Academic journal article Leviathan

The Demigod Taji: Commentary on an Episode from Melville's Mardi

Academic journal article Leviathan

The Demigod Taji: Commentary on an Episode from Melville's Mardi

Article excerpt

The Episode

When the anonymous narrator of Mardi disembarks on the first land of Mardi, the natives think that he is white Taji, a sort of half-and-half deity, now and then an Avatar among them, and ranking among their inferior ex-officio demi-gods. The narrator takes the occasion to pretend that he is indeed Taji and thus dissolving certain doubts expressed by king Media--who indirectly reveals the main features of this demigod--is accepted as a god, ensuring in the process the honorary hospitality of the natives. (1) Now, any reader who does not forget that Mardi uses Polynesia as its background, who has probably read William Ellis's Polynesian Researches or James Jackson Jarves's History of the Hawaiian or Sandwich Islands, (2) or who has lived in those places for a space of time and has experienced the religious traditions of the Polynesians at first hand, as did the extremely observant, finicky and inquisitive Melville; well, such a reader understands that the author created the myth of Taji by slightly changing specific mythological traditions and specific historical events. Indeed, he combines Polynesian and Mexican myth and history. The name "Taji" is a double reference to this combination. On another level, however, both the myth and the name of Taji are "embodiments" of a human and essentially unknown function called "human mind," which the whole of Mardi attempts to comprise.

Lono and James Cook

Indeed, the whole episode draws upon the patterns of a similar story that took place in Polynesia and had as its main protagonists the navigator James Cook and one of the greatest Polynesian gods, the demigod kono or Rono. (3) When Cook disembarked for a second time on the island of Hawai'i, on January 17, 1779, he was welcomed by the natives with great honor, as if he were an incarnation (or, in Ellis's words, "Avatar") of the god Rono or Orono or Lono (Ellis I, 386), a deified Hawaiian king who had ruled over Hawai'i and whose reign had been characterized as "a fabulous age" (IV, 135). This king had killed his wife because she had insulted him. After his crime, however, his affliction was such that he went insane and wandered the islands like a maniac, fist-fighting and wretling anyone he met. Later, he boarded a peculiar triangular canoe (piama lau) and left for Tahiti or some other foreign land, with the promise that one day he would return to the island, carrying coconuts, pigs, and dogs. (4) After his departure the natives deified him, conducting wrestling and boxing matches every year in his honor. Melville alludes to this episode, drawing upon Ellis, Jarves, and Captain Cook. (5) "The celebrated navigator referred to in a preceding chapter," he emphasizes, "was hailed by the Hawaiians as one of their demi-gods, returned to earth, after a wide tour of the universe. And they worshiped him as such, though incessantly he was interrogating them, as to who under the sun his worshipers were; how their ancestors came on the island; and whether they would have the kindness to provide his followers with plenty of pork during his stay" (NN Mardi, 174). (6)

The Demig od Lono

When Melville names the narrator Taji, he has the demigod Lono in ***ind. This becomes more obvious when we inspect the various tributes he ascribes to the demigod Taji. Samoa, Media, and the narrator underline his peculiar features and indirectly reveal his link to Lono: his celestial nature, his place in the hierarchy of the Polynesian gods, his return to earth by his own volition, his recurrent incarnations, his double hypostasis, his quarrelsome and warlike character, his relationship with water and fishing, . his powerlessness to install himself and live in houses of men, and finally the services which he offers in the land of spirits; these are all characteristics of the god Lono.

To the Hawaiians Lono is "superior" to the extent that his "head is hidden among the black clouds of the sky" and he is "dwelling in the heavens. …

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