I shall take Karihi with me. We know the way, we two.’
Then Huauri was dismayed, for she knew of Karihi’s jealousy. She did her best to make Tahaki go alone, but he was obstinate.
Those two set off, they took Tahaki’s drum to keep in step, and after journeying they came to Kuhi’s house. But seeing Karihi there, old Kuhi went within - she made herself not seen.
Those cousins stood outside. Then Kuhi called:
‘Tahaki dear, as a man, remain outside.’
Tahaki did not move. And Kuhi called again:
‘Tahaki dear, as a god, come in. Your skin is here in the katorangi basket.’
Tahaki therefore put down his drum and entered that old woman’s house, and his cousin remained outside. And Kuhi took the basket from the ridgepole, she picked out all the thousand pieces of Tahaki’s skin, and put them back in their proper places. She put them on, tapiripiri, and they stuck.
Then did Tahaki stand forth in his red skin once more. It was complete save only where he trod - for Kuhi could not find the pieces for the soles of Tahaki’s feet.
Those pieces had been stolen from her basket by the stick-insects, the ‘e, who live on the fronds of the coconut tree. Kuhi guessed this, and she went outside, she stood beneath the tree that leaned above her house, and she called to them, Ho, you red-faced ’e! Give back the grandchild’s skin!’
Those thieving insects lied; they answered her, ‘We have not seen it.’
‘Of course you have,’ she cried, ‘you have it in your armpits, every one of you!’ But the insects would not give the kura back, they had used it on themselves.
‘Oh, let them keep it,’ Kuhi muttered as she went inside. ‘No one will notice that you have no kura on your soles, O man erect.’
This is how the ‘e obtained the kura that is in their ampits still.
Tahaki's distinctive skin is preserved by the Kuhi in a basket in the depths. This suggests again that distinction - creative or psychological potential - exists as an archetype in the unconscious. It can be claimed by consciousness only sometimes, only with the right attitude, only if one is willing and able to do the work.
A young child may possess startling beauty and originality as shown, for example, in his or her art-work. This potential tends to be suppressed by envy in the environment, by family or peers or schooling. When an adult is given the tools and permission to paint like a grade-school child (the protocol of a class I teach regularly at the Jung Foundation in New York) then the adult's paintings often show startling beauty and originality. The potential has not been destroyed but only put on hold in the unconscious - safely contained in Kuhi's basket.
The unconscious devours distinction when it can - for example by seducing an artist away from his work - but, paradoxically, the unconscious also fosters distinction.
The stick insects retain some of Tahaki's red skin. This repeats the idea that distinction is a potential of nature itself.
Healing: the theft of creativity
Then Tahaki came forth from Kuhi’s house, and Karihi was amazed to see him restored to his former handsomeness; and there was confusion in Karihi’s heart.
Then they-two started on their homeward journey to this world of light. To lead the way - that was Karihi’s task. To beat the drum to make their striding firm - that was Tahaki’s. But Kuhi worked upon their thoughts with magic power. With the power of her divinity she made Karihi feel so greatly confused that he fell behind, instead of leading. And she caused Tahaki’s drumming to become faint and full of doubting, wherefore our people have this song:
Let us leave on the rising tide -
Though doubt arises with the waves.
The sounding drum in the younger son’s,
The elder goes in doubt.
Drum softly sounding,
Cause of doubting,
Drum that sounds so secretly!
I have adorned myself with fragrant flowers -
But yet one wonders.
Karihi here, move over now
Toward the first Night-World,
To the first night-World
Where doubt exists.
Drum softly sounding,
Cause of doubting,
Drum that sounds so secretly!
I have adorned myself with fragrant flowers -
But yet one wonders.
Toward the first Night-World
Move over now,
To where the woman planned
To pluck the eyes out of Karihi,
Whom she held in doubt.
Drum softly sounding,
Cause of doubting,
Drum that sounds so secretly!
I have adorned myself with fragrant flowers -
But yet one wonders.
By the power of Kuhi from the gods Karihi fell so far behind that he heard Tahaki’s drum no more, he fell from sight. Then Kuhi seized him with her scaly hands, she took him to her house and tied him up with cord. And she plucked Karihi’s eyes out and put them in her katorangi basket, and she lit an oven in order to cook him.
But Huauri as Karihi’s feeding-mother came from the world above. She asked, ‘Why have you done this to Karihi, O my mother?’ and Kuhi answered, ‘It was this pig who took the word to Punga.’ Then Huauri made her mother untie Karihi, and she gave him back his eyes, and he returned to this world above.
Tahaki's task is to reclaim consciously his distinction and thus to heal his narcissistic injury. Then he can be aware of his distinction and responsible for it; before he was naive and unaware.
The drumbeat is a conscious creation whose purpose is to elicit energy from the unconscious and focus it for conscious purpose. By muting the drum the unconscious opposes the 'theft' of distinction (obtaining the red skin is like the theft of fire from the gods). In the end it is Huauri - the anima, the arousing creative dimension of the feminine - who protects Tahaki's vulnerable side from being devoured by Kuhi.
This beautifully depicts an artist's struggle to create. Creative work steals distinction from the unconscious and brings it back to consciousness. An artist fights sleepiness or distraction as he or she focuses energy on creation. Creativity is devoured by drugs and alcohol, greed, materialist compulsion, compulsive need for distinction and recognition, compulsive perfectionism, and so on. To oppose these devouring forces an artist uses ritual and learned skill (the drumbeat) and depends upon inspiration (Huauri).
Karihi is like an artist who is not strong enough to overcome the devouring forces. He becomes consumed by envy and greed.
Narcissism and creativity are closely related. To heal a narcissistic injury one often must develop creative expression. When one crafts a distinctive work of art, this protects one from the compulsion to be a person of distinction, better than, or worse than, or more important than others.
After this journey Karihi went to the land of the fishes, where he lived quietly for some time. But this was his trouble in that place: the fishes did not like Karihi, he felt alone among them, and ashamed. Since they would not make friends with him he sought for some way to please, and it was this: he peeled off his own black skin and gave it to the fish called Hamikere, the black hami. Then he told that fish to say to all the others, ‘It was Karihi nui who gave me this handsome skin.’
When Hamikere went home all his relations were delighted and amazed by his appearance, they crowded round and questioned him.
‘Well,’ said Hamikere, ‘it was like this: I simply went to the land of Sea-moss and I was nibbling the moss on the coral when I saw this black thing. I was frightened, and I was going to leave when I heard someone calling me, and I looked at this person, and he was coming toward me shouting, Don’t run away, lest I kill you.’ Then what did he do-- he took off his skin and gave it to me, saying, ‘Here is your handsome skin.’ And he told me to say I got it from Karihi nui.’
‘Where is he now?’ the rest all cried. ‘We’ll have to find him and ask him for skin like yours! So they all swam off to that place where Karihi was staying; but not Hamikere: he remained.
Karihi in the meantime built himself a fish-trap. He gathered many coral rocks, and in a shallow part of the lagoon he built a walled-in place with inward-curving entrances, one entrance leading to another one. And when those fishes arrived he asked them, ‘What is the purpose of your journey here?’
They answered, ‘Is the skin of Hamikere really yours?’
‘It is,’ Karihi said, ‘I gave it to him.’
They purpose of our journey here,’ the fishes said, ‘is that you should give us new skins also, like Hamikere’s.’
‘I will gladly do that for you,’ Karihi said. ‘What you must do is this: all come in here to this place which I have made for you, and when I call you you must come to me one at a time--not all at once.’ So the fishes agreed, and they swam inside, to live in that place.
‘Aha!’ cried Karihi-the-man, ‘no shortage now! I shall have what I want every day!’ And he closed the entrance and returned to his own place.
Soon Karihi felt hungry, so he called a fish, and it came to receive its skin. Karihi bit its neck and ate it up. In time he did the same to all the rest, they came to him singly and Karihi ate them, until there was none left but the sand-borer, Hamohamo ngaere.
Hamohamo knew quite well what had happened to the other fishes, but the opening of the trap was shut, there was no way out. It was then that he thought of boring into the sand to hide.
One day Karihi called Hamohamo to come to him, but no fish came. He searched and called, and searched again, but no fish came: no trace could he find of Sand-borer. At length he went home tired out, and he neglected to close the entrance to the fish-trap. Then Sand-borer came out of the sand and darted through the opening, he sped away.
Karihi saw that fish escape, and chased it, but he could not catch Hamohamo ngaere.
It was Hamohamo who warned all other fishes not to believe Karihi, and that is why no fish ever obtained a gleaming black skin like Hamikere’s.
This explains why we say that the black hami got its skin from Karihi and the red hami got its skin from Tahaki. How the hami-kura got Tahaki’s skin has not been told.
Karihi's trickiness is employed in an underhand version of creativity. He decorates one fish to deceive the others, creating an ingenious fish trap, so that he can devour all the fish (except one even more tricky than he).
Trickery with lovers
Tahaki kirikura returned to this world of light and showed abroad his redskin, but those lovers who left that chief had gone to other men. Tumehoehoe was sharing Tangaroa’s mat and Nua naheo was beating tapa for Tuku, a good-looking fellow who lived beside the coast and fished with nets.
Therefore Tahaki resolved to carry his pillow to Tuku’s place, to win back Nua whom he loved. By incantations he turned himself into an ugly old man, and in that form he trudged to Tuku’s house.
‘O Tuku,’ said Tahaki in the thin voice of an old one, ‘may I live with you and help about the house?’
‘What can an old man like you do for me?’ said handsome Tuku.
‘E ’iro’iro a’o, e tata manongi,’ Tahaki answered: ‘Twist good lines and make you hand-nets.’ So Tuku let the old man stay, and told his wife to give him food.
When Tuku went out fishing, Tahaki made approaches to his wife. But Nua pushed him aside and said, ‘You have the bad breath of an old man. Go away!’
Tahaki therefore spoke a certain chant which gave that woman pregnant cravings for the fish called ta, and when her man came home she said to him, ‘Oh Tuku, I am longing for some ta.’
So Tuku took a hand-net which his visitor had made, and he returned to the reef to fish for ta.
Then great Tahaki made himself not seen, and he followed Tuku to the reef. He stirred the water with his hands, and Tuku, seeing red fish among the coral, let down his net. He caught no ta, and tried again, and scooping deeper caught his hand-net in the coral. Then Tuku had to strip his maro off and dive to free the net. And Tahaki watched him, he observed that man.
While Tuku was mending his net that old man of stinking breath returned to Nua naheo. ‘I saw your husband on the reef,’ he said. ‘He has a poor kind of ure, that man. It is short and crooked.’
At last Tuku gave up trying to catch the fish that Nua wanted, and he returned to his house. ‘Has that old man been saying anything to you?’ he asked; and Nua told him what their visitor had said. ‘I thought as much,’ said Tuku, ‘it is that pig of an old man who has brought me this bad luck.’ And Tuku went off to collect his friends to kill Tahaki.
But great Tahaki sent forth potent force, and not a man of Tuku’s party could approach his sacred person.
Then lightening flashed from the armpits of that chief, he threw off his disguise and stinking breath, and he stood before Nua naheo in all his shining divinity, his youthful handsomeness and red skin. And Nua instantly desired him, and made this known to him. But pride and bitterness were in Tahaki’s heart, he spurned that woman.
Tahaki also shows himself to be tricky when he returns from the underworld. While Karihi succeeds in tricking the fish, Tahaki tricks Nua and her lover.
In both cousins consciousness asserts itself as a trickster, able to thwart the natural order. Again this is like the theft of fire which, once stolen, is used in all manner of human trickery.
A wider purpose
Tahaki left Nua naheo weeping on the coast and crossed the sea, he trod the ocean till he reached the green tree of Havaiki, the sacred tree whose roots are in the Po, whose topmost branches touch the sacred sky of Tane. And while sad Nua sang laments beside the sea that red chief climbed upward, he ascended to the topmost heaven.
That Tahaki leaves Nui and ascends suggests that this story is not about personal relationship, but about a wider development in the personality - the healing of narcissistic injury.