Kusa Kap

The tale of Kusa Kap is told on the islands of Dauan and Mabuiag in the Torres Strait. The primary difference is the setting of the events and the name of the fisherman – Maiwasa in Mabuiag, Kaudab in Dauan. Of the two, the Dauan account is more detailed and is the primary source here.

Kaudab was a successful and handsome young dugong hunter from Dauan. He was recently married to Bakar, a woman so beautiful she was expected to never leave the house. But he had also attracted the attention of Giz. Giz was a dogai, a cunning female spirit with long ears and the ability to shapeshift. Giz would spend long hours desiring the beautiful red-headed man for herself, and she was so jealous that she wouldn’t leave him out of her sight. Giz could not tolerate Bakar’s existence.

One day, as Bakar was looking for octopus, Giz dove into a rockpool and turned herself into an octopus. Bakar had never seen an octopus before, and she leaned over the pool to try to grab it, only for Giz to grab her in her tentacles and pull her underwater. Bakar knew immediately that this was no ordinary octopus, but a dogai in disguise, and screamed to Kaudab for help – but alas, he was too far away to hear her.

This was only the beginning of Giz’s revenge. She pulled Bakar through Apangabia-taian, the tunnel beneath the sea, and took her to the island of Kusar, near New Guinea. There she abandoned the young bride before returning to Kaudab’s home and transforming into Bakar herself. When Kaudab came home, Giz tried to prepare food for him, but she did not know how to do so, burning her fingers on the coals, cackling wildly, and breaking wind crudely with every movement. Thus Kaudab knew his wife had been replaced by a dogai.

Bakar, meanwhile, was alone on a deserted island. There was nothing to eat beside kusa seeds (kapul). She became pregnant as a result, and eventually laid an egg like that of a sea-eagle’s. It hatched into a baby eagle that she cared for with as much love as if it had been a human child. She named the bird Kusa Kap after the kusa seeds that had conceived him.

With Bakar’s care Kusa Kap grew quickly. His first attempts to fly were clumsy, but soon his wings were strong enough to carry him to the tops of trees. In time he was strong enough to fly to Daudai and bring back coal, string, bark, and a bamboo knife, which Bakar used to get a fire going so she could start cooking food.

The next day Kusa Kap saw a dugong for the first time. He seized it in his talons and carried it off for Bakar to cook. In time he was capturing many dugong, sending the surplus to Pösipas.

Finally Bakar told her son to go to Dauan, and gave him directions to find Kaudab’s house. He informed him of Bakar’s plight by responding to his questions with nods, and directed Kaudab to Bakar’s island by alighting on the mast of his canoe and guiding him. Before long Bakar and Kaudab were joyfully reunited again.

The only thing left was Giz, and Kusa Kap swooped onto her and carried her off in his talons. After torturing her at length by dropping and recapturing her, he let go of her far away from Dauan. She plunged into the sea and turned to stone, becoming Dogail Malu, the dogai sea.

There is a final twist to the tale of Kusa Kap. In the account of New Guinea given by d’Albertis, he is informed by his traveling companions of a gigantic bird, some 16 to 22 feet in wingspan, whose wings make a noise like a steam engine. It lives around the Mai Kusa river. He adds that the natives have seen it carry dugongs into the air. He rejects the claims and later shoots a red-necked hornbill, which is a large bird that makes a strange noise in flight; he succeeded in convincing two or three of his companions that this was, in fact, the bird in question.

Either way, despite Kusa Kap being described as an eagle, Haddon identifies the red-necked hornbill as the origin of the Kusa Kap legend on the basis of its dugong-snatching activities.

References

d’Albertis, L. M. (1881) New Guinea: What I Did and What I Saw, v. I. Houghton, Mifflin, and Company, Boston.

d’Albertis, L. M. (1881) New Guinea: What I Did and What I Saw, v. II. Houghton, Mifflin, and Company, Boston.

Haddon, A. C. (1904) Reports of the Cambridge Anthropological Expedition to Torres Straits, v. V: Sociology, Magic, and Religion of the Western Islanders. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Lawrie, M. (1970) Myths and Legends of Torres Strait. University of Queensland Press, St. Lucia.

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