Māori mythology

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The six main Māori gods, symbolized by wooden pegs: Tūmatauenga, Tāwhirimātea, Tāne, Tangaroa, Rongo, and Haumia (from left to right)

Māori mythology and Māori traditions are the terms with which the myths, legends and stories of the Māori of New Zealand can be meaningfully described. The rituals , beliefs and worldviews of the Māori culture are based on a very differentiated mythology that wasinheritedfrom Polynesian origins and further developed in the new environment in New Zealand.

In the mythology of the Māori , the divine parents Rangi and Papa (heaven and earth) play an essential role, from whom other gods and descendants descend, who in turn produced all living beings and who are responsible for forests, the sea, birds, fish, etc.

In contrast to the myths, the “traditions tell of events that could have happened mostly like this. Genealogy places this in a time span no further back than a millennium. Geographically, they all took place in New Zealand itself, and general knowledge is limited to that country. "

A very important point in the traditions is the origin of the Māori from Hawaiki and that of their canoes ( waka ), in which they immigrated to Aotearoa (New Zealand) centuries ago .

19th century sources


In the early days after the arrival of European settlers, little of the very extensive Māori mythology was recorded. Missionaries still had the best possible ways to gather information, but they failed to do so, probably because their Māori language skills were insufficient. In addition, the Māori faith was not right for the missionaries, they viewed it as childish or even the work of the devil. Exceptions were JF Wohlers of the South Island , Richard Taylor , who worked in the Taranaki region and along the Whanganui River , and William Colenso , who lived in the Bay of Islands and Hawke's Bay . "The records of these men are sometimes the best sources for the legends of the areas in which they worked".


In the 1840s Edward Shortland , George Edward Gray , and others who were not missionaries began to record the myths and lore of the Māori . At that time, many Māori were already able to read and write, and the material was written down in the same style as it was orally transmitted or described by the Māori . The new medium of writing initially seemed to have little influence on style and content. Traditions, songs, and narratives were fully documented as if they had just been reported or sung. Many of these early manuscripts were published, and today many scholars have access to this material, which is more extensive than comparable other regions of the Pacific, where there are many myths and lore in similar versions (besides New Zealand-specific ones). The best collections today are two books: Nga Mahi a nga Tupuna ( Ancestral Documents), collected by Sir George Gray and translated as Polynesian Mythology ; and Ancient History of the Māori (six volumes), edited by John White.

Lecture forms

The three most prominent (oral) forms of expression of the Māori and Polynesians are the stories, poems and songs about the ancestors.

Ancestral songs

The reading of family trees and genealogy ( Whakapapa ) was very well developed in the oral literature of the Māori . This served to report on a kind of time table all myths, traditions and the history of the Māori , from the distant past to the present. It connected the people of today with the gods and heroes. By quoting certain genealogical lines, the narrator emphasized his own connection with the characters of that line, and his right to speak about these gods and heroes. "In cosmogonic genealogy, telling the tribal lines at first seems like listing names and, on closer inspection, it turns out to be a true form of literature that describes an outline of the development of the universe."

The poem

Māori poems were always sung or performed in a rhythmic speaking choir. Rhymes or half rhymes were not stylistic devices; the rhythm was only recognizable when a text was sung or chorally performed. The language was stylistically different from that of the stories. Typical features of the poems are the frequent use of synonyms or contrasting opposites and the frequent repetition of certain key words. “Original words are common, including words that have lost their original meaning and acquired religious-mystical meaning. Abbreviated, cryptic forms of expression and the use of certain grammatical constructions, which are not found in the narrative form, are common. "

Stories / prose

Tales make up the majority of the material in the Māori legends. Some seem sacred or mysterious, but most of the legends are stories for entertainment on long winter evenings. “Still, they shouldn't be viewed as simple fairy tales and stories. The legend of Māui, for example, was not only important for entertainment, but embodied people's beliefs about the origin of fire, death and the land in which they lived. The ritual chorals about making fire, fishing, death etc. related to Māui and got their power from this reference. "


Detail of a tāhūhū (ridge beam), Ngāti Awa, Bay of Plenty, New Zealand, circa 1840. Presumably depicting one of the two ancestors Tūwharetoa or Kahungunu.

Myths go back a long way and deal with the superhuman. They show the ideas of the Māori about the origin of the universe and the origin of gods and humans. Mythology explains natural phenomena such as the weather, moon and stars, fish in the sea, birds in the forest and the forests themselves. Culturally based behavior is explained by these models and the limits as shown in the myths. “Perhaps the most outstanding feature of myths, along with their ancient tradition, is their universality. Each of the important myths is known in one form or another not only in New Zealand, but in almost all of Polynesia . "

The Māori understanding of the evolution of the universe was expressed in the genealogical form described above. These genealogies may come in many versions, but the key points are consistently found. “Evolution may be compared to a series of sections of darkness (pō) or emptiness (kore), counted individually or separated from one another by supplementary details. Sometimes a phase of darkness is followed by a phase of light (ao). In other versions the evolution of the universe is compared to a tree, with its roots, trunk, branches and branches. Then again evolution is compared like the development of a child in the womb, with the steps “the search, the exploration, the fertilization, the growth, the feeling, the thoughts, the soul, the wish, the knowledge, the appearance, the further development. "Some or all of these topics can appear in the same."

Rangi and Papa

The cosmological origin story usually begins with Rangi and Papa (Father Heaven and Mother Earth). The union of this heavenly couple brought forth the gods and further all living beings on earth.

The earliest documented report of the origin of the gods and the first people in a manuscript called Nga Tama a Rangi held (The Sons of Heaven), written in 1849 by Wi Maihi Te Rangikāheke , of the tribe ( iwi ) of Ngāti Rangiwewehi from Rotorua . The manuscript "shows a clear and systematic account of the Māori religion and beliefs about the origin of many natural phenomena, the creation of women, the origin of death, and land seizure." No other version of these myths is as coherent and systematic in itself. But all early reports, from whatever region or from whatever tribe, confirm the general validity of the Rangikāheke version. It begins like this: “My friends, listen to me. The Māori people share a common origin called 'great-heaven-that-stands-alone-and-earth-under-lies.' For Europeans, God created heaven and earth and all things in them. For the Māori , heaven and earth themselves were the origin. "

The essential Māori myths

The Māori mythology is divided into three cycles:


“Each Māori group has its own components of traditional belief, from which territorial claims can be derived or the higher rankings give their authority or define the demarcation from other groups or tribes. Māori assumed that their traditions were of real origin and acted accordingly. Alliances were formed when it was believed that they had common ancestors. The respect for tribal chiefs was based at least in part on belief in the divine or semi-divine ancestors of the superior. "

“In contrast to myths, traditions tell of incidents that mostly could have happened that way. Genealogy places this in a time span no further back than a millennium. Geographically, they all took place in New Zealand itself, and general knowledge is limited to that country. "

The main Māori traditions

There are three very important traditions:

1st and 2nd traditions for the discovery of New Zealand

There are two traditions about the discovery of New Zealand. One of these traditions mentions Kupe as the discoverer. The second group refers to Toi as the first important ancestor. “Both traditions exist in parallel in different regions of the North Island. Attempts to put both in chronological order fail; there is no reliable evidence that would make it possible to relate these traditions to the same story. "

  • Kupe : According to the tribes north of Auckland and the west coast of the North Island, Kupe sailed from Hawaiki to New Zealand after previously murdering a man named Hoturapa and escaping with his wife, Kuramarotini . Traditional songs describe his journey along the coast of New Zealand. Kupe later sailed back and never came back to the country he discovered. Others, however, set out on the journey according to his directions.
  • Toi (Toi-kai-rākau, or Toi-der-Holzesser) is in the traditions of the east coast of the North Island the ancestor of the tribes there. Their traditions say nothing about his arrival in New Zealand, and the conclusion is that he must have been born in New Zealand. The Tūhoe tribe in the hinterland of the Bay of Plenty say that Toi's ancestor was Tiwakawaka, who first colonized the country, "but only his name is remembered of him." Tiwakawaka is the name of a bird, the gray fan tail .

3. Lore about immigration and settlement of New Zealand

There are numerous traditions about the immigration of the Māori with their waka (canoes) and each area or tribe refers to a specific canoe. Māori introduce themselves among other features, including naming their tribe and canoe. “Certain tribes emphasize their origins from canoe crews more, others less. This is particularly emphasized by the tribes from Hauraki , Waikato , and the King Country tribes ( Tainui Waka ) and the tribes from Rotorua and Taupo ( Te Arawa -Kanu). "

Regional differences

Each group, whether a tribe or part of a tribe, developed its own traditional traditions and customs in detail, but these generally always dealt with "great battles and great men". The stories are linked to one another via the shared genealogy and, in accordance with the Māori tradition, represent a total work of art.

See also


  • E. Best: Tuhoe, the Children of the Mist , fourth edition. 2 volumes. First published 1925 (Reed: Auckland), 1996.
  • Bruce Grandison Bigg: Maori Myths and Traditions . In: Alexander Hare McLintock (Ed.): An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand . Wellington 1966, p. 447–454 (English, online and 4 following pages [accessed December 15, 2015]).
  • G. Gray: Polynesian Mythology , Illustrated edition, reprinted 1976. Whitcombe and Tombs, Christchurch 1956.
  • G. Gray: Nga Mahi a Nga Tupuna , fourth edition. First published 1854. Reed, Wellington 1971.
  • TR Hiroa (Sir Peter Buck): The Coming of the Maori . Second edition. First Published 1949. Whitcombe and Tombs, Wellington 1974.
  • C. Tremewan: Traditional Stories from Southern New Zealand: He Kōrero nō Te Wai Pounamu . Macmillan Brown Center for Pacific Studies, Christchurch 2002.
  • J. White: The Ancient History of the Maori , 6 volumes. Government Printer, Wellington 1887-1891.

References and comments

  1. a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q Bigg: Maori Myths and Traditions . In: An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand . 1966.
  2. Wohler's work can be found in Christine Tremewan's Traditional Stories from Southern New Zealand: He Kōrero nō Te Wai Pounamu , 2002.
  3. Later scholars have critically discussed the revisions of these early recorders, especially Gray.
  4. Gray published a revised version of the Te Rangikāheke story Nga Mahi a Nga Tupuna , and translated it into English as Polynesian Mythology . Gray 1971 and Gray 1956 are later editions of this early work.