Atua wāhine during creation
All mana is sourced from the atua (gods). For Māori women, the sources of this mana (mana wahine) include te ara uwha o Tahu (the heavenly female path of Tahu), the primal parent Papatūānuku (the earth mother, and creator of all life) and other female deities.
In the Māori creation narrative, Papatūānuku is the first female entity, followed by Hineahuone, who was created out of clay by Tāne at Kurawaka. The next atua wahine (goddess) is Hinetītama, who fled to the underworld and became Hine-nui-te-pō after discovering that her husband, Tāne, was also her father.
Māui and atua wāhine
In traditions about the demigod Māui, atua wāhine are often an essential element in his endeavours. Māui’s grandmother, Murirangawhenua, provided him with her jawbone, to enable him to fish up the North Island and slow down the sun. Māui’s encounters with Mahuika provided the source of fire. His adventures ended with Hine-nui-te-pō crushing him to death between her legs.
These traditions highlight these women’s mana, as they supply Māui with the knowledge to achieve his deeds. Māui meets his doom between the legs of a woman, but this too highlights the potency of women’s tapu – especially their genitalia and their ability to whakanoa (remove tapu, or make normal).
Tinirau and Kae
Another group of atua wāhine feature in the tradition of Tinirau and Kae, as the first kapa haka group. These women are seen as deities in their own right. They include Hineteiwaiwa, the atua of childbirth and te whare pora (weaving and female arts), Hineraukatamea, the atua of entertainment, and Hineraukatauri, the atua of music. Hineraukatauri is personified as the case moth, on which the pūtōrino musical instrument is modelled.
Some natural features are attributed to atua wāhine. Hinepūkohurangi is personified as the mist, Hinepūtehue as the gourd and Hinemoana as the ocean. Hineraumati is the personification of summer, Hinetakurua of winter and Whaitiri thunder.
Rona whakamautai represents the moon, and in one tradition is said to be a daughter of Tangaroa, god of the sea.
Female tipua and taniwha
In tradition there are some important female tipua (supernatural creatures) or taniwha who represent the kaitiaki (guardians) of different geographical features. According to the Tūhoe people, the taniwha Haumapuhia is said to have formed Lake Waikaremoana in her attempts to break out to sea. In tradition, the taniwha Āraiteuru guided the voyaging waka Māmari from Polynesia to New Zealand. It is said she still occupies a cave on the south head of the Hokianga Harbour, and is regarded by locals as a guardian of the surrounding district.
According to Ngāti Māhaki tradition, the four names of Tamaāhua’s wives give us the four varieties of pounamu (greenstone) found on the West Coast of the South Island – Takīwai, Aotea, Pounamu and Aūhuka.
Māori refer to women as te whare tangata (the house of humanity), recognising the vital roles women play in providing life and nurturing future generations. Women are respected for their ability to create life, so they are treated with the same consideration as Papatūānuku, the creator of all life. Terms associated with te whare tangata are synonymous with the land. Whenua means both placenta and land, and the afterbirth was buried, binding people to their source of life, physically through women and spiritually to the land.