Prof. Friedrich Ratzel

The Races of Oceania

Religion in Oceania

Maui as deity and animating principle of earthquake, fire, and sun

Hawaiian and Maori Mauis

Tane, god of the sky

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Maui as deity and animating principle of earthquake, fire, and sun

Islands where volcanic eruptions and earthquakes are common must be just the places for myths to weave themselves in abundance about the force of the hidden fire. To this a life-generating effect was ascribed in the Marquesas; and corresponding veneration was paid to Maui as creator of the world. After Nukahiva was raised up from the nether world by divine force, a woman gave birth to the sea as well as to the germs of beasts and plants; while men and fish, who were enclosed in caverns, were ejected by a volcanic explosion. The fusion of fire below and above the earth into a single god of earthquake, fire, and sun, is not far off, when the theogonic position is so lofty; the ever-varying and mobile nature of fire, of heat, opens an immeasurable field to fancy.

Tahitian idols carved in wood

Tahitian idols carved in wood - approx.1200mm max. height. (London Missionary Society's Collection.)

Hawaiian and Maori Mauis

Maui, the Hawaiian Prometheus, who fetches fire from the sun, is in Samoa the earthquake-god as well; in Raiatea, the creator of the sun; in the Marquesas, of everything that has life. So, too, a reason for his lofty position is offered by the separation which the Maoris make between Ru, their god of earthquakes, and volcanic fire, and the fire-god, Manika, who dwells in all living things. Here Maui is the fire-bringer and the animator. Around him is spun a network of legends of Promethean and Titanic character.

The word maui means "broken," "beaten"; when Maui fetched the fire, one of his arms was struck or twisted off by the earthquake-god, Tati. This occurs in the most various versions. His brothers, multiplied Mauis, appeared in a twofold form, as demigods and inhabitants of earth. But the fire-bringing was Maui's performance, of which legend specially loved to treat. After he had obtained the fire by means of red-feathered birds, he completed his Promethean career by overcoming his father Kane, whom evil spirits had set at enmity with him, and Kane's brother, Kanaloa, in a riddle-guessing contest, attacking them, and vanquishing a whole host of spirits besides. Kane and Kanaloa fled from the temple and went aloft; but Maui, as he was about to follow, suddenly felt himself struck in the breast by a missile. There-upon he lost all his supernatural power, and soon after died of sickness like a mortal man.

What a sheaf of universally current thoughts and images have we here! In the Society Islands Maui is brought otherwise into connection with the sun. He is there made to be the priest, who, wishing to finish divine service, caught the hurrying sun by its rays. In Hawaii, when the sun had taken refuge in Tahiti, he brought it back, and cut off one of its legs to make it move slower and dry his mother's washing. Lastly, we even find him as a god akin to Proserpine, for whose return from the underworld prayers were offered every year at the harvest-festival in Nukahiva.

Fire was everywhere brought to earth against the wish of the gods. In Ulea a god who has been pushed out of heaven obtains it by threats from an old woman, Mafuike, and brings it to Fakaafo, where till then the food had been eaten raw. Since then fire, as being sacred to the god of day, may only be lighted at night for fishing purposes or at confinements. In Tokelau and Pelew the legends commemorate the making of fire by rubbing two pieces of wood.

Tane, god of the sky

To this series of great Polynesian gods belongs Tane or Kane, who stands in the closest relationship with Rongo, Rangi, or Ru, the heaven, or bearer of heaven. After earth and heaven were sundered, Tane adorned the heaven with stars, and set up the deformed among his children on earth as trees. He appears thus as assistant and finisher in the work of creation. Another legend represents him as the maker of the first man, or of the beings who preceded. A yet more essential function in the Maori legend is that in fulfilment of which he discharges the important duty of separating his parents, Rangi (heaven) and Papa (earth), and raising the former aloft. When after this he went up to heaven to seek a wife, he found that there was only one woman there, and his father Rangi advised him to go back to his mother. From her hip he formed his wife Hine, on whom he begat a daughter. Recognising her father in Tane, this daughter fled, ashamed, to his brother, and in her anger with Tane transformed herself into the Titaness Hineanitepo (night), while Tane remained on earth.

While Tane was searching everywhere for his daughter, he found his brother Rehua, the all-quickening fire, in the tenth or highest heaven. This visit to the fire seems to connect Tane with the Promethean Titan Maui, especially as he also sought the water of life as a protection against Maru, and is reckoned the father of birds; two features which he has in common also with Tangaroa. In Tahiti, Rehua was a real star-god, the star of the New Year, who produced the Twins as well as the Pleiads, and is considered lord of the year. The morning star, the guide of shipmen, is the son of Heaven, while the evening star was designated as the son of the Sun, falling stars as Atuas, and the Twins as sons of men, who in their fear of being separated made their escape to heaven.

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