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Legends of the Maori

Chapter IV. Gods and Mortals

Chapter IV. Gods and Mortals.

The Story of Tawhaki and Hapai.

“.… And Tawhaki—breast and brow sublime insufferably flashing,
Hid in lightnings, as he looks out from the thunder-cloven portals
Of the sky—stands forth confest—a God and one of the immortals!”

Alfred Domett (“Ranolf and Amohia”)

Maori-Polynesian mythology, like that of the Old World, has numerous stories of unions between gods and human beings. In some legends it is a god who descends to this earth, attracted by a lovely woman; in others the heavenly being who weds a mortal is a goddess, who nightly visits her terrestrial lover. There is much beauty in some of these stories of the loves of atua and mortals. One is the Arawa legend of Puhaorangi (Gentle Breath of Heaven) and Kura-i-monoa (Precious Treasure). Puhaorangi was a celestial being who beheld the beautiful Kura from his eyrie in the clouds. He descended to her in the guise of a rupé, a dove or pigeon, just as Jupiter assumed the form of a swan in order to approach the fair Leda in the stream. The rupé was fondled by the lovely girl, who became a mother. Her son was given the name of Oho-mai-rangi (Surprise from the Sky, or Heavenly Awakening), and from him many Maori trace their descent. Many a genealogy begins with the names of Puhaorangi and his earthly wife and the semi-divine child, Oho-mai-rangi.

One of the panels of the Arawa Maori Soldiers’ Memorial at Rotorua illustrates the legend of the heavenly rupé that so successfully wooed the maid, “Precious Treasure.”

The descendants of Puhaorangi are called Te Heketanga a Rangi (The Offspring of Heaven). When the Right Rev. F. A. Bennett, who is a member of the Arawa tribe, became Bishop of Aotearoa—the first Maori Bishop—he was hailed by his fellow Arawa chiefs as one of the Heketanga-a-Rangi, for his whakapapa on his mother’s side went back to Puhaorangi of Hawaiki.

For an example of Maori genealogical trees, through the generations from Oho-mai-rangi, see Te Heuheu’s whakapapa at the end of this chapter (page 27).

page 22

In the legend of Tawhaki and Hapai the sexes are reversed. It is a celestial woman who loves a man of this earth, the afterwards deified Tawhaki. The divine Hapai came “floating down on steady pinions” to the youthful hero of noble appearance, and lifting the covering under which he slept, lay down by his side. He thought she was a woman of this world. So began a union which ran happily until Tawhaki made some impatient remark about their infant child, a girl. Hapai’s mother-love was wounded so deeply that she resolved to leave her earthly husband and return to her skyey home. With her child in her arms she climbed to the roof of their house, and, standing on the carved tekoteko above the front of the dwelling, she cried a farewell to Tawhaki. The quickly repentant lover tried to catch her, but she sailed off into the sky and vanished from his sorrowing view. In her farewell she told Tawhaki that if ever he wished to follow her to her far-away home he must seek a secure forestrope (aka) by which to ascend to the higher regions; he must beware of the loosely swinging creepers.

Long Tawhaki mourned for his lovely wife and child; then he set forth to find a way of ascent to the land of his divine ones. He entered the great forest and sought a tree-vine by which he might climb. The venerable guardian of this deep and gloomy wood was his grandmother, Mata-kere-po. As her name indicated, she was blind. Tawhaki miraculously cured her blindness, and in her gratitude she showed him the aka he could trust. He grasped it and shook it, and began his great climb to the upper regions. As he climbed, the aged wise woman chanted her incantation of encouragement, the chant for his pikitanga by the sacred vine called the toi-huarewa:

“Piki ake Tawhaki
Ki te rangi tuatahi,
Ki te rangi tuarua”


“Ascend on high, Tawhaki,
To the first heaven,
To the second heaven.”

And so on the recital went, to the tenth heaven, where Hapai’s home would be. The winds of the vasts of space buffeted the hero, he was blown and tossed to and fro, but he clung tightly to the secure aka and steadily climbed aloft. The heights of the cloudy heavens were scaled at last, and Tawhaki found himself in a region where he hoped he would find his vanished wife. It resembled the land of earth in some respects, for there was a forest, and as he explored it he saw a party of workmen engaged in making a canoe out of a great felled tree. He joined them, and when they were about to leave for home he offered to carry their axes to their village. He waited until they were out of sight, and he set to work on the half-finished canoe, and chopped away until he had completed the hollowing out page 23
Tawhaki’s Climb.

Tawhaki’s Climb.

page break page 25 and shaping. Then he followed the men to their kainga. The villagers did not take much notice of the humble-looking stranger, until they beheld his glad meeting with the beautiful Hapai, for she dwelt in that village. They were amazed, for she was a tapu woman and a high chieftainess.

The loving reunion of Tawhaki and his wife and child was a meeting never to part, for he remained in the celestial home, and the inhabitants of that place knew he had become a god, for he was of radiant appearance and lightning flashed from his armpits.

Such is the story of Tawhaki as narrated by most of the Maori tribal legend-keepers. There are some variations. One version of the saga says that Tawhaki climbed to the heavens on a spider’s web-thread. Another story is that he flew his manu aute, or kite, shaped like a great bird with outspread wings, and that he grasped the string and chanted his climbing song, “Piki ake Tawhaki ki te rangi tuatahi,” and so on, as his soaring kite drew him to the heavens.

Some writers see in this legend a myth of great antiquity, and endeavour to trace it back to Asiatic lands. But, in my opinion, its place of origin was most probably in the mid-Pacific Islands, and likely enough in Samoa. It is quite probable that it preserves in its highly poetic and allegorical form the memory of an actual episode in a mountainous island such as Upolu, the “heaven” of the story being the high inland parts inhabited by tribes different from or at war with the coast-dwellers. The magical forest-vine was an actual aka or toro, such as are seen trailing from great forest trees—the aka tapu-a-Tane. A rata vine or liane, hanging down over a cliff, is often used as a way of ascent in rugged forest country. A common Maori place name, Aka-tarewa, is descriptive of such hanging rope-like creepers.*

page 26

The Girdle of the Gods.

There are other South Sea legends of the connection between gods and mortals. A story of the Cook Islands is that of Tangaroa, the eldest of the gods in the Polynesian pantheon, who looked down from the sky and beheld the lovely maid Ina bathing at a stream and became enamoured of her charms. He unfastened his girdle, which mortals call the rainbow, and by this dazzling pathway descended to earth. He took Ina as his wife during his fleeting visit to earth, and she gave birth to two sons, who were fair-haired, in token of their semi-divine parentage. This story was recorded by the Rev. Wyatt Gill, the missionary of Mangaia.

Another version of the legend, as told on the romantic mountain island, Porapora, in the Society Group, says that the god who descended to find and love a mortal maid was Oro, the son of Tangaroa (Taaroa in the Islands tongue). Oro placed one end of the rainbow on the summit of Paia, the high summit of Porapora, and after a long search, found a lovely girl named Vai-Raumati bathing in a little lake at Vaitape. And every night he came down by his rainbow path to sleep with the beautiful “Summer-stream.” At last he bade her an eternal farewell and mounted into the sky from the peak of Porapora, leaving Vai-Raumati to bring forth a son to whom was given the name Hoa-tapu-te-Ra’i (Sacred Spouse from Heaven). There is a close likeness between this legend and that of our New Zealand Puhaorangi and Kura-i-monoa narrated in the beginning of this chapter.

On the island of Atiu (Cook Group) the natives have this legend of Ina, the goddess of the Moon. Ina (Hine or Hina in other islands) took to her heavenly abode a mortal husband. After living happily together for many years, she said to him: “You are growing old and infirm. Death will soon claim you, for you are a man of the earth. This fair home of mine must not be defiled with a corpse. We will therefore embrace and part. Return to earth and there end your days.” And Ina caused a beautiful rainbow to span the heavens, by which her disconsolate aged tane descended to earth to die.

In this myth there is a resemblance to the classic legend of Tithonus, the husband of Aurora; he grew old and feeble while the goddess of Dawn remained for ever young and as fresh as the morning.

page 27

Genealogy of Te Heuheu Tukino. (Paramount rangatira of the Ngati-Tuwharetoa tribe, Taupo.)

All the names on this direct line from Puhaorangi are of males (aho-tane-katoa).

Rongomai-nui (a deified ancestor).
Te Korenga-o-te-Rangi.
Te Mahau.
Te Heuheu I. (Hereara).
Te Heuheu (II.) Tukino (killed at Te Rapa, 1846).
Te Heuheu (III.) Horonuku (died 1888).
Te Heuheu (IV.) Tukino (born 1865, died 1921).
Hoani te Heuheu.

One of the ancestors of this direct line came to New Zealand in the Mataatua canoe, which landed at Whakatane. There is also the collateral line of descent through the Arawa high priest Ngatoro-i-Rangi, who was a son of Rakauri, whose father was Tuamatua, shown fifth on the above line.

* The late Mr. S. Percy Smith, discussing the Tawhaki legend in his book, “Hawaiki,” supports to some extent the theory of an actual location in the Pacific. But, while he says that Tawhaki’s marvellous ascent into heaven after his father’s bones (one of the reasons of the exploit) was possibly a cliff-climb by a rope among an alien people, who had killed his father, he also comments on the resemblance of the legend to the Greek myth of Peleus. He thought the original of the story might have been heard by the Aryan ancestors of the Polynesians.

However, there is no doubt that there was an actual hero-chieftain named Tawhaki (or Taaki or Tafa’i) in the South Seas in remote times. One of Hare Hongi’s genealogies makes the period about twelve hundred years ago. A Tahitian legend gives Raiatea Island as the scene of the pikitanga. Percy Smith thought Fiji was probably the scene, and that the mountain maid who came down to Tawhaki was probably a Melanesian woman. For my own part, I prefer Upolu as the theatre of the Polynesian drama. But that explanation need not lessen our admiration of the tradition of Tawhaki and Hapai as a marvel-tale and poem.