The myth of Taema and Tilafaiga, the Siamese twin goddesses of tattoo and war

Posted: April 3, 2012 in Xisle Custom Tattoo
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The myth of how the practice of tattoo came to proliferate throughout Polynesia is rooted in the acceptance that it spread from Melanesia (Fiji) eastward. The general understanding of the locus from which the art form first spread, focuses on the Fijian-Tongan-Samoan archipelagos, but not necessarily in that order. In fact, the order of how tattoo spread across this region, places the origin in more or less all three areas, as is exemplified by the respective regional myths surrounding the practice of tattoo. In other words, each location (Fiji, Tonga and Samoa) has unique interpretations and representations of how the art of tattoo came to be. That being said, there are some very strong commonalities among all of the respective myths, that make defining a specific location or culture as the ‘center of it all’, impossible.

The common element that exists throughout Polynesia (Samoa, Tonga, New Zealand,  Marquesas, Cook Islands, Society Islands, Easter Island and Hawaii) in regards to who ‘instigated’ the practice of tattoo, revolve around Siamese twin sisters, that were joined back to back, at the buttocks, facing away from one another. The culture with the richest account of these demi-god twins, were the Samoans. It is from this perspective that the following myth will be told.

The twins were born on the island of Ta’u, the smallest and most westward of the four major Samoan islands. Ta’u was also the place where the sacred ruler of Samoa, Tui Manu’a lived. Ta’u was a place of sanctuary, which could never be attacked by warriors from the other islands because of an accepted understanding of the magnitude of the sacredness of the place, despite its inhabitants being of a warlike nature.

The twin sisters, born back to back so that they could not see the other’s face, were called by the same name, Titi and Titi. Once they had grown, the twins went roaming about and came to a place by the shore, where men go to bathe themselves in the sea. One twin chose to name herself after this place, and she was thereafter called, Taema.

Upon returning home, they told their father that they wished to travel further abroad, and he gave them a magical stone to take with them.

As they swam away from Ta’u they encountered an area of the sea where the current was strong. While struggling against the sea, they suddenly saw the spar of a canoe bearing down upon them.

“This will be difficult to avoid,” they said, and indeed were struck by the canoe, severing the join between them. The other twin takes on the name, Tilafaiga in commemoration of this event. Now separated, the twins swam on to the island of Tutuila, the island immediately to the west of Ta’u.

On Tutuila, the twin, Taema, made taro grow in a rocky place, to the delight and surprise of the local inhabitants. In return for this miracle, they asked the people for masi (fermented breadfruit). They are presented with a mound of masi, which they quickly and mysteriously devour by absorbing it into their bodies. At this point the people realized that the twins were gods, and ran away in fear.

The twins then go up to the mountains where they covered themselves in yellow tumeric, a ritual used to denote high-ranking Samoan virgins. They continued to roam around.

They arrived at a tall, upstanding rock known as ‘the place frequented by warriors’. They split the rock into two halves, making two stone clubs. Using their clubs they suddenly begin to kill any and all warriors and men. During their spree, they realize that they are too close to their homeland of Ta’u, and are afraid that in their frenzy they might mistakenly kill their own people, so they decided to go away. They swim to Fiji.

When they arrived on Fiji, they encountered two male tattoo artists, Tufou and Filelei, who are on their way to work. Although they have no food for the twins, the sisters decided to accompany them anyway. Soon the twins learned the practice of tattoo from Tufou and Filelei, and are told to recite an incantation in memory of the two mentors, whenever they are tattooing.

O Fi Filelei, like a necklace of whale’s teeth

Aid us when we seek to get ready for war

And Tufou, descended from the gods, aid us

Adorn us with your victories

Tufou and Filelei offered the twins a feast to seal their partnership, which the twins refused. Instead they leave Fiji and swam back to Samoa, arriving at the westernmost Samoan island, Savai’i. Not knowing where they were, the twins roam around the island and encounter only children. When they asked the children to tell them where they were, the children only repeat, Na-fanua, Na-fanua, over and over. Tilafaiga decides to rename herself ‘Nafanua’ in commemoration of this incident.

The twins continued to wander around Savai’i and soon discover that the people of the West have been overcome by the people of the East. The chief of the West has gone away, but has left behind a sacrificial food offering, which has to be given to the conquerors from the East. Tilafaiga/Nafanua consumes the food and decided to assume the missing chiefs role in the war. She lays waste to the peoples of the West.

Tilafaiga/Nafanua decided to remain on Savai’i as chief and war goddess. She tells her sister Taema,

“You are to go back to the island of Tutuila and dwell. There you will practice tattoo. When you are tattoing, remember me and you will prosper.

I will remain here to do my work, which is fighting. You must remain neutral in the business of war.

By and by, when war reaches our country you must remain neutral, you must turn your back on our family on Ta’u, but keep your front toward me. If you do not, you will be overcome with vines.”

Taema returned to the island of Tutuila where she practiced tattoo, and heeding her sisters warning, abstained from involving herself in warfare. That is why Tutuila is called ‘the neutral party’.

The tattoo artists sing this refrain in memory of the twins:

Tupu le tane, ta le tatau

Tupu fafine, fanafanau

The man grows up and is tattooed

The woman grows up and she gives birth

The theme of twins is sustained not only in much of Polynesian tattoo, but also in carvings, sculptures and other artifacts (clubs, canoes, bowls, etc.). Although this story is most detailed in the Samoan interpretation, the Marquesans were the culture that utilized the imagery the most. Marquesan tattoo in particular, uses the image, hope vehine, which is essentially the stylization of two women sitting back to back, buttocks touching, representing the twin goddesses. In fact, they use this image so much in their tattoo that there are many variations of the symbol itself.

Not to get too far into Polynesian cultural practices or beliefs, but the position of ‘men’ and ‘women’ were stratified because of the implementation of tapu/kapu/taboo that permeated every aspect of their lives and dictated their respective positions in society. Most people think that the tapu put on women were because of their perceived ‘unclean’ menses, but in fact the tapu was put on women because the ancient Polynesians believed that the woman was a conduit between the realm of the gods (po) and the realm of man (ao). The power of the gods flowed through the woman into the world of the living, through the vagina. What the ancients believed was that the woman was incapable of controlling this implementation of tapu that flowed directly from the gods. Therefore women had tapu put on them for almost everything because not only could the women impart the divinity and will of the gods through this process, but they could inadvertently take away this divinity as well.

You might also notice a similarity in spelling between the Samoan island, Savai’i and the Hawaiian word, Hawai’i. It was no coincidence, as the Marquesan word for the afterworld, or the place that you go when you die was, Havai’i.

Here is my modern interpretation of the hope vehine symbol used in Marquesan tattoo. I’ve included one of the many forms of the traditional symbol used, and it can be seen on the lower portion of the image.

Aloha and peace!

  1. Quillblood says:

    Thank you so much for your interpretation and retelling. God bless you.

    • Mino Atumata Fialua says:

      The magical stone mentioned in the story was later found in the village of Leone Tutuila. I believe it was before the Tuitele Titlle make his way here so there for berfore the Tutuila villages given there village faalupega. For example Leone and Malaeloa Aitulagi ” Fofo ma Aitulagi.

      At this time Leone was rulled by Chief Salave’a Ta’a Aitu who reside on the mountain is now called Manunu. It’s believed Salave’a and Tuifeai both have strong connection in Manu’a.

  2. margo king lenson says:

    Talofa …pls note that Ta’u is the easternmost island of the Samoan archipelago. This is important because of the sun rising in the east for Samoan aitu. Manuia! mkl

  3. tina afo says:

    Please whoever you are, if you don’t know anything about Taema and Tilafaiga, don’t mislead the people by all the lies you wrote on here, the twin were born in Savai’i not Ta’u get your facts straight before you print it on here, all the things you wrote about the twin are lies..soia le pepelo ma fai kala faakupu…

    • Aloha Tina,

      It is important to read what I posted entirely before assuming that I am spreading lies.

      In the first paragraph I write,
      “In other words, each location (Fiji, Tonga and Samoa) has unique interpretations and representations of how the art of tattoo came to be. That being said, there are some very strong commonalities among all of the respective myths, that make defining a specific location or culture as the ‘center of it all’, impossible.”

      In other words, I am only presenting one interpretation of the myth because there are so many of them. The information regarding this myth that I used are from books used in Polynesian graduate studies at the University of Hawaii. Because many cultures (Fijian, Tongan, Marquesan and Samoan) have their own interpretation of the twin goddesses it stands to reason that there they all serve there own purpose and that there is no definitive, or correct one. If I offended you, I apologize but I take great care in my research and would not do anything to purposely offend anyone.

      It is much like how there are many denominations of Christianity all claiming to be the ‘correct’ one. All cultures have different interpretations of ‘god’ and ‘creation’, that reflect the unique perspectives of that given demographic. Because of this, which one is ‘right’ and which one is ‘wrong’ becomes subjective.

      That being said, it is important to read and understand as much as you can before making assumptions.



  4. Jack says:

    Yes it is important to read everything and understand everything before we all make assumptions, It is also important to not put anything in writing that is suggesting that any story is the truth. What I am saying is that no matter what the books say in any University we cannot post things on the net as per our findings unless we specifically state that, (it is said in the books at University oh Hawaii) so on and so forth. ALL SAMOAN LEGIONS, STORIES AND MYTHS ARE VERY IMPORTANT and mean allot to the Samoan people so these types of topics are sensetive to us, therefor we dont post them and or put them on blast without absolute surness of our facts. This shit starts WARS. My take one the famous Twins is they could not have been born in Ta’u or Savai’i. The song says, NA FE’AUSI MAI FITI ILE VASALOLOA. Meaning they swam from Fiji. Anyways I am from POLOA American Samoa where the Twins arrived in Tutuila. My entire Village history is based on and derived from this specific story, Family names land names High Chief names and the Village name itself. PO- LOA. Taunu’u Taema ma Tilafaiga ae PO-LOA, (POLOA) na liua tagata ile ava o LIUA, my Dads Family Matai name, taunu’u teine ae Ga’e le tai maua ai se suafa o TAI- FA’ANA’E ( TAIFANE). Go to POLOA and ask the only High Chief elder left there now. PISAMOA TAIFANE LIUA. My dad. Peace out have a great Holiday season

    • Aloha Jack,

      Thank you for taking time out to read my blog and offer your comments. They are very much appreciated! I am always looking to further my understanding of all Polynesian, Melanesian and Micronesian cultures.
      Here in Hawaii the importance of preserving cultural practices and respecting our ancestors are taken to the highest order. My intention for my blog and my books is to share what I have learned throughout my life about tattoo and what it is to be Polynesian. The reason for this is that while so many people understand that the stories handed down from our ancestors are sacred, some (especially unscrupulous tattoo artists) are using information and art that they do not understand the true meanings behind. As a practicing artist I am afraid that this may lead to some art being misrepresented and marginalized. That would be a great shame and that is why I write and post stories and why I encourage people like yourself to share your ideas. I am by no means claiming to be an expert. We all have opinions to share.


    • Ipou Lefiti says:

      Hi, wow just happened to read this while very curious about the lady Taema myth in the village of Leone in Tutuila. Can you share your knowledge on this?

      • Aloha Ipou,

        I am not familiar with the myth of Lady Taema in Leone, Tutuila. When it comes down to lore and mythology from specific areas of Polynesia, often such stories are exclusive to those areas and do not necessarily fit into what would be considered an overall ‘accepted’ view of general Polynesian mythology. This does not mean in anyway that the myth is irrelevant or that it is not valid. It was often the case in Polynesia that as people migrated, they took what they could from the place they began their journey (food, customs, beliefs, etc.) and when they arrived at the new destination, those things took on new meaning and purpose that better fit into their new surroundings. In Samoa, for example, the myth of Taema and Tilafaiga differs somewhat depending on ones location. Myths are not set in stone 🙂 they are meant to evolve and be re-purposed, which is their beauty, in my opinion. I would very much like to know more about Taema in Leone, if you like to share any insight I would love to hear it. Thank you for taking the time to read my blog and to send me your question. We can all learn from one another 🙂 Peace! Roland

  5. Tammytamikalee says:

    It is with eminent respect, that I salute you and your blog, especially in taking interest in our Polynesian Legends. I have read it, with great understanding and admiration that your work means no harm at all. It is only a sore eye to those who are ignorant, and biased. You have stated your views, interpretations through respected studies that were available for your research. Your story is quite similar to many other books-articles I have read, moreover as you mentioned, there are just too many interpretations/representations of this particular story. I am a native samoan; born, and raised in American Samoa Islands in Leone,Auma…As you should know, “Taema” is respectfully an Iconic figure, Heroine in our village of Leone..Our Sa (vessel is named after her)..As told in folklores and Elders, back in the days, Tutuila was not categorized or assigned in villages or in district, however, directed in cardinal points, West and East…And being that Leone along with all other western most villages now, fell in the far-west side, we all shared that Taema pride, regardless if they (Siamese-twins) settled underneath a rock, next to a reef, away from a coconut tree next to Poloa village. My point is simple: initiate, don’t-hate. I THANK YOU so much Mr. Roland Pacheco for taking the initiative to research on such a tough legend as this. I enjoyed your work, as mentioned earlier, it is quite similar to most stories that I read by Notorious Samoan writers in our local Island community. A pointer, Samoan culture is Known to be Fuelavelave, in my own interpretation,(hopefully I don’t attack by it :))))…meaning, complicated…too many myths-legends-lore, not enough primary source, evidence to substantiate stories…exactly why everyone has their own interpretations…Again, thank you for being professional, open-minded- most of interested in our culture. BTW, wonderful artwork!

    • Wow! I am deeply humbled that you took the time to read my blog and contact me. I thank you for your insight and knowledge on this matter, which you have expressed, is a complicated one to say the least. The reason that I created this blog is for this very purpose; to exchange ideas, information and anything else that pertains to our Polynesian heritage and culture. I admit that Samoan culture is by far my weakest area of knowledge and I truly appreciate the insight from anyone from or living in Samoa. Thank you for the kind words and for making time to contact me with this fabulous information. Aloha!

  6. RMauga says:

    Love reading this and I applaud you for taking the time to research these amazing stories. I was also born and raised in Amercan Samoa and my father is from Leone and I never even knew about Taema until now. ( I know sad). Again thanks Jack for your blog I just learned something from it😊

  7. Faith says:

    Hey… I’ma Samoa… And I came to check on this Myth because my Nana and my Cousins were talking bout it… And plus there’s also a boat in Samoa named TaemaII, I really like this story about the Two twins… But kinda creepy

    • Lol, thank you for reading my blog and taking the time to comment! I agree that the story is a bit creepy, like most Polynesian legends seem to be. Aloha pumehana!

  8. Mahanna says:

    Yes, thank you for putting up the story of the twins, it’s true, i almost got little mad because a lot of people will post lies of the myth. It’s important in my culture that if somebody tells or writes the story it have to be right because some people write for attention,some just write because they wan to make fun off it.

  9. queen b says:

    it was very nice but is it true that tilafaiga changed her name i thought that nafanua was savea kids.

  10. Boy says:

    I am shocked when I read your blog about Taema and Tilafaiga. I don’t know why you decided to post this story for the world to read in the first place. There are numerous contradictions from right to left, comparing to what you thought was the real story. Please understand, the story of Taema and Tilafaiga is the first corner stone of the title “Leiato” of my family, village, county, and Tutuila. I suggest you delete this story now, you are not only destroying but diverting the course of our precious family history which is affiliated with the story mentioned in Poloa by Jack.

    • Please reread the beginning of the story where it clearly states that this myth is simply one of many and that it is not to be considered anything but that. It is important to understand that a myth cannot be right or wrong because it is an account of events that may or may not have occurred, and is subjective in nature; generally passed from person to person, orally.
      In terms of people laying claims to being the ‘owners’ of certain myths and or cultural phenomena, understand too, that this is subjective on your part and that in terms of mythology is concerned, no one person or group of people can lay claim to something that is inherently based in metaphor. Thank you for reading my blog.

  11. Tammytamikalee says:

    If People would research more, read between the lines, and to be frank, in this respect, have some sense of reading comprehension, our reading world would be a lot easier than what is escalated with negativity. This synopsis of Taema and Tilafaiga is simply evidence- based -sources that the researcher collected from various writings or lores, of TAEMA & TILAFAIGA. The writer’s blog is simply telling of how the origination of the TATTOO ties in with our Polynesian roots. Thank You (Roland Pacheco) for your insights. (I am certain, I could relate to your findings, as I read 7 different stories about the subject matter, and was amazed of their similarities and differences)With that said, Until we have primary sources to solidify one story, than I would strongly oppose this, However, as aforementioned they are myths, folklore,word of mouth, in my own words bedtime stories…LOL….Anyhow, future reference for counter readers, READ the title, reread the article several times, understand writer’s point a view, and appreciate the art of writing. PEACE!!!

    • Mahalo nui loa to you Tammy for taking the time to write about this matter. I wholeheartedly agree with you on all points and thank you from the bottom of my heart for your input. Aloha and peace!

  12. Rikeesha says:

    Honestly, I kind of loved it at first but when i read the comments, I was not really sure if I could use this in my research because people are saying it is not true……But I agree how you told that lady that it is a myth and not many people know for sure

    • Thank you for viewing my blog and taking the time to comment. The information contained in this blog is just that: information. In terms of myths, well, they are not based in fact, that is why they are a myth. The points and counterpoints that you have read on this blog are all legitimate. What you are seeing is that some people want to claim a specific narrative as their own, subsequently dismissing any other viewpoint as irrelevant. That’s all nice and good, but the reality is that no one person, family or clan has that ability. It would be like you and your family claiming that your understanding of Santa Claus is the only one that is true. This is a very passionate subject because many people need to retain the identity that they have perpetuated or have been told, in order to be validated, in regards to the twin goddesses of tattoo. Information will likely always be biased and have an angle, even if the intent of the author is not malevolent. This is just how we do things as human beings. That is something that I make clear with all of the information in regards to ancient Polynesian culture and tattoo practices. This information is for the reader to draw his or her own conclusions and act on it accordingly. Thank you again for taking time to comment. Aloha!