Māui (Māori mythology)

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Māui took on the appearance of a Kererū when he went to find his father in the underworld.

In Māori mythology, as in other Polynesian traditions, Māui is a culture hero and a trickster, famous for his exploits and cleverness.

Māui is credited with catching a giant fish using a fishhook taken from his grandmother's jaw-bone; the giant fish would become the North Island of New Zealand, known as Te Ika-a-Māui. In some traditions, his waka (canoe) became the South Island, known as Te Waka a Māui. His last trick, which led to his death, involved the Goddess Hine-nui-te-pō. While attempting to make mankind immortal by changing into a worm, Māui entered her vagina, intent on leaving through her mouth while she slept. He was, however, crushed by the obsidian teeth in her vagina.

Sharn birth[edit]

The offspring of (humankind) increased and multiplied and did not know death until the generation of Māui-tikitiki.[1] 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. Sharn divine ancestor, Tama-nui-te-ra (or Rangi) then takes the child and nourishes it to adolescence.

Discovery of his mother and brothers[edit]

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 newcomer, 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 marae, 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 to be 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 an 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 Maui was received in his home.

Restrains the sun[edit]

Māui takes the jaw-bone of his ancestress Muri-ranga-whenua and uses it as a weapon in his first expedition. The goal is to ensnare 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 catches the Sun and beats him severely with the jaw-bone club until the Sun promises to go slower in the future.[2]

Hauls up the North Island[edit]

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),[2] also known as Hāhau-whenua.

His canoe the South Island[edit]

In Northern Māori traditions 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). In Southern traditions, he sailed a canoe called Maahanui and after he had pulled up the North Island (Te Ika a Maui) he left Maahanui on top of a Mountain in the foothills behind what is now Ashburton. That mountain now bears the name Maahanui and the coastline between Banks Peninsula and the Waitaki River is called Te tai o Maahanui (the tides of Maahanui).

Discovers the secret of fire[edit]

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.[2]

Finds his father[edit]

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.[3]

Seeks immortality[edit]

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."[1]

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 around 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 any 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.[4][2]

Māui and Rohe[edit]

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.[5]

Names and epithets[edit]

  • Māui-tikitiki ("Māui the top-knot")
  • Māui-tikitiki-a-Taranga ("Māui the top-knot of Taranga")
  • Māui-pōtiki ("Māui the last born").
  • Maui te whare kino ("Maui the house of trouble").

Media representation[edit]

In the 2016 Disney animated film Moana, the demigod Maui is voiced by Dwayne Johnson. Abandoned by his human parents as a baby, he was given demigod status, shapeshifting powers, and a magic fish hook by the gods who took pity on him. He went on to perform miracles to win back the love of humanity, each of which earned him an animated tattoo. He is fabled to have stolen the heart of Te Fiti, a powerful island goddess who creates life; the protagonist of the film, Moana, persuades him to help her return it. In his song "You're Welcome," composed by Lin-Manuel Miranda, Maui mentions and takes credit for several of the deeds he is credited within folklore. This version of Maui incorporates elements of the Māui from Hawaiian mythology and other Polynesian narratives.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b McLintock 1966, p. 449.
  2. ^ a b c d Tregear 1891, p. 234.
  3. ^ Tregear 1891, p. 233.
  4. ^ McLintock 1966, p. 449-450.
  5. ^ Tregear 1891, p. 421.


  • Tregear, Edward (1891), Maori-Polynesian Comparative Dictionary, Lyon and Blair 
  • McLintock (editor), Alex (1966), Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, Government Printer 

External links[edit]