Contes et légendes du Vanuatu



L’île des Esprits dansants





Listen to the myth of the Tamate, a mysterious race of dancers – half divine, half human – who visit the islanders of Vanikoro. The text is told in Teanu, the main language of the island.

The myth of the Tamate

I recorded this story on 1st May 2005, during my first trip to Vanikoro island, in the Solomon Islands. It was told to me by Chief James Cook Pae (~1935-2014), in the village of Temuo.


This myth tells the origin of the “Tamate” headdresses that are worn during certain ritual dances on Vanikoro.


These characteristic headdresses are unique to Vanikoro in their shape and colour; but they are reminiscent of the ritual headdresses that are worn in the nearby islands of northern Vanuatu, in the south. This historical connection is particularly obvious from the word Tamate, which is well known in northern Vanuatu. The word tamate is found today in the Mota language, but the same word was also the ancestral form in the whole region: for example, tamate is the origin of the word na-tmat in Mwotlap.

The original meaning of tamate was “dead person”, and from there “ghost; ancestor; godly spirit”. The Banks languages also use the same word to describe the headdresses used in ritual dances.


In sum, the word Tamate in Teanu clearly reflects events of social contact between Vanikoro islanders and the Torres–Banks islands of Vanuatu further south. Such events were evidently rare: apart from the Tamate masks, Vanikoro shows very little trace of cultural or linguistic connection with Vanuatu. In other words, rather than regular exchanges, the two areas only had intermittent contact with each other.

Interestingly, this myth of origin precisely tells how a couple from Vanikoro discovered these Tamate creatures, one day that they got lost in the ocean, on their way back from Utupua: they landed an unknown island located somewhere southeast, home to a mysterious population…

 s1–s22  – Once upon a time, a married couple left Vanikoro on their sailing canoe. They sailed northwest to Utupua, where they spent a few months with their relatives. When the winds finally blew southeast again, they embarked to return home.
 s23–s52  – But they missed their island, and went too far southeast… till they found a mysterious islet named “Veluko”. They were welcomed by the islanders – human-like godly creatures called Tamate. The couple stayed with them for a few months, witnessing the beautiful dances of these spiritual creatures.
 s53–s93  – When the winds blew finally northwest again, the couple decided to return home; but they took with them five of these Tamate creatures. When they finally landed again on Vanikoro, the couple hid the Tamate in a cave for a few weeks.
 s94–s149  – The couple organised a large dancing festival on the island of Teanu, which lasted for a whole month.
 s150–s183  – On the last day of the festival, they gathered all their countrymen on the shore, and finally revealed publicly the majestic dances of the Tamate spirits.


What were the islanders’ reactions? Fear or admiration?

You'll find out if you read the myth
The island of the Dancing Spirits
in bilingual version (Teanu–English)
or jump directly to the English version.