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Legends of the Maori

Maui and Hine-Nui-Te-Po

Maui and Hine-Nui-Te-Po.

In some of the carved wharepuni, the social meeting halls in Maori villages, there is to be seen a realistic representation, cunningly chiselled on a totara slab, of the demi-god Maui attempting to pass through the body of Hine-nui-te-Po, the Great Lady of Night, i.e., the personification of Death. Various interpretations of this ancient myth have been offered, but the original basis of the allegorical tale is lost in the mists of time. Hare Hongi sees in the traditional references to the ihiihi, the streamers or rays of light flashing from Hine, on the verge of the horizon, a reference to the dancing light bars and bands, alternately shooting up and withdrawing, of the Aurora Australis. That way lies death for the daring. Alfred Domett dramatically versified the legend in “Ranolf and Amohia.” He interpreted Hine-nui-te-Po as the original Night, and Maui’s feat an effort to discover the source of the life-spring, Wai-ora-a-Tane, in which the Sun bathed each night, to climb the heavens again each morning with renewed vigour and radiance. In that living water man, too, might find immortality.

The usually told story treats this allegory very literally. Maui, finding the Great Lady of Night, his ancestress, lying asleep, essayed a passage through her in the reverse direction to the manner of man’s birth. He page 18 bade his little companions, the birds of the forest, who had come with him to witness the wonderful feat, keep silence while he passed through Hine-nui-te-Po, lest she awake and kill him. But when his head had entered the gigantic form the sight was so absurd that some of the small birds could not restrain their sense of the ridiculous. The tiwaiwaka—the fantail—burst into a shrill twitter of laughter, which awakened Hine. She brought her huge thighs together in a flash and thunder crash and Maui was snapped in two. So disastrously ended his attempt to seize from the Night the secret of eternal life for man.

Domett pictures the death of Maui thus:—

“But when great Mother Night, Hine-nui-te-Po,
Perceived her inviolate regions below
So profaned, a deep shudder of horror and dread
Through the cavernous realms of the shadowy Dead,
Round their sombre and silent circumference ran;
That was just as bold Maui his passage began;
But when still he persists in his daring endeavour
The shudders, the horrors, grow wilder than ever!
A more terrible spasm, a desperate shock,
Contracts and convulses those portals of rock;
And ere his great head and vast shoulders get through
They cut the gigantic intruder in two!
So ended great Maui—so vanished his dream,
And in spite of him Death was left tyrant supreme!”

Here and there a fanciful place-name holds an allusion to the immemorial nature-myth. In the geyser valley at Whakarewarewa, Rotorua, there is a circular fumarole, a steaming orifice in a little mound smoothly-lipped with coral-like sinter, which the old people named Te Puapua o Hine-nui-te-Po. Its usual pakeha name is the “Brain Pot,” and a cannibal tradition pertains thereto. “Te Puapua” holds a literal reference to the manner of Maui’s fatal entrance into the realms of Death.

In the small Maori village of Te Whaiti, just within the western borders of the Urewera Country, a carved meeting house was erected some years ago by the Ngati-Whare tribe, and the name given to it was “Hine-nui-te-Po.” One of the carved figures illustrates the legend. My good old friend, the late Captain Gilbert Mair (“Tawa”), who had much to do with these mountain folk during the Hauhau campaigns and afterwards, visited the house with me one day in 1921. The name of the whare-whakairo was discussed, and an elder of the tribe asked the veteran bush-fighter whether he considered the name a suitable one for the house.

“Most appropriate it is,” declared Tawa. “I do not know of any tribe that has a greater right to use such a name. No people have sent more page 19 of their warriors to be thrust (kuhu) between the fatal thighs of the Great Ruler of Death.”