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Browse the 1966 Encyclopaedia of New Zealand
Graphic: An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand 1966.


This information was published in 1966 in An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, edited by A. H. McLintock. It has not been corrected and will not be updated.

Up-to-date information can be found elsewhere in Te Ara.



Myths and Traditions

It is useful to divide all Maori legends into two categories, namely, myths and traditions. Myths are set in the remote past and contain a large element of the marvellous. They embody Maori beliefs about the creation of the universe and the genesis of gods and of men. Natural phenomena, the weather, the stars and the moon, the fish that swim in the sea, the birds that fly in the forest, and the forests themselves are all accounted for in the mythology. Much, therefore, of the institutionalised behaviour of the people found its sanctions in myth. The spells, ritual, and dogma of the magico-religious system and the world view of Maori society were ultimately based on the elaborate mythology inherited from a Polynesian homeland and modified and developed in a new environment. Perhaps the most distinctive feature of myth, as distinct from tradition, is its universality. Each of the major myths is known in some version not only throughout New Zealand but also over much of Polynesia as well.

Traditions, as opposed to myths, tell of incidents which are for the most part humanly possible. Genealogical links with the present place them within the past millenium. They are geographically located in New Zealand and knowledge of them is confined to this country. Many scholars believe that Maori traditions are basically factual accounts of historical events.

Next Part: MYTHS