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The Coming of the Maori

[the mythical origin]

New zealand was fished up out of the ocean depths by Maui, the youngest of a family of five brothers. Maui, the youngest, was born prematurely and, because he was wrapped up in hair from the topknot (tikitiki) of his mother, Taranga, he was named in full Mauitikitiki a Taranga. In some Polynesian myths, Taranga was the name of the father. I have wondered why Maui's mother should have a topknot when women were supposed to have short hair, whereas the men wore their long hair tied in a knot on top of the head. It almost seems as if the mother stole her husband's topknot as well as his name.

Maui became a culture hero whose exploits are known throughout Polynesia. Among his miraculous feats were procuring fire from the underworld and snaring the sun to enforce what may be regarded as the earliest daylight saving enactment in the Pacific area. He played so many mischievous pranks that his brothers were afraid of him. In planning a deep sea fishing expedition, they endeavoured to keep it secret from Maui, as they did not want him to accompany them. However, Maui found out and stowed himself away in the canoe at night. The brothers embarked in the early morning chuckling to themselves at outwitting Maui. After the canoe was well out to sea, Maui emerged smiling from his concealment. In spite of opposition, he seems to have assumed command and forced his brothers to continue the course of the canoe until they evidently sailed out of Polynesia into the unknown waters of the south. They had no provisions or water for such a long voyage. But remember, this is a myth. He at last decided where they should fish. He evidently had a line but no hook and no bait. As his brother refused to give him either, he used as a hook the lower jawbone of his grandmother Murirangawhenua, which he, curiously enough, happened to have with him. Nothing daunted by lack of the usual bait, he struck himself smartly on the nose and smeared his hook with the issuing stream of blood. With such a hook page 5and bait, symbolic of supernatural power, he hooked a fish that broke all records and, by means of a magic incantation, hauled it up through the seething waters to the surface. This huge fish termed Te Ika a Maui (The Fish of Maui), which became the North Island of New Zealand, raised the canoe high into the air on the peak of Mount Hikurangi. According to the myth, Maui left the fish in charge of his brothers while he returned to Hawaiki to get priests to divide the fish with the correct ritual. However, his impatient brothers cut up the fish without priestly assistance. The fish writhed and squirmed with the result that inequalities were produced that became mountains and valleys when rigor mortis set in. The Maori say that the North Island would have been perfectly level had his brothers waited for Maui's return. It is fortunate that they did not.

To balance the tale, some traditions state that the South Island was named originally Te Waka o Maui (The Canoe of Maui), which carries the implication that the fish was caught from that canoe. If we combine the two myths, the South Island must have fallen off the peak of Mount Hikurangi and drifted to its present position. Against such an assumption is the statement by the Ngati Porou tribe that Maui's canoe is still perched on Mount Hikurangi in a petrified state. Furthermore, how did Maui return to Hawaiki? However, myths are myths and, like axioms, they require no proof.

The Maui myth of fishing up islands is widely spread throughout Polynesia. It is probable that Maui was an early navigator and explorer who lived so far back that he formed a link between the supernatural and the natural, between the gods and man. The fishing up of islands is a Polynesian figure of speech, for the discoverer of an island did fish it up out of the ocean of the unknown. The story, combined with other Maui feats, became popular and it was spread by later voyagers to regions Maui never knew. Also, it is Polynesian story-telling technique to localize past events to gain greater effect with a local audience, and the Maori story tellers were no exception to the rule. So, Maui fished up New Zealand.