by Herman Melville

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Chapter Thirty



IN one of my strolls with Kory-Kory, in passing along the borderof a thick growth of bushes, my attention was arrested by asingular noise. On entering the thicket I witnessed for thefirst time the operation of tattooing as performed by theseislanders.

I beheld a man extended flat upon his back on the ground, and,despite the forced composure of his countenance, it was evidentthat he was suffering agony. His tormentor bent over him,working away for all the world like a stone-cutter with malletand chisel. In one hand he held a short slender stick, pointedwith a shark's tooth, on the upright end of which he tapped witha small hammer-like piece of wood, thus puncturing the skin, andcharging it with the colouring matter in which the instrument wasdipped. A cocoanut shell containing this fluid was placed uponthe ground. It is prepared by mixing with a vegetable juice theashes of the 'armor', or candle-nut, always preserved for thepurpose. Beside the savage, and spread out upon a piece ofsoiled tappa, were a great number of curious black-looking littleimplements of bone and wood, used in the various divisions of hisart. A few terminated in a single fine point, and, like verydelicate pencils, were employed in giving the finishing touches,or in operating upon the more sensitive portions of the body, aswas the case in the present instance. Others presented severalpoints distributed in a line, somewhat resembling the teeth of asaw. These were employed in the coarser parts of the work, andparticularly in pricking in straight marks. Some presented theirpoints disposed in small figures, and being placed upon the body,were, by a single blow of the hammer, made to leave theirindelible impression. I observed a few the handles of which weremysteriously curved, as if intended to be introduced into theorifice of the ear, with a view perhaps of beating the tattooupon the tympanum. Altogether the sight of these strangeinstruments recalled to mind that display of cruel-lookingmother-of-pearl-handled things which one sees in theirvelvet-lined cases at the elbow of a dentist.

The artist was not at this time engaged on an original sketch,his subject being a venerable savage, whose tattooing had becomesomewhat faded with age and needed a few repairs, and accordinglyhe was merely employed in touching up the works of some of theold masters of the Typee school, as delineated upon the humancanvas before him. The parts operated upon were the eyelids,where a longitudinal streak, like the one which adornedKory-Kory, crossed the countenance of the victim.

In spite of all the efforts of the poor old man, sundrytwitchings and screwings of the muscles of the face denoted theexquisite sensibility of these shutters to the windows of hissoul, which he was now having repainted. But the artist, with aheart as callous as that of an army surgeon, continued hisperformance, enlivening his labours with a wild chant, tappingaway the while as merrily as a woodpecker.

So deeply engaged was he in his work, that he had not observedour approach, until, after having, enjoyed an unmolested view ofthe operation, I chose to attract his attention. As soon as heperceived me, supposing that I sought him in his professionalcapacity, he seized hold of me in a paroxysm of delight, and wasan eagerness to begin the work. When, however, I gave him tounderstand that he had altogether mistaken my views, nothingcould exceed his grief and disappointment. But recovering fromthis, he seemed determined not to discredit my assertion, andgrasping his implements, he flourished them about in fearfulvicinity to my face, going through an imaginary performance ofhis art, and every moment bursting into some admiring exclamationat the beauty of his designs.

Horrified at the bare thought of being rendered hideous for lifeif the wretch were to execute his purpose upon me, I struggled toget away from him, while Kory-Kory, turning traitor, stood by,and besought me to comply with the outrageous request. On myreiterated refusals the excited artist got half beside himself,and was overwhelmed with sorrow at losing so noble an opportunityof distinguishing himself in his profession.

The idea of engrafting his tattooing upon my white skin filledhim with all a painter's enthusiasm; again and again he gazedinto my countenance, and every fresh glimpse seemed to add to thevehemence of his ambition. Not knowing to what extremities hemight proceed, and shuddering at the ruin he might inflict uponmy figure-head, I now endeavoured to draw off his attention fromit, and holding out my arm in a fit of desperation, signed to himto commence operations. But he rejected the compromiseindignantly, and still continued his attack on my face, as thoughnothing short of that would satisfy him. When his forefingerswept across my features, in laying out the borders of thoseparallel bands which were to encircle my countenance, the fleshfairly crawled upon my bones. At last, half wild with terror andindignation, I succeeded in breaking away from the three savages,and fled towards old Marheyo's house, pursued by the indomitableartist, who ran after me, implements in hand. Kory-Kory,however, at last interfered and drew him off from the chase.

This incident opened my eyes to a new danger; and I now feltconvinced that in some luckless hour I should be disfigured insuch a manner as never more to have the FACE to return to mycountrymen, even should an opportunity offer.

These apprehensions were greatly increased by the desire whichKing Mehevi and several of the inferior chiefs now manifestedthat I should be tattooed. The pleasure of the king was firstsignified to me some three days after my casual encounter withKarky the artist. Heavens! what imprecations I showered uponthat Karky. Doubtless he had plotted a conspiracy against me andmy countenance, and would never rest until his diabolical purposewas accomplished. Several times I met him in various parts ofthe valley, and, invariably, whenever he descried me, he camerunning after me with his mallet and chisel, flourishing themabout my face as if he longed to begin. What an object he wouldhave made of me!

When the king first expressed his wish to me, I made known to himmy utter abhorrence of the measure, and worked myself into such astate of excitement, that he absolutely stared at me inamazement. It evidently surpassed his majesty's comprehensionhow any sober-minded and sensible individual could entertain theleast possible objection to so beautifying an operation.

Soon afterwards he repeated his suggestion, and meeting with alittle repulse, showed some symptoms of displeasure at myobduracy. On his a third time renewing his request, I plainlyperceived that something must be done, or my visage was ruinedfor ever; I therefore screwed up my courage to the stickingpoint, and declared my willingness to have both arms tattooedfrom just above the wrist to the shoulder. His majesty wasgreatly pleased at the proposition, and I was congratulatingmyself with having thus compromised the matter, when he intimatedthat as a thing of course my face was first to undergo theoperation. I was fairly driven to despair; nothing but the utterruin of my 'face divine', as the poets call it, would, Iperceived, satisfy the inexorable Mehevi and his chiefs, orrather, that infernal Karky, for he was at the bottom of it all.

The only consolation afforded me was a choice of patterns: I wasat perfect liberty to have my face spanned by three horizontalbars, after the fashion of my serving-man's; or to have as manyoblique stripes slanting across it; or if, like a true courtier,I chose to model my style on that of royalty, I might wear a sortof freemason badge upon my countenance in the shape of a mystictriangle. However, I would have none of these, though the kingmost earnestly impressed upon my mind that my choice was whollyunrestricted. At last, seeing my unconquerable repugnance, heceased to importune me.

But not so some other of the savages. Hardly a day passed but Iwas subjected to their annoying requests, until at last myexistence became a burden to me; the pleasures I had previouslyenjoyed no longer afforded me delight, and all my former desireto escape from the valley now revived with additional force.

A fact which I soon afterwards learned augmented my apprehension.The whole system of tattooing was, I found, connected with theirreligion; and it was evident, therefore, that they were resolvedto make a convert of me.

In the decoration of the chiefs it seems to be necessary toexercise the most elaborate pencilling; while some of theinferior natives looked as if they had been daubed overindiscriminately with a house-painter's brush. I remember onefellow who prided himself hugely upon a great oblong patch,placed high upon his back, and who always reminded me of a manwith a blister of Spanish flies, stuck between his shoulders. Another whom I frequently met had the hollow of his eyes tattooedin two regular squares and his visual organs being remarkablybrilliant, they gleamed forth from out this setting like a coupleof diamonds inserted in ebony.

Although convinced that tattooing was a religious observance,still the nature of the connection between it and thesuperstitious idolatry of the people was a point upon which Icould never obtain any information. Like the still moreimportant system of the 'Taboo', it always appeared inexplicableto me.

There is a marked similarity, almost an identity, between thereligious institutions of most of the Polynesian islands, and inall exists the mysterious 'Taboo', restricted in its uses to agreater or less extent. So strange and complex in itsarrangements is this remarkable system, that I have in severalcases met with individuals who, after residing for years amongthe islands in the Pacific, and acquiring a considerableknowledge of the language, have nevertheless been altogetherunable to give any satisfactory account of its operations. Situated as I was in the Typee valley, I perceived every hour theeffects of this all-controlling power, without in the leastcomprehending it. Those effects were, indeed, wide-spread anduniversal, pervading the most important as well as the minutesttransactions of life. The savage, in short, lives in thecontinual observance of its dictates, which guide and controlevery action of his being.

For several days after entering the valley I had been saluted atleast fifty times in the twenty-four hours with the talismanicword 'Taboo' shrieked in my ears, at some gross violation of itsprovisions, of which I had unconsciously been guilty. The dayafter our arrival I happened to hand some tobacco to Toby overthe head of a native who sat between us. He started up, as ifstung by an adder; while the whole company, manifesting an equaldegree of horror, simultaneously screamed out 'Taboo!' I neveragain perpetrated a similar piece of ill-manners, which, indeed,was forbidden by the canons of good breeding, as well as by themandates of the taboo. But it was not always so easy to perceivewherein you had contravened the spirit of this institution. Iwas many times called to order, if I may use the phrase, when Icould not for the life of me conjecture what particular offence Ihad committed.

One day I was strolling through a secluded portion of the valley,and hearing the musical sound of the cloth-mallet at a littledistance, I turned down a path that conducted me in a few momentsto a house where there were some half-dozen girls employed inmaking tappa. This was an operation I had frequently witnessed,and had handled the bark in all the various stages of itspreparation. On the present occasion the females were intentupon their occupation, and after looking up and talking gaily tome for a few moments, they resumed their employment. I regardedthem for a while in silence, and then carelessly picking up ahandful of the material that lay around, proceeded unconsciouslyto pick it apart. While thus engaged, I was suddenly startled bya scream, like that of a whole boarding-school of young ladiesjust on the point of going into hysterics. Leaping up with theidea of seeing a score of Happar warriors about to perform anewthe Sabine atrocity, I found myself confronted by the company ofgirls, who, having dropped their work, stood before me withstarting eyes, swelling bosoms, and fingers pointed in horrortowards me.

Thinking that some venomous reptile must be concealed in the barkwhich I held in my hand, I began cautiously to separate andexamine it. Whilst I did so the horrified girls re-doubled theirshrieks. Their wild cries and frightened motions actuallyalarmed me, and throwing down the tappa, I was about to rush fromthe house, when in the same instant their clamours ceased, andone of them, seizing me by the arm, pointed to the broken fibresthat had just fallen from my grasp, and screamed in my ears thefatal word Taboo!

I subsequently found out that the fabric they were engaged inmaking was of a peculiar kind, destined to be worn on the headsof the females, and through every stage of its manufacture wasguarded by a rigorous taboo, which interdicted the wholemasculine gender from even so much as touching it.

Frequently in walking through the groves I observed bread-fruitand cocoanut trees, with a wreath of leaves twined in a peculiarfashion about their trunks. This was the mark of the taboo. Thetrees themselves, their fruit, and even the shadows they castupon the ground, were consecrated by its presence. In the sameway a pipe, which the king had bestowed upon me, was renderedsacred in the eyes of the natives, none of whom could I everprevail upon to smoke from it. The bowl was encircled by a wovenband of grass, somewhat resembling those Turks' headsoccasionally worked in the handles of our whip-stalks,

A similar badge was once braided about my wrist by the royal handof Mehevi himself, who, as soon as he had concluded theoperation, pronounced me 'Taboo'. This occurred shortly afterToby's disappearance; and, were it not that from the first momentI had entered the valley the natives had treated me with uniformkindness, I should have supposed that their conduct afterwardswas to be ascribed to the fact that I had received this sacredinvestiture.

The capricious, operations of the taboo are not its leastremarkable feature: to enumerate them all would be impossible. Black hogs--infants to a certain age--women in an interestingsituation--young men while the operation of tattooing their facesis going on--and certain parts of the valley during thecontinuance of a shower--are alike fenced about by the operationof the taboo.

I witnessed a striking instance of its effects in the bay ofTior, my visit to which place has been alluded to in a formerpart of this narrative. On that occasion our worthy captainformed one of the party. He was a most insatiable sportsman. Outward bound, and off the pitch of Cape Horn, he used to sit onthe taffrail, and keep the steward loading three or four oldfowling pieces, with which he would bring down albatrosses, Capepigeons, jays, petrels, and divers other marine fowl, whofollowed chattering in our wake. The sailors were struck aghastat his impiety, and one and all attributed our forty days'beating about that horrid headland to his sacrilegious slaughterof these inoffensive birds.

At Tior he evinced the same disregard for the religiousprejudices of the islanders, as he had previously shown for thesuperstitions of the sailors. Having heard that there were aconsiderable number of fowls in the valley the progeny of somecocks and hens accidentally left there by an English vessel, andwhich, being strictly tabooed, flew about almost in a wildstate--he determined to break through all restraints, and be thedeath of them. Accordingly, he provided himself with a mostformidable looking gun, and announced his landing on the beach byshooting down a noble cock that was crowing what proved to be hisown funeral dirge, on the limb of an adjoining tree. 'Taboo',shrieked the affrighted savages. 'Oh, hang your taboo,' says thenautical sportsman; 'talk taboo to the marines'; and bang wentthe piece again, and down came another victim. At this thenatives ran scampering through the groves, horror-struck at theenormity of the act.

All that afternoon the rocky sides of the valley rang withsuccessive reports, and the superb plumage of many a beautifulfowl was ruffled by the fatal bullet. Had it not been that theFrench admiral, with a large party, was then in the glen, I haveno doubt that the natives, although their tribe was small anddispirited, would have inflicted summary vengeance upon the manwho thus outraged their most sacred institutions; as it was, theycontrived to annoy him not a little.

Thirsting with his exertions, the skipper directed his steps to astream; but the savages, who had followed at a little distance,perceiving his object, rushed towards him and forced him awayfrom its bank--his lips would have polluted it. Wearied at last,he sought to enter a house that he might rest for a while on themats; its inmates gathered tumultuously about the door and deniedhim admittance. He coaxed and blustered by turns, but in vain;the natives were neither to be intimidated nor appeased, and as afinal resort he was obliged to call together his boat's crew, andpull away from what he termed the most infernal place he everstepped upon.

Lucky was it for him and for us that we were not honoured on ourdeparture by a salute of stones from the hands of the exasperatedTiors. In this way, on the neighbouring island of Ropo, werekilled, but a few weeks previously, and for a nearly similaroffence, the master and three of the crew of the K---.

I cannot determine with anything approaching to certainty, whatpower it is that imposes the taboo. When I consider the slightdisparity of condition among the islanders--the very limited andinconsiderable prerogatives of the king and chiefs--and the looseand indefinite functions of the priesthood, most of whom werehardly to be distinguished from the rest of their countrymen, Iam wholly at a loss where to look for the authority whichregulates this potent institution. It is imposed upon somethingtoday, and withdrawn tomorrow; while its operations in othercases are perpetual. Sometimes its restrictions only affect asingle individual--sometimes a particular family--sometimes awhole tribe; and in a few instances they extend not merely overthe various clans on a single island, but over all theinhabitants of an entire group. In illustration of this latterpeculiarity, I may cite the law which forbids a female to enter acanoe--a prohibition which prevails upon all the northernMarquesas Islands.

The word itself (taboo) is used in more than one signification. It is sometimes used by a parent to his child, when in theexercise of parental authority he forbids it to perform aparticular action. Anything opposed to the ordinary customs ofthe islanders, although not expressly prohibited, is said to be'taboo'.

The Typee language is one very difficult to be acquired; it bearsa close resemblance to the other Polynesian dialects, all ofwhich show a common origin. The duplication of words, as 'lumeelumee', 'poee poee', 'muee muee', is one of their peculiarfeatures. But another, and a more annoying one, is the differentsenses in which one and the same word is employed; its variousmeanings all have a certain connection, which only makes thematter more puzzling. So one brisk, lively little word isobliged, like a servant in a poor family, to perform all sorts ofduties; for instance, one particular combination of syllablesexpresses the ideas of sleep, rest, reclining, sitting, leaning,and all other things anywise analogous thereto, the particularmeaning being shown chiefly by a variety of gestures and theeloquent expression of the countenance.

The intricacy of these dialects is another peculiarity. In theMissionary College at Lahainaluna, on Mowee, one of the SandwichIslands, I saw a tabular exhibition of a Hawiian verb, conjugatedthrough all its moods and tenses. It covered the side of aconsiderable apartment, and I doubt whether Sir William Joneshimself would not have despaired of mastering it.

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