This rendering by Caroline Sinavaiana is based on the text and translation of the narrative recorded by Gatoloaifaana Peseta S. Sio. Tapasa o Folauga I Aso Afa (Compass of Sailing in Storm), Apia Samoa: University of the South Pacific Centre, 1984.



THE LEGEND OF NAFANUA (warrior goddess)


          Once there was a couple with a rather unusual son. He was their eldest and was called Saveasiuleo.  From the waist up he had a human body, but instead of legs, he had a long tail like a conger eel. So he lived in the sea, close to their fale behind the village of Falelima, at Alao mountain on the north coast of Savai’i, the biggest island in Samoa. His mom and dad, Alao and Taufailematagi, had many other children, but none of them lived that long, because their brother Saveasiuleo would nab them while they were swimming in the sea and eat them.


          When another son was born, he was named Ulufanuasesee, because his favorite pastime was sliding down slippery vines on the mountainside. One day Ulu stood by the mountain looking out to sea, at the sun glinting on foamy waves pounding the reef.   Not knowing what he was looking at, Ulu asked his mom, “What’s all that white stuff out there?” His mom explained, “That’s the sea, the place where a lot of our food comes from.”   So, Ulu thought he’d check it out–maybe collect a little sea water for the cooking, and then try riding some those alluring waves.  “Okay” said his mom, “but you have to be very careful. Your brother Saveasiuleo, who is half-eel lives out there, and he’ll eat you if he catches you.” So Ulu promised and headed for the beach.


          When he got down to the beach, Ulu left his water gourds there and jumped into ocean for the first time. He was ecstatic and shouted for joy    Meanwhile, in the deep water, Saveasiuleo was sensing the nearby presence of a human, another sumptuous meal  So he left his deep-sea cave, surfaced and began to ride the troughs of waves. Fortunately, Ulu was riding the crests of waves and made it back to the beach before his brother. When he saw the half-eel man, he cried out, “Damn you    What pathetic brothers we are, that you’d want to catch and eat me ”


          This sensible observation mortified Saveasiuleo, so he replied, “Really, bro, you’ve indeed made me so ashamed,  I’ll go back to Pulotu0, and leave you here in Samoa. But we’ll meet at the ends of our genealogy [sic]. Let’s say goodbye here at the tide line2.” 


          So Ulu went home, grew up and got married to a lady named Sinalalofutu, the daughter of Faasavalu at Falelatai. Soon Sina gave birth to twin girls who were joined at their sides. One day Ulu came home from the bush with a huge log, which he dropped near the house where the twins were sleeping. Startled by the thunderous blast, the girls shot up from their sleep, and in a fright,  pulled their bodies apart. Then they ran away to the west.


Adventures of Taema and Tilafaiga


          Deciding to swim towards the east, they came across a broken mast floating on the sea. They tried to straighten out the mast by climbing up on one side, then the other, but it was very difficult. So one twin said she would take the name, Tilafaiga to remind them of the difficult mast that carried them away on their first adventure. Until this time, they had been without names. The next day they reached Poloa village on the island of Tutuila. Resting awhile on the beach, the younger twin said, “Check out that shit (tae). Doesn’t it look clean (mama)?” So she decided to take the name Tae mama, or Taema for short.


          Then, Tilafaiga said, “Let’s go to that island with the hill and see if we can meet that handsome Fatatalie we hear so much about.” After resting awhile, they saw a man and greeted him. “Do you know where the handsome Fatutalie can be found?” The man replied, “You’re mistaken. Fatutalie is not a man, but a tree, as you can see for yourself,” pointing to a nearby talie tree. This made Tilafaiga angry, so she said, “Because we’ve been misled, we will now place tapu on this rocky islet.”3


          So the twins grabbed their broken mast, and swam off down the coast till they reached Sailele village, near Fagaitua. Taking strands of seaweed, they tied their mast together, so they could carry it better, and made their way to the house of the chief, Togiola. Chief Togoiola greeted the ladies and looked after them kindly. To thank him for his kindness, the twins gave their mast to the chief, who was very happy with the gift. When his son was born, he named him Leiato, to commemorate the mast given as a gift by the twins, Taema and Tilafaiga.4


          One evening chief Togiola gave them some intriguing news–Tonight at midnight, chief Moamoaniua will come to woo you both.” So the two sisters waited with high anticipation. The handsome chief arrived at midnight as promised, and every night thereafter, and the twins were most happy with their new lover. Except for one tiny thing–the handsome chief had a habit of arriving at midnight and leaving before dawn, always, without fail. What the sisters weren’t able to see at night was that the otherwise handsome chief had a cockscomb on crown of his head. They were most curious to see their lover in daylight, so they decided on a plan to trick him into staying long enough, so they could see what he really looked like.


          The next night, the sisters made sure that all the blinds in the house were fastened down securely. When the chief woke at dawn, he only saw darkness, so he went back to sleep with his two ladies.   Later when the sun was quite high, Moa awoke suddenly and realize that he’d been tricked. So in shame, he jumped up into the rafters, where it’s dark even during the day.5 Finally Moa was so ashamed, he flew away to the forest.


          Taema ended up having a child by Moa, and as soon as the boy  was old enough to walk, the twins decided to leave him in Tutuila and swim back west to their home in Savai’i. When they said farewell to the boy, he wailed on the beach.  His mother Taema said, “Don’t stand on the beach wailing like this  One day you’ll be a chief, and then you can look for your family in the west. From now on you’ll be called Sealiitumatafaga.” And so it was that the twins began their swim back to Savai’i and left Seali’i wailing on the beach of Sailele.


          When they had almost reached Savai’i, the older sister Tilafaiga said, “Let us say farewell here. I’ll go to Pulotu, where our father’s brother lives, while you go on to Savai’i and wait for your son Seali’i, who will visit you there one day. Younger sister Taema replied, “Very well, we’ll say farewell here, but we will meet at the tops of the mast and the tips of the sails.” And so the two sisters went their different ways–Tilafaiga swimming on to Pulotu, and Taema to Savai’i.




Birth of Nafanua


          When Tilafaiga reached Pulotu, she married her father’s brother,

Saveasiuleo. They had a child who was born so prematurely, it resembled a blood clot. So Tilafaiga took the blood clot and buried it in the earth. Later Saveasiuleo asked where it was, and Tilafaiga answered that it was hidden in the earth. From the blood clot grew a magnificent girl, who was named Nanaifanua (hidden in the earth), or Nafanua for short. Her parents later had a second daughter, Sualefanua.6


          Meanwhile, back east in Tutuila, Seali’i had grown up and decided to visit his mother’s people in Savai’i. Travelling west, he alighted at Vaipua village in Salega district on the west coast, and set up a village there.


          In those days, the people of Falealupo were living as slaves of two other powerful tribes.7 Whenever a Falealupo man was sent to fetch fresh coconuts, he had to climb up the tree with his feet first. Besides being very difficult, it was also humiliating. Even the chiefs of Falealupo had to do this degrading task, and one day it was Tai’i the orator’s turn. While struggling up the coconut tree, at the command of their masters, Tai’i sighed out loud. Nafanua heard the melancholy sign all the way over in Pulotu, and this is how she learned that her parents’ village was in bondage.8 Nafanua appealed to her father Saveasiuleo, “How can I avenge the defeat of my people? I can hear them suffering up there, and I must go and help them.” Saveasiuleo replied, “very well, my dear. I shall give you war clubs which will help you to avenge the defeat of our people.”


          He then brought forth four war clubs. “The first club is called the Ulimasao.  Use it as your boat to take you to Samoa. The second club is the Faauliulito. Use this one as your weapon in the battle. The third club is the Tafesilafai. Use this one in the battle, but only against your enemies. Be warned that you do not use it against your allies. The last club is called Faamategatau. Use this one in victory on the day you set up your malo (government) after overcoming your enemies. On that day, you will finally decide on the destiny of all Samoa. And one last thing, a major precaution, my daughter  When you’re in battle, you’ll be chasing your enemies back to their land. However as soon as you reach the Pa o Fualaga at Salega (a stone wall marking a particular part of the village), you must stop and turn back, in deference to the district chief.   So Nafanua bade farewell to her father and started on the long voyage back to Samoa.


          When Nafanua finally reached the cape at Falealupo, called Taliifiti, she was wet and tired from her long journey, so she slept right there on the beach. As she slept, two people from the village–a couple called Matuna and Matuna, walked by and saw the unfamiliar lady. So they decided to wake her up to find out whether she was a human or a ghost. So they shouted, and Nafanua immediately sat up. Matuna and Matuna were so impressed with awesome lady, that they sat down and said in wonder, “Greetings  But you are all wet ”9


          So Nafanua explained to the couple why she had made the long trip to Samoa, and she immediately ordered them to spread the word that a leader had arrived to help avenge Falealupo’s defeat. Hmmm. The dubious couple replied, “But where will the warriors come from? We have no able-bodied men left to form an army.” Nafanua reassured them, “That is not your worry. On the day of battle, there will be a host of spirits who will change into dragonflies and cicadas and fight the war.”


          So the next morning Matuna and Matuna went into the village to spread the word. “Tomorrow we will fight the Aea’i Sasae and the Aea I Sisifo (the oppressors). Everyone, make preparations now ” But the villagers just looked at the couple and had a good laugh. When the couple reported back to Nafanua, she said, “Nevermind them. Listen carefully. Tomorrow you two take the far side of the road, and I will stay here on this side. You fight over there, and I’ll fight here.  If any opponents from your side break free and run across to this side, do not try to pursue them, and I will not pursue anyone who escapes to your side. You must under all circumstances  keep to your side of the battle. Mark well my words ”


          The next afternoon, the battle began. Nafanua and the couple–Matuna and Matuna, were joined by a huge host of spirits in the form of dragonflies and cicadas, just as Nafanua had promised. Together they killed untold numbers of their opponents  from Aia I Sasae and Aea I Sisifo, and drove the remaining enemy force east to Salega. Then, behind Falelima, Matuna and Matuna forgot Nafanua’s warning, and they stepped over the boundaries between their fighting spaces. Thus they came within range of the war club Tafesilafai and were killed instantly. Matuna and Matuna immediately turned to stones which are still there to this day.10


          Then Nafanua continued in pursuit of the enemy. She remembered her father’s “last will”and instructions to her about turning back at the boundary of Faulaga, in deference to the chief there. It turns out that a certain chief Seali’itumatafaga, her mother’s sister’s son, was living there.   So, when Nafanua reached the Pa o Fualaga, she stopped on a rise above the village and looked down at the remnants of the enemy forces, which she would not pursue any further.11  As the Salega people were resting up and catching their breath on their malae, they looked up at Nafanua and shocked at what they saw. A gust of wind had lifted her coconut-leaf breast plate and exposed her breasts for all to see. A woman, yikes  The enemy folks were totally shocked and mortified. The fierce warrior who had defeated and driven them back into their own district turned out to be a woman. They were so totally shamed by this, that their malae came to be known as the Malae o le Ma (Male of Shame).


          After her victory Nafanua returned to Falealupo. She lived at Analega, near the mountain ridge behind Falealupo. The villagers paid homage by sending her food, and word spread to the rest of Samoa that Nafanua had established herself as a ruling chief. From all Samoa, chiefs travelled to Falealupo to pay homage to her.  When the orators and chiefs from Leulumoega arrived, they immediately lifted Nafanua’s house and took it from Analega to the malae (meeting green) of Falealupo.12


          One day, in a playful mood Nafanua asked the chiefs of Falealupo to go to the swimming pool with her. She dared anyone to stay underwater with her, to see who could last the longest. One by one the chiefs had to surface, while the lady warrior stayed and stayed and stayed under water. Some of the chiefs began to grumble, “We though she was a human, but now we find that she’s a ghost.” When Nafanua finally surfaced, she remarked, “I heard the grumbling, and I also  know that the only ones who didn’t complain were Aiono, Misa, Vaili and Tanuvasa. Since they were the only loyal ones, I will reward them by making them the main pillars of the new government.”


           The Leulumoega chiefs prepared to depart for Upolu island. Before they left Nafanua spoke to them, “You will return to Upolu with the new head of state there, but one day I will come and set up the first post of the Malo (government) at Maauga and Nuuausala. Be prepared for my arrival, or you will not achieve the Malo for which you came to me. I will stay here but will pray for the successful establishment of the malo in days to come.” Whereupon, the Leulumoega chiefs departed for their island.


          Malietoa Fitisemanu heard that Nafanua had established her malo,  so he and Su’a, another chief, travelled to Falealupo to seek positions in the new malo. When they arrived, Nafanua said, “Malietoa, you have come, but I have already given away the ‘head’ and ‘body’ of the malo. Only the ‘tail’ of the Malo is left. You shall take it with you and await a Head for your malo from Heaven.” Malietoa was satisfied, so he returned to his land. It was Malietoa’s son, Malietoa Vainupo, who was to be the catalyst for Nafanua’s prophecy to manifest, when he accepted Christianity into Samoa, that is, receiving a ‘Head’ to his Malo from heaven.


          Nafanua stayed on in Falealupo and proceeded to allocate status, positions and responsibilities to the people. The Le Alataua of Tufutafoe, Neiafu and Falelima went to Nafanua who told them, “Le Alataua, you will be my fighting forces who will act as peacemakers among warring factions.” The people of Sataua went to Nafanua who told them, “Sataua of the Four Houses, you will be my caretakers of the forests, so that all people will have sustenance always.” All of Falealujpo gathered together for Nafanua’s blessings, and she told them, “Falealupo, you will be my Auvaa Tapuai (reserve forces). You Fuiono, will look after the village. You Taofinuu will be the repository of knowledge for the people.  You Soifua will be the peacemaker for the village. you ‘I’, will be given the name Auvaa Tapuai and will be the fourth house for the village when it meets. And lastly, you Lilialei, you have come but lately. I have given away many posts, but you shall be named Silialei, and you will dress differently when the force is in session.” Thus Nafanua gave to Samoa the governing structure that’s still in place today.13




1.Pulotu: oceanic underworld where souls were believed to  go after death. In Samoa, the specific location is near Nafanua’s village, Falealupo, on the northwestern tip of Savai’i, the westernmost island of the archipelago.

2.This negotiation became known as the “Will at Onetai” (tide line).

3.Thus, the rocky islet at Poloa came to be called Taputapu.

4.Leiato later came to be the chief of Fagaitua village.

5.In his haste, Moa knocked his cockscomb against the rafters, which gave rise to the saying about Manu’as rooftop being destroyed.

6.Thus, the “Will at Onetai” had come to pass, with the two brothers–Saveasiuleo and Ulufanua, “meeting” again at the end or ‘tail’ of their family lines.

7.Aea I Sasae on the Salega side, and the Aea I Sisifo on the Leituotane side.

8.Thus the saying, “Tai’i’s melancholy sigh was heard in Pulotu.”

9.Thus, the respectful Samoan greeting, “Susu mai” came into usage, ie. in deference to Nafanua who arrived in Samoa all wet from her long sea voyage.

10.The stones can be found today next to the “access track to the north” near Falelima.

11.Where she stood came to be called Fotuga, or the place where Nafanua was “seen” by her enemies.

12.Many chiefs of Leulumoega obtained their titles in this service to Nafanua, titles such as Lepou, Liufau, Agilau, Lauvao, Tupola, Leoli and many others.

13.Nafanua’s house in Falealupo was called Fale Tofa. It is said that fine gravel for her house was brought from Lauli’i by slaves who carried it in their nostrils. It had two entrances–one called “The Road”, to enter through, and the other was called “The Road for the Bonito.” The latter was where people took the last bonito, caught on fishing trips, as an offering to Nafanua.