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The Nibblers

THE sixth chant describes in a mood of whimsical humor the depredations of the rat tribe upon the vegetable food crop celebrated in the last chant. Although rat shooting with bow and arrow was a favorite pastime of chiefs and comparison to a rat an unlucky sign in word magic, the rat family were nevertheless in line of descent from gods of the Po and might appear on earth in offspring endowed with spirit power. Stories make the rat form to be a stage in the reshaping into human bodies of those returned to life from the spirit world, a belief not inconsistent with Hindoo religious philosophy. A Kauai conqueror has a brother born in the form of a rat. Priests catch and work over the spirit body of a dead child until he comes to life in a ratlike body. The exploits of the rat child Piko'i recall the tall tales of our own storytellers.[1] On the other hand, a native kahuna recently condemned a new-built house to vacancy by calling the shape devised for the doorway a "rat's nest," and the ancient priest Paao again and again refuses fish caught for sacrifice on the basis of the same ominous analogy.[2]

Today the native rat, Rattus hawaiiensis, no longer lives save on small islets cut off from the main land. His relatives from foreign lands have taken over the wider ranges. But in old days time was reckoned by the migration of rats to the shore when wild food plants failed in the uplands, thus "telling the seasons" to the lowland planter by the depredations

[1. Beckwith, Hawaiian Mythology; pp. 424-27, 411, 480.

2. Malo, p. 333.]

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upon his crop; "nothing in the plains is safe from the rats, everything is burrowed out by them," complains Kepelino.[3]

The relation of the first four lines of the chant serving as a prologue to what follows is highly debatable. Kua-ka-mano, "Chief-over-thousands," is reputed to be "a great chief of old" and Kupu-kapu, "Taboo-sprout," to be similarly the name of the splendid feather-bound staff or brush, called kahili, carried before him as a sign of rank. All chiefs in old times had such symbols of office, and each had its distinguishing name of honor. Possibly there is meant here a sly analogy between the quivering whiskers preceding the approach of a rat and the stiff feather frill (kuku) proclaiming that of the equally predatory taboo chief.

But Kupihea is probably right in interpreting the spread of the rat family from upland to shore and their nibbling habits as symbolic of the rise of new lines of chiefs under whom taboos multiplied. Especially it refers perhaps to the dividing up of the land to landlords and these again to subordinate overseers, each taking toll from the crop of the next lower and all expected to contribute to the head chief, the haku or "lord," to whom all land was handed down by inheritance from his predecessor.' This idea as the kaona or theme of the chant I have tried to bring out in following, generally, Kupihea's translation. The trouble lies in the interplay of rhetorical devices such as linked rhymes, so that sound obscures sense. I infer that the multiplication of overseers went hand in hand with the development of cultivation of the soil for food crops, perhaps primarily with the introduction of wet taro culture as described in the chant of the rooting pig. The word hili means "to deviate from the path," hence, according to Parker, "from a settled line of conduct," and may well apply to social innovations. The word mahimahi looks like a reduplication of the word mahi,

[3. Kepelino, pp. 86, 87.

4. Ibid., pp. 146-51.]

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"to dig." Linalina is a word applied to wet clayey soil, holi ana means "sprouting," the whole couplet thus agreeing with the idea of preparation of abundance of vegetable food ('ai) with which the line concludes. But the "diggers" and "scratchers" may be the rats themselves.

Certainly the rodent family is on the surface the direct subject of the remainder of the chant, with an eye probably to its analogue within the social structure. Such lines as

There in hollow places the parents dwell
There huddle together the little rats,

to quote the queen's rendering, are distinctly so directed. The "lashes (whiskers?) upstanding," the "trace of the nibbling of these reddish ones," the "mark left upon the rind" of the so-called "mountain apple" or 'ohi'a from a tree whose upland variety bears no fruit, all these passages bring the rat tribe itself clearly before the eye. The name Po-hiolo for the male parent may be a play upon Poho-'iole, "Rat-hole," and Po-ne'e-aku, for the female, upon the hitching motion, ne'ene'e, of the rat as it turns now this way, now that; a word applied also to the position in which the common people were obliged to approach the chiefs, crawling on hands and knees. Possibly the whole is also a play upon a child's pilfering habits as it begins to creep about, as Pokini would interpret it.


Many new fines of chiefs spring up
540. Cultivation arises, full of taboos
[They go about scratching at the wet lands
It sprouts, the first blades appear, the food is ready] [?]
Food grown by the water courses
Food grown by the sea
545. Plentiful and heaped up
The parent rats dwell in holes
The little rats huddle together
Those who mark the seasons
Little tolls from the land

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550. Little tolls from the water courses
Trace of the nibblings of these brown-coated ones
With whiskers upstanding
They hide here and there
A rat in the upland, a rat by the sea
555. A rat running beside the wave
Born to the two, child of the Night-falling-away
Born to the two, child of the Night-creeping-away
The little child creeps as it moves
The little child moves with a spring
560. Pilfering at the rind
Rind of the 'ohi'a fruit, not a fruit of the upland
A tiny child born as the darkness falls away
A springing child born as the darkness creeps away
Child of the dark and child in the night now here
565.    Still it is night

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