THE story of Maui seeking immortality for the human race is one of the finest myths in the world. For pure imagination and pathos it is difficult to find any tale from Grecian or Latin literature to compare with it. In Greek and Roman fables gods suffered for other gods, and yet none were surrounded with such absolutely mythical experiences as those through which the demi-god Maui of the Pacific ocean passed when he entered the gates of death with the hope of winning immortality for mankind. The really remarkable group of legends which cluster around Maui is well concluded by the story of his unselfish and heroic battle with death.
The different islands of the Pacific have their hades, or abode of the dead. Sometimes the tunnels left by currents of melted lava running toward the west are the passages into the home of departed spirits. In Samoa there are two circular holes among the rocks at the west end of the island Savaii. These are the entrances to the underworld for chiefs and people. The spirits of those
who die on the other islands leap into the sea and swim around the land from island to island until they reach Savaii. Then they plunge down into their heaven or their hades.
There is no escape from death. The natives of New Zealand say: "Man may have descendants but the daughters of the night strangle his offspring"; and again: "Men make heroes, but death carries them away."
Maui once said to the goddess of the moon: "Let death be short. As the moon dies and returns with new strength, so let men die and revive again."
But she replied: "Let death be very long, that man may sigh and sorrow. When man dies let him go into darkness, become like earth, that those he leaves behind may weep and wail and mourn."
"Maui did not wish men to die but to live forever. Death appeared degrading and an insult to the dignity of man. Man ought to die like the moon which dips in the life-giving waters of Kane and is renewed again, or like the sun, which daily sinks into the pit of night and with renewed strength rises in the morning."
The Hawaiian legends say that Maui was slain in a conflict with some of the gods. The New Zealand legends give a more detailed account of his death.
Maui sought the home of Hine-nui-te-po--the guardian of life. He heard her order her attend-ants, the brightest flashes of lightning, to watch for
any one approaching and capture all who came walking upright as a man. He crept past the attendants on hands and feet, found the place of life, stole some of the food of the goddess and returned home. He showed the food to his brothers and friends and persuaded them to go with him into the darkness of the night of death. On the way he changed them into the form of birds. In the evening they came to the house of the goddess on an island long before fished up from the seas.
Maui warned the birds to refrain from making any noise while he made the supreme effort of his life. He was about to enter upon his struggle for immortality. He said to the birds: "If I go into the stomach of this woman do not laugh until I have gone through her, and come out again at her mouth; then you can laugh at me."
His friends said: "You will be killed." Maui replied: "If you laugh at me when I have only entered her stomach I shall be killed, but if I have passed through her and come out of her mouth I shall escape and Hine-nui-te-po will die."
His friends called out to him: "Go then. The decision is with you."
Hine was sleeping soundly. The sunlight had almost passed away and the house lay in quiet gloom. Maui came near to the sleeping goddess. Her large fishlike mouth was open wide. He put off his clothing and prepared to pass through the ordeal of going to the hidden source of life, tear it
out of the body of its guardian and carry it back with him to mankind. He stood in all the glory of savage manhood. His body was splendidly marked by the tattoo-bones, and now well oiled shone and sparkled in the last rays of the setting sun.
He leaped through the mouth of the enchanted one and entered her stomach, weapon in hand, to take out her heart, the vital principle which he knew had its home somewhere within her being. He found immortality on the other side of death. He turned to come back again into life when suddenly a little bird laughed in a clear, shrill tone and Great Hine, through whose mouth Maui was passing, awoke. Her sharp, obsidian teeth closed with a snap upon Maui, cutting his body in the centre. Thus Maui entered the gates of death, but was unable to return, and death has ever since been victor over rebellious men. The natives have the saying:
"If Maui had not died he could have restored to life all who had gone before him, and thus succeeded in destroying death."
Maui's brothers took the dismembered body and buried it in a cave called Te-ana-i-hana. "The cave dug out," possibly a prepared burial place.
Maui's wife made war upon the gods, and killed as many as she could to avenge her husband's death. One of the old native poets of New Zealand in chanting the story to Mr. White said: "But though Maui was killed his offspring survived. Some of these are at Hawa-i-ki (Hawaii) and
some at Ao-tea-roa (New Zealand) but the greater part of them remained at Hawaiki. This history was handed down by the generations of our ancestors of ancient times, and we continue to rehearse it to our children, with our incantations and genealogies, and all other matters relating to our race."