Polynesian and Hawaiian Mythology

Travelers around the world are enamored by the tropical vision of a visit to Polynesia—Hawaii, Tahiti, Fiji, and the like. However, most people are unfamiliar with the myths and legends unique to the Polynesian islands. The most common exposure to Hawaiian culture, for example, being attendance at a luau or witnessing hula dancing. As it turns out, the myths and legends of the Hawaiian people, and other indigenous tribes around the Pacific, such as the Maori of New Zealand, are quite fascinating and refreshingly different from our own Western cannon. Or are they? As it turns out, there are many similarities.

Maui Raises the Islands from the Deep

The Maori people of New Zealand tell the tale like this: the trickster Maui wanted to go fishing with his brothers, but they would not let him, so he hid himself in their canoe. When they were far out to sea, he revealed his presence. Upset, they would lend him no bait to fish with, so he hooked his own nose and used blood for the bait. The line he had cast with magic incantations, and the hook was a jawbone gifted to him from the gods. Maui pulled a massive fish up from the depths of the sea, which became the largest island of New Zealand. His brothers set to hacking and slicing up the fish, transforming its figure into the mountains and valleys of the island.

The Hawaiian telling of the story is similar: the trickster Maui wanted to go fishing with his brothers, but they would not let him. So when they one day returned with a sparse catch of just one shark, he teased them and said he could show them where to find hordes of fish. They agreed to let him come along. Maui used the magic jawbone gifted to him by the gods as his hook, and a sacred bird belonging to the goddess Hina as the bait. Suddenly the sea began to churn, and Maui told his brothers to row furiously forward, not looking back. In one version, Hina herself rose from the waters in the form of a gourd, which Maui placed in the canoe. Suddenly the gourd became a beautiful goddess, and the brothers looked back to take in her beauty. At this moment, the line snapped, Hina leapt back into the waters, and the work of forming one great island was incomplete…leaving behind the Hawaiian islands.

Maui Steals Fire

Maui wanted to know where fire came from, so he came up with a plan to find out. He ran around putting out all the fires in the village, and his mother told him he would have to seek out the fire goddess Mahuika for more. He found her in a great volcano at the ends of the earth, and she gave him one of her burning fingernails. But Maui put it out, so she gave him another. This one he put out too, and so on until she had only one burning fingernail left. Incensed, she sent a fire to pursue Maui, and he fled in the form of a hawk. But the fire pursued him, spreading destruction until Maui prayed to the god of weather and the goddess of thunder, who extinguished the storm. In one last rageful attempt to destroy Maui, Mahuika threw her nail at the trickster, but he dodged it, and it plunged into the trees. This gave Maui the idea to bring these particular plants back to the village and show the people how to rub them together to make fire.

The Death of Maui

Maui was intent on finding immortality, and his father tried to dissuade him, but to no avail. In some versions, Maui’s father suggests that the trickster can become immortal by crawling into the vagina of Hine-nui-te-po, the goddess of the night, and working his way through her until he emerges from her mouth. Maui turns himself into a worm and begins the process while the goddess sleeps, but a bird wakes her up and tells her what is going on—whereupon she closed her thighs together, slicing Maui in two between rows of black obsidian teeth that lined the opening between her legs. In this way, Maui became the first being to die, and the trait of mortality he passed down to mankind, forever.

Tiki, the First Man

Tiki figures are popularly associated with the idea of tropical places. But have you ever wondered what exactly a Tiki is? These small statues were often placed by thresholds that marked transitional spaces from one place to another. They represent Tiki, the first man.

Tiki lived alone. One day, he saw his reflection in a pond. Feeling lonely and desirous of a companion, he leapt into the water, but the image shattered and rippled away, of course. Tiki then fell into a deep sleep. Awakening, he once again saw his reflection and was desirous of a mate. So he took mud and covered the pond, and from this mixture of earth and water emerged the first woman. One day, this woman encountered an eel, which aroused in her a desire for sexual union. Passing that on to Tiki, the two copulated and she gave birth to mankind.

The Trickster Motif and Other Similarities to Western Folklore

Maui is a trickster character, which is a common motif around the world, comparable to Anansi the Spider of African Lore and Raven or Coyote in Native American tales. These trickster figures are a sort of bridge between mankind and the gods or a race of elders, and their subterfuge and chicanery is necessary for bringing mankind the things he needs, such as fire, or shaping creation in a way that benefits man. The trickster character also appears in Western storytelling traditions, such as Loki in Norse Mythology. These tricksters also add an element of humor to the narrative.

The story of Tiki is particularly interesting in that it has many parallels to the biblical narrative found in the book of Genesis. God decides it is not good for man to be alone (similar to Tiki’s desire for companionship), and so he fashions woman from man—but only after he has put man to sleep, just as we see with Tiki. In the polenysian version, the woman runs into an eel and passes on her sexual awakening to man. In the biblical version, a snake offers the woman a forbidden fruit of immortality, which she then offers to man. Biblical commentaries such as those written by the Jewish scholar Rashi explain that the snake was actually jealous of the woman and wished to do away with the man. With that deeper understanding in place, we see that the entire episode encapsulates issues of sexuality, the relationship between man and woman, and a snake or eel figure.

It is quite interesting that these two narratives are so similar, worlds apart as they are. There are plenty of other moments in the mythos of Polynesia that have counterparts in Western narratives, such as the motif of not looking back, seen in the biblical account of Lot’s wife turning to a pillar of salt and the Greek narrative of Orpheus attempting to rescue Eurydice from Hades. These connections are not coincidental, and speak to the universal power of the motifs found in tales around the world.