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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.




The main body of Maori mythology is contained in three story complexes. They are, first, the cosmo-gonic genealogies and the stories concerning the genesis of gods and men; secondly, the Maui myths; and, thirdly, the Tawhaki myth.

The Cosmogonic Genealogies

Maori beliefs about the evolution of the universe were embodied in genealogical form. There are many versions of these genealogies, and a number of symbolic themes recur constantly. Evolution may be likened to a series of periods of darkness (po) or voids (kore), each numbered in sequence or qualified by some descriptive term. In some cases the periods of darkness are succeeded by periods of light (ao). In other versions the evolution of the universe is likened to a tree, with its base, tap roots, branching roots, and root hairs. Another theme likens evolution to the development of a child in the womb, as in the sequence “the seeking, the searching, the conception, the growth, the feeling, the thought, the mind, the desire, the knowledge, the form, the quickening”. Some, or all, of these themes may appear in the same genealogy.

Most versions of the cosmogonic genealogy culminate in the two names Rangi (sky) and Papa (earth). The marriage of these two produced the gods and, ultimately, all life on earth.

The Sons of Heaven

The earliest comprehensive account we have of the genesis of gods and the first men is contained in a remarkable manuscript entitled Nga Tama a Rangi (The Sons of Heaven). Written in 1849 by Wii Maihi Te Rangi-kaheke, of the Ngati Rangi-wewehi tribe of Rotorua, the document gives a clear and systematic account of Maori religious beliefs and beliefs about the origin of many natural phenomena, the creation of woman, the origin of death, and the fishing up of lands. No other version of this myth is presented in such a connected and systematic way, but all early accounts, from whatever area or tribe, confirm the general validity of the Rangi-kaheke version. It begins as follows: “My friends, listen to me. The Maori people stem from only one source, namely the Great-heaven-which-stands-above, and the Earth-which-lies-below. According to Europeans God made heaven and earth and all things. According to the Maori, Heaven (Rangi) and Earth (Papa) are themselves the source”.

Rangi and Papa were husband and wife, pressed in close embrace. Their many sons crouched in darkness in the hollow between their parents bodies. And they thought a great thought, which was to kill their parents. But one of the sons, Tawhiri-matea, god of wind and storm, felt pity for his parents and argued that they should not be killed, but only separated. One by one, Rongo-ma-tane (kumara-god), Tangaroa (ocean-god), Haumia-tiketike (fern-root god) and Tu-matauenga (god of man and of war) tried to separate the sky-father and the earth-mother. But they all failed. Then Tane-mahuta (forest-god) lay on his back and, pressing upwards with his feet and taking no pity on the lamentations of his parents, he forced them apart, until one was far above and the other was far below. Now at last were seen the great numbers of men who had been hidden between the bodies of the primal parents.

Tawhiri-the-storm, angered by his brothers' treatment of their mother and father, flew off to join Rangi, and there carefully fostered his own many offspring, who included the winds, one of whom was sent to each quarter of the compass. Also among his children were Hurricane, Storm-cloud, Flashing-cloud, and many others. When they moved abroad the dust flew, and the great forest trees of Tane broke off short under the attack and fell to the ground, food for decay.

Rongo and Haumia were in great fear of Tawhiri, but as he attacked them, the earth mother reached out and drew them to the safety of her bosom, and Tawhiri searched for them in vain. So he turned his rage against Tu-matauenga, and attacked with all his force. But it was as nothing to Tu-the-man. He alone was able to stand against Tawhiri when all the other brothers had fled.

And when finally Tawhiri's anger was abated, Tu became angry in his turn and decided to attack his brothers because of their cowardice. First he attacked Tane-of-the-forest, felling his trees and trapping, spearing, and eating his birds; then he wove nets from forest plants and cast them in the sea, so that the children of Tangaroa soon lay in heaps on the shore; he sought Rongo-the-kumara and Haumia-the-fern-root where they had hidden from Tawhiri in the bosom of the earth mother, and recognising them by their long hair which remained above the surface of the earth, he dragged them forth and ate them. So Tu-the-man eats all of his brothers to pay them out for their cowardice when he alone had the courage to stand against Tawhiri.

The First Woman

All of the children of Heaven and Earth were males. It was Tane who first felt desire and began to search for a wife. His mother instructed him in fashioning a female form from red earth. Then Tane breathed life into Hine-hauonè, the earth-formed-maid, and mated with her. Their child was Hine-ata-uira, maid-of-the-flashing-dawn (alias Hine-titama), and Tane also took her to wife.

One day, while Tane was absent, Hine began to wonder who her father was. She was disgusted and ashamed when she heard that her husband was also her father, and she ran away. When Tane returned he was told that she had gone off to the spirit-world, and he quickly followed after. But he was stopped from entering by Hine herself, in her new role as goddess of the underworld. “Go back, Tane”, she told him, “and raise our children. Let me remain here to gather them in.” So Tane returned to the upper world, while Hine remained below, waiting only for Maui to introduce death into the world, and begin the never-ending march of mortals to her domain.

The Maui Complex of Myths

The offspring of Tu increased and multiplied, and did not know death, until the generation of Maui-tikitiki, who was aborted by his mother, and cast by her into the sea. He was washed ashore, entangled in seaweed, and swarmed over by gulls and flies. Rangi reached down and took him up into the sky where he was nursed back to life, and where his childhood was spent. His mother knew no more of him until, years later, he appeared among his elder brothers one night as they stood in the dance line at their home. In a farcical incident the mother is forced to recognise the young Maui as her child, though at first she denies him, saying, “This is the first time I have seen you. Get out of this house. You are not my child.” Reluctantly, Maui moved towards the door, muttering as he went, “I'll go, then, if you say so. Perhaps I am the child of a stranger, but I did believe that I was born near the ocean, wrapped by you in your girdle, and cast into the sea. And I was rescued by Rangi, and nurtured by him in the sky, where I used to gaze down and watch this house, and listen to your voices. Indeed, I know the names of your children. There is Maui-to-the-side, and Maui-within; there is Maui-opposite, and Maui-without. And I say to you that I am Maui-the-girdle-of-Taranga!” Then at last Taranga called out to him, “You are indeed my last-born, the child of my old age, Maui-the-girdle-of-Taranga.” And she kissed him and took him to sleep in her own bed.

The older brothers were jealous and suspicious of the newcomer, saying, “We were conceived in wedlock, and born on the wide-wefted sleeping mat of legitimacy, and we are not asked to sleep with our mother. Yet this abortion, cast into the sea, and nursed by seaweed, returns to life and is called to her couch. How are we to know he is really our brother?”

The brothers did finally accept him, and to their cost. Maui-the-last-born gave them little time for rest as he enlisted their cooperation in a series of superhuman labours which included the snaring of the sun, procuring fire from its guardian deity, and the fishing up of land. Minor exploits included turning his brother-in-law into a dog, and stealing his grandmother's jawbone. As the prototype of the “calabash-breaking youngest child” he outshone his brothers in daring, rascality, and achievement.

At last his father said to him, “My son, I know that you are a bold fellow, and that you have achieved all things. Yet I fear there is one who will defeat you.”

“Who might that be?” said Maui.

“Your ancestress, Hine-nui-te-po, the Great-goddess-of-the-underworld. You can see her flashing there where the sky meets the earth.”

“Is her strength that of the sun?” asked Maui. “I trapped him, and beat him, and sent him on his way. Is she greater than the sea, which is greater than the land? Yet I have dragged land from it. Now let us seek life or death.”

The father replied, “You are right, my last-born, and the strength of my old age. Go then, seek your ancestress who lives at the side of the sky.”

“What does she look like?” asked Maui.

“The red flashing in the western sky emanates from her,” said the father. “Her body is that of a human being, but her eyes are greenstone, her hair sea-kelp, and her mouth is that of a barracouta.”

Maui took with him the smallest birds of the forest, the tomtit, the robin, the grey warbler, and the fantail, and set off towards the west. They found Hine asleep with her legs apart, and they could see sharp flints of obsidian and greenstone set between her thighs.

“Now,” said Maui to his companions, “if I enter the body of this old woman, do not laugh at me. But wait until I reappear again from her mouth. Then you may laugh all you wish.”

“You will be killed,” was all the birds could say.

“If you laugh too soon I will indeed be killed. But if I can pass right through her body I shall live, and she will be the one to die.”

Then he prepared himself, winding the cord of his battle club firmly round his wrist, and casting aside his garment. Behold his skin, mottled like a mackerel with the black pigment of the many-toothed tattooing chisel!

As Maui began his task, the cheeks of the watching birds puckered with suppressed mirth. His head and arms had disappeared when the fantail could hold back no longer, and burst into laughter. The old lady awoke, opened her eyes, clapped her legs together, and cut Maui completely in two.

Now Maui was the first being to die, and because he failed in his self-appointed task all men are mortal. The goddess retains her position at the entrance to the underworld, through which all men must pass.

Irawaru, Hinauri (alias Hine-te-iwaiwa), Tinirau, and Rupe (alias Maui-mua)

Hinauri, sister to the Maui brothers, married Irawaru, who was transformed into a dog by Maui-tikitiki. In her grief Hinauri threw herself into the sea. She did not drown but was cast ashore at the home of Tinirau, where she attracted his attention by muddying the pools he used as mirrors. She married Tinirau and killed his other two wives, who had attacked her out of jealousy.

When her child Tu-huruhuru was born, the ritual birth ceremony was performed by Kae. After this was done, Tinirau lent Kae his pet whale to take him home. In spite of strict instructions to the contrary, Kae forced the whale, Tutu-nui, into shallow water, where it died, and was eaten by Kae and his people.

Tinirau sent his sisters to capture Kae, who was to be identified by his overlapping front teeth. The sisters made him laugh by performing indecent dances. Having made sure that he was the man they sought, they put him into a trance and carried him off. He was killed by Tinirau.

Rupe (alias Maui-mua) was lonely for his sister Hinauri, and transforming himself into a pigeon he kidnapped her and her child Tu-huruhuru. Later Tu-huruhuru was killed by the tribe of Popohorokewa for the death of Kae. In turn, Tinirau called on Whakatau to destroy the Popohorokewa, which he did by burning them all in the house called Tihi-o-manono. This incident ends the Maui myth complex.

The Tawhaki Myths

The woman Whaitiri (thunder), who was a cannibal, came down from the sky and married Kai-tangata (man-eater), thinking that he shared her taste for human flesh. Disappointed at finding that this was not so, she left him after their son Hema was born. Hema grew up and had two sons, Tawhaki and Karihi. Then he went to another place and was killed. Tawhaki grew up to be a handsome fellow, the envy of his cousins, who beat him up and left him for dead. He was nursed back to health by his wife, who fed the fire that warmed him with a whole log of wood. In memory of this incident, their child was called Wahie-roa (Long-piece-of-firewood).

Tawhaki and his young brother set off to climb up to the sky. At the foot of the ascent they found their grandmother, Whaitiri, now blind, who sat continually counting the sweet potatoes that were her only food. The brothers tormented her by snatching them away, one by one, and upsetting her tally. Eventually, they made themselves known to her and restored her sight. In return, she gave them advice about the ascent to the sky. Karihi tried first, but made the mistake of climbing up the aka taepa, or hanging vine. He was blown violently about by the winds of heaven, fell, and was killed. Tawhaki climbed by the aka matua, or parent vine, recited the appropriate spells, and gained the uppermost of the 10 heavens. Here he obtained many spells from Tama-i-waho, and married a woman called Hapai, or as some say, Maikuku-makaka. They had a son, and according to some versions of the story it was this child who was named Wahie-roa.

Wahie-roa married Tonga-rau-tawhiri. When his wife became pregnant, Wahie-roa went into the forest to get birds for her to eat. He was attacked and killed by Matuku-tango-tango.

Tonga-rau-tawhiri's child was a boy named Rata, who, when he grew up, decided to build a canoe and sail off to avenge his father's death. The first attempt to fell a tree for the hull of the canoe failed because the appropriate ritual had not been performed. When the omission was made good, the guardians of the forest stopped obstructing the work and helped Rata to complete his canoe, which was named Niwa-reka (alias Niwa-ru, Aniwaniwa, etc.).

Rata sailed off to the place where Matuku-tango-tango lived in a pit, from which he ascended when the moon was full. Rata snared and killed him, and rescued the bones of his father Wahie-roa.

So ends the Tawhaki myth complex.