The Wayback Machine -
Maori Mythology





The Maori view of creation in which all nature was seen as a great kinship tracing its origins back to a single pair, the Sky Father and the Earth Mother, was a conception which they brought with them when they came from Central Polynesia about 1,000 A.D. Furthermore this belief in a primal pair, as well as the metaphysical idea of an original Void or Darkness, seems to be part of the stock of ideas which the ancestors of the Polynesians brought with them from the west, from the Asian mainland, and which they carry with them as they disperse into marginal Polynesia. The resultant shift in names and attributes, and the elaboration of themes which occurred throughout the area cannot obscure this underlying unity of ideas.       

The Maoris say that Rua was the first wood carver.

Maui, the most celebrated of all Polynesian heroes. This panel from a Maori meeting house is concerned with his fishing exploits.

About the middle of the last century certain Maori priests of some of the east coast tribes were consecrating classes in their school of sacred learning with prayers to Io-the-self-creative, a god unknown elsewhere in Polynesia. His presence at the head of the hierarchy of Maori gods was unknown until the 1870's when the first European reference to him was published. Most of our knowledge about him comes from "The Lore of the Whare Wananga" which was the Maori's first attempt to write down and preserve their beliefs. Although this was not translated and published until this century, it was formulated during the 1860's from the teachings of two Maori priests Te Matorohanga and Nepia Pohuhu. Not only was it written down by Maori "scribes", but the finer doctrinal points were thrashed out by a committee by Maori priests and elders. The lore explicitly stated that "...the priests alone had complete knowledge of Io and that ordinary people knew nothing".

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Maori gods were sometimes represented by carved godsticks bound with cord.
A godstick was frequently used in the ritual acts sanctifying the planting, tending
and harvesting of sweet potato. The godstick on the left represents
Rongo while the one on the right is thought to represent Tangaroa.

This could mean either that the inner knowledge had been deliberately withheld, or that the cult of Io represented a reorganisation of Maori sacred lore under the impact of European contact. Some of Io's names certainly seems to be derived from Christianity for as well as being Io-of-the-hidden-face, that is, not manifested in material form, he was also called Io-eternal and Io-god-of-love. Moreover, he created all things by "The Word". Yet, the doctrine of Io was much more than an attempt to amalgamate Christian and Maori beliefs. Whatever, its source of information its creators regarded it as the revelation of an inner truth.

But although the priest had revived the esoteric lore to establish Io in a position of supremacy, he was not made a solitary deity. Two more heavens were added to the ten of earlier creation stories, and Io was accommodated in the highest. Tane was assigned a new task; after separating Rangi and Papa, he ascended to Io and asked him for the three baskets which contained all knowledge, especially that "pertaining to the Sky Father and the Earth Mother".

It is not surprising that Io manifested himself at a time when the Maori's awareness of their own identity as a people was beginning to assert itself. For the function of this, Io-of-all-knowledge was to re-enforce the old beliefs with the sanction of a supreme deity who would match the Christian gods.   

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The entrance to a Maori assembly house.

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In the eastern islands of Polynesia, it was believed that man came into being by continuation of the process of creation, or rather procreation, which had begun with Atea and Papa. The god Tane was most often considered to be the actual generative agent who impregnated a woman he formed from earth. In Maori lore, Tane procreative power and organ was called Tiki.

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A Maori Tiki or ancestor figure.

A rare free-standing Maori image. Human hair is attached to the figure's scalp.

What follows is the old story of Tane's search for a wife. First he turned to his mother, Papa, who rejected him. Then he united with several different beings, but each time their offspring were things like mountain streams, reptiles and stones. This did not satisfy Tane, who bore the likeness of a man and he longed to have a partner to match himself. At last he took his mother's advice and formed the shape of a woman out of the soft red sand on the sea shore of Hawaiki. He breathed life into her nostrils, ears, mouth and eyes. Hot breath burst from her mouth and she sneezed. She opened her eyes and she saw Tane. Her name was Hine-hau-one, the Earth-formed-maiden. Their first child was called Hine-titama, the Dawn maiden. After a while Tane took the Dawn maiden as his wife. The girl did not know that Tane was her father as well as her husband. When she asked who her father was, she was told to "...ask that question of the pillars of the house". Hine did so but the housepost did not answer nor did the side panel. Then the Dawn maiden realised the truth. She fled in shame from Hawaiki to the darkness of Po, the underworld. When Tane tried to follow her, she cried out to him that she had "...cut the cord of this world" and that he must return to look after their children in the world of light while she remained in the world of darkness to drag their children down. This was the origin of death. Hine-titama, Dawn maiden became Hine-nui-te-po, great-goddess-of-darkness. In this story, Hine, or Hina as she is called in other places, has a dual nature. She is presented at both the first woman and as a goddess who is guardian of the land of the dead. She is both a life-giver and a destroyer of life. 

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The superb skill of the Maori wood carvers
is seen in the above prow of a Maori war canoe.
The prow shown here is over four feet high.

Amongst the Maoris the planting and cultivating of the kumara (sweet potato) was accompanied by considerable ritual which culminated in the lifting of the crop by the priest when the appearance of the star called Whanui gave the signal for the harvest to begin. In the explanatory myth, Rongo-Maui went to heaven to steal kumara from his brother Whanui. Concealing in his loin cloth, he returned to earth and impregnated his wife Pani. She went to the stream and gave birth to kumara in the water. One day she was disturbed by her sons and fled to the underworld where she continued to cultivate the kumara patch.    

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Jane Resture
(E-mail: -- Rev. 1st January 2004)