Category Archives: Myths and Legends

Hunting Taniwha

A SHORT STORY

One eye slowly opened and gazed out onto a world barely recognisable. 

Soon, whispered the wind.  

 The word rolled around in his awakening mind. 

Soon, whispered the wind.

The morning bell jangled across the playground, children scattered to their classrooms, some with an enthusiasm that can only come with being new to school.  Others saunter slowly; after all, what’s the rush, school sucks…  Eventually, Tapuhi Primary settles into its morning routine.  In room six Mrs Foster calls the role, ten eager faces, arms and legs crossed, fighting the urge to fidget on the rough carpet tiles. 

“Well, today we have some special visitors.  As you know all week we have been learning about the stories and traditions of Aotearoa. Today we are going to learn about taniwha. Who can tell me what a taniwha is?”

Ten eager hands shot into the air.

“Yes Samantha?”  Mrs Foster smiles.

“ A taniwha is…a taniwha is a kinda’ monster, like a really big lizard that lives in rivers and lakes and is really scary and likes to eat people!”  The words came out in a rush, nine heads nod knowingly in agreement. 

“Yes, you could say that, Samantha.  But there is much more to taniwha then just eating people and being scary.  After morning tea we will be having a visit from The Aunties,” ten little hearts leapt into ten little mouths – The Aunties!

Everyone had heard of The Aunties, most were related to them in some way; everyone listened when they spoke and did as they were told.  Except old Dave who ran the only garage for miles around, but then he was scarier than The Aunties.  The arguments between old Dave and The Aunties were the stuff legends in themselves.  Never mind the taniwha!

The morning flew by quickly.  Morning tea came and went in a flurry of biscuit crumbs and half eaten fruit.  As the children rushed back into class The Aunties were already there greeting each child by name.  The result was instantaneous, the children silently taking their places on the story mat and Mrs Foster briefly wondered if there was any way of bottling that effect…

“Everyone please welcome The Aunties to room six.”

“Kia Ora Aunties,” said room six in a sing song unison.

“Kia Ora children, thank you for having us here today.  Mrs Foster has asked to come and tell you about taniwha and we are happy to do this but first you need to tell us what you know about taniwha,” said the Auntie in the middle.

An uncomfortable silence ensued as the children looked everywhere except at the Aunties.  Speak to the Aunties?  Who were they kidding?  The slow tick-tock of the clock could be heard as the Aunties sat watching the children, waiting patiently, still as stone, their eyes missing nothing and just as Mrs Foster was just about to fill the silence a tentative hand reached up.

“Thank you Wiremu, what can you tell The Aunties about taniwha,” said a very relieved Mrs Foster.  There had been some raised eyebrows in the staffroom when she had talked about asking The Aunties to visit. 

“Umm, taniwha were creatures that lived near water and ate people?” said Wiremu hesitantly remembering what Samantha had said earlier in the day, “and my dad said they’re not real, just stories to scare people,” Wiremu finished quickly.

The Aunties exchanged a quiet look, once more the middle Auntie spoke, “yes, sometimes that is correct, the stories do sometimes tell of taniwha that eat people but they also tell of taniwha who protected people too.  Like the taniwha Tuhirangi who was Kupe’s guardian and protected the canoes that crossed the Cook Strait or the taniwha Pane-iraira who took the form of a whale and swam with the Tainui canoe from Hawaiki.”

“So they don’t eat people?” piped up Wiremu, his curiosity getting the better of him.

“Ahh, yes some do.  The taniwha Tutaeporoporo he would travel up and down the river eating people, in revenge for being badly treated by the chief of that time.”

“Is he still eating people?”

“No, the great warrior and taniwha slayer Ao-kehu killed him.”

“How?”

“He hid inside a hollow log…” Wiremu who was now thoroughly entranced began to speak again, stopping abruptly when the Auntie held up her hand…“He hid inside a hollow log, the taniwha smelt him and ate the log whole.  But, Ao-kehu was clever and had taken with him an axe which he used to chop first through the log and then through the taniwha eventually killing him.  Inside the stomach of the taniwha they found two hundred of his victims”.

“Eww!” went a collective noise from room six as they settled in for more.

The hour and half between morning tea and lunch sped by as the children were held enthralled by stories of taniwha, the good and the bad.  There were taniwha who could shape shift, there were taniwha who were sharks, whales, dolphins and giant reptiles and even some who were enchanted logs or rakau tipua.  There was some disbelief at the last but the Aunties told the story of Humuhumu the guardian of the Ngati Whatua in the Kaipara, he was a totara log drifting in a lagoon near the harbour.  

“But how do you know it’s a taniwha and not just some rotten old log?” Nine pairs of eyes widened in alarm – questioning the Aunties knowledge? Unheard of!

The three ageless women exchanged glances, “because Wiremu Collins, the log moved against the current and if it was not a taniwha how could it do that?” Faced with three pairs of eyebrows raised in a silent challenge, a red faced Wiremu had no answer.

Later, sitting on the hard asphalt of the playground eating warm sandwiches Wiremu’s mind began to wander, thoughts of taniwha filling his young head.

“Let’s go hunting for taniwha for real!” Wiremu’s words came out of the blue, as soon as he said it he knew it to be a good idea.  His mates looked at him, shook their heads and carried on eating their lunch.

 “After school, we head down to the bush and follow the track along the river.  I bet there is a taniwha down there somewhere.  We can pretend we are like the brave warriors from the olden days, it’ll be cool!”

“But Wiremu, what if we actually find one?” piped up one of the group.

Wiremu smiled, “It’ll be ok, remember what the Aunties said, not all taniwha are bad eh? And anyway Dad said they’re not real, just stories, come on…it’ll be awesome!”  Wiremu’s enthusiasm was infectious and soon there was mass showing of hands.

The decision made there was no going back and Wiremu felt his insides clench, part of him wanted to know what he was going to do if he actually found a taniwha and another part of him told him not to be stupid they were never going to find a taniwha because they were just stories – not real just like his dad said.

That afternoon as the going home bell jangled across the school, messages were sent home via brothers, sisters and cousins.  Walking out the school gates several curious adult eyes followed them, some smiled to see the kids off on an adventure, better then wasting time playing video games or watching the box. 

Afternoon sun filtered through the canopy, a bossy fantail followed them along the path flitting from tree to tree, grumpy at being disturbed.  The gurgle of the river calling them down the track to their destination.

 “Well Wiremu?  You’re the boss which way do we go? Up or down?”  Asked one of the would-be taniwha hunters once they arrived at the river.

Wiremu looked up the river and then down, he had no idea.  He closed his eyes.  At first all he could hear was the rush of the river, the wind in the tree tops and the calls of a tui, but then slowly he heard it, thump, thump.  A quiet heartbeat, he turned his head one way and then another – thump, thump.  Wiremu’s eyes flew open and walked off up river, the others scrambling to keep up.

“Hey wait!” yelled one of the others, but Wiremu had heard something and without stopping to think his feet followed the sound that resonated up through his soles.   

Eventually, little legs began to ache and puku’s rumbled as Wiremu’s relentless pace continued.  When the path became little more than a goat track, the merry band of would be warriors mutinied.  Wiremu however, was deaf to their pleas, his head filled with the stories of brave and clever warriors, the thump, thump, beneath his feet calling him forward.

“Wiremu!  Stop!” they shouted, to no avail.  This adventure was no longer fun. 

“Come on lets go back, Wiremu will be fine, it’s not like he’ll actually find a taniwha,” one of the others spoke up. 

The bush fringing the creek was dense and yet Wiremu carried on, unable to stop no matter how hard the bush tried to stop him.  Somewhere along the way he lost a shoe, kicking the other off when he realised.  The sharp stones on his bare feet not slowing him.  He knew he was close. 

Thump, thump, thump…

Eventually the bush stopped getting in his way and a smooth path opened up before him.  Wiremu’s feet stopped moving forward, his mind cleared and looking around for the first time he was suddenly very aware.  He was alone in the middle of the bush, probably miles from anywhere.  Where did everyone go?  His brothers had always said he was a dick.  Wiremu’s heart leapt in panic. 

Looking behind him he saw the dense bush and wondered how he had gotten through in the first place.  In front of him lay an easy path, smooth, wide and gentle on young feet. 

Come.

It wasn’t long before the path came to an end at the edge of a deep dark pool, the perfect place to find a taniwha.  Wiremu shivered.  The bush eerily silent, waiting, expecting.  Wiremu stood at the edge of the pool, his toes touching the cool water.  Looking at his reflection, he saw himself, a small scared boy, his chest heaving.

It is time.

Do taniwha eat people? Some do, some don’t the words of the Aunties echoed around Wiremu’s head.  How wrong was my dad, he thought as he watched mesmerised as the still pool began to churn.  The ground beneath his feet shook slightly, belatedly he realised that his brothers were right, he was a dick.  I am a dick for thinking I could hunt taniwha, I am a dick for not taking the stories of my whanau seriously and now I am a dick because I am about to be eaten by one of those stories.

The warm rancid breath of the taniwha tickled the back of Wiremu’s neck, inviting him to turn around.  Wiremu stood still as a stone gazing in terror at his reflection churning at his feet.

Turn, would be warrior, turn and gaze upon me, it is time.

Wiremu’s heart almost stopped.  Time for what?

The iridescent blue of a kingfisher fluttered past settling on a branch hanging over the pool. The kingfisher and Wiremu looked at each other, wisdom and knowledge in its small beady eyes, hope.  Words filled Wiremu’s mind. 

Ina te rua taniwha!

Pute ona karu

Murara te ohi!

Tau mai te po

Takina te whakaihi

Ki Rarohenga rawa iho

Moe ate Po

Te Po-nui

TePo-roa

Te Po riro atu ai e!

            Wiremu stumbled over the words, nothing happened, the pool still churned, he could almost feel the lick of a tongue. The kingfisher looked at him head cocked to one side, try again Wiremu, you can do better.   Deep breath, his eyes fixed on the bright blue bird, he repeated the words again, stronger, louder.  As he finished, the churning pool subsided, the warmth at his back eased.  Wiremu began to breathe once more.     

“Thank you.”

            The kingfisher flew to another branch, Wiremu’s eyes followed.  There, below the kingfisher a stepping stone path to the other side of the pool.  He didn’t need to be told twice, crossing quickly with wings on his feet he scrambled up the bank on the far side of the pool.  As he reached the top, he glanced over his shoulder amazed that all was still and quiet again.  It could have been a dream, but it wasn’t.  With a shudder he turned his back on the dark pool – time to go home.

            Three ageless ladies stood watching, silent witnesses.  The words of the karakia still echoed around the pool.  Today had been a close call.  They had seen it in his face at the school.  He was the one.  But not on this day.

            Soon though.  Very soon indeed.

Here be dragons

Taniwha in Maori Myth

Regardless of where you go in the world and what culture you study, stories of dragons are a recurring theme within the stories of any given people. Dragons abound everywhere and every time, even in our modern and increasingly sceptical world the desire to believe is still strong.  Take the stories of the Loch Ness monster or the giant serpents of the Hudson River and other similar creatures that periodically pop up all over the world. The Maori are no different, they too have their myths and traditions involving dragons, of a sort, called taniwha, who are intimately connected with the natural world.

Early drawing of waka – the double hulled waka were most likely to have been used for long sea journeys. (From Rotorua Museum, Wikicommons)

Taniwha are in essence supernatural creatures which can appear in different forms, one of which is dragon-like giant lizard, but they can also resemble sharks, dolphins, whales or even in some instances enchanted logs.  They can be the agents of good or evil and sometimes neither.  Every region of New Zealand has a host of stories about their local taniwha, many of whom came with the first explorers acting as guardians and protectors.  Some are special people who have been turned into taniwha upon their death and others are of unknown origin.

The Maori are descended from the first Polynesian explorers who arrived in the land we now know of as New Zealand approximately eight hundred years ago (give or take a few hundred years…) and there are often similarities in the myths from certain parts of the Pacific, such as the Cook Islands and Society Islands. However, the taniwha of Maori tradition have evolved as a result of the unique environment these early explorers found themselves in. New Zealand’s environment is very different from the island worlds they would have come from. It is after all a much larger world of mountains, deep forests with giant trees, fast flowing rivers and wild coasts.  Even today a person walking in the bush can come across areas, secret places where you feel it would not pay to tarry.

In Maori tradition the first people to arrive came on large seagoing waka and many of the early stories relate to these ancestors and how they adjusted to their new land. In the traditions the waka would be accompanied by a taniwha who would be its protector, such as, Kupe’s taniwha, Tuhirangi or the female taniwha Araiteuru who came with the waka Mamari.  Though there are some traditions which say she travelled with the waka Takitimu and another taniwha called Ruamono.

In the year 2000 New Zealand Post put out a series of stamps to celebrate the year of the Dragon; Araiteuru and Tuhirangi were part of this.

Araiteuru gave birth to eleven sons on arrival in New Zealand, who all went digging trenches along the way, thus creating the numerous branches of the Hokianga Harbour.  It is said that Lake Omapere was created when one of her sons burrowed inland and thrashed his tail around.  As guardian of the Hokianga Harbour Araiteuru dwells in a cave at the south head of the harbour, whilst her companion, Niua, lives in the north head of the harbour.

The taniwha Tuhirangi is said to dwell in the Cook Strait where Kupe left him to guide and protect waka as they crossed between the two islands.  Between 1888 and 1912 a Rissos dolphin named Pelorus Jack accompanied ships travelling between the North and South Islands.  At the time, local Maori believed this was the taniwha Tuhirangi in the form of a dolphin, guiding and protecting ships in this dangerous stretch of water.  A number of years later in the summer of 1955/56 another friendly dolphin appeared, but this time at Opononi in the far north of the North Island.  Nicknamed Opo, the dolphin would play and interact with visitors and many Maori believed Opo to be a guardian taniwha.

A grainy photo taken in 1911 of Pelorus Jack/Tuhirangi.

Tuhirangi and Araiteuru were part of a trio of important taniwha, the third member of this group was a female called Huriawa.  Her home is Te Waikoropupr Springs, Golden Bay. She is regarded as brave and wise, travelling through the earth to clear blocked waterways.  The springs which are her home are regarded as the purest form of water which both the spiritual and physical source of life.  The water is often used for healing and in blessing ceremonies.

Another taniwha which accompanied the ancestral waka of the Tainui from Hawaikii was the whale Paneiraira.  His name means ‘spotted head’ referring to his appearance.  He was last seen in 1863 just before the war broke out between the Maori and the newly arrived Europeans.  It is said he came to warn his people of impending disaster. 

In the story of Pania and Karitoki, their son (Moremore) became a taniwha when his father attempted a ritual to keep his mother form returning to the sea people and failed.  Moremore is a guardian, or Kaitiaki, of the harbour at Te Whanga-nui-a-Orutu.  He appears in different forms, as a shark, an octopus and sometimes a log.  Patrolling the harbour, he would protect the people from danger while they gathered seafood and fished.

A statue of Pania on the Napier seafront.

An important aspect of the people’s relationship with taniwha was acknowledgement by making the necessary offerings or appropriate chants.  The local tohunga might off the first kumara to be harvested or the first birds to be caught in the season.  Travellers when passing by a known lair might make an offering of a green twig whilst reciting a chant.  In 2002, the Ngati Nohu (a hapu of the Waikato area) objected to the construction of part of a highway on the basis it would destroy the lair of their taniwha, Karutahi.  After much discussion and to the satisfaction of the elders, the transport agency agreed to reroute the highway to avoid the lair. 

One of the more unusual forms a taniwha can take it that of a log.  In order to identify the taniwha you would be looking for a log that did behave in the manner of regular log, known as Rakau tipua.  On Lake Rotoiti the taniwha Mataura would appear on the water as a huge tree trunk with numerous branches and covered in water weed, particularly on the death of a high-ranking person. When visiting the Kaipara Harbour watch out for a log moving against the current.  It is believed to be the taniwha Humuhumu, the guardian of the Ngati Whatua. 

Other taniwha can take a myriad of forms, some can be a strange conglomeration of creatures – native lizards such as the gecko or tuatara feature strongly as do bat wings, shark teeth and octopus tentacles.

A modern rock carving of a taniwha on the shore of Lake Taupo – here their lizard like appearance is emphasised.

So far, we have only looked at those taniwha who are kaitiaki, but not all have good intentions.  Some may have begun this way, as guardians of the people, but it only takes one mistake and the taniwha can turn on the people.

“Because of their role as guardians they watched vigilantly to ensure that the people respected the tapu restrictions imposed upon them, and any violation of tapu was sure to be punished. They were usually held responsible for deaths by drowning; the person must have insulted the taniwha by breaking tapu in some way” (Orbell M. 1995)

 In December 1876, a news article in a Maori language paper told of four young girls who went swimming in a waterhole at Waipapa.  Local tradition knew this place to be the lair of the taniwha Taminamina.  One of the girls swam to the far side of the waterhole where she climbed up onto a rock and started to drink the nectar of the red flowers of the sacred Rata tree. Without warning, the girl slipped into the water, one of the other girls tried to save her but failed.  The water began to froth and swirl and the girls believed it was the taniwha.  The elders were of the firm belief that the girl was punished for breaking tapu and drinking the nectar of the sacred Rata.

Southern Rata near Franz Joseph Glacier (Photo by Graham Rabbitts wikicommons)

In 1955, a photograph was taken on the Whanganui River.  It depicts a swirling mass in the middle of the river and the inscription on the back of the photo reads:

“On many occasions a large flow of water gushes up from the head of the Wanganui river below the bluff of Buckthaughts Redoubt, just past the village of Upokongaro. This phenomenon is accompanied by a loud bubbling noise and small pieces of waterlogged wood and debris are brought to the surface. Few people have ever seen this occurrence and this photograph was taken in 1955 by one of a party of Wellington visitors camping at Mosquito point.”

In another story the guardian (Takere-piripiri) of Otautahonga Pa, a hillfort of the Ngati Raukawa would have offerings of food left below his cave.  One day a gift of eels was mostly eaten by the people who had brought it.  This angered the taniwha and he ate the people instead, unfortunately this gave him a taste for human flesh and he left the pa and went to the mountains where he would prey upon travellers. 

There were though taniwha who were just plain nasty, such as Ngarara Huarau from the Hawkes Bay who just liked to eat people and then there were the taniwha who liked to kidnap beautiful young women to keep as wives.

However, not all is lost because where there is a threat to the people there will always be heroes.  In this case warriors who used their strength and cunning to defeat the taniwha and protect the people. Pitaka, Tamure, Potoru and Ao-Kehu were all famous warriors known for their prowess in defeating taniwha. Tamure had a special mere (greenstone club) which had the power to defeat taniwha.  He is well known for defeating the taniwha at Piha who had a taste for people.  Interestingly, he did not kill this taniwha but wounded it enough that it could not eat people.  The warrior Ao-Kehu hid himself in a hollow log with a shark tooth club and when the taniwha smelt him he swallowed the log whole. Ao-Kehu then hacked his way out of the log and out of the taniwha killing it in the process.

Photo of a drawing of an unknown Maori warrior by Sydney Parkinson (photo by Szilas at the Canterbury Museum Christchurch)

The earliest stories are those connected with the arrival of the first waka.  These stories or traditions are in the style of creation myths adapted to the local landscape.  Hence, many taniwha are responsible for the sinuous rivers, the many inlets in a harbour or in the case of the Porirua taniwha, Awaru, the flat appearance of Mana Island which she crashed into as she was learning to fly. 

Others are stories which serve to identify valuable resources and offer a means of protection of those resources.  Then there are those which all societies have; sagas that glorify desirable human qualities.  For the Maori, the great warriors used both their minds and their strength to defeat the undesirable taniwha. 

The traditions of taniwha are often complex narratives which serve to enforce what was considered acceptable behaviour within an iwi/hapu (tribe/subtribe), whilst at the same time providing reassurance to the people – reasons for why certain events happened.  If a group of travellers went missing in the mountains, the most likely reason was that they did not make the right offerings and were eaten by the taniwha.  Even today the New Zealand bush is not a place for an inexperienced hiker, accidents can and do happen.  Rivers and lakes are deep and full of hazards, drownings are a far too common event, landslides and earthquakes are a regular occurrence.  We are all familiar with the sense of helplessness, the feelings of not being in control.  Attributing such events to the taniwha, a creature you can placate with offerings, or in some cases can hunt and kill, helps to explain such events and at the same time offers a way to take control once more of their world.

Ureia, a kaitiaki taniwha – carved on a poupou (house post) inside Hotuni, a carved meeting house of the Ngati Maru. The building can now be found inside the Auckland War Memorial Museum.

Myths and Colonisation of the Pacific.

This article was originally written several years ago for the ‘Mythology Magazine’ which is now defunct. My intention when writing this was to look at some of the myths and legends associated with the colonisation of the Pacific so please do bear in mind this is not an academic treatise on this subject (that is a far too large a subject for a simple blog…).

The islands of the Pacific Ocean were one of the last places in the world to be colonised by people.  The how, when and why has occupied archaeologists, anthropologists, linguists and historian for decades.  For the European scientist these questions need to be answered with solid evidence backing them.  For the indigenous populations tradition told them all they needed to know, the myths and legends providing all that was needed by the way of explanation. 

Map of Oceania

New Zealand, Hawaii and Easter Island were the last landmasses to be colonised in the Pacific.  These first peoples were at the end of a long line of ancestors whose collective knowledge fuelled their ability and desire to travel across vast tracts of ocean.  The Pacific region is made up of three distinct areas – Melanesia, Micronesia and Polynesia.  The first area to have been settled by people was Melanesia; it consists of Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea, Fiji, the Solomon Islands, the Bismarck Archipelago and New Caledonia.  Dates for the first colonisation range between some 50-30,000 years ago their ancestors originating from South East Asia.  Micronesia is situated north of the Melanesian group and is made up of groups of islands including Kiribati, Nauru, Marshall Islands (to name a few) and the US territories of Guam, Northern Mariana Island and Wake Island.  Evidence for the settlement of this region is difficult to pin down; the earliest archaeological evidence comes from the island of Saipan and is dated to around 3500 years ago.  The third group of islands is Polynesia which covers a wide part of the Pacific.  Generally speaking New Zealand, Hawaii and Easter Island form the corners of a triangle within which all other islands sit and are referred to as Polynesia.

The ancestors of the Polynesians migrated from South East Asia a little later than the settlers of Micronesia, passing through some parts of Micronesia and Melanesia, but rarely settling for long.  Fiji is an interesting case, as in many ways it straddles the line between Melanesia and Polynesia.  When the ancestors of the Polynesians arrived in Fiji there was already a decent sized population and had been for millennia.  Yet today the visitor to Fiji will see a multitude of faces, some are distinctly Melanesian looking (mainly in the eastern islands) and others look more Polynesian.  Fiji in many ways was a jumping off point for the exploration further west, the next islands to be settled were Samoa and Tonga, both of which are not a great distance from Fiji.  These early explorers are known as Lapita people based on a distinctive type of pottery found on the archaeological sites.

The distinctive pottery of the Lapita Culture – this is a plaster reproduction photo courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

“All island groups in island Melanesia and West Polynesia that lie in a south-east direction have Lapita settlements.  None of these settlements have been found on other islands.” (G. Irwin. Pacific Migrations – ancient voyaging in Near Oceania. Te Ara: The Encylcopedia of New Zealand.) 

These people were exploring the region from as early as 3500 years ago (evidence found at the Bismarcks) and by 3000 years ago were already as far as Samoa and Tonga.  The archaeology tells us these were small groups who travelled fast and light, they established only a few permanent villages on each major island group and then they moved on.  At this time the distinctive Polynesian culture began to emerge in the west and by 2000 years ago people had begun to move into the eastern part of the region.  By 700AD the majority of Polynesia had been settled with the last migrations being to New Zealand, Hawaii, Easter Island and South America (the only evidence for South America is the presence of the ‘kumara’ or sweet potato, radiocarbon dates from kumara found in the Cook Islands indicate that Polynesians had reached South America and returned by 1000AD at the latest).

Kumara (or sweet potato) a staple food source.

All well and good you might say, but what has this to do with the mythology of the region?  To study the past of this region it is important to not only use all those scientific tools we have at our disposal but also use the traditional knowledge, stories and myths to provide a greater depth of understanding.  In Polynesia there are many stories which have a commonality suggesting a shared ancestry.

In much of eastern Polynesia Hawaiki (the Maori name) does not refer to the islands we know as Hawaii but to a mythical land where the ancestors journeyed from – an ancient homeland.  In New Zealand nearly all the Maori have traditions of such a voyage, in the Marquesas it called Havai’i, in the Tuamotus it is Havaiki and in the Cook Islands the ancient homeland is referred to as Avaiki.  Not only is Hawaiki the ancient homeland but it is also a place where a persons spirit would go after death.  The main island of the Hawaii group is so named because it is the site of two volcanoes which were regarded as a place of great supernatural importance and the home of the gods.  Similarly the island of Ra’iatea in the Society Islands was previously known as Havai’i and it too has a volcano on it (albeit a extinct one) believed to be the entrance to the underworld and the home of the gods.

In Maori myth Hawaiki is in the east – the direction of the rising sun and the stars which bring the changing seasons.  Thus it is not surprising that Hawaiki was associated with life, fertility and success.  It is said that the first human life was created from the soil of Hawaiki by Tane (or sometimes Tiki).  It is the place of highly valued resources such as the kumara which is said to grow wild there – this is interesting in itself because if you travel directly eastwards from New Zealand you will (eventually) land in South America, the homeland of the sweet potato.

“When the ancestors arrived in their waka, they brought with them many treasured plants and birds, also important atua and ritual objects such as mauri.  In one way and another, Hawaiki was the ultimate source of the mana of all these.  The crops flourished, the gods exerted their powers, the mauri ensured continuing fertility of the resources they protected, because of their origin in Hawaiki.” (M.Orbell 1995 Maori Myth and Legend)

The veneration of the east – many rituals are conducted facing east – is unusual for Polynesia and has led some to make the dubious suggestion that New Zealand was settled by people from South America.  More recent studies have demonstrated that the first voyagers would have taken a south-west trajectory from either the Cook Islands or the Society Islands in order to land on the east coast of New Zealand.  Over time it would seem this navigational knowledge was amalgamated with the traditions of an ancient homeland.

In other parts of eastern Polynesia Hawaiki is in the west or sometimes even in the sky and in western Polynesia it is called by another name – Pulotu, a word that can be linguistically traced into Micronesia.  It is interesting to note that the largest island that forms part of Samoa (western Polynesia) is called Savai’i and is a land associated in tradition with many supernatural goings on.  Hawaiki was not only the land where the ancestors came from but also a place of spirits, a place where the myths came into being.

As time went on many of these stories would become absorb into local tradition with familiar places becoming the setting to the story.  Thus the story of Maui who fished up the islands can be found everywhere in Polynesia.  In New Zealand it is said that the North Island was a giant stingray fished up out of the sea by Maui using his magic hook (the hills and valleys of the land are a result of his brothers greed when they hacked at the fish). On the tiny atolls of Manikihi and Rakahanga it is believed that these islands are all that remains of a single land which broke apart when Maui leapt from it into the heavens.  In Hawaii tradition tells of the islands being a shoal of fish and how Maui enlists the help of Hina-the-bailer to bring the shoal together with his magic hook to form one mass.  Maui hauled on the line, instructing his brothers to row without looking back, which of course they did, this resulted in the line breaking and the islands become separated for all time.   In the Tuamotaus Maui and his brothers are once more fishing far from land, once more he has a magic hook and once more he pulls up an island but because his brothers did not listen to Maui the giant fish/island broke apart and became the land the Tuamotua people refer to as Havaiki, where Maui and his family reside.

Fish hooks represented more than just a means of procuring fish, they also had a symbolic meaning and it is possible that some of the larger more ornate types were representative of the ancestral stories.

Maui is one of the most well known of Polynesian deities, found in the stories throughout the region he is often known as a trickster, part god and part human.  He was of a time when the world was still new and there much to do to make it bearable for people.  Maui is said to be responsible for raising the skies, snaring the sun, fishing up lands, stealing fire, controlling the winds and arranging the stars.  On the island of Yap in Micronesia a demi-god figure called Mathikethik went fishing with his two elder brothers, he also had a magic hook and on his first cast brought up all sorts of crops, in particular taro, an island staple.  On his second cast he brought up the island of Fais.  The similarities here with Polynesian Maui are obvious and once again we can get a tantalising glimpse of past movements of people.

Other characters common to the stories of the Polynesia from Samoa in the west to Hawaii in the east include Hina, said to be both the first woman and a goddess who is the guardian of the land of the dead; Tinirau whose pet whale was murdered by Kae; Tawhaki who visited the sky and Rata whose canoe was built by the little people of the forest and was a great voyager and Whakatau the great warrior. 

“…on every island the poets, priests and narrators drew from the same deep well of mythological past which the Polynesians themselves call the The Night of Tradition.  For when their ancestors moved out from the Polynesian nucleus they carried with them the the knowledge of the same great mythological events, the names of their gods and of their many demi-gods and heroes.  As time passed the Polynesian imagination elaborated and adapted old themes to suit fresh settings, and new characters and events were absorbed into the mythological system.” (R. Poignant 1985 Oceanic and Australasian Mythology).

Of course none of this addresses the question of why.  Why did the first people leave their homelands and explore into the vast ocean, particularly to places like New Zealand, South America, Easter Island and Hawaii?  What motivated them?  The myths do in some way suggest possible reasons, these are stories people would have heard over and over again as they grew into adulthood.  Stories of great adventurers, of those who dared to do the impossible and it does seem that much of the early migration was a result of simple human curiosity.  Prestige and mana could be gained by person willing to find new lands.  In the places they originally came from there was no food shortage and in some instances even once they had discovered a new island, they would move on leaving but only a small population behind.  In the traditions there are also stories told of people being banished and having to find new places to live, in addition there are stories of battles lost and people fleeing retribution.  These too could well be another window into the motivation behind Oceanic migration. 

Ocean going craft as suggested in “The History of Mankind” (1896)

On their own the mythologies of the Pacific cannot provide us with more than a unique insight into the mindset of the peoples considered to be some of the greatest explorers of the past but when combined with genetics, linguistics and archaeology it gives us the ability to answer those questions of how, when and why.

Sources

Irwin G (2012) ‘Pacific Migrations – Ancient Voyaging in Near Oceania’ Te Ara: The Enclyclopedia of New Zealand.

Ratzel F & Butler A J (1869) History of Mankind

Poignant R (1985) Oceanic and Australasian Mythology

Orbell M (1996) Maori Myth and Legend