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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.



Stealing Fire

To steal fire from his ancestress, Mahuika, Maui slipped out in the night and extinguished all the cooking fires. In the morning he demanded cooked food, but when his mother ordered the slaves to go to Mahuika to beg her to give fire to the world again, they were too frightened to go. Wily Maui thereupon volunteered to undertake the task and was welcomed by the ancient as her grandson. She drew out one of her fingernails and fire gushed forth. This flame she handed to her young descendant who, however, did not go far off before putting it out and returning for more. This Mahuika supplied from a second fingernail, and the performance was then repeated until all the fingernails and all but one of her toenails had been used. The old lady, finally becoming suspicious, dashed the last nail to the ground, setting fire to everything. Maui fled from the blaze, taking refuge as a hawk, but even so he might have perished had he not invoked the aid of his ancestors, including the thunder god, who supplied so much water that Mahuika herself almost perished in her turn. Before all was lost Mahuika did succeed in saving a few sparks which she threw into such trees as the kaikomaka, whose wood is still used for firing.

In evil mood Maui one day changed his brother-in-law, Irawaru, into a dog, and this drove that unfortunate man's wife to suicide.

According to Maori tradition, Maui's last adventure caused death to come into the world – due to his effort to destroy yet another ancestress, Hine-nui-te-po, goddess of death. For this venture Maui selected all the little birds as his companions. They found the goddess asleep and Maui ordered his friends not to laugh while he crept inside her. Unfortunately the tiny Tiwakawaka could not contain his merriment. He began to laugh and this woke the goddess who promptly killed the hero.

by Judith Sidney Hornabrook, M.A., National Archives, Wellington.

  • Polynesian Mythology, Grey, Sir G. (1956)
  • Berenice Bishop Museum Bulletin 198 (1949), “Maui-of-a-Thousand-Tricks—His Oceanic and European Biographers”, Luomala, K.