Story: Māori creation traditions

Page 2. Different creation traditions

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Tribal versions of the creation story

There are different tribal versions of each of the three creation sequences – the movement from darkness and nothing to light and something, the separation of earth and sky, and the fashioning of the natural world. Sometimes it is the moon that prompts the children to separate their parents, Rangi and Papa; in other accounts it is the sun. In some versions, Tāne succeeds in raising the sky by using a post; in others Tāne stands on his head and thrusts his feet upwards.

The Io tradition


This is part of a cosmological chant recited by Te Kohuora of Rongoroa:

Nā te kune te pupuke
Nā te pupuke te hihiri
Nā te hihiri te mahara
Nā te mahara te hinengaro
Nā te hinengaro te manako
Ka hua te wānanga.
From the conception the increase
From the increase the thought
From the thought the remembrance
From the remembrance the consciousness
From the consciousness the desire.
Knowledge became fruitful. 1

The presence or absence of a supreme being, known as Io, is one of the distinguishing features of different versions of Māori creation traditions. The notion of a godhead in Māori society and culture is the subject of great debate. This is mainly because early manuscripts of Māori mythological material do not contain reference to Io, who only begins to appear in manuscripts and oral discourse late in the 19th century. Particularly important in the history of the Io discussion was the publication of S. Percy Smith’s The lore of the whare-wananga (1913), thought to contain the first extensive account. Some have even said that this had been secret and esoteric lore held by the initiated only, until Smith discovered it and made it more generally known. As a consequence, Smith and his informants – Te Whatahoro Jury, Nēpia Pōhūhū and Te Mātorohanga, all of Wairarapa – were regarded with some suspicion. Others have argued that Io was invented to bring Māori cosmology more into line with Christianity. Nevertheless, the Io tradition appears to have enjoyed the attention of many 19th- and 20th-century tribal elders, and almost all tribes have a view on Io.

Creation genealogies

Some versions of the Māori creation story also include ‘genealogical’ charts, which list organic processes in terms of cause and effect. The following sequences, recorded by the Reverend Māori Marsden of Te Tai Tokerau, describe growth of various kinds. One tells of the germination of seeds:

Te Pū (shoot)
Te Weu (taproot)
Te More (laterals)
Te Aka (rhizome)
Te Rea (hair root)

Another describes the increase of energy:

Te Rapunga (seeking)
Te Whāinga (pursuit)
Te Kukune (extension)
Te Pupuke (expansion)
Te Hihiri (energy)

Yet another depicts the growth of wisdom and knowledge:

Te Mahara (primordial memory)
Te Hinengaro (sub-conscious wisdom)
Te Whakaaro (seed word)
Te Whē (consciousness)
Te Wānanga (achieved wisdom)

Finally, a sequence outlines the rise of space and time, which existed before Ranginui (the sky) and Papatūānuku (the earth):

Te Hauora (breath of life)
Te Ātāmai (shape)
Te Āhua (form)
Wā (time)
Ātea (space)

These sequences do not describe a central act of creation, but are rather an attempt to understand the perennial process of life itself.

  1. Anne Salmond, Two worlds: first meetings between Maori and Europeans, 1642–1772. Auckland: Viking, 1991, pp. 171–172. › Back
How to cite this page:

Te Ahukaramū Charles Royal, 'Māori creation traditions - Different creation traditions', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 26 June 2024)

Story by Te Ahukaramū Charles Royal, published 8 Feb 2005