Māui (mythology)

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Māui (Maui) is the great culture hero and trickster in Polynesian mythology. Exploits of Maui tend to fall more into the category of folklore rather than religion and myth. Very rarely was Maui actually worshiped, being less of a deity and more of a folk hero. His origins vary from culture to culture, but many of his main exploits remain relatively similar.[1]

Tales of his exploits and adventures are told throughout most of Polynesia. Some of his most common exploits that span the south seas, are stealing fire for humans from the underworld, fishing up islands with his magical hook, as well as lassoing the sun with his hair to extend the days. While Maui in most cases is regarded as a god or a fully divine figure, in some places he is regarded as simply a great human hero.[2]

Though Maui and tales of his adventures can be found on almost every Island group in Polynesia, there are a great deal of differences between them from nation to nation. Even Maui himself is portrayed differently, from being a handsome young man, to being an old wise wandering priest.[3]

Māui appears as a demigod and a primary character in the 2016 Disney film Moana, portrayed by Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson.

Māori mythology[edit]

In Māori mythology, as in other Polynesian traditions, Māui is a culture hero and a trickster, famous for his exploits and cleverness. Māori names of Maui include Māui-tikitiki ("Māui the top-knot"), Māui-tikitiki-a-Taranga ("Māui the top-knot of Taranga"), Māui-pōtiki ("Māui the last born"), and Maui te whare kino ("Maui the house of trouble").

Māui and the fish[edit]

Māui's older brothers always refused to let him come fishing with them. One night, he wove for himself a flax fishing line and enchanted it with a karakia to give it strength; to this he attached the magic fish-hook made from the jawbone that his grandmother Murirangawhenua had given him. Then he stowed away in the hull of his brothers' waka (canoe). The next morning, when the waka was too far from land to return, he emerged from his hiding-place. His brothers would not lend him any bait, so he struck himself on the nose and baited the hook with his blood. He pulled up a giant fish which would become the North Island of New Zealand, known as Te Ika-a-Māui; the valleys and mountains of the island were made by his brothers chopping up the fish for themselves. In some traditions his waka became the South Island, known as Te Waka a Māui.[4] (Other traditions make the South Island the waka of Aoraki.)

Māui brings fire to the world[edit]

Māui wanted to know where fire came from, so one night he went among the villages of his people and put all the fires out. Māui's mother Taranga, who was their rangatira, said that someone would have to ask Mahuika, the goddess of fire, for more. So Māui (a grandson of Mahuika) offered to go and find her. Mahuika lived in a cave in a burning mountain at the end of the earth. She gave Māui one of her burning fingernails to relight the fires, but Māui extinguished fingernail after fingernail until Mahuika became angry and sent fire to pursue Māui, who survived only by calling upon Tāwhirimātea, the god of weather, to put it out with his rain. Mahuika threw her last nail at Māui, but it missed him and flew into some trees including the māhoe and the kaikōmako. Māui brought back dry sticks of these trees to his village and showed his people how to rub the sticks together and make fire.[5]

Māui slows the sun[edit]

In former days, the sun used to travel quickly across the sky, leaving not enough daylight time for working and eating. Māui proposed to catch the sun and slow it down. Armed with his fish-hook and a large amount of rope, Māui and his brothers journeyed to the east and found the pit where the sun-god Tama-nui-te-rā slept during the night-time. There they tied the ropes into a noose around the pit and built a wall of clay to shelter behind. Tama-nui-te-rā was caught in the noose and Māui struck him with the hook until he surrendered and agreed to travel slowly across the sky.[6]

The death of Māui[edit]

His last trick, which led to his death, involved the Goddess Hine-nui-te-pō. In an attempt to make mankind immortal, he changed into a worm and Māui entered her vagina, intending to leave through her mouth while she slept; but was crushed by the obsidian teeth in her vagina.

Hawaiian mythology[edit]

In Hawaiian religion, Māui is a culture hero and ancient chief who appears in several different genealogies. In the Kumulipo he is the son of ʻAkalana and his wife Hina-a-ke-ahi (Hina). This couple has four sons, Māui-mua, Māui-waena, Māui-kiʻikiʻi and Māui-a-kalana. Māui-a-kalana's wife is named Hinakealohaila; his son is Nanamaoa. Māui is one of the Kupua. His name is the same as that of the Hawaiian island Maui, although native tradition holds that it is not named for him directly, but instead named after the son of Hawaii's discoverer (who was named after Māui himself).

Friend to Mankind[edit]

Revelator of Birds[edit]

Some of Māui's most renowned feats included causing birds (which were invisible to mortal eyes) to become visible. In his long ago, forgotten time, the music of the birds delighted Māui. He observed them with keen interest, their varied and beautiful plumage which adorned the foliage of fragrant trees, and their melodious music, however, no one else could join him in enjoying what was apparent to his vision. For, although Māui's friends could hear their wonderful bird songs, none perceived the true source of the sounds. Māui felt compassion for his friends, for humanity, and their inability to behold with their eyes the colorful, musical creatures as they flitted from tree to tree, so, Māui caused the creatures to become visible to the naked eye.[7]

Creation of Hawai'i[edit]

Māui also is credited with the creation of (a metaphor for discovery of) the Hawaiian islands, when he went on a fishing expedition with his friends, and, using a magic fish hook, pulled up various island groups from the oceanic depths. On another occasion, as men had not yet discovered fire, during Māui's tenure in a land of perpetual volcanic eruptions and fire in the mountaintops, decided that rather than periodically hike for dozens of miles across corals just to obtain glowing embers of the extinguished fires put out the previous night by cold winds, he decided upon a simpler solution. He would bring the fire to him. Māui knew of a tribe of intelligent birds that mastered the art of fire-making. His plan was to capture their leader, and coerce from him the secret of fire. The bird taught him that he should rub certain sticks together in order to produce fire, and this is how the secret of fire was brought to humanity.[7]

Tamer of the Sun and the Heavens[edit]

Before Māui's involvement in the matter, the Sun (Lā) notoriously traveled on irregular paths in the sky, coming and going unexpectedly at times, which made activities such as farming very difficult for man. To this end, Māui crafted snares made of his hair in order to trap the sun and compel it to travel more slowly and adhere to regular courses of travel. In this manner, Māui regulated the sun's activities for the benefit of mankind.[7]

Pillar of the Sky[edit]

Similar to Atlas and Herakles of ancient Greek mythology, Māui lifted up the heavens, which, for so long a time, had lain heavily upon the plants of the Earth, leaving insufficient room for growth and for humanity to move about with ease.[7]

Tongan mythology[edit]

In the Tongan version of his tales, Maui drew up the Tongan Islands from the deep: first appeared Lofanga and the other Haʻapai Islands, and finally Vavaʻu. Maui then dwelt in Tonga. Maui had two sons: the eldest, Maui-Atalanga, and the younger Maui-Kisikisi. The latter discovered the secret of fire, and taught people the art of cooking food: he made fire dwell in certain kinds of wood. Maui-Motu'a bears the earth on his shoulders, and when he nods in sleep it causes earthquakes, therefore the people have to stamp on the ground to waken him. Hikule'o, the deity presiding over Pulotu, the underworld, is the youngest son of Maui-Motu'a. Houma is pointed out as the spot where Maui's fish-hook caught.[8]

Other sources say that in Tonga there were three Maui brothers: Maui-motuʻa (old Maui), Maui-atalanga, and Maui-kisikisi (dragonfly Maui), the last one being the trickster. He also got the name Maui-fusi-fonua (Maui land puller) when he begged the magic fishhook from the old fisherman Tongafusifonua, who lived in Manuka (located to the east on the island of Tonga). Tongafusifonua allowed him to take the fishhook, under the condition that he could find it in his collection of countless hooks. But his wife, Tavatava betrayed the secret, allowing Maui to pick the right hook. And so he was able to fish up the coral islands from the bottom of the ocean (Volcanic islands are supposed to have fallen down from heavens).[citation needed]

Tahitian mythology[edit]

In the mythology of Tahiti, Maui was a wise man, or prophet. He was a priest, but was afterwards deified. Being at one time engaged at the marae (sacred place), and the sun getting low while Maui's work was unfinished, he laid hold of the hihi, or sun-rays, and stopped his course for some time. As the discoverer of fire, Maui was named Ao-ao-ma-ra'i-a because he taught the art of obtaining fire by friction of wood. Before this time people ate their food raw. (Tregear 1891, 194, 235). See also Mahui'e, Tahitian guardian of fire.

Maui was responsible for earthquakes.[9]

Mangarevan mythology[edit]

In the mythology of Mangareva, Maui hauls the land up from the sea, and ties the sun with tresses of hair. His father was Ataraga; his mother, Uaega.

There were eight Maui: Maui-mua, Maui-muri, Maui-toere-mataroa, Tumei-hauhia, Maui-tikitiki-toga, Maui-matavaru, Maui-taha, Maui-roto. Maui the eight-eyed (matavaru) is the hero. He is born from his mother's navel, and is raised by his grandfather, Te Rupe, who gives him a magic staff named Atua-tane, and a hatchet named Iraiapatapata.[10][11]

Maui in popular culture[edit]

In the 2016 Disney computer-animated musical film Moana, the demigod Maui is voiced by Dwayne Johnson. Abandoned by his human parents as a baby, the gods took pity on him and made him a demigod and gave him a magic fish hook that gives him the ability to shape-shift. 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 with in folklore. This version of Maui incorporates elements from various Polynesian narratives.

Maui was also the subject of Israel Kamakawiwo'ole's song "Maui Hawaiian Sup'pa Man" in his most well-known album, Facing Future, which is the highest selling Hawaiian album of all time.

See also[edit]

  • Hoderi, another mythological figure armed with a magical fish hook
  • Ti'iti'i, a Samoan mythological figure similar to Maui


  1. ^ Craighill Handy 1927: 118
  2. ^ Tregear 1891:233
  3. ^ Craighill Handy 1927: 118
  4. ^ Grace, Wiremu (2016). "Māui and the giant fish". Te Kete Ipurangi. Te Tāhuhu o te Mātauranga. Retrieved 19 January 2019.
  5. ^ Grace, Wiremu (2016). "How Māui brought fire to the world". Te Kete Ipurangi. Te Tāhuhu o te Mātauranga. Retrieved 19 January 2019.
  6. ^ Grace, Wiremu (2016). "How Māui slowed the sun". Te Kete Ipurangi. Te Tāhuhu o te Mātauranga. Retrieved 19 January 2019.
  7. ^ a b c d Westervelt, William (1915). Legends of Gods and Ghosts (Hawaiian Mythology). Boston: George Ellis, Co. pp. vi–viii. ISBN 0898755905.
  8. ^ E.R. Tregear, Maori-Polynesian Comparative Dictionary (Lyon and Blair: Lambton Quay, 1891). 1891:235-236).
  9. ^ Salmond, Anne (2010). Aphrodite's Island. Berkeley: University of California Press. p. 317. ISBN 9780520261143.
  10. ^ Tregear, E. R. (1970). Maori-Polynesian Comparative Dictionary. Lambton Quay: Lyon and Blair.
  11. ^ Beckwith, M. (1970). Hawaiian Mythology. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.


  • E.R. Tregear, Maori-Polynesian Comparative Dictionary (Lyon and Blair: Lambton Quay, 1891).
  • M. Beckwith, Hawaiian Mythology (University of Hawaii Press: Honolulu, 1970).
  • W.D. Westervelt, Legends of Maui (Hawaiian Gazette: Honolulu, 1910).
  • W.D. Westervelt, Legends of Gods and Ghosts (Hawaiian Mythology) (Press of George H. Ellis, Co.: Boston, 1915).
  • E.S. Craighill Handy, Polynesian Religion (The Museum of Polynesian Religion: Honolulu, 1927).