Māui is one of the most prominent hero figures in Māori mythology as well as in many other Polynesian groups. The Māori are the indigineous people of New Zealand. New Zealand is located in the Pacific Ocean southeast of Australia. The Māori culture shares many cultural characteristics with other Polynesian island groups. Māui plays a central role in many of the Māori myths that shape their ideas and worldviews.
Similar to many cultural heroes Māui is the offspring of a god, in this case Tū, god of war, hunting, food cultivation, fishing, and cooking. Māui was born during a time in human history where, according to Māori mythology, humans do not die. Upon his birth, Māui’s mother threw him into the ocean wrapped in her own hair. He is then found by spirits in the ocean that wrap him in seaweed until he is taken by one of his ancestors Tama-nui-te-ra, the personification of the sun, who raises him until adolescence when he returns to his family. Māui then through his adult life is responsible for many of the fantastic feats in Māori mythology. Māui, believing that the sun moves to quickly for his people to get their work done, restrains the sun and beats the sun with the jaw-bone of one of his ancestors until the sun agrees to go slower (Tregear 1891, pg 233-234).
In one of his most famous exploits Māui uses the jaw-bone as a fish-hook and hauls up the North Island of New Zealand single-handedly when it was in the form of a massive fish (Tregear 1891, pg 234). In other versions Māui hooks the massive fish that makes up all of New Zealand and tells the fishermen helping him “when the fish swallows the hook, paddle away towards the land with all your strength, but do not look behind you,” but driven by curiosity they do look behind and the line snaps and the giant fish separates into the different islands of New Zealand (MAUI, THE DEMI-GOD AND PI’IMO 1912, pg 96). He is also responsible for returning the secret of fire to earth, another common theme of hero myths worldwide, after it was lost by stealing it from the fingernails of the fire goddess Mahuika (Tregear 1891,pg 234). Most prominently Māui is responsible for the mortality of humanity. His last and final quest is to gain immortality for humankind for ever. To do this he must find his ancestor Hine-ata-uira, the goddess of the underworld and crawl through her body, entering in her vagina and leaving by her mouth while she slept, to reverse the path of birth. However one of his bird friends, the Pīwakawaka, laughed at the ridiculousness of the situation, seeing Māui turned into a worm squirming to enter the goddess, and woke her. To punish the demi-god, she crushed him with the obsidian teeth in her vagina (Tregear 1891,pg 234). Māui was the first man to die and with his death all of humanity was from that point forward mortal. Māui as hero contains many of the traits and feats of other mythological hero’s worldwide and is a way for the Māori to explain many parts of their world from where the gift of fire came from to the reason humans die.
In the first stage of the Monomyth, Joseph Campbell describes separation as having a “symbolic echo of infant transition away from the mother and so has a scary feel to it (Campbell).” Māui’s birth story is a perfect example of this as he is physically separated from his mother and is then thrown into the ocean adding a “scary feel” to the story. Supernatural aid is another part of the separation stage. Māui receives supernatural aid from multiple sources throughout his adventures. As an infant in the ocean he receives aid from ocean spirits that then bring him to the personification of the sun Tama-nui-te-ra who raises him. One of the last parts of separation is the crossing of the first threshold, which in many myths is represented as rite of passage of transition into adulthood. Victor W. Turner describes a rite of passage as a transformation (Turner 1979, pg 234). When Māui is accepted back into his home by his mother and brothers after returning from his stay with Tama-nui-te-ra.
A large part of the initiation stage of the monomyth consists of the road of trials. During the road of trials the hero develops their character, takes part in great feats or battles, and may acquire useful weapons and allies (Campbell). Examples of this would be Māui taking the jawbone of his ancestor Muri-ranga-whenua to use as a tool and weapon and his companions or brothers who follow him on his adventures. Some of Māui’s feats on the road of trials include using the jawbone hook to snare the sun and also to raise New Zealand’s North Island. Another important part of the initiation stage is the ultimate boon. The ultimate boon being a particularly difficult last trial where the goal of the journey is achieved. Māui returning the secret of fire to earth by stealing it from the fingernails of the fire goddess Mahuika would be his ultimate boon as it is his last successful trial. Another part of the initiation stage is apotheosis, where the hero has transcended to a new status and is now ready for the self-sacrifice of the final act (Campbell). After returning the secret of fire Māui feels ready to perform the task his mother prophesied, to break the power of death (Tregear 1891,pg 234).
Māui doesn’t fit the typical monomyth narrative as Māui’s story ends with his death. However one important part of the return stage of the monomyth is the crossing of the return threshold. Crossing this final threshhold may be a difficult last task. Māui’s task being to secure immortality for humanity forever. Campbell explains that this final threshold creates closure of the story and is a symbolic rebirth back into the ‘real’world’. When Māui dies all of human becomes mortal which would be the transition into the real world. Also his death obviously signals the closure of the story.
Māui as hero contains many of the traits and feats of other mythological hero’s worldwide that are common to the structure of the monomyth. The myth of Māui is a way for the Māori to explain many parts of their world from where the gift of fire came from to the reason humans die. According to Claude Levi-Strauss “the purpose of a myth is to provide a logical model capable of overcoming a contradiction” (Levi-Strauss 1955, pg 443). Through the structure of the monomyth Māui helps the Māori overcome apparent contradictions such as the mastery of fire and human mortality.
By Skyler Fox
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