Often a mythological creation tradition is so compelling that it can influence all aspects of life. In this way customs, practices and institutions can become an expression of a culture’s foundation story. Many aspects of the Māori world view are influenced by the essential elements of the Māori creation narrative.
A model for behaviour
Creation stories give people a way of looking at their world. These stories tell us about individuals acting in particular ways and securing their position in the world. They stand, therefore, as a model for individual and collective behaviour and aspirations. Legendary heroes act as exemplars of human potential. By capturing the sun, entering the underworld, or fishing up an island, Māui represents the character of the individual who can bring about change and development in a community. The ascent of Tāne through the 12 heavens to obtain the baskets of knowledge symbolises an individual striving toward insight and understanding.
Creation and the oral tradition
Many Māori creation traditions use symbols of childbirth, the growth of trees, thought, energy and the fertile earth to convey the idea of constant, repeated creation. These symbols convey the idea of a world in a state of perpetual ‘becoming’. This idea is a key aspect of the traditional Māori world view.
Pūrākau (mythological traditions) are statements about the nature of the world, and their repetition echoes the creation story. Every time creation whakapapa (genealogies) and kōrero (stories) are recounted, the world is ritually ‘recreated’.
Many of the gods who represent the divine character or spirit of an aspect of the natural world, such as Rongomātāne of cultivated foods, are included in a genealogical chart, the recitation of which establishes a fundamental relationship between humans and the natural world.
The pōwhiri ritual
The dawn of creation
Carved meeting houses are opened in dawn ceremonies because they represent the world created by the separation of Rangi and Papa. The arrival of the sun at dawn symbolises the creation of the world of light.
In many societies and cultures, mythic stories form the basis of rituals. The pōwhiri (welcome ceremony), which is conducted on marae, has its basis in Māori creation stories and traditions. The ritual guides participants from Pō, a state of darkness upon the marae itself (hence, pōwhiri) to Ao, the state of lightness and resolution. This latter state – referred to as Te Ao Mārama (the world of light) – is represented by the structure of the carved meeting house as an image of the world. The roof represents Ranginui (the sky) and the floor represents Papatūānuku (the earth). The posts of the house represent those that Tāne used to separate earth and sky, and the carving above the doorway represents Hine, the custodian of the threshold between night and day, darkness and light. The pōwhiri ritual is a process where participants move from one state to another, re-enacting the mythological creation of the world.