Hilitai: Monitor Lizard
The hilitai or monitor lizard (Varanus tsukamotoi) was introduced to the island before European contact in the 1500’s. It is black or dark green with yellow or white spots covering its body. It generally grows up to three feet in length and can be found in Guam’s dense jungle but frequently wanders into people’s yards.
Hilitais have neatly fitted scales and are cold-blooded. They are often seen sunbathing on rocks, logs, or village roads. According to Weijola et al. (2020) there are five distinct features of the hilitai from the Marianas:
- Dorsum black and covered with evenly distributed yellow scales
- Tongue dark blue/grey
- Yellow temporal stripe usually absent
- Low scale counts around the head, tail base, and mid-body
- Usually prominent dark pigmentation in the gular region
They dig their dens for nesting under rocks or trees. In their nest, females can lay between eight to 12 eggs. The average size of an egg is around two inches with a soft leather texture.
The hilitai numbers have decreased due to predation by the browntree snake and humans.
Early Spanish encounters referred to the hilitai as an iguana, a large lizard found in Mexico. In the Naval Era of Guam, Lt. Governor William E. Safford noted that the hilitai were considered to be a nuisance to farmers because they ate birds, chickens, eggs, and almost anything dead or alive. He also noted hilitais were eaten by Filipinos but were thought to be disgusting to eat by CHamorus.
A CHamoru story places the hilitai in high regard, however, as a representation of the island’s natural beauty. And in the creation myth probably originating from the Spanish Era about Chaife, the hilitai is said to be one of the human soul’s animal transformations, enabling a soul to escape harm.
Historian Lawrence Cunningham tells that in the story of Chaife (god of wind, water, and fire) the hilitai takes the form a human soul to escape the god’s wrath. The god Chaife on Mt. Sasalaguan created souls from an oven fire, fueled by wood. In haste he over feeds the fire with wood and causes an explosion. A soul escapes into Fouha Bay and begins to take the form of a man.
Chaife, who had been searching in anger for his escaped soul, finds a human along the shore. He tries to destroy the human with a huge wave, believing it is his escaped soul, but the human transforms into a fish and swims away. Chaife tries to destroy the fish by using fire to evaporate the water, but the fish becomes a hilitai and escapes into the jungle. The enraged god burns down the forest to see the hilitai become a bird. He then summons a typhoon that slams the bird into a cliff side. The bird falls unscathed to the earth, now in human form.
The human defies the angry god by stating that Chaife’s power over wind, water and fire cannot harm a soul made from the sun. Chaife argues that the human’s soul was made in Mt. Sasalaguan and it belonged to him. The human informs the god that his soul was not made by him and the soul he seeks can be found in Fouha Bay creating more humans and souls. Chaife races to Fouha to find his escaped soul transformed into earth, a large rock on the shores of Fouha Bay.
There is also a newer CHamoru story about how the handsome hilitai acquired its spots and forked tongue.
The Legend of the Hilitai
The following story of how the hilitai acquired its forked tongue and spots is taken from the Department of Chamorro Affairs’ Hale’-ta: Hemplon Nåna Siha, A Collection of Chamorro Legends and Stories from 2001.
Once upon a time, long, long ago, a cunning little iguana lived in a cave. Around the cave was a big forest. The iguana was happy all day, and at night she cuddled down in a warm nest with her mother. Each day, she would go out and search for birds’ eggs on the dokdok tree near the cave. There, she could hear the sweet songs of the birds and at night, she prayed and wished she could sing.
Now it happened not long after this that she found herself singing. She sang a song so clear and beautiful that all the birds that happened to pass by stopped to listen. “How beautiful that is!” they said. Animals of all kinds came to hear the little iguana sing, and she grew so proud of her voice that she traveled from place to place singing. One day as she was singing, a little chichirika hopped and flapped her wings around the iguana and said, “Truly, your voice is so sweet, but I have the most beautiful feathers of all the birds in the jungle.” Having said this, the chichirika flew away.
When the little iguana heard this, she immediately tried to think of what to do. She knew that a certain black bird was very wise and decided to pay her a visit. On her way, she met the ko’ko’ (rail) under an old tree. “Oh, how ugly you are with your black feathers! Can’t you paint yourself to look more beautiful?” asked the iguana. To which the ko’ko’ replied, “And can’t your paint yourself to change that green coat of yours?”
Finally, they both agreed to paint each other so that all the birds and animals would envy them. The ko’ko’, being the wisest of the birds, brought some of her eggs and feathers to use as a paint and brush. She separated the yolk from the white and beat them separately until they became a smooth paste. “But who is to work first?” asked the ko’ko’. Said the iguana: “I’m so tired just now, if you would work on me first, it would give me pleasure to rest my weary arms.” The ko’ko’ politely agreed, “Very well.”
The ko’ko’ worked carefully with the yellow paint. The paint hardened and was smooth and shiny as anyone could wish for. The iguana was so pleased that she began to sing. Then, the ko’ko’ sat down for her turn. The iguana dipped the brush into the white paint and struck the ko’ko’ on the forehead so that the paint scattered in uneven spots all over. The iguana dropped the brush and ran away as fast as her feet could carry her to the cave. After her was the ko’ko’, shaking her head and shouting with all her might: “May your tongue be double for playing a trick like that on me!”
Ever since that day, the iguana’s voice changed. She could no longer sing sweetly, her voice having changed to only being able to utter an ugly and boring “whoo” like that of an owl. Worst of all, her tongue had split, as it still is today.
The CHamoru creation story of Chaife and the human soul illustrates cultural beliefs of being one with nature. Creation stories are a civilization’s explanation of how life came from chaos. The story of Chaife illustrates the ancient CHamorus’ belief in the human soul and that the human body comes from and is one with nature. With this belief a human can transform into elements of nature in which a human can become a fish, hilitai and bird.
This story focuses on the hilitai’s beauty and how vanity led to its disregard of the CHamoru values 0f mamåhlao. The hilitai was beautiful and had a lovely voice but wanted more. Employing the help of the ko’ko’, the hilitai gained what it wanted but would not repay the ko’ko’. It’s behavior contradicted the CHamoru cultural practice of chenchule’ which is an elaborate system of financial, physical labor or material support from friends and family made to aid one in times of need or celebration. As punishment for not repaying or helping the ko’ko’ the hilitai is unable to sing with its once lovely voice.
For further reading
Cota, Michael. “Varanus indicus and its Presence on the Mariana Islands: Natural Geographic Distribution vs. Introduction.” Biawak 2, no. 1 (2008): 18-27.
Cunningham, Lawrence J. Ancient Chamorro Society. Honolulu: Bess Press, 1992.
Guam Department of Agriculture Division of Aquatic and Wildlife Resources.”Hilitai.” In Fish & Wildlife Fact Sheets. Mangilao: DAWR, 2002.
Hemplon Nåna Siha: A Collection of Chamorro Legends and Stories. The Hale’-ta Series. Hagåtña: Department of Chamorro Affairs Research, Publication, and Training Division, 2001.
Safford, William E. The Useful Plants of Guam. Agana Heights: Guamology Publishing, 2009.
Weijola, Valter, Varpu Vahtera, André Koch, Andreas Schmitz, and Fred Kraus. “Taxonomy of Micronesian Monitors (Reptilia: Squamata: Varanus): Endemic Status of New Species Argues for Caution in Pursuing Eradication Plans.” Royal Society Open Science 7, no. 5 (2020): 1-28.