Artwork of Nafuana by Image Credit:

By Holly Marsden

Nafanua was an ancient Samoan war goddess and ali’i, or chief. Her peaceful conduct of politics influenced the modern used of the fono communal meeting place for the fa’amatai system of decentralised government. Her story comes in many forms, and details of her life vary.

Oral tradition states that the ali’i was the daughter of demigod Saveasi’uleo who was half man, half eel, and his niece and wife Tilafaigā. Tilafaigā was an adventurous twin whose expeditions with her sister included bringing the tatau, or tattoo, to Samoa from Fiji.

Nafanua is said to have grown from the earth. She was then raised in the underworld of Pulotu, her father’s realm, before travelling back to her family’s base on earth, Falealupo. There she fought against a neighbouring district who had invaded and enslaved her people.

When Nafanua went to war, she bound her chest to disguise her breasts. They were revealed in a violent battle and her enemy surrendered in shame after being almost defeated by a woman. Three powerful tools aided her victory: the TaFesilafa’i, the Fa’auli’ulito, and the Ulimasao.

Nafuana was presented with the four chiefly titles of the area: Tui Atua, Tui A‘ana, Gato‘aitele, and Tamasoali‘i . She then established the governmental system still used in Samoa today. After her death, she was deified and is regarded as the greatest warrior in Samoan history.

Samoan chiefs communicated with the Nafanua on the island of Savai’i. It is said that her guidance predicted the coming of Christianity to Samoa.  Her story has largely been passed down through oral legend, but contemporary poets and storytellers retell her life in new ways.

Quoting Michelle Keown, Caryn Lesuma argues that the figure of Nafanua acts as a “galvanizing force” that legitimizes and articulates the experiences of contemporary Samoan women while also activating a “collective remembering” that provides healing, inspiration, and guidance.’

Recommended Reading

Caryn Lesuma, “Sā Nafanuā: Reconstituting Nafanua as Female Empowerment in Samoan Diasporic Literature,” Journal of American Folklore 132.525 (2019): 260–274

Dan Taulapapa McMullin, “Fa’afafine Notes: On Tagaloa, Jesus, and Nafanua,” Amerasia Journal 37.3 (2011): 114-131

Lupematasila Misatauveve Melani Anae, “Matai Tamaitai: Samoan Womanist Agency and Reflections On Nafanua,” in A Handbook for Transnational Matai (chiefs) Tusifaitau o Matai Fafo o Samoa, eds. Lupematasila Misatauveve Melani Anae and Seugalupemaalii Ingrid Peterson, 53-68 (Canterbury, New Zealand: Macmillan Brown Centre for Pacific Studies, University of Canterbury, 2020).

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