Story: Māori creation traditions

Page 1. Common threads in creation stories

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Stories about creation have preoccupied people all over the world. Every culture has developed and continues to develop an explanation of the origin of the world that speaks meaningfully to contemporary experience. These explanations take numerous forms, including the scientific, artistic and mythological.

Mythological creation traditions arise from a reflection on the nature of life and existence. Once, mythologies were the most common explanation of existence. Every society had a mythic narrative about the origin of life, the nature of being human, the forces of the natural world, and the design of the cosmos. Although unique in their content, Māori creation traditions can be seen in this wider context.

Themes in Māori creation myths

All Māori narratives about the creation of the world have some major themes in common. These include:

  • the movement from nothing or darkness to something or light
  • the separation of earth and sky
  • the work of the gods in fashioning the natural world.

Apart from these shared threads, there is considerable diversity among various tribal versions of the creation story – particularly with respect to the role of a supreme being.

Darkness and light

Most versions use the terms Te Kore (nothingness, the void), Te Pō (darkness, the night) and Te Ao (light, the world). The movement between these different states is described in each story. Often the movement is represented by a whakapapa (genealogical chart): like a descent line, one state is born from another. The following example of the progression from darkness to light is adapted from a version given by Hūkiki Te Ahukaramū, a 19th-century Ngāti Raukawa chief:

Te Pō (night, darkness)
Te Ata (dawn)
Te Ao (light, world)
Te Ao-tū-roa (longstanding world)
Te Ao Mārama (world of light)

This second example, adapted from Te Ahukaramū’s version, incorporates the movement from nothing to something:

Aituā (calamity, misfortune)
Te Kore (nothingness)
Te Mangu (darkness)
Rangipōtiki (the sky)

The separation of earth and sky

Most mythological traditions speak of an event or act that brought about the world as we know it. In the biblical tradition, it is God who creates the world over a period of seven days. In the Navajo tradition, creation is thought of as a sequence where worlds emerge from other worlds. In the Māori tradition, the central act of creation is the drama of the separation of earth and sky.

The Māori creation story begins with a description of darkness and nothingness, out of which Ranginui, the sky father, and Papatūānuku, the earth mother, emerge. Initially, earth and sky are joined together, and their children are born between them. But the children conspire to separate their parents, and this allows light to flow into the world. The movement from darkness to the world of light is therefore achieved by the separation of the parents by the children.

The basis of the natural world

Finally, the story explains how the children of earth and sky become key figures or deities of various domains of the natural world. For example, Tāne becomes the atua (divine presence) of the forests, Tangaroa of the sea, Rūaumoko of earthquakes, and Tāwhirimatea of the winds and weather. The weaving together of these deities in a vast genealogy is the traditional Māori method for explaining the natural world and its creation.

How to cite this page:

Te Ahukaramū Charles Royal, 'Māori creation traditions - Common threads in creation stories', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/maori-creation-traditions/page-1 (accessed 16 January 2018)

Story by Te Ahukaramū Charles Royal, published 8 Feb 2005