Facebook Twitter

The demigod Maui and his islands

SHARE The demigod Maui and his islands

Although Polynesia contains many peoples and languages, its ultimate cultural unity is reflected in shared religious mythology, such as the benevolent demigod Maui.

In the ancient mythology of Hawaii, the “kupua” are a sometimes shape-shifting class of tricksters. Many are malicious, but others are friendly. For instance, according to Hawaiian lore, Hawai‘iloa, the great navigator who first discovered the Hawaiian Islands, named his son after a benevolent demigod called Maui and then named one of those islands after that son.

However, the island of Maui owes more than its name to the demigod. Like the other islands of the archipelago, it owes him its very existence.

Maui had a magical fishing hook. But, continually using it for purposes other than catching fish, he wasn’t a very successful fisherman. One day, for example, he convinced his brothers to take him out fishing. His real intention, though, was to create islands, so he dragged his fish-hook along the ocean floor until it caught.

Then, telling his brothers a “big fish” story that ordinary anglers can only envy, he urged them to paddle as hard as possible because he’d caught a huge one. They did so — and pulled up an island. Repeating the same trick several times, Maui raised the entire Hawaiian chain by means of his apparently very gullible brothers.

A related legend has Maui ordering his brothers not to look back while he’s fishing. But a water-goddess pops to the surface in the form of a gourd, which Maui, ignorant of its true nature, pulls from the water and places on the seat before him.

Suddenly, though, the goddess appears in her ravishingly beautiful real form, and the brothers can’t resist turning around to stare. This breaks both the spell and Maui’s fishing line; the goddess disappears, and his single large island breaks into a series of smaller fragments.

Tonga, too, was pulled up by Maui, according to the mythology. And, in Maori mythology, it was Maui who, using an ancestor’s jawbone as a fishing hook, pulled the North Island of Aotearoa or New Zealand — which was originally a huge fish — from the waves of the South Pacific. It is still known among them as “Te Ika-a-Maui,” or “The Fish of Maui.”

Although Maui told his brothers to watch it while he fetched a priest to perform the appropriate rituals and prayers of gratitude, they grew hungry and greedy for their shares and began to cut it up. Writhing in agony, the North Island fractured into mountains and valleys, which make it very difficult to traverse. The South Island, where he stood while reeling the great fish in, is “Te Waka-a-Maui” (the Canoe of Maui).

But Maui’s service to humankind wasn’t exhausted by the creation of Hawaii, New Zealand and Tonga. In ancient times, apparently, days were much shorter than they are now. So much so, that Maui’s Hawaiian mother complained that there wasn’t enough daylight for her “kapa” or bark cloth to dry. Accordingly, her devoted son climbed to the summit of the great volcano Haleakala (“House of the Sun”) in the eastern part of the island of Maui and, using a rope made from the hair of his sister, lassoed the sun’s rays immediately after sunrise. Desperately pleading for its life, the sun was eventually forced to agree that days would be longer during summer months.

In Tahiti, where Maui was thought of as an ancient prophet, priest and sage who was later deified, the shortness of the day prevented him from completing his priestly rituals, which led him to lasso the sun and compel it to slow down. A similar story is told among the Maori, where Maui captured the sun and beat it with his ancestor’s jawbone until it promised to walk rather than run across the sky. In Tahiti, Tonga, Samoa and New Zealand, Maui also discovered fire and taught people to cook their food rather than eating it raw.

Another problem reported by Hawaiian legend is that, originally, the sky was too low. People weren’t able to do much work because they couldn’t stand up straight. So Maui recruited his father to help fix this situation. They met in Lahaina, on the west coast of the island of Maui, and, together, they pushed the sky up far enough that men and women can now function normally.

Unfortunately, though, Maui couldn’t do everything. According to the Maori of New Zealand, he died while attempting to secure immortality for humankind.

Sources: "Hawaiian Myths of Earth, Sea, and Sky" by Vivian L. Thompson (University of Hawaii Press, 1988); "Hawaiian Legends of Tricksters and Riddlers" by Vivian L. Thompson,(University of Hawaii Press, 1990); and "Maori Myth and Legend" by A. W. Reed (Reed Books, 1983)

Daniel Peterson founded BYU's Middle Eastern Texts Initiative, chairs The Interpreter Foundation and blogs on Patheos. William Hamblin is the author of several books on premodern history. They speak only for themselves.