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Legends of the Maori

The Judgment of Unenuku

page 143

The Judgment of Unenuku.

Classic mythology tells us how Paris judged the contest of the goddesses for the prize of beauty. There is a little Maori word-of-mouth story, now for the first time recorded, that deserves to become as well known as the familiar Greek legend.

In Lake Rotorua, about midway between the southern shore and the island of Mokoia, there is a shallow place, a long sandbank, called by the Arawa people “Te Hiwi o Toroa,” or “The Shoal of the Albatross.” It is perhaps 25 feet below the surface of the water; at any rate, it is considerably shallower than the surrounding parts, and it is, or was, a favourite fishing bank for koura (the fresh-water crayfish) and kakahi shellfish.

Paddling out towards this bank one day of long ago, came a canoe party of four. At the steering paddle was a Maori chief whose name was Uenuku-Kopako, which we shall abbreviate to Uenuku. His crew consisted of his three wives, Rangi-whakapiri, Hinepito, and Tao-i-te-kura. These names also we shall considerately reduce to the simple Rangi, Hine and Kura.

Uenuku was a handsome fellow, tattooed in the best Maori manner, and a warrior of some renown. As it happens in most harems, there was considerable jealousy, and the thatched house of Mokoia was not always a peaceful home. The ladies were not at all in agreement on the question of matrimonial precedence, as to which of them was, or should be, the favourite wife, the one to accompany the lord and master on his jaunts abroad, and the one recognised as his chief partner.

Uenuku became very weary of this continual bickering, and had he not been a kind-hearted fellow, he might have settled the question by knocking one or two of the wahines on the head with his sharp-bladed greenstone mere. At last he bethought him of a plan of settlement, and he ordered out his canoe.

Just over the shoal, Uenuku bade his wives cease paddling, and look down through the clear water. They peered over the side and watched the little crayfish crawling on the white pumice sand.

“Now,” said Uenuku, “this is the place of the test—it is the day of decision. I am weary to death of your quarrelling, your disputing as to which of you shall be my first wife. It must cease—must cease. This is the test. You shall dive for me, and the one who proves the best and strongest diver, she shall be my best-beloved wife. The one who touches the bank and returns with a handful of shell or sand to prove it shall be the wanner.”

page 144

And that was the test. Each young woman in turn cast off the flax waist-garment she was wearing, poised for a moment, taking a long, deep breath, and plunged overboard. Rangi was the first to dive. She came up, and sadly admitted that she could not reach the bottom of the lake. Hine was the next. She, too, was unsuccessful. Then Kura, as strong and deep of lung as she was beautiful, laid aside her mat, and dived into the depths. She remained below so long that Uenuku feared something had happened to her. In one ear she wore a pohoi, or bunch of the soft, downy feathers of the toroa, the albatross—an ornament of the old-time Maori. This came adrift, just after she dived, and floated up to the surface of the water, close to where Uenuku sat gazing down over the side of the canoe.

Five, ten seconds passed—no Kura. The water had been disturbed by the splashing and diving, and the three in the canoe could not see her. At last she came up, with heaving breast, gasping for air, but clutching something triumphantly in her hand. She swam to her husband’s side, and showed a handful of sand she had snatched from the bottom of the lake.

Kura had won. Uenuku, like Paris of old, pronounced her the victor. Henceforth she would be the chief delight of his whare. She had achieved her prize—a more substantial prize than the apple of old. Kura, the Mokoia queen of beauty, chanted a song of love and triumph as the crew paddled home. The defeated co-wives did not join in it. As for Uenuku, he was a very pleased and satisfied man. No more domestic rivalry; this had all been settled by his happy idea of the ruku—the long dive. And he gave the place the name it carries to this day—”Te Hiwi o Toroa,” in memory of Kura’s plume that came floating from the depths of the lake.

But what Uenuku would have done about it had all three wives reached the bottom and returned with handfuls of sand is more than I can say.

page 145
Trial by Water.

Trial by Water.

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