The coconut tree has often been referred to as the “Tree of Life” throughout the Pacific Islands. This name was given because of the tree’s many uses and flexibility within their culture. It is also called the Tree of Life because it sustains communities and helps them survive. The leaves, the bark, the husk and the flesh all have a functional use. This tree in its various forms gives food, shelter, warmth, materials and sustenance to people. Additionally, it provides a source for arts and crafts and helps their culture remain bright and vibrant.
Just about all of the island nations in the Pacific have their own legend on how the coconut started. Here is one from Tonga that I found in the book, Po Fananga: Folk Tales of Tonga by Tupou Posesi Fanua:
It is said that there was once a very beautiful maiden called Hina who had a lovely bathing hole or pond where an eel lived. One day Hina’s father caught her making love with a handsome young man, so he grabbed the man. Imagine his surprise when the young man turned into an eel and slipped into the water!
An order was immediately sent out that everyone must come and help to empty all the water out of the pond. As soon as this was done and the pond lay dry, the eel was lifted out and killed. But before he was killed, he cried out:
“Tossing aside wood and stones at the
bottom of the pond,
Search for poor eel. Find me and prepare
to cut me up.
Cut me up and divide out
to your friends and relatives.
Only my head bury close to the surface,
Cover the head of poor eel with dirt,
Leave it for three or four nights,
Then a coconut tree will slowly begin to grow.
It will bear fruit and a face will appear,
A most useful tree it will be in many ways.
Scrape the coconut and add flowers (for making coconut oil)
Or take the young coconut and
Bake it (for drinking) to keep my lover warm.
And I’ll return to Pulotu.”
It was done as the eel had asked, and from his head the first coconut grew. If you husk a coconut and scrape it clean, you will see clearly the eyes and mouth of the eel. Thus, it was out of his deep love for Hina that the eel presented himself as a gift that would be useful forever to his lover and to the world.