Māori Mythology encompasses the traditional creation narratives, legends and folktales of New Zealand. Deriving from the Polynesian tradition, Māori mythology is among the world’s youngest. Its stories survive today through accounts recorded by 19th-century British scholars and oral tradition.
Because Māori, the indigenous people of New Zealand, were never a single nation, and because their stories transmitted by word of mouth, there is not one mythological narrative. Key details differ from place to place. The most familiar stories come from North Island traditions, many of which British governor Sir George Grey recorded in his ‘Nga Mahi a nga Tipuna’ (1853).
Ātua are supernatural beings resembling gods or deities. Over 70 in number, they personify all aspects of the living world. Many genealogies trace descent to a particular atua. Some of the most well-known include:
- Tāne-Mahuta – atua of the forests and birds. In wooded New Zealand, he, not Tangaroa is humanity’s tutelary deity.
- Tangaroa – atua of the ocean and its creatures. Analogous to Tangaloa/Kanaloa – the sea god of Polynesian mythology.
- Tāwhiri-mātea – atua of the weather.
- Tū-mata-uenga – atua of war.
- Tama-nui-te-rā – atua of the sun.
- Rongo-ma-tāne – atua of kumara (sweet potato), cultivated foods and peace.
- Ruaumoko – atua of earthquakes.
- Whiro – atua of misfortune.
- Mahuika – atua of fire.
- Hine-nui-te-pō – atua of death.
Long ago, the Sky Father Rangi-nui and the Earth Mother Papa-tū-ā-nūkū joined in a tight and loving embrace. Their 70 children, the original ātua, lived in the dark and confined space between them. Some wanted to separate the two; others did not. Eventually, Tāne-mahuta wrenched his parents apart with his legs and forever separated the sky from the earth, letting light into the world. To this day, Rangi-nui and Papa-tū-ā-nūkū grieve their separation.
Our world is one of many, each layered above and below. Some traditions speak of an atua called Io-matua-kore, the uncreated one, who dwells in the highest plane. Whiro, who tried to usurp Tāne, dwells in the lowest.
Each of the ātua bestowed a piece of their essence on the first person, meaning although humans die, we too are divine.
Māui, a demigod appearing across Polynesian mythology, is one of the most famous figures of the Māori tradition. His deeds include:
- fishing out the North Island of New Zealand
- tethering the sun so it passed slowly across the sky
- stealing fire from the goddess Mahuika and granting it to the world
Hine-nui-te-pō, the goddess of death, shepherds the souls of the dead to the next world. Māui met his doom when trying to defy her.
Māori myth blends into history with the tales of discovery and migration from Polynesia. There are stories of fearsome ogres, moving mountains, dragon-like taniwha, elf-like turehu, and bloodthirsty sea demons called ponaturi.
As the ātua represent natural forces, they are still significant for many in New Zealand today.
Sources: Witi Ihimaera – Navigating the Stars (2020), Te Ara Encyclopedia