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The Maori Race

Chapter XIX. Myths and Traditions

page 432

Chapter XIX. Myths and Traditions.

It is impossible in a single chapter to deal with so huge a subject as the Myths and Traditions of the Maori race with any possibility of treating them at length. Volumes could be written, and indeed many volumes have been written, filled with these quaint old stories. Nothing more can be done than to give a general idea as to their scope and direction, and supply a few references so that those interested in the subject can turn to their perusal in full detail.

The legends may be divided into three classes: (1) The purely mythical, wherein either elemental deities take part or demigods perform actions beyond the reach of mortals. (2) The semi-historical, in which it is doubtful whether the story relates to real events or to the fancy of poetic minds, or to both. (3) Stories of events in times near our own where there is little or none of the supernatural element and which there is good reason to consider as reliable.

Of the first class, such as those relating to elemental forces, etc., we may cite (as probably prior in sequence of time) the legend of “The contest between Fire and Water.” As the tradition is very short we give it at length.

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“The descendents of Tarangata were the parents of Fire. He conceived the idea that he was destined to become the conqueror of the world. He protruded his tongue to lick up Water, thinking he could consume it all. Then came forth the great wave to do battle with him. The one shot forth his tongue, the other did the same on his part. Aha! The name of the battle was Kaukau-a-Wai. Then Water invoked all the winds, every one of them; they came forth; then, indeed, was the power of Water exhibited. Aha! This was the defeat of Fire; it flew; it retreated; it was conquered by Water. Before all was over, however, everything on earth had been melted by the heat. After the conquest by Water, the few remains of Fire flew into the rocks, and also into the trees, especially into the Kaikomako tree. Behold the mountains—such as Ruapehu and others—which ever burn, ever rage.”

Once on the islands of New Zealand (or more probably on “the ancestral land”) there fell a Deluge of Darkness. In ancient days there was a chief who although himself born without parents was father of a son. When this son was grown up the old man told him to order the tribe to collect great stores of firewood. This was done, and then the father died, and was buried inside the house, near the wall, face downward. Darkness descended. Sea and land lay drenched in darkness. No path could be seen and people had to stay in their houses. This lasted a long time, till all the firewood was consumed. Then the chief heard his father speaking from his grave, saying, page 434 “Here I am buried, where the earth heaves up.” The son went and lighted an oven (earth-oven) with sacred fire, and Tamatea, the Lord of Morning, shook the house. There went a shiver through the world, and the first sign of dawn appeared; the birds sang “Light of Day.” Then the people shouted “Daylight.”

There are several traditions or allusions to a deluge or deluges. The most perfect is the legend of “the Deluge of Para-whenua-mea.” It relates that two men, Parawhenuamea and Tupu-nui-a-uta were commissioned by the god Tane to visit mortals, who had forgotten the true doctrine as to the creation, etc. The evangelists were mocked and derided, so they took their stone axes and made a great raft of trunks of trees bound together with wild vines. On this a house was built and well stored with food. Para and Tupu then repeated charms and prayers for rain which fell in floods until the mountains were covered and all people were drowned except some men and women who were saved on the raft. They floated about for seven months, and then were informed by the signs of the staff and the altar (which had been erected by the priests on the deck) that the flood was about to subside. The survivors landed at Hawaiki (the Maori ancestral land) and found that the earth had cracked and “turned upside down.” They carefully, on landing, performed their religious ceremonies, making sacrifices and thank offerings to the gods; these offerings, however, consisted only of seaweed, for there were no page 435 victims left in the world. While celebrating their rites they, looking up, saw the Rainbow (the god Kahukura) standing in the sky.

There is a legend that there was a deluge when the god Tane had finished adorning the breast of Heaven (his father, Rangi) with stars. The hero Tawhaki who was afterwards a god, being ill-treated by his brothers, called upon the dwellers in heaven to avenge him. Then the waters were allowed to fall from the skies and they overwhelmed the earth, so that all human beings perished. This flood is known as “the overturning of the Mataaho.” A variant of this last story states that a preacher was sent by the god Tane to the evil dwellers on earth, and that Mataaho who was the foremost of the unbelievers, mocked at the preacher, who then struck the earth with his knife upon which the world “turned upside down” and all except the preacher and his disciples died. Some say in regard to this deluge that Tawhaki stamped on the floor of Heaven and let the water through. Another version says that the tears of Tawhaki's mother, on account of her son having trampled on his ancestors, caused the flood and overwhelmed men. Still another deluge is known as “the tide of Ruatapu.” From this only those people escaped who could fly to the sacred mountain Hikurangi. It came as a great tidal wave. The Maoris say that this Hikurangi is the mountain of that name on the east coast of the North Island—the hill on which the last moa stands (or stood) guarded by dragons. It may, however, be Ikurangi mountain in page 436 Rarotonga, for the Cook Islanders also claim the site. And it may be neither, but an old memory of some far away peak in Asia—or in Fairy land.

Tawhaki has been described in this volume in his place among the gods, but his wooing by the Heavenly Maid has resemblance to another legend which relates that the wife of Toi was visited by a Heavenly man whose presence was announced to her by a strange light and a delicious perfume. To her celestial visitor she bore a son. The line of spider's web whereon Tawhaki climbed to heaven also served as a path for two men named Takitaki and Rokuairo, and also for a woman, Rangi-awatea.

The great hero-god of New Zealand (and other Pacific Islands) was Maui. His place is partly in mythology and partly in folk-lore. He seems to possess the powers of exalted deity at times, and then again to be a mere mortal full of fun and frolic, cunning and mischief. The Maori mind revels in the story of Maui's deeds, the high achievements and the trivial details are alike full of human interest and sympathy. He was of miraculous birth, and being thrown into the ocean in an immature form was nourished by the sea-gods to adolescence. Arriving at his mother's house, he lived as a youth among his brothers awhile. He visited the wood-fairies (Te Tini-o-te-Hakuturi) in the form of a tiny bird, the miromiro, * and in that shape while perched on the crutch of a digging-stick (ko) he taught the fairies their planting song (tewha). Changing

* The New Zealand Tom-tit (Myiomoira toitoi).

page 437 himself into the form of a dove he visited the Under World and there it was prophesied by his mother that he would be the great Deliverer and win immortality for man, but his father foretold ultimate failure and disaster because a mistake was made by him when performing the baptismal ceremony over his son, and the anger of the gods had been awakened. Armed with the jawbone of an ancestress, Maui captured the Sun who at that time made his daily journey through the heavens too rapidly for mortals to be able to do their work, and by beatings and threats he induced the luminary to travel at his present speed. Maui, then, using the jawbone as a fishhook drew up the North Island of New Zealand to the world of day—hence it is called by the Maoris “the Fish of Maui” (Te ika a Maui). He would not have succeeded in doing this had he not caught a dove and putting his spirit into it, tied it to his fishing line. Then he caused the bird to fly up to the skies, drawing the island above water. This sacred dove, possessing Maui's spirit sometimes comes back to earth and its cooing is regarded as a presage of ill. When Maui had pulled up his “fish,” he, having no weapon with which to strike it, killed it with the thunders of the heavens. The hero then visited the Fire-goddess, and from her subterranean abode obtained fire for the use of man—the seed of this fire he hid in certain trees and when wood of these trees is rubbed with other wood the fire for human use comes forth. His last great effort was to try to win immortality for mankind by passing through page 438 the mysterious personality of the Great Lady of the Night, the death-goddess Hine-nui-te Po. He entered “the Dark Valley” but the grim unconquered goddess awoke from her sleep and slew him, and thus man's opportunity of living for ever was lost. Maui is often called “deceitful Maui” (Maui tinihanga or Maui nukarau) on account of his crafty devices. He played a very mean trick on his wife Rohe who was beautiful as Maui was ugly. The hero requested his wife to change faces with him, which she naturally refused. He then threw her into an enchanted sleep and effected the transfer while she was wrapt in slumber. Rohe, on awakening, was so disgusted that she left he husband and went below to the Shades where she became a death-goddess; she rules in the division of the Lower World as Te Uranga-o-te-Ra. Maui also acted treacherously to the husband of his sister Hina, changing his unfortunate brother-in-law into a dog. Nevertheless, with all his foibles and weaknesses and with the failure which wrought his own death. Maui, as Prometheus and Land - raiser, occupies a high position among the supernatural beings of Maori tradition. He was probably the leader of the Maori race into the Pacific, and in the course of centuries the infinitely old ancestral stories have accreted and crystalised about his name and memory. He is said to have uttered the speech, since passed into a proverb: “The area of ocean is greater than of land” (Ko te moana i nui atu i te whenua). To Maui is credited, among other things, the two important page 439 inventions of the barb for the hook, and the cunning arrangement of the eel-basket wherein the doubled-over centre-piece prevents the fish getting out again.1
The story of Rata and the fairies is another legend widely known in Polynesia as well as in New Zealand. The following sketch will give a dim outline of the tale:—Rata wished to avenge the death of his father, and for that purpose desired to have a canoe in which to visit the place where his father's bones had been insultingly hung up by his enemies. He therefore went to the forest and chose a tree out of which to form his canoe. He hewed away all day with his axe, and just before dark the tree fell, so Rata took his way to his house. When he came back to his work the next morning he found the tree standing upright and the trunk to all appearances untouched by the axe. He again felled it, and at evening went home, but the next morning the tree was upright again. He then went and consulted his sister, who was a priestess, and who told him that he had neglected the sacred rites necessary to propitiate Tane, the Lord of Forests, before one of his children (the trees) could be interfered with. She also informed him that he must rub his axe upon her sacred person before the evil could be remedied. He did so, and hence one of the names of this sister is Hine-tu-a-hoanga “the Lady-standing-as-a-whetstone.* The third

* This is a good example of folk-lore evolved from a false etymology. The lady's name has a very different meaning from that of “a whet-stone.” She is a volcano-goddess, and hoanga here means “eruption.”

page 440 time he felled the tree and then, instead of going home he hid himself among the bushes. As evening fell, there came forth in the dusk “the innumerable multitude of the Woodelves” (Te Tini-o-te Hakuturi) singing charm-songs, and gathering up all the chips. They set the tree upright in its place, and put back every chip in its proper position, singing—

“It is Rata, Rata, Rata,
Who felled the sacred forest of Tane (Ta-ne, the Forest Lord).
Small chips of Tane, chips of Tane flying, Adhere!
Come together! Come together!
Fly hither, the chips of Tane.”

Rata made a rush forward and seized some of them; then he compelled them to hew the tree into a canoe that afterwards became very famous as an exploring vessel under its name of the “Riwaru.” Other adventures of Rata are related in the chapter on fairies.

Kae and the Whale is a very old legend. It states that Tinirau, the god of fishes, had a pet whale that he used as his ocean-steed, and on the important occasion of the birth of Tinirau's son the whale was lent to an old magician named Kae. This person had been employed to perform the necessary enchantments and ceremonies necessary to make the new-born infant a great and successful warrior, so on his return to his own country (on account of the description of the house, etc., probably Samoa) he was granted the whale named Tutu-nui as a means of locomotion. He was, however, charged not to take the creature into shallow water or it would die, but the malicious page 440a Maori Chief, with Mats. page 441 old man not only drove the whale ashore but he and his tribe roasted and devoured the carcase. The smell of his roasted servant came over the sea to Tinirau, who, thereon sent out a “beguiling expedition” of women to win the magician back into his power. The charms of these women were successful and they brought the sleeping or mesmerized priest back to his enemy, who slew him for his treachery and ingratitude. Allusions to many other traditions of the supernatural will be found in the legends scattered through this book in the chapters on “The Future World,” “Fairies,” etc.

The Water of Life (Te Wai Ora a Tane) is often referred to; it is sometimes called “the great Lake of Aewa.” The moon goes to bathe in it every month so as to renew her life and strength after it has waned from the full. The Water of Life is situated in the fourth Heaven, Hauora; the heaven from whence the soul is sent to inhabit the body of a baby when it is born.

The second class of myths is that in which it is doubtful whether the story relates to real events, or, if probably founded on fact, whether the poetical additions do not make it so difficult to dissect as to render it untrustworthy. Of these special mention may be made of the tales of migration to New Zealand from Hawaiki in the so-called historical canoes. The stories are related with oftentimes a practical attention to details and a circumstantial completeness of narration that make it appear impossible they should be pure page 442 inventions. Yet every now and then there is introduced some impossible or miraculous incident which awakens doubt; so much so in fact that Colenso, one of our most erudite scholars, appears to have believed that the migration was purely imaginary. He stands almost alone in this; the majority of Maori scholars have faith in the legends of the advent of the Polynesians into New Zealand in the celebrated named canoes, though each such scholar makes his own individual reservations as to the limits of his belief.

Generally, the traditions assert, that some 500 years ago, certain canoes arrived in these islands from Hawaiki, the cradle-land of the Polynesian race. The locality of Hawaiki is unknown and the credibility to be assigned to the various descriptions of the place is discussed elsewhere. The principal canoes were name Te Arawa, Tainui, Takitumu, Tokomaru, Mataatua, and Aotea. They were (excepting the Aotea, which was an “outrigger” canoe), large double canoes, probably carrying about 100 persons each. If we take one of these canoes, the Arawa, as a sample, we find that it was said to have been built in Rarotonga and was formed of totara wood, a timber which does not grow in the Rarotonga of the Cook Islands. The captain, a great chief named Tama-te-Kapua persuaded by stratagem the priest Ngatoro-a-Rangi to come on board, so as to have a strong magician with him for the performance of necessary religious rites. Tama also stole the wife of his friend Rua and brought her on board. Then the three sails of the canoe were page 443 hoisted and they sped away. The deserted Rua stood on the shore uttering charms which “changed the stars of evening into the stars of morning, and those of the morning into the stars of the evening, and this was accomplished.” Tama insulted the priest, who by his incantations raised a great storm, and the canoe drove into the whirlpool named “The Throat of Te Parata,” the mouth of that monster lying in mid-ocean whose breathing causes the rise and fall of the tides. The canoe was becoming engulfed when the despairing entreaties of those on board moved the heart of the priest who by his incantations calmed the waves and allowed the voyage to proceed in safety till they reached the shores of New Zealand. There they found that the Tainui had already arrived, and a dispute arose between the crews as to the ownership of that part of the country, which was decided in favour of Tainui. The Arawa sailed along the coast to Maketu (in the Bay of Plenty) and there they found Rua who had arrived in search of his abducted wife. He and Tama-te-Kapua had a terrible duel, the effect of which was heightened by the heroic size of the combatants, for Tama was nine feet high, and Rua eleven feet. This need not, however, imperil the veracity of the main narrative, for a little addition to the stature of ancestral leaders is quite allowable after a few centuries. Rua was victor in the duel, and led his party away to another place, relinquishing the Rotorua country to the Arawa people. The priest Ngatoro went inland, leaving fairies as marks page 444 to show that he claimed the territory, until he arrived at Lake Taupo. He ascended snow-clad Tongariro, and feeling the cold, he prayed aloud to the gods in Hawaiki, his birth place, to send fire to him. Over seas the sacred fire came. It lighted on White Island (now a volcano) then (along the line of thermal disturbance) by Rotorua, Tarawera, Orakei-ko-rako, and Taupo. It came underneath the ground and burst out at Tongariro (now a volcano) so that the heat revived the hero, and he returned to Maketu to dwell. The chiefs of the Tainui were angry with the men of the Arawa, and hearing that the latter vessel was hauled up on shore in a shed thatched with dry leaves they cast fiery arrows across from the other side of the river, and the famous canoe was destroyed in the flames.

Some of the canoes had even more interesting adventures in mid-ocean than the Arawa, notably the Aotea which nearly perished off the island of Rangitahua, and whose consort the Ririno was lost soon after they left the island. One puzzling matter in this legend is that the declaration by Turi, the commander of the Aotea, was that he arrived in New Zealand by following the sailing directions of a former navigator, viz, “to steer for the rising sun.” If so they must have come from the westward, and not as generally supposed from the South Sea Islands. The Aotea threw one of its crew overboard in a storm (as Jonah was cast away) to appease the sea-deities, but the supposed victim turned out to be the god Maru, and after swimming merrily about was page 445 taken on board again. On reaching New Zealand Turi and his people settled in the country about Patea.

The Tainui, which first touched these islands at Whangaparaoa on the east coast of the North Island, sailed along the shores to the North Cape, then returned to the Tamaki, near Auckland, and the canoe was dragged across the portage at Otahuhu till it reached the waters of the West Coast at Onehunga, a passage made just previously by the Tokomaru canoe. The Tainui entered the harbour of Kawhia and reamined there (turned into stone) till this day. From its sprouted skids sprang the small groves of trees, unique in the world it seems, know to botanists as the Pomaderris tainui.2

The question of the great migration is more fully dealt with in the part of this volume entitled “The Whence of the Maori.”

The third class of legends, viz, those dealing with events near our own times or in which there is little or nothing of the supernatural, contains by far the most numerous and trust worthy accounts of Maori life, as indeed may be expected. These traditions are valuable, not only in giving us pictures of native life before the advent of the English, but also in presenting us with the only reliable etymologies of place-names in these islands. Wild guesses as to the meanings of names are often made, varying according to the eccentric spelling and pronunciation now assigned to localities, but the only mode of translating a Maori name is to find out the reason such a name was page 446 given. As an example we may quote the name of Whakatane, a river and locality on the Bay of Plenty. When the Mataatua canoe drew near the shore, the voyagers saw on the cliffs above them a fort belonging to the original inhabitants of the country (tangata whenua). The crew of the immigrant canoe felt timid and unwilling to land, not knowing the character of the resident people, and doubtless wondering if it was a country inhabited by ogres. It was an unusual feeling to assail the usually dauntless souls of these sea-wanderers, and was probably sent by the gods. Each man sat moodily handling his paddle and loath to break the spell which appeared to envelop them. The commander, Toroa, had with him on board his fair daughter Wairaka, a girl of unusual courage and decision. Flourishing her paddle, she jumped up and cried, “Let me act as a man,” inferring that the others would not. The meaning of whaka-tane is to act in a manly or virile manner (tane, a male); and this was the word she used. She leapt ashore, of course instantly followed by the others, and led the way to victory and to the ultimate possession of that part of the country, which was called Whakatane thenceforth.

One of the northern tribes had suffered extremely in war, and, having lost battle after battle, retired into the mountains to nurse their tribe, or, as the old phrase was, “to cause men to grow” (whaka-tupu tangata). This they succeeded in doing, and having, after some years, got together a splendid war-party, set out to take revenge on their old page 447 foes. Their enemies dwelt in a very strong, indeed, almost impregnable, fortress situated on cliffs by the sea, and it was evident that mere force of arms could not take the position, so strategy was resorted to. The tribe of avengers possessed an unusual number of beautiful dogs, animals whose flesh and skins were held in high esteem. At the bidding of the head chief all these dogs were killed, and only the unusual abundance of choice food consoled their ladies for the destruction of their pets. The war-party set out, with a number of women carrying their food and the bales of dog skins. They travelled only at night. The inhabitants of the enemy's fort were aroused at dawn one morning by the cry of the watchers that a whale was stranded on the beach below the pa. There it was, surely, about a mile away—a great black mass on the sand, with sea birds hovering over it and settling on the monster. Down rushed the natives, armed only with their cutting knives (mira tuatini) with which to sever the flesh, but when they reached the carcase they stood astonished. The whale was hairy! Indeed, it was only a huge bag of dog skins stuffed out with fern, and with a few dead fish tied on it to attract the sea-birds. They saw themselves betrayed, but they were a mile from home, and as they rushed back they found their palisades manned by naked enemies brandishing their weapons. Other sections of the visiting war-party closed in on them, and great was the slaughter, only a few of the swiftest runners making their escape. The page 448 visitors named themselves Ngati-kuri, “the tribe of the dog,” from this circumstance. Beside the cunning displayed in this recital the wooden horse which caused the fall of Troy appears a very clumsy stratagem indeed.

In the South Island, a chief named Moki had defeated a tribe against which he and his war-party had set out. He had taken prisoners the wife and children of the chief of his foes, but the chief himself was at large and in occupation of a pa in the hills. Therefore, Moki felt himself insecure, not knowing at what moment his enemy might return with a war-party to rescue his family. So he ordered an extra watch to guard against surprise, but his men were tired and over-worn so their eyes were clouded with weariness. Te Rangi-tamau, the leader of the enemy, was a matchless scout, and, using every art of woodcraft, he managed to get within the lines and pass the neglectful outposts. Arrived at the house of Moki, he saw his wife sitting by the fire. He stepped in, and touching her gently on the shoulder, gave her a sign to be silent and follow him outside the hut. Then he questioned her as to the circumstances which had occurred and as to the treatment of the children and herself by Moki. Finding that she had been well and generously used, he told her that after he was gone she was to wake her captor and say to him, “Your life was in my hands, but I gave it back to you.” He then took off the mat of dog-skins he was wearing and gently placed it over the knees of Moki. When he had gone, and the woman page 449 thought her husband had reached safety, she woke Moki and told him the message. Moki touched the mat and realised the truth of her story. He was justly incensed with his people for allowing him to be caught napping, and uttered the exclamation, “Oh, Tu-whai-tara!” (the deaf-eared), a saying that has become proverbial. The next day he entered into negotiations with Te Rangi-tamau, and peace was made. The story reminds one of the spear of Saul, the King of Israel.

These legends, the supernatural, the semi-mythical and the historical, may be taken as fair samples of their class. As I before observed, it is impossible to give more than a brief sketch of each class, although there are hundreds in which the historical and the mythical melt together, and are almost inseparable. However, many others are referred to under other headings, and in different parts of this work.