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, Māui changed into a worm and entered her vagina, intent on leaving through her mouth while she slept. However, he was crushed by the obsidian teeth in her vagina.

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").

Origin myth[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 threw 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. His divine ancestor, Tama-nui-te-rā (or Rangi) then takes the child and nourishes him to adolescence.

Discovery of his mother and brothers[edit]

Māui emerged from the sea and traveled to his mother's house, finding his four brothers, Māui-taha, Māui-roto, Māui-pae, and Māui-waho. Māui's brothers are at first wary of the newcomer, but after he performed feats such as transforming himself into different kinds of birds, they acknowledged his power and admired him.

At first, Taranga does not recognise Māui as her child.

When he became old enough, he came to his relatives while they were gathered in the marae, dancing and being merry. 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.


Māui fishes up the North Island[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 jaw-bone 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. Māui hauled a great fish, known as Hāhau-whenua, up from the depths. Thus the North Island of New Zealand is known as Te Ika-a-Māui (The Fish of Māui).[2]

When it emerged from the water, Māui left to find a tohunga to perform the appropriate ceremonies and prayers, leaving his brothers in charge. They, however, did not wait for Māui to return but began to cut up the fish, which writhed 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.[3][2]

In Northern Māori traditions of New Zealand, Māui's waka became the South Island, with Banks Peninsula marking the place supporting his foot as he pulled up that extremely heavy fish. 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, the South Island is known instead as Te Waka o Aoraki[4] and predates Māui's expedition. Māui 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).[2]

Māui brings fire to the world[edit]

Māui stole fire from the fingernails of Mahuika

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. Māui transformed himself into a hawk to escape, but to no avail, for Mahuika set both land and sea on fire. Māui prayed to his great ancestors Tāwhirimātea, god of weather, and Whaitiri-matakataka, goddess of thunder, who answered by pouring rain to extinguish the fire. 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][2]

Irawaru, the first dog[edit]

Māui went fishing with Irawaru, the husband of his sister Hina. During the expedition, he became annoyed with Irawaru; versions differ as to the cause. In some, Māui was jealous of Irawaru's success at fishing; in others, they disagreed when their fishing-lines became entangled; in still others, Māui was angry at Irawaru's refusal to give him a cloak, or disgusted at Irawaru's greedy nature. Whatever the provocation, when Māui and Irawaru returned to shore, Māui stretched out Irawaru's limbs and transformed him into the first dog. When Hina asked Māui if he had seen her husband, Māui told her to call "Moi! Moi!", whereupon Irawaru, in dog form, came running. Hina in grief threw herself into the ocean never to be seen again.[6]

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 the jaw-bone of Murirangawhenua 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 beat him severely with the jaw-bone until he surrendered and agreed to travel slowly across the sky.[7][2]

Quest for human immortality and death[edit]

Māui is staying with his mother and brothers. Each morning Taranga disappears. Taking the shape of a kererū (wood pigeon), Māui follows her and finds her with his father, Makeatutara. When Māui's father is performing baptismal ceremonies for Māui, he errs in the incantations and this ill omen leads, in the end, to Māui's death.[8]

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

After his early exploits, Māui considered himself ready to win immortality for humankind. His father tried 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?" asked 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?" asked 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 answered, "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?" asked Māui.

"The red flashing in the western sky comes from her," said 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, set 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, his 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 bird - cannot hold back any longer and burst out in laughter. 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 had 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.[9][2]

Māui and Rohe[edit]

In a rare version, a goddess named Rohe was Māui's wife. He mistreated her in a cruel and unusual way. He wished for her to exchange faces with him because she was beautiful and he was not. When she objected, he recited an incantation over her as she slept. When she awoke and realized what had happened, she left the living world and traveled to the underworld where she became a goddess of death.[10]

Popular culture[edit]

Participant of the Merrie Monarch Parade in Hilo performs as demigod Māui

In the 2016 Disney animated film Moana, the demigod Maui is voiced by Dwayne Johnson. Abandoned by his human parents as a baby, he is given demigod status, shapeshifting powers, and a magic fish hook by the gods who take pity on him. He performs miracles to win back the love of humanity, each of which earns 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. The film's villain, Te Kā, was referred to in early drafts of the script as Te Pō, a likely reference to Hine-nui-te-pō[11] (who, like Te Kā, had once been a life-giving goddess[12]). This Maui incorporates elements of Hawaiian mythology and other Polynesian narratives.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b McLintock 1966, p. 449.
  2. ^ a b c d e f Tregear 1891, p. 234.
  3. ^ Grace, Wiremu (2016). "Māui and the giant fish". Te Kete Ipurangi. Te Tāhuhu o te Mātauranga. Retrieved 19 January 2019.
  4. ^ "Aoraki/Mount Cook – the ancestor of Ngāi Tahu". Department of Conservation: Te Papa Atawhai. Retrieved 20 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. ^ Tregear 1891, p. 107.
  7. ^ Grace, Wiremu (2016). "How Māui slowed the sun". Te Kete Ipurangi. Te Tāhuhu o te Mātauranga. Retrieved 19 January 2019.
  8. ^ Tregear 1891, p. 233.
  9. ^ McLintock 1966, p. 449-450.
  10. ^ Tregear 1891, p. 421.
  11. ^ Clements, Ron; Musker, John (2016). Moana: audio commentary. Disney. Event occurs at 3 minutes 0 seconds.
  12. ^ Biggs, B. G. (1966). "Maori Myths and Traditions". In McLintock, A. H. (ed.). Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, 3 Volumes. II. Government Printer: Wellington. pp. 447–454.


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

External links[edit]