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Maori Religion and Mythology Part 2

Rainbow Myths

Rainbow Myths

Far and wide across the earth the rainbow has been a favoured subject for the myth maker, as shown in the works of E. B. Tylor page 414and many other writers. The Polynesian folk have many stories and many beliefs connected with this phenomenon. Such beliefs may usually be traced to the conviction that natural phenomena had much influence on conditions, products, etc., of this world; and connected with this again was the fact that, in many cases, the personified forms of such phenomena were viewed and appealed to as mana -possessing beings capable of interfering in mundane affairs. Naturally many of these Nature myths are of a mythopoetic nature, as when the natives of Atu maintain that Hina (personified form of the moon), who had taken to herself a mortal husband, told him, when age overtook him, that death might not enter her celestial home, hence she must send him back to earth to end his days. After a final embrace Hina caused a rainbow to span the heavens even down to the earth, and down the shining way passed her mortal husband to the world that knows death. In another tale of those parts we are told that upon a time Hina was bathing in the waters of this world, when she was seen by Tangaroa from his celestial home. He unfastened his girdle and allowed it to hang down to the earth, then passed down it to visit Hina, and their progency are the fair-haired offspring, the whanau kehu a Tangaroa. But the girdle of Tangaroa is not so styled by men of this world, for they know full well that it is the rainbow.

Our Maori folk had also their quaint rainbow myths, and the personified forms of that striking phenomenon, Uenuku and Kahukura, were viewed as important tribal gods, more especially in connection with war and devilry. The more important tribal gods such as these were more frequently appealed to than were the superior departmental gods. Unlike us the Maori made frequent use of his gods and relied upon them not only in serious crises, but also in his every day pursuits. The two rainbow "gods" mentioned occupied an important place among the tribes of the eastern coast of the North Island, where Maru was not so prominent as he was among the Aotea people of the west.

Of Kahukura the Awa folk of Whakatane tell us that he is composed of two bands or arches, a double bow. Of these the upper one is of a darker colour than the lower one, and it is spoken of as a male that is embracing the light hued and female lower bow. The upper bow is called Kahukura-pango (dark Kahukura) and Kahukura-i-te-rangi (Kahukura in the heavens); while the female bow is known as Tuawhiorangi, but is sometimes alluded to as the supernatural being extended across the heavens. One informant gave the name of Pou-te-aniwaniwa to the lower page 415arch, while yet another styled it Kahukura-whare. The ordinary term for the rainbow is aniwaniwa, a word evidently allied to anuanua, a farspread name for the rainbow throughout Polynesia.

True to his stong desire to present everything in human form the Maori will give you lines of descent from gods, the heavenly bodies, and many forms of natural phenomena, or at least from their personified forms. Thus we are gravely informed that Kahukura was the son of Rongo-mai and Hine-te-wai, the first named of whom is the personified form of meteors and meteorites. Mythic recitals tell us that Kahukura was an atua, but that he assumed human form. Also he, being of supernatural origin, and also perchance because he was wont to act as a pilot to deep-sea voyagers, knew of all places, and so he proposed to his companion Rongoiamo that they two should come hither to the land of Aotearoa. Rongo enquired as to the manner of crossing the wide seas that roll between Hawaiki and these isles, whereupon Kahukura seized his mother Hine-te-wai and so arranged her curved body that her feet rested on the Hawaikian homeland and her hands on Aotearoa (New Zealand). Then Kahukura seized his father, Rongomai, and arranged his body on that of Hine-te-wai; then Paoka-o-te-rangi was arranged on top of Rongo-mai, and Totoe-rangi on Paoka. Then Tahaina, Kaurukiruki and Hereumu were arranged in a similar manner, and then the bridge was considered strong enough, and so Rongoiamo clambered on to Hereumu and trudged over his resplendent one-span arched bridge of some 600 leagues in length. Kahukura followed him, one account says that he leaped across, which seems to show a distrust of his bridge. Presumably the different beings who composed the bridge represent the different coloured bands of the rainbow. These two immigrants by way of the famed bridge are said to have introduced kumara or sweet potato into the isle of Aotearoa.

It is an old saying that Kahukura is a being who stands with one foot on land and one on the ocean, an allusion to the vast span of the rainbow. One story is to the effect that he was a descendant of Pou-te-aniwaniwa, a name that recalls Pou-te-anuanua of Rarotonga. Many signs and omens were derived from rainbows, both Kahukura and Rongonuiatau were atua often applied to with regard to divination, and the two Kahukura, male and female, are said to have begat the whirlwind that gyrates in space.

Uenuku, our other personified form of the rainbow, is often termed Uenuku-rangi, and many signs and omens were derived page 416from the position and appearance of this atua. I have no data showing that the two names, Kahukura and Uenuku, were applied to different appearances of the rainbow. I am inclined to think that there must be some distinction, for, in some districts, both names are in use. The saying "Ko Uenuku tawhana i te rangi", curved or bow-like Uenuku in the heavens, resembles one pertaining to Kahukura given above. An enthusiastic believer in the impeccable nature of omens drawn from the appearance of the rainbow once informed me that Uenuku could even be relied on to warn man of dangers threatening him, and that such warnings were reliable. Offerings were made to these rainbow deities, and one informed me that the young leaves of the first planted sweet potato of a crop formed one such offering to Uenuku.

There are two popular and well known stories connected with Uenuku, both of which serve to illustrate the mythopoetic nature of Maori myths. Both of these tales are concerned with visitors from celestial regions, but in one case only is that visitor Uenuku, in the other tale the Mist Maid comes to earth and visits Uenuku, who, at that period, was a denizen of this lower world.

One of these recitals deals with an ancient form of myth known in many lands, and one still retained and taught by some civilised peoples, namely the coming of a male supernatural being from the heavens down to this earth. As in many other well-known examples of the myth our Maori atua were sufficiently material, not to say human, to cohabit with women of this world, as we have already seen in the case of Tamaiwaho. This first story concerns Uenuku-rangi, the rainbow "god", and one Iwipupu, wife of Tamatea-ariki-nui; this Tamatea is said to have been a chief of high rank of Hawaiki, and he seems to have been really an historical character who visited New Zealand. The episode to be related apparently occurred at Hawaiki, the former island home of the Maori, where Iwipupu was visited several times by Uenuku in his spirit form during the hours of darkness. Such a visitation is termed a tahakura by the Maori, we would speak of it merely as a dream. At a certain time, however, Uenuku visited Iwi in more material form, and during the hours of daylight. Tamatea was absent from home at the time, and Iwi was at her task of weaving in their home, when, looking out, she saw Tamatea, as she thought, coming across the plaza. He did not enter the house by way of the doorway, but clambered in through the window space, and when he left, he did so in the same manner. Iwi watched him depart and cross the plaza, but, even as page 417she did so she saw his feet leave the earth as he rose into space and so disappeared. But, previous to his departing, he said to Iwi: "Should your child be a female call it Uenuku-titi, but should it be a male then name it Uenuku-rangi"—whereupon Iwi said: "Are you deserting me, your words seem to bear that meaning?" But Uenuku passed out without further remark.

On the morrow Tamatea returned to his home, and Iwi said: "Did you return hither yesterday?" Tamatea replied: "No, I have only just arrived." "Then, " said Iwi—"Someone of your appearance visited me yesterday; it must have been Uenuku-rangi, he who comes to me during the night." Tamatea now understood matters, he procured from the rear end of his house an oil flask that served as a resting place or symbol of Uenuku, conveyed it to the tapu place of the village and there shattered it.

When Iwi gave birth to her child it proved to be immature, and so it was taken by Tamatea to a tapu hair-cutting place of his, where he left it; when he went later on to convey it to the burial place he found that it had disappeared. Then he saw Uenuku-rangi (i.e., the rainbow) standing out on the ocean, and also Hine-korako. He then, knew that Uenuku had taken the immature child into his keeping.

In a brief version of the above story contributed by Hori Ropiha the aspect of the central act differs. Tamatea, for sufficient reasons, submits to the operation of circumcision, and then utilises the severed part as a kind of offering to his particular atua, viz, Uenuku, suspending it over the window of the house. After this Uenuku approached Iwi, and when Tamatea asks the meaning of her ejaculations she explains as follows: "It seemed to me that the object you suspended yonder had visited me." Then Tamatea becomes aware that Uenuku has cohabited with his wife, and so, in course of time, a child, called Uenuku-wharekuta in this version, was born.