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Legends of Maui, A Demi-God of Polynesia, by W. D. Westervelt, [1910], at



Climb up, climb up,
To the highest surface of heaven,
To all the sides of heaven.

Climb then to thy ancestor,
The sacred bird in the sky,
To thy ancestor Rehua

In the heavens.

-New Zealand kite incantation.

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 dead. It is, with very few exceptions, down in the interior of the earth. Sometimes the tunnels left by currents of melted lava 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 under-world 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.

The Tongans had a spirit island for the home of the dead. They said that some natives once sailed far away in a canoe and found this island. It was covered with all manner of beautiful fruits, among which rare birds sported. They landed, but the trees were shadows. They grasped but could not hold them. The fruits and the birds were shadows. The men ate, but swallowed nothing substantial. It was shadow-land. They walked through all the delights their eyes looked upon, but found no substance. They returned home, but ever seemed to listen to spirits calling them back to the island. In a short time all the voyagers were dead.

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."

There are very few legends among the Polynesians concerning the death of Maui. And these are usually fragmentary, except among the Maoris of New Zealand.

The Hawaiian legend of the death of Maui is to the effect that he offended some of the greater gods living in Waipio valley on the Island of Hawaii. Kanaloa, one of the four greatest gods of Hawaii, seized him and dashed him against the rocks. His blood burst from, the body and colored the earth red in the upper part of the valley. The Hawaiians in another legend say that Maui was chasing a boy and girl in Honolii gulch, Hawaii. The girl climbed a breadfruit tree. Maui changed himself into an eel and stretched himself along the side of the trunk of the tree. The tree stretched itself upward and Maui failed to reach the girl. A priest came along and struck the eel and killed it, and so Maui died. This is evidently a changed form of the legend of Maui and the long eel. Another Hawaiian fragment approaches very near to the beautiful New Zealand myth. The Hawaiians said that Maui attempted to tear a mountain apart. He wrenched a great hole in the side. Then the elepaio bird sang and the charm was broken. The cleft in the mountain could not be enlarged. If the story could be completed it would not be strange if the death of Maui came with this failure to open the path through the mountain.

The Hervey Islands say that after Maui fished up the islands his hook was thrown into the heavens and became the curved tail of the constellation of stars which we know as "The Scorpion." Then the people became angry with Maui and threw him up into the sky and his body is still thought to be hanging among the stars of the scorpion.

The Samoans, according to Turner, say that Maui went fishing and tried to catch the land under the seas and pull it to the surface. Finally an island appeared, but the people living on it were angry with Maui and drove him away into the heavens.

As he leaped from the island it separated into two parts. Thus the Samoans account for the origin of two of their islands and also for the passing away of Maui from the earth.

The natives of New Zealand have many myths concerning the death of Maui. Each tribe tells the story with such variations as would be expected when the fact is noted that these tribes have preserved their individuality through many generations. The substance of the myth, however, is the same.

In Maui's last days he longed for the victory over death. His innate love of life led him to face the possibility of escaping and overcoming the relentless enemy of mankind and thus bestow the boon of deathlessness upon his fellow-men. He had been successful over and over again in his contests with both gods and men. When man was created, he stood erect, but, according to an Hawaiian myth, had jointless arms and limbs. A web of skin connected and fastened tightly the arms to the body and the legs to each other. "Maui was angry at this motionless statue and took him and broke his legs at ankle, knee and hip and then, tearing them and the arms from the body, destroyed the web. Then he broke the arms at the elbow and shoulder. Then man could move from place to place, but he had neither fingers or toes." Here comes the most ancient Polynesian statement of the theory of evolution: "Hunger impelled man to seek his food in the mountains, where his toes were cut out by the brambles in climbing, and his fingers were also formed by the sharp splinters of the bamboo while searching with his arms for food in the ground."

It was not strange that Maui should feel self-confident when considering the struggle for immortality as a gift to be bestowed upon mankind. And yet his father warned him that his time of failure would surely come.

White, who has collected many of the myths and legends of New Zealand, states that after Maui had ill-treated Mahu-ika, his grandmother, the goddess and guardian of fire in the under-world, his father and mother tried to teach him to do differently. But he refused to listen. Then the father said:

"You heard our instructions, but please yourself and persist for life or death."

Maui replied: "What do I care? Do you think I shall cease? Rather I will persist forever and ever."

Then his father said: "There is one so powerful that no tricks can be of any avail."

Maui asked: "By what shall I be overcome?" The answer was that one of his ancestors, Hine-nui-te-po (Great Hine of the night), the guardian of life, would overcome him.

When Maui fished islands out of the deep seas, it was said that Hine made her home on the outer edge of one of the outermost islands. There the glow of the setting sun lighted the thatch of her house and covered it with glorious colors. There Great Hine herself stood flashing and sparkling on the edge of the horizon.

Maui, in these last days of his life, looked toward the west and said: "Let us investigate this matter and learn whether life or death shall follow."

The father replied: "There is evil hanging over you. When I chanted the invocation of your childhood, when you were made sacred and guarded by charms, I forgot a part of the ceremony. And for this you are to die."

Then Maui said, "Will this be by Hine-nui-te-po? What is she like?"

The father said that the flashing eyes they could see in the distance were dark as greenstone, the teeth were as sharp as volcanic glass, her mouth was large like a fish, and her hair was floating in the air like sea-weed.

One of the legends of New Zealand says that Maui and his brothers went toward the west, to the edge of the horizon, where they saw the goddess of the night. Light was flashing from her body. Here they found a great pit-the home of night. Maui entered the pit-telling his brothers not to laugh. He passed through and turning about started to return. The brothers laughed and the walls of night closed in around him and held him till he died.

The longer legend tells how Maui after his conversation with his father, remembered his conflict with the moon. He had tied her so that she could not escape, but was compelled to bathe in the waters of life and return night after night lest men should be in darkness when evening came.

Maui said to the goddess of the moon: "Let death be short. As the moon dies and returns with 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." according

Maui did not lay aside his purpose, but according to the New Zealand story, "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."

Maui sought the home of Hine-nui-te-po-the guardian of life. He heard her order her attendants 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 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 the 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 month; 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 flashes of lightning had all ceased. The sunlight had almost passed away and the house lay in quiet gloom. Maui came near to the sleeping goddess. Her large, fish-like mouth was open wide. He put off his clothing and prepared to pass through the ordeal of going to the hidden source of life, to 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 band, 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 (the Pata-tai) 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 center. 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 spirits, 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-i-ki and some at Aotearoa (New Zealand), but the greater part of them remained at Hawa-i-ki. 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."

"But death is nothing new,
Death is, and has been ever since old Maui died.
Then Pata-tai laughed loud
And woke the goblin-god,
Who severed him in two, and shut him in,
So dusk of eve came on."

--Maori death chant, New Zealand.

Next: XII. Hina of Hilo