Published in First City, New Delhi, April 2008.
The people of the Polynesian islands believe that once the sky-father Rangi and the earth-mother Papa were locked so tightly in a loving embrace that the children they produced were smothered between them. So the children decided to separate the parents — the trees pushed the sky-father up away from the earth-mother. The great yawning distance between the two allowed all living creatures to thrive. Even today the sky-father weeps as rain to express his eternal yearning for his wife. And the earth, missing her beloved sky, causes mist to rise in the hope she will touch him once more.
The god of wind was however not very happy with the action of the trees. And even today he takes his revenge by spinning the worst of tempests that tortures all vegetation causing them to bend and break.
Angry with the trees, says one story, and unable to see the suffering face of the sky-father, Papa turned her back on all living creatures and decided to lie face down. Children she delivered after this action are trapped in the nether regions — they take their revenge on trees and animals by causing earthquakes and swallowing them whole.
In this fascinating mythology, there is one human, Maui, whose adventures have thrilled generations across the Pacific, who have lived in the far flung islands of Tonga, Tahiti, Hawaii, New Zealand and Samoa.
Maui was the fifth child of Taranga. Some say he was born dead, others say since he was born prematurely he was said to be a carrier of bad luck and so his mother threw him into the sea, wrapped in a tress of hair from her top-knot. Ocean spirits found the child, revived him, wrapped him in sea weed and gave him in the care of Rangi, the sky-father, who took the child to the celestial realms and nourished him to adolescence.
One day Maui found the hair of his mother and recognizing it decided to descend from the celestial world of his foster father and search for her in the world of humans.
He found his four brothers on a beach. Unfamiliar with the customs of the mortal world, he offended them by refusing to take up their offering with respect. Unpractised at combat between mortals, Maui was beaten by his brothers. Rejected and alone, Maui realised he was out of place both in the world of his mother, Taranga, and in the realm of his adoptive father, Rangi.
Maui’s mother at first denied him, saying, “This is the first time I have seen you. Get out of this house. You are not my child.” Reluctantly, Maui moved towards the door of her house, muttering, “I’ll go, then, if you say so. Perhaps I am the child of a stranger, but I did believe that I was born near the ocean, wrapped by you in your hair, and cast into the sea. And I was rescued by Rangi, and nurtured by him in the sky, where I used to gaze down and watch this house, and listen to your voices.” Since none but the sea had seen her cast her premature child into the sea wrapped in her tresses, Taranga was convinced this was her youngest child given up for dead. She accepted him and even let him sleep in her own bed. This made her older sons jealous for they had never been asked to sleep with their mother. But slowly Maui earned the admiration of his brothers through his many feats, especially his ability to change his shape and become any animal.
Maui realized the days on earth are too short to get the work done. So along with his brother he set out to ensnare the sun and slow it down. With the help of his brothers, he caught the sun in a noose and beat him severely with the jaw-bone club, until he promised to go slower in future.
He then hauled up a great island, that lurked below the sea in the form of a fish, using blood from his nose as bait. When it emerged from the water, Maui went to find a priest to perform the appropriate ceremonies and prayers, leaving his brothers in charge of the fish. They, however, did not wait for Maui to return and began to cut up the fish, which immediately began to writhe in agony, causing it to break up into mountains, cliffs, and valleys. If the brothers had listened to the island would have been a level plain and people would have been able to travel with ease on its surface. Thus the North Island of New Zealand is known as Te Ika-a-Maui (The Fish of Maui)
Maui, finding that fire has been lost on the earth, resolved to find Mahuika, the Fire-goddess, and trick her into revealing the secret of fire. Maui was successful in his mission but he was barely able to escape with his life. He transformed himself into a hawk but Mahuika set both land and sea on fire. Maui then prayed to the gods who answered with pouring ran to extinguish the fire.
In a rare version, a goddess named Rohe is Maui’s wife. He mistreated her in a cruel and unusual way. He wished her to exchange faces with him, because she was beautiful and he was ugly. When she refused, he got his wish by reciting an incantation over her as she was sleeping. When she awoke and realized what had happened, she left this world and went down into the underworld where she became a goddess of death.
Having successfully slowed the sun, pulled out land from the sea and procured fire, Maui believed he was ready to overpower death and attain immortality. So he decided to confront the great woman of the netherworld, Hine-nui-te-who lived at the side of the western sky. Her body was like a human being, but her eyes were greenstone, her hair sea-kelp, and her mouth was like a barracouta’s mouth. Maui was accompanied by small birds on this expedition. They found her asleep with her legs apart, exposing her vagina. If Maui was able to enter it and emerge from her mouth he would become immortal. As Maui entered Hine from beneath, the birds found the sight of a man trapped in a huge vagina rather funny and they started to laugh causing Hine to awaken and bring her legs together crushing Maui as a result. Maui failed in this one great task and so humankind continues to remain mortal.