Mythological Depictions of Women
Source of life
Ancient Chamorros/Chamorus believed that women held the power of life and controlled the environment. A female spirit, the goddess Fo’na, was believed to be the life giving force. The Chamorro legend of creation “Fo’na” was first documented by Fray Antonio de los Angeles in 1596. He wrote:
They say that a woman gave birth to the land, and to the sea, and to all that is visible.
Source of nurturing
Other legends illustrate powerful Chamorro women as well. One of these, “The Coconut Girl”, tells of a young Chamorro maiden who despaired because she had no contributions to make to her village. She grew melancholy and refused to eat. Family, friends and suitors all sought as a cure the fruit from an unknown tree that the young woman had seen in a vision. No one could find the fruit of which she spoke.
Before long the young woman died. Heavy rains prevented anyone from visiting her grave for some time. When the rains finally stopped, her parents and friends were amazed to find a tiny unfamiliar plant growing above her grave. In time, the plant grew into a tree which bore a fruit with some of the aspects of a human face. If one were to look at a husked coconut, you would see three distinct depressions on the shell’s surface in an inverted triangular form. This was interpreted as the two top depression representing eyes and the singular depression directly beneath as representing a nose.
The white meat of the fruit (niyok or coconut) gave sustenance; the fluid provided liquid refreshment; and the fronds gave shelter and were woven into many things. Her people learned to use many of its parts. Though she had passed away, her family knew that she had contributed a most valuable gift to her people.
Another Chamorro legend tells how women saved the island. In the story “Young Maidens Who Saved Guam,” a monster parrot fish is chewing his way through the island of Guam, determined to destroy the island. Night after night the men of Guam went out in search of the huge destructive fish but could not find it.
The young women would talk about the monster whenever they gathered to wash their hair and rinse it with orange peels. Their favorite spot to gather was at the Agana Springs. When they finished, the pool would be covered with orange peels. One day a girl noticed the peels floating in Pago Bay. She was puzzled by their appearance. After some thought, she surmised that the monster must have eaten a hole all the way under the island from Pago Bay to Agana Springs and that was where it was hiding.
The next day when the girls gathered at the Agana Springs they wove a net with their long black hair and then sat around the pool and began to sing. The monster fish, enchanted by the music, swam up from the bottom of the spring to listen to the singing girls. Suddenly the girls spread their net over the spring and dived into the pool. The monster fish was caught and the island of Guam was saved.
Later, during the Spanish Era, new stories became popular. The story of Sirena tells of a young woman who went swimming every chance she got. Her mother eventually cursed her telling Sirena that since all she wanted to do is swim she might as well turn into a fish. The girl’s godmother claimed that the girl was half hers and so that one half of her would remain human, thus turning Sirena into a mermaid. This story we emphasizes the significant role of a godmother in a child’s life.
Another tale of a powerful woman from Guam history is the story of Santa Marian Kamalen. This statue of Mother Mary (mother of Jesus) was said to have floated to Guam, accompanied by two crabs with candles on their backs, to live among the Chamorro people and protect them. An island wide procession is held in her honor ever year on December 8 which is the Catholic Feast of the Immaculate Conception.
There are many stories about the statue, some with Santa Marian Kamalen crying, others with the statue disappearing and later being found back in its niche but with stickers on its skirt, and others yet of the statue granting the wishes of petitioners, all to do with morality and the values of the Catholic church.
For further reading
Jorgensen, Marilyn Anne. “Expressive Manifestations of Santa Marian Camalin as Key Symbol in Guamanian Culture.” PhD diss., University of Texas at Austin, 1984.
–––. “The Legends of Sirena and Santa Marian Camalin: Guamanian Cultural Oppositions.” In Monsters with Iron Teeth: Perspectives on Contemporary Legend. Vol. 3. Edited by Gillian Bennett and Paul Smith. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, Ltd. 1998.
Legends of Guam. ESAA Project, Chamorro Language and Cultural Program, Public Law 92-318. Hagåtña: GDOE, 1981.
Souder-Jaffery, Laura Marie Torres. Daughters of the Island: Contemporary Women Organizers of Guam. MARC Monograph Series 1. Mangilao: Micronesian Areas Research Center, University of Guam, 1987.