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Legends of the Maori


page 41

The names of Maui, Kupe and Rakaihaitu are handed down as the principal far-roving navigators who explored the coasts of these New Zealand islands at a period over a thousand years ago. Maui—the second of that great name in the legends of the Maori-Polynesian—was the earliest of these sailor captains who preceded by several centuries the permanent settlement of canoe crews in New Zealand. Traditions given me in the South Island affirm that it was in that island that he first landed, at a period fifty generations ago (about 700 A.D.), and from there sailed to the North, and coasted about there, hence the name of Te Ika a Maui; it was his land fish freshly snatched from the deep. The North Island Maori, or, at any rate, some of those about the East Cape, say that Maui’s canoe, in petrified form, is still to be seen on Hikurangi mountain; its name was Nuku-tai memeha. But old Ira Herewini, of Moeraki, and other Ngai-Tahu learned men, gave me the name of his canoe as Maahunui, which is to-day a classical term for the South Island. Maahunui was the canoe from which Maui fished up the North Island. The Kaikoura Peninsula was the taumanu, or thwart, on which he braced himself with his foot when he was hauling up the great land fish, and therefore it is called to this day Te Taumanu-o-te-Waka-a-Maui; and Stewart Island is Te Puka (punga) o te Waka-a-Maui, or the anchor of the canoe. This figurative description of an historical fact dating back considerably over a thousand years is an example of the symbolism with which the Maori loved to decorate important events in his history. The ancient Maori conceived a wonderfully accurate idea of the general outline of these islands. He must have noted mentally almost as carefully as Tasman or Cook the various courses and directions sailed in his circumnavigation of the islands, and no doubt he drew sketch maps of his explorations and compared notes with his contemporary navigators. Moreover, wherever he landed, he made a point of ascending the highest points to gather a general idea of the lie of the land, and it was in this way, for example, that he must have observed the likeness of the great curve of Hawke’s Bay to a fish-hook, with Mahia Peninsula as the barb, and so called it Te Matau o te Ika-a-Maui. From several readily accessible points, particularly the range above Table Cape and the Hukarere Bluff at Napier, he could obtain such a view. And when, in later times, the explorer page 42 priest, Ngatoro-i-Rangi, gazed over the sea-like lake of Taupo, in its volcanic mountain environment, with the Waikato River plunging out of it like a great blue vein, it would be but natural if he conceived it as the heart of the vast land-fish.

An excellent example of the Maori geographer’s tendency to preserve his scientific conclusions in the guise of allegory or fable is contained in the story of Rakaihaitu and the origin of the great South Island lakes, as narrated to me by the old legend-keepers of mingled Ngai-Tahu and Ngati-Mamoe, in particular Ira Herewini and Te Maire.

More than a thousand years ago, Rakaihaitu leaped ashore on the sands of the South Island of New Zealand from his long sailing-canoe, called the Uruao. From north to south of the wild, unpeopled island he travelled, spying out the goodness of the land, noting its food supplies, its plenty of water birds and weka, or “Maori hens,” and its fish-teeming estuaries. Rakaihaitu was a magician; he was “a god in himself,” as the Maori say; and he performed some marvellous deeds.

According to the legend narrated to me by his descendants in South Canterbury and Otago, he formed the great lakes of the island. One of the first made was Wairewa, which we call Forsyth, the long, narrow lake lying between the steep volcanic heights on the fringe of the Banks Peninsula ranges. Then, marching southwards like a giant, he paused to form a lake where water was required. All the large lakes we know he made—and how? He gouged them out with his colossal digging implement, the long, sharp-ended ko, with lashed-on foot-rest, used by the ancient cultivator. His final work of magic was Wakatipu. With potent prayers to aid his efforts he scooped out with his mighty ko the long, deep, winding trench between the snowy mountains. This done, he rested from his labours, leaving his wonderful works for the marvel and admiration of his descendants. And to this day the people call these great lakes of the South Island Nga Puna-wai karikari a Rakaihaitu, which means The Water-springs dug out by Rakaihaitu.

This nature-myth (which is not known to the North Island tribes) preserves in figurative fashion the story of the explorer’s discovery of the great lakes. It is curious that the formation of all the lakes mentioned in the legend given me—with the exception of Wairewa—is clearly traceable to glacial action. Rakaihaitu’s spade was the ice-plough of the Alps, the glacier, which, with its resistless pressure and enormous excavating power, scooped out the channels of the lakes and deposited terminal moraines that confined the waters in their deep bed. The legend is one of the many proofs of the ancient Maori’s keen eye for land contours and a quick appreciation page 43 of geological and physiographic facts, and as was his way, he crystallised these impressions in symbolic folk-lore.

Some of our own people, too, have this gift of poetic imagery in describing the facts of nature. I was discussing with an old Irish farmer friend the ice-striated rocks and the smooth-backed roches-moutonnes so familiar a sight in the country at the base of the New Zealand Alps, just as in the Swiss valleys. He had seen similar rocks, the reminder of a remote glacial age, in his native mountains of Wicklow. “When I was a small boy I asked my father what made those curious markings on the rocks,” he said, “and his reply was: ‘Those marks, my lad, were made by the teeth of God’s harrows.’”

Kupe is the pioneer hero of the North Island tribes. His story has often been told and songs and numerous place-names to-day memorise his explorations. Some accounts say that he found no inhabitants in New Zealand, but this is not likely to be correct. Polynesians and a part-Melanesian race had settled here at least two centuries before his arrival, and very probably a good deal earlier than that.

Of the later exploring immigrants from Hawaiki, Tamatea, of the Takitimu, was the most famous. He traversed the South Island from south to north and then went through the heart of the North. His memory is kept green to-day in many a place-name, chief of all in that formidable curiosity in geographical nomenclature, Te Taumata-Whakatangihanga o te Koauau a Tamatea-pokai-whenua (The hill-brow whereon Tamatea, the land-piercer, played his nose-flute).