In the Polynesian culture the sea is often considered to be the source and foundation of all life, and Tangaroa is known as the god of the sea. Because he has the status as “supreme creator god,” many stories were told about him. Here is a Tahitian legend that shows how Tangaroa created the earth and all living things from within his shell…
Tangaroa Creates the Great Shell of the World
In Tahiti, Tangaroa is the ancestor of all gods. He dwelled in the realm of darkness, for there was no light. There was nothing at all, just Tangaroa and the shell in which he lived. For an infinite stretch of time, Tangaroa lived in blackness. There was no moon pulling the tides. There was no water and no land. No trees or crabs or waving wands of soft coral. There was no salty taste in your mouth after swimming because there was no water, not salt, and no you. There were no people, or fish, rats or roosters. There were no sand-fleas or coconuts or black-tipped sharks. There was nothing.
This is how it was until Tangaroa turned over in his shell, causing the great shell to crack. He turned again. The great shell fell open. He stepped out of the darkness and called out: “Who is there up above me?” Silence was his only answer.
“Who is below me?” Again, there was no answer.
“Who is there in front of me? Who is there behind me?” Still, there was only silence. Tangaroa felt something growing deep within him, a feeling of great anger.
“Rocks!” he cried out. “Come to me!” But there were no rocks, so nothing came.
“Sand!” he yelled. “Crawl to my feet and lay yourself down!” There was no sand.
“Wind,” he roared. “Blow sand to me.” But there was no wind. Only a great, empty silence.
Tangaroa, the divine one, was angry at this disobedience. He lifted up the enormous shell in which he had dwelled for so very long. Slowly he turned the heavy shell over. The round unbroken half became a dome and was now the sky. Tangaroa named Rumia, the Overturned.
After that, Tangaroa rested. But he grew restless and tired of being alone. He took another huge shell and smashed it into pieces. It formed millions of rocks and tiny grains of sand.
Still, silence filled the world. The great Tangaroa needed something to command. So he reached inside his own body and drew forth his backbone. He threw it onto the shell fragments that had turned to rock and sand. It became a majestic mountain range. His ribs were still attached to the backbone. They became the ridges, cliffs, and hills that towered over the sand.
Tangaroa reached back inside himself and pulled out his inner organs. He flung them into the sky-dome. They became the white clouds that float overhead. Sometimes they fill with water, as they did inside Tangaroa, and rain down upon the land.
Then he used his raw, red flesh to bring richness and fertility to the earth that plants and animals could grow upon it. His legs and arms made the world solid, so it would hold together and not slide off into the sea. One by one he plucked out his fingernails and toenails. These he offered to the fishes and shell-creatures for scaly skin and houses for the crabs.
This god wore feathers like a bird. He plucked his feathers to make the breadfruit and the pandanus. He made all the plants whose tops are green and whose roots drink water from the land. Then he pulled out his long intestines, long, wet armfuls! From these he made eels and shrimps and spiny lobsters, which live in fresh streams and the salty ocean.
Tangaroa worked so hard to make the world that his blood ran hot. His body had become an open cave after all these gifts he had offered, so his blood spilled out and floated away. Some went up into the sky and made the sunsets and sunrises glow red. Some hid in the clouds to become rainbows after a storm. All that is now red was made from Tangaroa’s blood that floated away that day.
Tangaroa’s head remained on his body. He had made the world and yet he lived on. From that time forth, everything became ripe and fertile. The world grew and grew.
Next, Tangaroa called upon the other gods to come dwell in the heavens and the earth with him. Finally, when the world was ready and the gods had come, he made human beings.
In the beginning of the world, there was a shell. A shell is an endless, curved space. Inside, the gods put our sun, our moon, the planets that burn red in the night sky, and all the shining stars in all the heavens.
Think of it: the land is a shell that holds up the streams running over it. It is a shell for the animals that walk across it and the plants whose roots dig into it. The shell of a man is woman, since man is born of woman. The shell of a woman is woman, for only within her flesh can another woman take form. Inside a shell there is life. Waiting in darkness, turning and turning, preparing to be born.