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.
All Māori narratives about the creation of the world have some major themes in common. These include:
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.
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)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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)
These sequences do not describe a central act of creation, but are rather an attempt to understand the perennial process of life itself.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Marsden, Māori. The woven universe: selected writings of Rev. Māori Marsden, edited by Te Ahukaramū Charles Royal. Ōtaki: Estate of Rev. Māori Marsden, 2003.
Royal, Te Ahukaramū Charles. Native traditions by Hūkiki te Ahu Karamū o Otaki Jany 1st 1856. Ōtaki: Te Wānanga-o-Raukawa, 2003.
Ruatapu, Mohi. Nga korero a Mohi Ruatapu: the writings of Mohi Ruatapu, tohunga rongonui o Ngati Porou, translated, edited and annotated by Anaru Reedy. Christchurch: Canterbury University Press, 1993.
Salmond, Anne. Two worlds: first meetings between Maori and Europeans, 1642–1772. Auckland: Viking, 1991.