Part One: History and Mythology — The Pre-Cataclysmic Period
Before we can begin to understand Pagunan masks as a cultural expression, it is necessary, or certainly helpful, to have some idea about the mythology and history of this unusual people. The singular event that shaped Pagu experience and character was the Great Cataclysm that almost wiped them out in the Fifteenth Century. This event, a powerful tsunami, devastated the population of Nullenesia; well over ninety percent died including the entire religious and political leadership. Except for a handful of the enfeebled and marginalized, the survivors were almost wholly adolescents.
There was, however, one notable exception, Long Tongue, and it was through her that the oral history of Nullenesia, with its old Pagunan myths and legends, was passed on and continued to influence the world of the Pagu. Long Tongue was a crone, a childless widow of many years and a confidante of the elders, who earned her keep preparing kava, a mildly intoxicating beverage, and helping to care for and mentor privileged children. As such, unlike most women, she may have been privy to the conversations, stories and songs of the elders and chiefs. She was later known as Lon Li, the first of the great wisewomen.
At the time of the tsunami she was in disgrace, a fact that enabled her to survive. It had been generally assumed that she was too old to conceive, and no one would have suspected that the little boys who came to her for instruction in the feminine mysteries and social graces were old enough to father a child. These views were mistaken. On that fateful day Long Tongue was in labour giving birth to a baby girl who, under normal conditions, would not have been allowed to survive. The father was never known and all the little boys likely perished in the Great Cataclysm.
We must also acknowledge our indebtedness to Conrad Schwartz, the pioneering anthropologist who made three field trips to Nullenesia in the latter part of the Nineteenth Century. He was the only scholar to make a detailed ethnographic study of the Pagu before their lore was corrupted by the influence of Lutheran missionaries and later investigators who distorted their research to fit their preconceived ideas. Official reports by the colonial government are so bowdlerized as to be useless. Nevertheless, care must be exercised in approaching his work for while Schwartz is often brilliant he is sometimes erratic. He was also known to neglect some basic areas of investigation in favour of the more prurient facets of the societies he studied. His seminal work, The Pagu: Children of Discontinuity, Berlin, 1910 is still the best on the subject. His grandson Sigmund Schwartz later achieved a notoriety of sorts with his study of the initiation rites of the Ulongi of Borneo.
According to Schwartz, Pagunan mythology is essentially the story of the enigmatic Lizard (Balali, in Pagu). He was their creator, their father specifically and the traditional god they, as incomplete beings, worshipped and later, as a failed god, their symbol of folly. And most curiously he was a lizard in a land where lizards were unknown. Nor were there any snakes rats or mosquitoes in Nullenesia at the time of contact. Although Lizard apparently walked upright, his physical descriptions, and the ruins of his idols leave no doubt about this; he had a long slender tail, webbed fingers and toes, a reptilian face with bulging eyes and he was covered with green scales. The Pagu were unaware that such an animal could exist and were incredulous when first shown one. It would seem obvious that they must have brought the idea of a lizard with them from whence they came, but there is no evidence in their oral history or elsewhere to support the idea that the Pagu came from somewhere else; they insisted that they originated on Big Island, and that until their first contact with outsiders they had no idea that other people existed.
In the beginning, so the story goes, Lizard emerged from the ocean at the Sacred Pebble Beach on the desolate North Coast of Big Island. He was all alone. He looked around, he tried to talk to the rocks and trees but they ignored him. It is said that being alone is the thing that the Pagu fear most. Lizard became frustrated and even tried beating the rocks and smashing the trees but got no response. The animals and even the insects ran away from him in fear. Lizard felt very lonely and after a while he sat down and wept. Albatross, who was flying by, noticed him and asked him why he was sad. Lizard replied that he had no companions and told Albatross about the rocks, the trees and the animals, and that he was very lonely. Albatross took pity on Lizard and told him he could make his own companions. He would have to wait until the next full moon and that just as it rose out of the sea he should ejaculate on the pebbles. Then when he returned at the following full moon, the pebbles would hatch and there would be many little creatures like himself that would grow up and become his companions.
Lizard was overjoyed to learn this; to have companions like himself was what he wanted most. He could think of nothing more wonderful and was eager to begin. Then he remembered that the full moon had been yesterday, he had just missed it, but he was so impatient he could not wait for the following one. When the near full moon rose out of the sea that evening, he walked along the beach ejaculating on the pebbles until he had no more semen left. He waited anxiously and came back to the beach at the next full moon. Then just as the moon rose out of the sea the pebbles began to hatch. Lizard was ecstatic but his joy soon turned to deep disappointment; the hatchlings didn't look like him at all. The little creatures were ugly and incomplete, they had no tails, no scales or webbing, no bulging eyes; and worst of all they were a sickly pinky brown colour instead of lovely shades of green. They were disgusting! If only I had waited, Lizard lamented. He turned away in despair and plunged into the sea, vowing never to return. And that was the origin of the Pagu, the people, at least as handed down through Long Tongue and the seven or so generations before it was recorded by Schwartz and others. Lizard was the father of the Pagu and they believed they were the only people in the world until they were discovered about three hundred years ago.
According to legend there were some among the Pagu who thought that Lizard could be persuaded to return and make them whole. They claimed that Lizard was a god, The God. The Pagu had no god and many people liked the idea of having a god. It made them feel important. They also claimed that if he returned he could give them Completion, he would ejaculate on them, bless them with his semen, and they would grow tails, webbing would form between longer fingers and toes. They would be able to catch fish with ease, as many as they wanted, and they could swim to paradisiacal islands where the trees were laden with all kinds of succulent fruit and pigs were waiting to be roasted and eaten. And they would be covered with beautiful, iridescent green scales that would make them invulnerable to injuries of all kinds. The people listened to this message in fascination; the idea of attaining Completion appealed to them. They hailed those who brought them the message as priests and prophets, and asked what they should do.
To encourage Lizard to return the priests had the people build temples with idols constructed out of stone where they could worship him. These idols depicted Lizard standing on two feet with a long tapered tail, a huge phallus like the Roman god Priapus, large webbed hands and feet and a reptilian face with bulging eyes. From the broken pieces unearthed it is estimated that some of them stood over sixteen feet high, taller than any other masonry structures in Ancient Nullenesia. It seems clear from the creation myth and the idols that Lizard was associated with virility. This is further supported by the discovery of small green-dyed phallic rods rising from twin gonadal spheres, which may have been part of household shrines. The triple arch symbol, , found in petroglyphs may represent Lizardism just as the cross represents Christianity and the crescent, Islam.
The priests who claimed to be able to talk directly to Lizard told the people to make offerings to him. They ordered the people to bring in kava; breadfruit, bananas, cooked taro and roast pig along with fine cloth made from the fibre of pandanus leaves and cowry shells. Some accounts said he also wanted girls and young boys. The histories mention that the priests got very fat which was taken as a sign they were favoured by Lizard. Pilgrimages were organized to the Sacred Pebble Beach where the Pagu were created by Lizard. A trail was built across the narrow, hilly isthmus between there and the main settlements concentrated on the South Coast of Big Island. Every adult Pagu was expected to make the barefoot pilgrimage every year and pay the priests three days labour or twenty cowry shells for the privilege. Children could use the trail free.
We have no further information regarding Lizardism, its practices, ceremonies, or its theology. The latter is particularly perplexing. Perhaps Long Tongue simply left out these details as of no interest to her story telling. There is some mention, probably through other survivors of the cataclysm, of rites involving semen but these are vague and contradictory.
What is most troubling theologically is that Lizard is or was a very imperfect god. He bumbles, he makes mistakes due to impatience. He seems to be modeled on some incompetent, selfish, uncaring person who is unaware of his supernatural powers. Albatross has to instruct him, and his powers can only be exercised in conjunction with the moon. Gods, at least of the monotheistic variety, and there's no evidence of gods other than Lizard, tend to be all-powerful, all seeing, all knowing. The Christian God, which is the one people in the West are most familiar with, is a vain, jealous, egotistical, pedantic, wrathful tyrant who can also be loving and merciful. God, Allah and Jehovah don't make mistakes: They are never wrong. They were probably modeled on some of the better absolute kings of Ancient times. It is possible that the Pagu weren't monotheistic, they may have had other gods, perhaps a whole pantheon of gods like the Greeks and Romans, but Lizard the creator, is the only one who survived in the Pagunan memory.
Then after many years and uncountable moons there was a high priest who prophesized that Lizard would return soon. He was coming again. Except for a few malcontents everybody was excited at the prospect. Completion was at hand! People had visions of themselves covered with green scales that danced in the light like mother of pearl. They dreamed of eating only the tastiest fish and imagined themselves on paradisiacal islands gorging at endless feasts. Offerings increased dramatically, and the priests' storehouses couldn't hold them all. Then one day the High Priest announced that Lizard was returning at the next full moon. He would emerge from the sea at the Sacred Pebble Beach on the North Coast just as the moon rose above the horizon. The priests said everyone who wanted Completion should be there and warned that those who didn't come would never get their tails and scales, or worse.
From all over Nullenesia people gathered in the main settlement on Big Island's South Coast. The outlying islands were practically depopulated as all who could came to be completed. On the eve of the full moon day the huge crowds were in a festive mood, anticipating Completion. Many sang the hymns; Make Me Whole, O Lizard, Blessed Be Thy Name Sweet Lizard, Completion Day's A Coming, and other religious songs. Some were already offering prayers of thanks. Few were able to sleep that night.
In the morning a great throng formed, possibly as many as twenty thousand, and they began making their way joyously up the trail that crossed the narrow isthmus to the desolate North Coast. The blind were led and the sick and lame were carried up the steep and twisting trail. Mothers nursed their infants as they trudged along, and older children and teens chased around exploring side paths. Only a few didn't go; the outcasts who'd been banished for their crimes, numbering maybe five, dissenters and unbelievers, a dozen or so mostly cynical old men and women, and of course Long Tongue.
By noon the throng had reached the crest of the trail and could see the ocean stretching to the horizon. Rugged cliffs plunging into the sea lined most of the uninhabited North Coast. The throng had descended most of the way down the steep trail when a group of teenagers exploring off to the side came across a rich patch of sacred mushrooms, the kind that only the priests were allowed to use. Supposedly if you ate them you could talk to Lizard and see visions of the Paradisiacal Islands. Most of the teens started eating the mushrooms but some said it was wrong and went back to tell the others what was happening. Parents came and tried to get the children to rejoin the throng and warned that they might miss out on Completion. A few responded but most just laughed at the adults and insisted on staying. The news about the mushroom patch spread and hundreds and hundreds of young people from ten to maybe twenty joined in until there was perhaps a thousand of them. Then some of the girls shucked their skirts and began dancing naked. A bunch of boys followed and soon all the young people were dancing naked, fondling each other promiscuously in a gigantic orgy of sorts but with all the mushrooms they ate there wasn't all that much sex.
Meanwhile the throng reached the Sacred Pebble Beach, ate the last of their food, and with the priests and chiefs in front they waited for the moon to rise. Rumours went through the crowd that they would also be gifted with the secrets of the stars and how to make magic potions. Then just as the eastern sky began to darken they saw the glow of the moon. They waited impatiently, watched as the rim of the golden moon emerged from the sea, and then just as the disk had cleared the horizon the sea receded exposing a dark reef which the people mistook for Lizard. With the priests in the vanguard, they rushed out to meet him. People yelled and screamed. At any moment Lizard would spray them with his holy semen and they would experience Completion. Just when they began to realize the dark shape was a rock, a great wave twice the height of the tallest palms crashed down on them, dashed them against the shore and rolled up the slope behind almost to where the adolescents were still partying. Hardly any of the great throng on the beach survived, some say just two.
After the tsunami there were maybe a score of traumatized or marginalized adults in all of Nullenesia plus about a thousand adolescents. The South Coast did not entirely escape damage, much of the fertile land was flooded, half the houses were damaged or destroyed, and only a few fishing boats survived, but there was an abundance of every material thing for the survivors.
On every full mood day after the Great Cataclysm the surviving Pagu celebrated their good fortune with an all night orgy, a bacchanal where they feasted, drank kava, ate mushrooms, danced and indulged in indiscriminate sex. Many found a deep moral lesson in the survival of those who had rejected authority and indulged in their sensuous appetites. They did however maintain the prohibitions of their incest taboos.