Chamorro folktale: Chaife, the god of the underworld
Chamorro folktale: Chaife, the god of the underworld
Editor’s note: Few things offer insight into a place and its people like stories passed from one generation to the next. These stories are part of the wealth of information being compiled on Guam’s free online encyclopedia, Guampedia, which shared them with Stripes Guam for this feature series. You can support this 501 (c) (3) non-profit community project by purchasing the children’s ebook “Chamorro Folktales” at: guampedia.com/gift-shop/products/category/children
Chaife was the god of the underworld, according to one Guam legend. He was a blacksmith creator who controlled the wind, water and fire. Chaife lived in a volcanic mountain called Sasalåguan (meaning “hell” in Chamorro) where he created souls, or spirits, forging them from fire. Chaife used the souls he created as slaves and tortured them endlessly. It was also believed that people who died unnatural deaths went to Sasalaguan. Anthropologist Laura Thompson describes ancient Chamorro death beliefs in The Native Culture of the Marianas Islands:
Regarding the abode of the dead, they believed…, that the souls of those who died a natural death descended to an underworld paradise where there were ‘bananas, coconuts, sugar cane and other fruits of the earth’. On the other hand, the souls of those who died a violent death went to a sort of hell called Sasalåguan, the dwelling place of Chayfi, a demon, who cooked them in a cauldron which he stirred continually.
Children of the earth
Chaife was the god of the underworld. He controlled the wind, water and fire. Chaife lived in Sasalåguan where he created souls, or spirits, forging them from fire. Chaife used the souls he created as slaves and tortured them endlessly. People who died violent deaths were sent back to Chaife’s home, where he cooked them in a cauldron which he continually stirred.
One day as Chaife hurriedly created a new soul, he made the fire too hot and it exploded. Sparks, rock and ash spewed out of Sasalåguan, allowing one of the tortured souls to escape. The soul fell to earth, landing in a bay on Guahan near the present-day southern village of Humåtak (Umatac). The soul that escaped turned into a rock as it touched the ocean waters.
Over time, weathered by water and wind, the rock formation softened and eventually became a man, the first Chamorro. The man saw how beautiful it was to be alive and enjoyed the paradise he found, but grew weary of the solitude.
He took red clay and mixed it with water, and began to form human figures, both men and women. He gave the figures souls by heating them with the rays of the sun. His creation, the first people, he called, the “children of the earth.”
Meanwhile, in Sasalåguan, Chaife finally gained control over the fire. He counted his souls but saw that one was missing. When Chaife realized that one of the souls had escaped during the explosion, he was angry and searched for the soul to destroy it.
After many days of looking, Chaife found a child playing along the shore and believed it was the escaped soul.
Chaife thought, “I am the god of wind, waves and fire. Since the soul is on the beach, I will send a big wave to drown him.” A huge wave came into the bay and covered the child of the earth. But the boy was unharmed for he had turned into a fish and swam away. In anger, Chaife set a great fire underneath the lagoon and boiled all the water away. But the fish did not die. When there was no water remaining, the fish turned into a hilitai (monitor lizard) and disappeared into the woods. Chaife turned up the flames and set the jungle on fire. As the blaze roared, Chaife could not believe his eyes. Out of the ashes the hilitai transformed itself into a bird that flew away.
Chaife’s anger grew into a raging typhoon. The typhoon dashed the bird against a cliff and broke its wing. But just as Chaife was about to pounce, the bird changed into a child. The child of the earth said to Chaife, “You can try with the wind, waves, fire, and all your power, but you can never destroy me. My soul comes from the sun.”
Chaife, outraged at this said, “Your soul comes from Sasalåguan. I created your soul. You are my slave!”
The child replied, “I am not your slave. Your lost soul is at Fouha Bay, making more souls from the heat of the sun. You see, he made me, a soul from the sun, which you can not control.”
In frustration, Chaife withdrew in humiliation and continued to pursue the escaped soul with more determination. But unbeknvownst to Chaife, the soul had already turned himself back into a rock. That rock is believed to be in Fouha Bay near Humåtak (Umatac).
Realizing he had no power over the souls created by the sun, Chaife returned to Sasalaguan.
Chamorro creation myth
There is another Chamorro creation myth that was known long before Chaife. It is the story of the creation of the universe where supernatural siblings, a brother and sister, Puntan and Fu’una created the earth and all its people. Puntan asked his sister to use parts of his body to create the world, and when the tasks were completed, Fu’una threw herself to the newly created earth and turned into a rock at Fuoha Bay, and the peoples of the earth were borne from the rock formation.
Legends are meant to espouse and enforce values of society and culture. This fable of the blacksmith creator is also a way to explain natural phenomena such as tidal waves and typhoons. The legend also shows a central tenet of Chamorro culture; interdependence. In this case, the interconnectedness between humans and nature.
Additionally, this story supports the ancient Chamorro philosophy of animism – the belief that animate and inanimate objects have spirits- as presented in their reverence of nature or the natural world, but also the spirits or souls of deceased ancestors.
Furthermore, the legend of Chaife may reflect the impact of Spanish colonialism-which expanded from the latter half of the 17th century to the dusk of the 19thcentury- on Guam and throughout the Mariana Islands. Guam historians proffer that the concepts or practices of murder, hell and blacksmithing were not part of the ancient Chamorro culture or society but were rather introduced during the island’s Spanish rule. The child’s wiliness – outwitting those in power- is also a prevalent theme in the folklore of colonized societies.
Mt. Sasalaguan is the name of an actual mountain in southern Guam near the village of Malesso’ (Merizo).
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