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Legends of the Maori


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The illustrated series of Maori-Polynesian traditions and legends has been planned to deal with the subject in a more comprehensive and artistic manner than has hitherto been attempted. There is in existence a very large body of literature devoted to the Maori of New Zealand, his origins, folk-lore and history; much of this is highly specialised data concerning the religion, beliefs, customs, migrations and local history of the race. It is considered, however, that there is room for a work of this kind, giving a great deal of traditional history and poetic lore not previously published, and affording the artist scope for his skill with pen and pencil. There is a marked lack of books in which an artist has had an opportunity of illustrating the epic traditions of our Maori people, the legends and historical narratives which contain infinite suggestion for the pencil, pen and brush. This field of mythology and authentic tradition is so extraordinarily wide and varied that the chief problem in Mr. Stuart Peterson’s work lies in making a selection from the material. The setting, whether in the coral and volcanic islands from which the Maori came, or in this country of tall forest, snowy mountain, shining lake and rolling river, matches the poetic beauty and dramatic vigour of the narratives.

The culture of every nation, it has been said, must arise out of its background. The Maori life and traditions, the response of the Maori race to its very beautiful and wonderful environment, supply that distinctive background in New Zealand. Here is a people with a culture possessing many features different from those evolved by any other primitive race, a people with a remarkably original sense of artistic values in decoration and craftsmanship. A people of keen intellect who had the creative faculty very highly developed, and who have given the world, through pakeha interpretive writers, a literature rich in poetic fancy. What has been published so far is but a portion of the vast stores of folk lore and poetry accumulated in the course of untold centuries, and handed down from one generation to another. That great American the late Walter Hines Page once defined literature, whether written or spoken, as “thought artistically expressed.” By this standard much of the traditional history and popular tales, chants and poems of the Polynesian-Maori so carefully passed on by word of mouth is literature in the fullest sense; a mythology in no way inferior to that of the Old World classics. Mr. Maurie Hewlett, in his “Lore of Proserpine,” described mythology as “the highest form of art.” Many of the nature page viii legends and the stories of the Polynesian Pantheon are indeed not surpassed if they are equalled, in beauty by anything in Greek literature or Scandinavian saga.

This volume, written by James Cowan, is divided into three sections, designed to present a general survey of Maori-Polynesian tradition and belief: a series of typical legends, folk-tales and tribal historical narratives, and a collection of the poetry of the race. The legends and traditions, songs and chants have been selected from a great mass of race-lore gathered by Mr. Cowan in a lifetime of field research. The author went to original sources; the authorities were the learned old people of the now vanished type, of numerous tribes from the north of New Zealand to the coast of Southland. The tribal folk-tales form the principal part of the book; in the selection made the object is to illustrate some of the characteristic modes of life and thought, the customs and practices of the people, their ways in joy and sorrow, in peace and war. In those stories describing comparatively recent episodes the special interest is the survival of ancient practices and beliefs in modern times. Of this type of narrative the story of the rites for the removal of tapu from a new carved house (page 259) is an example.

In most cases the Maori sources of the various stories and songs are given. In respect of one story the author here makes grateful acknowledgment due to the memory of two great friends of the past, the late Captain Gilbert Mair and Mr. S. Percy Smith. This is the tale of “The Rock of the Flying Foam,” at the Haerehuka Rapids, Waikato River. The story and song (page 139) were sent by Captain Mair to supplement the tradition heard on the spot.