Sources for Maori legends
Note: The spellings and use of accents in the Maori words in this article are adopted at the special request of the author – Ed.
In the early years of European contact little was learned of the extensive body of Maori mythology and tradition. The missionaries, who were in the best position to get information, failed to do so at first, partly because their knowledge of the language was imperfect. Even when they had mastered Maori only a few of them acquired any great knowledge of legendary material, for most missionaries were known to be unsympathetic to Maori beliefs and to have little interest in what were to them at best “puerile beliefs”, and at worst “works of the devil”. Notable exceptions to the general rule were Richard Taylor, who worked in the Taranaki and Wanganui River areas, J. F. Wohlers of the South Island, and William Colenso who had lived both at the Bay of Islands and in Hawke's Bay. The writings of these men are among our best sources for the legends of the areas in which they worked.
In the 1840s Sir George Grey, Edward Short-land, and other non-missionaries were collecting myths and traditions. By that time many Maoris were literate in their own language and the material collected was, for the most part, written by Maoris themselves. These scribes wrote as they spoke. The new medium seems to have had little effect on the style or content of the narratives. Genealogies, song texts, and stories were written out in full, exactly as they were recited or sung. Many of these early manuscripts were published, and today the folklorist has access to a great body of material (more than for any other area of the Pacific) containing many versions of the great myth complexes of Polynesia, as well as of more localised traditions found only in New Zealand. Much of the best material is found in two books, Nga Mahi a nga Tupuna (The Deeds of the Ancestors), collected by Sir George Grey, and Ancient History of the Maori (six volumes), edited by John White.