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Maori Culture
Legends
This page covers the Maori Legends of the Creation and other legends including the Origin of North Island.

The Creation

The Maori legends of the creation are shared with other Polynesian cultures in several parts of the Pacific. The legends say that Rangi, the Sky Father, had been joined in an amorous embrace with Papa, the Earth Mother. This clasp left the world in perpetual darkness, and the nakedness of Papa was covered with vegetation that thrived in dark moisture. The many sons of Rangi and Papa constantly lamented the miserable conditions that they had to endure between their parents. Eventually they resolved to do something about them. One Tu-matauenga, the fiercest of the offspring and the guardian of war, spoke out and suggested that the parents could only be separated if they were killed. But Tane-mahuta, guardian of the forest and later to be father of mankind, answered, "No, not so. It is better to separate them, and to let the sky stand far above us and the earth lie below here. Let the sky be a stranger to us, but let earth remain close to us as our nursing mother."

All but one of the sons agreed to this course of action and they took turns to separate their parents. First Rongomatane, rose up and strove to force the heavens from the earth. When Rongomatane failed, Tangaroa, guardian of all things that live in the sea, rose up. He struggled mightily, but had no luck. And next Haumiatiketike tried without success. So then Tumatauenga, guardian of war, leapt up. Yet even Tumatauenga, the fiercest of the children, could not with all his strength sever Rangi from Papa.

So then it became the turn of Tane-mahuta. Slowly, slowly as the kauri tree did Tane-mahuta rise between the Earth and Sky. At first he strove with his arms to move them, but with no success. And so he paused, and the pause was an immense period of time. Then he placed his shoulders against the Earth, his mother, and his feet against the Sky, his Father. He thrust with all his strength. Far beneath him he pressed the Earth. Far above he thrust the Sky, and held him there. The sinews that bound them were stretched, taunt. Tumatauenga sprang up and slashed at the bonds that bound his parents and the blood spilt red on the earth. Today this is the kokowai or Ochre, the sacred red earth that was created when the first blood was spilt at the dawn of time. Finally the separation was accomplished and the children of Rangi and Papa knew light for the first time and the children of Tane - the trees, birds and insects of the forest - were able to breathe, see and move.

Tawhiri-matea, the only son to have objected to the separation, was so angered by the pain suffered by his parents and the regard with which Tane-mahuta was now held by other living things that he followed Rangi to the realm above and there begot his own offspring, the wind, rain and storms. He unleashed these on the children of Tane in retribution. He hurled himself down from the skies as a hurricane and uprooted Tane's trees. Eventually, after attacking all his other brothers, Tawhiri-matea returned to the Sky whence he and his children continue to descend from time to time to plague the Earth and her occupants.

It was Tane-mahuta who then created the first woman out of earth and procreated with her. Their descendants, produced a line of men-like gods and god like men - there are many more associated legends covering the path to the world we know today.

The Origin of North Island

One appropriate legend concerns Maui, who is credited with fishing up the North Island of New Zealand - a very appropriate myth bearing in mind the islands volcanic history. Maui was an archetypal hero in Polynesian style, He was the last-born in his family so his rank was low but he compensated for this by being far more resourceful and imaginative than his brothers. In the fishing legend Maui smuggled himself aboard his brothers canoe in Hawaiki, the traditional homeland. The brothers were annoyed by his trickery and wanted to return to shore but by this they were far from land when he was found that they decided to continue their fishing expedition as planned.

After the brothers had filled their canoe with their catch Maui produced his own hook, the barb of which was made from a fragment of his grandmother's jawbone. The other brothers refused him bait so Maui struck his own nose and smeared the hook with his blood. he lowered the line and almost immediately hooked a fish of unimaginable size. The only way he could haul it up was by reciting a chant to make heavy weights become light.

When this mighty fish had been brought to the surface Maui left the canoe to find a priest to make offerings to the gods and perform the appropriate rituals and thank them for such a magnificent catch. He warned his brothers not to touch the great creature until this was complete. The brothers, however, ignored him and left the canoe and commenced scaling the fish and hacking bits off it. The fish raised its fins and writhed in agony. As the sun rose the flesh became solid underfoot, its surface rough and mountainous because of the brothers mutilation. It remained that way, and the name given to it was Te Ika-a-Maui, the fish of Maui. It is what we know today as the North Island of New Zealand.

There are many legends, all of which were originally passed down by word of mouth. There was no written Maori language until the advent of the missionaries in the early 19th century. There are many variations in detail in the legends in different Iwi (tribes) and Hapu (subtribes) in their karakia, which also contain the ancestry of the Maori People. What I have provided above is, I believe, common to most of the accounts.

Disclaimer

It is worth making the point that it is difficult to do justice to Maori Culture without being fluent in the language and having been immersed in the culture. There are words and concepts which have no direct translation and are difficult or, arguably, impossible to grasp. For example, in the early days, sovereignty was a concept without any counterpart in the Maori language or culture and the Maori concepts of Tapu and Noa are difficult for many Pakeha to understand even today. If I have inadvertently, or through ignorance, made errors or omissions in any of my sections covering Maori culture, legends and protocol please let me know - any corrections, comments and input will be very welcome.

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