“The Witches’ Fire”- PNG

Our latest legend comes from Papua New Guinea. It is another story about how things originated and shows us the value of teamwork and collaboration. It can be found in the book The Turtle and the Island: Tales from Papua New Guinea. Enjoy!

The Witches’ Fire

In the days long ago when men first began to live in the world, they had no fire. Without fire to warm themselves, they shivered through the cold nights; without fire for cooking, they ate their food raw. Gradually a few people discovered how to kindle the warm, leaping flames, and then fire brought a new comfort into their lives. In the area around Bougainville, the first to discover fire were some witches who lived on the tree-clod mountainside. The people who lived down below in the coastal villages knew about the witches’ fire and longed to share it. But the witches kept the secret of kindling it to themselves, and would not give away any of their fire. Several times the elders of the largest village at the foot of the mountains sent tribesmen to barter for a piece of the withes’ fire; always the tribesmen returned empty-handed.

At last the elders gathered in their meeting-house and decided that they would make one more attempt: they would send a dog to steal a piece of the fire. They called in the most intelligent dog in the village and told him what he was to do. Straight away the dog went into the bush and collected four friends to help him in his task: a green feathered parrot; a possum with a long, bushy tail; a long-tailed frog (for in those days all frogs had tails); and a pig.

The dog drew up a plan of action. He placed his four friends in different positions along the path that led to the witches’ camp. A high kwila tree marked the branches. Halfway along the path crossed a river. The possum sat on one bank and the frog on the other. The pig waited just a short distance from the camp near the end of the path. Now the dog set off; he swam across the river and followed with his nose the smell of burning wood that came from the witches’ fire. When he reached the camp, the witches wearing bark cloaks, were huddled around their big fire for it was a cold morning. The flames, orange and red and yellow leapt upwards.

The witches did not take much notice of the dog. When he asked if he might warm himself by the fire, they made a place for him. Now as everyone knows the warmth of a fire can make one feel drowsy and sleepy, and gradually the witches began to doze and snore. The dog watched as one by one their heads nodded and dropped and their eyes closed. Then he inched his way right to the fire, seized a piece of burning wood in his mouth and ran off with it.

The witches heard the dog running away. They quickly opened their eyes, saw what he had done, shook off their sleep and began to chase him, shrieking and yelling with rage.

Panting, the dog reached the place on the mountain path where he had left the pig. He gave the piece of burning wood to the pig, who ran on with it until he came to the river. Meanwhile, the dog escaped into the bush leaving the witches to chase after the pig. On this side of the river the frog sat waiting. The pig tied the piece of burning wood on to the frog’s tail- and then the pig, too, escaped into the bush.


“The Witches’ Fire” illustration courtesy of Tara Bonvillain, copyright 2017.

The witches threw aside their bark cloaks and jumped into the water and swam after the frog. But the frog reached the other bank ahead of them. Just as he reached the bank, however, where the possum waited for him, the fire burnt right through his tail, which dropped off: and that is why today frogs have no tails.

While the frog leapt back into the water and swam away, the possum ran on with the piece of burning wood. The witches scrambled out of the river on to the other bank, pursuing the possum. The possum ran and ran until he reached the tall kwila tree where the green-feathered parrot sat waiting. Just as he scrambled on to the lowest branch of the tree, one of the witches caught up with him and took hold of his long bushy tail. The possum scrambled upward and managed to break free from the witch’s grasp. But in doing so, he lost all the hair off his tail, and the witch was left with a handful of fur. And ever since, most possums have had bare, skinny tails.

Now the witches stood under the kwila tree watching the possum climb up and up until he reached the green parrot who was perched on the topmost branch. He gave the piece of fire to the parrot, who flew away with it in his beak. When the witches saw that, they realized there was no more they could do and they gave up the pursuit.

Swiftly the parrot flew over the treetops to the village by the sea from which the dog had set out. As he flew, the fire singed and burnt the green feathers of his breast, so that they glowed red: ever since that time, he has had a red breast.

How gladly the villagers welcomed the parrot when he flew into their midst bearing the precious fire they had coveted for so long! Now they would no longer shiver in the cold; now they could at last cook their food and need no longer eat raw meat. They fetched bundles of dry wood and built a huge fire of their own, and a few days later they made a big feast, to which they invited the dog and his four valiant friends: the parrot, the possum, the frog, and the pig.

About islandculturearchivalsupport

Island Culture Archival Support (ICAS) is a nonprofit organization dedicated to the preservation of records pertaining to the cultural identity of island peoples in Melanesia, Micronesia and Polynesia whose national and public archives, libraries, cultural centers, and business organizations are underprivileged, underfunded, and understaffed. The specific purpose for which this nonprofit corporation was formed is to support the needs of these South Pacific cultural heritage institutions by helping to preserve and make accessible records created for business, accountability or cultural purposes. The organization will endeavor to add value by providing resources or volunteers to advise, train, and work among island residents to support their efforts in building their future and preserving their collective memory through the use of modern archival techniques.
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