New Zealand Maori myths and legends offer an interesting perspective on the island’s origin and the Earth’s creation in general.
The Maori were indigenous Polynesians who arrived in New Zealand between 1250 and 1300 from eastern Polynesia. They made the long and arduous journey in canoes to New Zealand and this voyage became known as the “Great Fleet”. Most of the Maori live in the North of New Zealand and today, many tourists flock to these areas to experience Maori culture, history and food.
Here are 7 common myths that will help you familiarize yourself with this fascinating indigenous culture.
The North Island is the fish that Māui caught – Maori legends and myths
This is the most common Maori myth. Māui (you may have heard of him in the Disney movie Moana) is an intelligent, brilliant, but mischievous demigod.
Māui is said to have pulled the North Island out of the sea with an ancestral jaw hook he had made. Then Māui and his brothers began carving fish – today they are known as the mountains, lakes and valleys that make up the landscape of the Northern Islands.
While the South Island serves as his canoe. Nearby Stewart Island is considered by many to be the anchorage of the canoe.
Taniwha are supernatural beings.
In New Zealand folklore, Taniwha are supernatural beings believed to resemble snakes and dragons, that inhabit New Zealand’s oceans, rivers, lakes and caves. However, it is believed that it started in a shark-like form. It is said that Taniwha was captured by a chief, who kept it as a pet in the river. Over time, the shark-like creature developed scaly skin and webbed feet, along with a bird-like head and wings, which is why Taniwha is, today, known to resemble a reptile.
There are different opinions about whether these supernatural beings harm humans. Some say they eat meat and kill people, some say they kidnap women, and others believe they are the protectors of the tribe and give presents to the Taniwha people.
Separation of Earth and Sky
In the Maori tradition, Tāne is known as the creator of human life and the world as we see it. He is given various names according to his roles in local legends. The most famous story surrounding this deity concerns Tāne separating his parents Ranginui (‘sky father’) and Papatūānuku (‘earth mother’) from their tight embrace that once enveloped the planet in shadow dark.
Hineahuone is the first Maori woman
Maori history says that the Maori gods formed the world. The satyr, Tane Mahuta, destroyed the father of the sky and the mother of the Earth to create the Earth and the sky. Tane Mahuta and his brothers created the world as they know it today. Once created, Tane Mahuta persuaded the other gods to give life to a woman to begin populating their Earth – this woman would be called Hineahuone, the first Māori woman. From this moment, the inhabitants of the Earth were formed.
Tāwhirimātea is the God of Weather – Maori legends and myths
Tāwhirimātea was another son of Ranginui and Papatūānuku, and opposed their separation. In anger at what his brothers had done, he sent wind and clouds to rain down on the Earth in formidable storms. These storms ravaged Tāne’s forests, but in the end, Tūmatauenga defeated his poisonous brother.
Māngōroa is the Shark that Forms the Milky Way
The Milky Way has many great myths surrounding it in Maori culture, mainly due to its black and white patches. Many Maori believe it to be some path in the sky, while others believe it to be a chariot pulling the stars in the night sky. There are two myths of particular interest to us: the myths of the legendary shark.
In New Zealand belief, Māngōroa is the Maori name for a species of shark that was sent into space by the demigod Māui (Yes, the same mythical demigod “The North Island is the fish that Māui caught”) . Sharks and other sea creatures such as rays, are considered children of Punga, the ‘ugly god’. Māui sent Māngōroa to the sea and sky to protect the Māori tribes of the Earth.
The second myth, again involving sharks, is that the Milky Way is a sea in the sky. The Maori believe that the god, Kiho-tumu, formed a heavenly ship and traversed the sky. This ship is named Long Shark by the Maori, as they believe the boat is there to protect them, which is where the word ‘shark’ comes from. The Maori believe that the dark patches of the Milky Way are Long Sharks in the sky with the white patches being waves from the ship as it passed through the sea.
Battle of the mountains – New Zealand myths
One of New Zealand’s most famous legends regarding the making of its mountains is the legend of the battle of the mountains. When the Earth was young, the Maori say that four warriors – Tongariro, Taranaki, Tauhara and Pūtauaki – fought to win the affections of the mountain girl Pihanga. Tongariro eventually won the skirmish, and the defeated mountains split to create the mountain ranges covering present-day NZ.
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