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Māui (Māori mythology)

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Title: Māui (Māori mythology)  
Author: World Heritage Encyclopedia
Language: English
Subject: Maui, Māui (mythology), New Zealand/Selected article/40, Aotearoa, Tūmatauenga
Collection: Māori Mythology, Maui (Legend), Mythological Tricksters, New Zealand Legends
Publisher: World Heritage Encyclopedia

Māui (Māori mythology)

Māui took on the appearance of a pigeon when he went to find his father in the underworld.
In Māori mythology, Māui is a culture hero famous for his exploits and his trickery.


  • Māui's birth 1
  • Finds his mother and brothers 2
    • Restrains the sun 2.1
    • Hauls up the North Island 2.2
    • His canoe the South Island 2.3
    • Discovers the secret of fire 2.4
    • Finds his father 2.5
    • Seeks immortality 2.6
    • Māui and Rohe 2.7
  • Names and epithets 3
  • See also 4
  • External links 5
  • References 6

Māui's birth

The offspring of (humankind) increased and multiplied and did not know death until the generation of Māui-tikitiki (Biggs 1966:449). Māui is the son of Taranga, the wife of Makeatutara. He has a miraculous birth—his mother throws her premature infant into the sea wrapped in a tress of hair from her topknot (tikitiki)—hence Māui is known as Māui-tikitiki-a-Taranga. Ocean spirits find and wrap the child in seaweed. Māui's divine ancestor, Tama-nui-te-ra (or Rangi) then takes the child and nourishes it to adolescence.

Finds his mother and brothers

Māui emerges from the sea and goes to his mother's house, finding there his four brothers, Māui-taha, Māui-roto, Māui-pae, and Māui-waho. Māui's brothers at first are wary of the new-comer but, after he performs several feats such as transforming himself into different kinds of birds, they acknowledge his power and admire him.

At first Taranga does not recognise Māui as her child.

When he was old enough, he came to his relations while they were all gathered in the great House of Assembly, dancing and making merry. Little Maui crept in and sat down behind his brothers. Soon his mother called the children and found a strange child, who proved that he was her son, and was taken in as one of the family. Some of the brothers were jealous, but the eldest addressed the others as follows:

"Never mind; let him be our dear brother. In the days of peace remember the proverb, 'When you are on friendly terms, settle your disputes in a friendly way; when you are at war, you must redress your injuries by violence.' It is better for us, brothers, to be kind to other people. These are the ways by which men gain influence-by laboring for abundance of food to feed others, by collecting property to give to others, and by similar means by which you promote the good of others."

Thus, according to the New Zealand story related by Sir George Grey, Maui was received in his home.

Restrains the sun

Māui takes the jaw-bone of his ancestress Muri-ranga-whenua and uses it as a weapon in his first expedition. This is to snare the Sun and make it go slower because the days were too short for people to get their work done. With the help of his brothers, Māui nooses the Sun and beats him severely with the jaw-bone club until the Sun promises to go slower in future (Tregear 1891:233-234).

Hauls up the North Island

His next exploit is to haul up land from the depth of the ocean—here he again uses the jaw-bone, this time as a fish-hook. Māui, using blood from his nose for bait, hauls the great fish up from the depths. When it emerges from the water Māui goes to find a priest to perform the appropriate ceremonies and prayers, leaving his brothers in charge of the fish. They, however, do not wait for Māui to return but begin to cut up the fish (to grab their share), which immediately begins to writhe in agony, causing it to break up into mountains, cliffs and valleys. If the brothers had listened to Māui the island would have been a level plain and people would have been able to travel with ease on its surface. Thus the North Island of New Zealand is known as Te Ika-a-Māui (The Fish of Māui) (Tregear 1891:234).

His canoe the South Island

In Māori traditions from the South Island of New Zealand, Māui's canoe became the South Island, with Banks Peninsula marking the place supporting his foot as he pulled up the extremely heavy fish. Therefore, besides the official name of Te Waipounamu, another Māori name for the South Island is Te Waka-a-Māui (the canoe of Māui).

Discovers the secret of fire

Māui stole fire from the fingernails of Mahuika
Māui, finding that fire has been lost on the earth, resolves to find Mahuika the Fire-goddess and learn the secret art of obtaining fire. He visits her but his tricks make her furious and, although he obtains the secret of fire, he barely escapes with his life. He transforms himself into a hawk, but to no avail for Mahuika sets both land and sea on fire. Māui prays to his great ancestors, Tāwhirimātea and Whatiri-matakataka who answer with pouring rain and extinguish the fire. Māui soon after goes out fishing with Irawaru, the husband of Hina, Maui's sister. They disagree when their fishing lines get tangled and, when they return to shore, Māui turns Irawaru into a dog. Hina is distraught and throws herself into the sea, but she does not die. (Tregear 1891:234).

Finds his father

Māui stays with his mother and brothers. Each morning Taranga disappears. Taking the shape of a kererū (wood pigeon) Māui descends after her and finds her with his father, Makeatutara. When Māui’s father is performing the baptismal ceremonies for Māui he makes a mistake in the incantations and this ill omen leads, in the end, to the death of Māui (Tregear 1891:233).

Seeks immortality

In some versions, small birds like the fantail accompanied Māui on his quest to win immortality for humankind.

Māui now considers himself ready to win immortality for humankind. His father tries to dissuade him, predicting that he will fail because of the mistakes in his baptismal ceremony. His father says to him, “My son, I know that you are a brave fellow and that you have done all things. Yet I am afraid that there is someone who will defeat you.”

“Who could that be?” asks Māui. “Your ancestress Hine-nui-te-pō (Goddess of the Night). You can see her flashing there on the horizon.” “Is she as strong as the sun?” asks Māui. “I trapped him and beat him. Is she greater than the sea, which is greater than the land? Yet I have dragged land from it. Now let us see whether we will find life or death.”

His father answers, “You are right, my last-born, and the strength of my old age. Go, find your ancestress who lives at the side of the sky.”

“What does she look like?” asks Māui.

“The red flashing in the western sky comes from her,” says the father. “Her body is like a human being, but her eyes are greenstone, her hair sea-kelp, and her mouth is like a barracouta's mouth” (Biggs 1966:449).

Māui, undaunted, sets out westward, with his companions, to the home of Hine-nui-te-pō. In some versions, his companions are the smallest birds of the forest, the tomtit, the robin, the grey warbler, and the fantail. In other versions, the companions are his brothers. He finds Hine asleep with her legs apart and he and his companions see sharp flints of obsidian and greenstone between her thighs. “Now,” Māui tells his friends, “when I go into the body of this old woman, do not laugh at me. Wait until I come out again from her mouth. Then you may laugh as much as you want.”

“You will be killed!” was all the companions could say.

“If you laugh I will indeed be killed. But if I pass right through her body I will live, and she will die.”

Then he readied himself, winding the cord of his battle club tightly round his wrist and casting aside his garment. As Māui began his task, the cheeks of his watching friends puckered with suppressed laughter. As his head and arms disappear, one of his brothers - or the fantail - can't hold back no longer and bursts out laughing. The old lady wakes, opens her eyes, claps her legs together and cuts Māui in two. Now Māui has become the first being to die and, because he has failed in his task, all human beings are mortal. The goddess keeps her position at the portal to the underworld through which all humans must travel (Biggs 1966:449-450, Tregear 1891:234).

Māui and Rohe

In a rare version, a goddess named Rohe is Māui's wife. He mistreats her in a cruel and unusual way. He wishes her to exchange faces with him because she is beautiful and he is ugly. When she objects he gets his way by reciting an incantation over her as she is sleeping. When she awakes and realises what has happened she leaves this world and goes down into the underworld where she becomes a goddess of death (Tregear 1891:421).

Names and epithets

  • Māui-tikitiki ("Māui the top-knot")
  • Māui-tikitiki-a-Taranga ("Māui the top-knot of Taranga")
  • Māui-pōtiki ("Māui the last born”).

See also

External links

  • Māui and Hine-nui-te-pō


  • E.R. Tregear, Maori-Polynesian Comparative Dictionary (Lyon and Blair: Lambton Quay, 1891).
  • M. Beckwith, Hawaiian Mythology (University of Hawaii Press: Honolulu, 1970).
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