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Legends of the Maori

Mahuika, and the Origin of Fire

page 14

Mahuika, and the Origin of Fire.

“…. The red seeds of Fire he was first to discover,
And dared in his longing for light to lean over
The mountainous walls of the uttermost West.”

—Domett (“Ranolf and Amohia”)

There were, most probably, several ancestral heroes called Maui; in Polynesian-Maori mythology they have been moulded into one wonderful personality. The earliest Maui legends were solar and volcanic myths. The story of the obtaining of fire from the Polynesian Pluto, Mahuika, is clearly an allusion to the lava fires of active volcanoes, with the action of which the ancestors of the Maori became well acquainted on their voyages eastward from the shores of Southern Asia and across the wide Pacific with its series of volcanic chains. The numerous legends of the fishing-up of new lands, of which New Zealand was the largest, illustrate the fondness of the Polynesian for clothing facts with a garb of poetic fiction and allegory. The fishing-up was the discovery of islands by the navigator Maui, or a number of Mauis. Maui, who discovered New Zealand at a period of some fifty generations ago, according to Ngai-Tahu genealogy, came to these shores in a canoe called in the North Island Nukutai-memeha, and in the South Island Maahunui. On the east coast of the North Island, the tribal sages declare that the canoe is to be seen in a petrified form, on the summit of Hikurangi mountain. But the old South Island Maori improve upon that version; they affirm that the Island itself is Maui’s canoe—in proof whereof they quote an ancient song—and that he drew up the North Island (Te Ika-roa-a-Maui) while standing in this canoe —Te Waka-a-Maui.

Leaving those semi-fictional regions of discovery, we return to the earliest Maui tales, the snaring of the Sun and the finding of fire. The first legend describes how Maui Potiki—Maui the youngest child—whose mother was the goddess Taranga, resolved to correct and restrain the too-rapid coming of the Sun (Tama-nui-te-ra) through the heavens. The Sun travelled so swiftly across the sky that it was only a short time after its rising that it descended to its setting and vanished into the dark rua, the page 15 pit of night. It did not give the inhabitants of the earth sufficient time for their work in the cultivations and in the forest. Maui requested his brothers to aid him in his task, so that the sun might be compelled to travel more slowly across the sky. They feared at first to attempt the feat, because they would not be able to approach Tama-nui-te-Ra for his excessive heat. But Maui persuaded them to accompany him, and after plaiting strong ropes wherewith to bind the Sun, they set out on their journey to the place of his rising. They lay in wait there with a great snare (rore). Up came Tama-nui, he rose like a great fire blazing on the mountain ridge. His head entered the snare, he was completely entangled in it, and then Maui called to his brothers to haul away on the ropes (taura), so that his head and neck should be held fast. This done, and the Sun now being at his mercy, Maui fiercely attacked him, belabouring him with his patu (club), which was the jawbone of the hero’s grandmother, Muri-rangawhenua. Great blows he showered on the captured Sun; loudly Tama-nui-te-Ra cried in protest. The Sun was conquered; he was forced to give heed to the demands of Maui and his brothers. Sorely beaten, he was released from the snare, and ever afterward he travelled more slowly through the sky and so gave the sons of men a longer day of light upon the earth. A sun-myth that seems to describe the travels of the ancestors of the Maori.

Maui Potiki, or Maui-tikitiki-a-Taranga, as he was more generally named, could assume many strange shapes at will. His favourite avatar was that of a rupé or kukupa (wood-pigeon). He sometimes took it into his head to change his form into that of this beautiful bird and to sit cooing in the trees around the village. One day, when the people were gathered in the fields to begin planting the kumara, the sweet potato, Maui changed his appearance to that of a rupé, the pigeon, and flew down from a tree and perched on the handle of a ko, the digging or rather soil-breaking implement, and he sang a song which is handed down by word of mouth to this day as a kumara planting chant. It is called the “Tewha-a-Maui.” It was in use among the people of the Arawa tribe when I heard it; the tohunga at the kumara planting on Mokoia Island chanted it while the men plied their rapa-maire or ko, turning up the soil for the reception of the seed tubers.