The Mythological Maori Origin Stories of New Zealand
The Maori people (Māori) are the natives of New Zealand who, like other societies, have myths that are related to the creation of the world and mankind. These Maori creation stories were memorized and passed through the generations orally. The different Maori tribes have their own versions but they have many elements in common, such as the transformation of nothingness and darkness into the natural world full of light.
Rangi and Papa came out of the nothingness to produce the god-sons which fight the eternal battles that are the basis of Maori origin stories. (Public Domain)
Key Gods in the Maori Creation Story
According to the Maori, in the beginning there was emptiness and nothing existed. This state is called Te Kore by the Maori. Into this emptiness two ancient gods (or atua) appeared: one male sky god called Ranginui, which is more popularly known as Rangi, and one female earth god, named Papatuanuku (Papatūānuku) or Papa.
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Papa and Rangi, the earth and the sky, came together. In the darkness of their embrace they produced six children, although some versions of the Maori creation story speak of hundreds. All of their children were men, and all were gods, with Rangi and Papa as their primordial parents.
- Haumia (Haumia-tiketike): In the pantheon of Maori gods, Haumia is one of the children of Papa and Rangi, and the god of uncultivated wild food plants, such as rhizome including ginger, lotus, and turmeric. Like his brother Rongo, he was banished into his mother, the earth during their war with Tawhiri.
- Rongo (Rongo-mā-Tāne): In mythological Maori origin stories, Rongo is another of the sons of Papa and Rangi. Rongo is the atua of crops and cultivated plants, such as kumara (the Maori name for sweet potato).
- Ruaumoko (Rūaumoko or Rūamoko): is the youngest and seventh son of Papa and Rangi. The god of earthquakes and volcanoes, in some Maori creation stories it is said that Ruaumoko was never born and still lives inside Papa. Whenever he kicks, it causes an earthquake.
- Tane (Tāne, Tāne-mahuta or Tāne-nui-a-Rangi): One of the most important of the Maori pantheon, Tane is god of the forests and birds. He is credited with separating his parents and as being the creator of humans in the Maori origin mythology.
Tane, god of the forests and birds in a Maori carving at Auckland Zoo. (CC0)
- Tangaroa (Tangaroa-whakamau-ta): Another of the main atua (gods) from Maori creation stories, Tangaroa is the god of the sea, rivers, lakes, father of all creatures who live within their waters, and controller of tides. He is father of Ikatere (the father of fish) and Tu-te-wehiwehi (the ancestor of reptiles).
- Tawhiri (Tāwhirimātea or Tāwhiri): In Maori mythology, Tawhiri of the god of weather, including storms, thunder, and lightning. His army of children are the winds and clouds in different formats including the rain, mist, and fog.
- Tumatuenga (Tūmatauenga or Tū): Last on this list of godly children, Tumatuenga is the god of war. In the Maori creation story, Tumatuenga is the father of humanity and human activities such as food cultivation, hunting, cooking, and fishing.
Nature and the elements are explained in the Maori origin stories, which describe the battles of the ancient gods. Tawhiri, the god of weather, enraged by the separation of his parents, waged war on his brothers using the power of the winds and the clouds. (Юрий Бычков / Adobe Stock)
The Atua Children of Rangi and Papa Rebel
Locked in the suffocating embrace of their parents Rangi and Papa, the child-gods began to dream of living outside the cramped darkness and exploring the world beyond. Tumatuenga (the god of war) proposed killing their parents, but Tane (the god of forests) suggested they push them apart. Tawhiri was against their plans. After many attempts by the child-gods to separate the loving embrace of their parents, Tane lay down on Papa and pushed his parents apart with his strong legs.
The children were finally able to see the light for the first time. Rangi was pushed up to become the sky and Papa became the Earth. The brothers populated the world with all kinds of beings and became the rulers of their realms. Tawhiri was enraged, joining with his father to wage a brutal war on his siblings. He assembled a huge army of his spirit children, winds, and clouds of different kinds.
In some versions of the Maori origins myth, in his fury over the separation of his sky father and earth mother, Tawhiri the weather god gouged his own eyes out. Hurling them into the heavens, they became the cluster of stars the Maori call Matariki (known to astronomers as the Pleiades) which announce the Maori New Year, known as Matariki, when they rise in mid-winter.
Rangi and Papa were separated by their god-children (seen in the image) in the ultimate act of rebellion. This mural by Cliff Whiting depicts the Maori origin story, with Tane shown upside down pushing his sky father away from the earth mother. (National Library of New Zealand)
The Battle at Te Paerangi in Maori Mythology
The Battle at Te Paerangi began between the siblings after Tawhiri launched his attack. First he set upon Tane, tearing down his forests, and forcing the forest god to flee. Then he attacked Tangaroa, the god of the sea, with giant storms and waves.
The sea was in chaos and many of Tangaroa’s children, such as Tu-te-wehiwehi, the ancestor of reptiles, deserted him, taking shelter with Tane in the forest. Next he wanted to attack Haumia and Rongo, the gods of uncultivated wild food plants and crops respectively, but mother Papa gave them refuge from Tawhiri’s wrath, by taking them into the earth.
Next came Tumatuenga, the god of war, but he firmly embedded his feet in earth, creating an effective anchor against Tawhiri’s storms and subsequently calming them until Tawhiri withdrew, although they became eternal enemies. To punish his brothers for being cowardly, Tumatuenga invented the arts of hunting, agriculture, woodcutting, cooking, and fishing. The plan was to subjugate their domains as food for humans, and so he invented snares to catch the birds and hoes to dig in the earth.
Because he gave refuge to his child-reptiles, Tangaroa of the sea began a war with Tane, the atua of the forests, who provided supplies to the god of war to create the canoes, nets, and fishhooks needed to catch fish. Meanwhile Tangaroa retaliated by sweeping away houses and trees and swamping canoes during floods. All the war, storms, and heavy rains caused most of the land to be submerged into the ocean, while the battle between the god-sons of Rangi and Papa still pervades the Maori world today.
According to the various Maori creation myths, Rangi and Papa continue to grieve for each other. Rangi’s tears fall to Papa to show how much he loves her- Sometimes Papa heaves, causing mists from the forests, which are sighs as her body yearns for Rangi.
The Creation of Humans in Maori Origin Stories
The Maori origin stories about the creation of human beings are told in many versions. But they all agree that Tane, the god of the forest, is a hugely important god in Maori mythology. Not only did he separate earth and sky, bringing about the world as we know it, but he also created the first human. It is believed that Tane experimented with creating trees and other creatures and bringing them to life.
After a time, Tane used red ochre to form the first human, a woman, and breathed life into her. Her name was Hineahuone. With her he became the father of Hinetītama. Today the hongi (the breath of life) is the traditional greeting of the Maori people, performed to emulate the way in which Tane breathed life into Hineahuone.
The traditional hongi (breath of life) Maori greeting has its roots in the Maori origin story of humans. (Molly / Adobe Stock)
The Maori creation stories share many similarities with the myths of Babylon and ancient Greece. Historians have wondered how an isolated civilization can share these commonalities and some have even speculated that their essence contains a common truth of external intervention.
Top image: The Maori origin stories passed down through oral tradition tell a story of warfare between the gods. Source: adrenalinapura / Adobe Stock
Updated on February 23, 2021.
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