Ancestral Spirits (Guamanian/Chamorro)
The Chamorro people of Guam tell stories of ancestral spirits who live in the forests and remote places of their tropical homeland. The “People Before Recorded Time” or taotaomonas (also transliterated taotaomo’na, pronounced, roughly tao-teh-MO-nah) are complex and varied—some are helpful and friendly ghosts, others are horrible and extremely dangerous creatures.
Like many ghosts and goblins across the globe, taotaomonas are shape changers. They usually appear as humans or animals (typically deer, dogs, birds, or coconut crabs), but evil taotaomonas may assume alarming appearances—distorted, hideous, often headless or faceless with weird, twisted limbs. This appears to be a clear case in which one can, in fact, judge a book by its cover.
Taotaomonas act as guardians of vast, remote areas of the island. Chamorro people know to offer thanks and respect (even propitiatory offerings) to these ancient spectres, and to apologize for any damage done to the area. While many of these spirits may be wise and kind, they have little patience with any living whippersnapper who would use their land frivolously or without paying the proper respect.
Chamorro also invoke these ancestors (often given affectionate nicknames such as “grandmother and grandfather”) to bring prosperity; protect against evil spirits, wild animals, or natural disasters; and to bestow their ancestral wisdom on the living. Historically, taotaomonas were sometimes contacted by an intermediary called a makana or a suruhanu who could talk to these spirits on behalf of the living. This might be done to enlist the spirits aid in healing an illness, or to discover what transgression the living person had committed in some cases.
The Chamorro people value physical strength, courage, prowess, and confidence very highly. This makes a lot of sense for a culture in which hunting, fishing, and back-breaking manual labour are necessary for daily life. Most of their cultural heroes are described in terms of strength and prowess. Likewise, the taotaomonas (old fashioned as these ghosts tend to be) often despise weak or cowardly types. Wanderers in Guam’s forests would do well to affect a confident air...boasting about one’s accomplishments might not hurt either!
Some fortunate people who visit the remote parts of the Guamanian rainforests may be approached by a helpful type of taotaomona called a ga’chong (pronounced, approximately ‘gah-TSONG’ and meaning something like ‘helper and companion’). A ga’chong will stay with its human pal, granting superhuman strength and endurance. Several cultures have similar critters, such as the co-walkers of Scotland or the fyljgur of Iceland.
Unfriendly Ghosts: Duendes and Other Nasties
With the coming of Christianity, the character of the taotaomonas seems to have changed. They were once largely believed to be friendly spirits. More recently they have been cast as the servants of darkness, and they are mostly considered to be demons or imps these days.
In many Spanish-speaking countries, there are tales of little people called duendes, and the Spanish settlers on Guam gave that name to a sort of taotaomona. Guam’s duendes are small in stature, and naked (or clad only in leaves). Duendes kidnap children, luring them from the safety of their homes by assuming the shape of other kids or of birds (specifically, a type of red fan-tailed bird with the marvelously onomatopoetic name chichirika). The taotaomonas can make the kids thus kidnapped shrink to tiny size, or change them into a bug or bird, for easy transportation and to keep them from being rescued.
When children are recovered from the taotaomonas, they are usually catatonic and can only be brought back to consciousness by a priest or healer. These kids never remember what happened, and thus no one quite knows what the duendes want from them.
Malevolent taotaomonas can be extremely dangerous, and not just to juveniles. They love to slap, pinch, and even bite mortals. Many travellers in the forests who run afoul of these wicked spirits may get red welts or bruises, even eerie bite-marks or hand prints on their body. This contact sometimes leads to weakness or illnesses.
First-Hand Accounts: Some True Stories
My girlfriend’s maternal family is Chamorro and, as such, has a treasure trove of tales about these strange creatures. Here are some accounts which she wrote for me, in her own words (more or less). These tales are attested to be true throughout her family...you may make up your own mind as to what you believe.
For the first story, you need to know that my mom's grandparents were gifted in that Tata could see and hear the taotaomonas and Nana could hear them.
One day, all the kids were outside playing and Nana could hear their daughter Suza playing and giggling and running around. It sounded like Suza was playing with a dog, but when Nana looked out, she saw that the little girl was getting very close to the jungle—there was no dog to be seen. Nana got to Suza and caught her as she was preparing to dart into the jungle. When Nana asked where she was going, she said that she wanted to go play with the giant red dog, a dog no one else could see.
On another occasion, my grandparents knew a young woman who was pregnant. They warned her not to go out during certain hours of the day because she and the baby would be targets for certain of the malicious taotaomonas. Heedless of their cautions, she went out one afternoon at a time she was not supposed to. People found her unconscious, and her stomach was too flat—her baby had been somehow snatched from inside her. She said she'd felt a weird pressure on her belly, like an invisible hand. People searched for the baby, but it did not turn up for a long time, until its tiny, lifeless body was found inside a coconut.
A young Chamorita got engaged to her beau despite the taotaomona that was in love with him. One day, the girl was visiting with her future sister-in-law, when she was lifted from her seat and slammed up against the living room wall. A handprint was clearly visible on her throat. Hearing his sister's screams, the groom-to-be dashed into the house and began to beg the taotaomona to release her. He explained that this was his true love and he could never be with the taotaomona, could never love it. The pressure on the young girl's throat faded and she fell from the wall, but to this day she carries a darkening of her skin in the shape of a large hand print (author's note: gf has seen it, she says it looks like a birthmark, but it is very clearly hand-shaped).
A mother with young children was doing housework one afternoon. She let her children play outside, their older cousin was watching over them. The mother could hear the children playing, and her youngest in particular seemed to be having a wonderful time, the sound of her giggles and joyful voice sing-songing across the yard while her older siblings played nearby. At one point, the mother went upstairs to put away a load of laundry and looked up to see the visiting cousin standing in the doorway. She scolded him and told him he was supposed to be outside watching the younger kids. Without a word, he closed the door as he turned to go back downstairs. The mother looked out the window and noticed her youngest child running dangerously close to the swordgrass on the border of their property. (Author's note: swordgrass is nasty stuff—a spiky plant that will "cut you to ribbons," in my girlfriend's words). This is something every Chamorro knows to avoid pretty much from the time they can walk.
The mother saw that the rest of the children were on the other side of the yard, oblivious to the threat to their little sister. She could hear children's voices near the youngest child, but there were none visible. The swordgrass was waving in odd places, as if someone was moving around out there and she realized the sounds were coming from that area. She dashed down the stairs and out the door, screaming for her young child to stop. She caught the little girl barely a foot from the swordgrass and asked where she was going—she said she was going to go play with the children in the grass. When the mother asked the young cousin why he ever left the yard and let the young child get so close to the swordgrass, he said he had never gone into the house, and the other kids confirmed that he had never left them or gone into the house, and they thought the little girl was over with them.
Finally, in 1977, my baby sister was born and we started having problems with an unseen cat coming to the bedroom window, scratching at the window as if to try to enter the house then caterwauling all night. My parents tried moving my sister's crib to their room, but the cat just went to their window. It was driving my dad crazy, and no one was getting much sleep. One day, my mom mentioned the spooky cat to her grandparents. Nana told my mom to go home immediately and put salt all around the house and draw lines of salt at the window sills and doorways. She also told my mother to dress my sister and me in specific bright colors and to keep us in the house during certain hours of the day. We never heard the cat again!
Much of this information has been gleaned from a (self-published) book on mythology I have written and am constanly in the process of revising.
Guampedia, entry “Taotaomonas” http://guampedia.com/taotaomona-taotaomona/
Talking with my sweetie, Leah, and her amazing mother