Story: Tangihanga – death customs

Page 2. Mythological origins

All images & media in this story

Hine-nui-te-pō – the goddess of death

The mythological origins of death are associated with the ancestress Hine-tītama and her husband the forest god Tāne. Hine-tītama fled to Rarohenga, where the spirits of the dead dwell, after learning that Tāne was also her father. She was so overcome by the knowledge that Tāne could not persuade her to return. She said to him, ‘Hoki atu koe ki te ao hei whakatupu mai i ētahi o ā tāua hua; waiho hoki au i raro nei hei kukume i ētahi o ā tāua hua ki raro nei.’1 (Return and raise our offspring in the world of the living; leave me here to draw our offspring down below.) She would be known as Hine-nui-te-pō, the goddess of death.

Hine-nui-te-pō and Māui

The demigod Māui-tikitiki-a-Taranga attempted to destroy Hine-nui-te-pō. He tried to reverse the cycle of life by entering her vagina and appearing from her mouth, and so overcome death.

Changing into the form of a mokomoko (lizard), Māui entered her vagina while she slept, but his struggle provided humour for his friends the tīrairaka (fantails) who were watching on. Their laughter awoke Hine-nui-te-pō. She crushed Māui to death, bringing mortality to humankind.

Prior to his death, Māui had asked Hine-nui-te-pō to let people die as the moon wanes in the sky, and rises again. She responded, ‘Let him die forever and be buried in the earth, and so be greeted and mourned.’2

Personification of death

The personification of death is Aituā. Aituā carries the deceased away in a waka. This is referred to in oratory as te waka o Aituā, which is called Karamurauriki and has a bailer known as Tatataeore. The white albatross feathers fastened to the bow-piece and also used to fashion streamers attached to the stern-piece of certain waka allude to Karamurauriki.

Final resting place

In northern traditions spirits travelled to Te Rerenga Wairua (the leaping place of spirits). Once there they descended to Rarohenga and in some traditions travelled to the mythical homeland Hawaiki.

  1. John White, The ancient history of the Maori. Vol. 1. Christchurch: Kiwi publishers 1998 (originally published 1887), p. 131. Back
  2. Elsdon Best. Maori religion and mythology. Wellington: Te Papa, 1995 (originally published 1924), p. 377. Back
How to cite this page:

Rawinia Higgins, 'Tangihanga – death customs - Mythological origins', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 22 April 2024)

Story by Rawinia Higgins, published 5 May 2011