Thursday, April 03, 2008

Kuroshio Current and the Navel of the Sea

The earliest unmistakable description of the Kuroshio Current (Black Tide), also known as the "Japan Current," is given by Chou Ku-Fei (Zhou Chufei) in 1178.

Southwest of the four commanderies (chun) of Hainan there is a great sea called the Ocean of Chiao-chih (i.e., Vietnam or Tonking). In the midst of this sea there are three currents that carry the bubbling waves off in three directions.

-- Ling wai tai ta, translated in TSCC, first edition, 3118, 9-10.

All these currents are found in the ocean off Vietnam. The southern current is said to flow toward the seas of the southern barbarian states. The northern current flows up the Taiwan Strait. The third current is obviously the Kuroshio Current and flows toward the "Great Eastern Ocean," i.e., the Pacific Ocean. The Ling wai tai ta states that east of the state of Toupo is the Island of Women and then further east the Weilu, the cosmic oceanic drain. Chau Ju-kua (Zhao Rugua, 1226 CE) claims that it is in this region that the waters begin to flow east, i.e., where the Kuroshio Current begins. Actually the Kuroshio flows toward the northeast at its point of origin and then turns toward the east near the Bering Sea.

An interesting at least partial confirmation of the idea of a great ocean drain can be found in the islands of Kiribati in the middle of the Pacific Ocean near the equator. The navigators of Kiribati divide the Western Ocean into four toki or boundaries. Arthur Grimble describes these oceanic zones:

Theoretically the western ocean is plotted out into four zones, of which two are named and two merely described. In the first zone beyond the Fish-trap of Kabaki, the sea is said to take a downward slope away from home, and a mariner's return becomes increasingly difficult as he progresses towards the second zone. The second is a region of dead calms, where the downward of the sea becomes sharper still, and wherein dwells the monstrous uu-fish. This dreadful creature is said to be able with one suck (uu) to engulf and swallow a canoe 'together with all its crew'. The third zone, wherein the strayed voyager abandons all hope of life, is called Te wenei-n-anti, shooting star (or wake) of spirits—and is described as the region where a man has two shadows. In the words of my informant: 'If the voyager looks at looks at the sail his shadow is there, and if he looks upon the water his shadow is upon the water'. The fourth zone is called Te-uabuki-te-re — The-capsize-the-somersault — and is haunted by a strange, lonely bird who cries continually, 'I a kaawa, I a kaawa ('I am unhappy, I am unhappy').' Here the doomed canoe is seized in a resistless current which sweeps it west for a day and a night until it reaches the edge of a tremendous maelstrom, where it is sucked into the depths.

The "Fish-trap of Kabaki" is delineated by a line from the Caroline Islands southeast toward Samoa. So the four toki refer to regions to the west of that line. Grimble thought the South Equatorial Current was meant, although it could just as easily be the North Equatorial Current that also flows toward the Carolines and then continues westward merging with the Kuroshio Current. This ocean current to the West is found mentioned in genealogical stories going back 15 to 20 generations.

In Sulawesi, the landlocked Toraja have a vague myth that might also preserve ancient memories of an oceanic current near an island to the north some 25 generations ago from which they believe clan ancestors ventured to their current home.

The Toraja state the creator god Puang Matua was located in the "center of the sky" across the ocean to the north of Sulawesi. The deity went to the "center of the sea" to fetch gold that was used in creating Manturino, ancestor of water buffaloes; Golden Stem, ancestor of the rice plant; and Datu Laukku, the first human. All three are said to be split from the same "umbilical cord." Other than gold, the elements used to create these beings were the "yellow egg of the Earth," "the Prince of Water," and the "heat of fire." These were all located at the center of the sea at a place known as "River of the Earth" (Atena Padang) and the "source of foam." The ancestors of the Toraja descended from Heaven on a ladder to the island of Pongko directly below the Skyworld and north of Sulawesi.

The Atena Padang or "River of the Earth" near the "center of the sea" and located toward the north of Sulawesi might preserve the same ancient knowledge as found in the Chinese and Kiribati versions. The Bare'e-speaking Toraja know of the Puse Ntasi "Navel of the Sea" through which nine currents flow sometimes interrupted by the giant crab that causes the tides. Water evaporates there and turns into clouds. Here was the great mango tree, the Taripa Djandji or Taripa Djambi where we find various deities and animals dwelling.

Navel of sea, world tree, guardian, tides, ocean currents, earthquakes, etc.

We find scattered in Southeast Asia, various myths related to the navel of the sea that often contain explanations for tides and currents. The associated motifs generally include:

  1. Navel or center of the sea that drains waters of the world
  2. A submarine tree, pillar, etc. at the navel linking to the underworld and/or the skyworld
  3. An animal, fish, bird, deity, etc. dwelling at the navel or the base of the tree/pillar
  4. Cause of ebb and flow of tides (usually due to a giant serpent, whale, crab, bird, etc. that covers the drain being attracted by the Full Moon)
  5. Cause of ocean currents due to water flowing in and out
  6. Cause of earthquakes caused by creature at navel that shakes world pillar
  7. Relationship to Sun and Moon e.g., eclipses, tides, lunar months, etc.
  8. The sea flood (rising sea levels) is associated with the navel of the sea.

Here is a sampling from the region in which a number of these motifs are contained. The myth is very diverse on the island of Mindanao.

  • In 1698, Gaspar de San Agustin gives one of the earliest accounts of these motifs in the insular Southeast Asia and Pacific region in his Conquista de las Islas Filipinas. He describes the myth of the formation of the island of Bohol in the central Philippines. A goddess falls from a hole in the skyworld to fetch the medicine of the cosmic balete tree growing at the bottom of the ocean. A toad helps her and happens to bring up some earth growing around the balete tree, which is deposited on the back of a giant turtle. This earth eventually grows into the island of Bohol.

  • The Manobo of Mindanao, Philippines, believe that a great python guards the central mushroom-shaped pillar of the earth. They also have many variants of the navel of the sea (Pusod to Dagat) myth assigning to it the tides and the evaporation of water. The python shakes the pillar causing earthquakes.

  • The Bagobo of Mindanao conceived of a great eel known as Kasili that was wrapped around the base of the world pillar at the navel of the sea. His companion was the giant crab Kuyamang who when attracted by the Full Moon left the great hole causing the tides. Kasili or a great serpent causes earthquakes by shaking the world's pillars.

  • Among the Subanu of Mindanao, the hero Punbenua ventures to the Pusu Dagat "navel of the sea," to obtain the liver of the black snake that dwells at the base of the submarine Dangal Bahal tree. The Pusu Dagat is responsible for the ebb and flow of the tide.

  • Also from Mindanao, the Tiruray believe that a great dragon known as Diwata or Naga lives at the Fused Dagot "Navel of the Sea," that swallows the Sun at its setting.

  • Among the Mandaya, the Sun and Moon had a child, the giant crab known as Tabanakaua. The crab went to live at the navel of the sea and caused the tides by moving in and out of the cosmic drain. His moving about causes the waves and ocean currents. When angry at his mother he tries to swallow her causing the eclipse.

  • A widespread myth among Malays and Javanese is that of the Pusat Tasik "Navel of the Sea" in the middle of the sea where the Pauh Janggi tree grows. Here is a giant crab at the foot of the cosmic tree that causes the tides and currents by moving in and out of the navel. A great Garuda or Roc bird is perched on the branches of the Pauh Janggi. Also, in Kelantan the deity Si Raya, who appears to be the same as the Cham whale god Po Rayak (Po Riyak) is also thought to dwell at the Pusat Tasik through his identity as To Rimpun Alam. From at least Rumphius' day during the mid-17th century, the Pauh Janggi has been linked by some populations in the region with the coco de mer, although the word "pauh" refers to a wild mango tree species. The coco de mer occurs only in the Seychelles island group today but its fruit often float to the Maldives off the coast of India. However, more than a century earlier than Rumphius, Pigafetta describes the location of the tree near the Island of Women during the voyage of Magellan.

    He [the Maluku pilot] told us moreover that an island called Ocoloro, below Java Major, is peopled by women alone, who are rendered pregnant by the wind. Should they produce a boy they kill him immediately ; if a girl she is reared. If a man at any time tries to visit the island they put him to death.

    Other tales were likewise related to us. North of Java Major, in the Gulf of China, called by the ancients Sinus Magnus, there is said to be a very large tree, called Campanganghi (cam panganghi), on which there are birds called garuda, of such immense size, and so strong, they can carry a buffalo or an elephant to the place of the tree called Puzathaer (puza thaer). The fruit of the tree, which is called Buapanganghi (bua panganghi), is larger than a cucumber... This tree cannot be approached on account of the whirlpools about the island, which extend three or four leagues from shore.

  • Now as Pigafetta's Java Major is the island of Borneo, we can see that the myth relates to a location that agrees more with the Chinese account of the Weilu and Kuroshio Current, especially as the "Gulf of China" would mean all the sea opposite the coast of South China. The description of the Island of Women matches much of the detail given by Chau Ju-Kua three centuries earlier of the location with the same name located southeast of Quanzhou.

    In olden days, whenever a ship was wrecked by a tempest on these shores, the women would take the men home with them, but they were all dead within a few days....The women of this country conceive by exposing themselves naked to the full force of the south wind, and so give birth to female children.

    Also, Muslim literature generally locates the Roc or Ruk bird in Zabag or Wakwak. From Pigafetta's Puzathaer, we get Malay Pusat Air "Navel of the Waters." The "bua" of "Buapanganghi" is likely one of the words, bua, buah, etc. derived from PMP *buak that are found throughout the region meaning "fruit." Some have suggested that Panganghi is a corruption of Pauh Janggi. The word "janggi" appears to probably be a corruption of Toraja "djandji" as mentioned above for the taripa djandji or djambi (taripa "mango," djampu "fruit"). Malay also has the word "djandji," so there must have been some miscommunication along the way. The evidence suggesting the Toraja name is the more original form is that among the Bare'e, taripa djandji is the common way of saying "mango tree," while in Malay, Pauh Janggi refers only specifically to the mythical tree. Also, since "pauh" is the Malay word for a wild mango tree, it is likely that at a late date the Pauh Janggi was conflated by some groups with the coco de mer. The Toraja's seafaring linguistic cousins, the Bugis, are known to collect giant mango stones, which they decorate in silver.

  • Maori legend tells of the Te Parata, a giant taniwha, a dragon or serpent-like creature, that creates a great whirlpool far beyond the horizon at "mid-ocean." The maelstrom sucks in passing canoes. Te Parata's inhaling and exhaling of the waters causes the tides. In Rarotonga, the great navigator Tangiia traveled with the Samoan Karika to 'Avaiki (Savai'i) in Samoa in possibly the 13th century. From there Tangiia ventured much further West to the original homeland known as 'Avaiki te Varinga or Atia te Varinga. Where exactly this was is hard to say, but on the return journey eastward he stopped at Uea (Wallis Island) . It was while traveling westward from Savai'i to Atia te Varinga that Tangiia encountered the Fafa, a great whirlpool.

  • Regards,
    Paul Kekai Manansala


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