Māori mythology personified the heavens as a sky father, naming him variously Rangi (heavens), Ranginui (great heavens), Rangiroa (expansive heavens), or Te Ranginui-e-tū-nei (the great-standing heavens). He was also called Te Rangiātea, which referred to the great breadth of the heavens, or Te Rangitiketike and Te Rangipāmamao, which denoted loftiness and remoteness. The names Te Rangiwhakataka and Te Rangitakataka describe how the heavens reach down to the horizon to meet Papatūānuku, the earth mother.
The term Rangi-tūhāhā comes from the Māori conception of the heavens comprising 10 or 12 layers, with Rangi being the closest to the earth.
In myths about the creation of the world, the union of Ranginui, the sky father, and Papatūānuku, the earth mother, led to Te Pō (darkness, the night). In an account given by Wiremu Maihi Te Rangikāheke of Te Arawa, these primal parents gave birth to several anthropomorphic gods, including Tāwhirimatea (god of the winds), Tāne (forests), Tangaroa (seas), Rongo (kūmara, cultivated foods and peace), Haumia (fern root and uncultivated foods) and Tūmatauenga (humankind and war). These gods dwelt in darkness between their parents, until Tāne and several others decided to separate them. Rongo, Tangaroa, Haumia and Tū all tried unsuccessfully to drive Ranginui and Papatūānuku apart. Then Tāne lay on his back and pushed with his arms and legs, while the others severed the limbs of their parents, breaking their last grasp. Tāne planted posts to keep his parents apart, which is why he is also known as Tāne-tokotoko-o-ngā-rangi (Tāne of the posts that hold the heavens aloft).
Ranginui and Papatūānuku are celebrated in whakataukī (aphorisms), waiata (songs) and whaikōrero (speech making):
E mihi atu ki Te Matua, ki a Ranginui, ki a Rangiroa,
Tāwhirirangi, Te Hauwhakaora, Te Hau e pāngia ngā kiri o te tangata.
E mihi atu ki a Papatūānuku, ki a Papatūārangi
Te Papa i takatakahia e ngā mātua tūpuna, te papa i waihotia e rātou mā
Te Papa e maroro ki te itinga, e maroro ki te opunga
Te Papa-awhi, e awhi ana i a tātou, o tēnā, o tēnā, o tēnā o ngā whakatupuranga e tupu ake nei.
Te Ūkaipō, Te Ūkaiao o tātou katoa.
Greetings to the sky father, the great heavens, the expansive heavens,
The heavenly winds, the life-giving winds, the winds that caress the skin of all people.
Greetings to the earth mother, extending beyond the visible land and beyond the visible heavens.
The earth mother trampled by our ancestors, the earth mother left in heritage by the ancient ones
The earth mother that stretches unto the sunrise, that stretches unto the sunset
The embracing earth mother, which embraces each of us from all generations sustained by her grace.
She that sustains us night and day.
Human life and knowledge were said to originate in the realm of Ranginui, the sky father.
In one tradition, the god Tāne climbed to the citadel Te Tihi-o-Manono, in the highest of the 12 heavens, known as Te Toi-o-ngā-rangi. There he retrieved three baskets of knowledge: te kete-tuatea (basket of light), te kete-tuauri (basket of darkness) and te kete-aronui (basket of pursuit). There are several interpretations of what each basket represents. The scholar Māori Marsden has suggested that the basket of light is present knowledge, the basket of darkness things unknown, and the basket of pursuit is the knowledge humans currently seek.
Tāne, imbued with te ira atua (the godly aspect), also obtained te ira tangata (the human aspect) from the heavens before creating and implanting both aspects within Hineahuone, the first woman. She in turn gave birth to humankind, which accounts for the belief that people possess both a human and spiritual nature.
Tāne’s famous journey to the heavens is remembered in the following ritual chant:
Tēnei au te hōkai nei o taku tapuwae
Ko te hōkai nuku ko te hōkai rangi
Ko te hōkai a tō tupuna a Tānenui-a-rangi
Ka pikitia ai ki te rangi tūhāhā ki te Tihi-o-Manono
Ka rokohina atu rā ko Te Matua-kore anake
Ka tīkina mai ngā kete o te wānanga
Ko te kete-tuauri
Ko te kete-tuatea
Ko te kete-aronui
Ka tiritiria ka poupoua
Ka puta mai iho ko te ira tangata
Ki te wheiao ki te ao mārama
This is the journey of sacred footsteps
Journeyed about the earth journeyed about the heavens
The journey of the ancestral god Tānenuiarangi
Who ascended into the heavens to Te Tihi-o-Manono
Where he found the parentless source
From there he retrieved the baskets of knowledge
These were distributed and implanted about the earth
From which came human life
Growing from dim light to full light
There was life.
Many Māori myths about the creation and gods of the heavens had their counterparts in Polynesian cultures.
The Samoan equivalent of Ranginui, the sky father, and Papatūānuku, the earth mother, begins with Tagaloa-lagi (Tangaroa-rangi to Māori), who created the islands of Samoa by throwing down rocks from the heavens. One of these rocks, Papatu (standing rock), married Papa’ele (low-lying rock). Papatu represented the father mountain, and Papa’ele the earth mother. From this union came the gods. The gods married, and from them came human life. In the Tongan version of this account, Papalimu married Papakele.
In Tahitian mythology Ātea, the sky father, married Papatu’oi, the earth mother. Their child was Tumunui, the great foundation, who married Paparaharaha, the life-giving earth. Their child in turn was Te Fatu, the lord of the heavens and ancestor of all life.
The Nanaulu genealogies of Hawaii are very similar to the traditions of Tahiti. During creation Wakea, the sky father, married Papa, who is described as a gourd. Wakea moulded the gourd to create the universe. First, he fashioned Papa into a drinking vessel – this became Papahanaumoku, the earth mother. The lid of the gourd formed the heavens, and its juices became the rain and clouds. The seeds of the gourd were implanted into the heavens as the sun, moon and stars. Wakea and Papa then created the island of Kahiki, the ancestral homeland of the Hawaiians. The descendants of Wakea became the high chiefs of each of the Hawaiian islands.
Rarotonga has a particularly beautiful tradition of the sky and earth. Creation began when the goddess Varima-te-takere plucked Ātea, the sky father, from her side. Atea moved about, changing shape and increasing in size to form the heavens. He then married Paparoa-i-te-itinga, the earth mother stretching into the sunrise. Paparoa-i-te-itinga gave birth to five sons, the gods Tangaroa, Rongo, Tāne, Tongaiti and Tangi’ia, and to Te Tumu, the foundation stone. Te Tumu then married Paparoa-i-te-opunga, and from this union came human life.
According to Māori myth, Ranginui played a pivotal role in the birth of the sun, moon, planets, stars and constellations – collectively called Te Whānau Mārama (the family of light). One version told by Hāmiora Pio of Ngāti Awa is that Tangotango (blackness of the heavenly night) and Wainui (the ocean) – two children of Ranginui and Papatūānuku – produced offspring: Te Rā (the sun), Te Marama (the moon), Ngā Whetū (the stars) and Te Hinātore (moonlight). The god Tāne took these offspring and placed them in their abodes in the sky.
A Ngāti Kahungunu version of this tradition says that Kewa, also a child of Ranginui and Papatūānuku, went to the peak of Te Maunganui (the great mountain), where he fetched te whānau mārama (the children of light) from the celestial guardian Te Āhuru. Kewa carried the astronomical bodies in sacred baskets, planting them in the heavens. The basket holding the sun was named Rauru-rangi, the basket carrying the moon was Te Kauhanga, and the basket containing the stars was Te Ikaroa (the Milky Way). Some stars such as Atutahi (Canopus) were put in baskets which hung to one side of Te Ikaroa.
Te Rā was the main deity of the heavens. During winter he was known as Te Rā-tūoi (the lean sun) and during summer Te Rā-kura (the red sun). Midday was Te Poupoutanga-o-te-rā (the post of the sun) or Te Pou-tū-a-tamanui-te-rā (the standing post of the sun). Dawn and sunset were called Te Tamanui-te-rā-kā (the burning sun). The flight of the sun across the sky was described as Te Manu-i-te-rā (the bird of the sun).
Māori mythology says that after the world’s creation the sun moved across the sky so rapidly that night and day were very short; there was not enough time for people to perform daily tasks or get sufficient sleep. The demigod Māui devised a plan to slow the sun. He and his brothers made several strong ropes and journeyed to where the sun rises from the underworld. They built a low wall to hide behind, and laid out their ropes as nooses. When the sun appeared the brothers leapt out from their hiding place, threw the ropes over the sun, and ensnared it. Their quarry securely held, Māui leapt up and beat the sun until it cried for mercy. Today Māori believe that the rays of the sun are the remnants of the ropes used to slow its path.
One night a woman named Rona went to fetch water in her gourd. As she walked, the moon went behind a cloud, causing her to stumble in the dark. In her anger she cursed the moon. To counter, the moon came down to Earth to grab her. She grasped a tree, but was pulled up together with her gourd and the tree. They can all be seen on the surface of the full moon.
Marama, ahoroa, māhina and atarau are common names for the moon. The moon has important symbolic meaning for Māori and is strongly associated with women and the menstrual cycle, as in many cultures. The moon as Hineteiwaiwa is associated with fertility and the cycle of life. The terms Hina-te-ao (female light) and Hina-te-pō (female dark) and Hina-keha (pale moon) and Hinauri (dark moon) refer to the waxing and waning moon. Its cycle was likened to the opening and closing of a portal through which departed spirits returned to the origin of life. The moon was also used as a guide for planting and fishing.
Several hundred Māori star names survive from the time before Europeans arrived in New Zealand. Unfortunately, apart from the more prominent stars – Takurua (Sirius), Tautoru (Orion’s Belt), Ruawāhia (Arcturus), Matariki (the Pleiades), Whānui (Vega), Puanga (Rigel), Rehua (Antares), Atuatahi, Atutahi, Autahi (Canopus ) – we no longer know with any certainty which stars many of the names refer to.
However, we do know that different tribes celebrated the rising of certain stars to mark the seasons. Tribes in different parts of the country also identified what we now called the Māori New Year by the dawn rising of one or more of Matariki, Puanga, Takurua and/or Atutahi.
Māori had a sophisticated understanding of planetary motion and held particular regard for Kōpū (Venus), Hine-i-tīweka (Jupiter), Matawhero (Mars) and Whiro (Mercury).
Venus, which is only seen on the horizon before dawn or after the sun sets, was also known as Tāwera, whose name refers to the way it appeared to be burned up on the eastern horizon by the rising sun, and Meremere-tū-ahiahi (to stand out on the western horizon after the sun sets). Jupiter was a female entity, known as Pareārau (Pare of a hundred lovers) or Hine-tiweka (wayward Hine). These names come from the observation that at certain times, Jupiter and Venus sit together on the horizon, but that over subsequent nights Jupiter appears to wander away. Jupiter is interpreted as the wife of Venus, leaving her husband at home while she has affairs with other stars.
Auahiroa and auahitūroa, meaning ‘long smoke trails’, and ūpokoroa, were common names for comets. One tradition from the Mātaatua tribes in the Bay of Plenty says that Te Rā (the sun) sent his son Auahi-tūroa, a comet, to give fire to humankind. Auahi-tūroa married Mahuika, who bore five children, Te Tokorima (the five fingers): Takonui, Takoroa, Māpere, Manawa and Toiti. Another account says that the demigod Māui retrieved fire from the fingernails of Mahuika, his grandmother, and planted it in trees such as kaikōmako, rimu and tōtara, which were used in traditional fire making. Fire is often known as Tama-a-Auahi-tūroa (son of Auahi-tūroa).
Meteors, or shooting stars, are called matakōkiri, tūmatakōkiri, kōtiri and kōtiritiri. Māori interpreted them in several ways – they were thought to convey fire to Earth, or to be stars that the sun or moon had struck down. Bright meteors were taken as a good omen, indicating future action. Duller ones were bad omens. Meteors also augured the death of great leaders and the rise of new ones.
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Best, Elsdon. Māori religion and mythology. 2 vols. Wellington: Te Papa Press, 2005 (originally published 1924).
Orbell, Margaret. A concise encyclopedia of Māori myth and legend. Christchurch: Canterbury University Press, 1998.
Orbell, Margaret. The natural world of the Maori. Rev. ed. Auckland: David Bateman, 1996.
Reed, A. W. Reed book of Māori mythology. Rev. by Ross Calman. Auckland: Reed, 2004.