Looking for a complete introduction to Maori Mythology in just a few minutes? You’ve come to the right place! Read on !
An ancient people, the Maoris are guided by a set of rules, beliefs and myths. Complex and full of legends, Maori mythology personifies the elements to which the tribes still refer today. Each component of Nature is alive and endowed with great powers.
Maori mythology explains the link between the Maori people and the Earth and the respect they have for the elements, whether they are living (animals, plants…) or not (rocks, mountains, rivers…).
There are many variations of each story: originally, the myths were told to each other and were not written down until very late. Therefore, each tribe transmits its version, which, although close, differs slightly from one part of the country to another.
For all that, all agree to say that in the beginning, there was nothing…
The Hakas of the All Blacks who makes speak the Maori mythology
Known worldwide thanks to the ritual hakas performed before each rugby match by the All Blacks, Maori culture is one of the few to have preserved most of its mythological stories intact after living through colonization. Among these documents, the manuscript “Nga Tama a Rangi” (the sons of Heaven) written in 1849 by Wiremu-Maihi-Te-Rangikāheke. It tells the story of the creation of the world and all the Maori tribes consider it as globally valid.
The separation of Heaven and Earth in Maori mythology
At the origin of the world, there was only the immense darkness. Then appeared Mother Earth (Papatuanuku) and Father Sky (Ranginui), who are husband and wife. Madly in love, they embrace in a long kiss and give birth to many children. But their embrace prevents the light from penetrating and their children grow up in darkness.
Tumatauenga, the God of Wars, advised to kill his parents. But Tane Mahuta, the God of Forests and Birds, proposed instead to separate them so that Mother Earth could continue to feed her descendants. Everyone agreed, except Tawhiri, the God of Winds and Storms, who feared losing his kingdom if his parents were separated.
But he killed himself hoping that his brothers would fail in their enterprise.
After many unsuccessful attempts, the siblings realized that the task would be difficult. Tane Mahuta tried in turn. By gently pushing with his feet and arms, he managed to separate his father and mother. This separation made Papatuanuku and Ranginui bleed. It was the first time that blood flowed on the earth, turning it ochre.
Kokawai, the ochre red, is very present in the Maori culture: most of the sculptures and traditional buildings are painted with this color.
Ranginui, Father Sky is inconsolable and mourns his wife. It is said that her tears formed the rivers, seas and oceans of the planet. And even today the clouds and mist are said to be the sighs of Papatuanuku.
The war of the child gods of Maori Mythology
According to the Maoris, Heaven and Earth are the origin of all things. The Heaven called Rangi and the Earth called Papa are in the beginning stuck together. However, there is a problem with this situation: darkness completely surrounded Heaven and Earth.
Despite this, Heaven and Earth had 6 children, the 6 original Maori gods:
- Tangaroa, God of the sea, fish and reptiles
- Rongo-ma-tane, God of the cultivated food of Men
- Hauma-tikitiki, God of the wild food of Men
- Tane-mahuta, God of forests, insects and birds
- Tawhiri-ma-tea, God of thunder, wind and storms
- Tu-matauenga, God of war
Tired of this constant darkness, these 6 Gods get together to decide the fate of Heaven and Earth. After long discussions, the deities agree on the solution of separating their parents. The only one who opposed this solution was Tawhiri-ma-tea who did not want to see his parents separated.
The five brothers who made up the agreement then took turns trying to separate Heaven and Earth. The first four failed in their attempts. Then Tu-matauenga, the God of war tried his luck.
After an intense struggle, he found himself with his head planted in his mother Earth and put his feet on his father Heaven. After a great effort, he finally managed to separate Heaven and Earth. As soon as Heaven and Earth were separated, the humans they had created were discovered, hidden between the bodies of Rangi and Papa.
Tumatauenga’s revenge in Maori Mythology
Only Tumatauenga (or Tu), the last born of the siblings, the God of Wars and Man and the ancestor of the human race, faced his brother and triumphed. Furious at having been the only one to resist the wrath of Tawhiri, he undertook to take revenge.
He developed hooks and nets to catch the fish, the children of Tongaroa. He cultivated the land to eat the children of Haumia and Rongo. He caught the birds, descendants of Tane Mahuta.
Tu’s actions still have an impact on life today. It is notably thanks to his war against his brothers that the Maori people, after having honored the rituals, can fish, cultivate kumara (the sweet potato), cut wood from trees to create their waka (the canoe) and, more generally, exploit the natural resources of the world.
During war rituals, the Maori also invoke Tumatauenga, the God of Wars. Thus, the people can fight their enemies, because Tumatauenga has set the example. During the great native battles, it was ritual to offer the first dead to the God of War.
This is how the world was born. But in order to develop, this world was missing an indispensable element according to Uru-te-ngangana, the first child of the siblings. He then encouraged his brothers to look for ira tangata, the feminine element, with the sole aim of creating the woman in maori mythology.
Māui fishing the north island
This is one of the most well-known Maori legends. Those outside of New Zealand and Polynesia will have been introduced to Māui through the Disney film Moana . In local lore, however, the mischievous character is associated with the origins of the country itself: the North Island is the fish Māui brought up the Pacific Ocean; the South Island was her canoe; and Stewart Island was the canoe’s anchor.
Taniwha – Dragons of Maori mythology
Taniwha are supernatural creatures – monsters, if you will – that figure prominently in Maori legends. Some are like giant lizards, others are more like reptiles, and some even take the form of sharks and whales.
Even today, some Maori believe in the existence of these creatures, especially in rivers and streams. One of the most famous taniwha is Tuhirangi – the keeper of Kupe who explored the Cook Strait and became the first Polynesian to reach the New Zealand coast.
Māngōroa – the shark that formed the Milky Way
Guardian spirits. Maori mythology also follows this notion – and Te Māngōroa is probably the most famous of its tales. Legend has it that Māui placed the Māngōroa shark high in the sky, forming what we call the Milky Way.
Ngātoroirangi and her sisters
The people of Ngāti Tūwharetoa, a North Central Island tribe, have their own stories to explain the creation of the famous mud pools, geysers, and volcanic plateaus.
Oral tradition tells us that the high priest Ngātoroirangi and his sisters Te Hoata and Te Pupu brought fire to New Zealand from Hawaiki, the ancestral homeland.
On his travels inland, the high priest discovered Taupōnui-a-Tia (or simply Taupō).
Diving further into Onetapu, next to modern Turangi, he was confronted with extremely cold weather – eventually calling his sisters out in the form of fire under the earth, forming the geothermal wonders we know today.
The battle of the mountains of the maori mythology
One of the main legends surrounding the formation New Zealand’s mountains claim that the war was the ultimate decision in their positioning. When the Earth was in its mother-of-pearl, four mountain warriors, Tongariro, Taranaki, Tauhara and Pūtauaki fought for the affections of the girl Pīhanga. Tongariro prevailed in the end and the defeated mountains parted.
Paikea, the original whale rider of maori mythology
This is the story that inspired Witi Ihimaera’s best-selling book The Whale Rider. The Maori ancestor Paikea traveled to New Zealand on the back of a whale called Tohora. Paikea, who is descended from the sea god Tangaroa, was sent a whale after his brother avenged the canoe they were traveling on. Despite his brother’s attempt to sabotage his journey, Paikea arrived safely in the East Cape of the North Island.
The origins of Matariki in Maori mythology
Matariki is a word associated with two things: the Maori New Year mark and the constellation that gives the tradition its name (which in English is known as the Pleiades). Matariki literally translates to “the eyes of God” (mata ariki) – a name that comes from one of the myths associated with Tāwhirimātea. In his fury after the separation of his father heaven and mother earth, it is believed that the god of time plucked out his own eyes and cast them upon the heavens.
Ruatepupuke and the discovery of woodcarving
Strong component of Maori tradition – and the legend that surrounds it is quite interesting. Ruatepupuke is said to have discovered the art on his way to save his son, Te Manuhauturuki, who had been imprisoned by Tangaroa at the bottom of the ocean. Te Manuhauturuki had climbed to the gables of the sea god’s house, where Ruatepupuke discovered the carved poles that spoke to each other.
Conclusion about Maori Mythology : Unsubmissive Maoris
The Maori mythology and more globally their culture is still strongly present in New Zealand.
This situation, which is quite rare in colonized countries, can be explained by the fact that the Maoris have never been totally subjugated.
Despite the Treaty of Waitangi making New Zealand an English colony, many wars and conflicts between settlers and Maoris broke out, including the famous Flagstaff War where the latter, led by Te-Ruki-Kawiti and Hone-Heke, inflicted several humiliating defeats on the English. These conflicts finally ended in 1868.