Other formats

    TEI XML file   ePub eBook file  


    mail icontwitter iconBlogspot iconrss icon

Legends of the Maori

Chapter III. The Deeds of Maui

Chapter III. The Deeds of Maui.

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.

Mahuika the Fire-Goddess.

One of my earliest Maori-life recollections is that of the hika-ahi act, the kindling of fire by wood-friction, demonstrated at our old home at Orakau, Waikato. Maori were frequent visitors, and Maori labour was employed at times on the farm, and one day two men, at my father’s request, showed how fire was produced without pakeha matches or flint and page 16 steel. By the stockyard fence, one toiled away rubbing a stick on a block of wood which the other held steady while a shallow groove was worked in it. I looked on, a small boy, intensely interested in the strange sight of old Ngata, of Ngati-Raukawa, on his knees rubbing away furiously to raise the seeds of fire. I remember vividly enough the sight, but it took a long time to produce a spark; perhaps it was not kaikomako wood, for that is the chief timber in which Mahuika’s magic flame is preserved for the use of mankind.

This is the legend of the Ahi-a-Mahuika, and of the deception of the fire-guardian by this arch-worker of miracles and arch-deceiver of the gods, Maui-tikitiki-a-Taranga.

Maui was told by his father, Makea-Tutara, and his mother, Taranga, that a certain strange glowing appearance on the distant horizon was the fire of the goddess Mahuika. Great scintillations of light came from her mysterious fires; her appearance was fearful, for flames glowed at her finger-tips and her toes. He set out to visit her, declaring before he departed that he would play a trick on her and steal her magic fires. “Beware,” said the old people, “it is not wise to take liberties with your ancestress Mahuika.” But Maui was determined to pit his wits against the fiery one.

“E Kui, I beg you give me of your magic fires,” said Maui, after greeting the grim goddess. She responded by plucking off the end of one of her big toes which contained the fire. Maui pretended to go away towards his home with the treasure of fire, but he threw it into the near-by stream, where it was extinguished. Returning, he begged Mahuika to give him more to replace the lost flame. The goddess did so, and Maui repeated his trick until the ancient one had given him the fiery nails of all her fingers and toes but one. By this time she had become aware of Maui’s tinihanga, his deception practised on her. In her anger she plucked off the remaining finger-nail and threw it at him, uttering an incantation to cause it to consume the earth and the forest and all other things and so destroy her tormentor.

Maui now was in sore peril. He ran hither and thither, frantically seeking a way of escape, but fires blazed all around him; the ground was a sheet of leaping flame, the forests roared with the mighty voice of blazing trees.

In his extremity Maui called upon his ancestral gods for aid. He appealed to the gods of the storms and rain, to Tawhiri-matea and Whatitiri, the powers of the air. And instantly came succour from the sky. Torrents of rain descended and extinguished the raging fires. The Ua-nui, page 17 the Ua-roa—Great Rain, Long Rain—flooded the land, and Maui was saved from death in the raging furnace of earth and forest.

But the last remnant of the atua’s fires was not lost. When the flames were extinguished the seeds of fire remained in certain trees, and the chief of those is the kaikomako*, which ever since that day has been the fire-friction timber of the Maori. Some fire also entered the hinahina or mahoe, the patete and the totara, but most of it is in the kaikomako.

“Te Ahi-a-Mahuika” is an expression which frequently occurs in ancient poems, in allusion to this story of Maui and the fire deity. It really means volcanic fires; Maui’s journey was to some great active volcano and an outburst of lava placed him in deadly peril.

“Aue! Ko Mahuika koe!” said an old Maori when he was shown the wonders of the wireless transmitting apparatus in a Government station. The operator, he meant, was like the fire-goddess, because he had the “singing spark” at his finger tips. And now some of the islands of the great ocean of Kiwa have their radio stations; the young Polynesians themselves operate the wonderful apparatus in New Zealand’s tropic islands, modern magicians of a science that transcends even the deeds of Mahuika.

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.”

Maui in the South Seas.

Tena te taura a Maui!” (“Behold the ropes of Maui!”) say the natives of the Cook Islands when they see the broad rays of the sun at dawn and sunset; or, as English children say, “the sun drawing up water.”—Rev. Wyatt Gill, in “Myths and Songs from the South Pacific.”

A Manihiki Island story says that Maui plaited the rope with which he snared Ra, the sun, out of the long and beautiful hair of his sister, Inaika.

On the island of Raiatea, Society Islands, the legend is that Tu-papa (“Tu of the Lowest Depths”—the bottom of the world) is the wife of Ra the sun god, whose too frequent visits to her home are checked by Maui.

The people of Mangaia, in the Cook Group of Islands, have a chant about the origin of fire and the adventure of Maui and Mauike (Mahuika). The fire-god’s song, as given by the learned men to the Rev. Wyatt Gill seventy years ago, runs thus. Mauike was showing Maui how to kindle fire by wood-friction:—

“Grant, oh grant me thy hidden fire,
Thou banyan tree!
I utter my prayers to the banyan tree.
Kindle a fire for Mauike
From the dust of the banyan tree!”

The banyan tree is the aoa (ficus Indicus). The other fire-yielding trees of the Cook Islands are the au, or lemon hibiscus, the oronga (urtica argentea) and the tauinu.

page 20

Maori carving

page 21

* Pennantia corymbosa, a small flowering tree, usually not more than 30 feet high, with light-grey bark.