MĀUI is the most versatile, popular, and widely known supernatural hero in South Pacific mythology. Islanders as far west as the Micronesian island of Yap narrate how Māui, with his enchanted fishhook, pulled up a big "fish": an island complete with people, villages, and gardens of new food plants. Māui is, however, primarily a Polynesian hero; inhabitants of every island from Hawaiʻi to New Zealand and from Mangareva to Tonga and Samoa narrate versions of his exploits in separate myths or unified myth cycles. In the traditional culture, islanders recited his spells for success in their mundane lives; priests converted secular, humorous myths about Māui to their own serious purposes.
Māui is not only the earth-fisher but also the Polynesian sun-snarer, sky-raiser, fire-stealer, monster-slayer, seeker of immortality, and, in fact, the hero of so many mischievous exploits that Tuamotuans nicknamed him Maui-of-a-Thousand-Tricks and Tupuatupua ("super-superman"). To Hawaiʻians he was aīwaīwa ("wonderful") because he was marvelously skilled, yet weird, bad, and notorious. His best-known cognomen, Maui-tikitiki-a-Taranga (or cognates), originated, the New Zealand Maori claimed, when his mother, Taranga, wrapped him—her last born and a miscarriage—in a topknot (tikitiki) of hair and cast him with a prayer into the ocean. Ocean and sky gods rescued and reared him until, as a boy, he rejoined his family. His tricks finally ended when he entered the womb of the sleeping goddess Hine-nui-te-po ("great Hine of the underworld") in order to gain immortality. He intended to depart through her mouth, but when his bird companion laughed at the sight, the goddess awoke and crushed Māui to death.
Māui was a shape-shifting trickster and, usually unintentionally, a culture hero. He was also the quintessential demigod, neither wholly god nor wholly man, a misfit, who continually tested his magic and mana against the cosmogonic gods and against his father and elder brothers in his attempts to usurp their privileges, to humiliate them, and to demonstrate his superiority. He was also a bridge in time between the ending of the era of creation and the beginning of the era of human migrations.
Polynesians believed that by using his incantations and referring to his deeds they would sanctify their work and, at its conclusion, lift taboos on the workers. New Zealand provides the clearest examples of this. A priest of bird-catching rituals regarded the sun as a great bird and would chant Māui's sun-snaring spell to ensure a good catch. To kindle sacred new fire he would recite the incantation by which Māui had overpowered the fire deity and learned to make fire. A priestly expert on the ceremonies accompanying the planting and harvesting of kumara (sweet potato) would chant Māui's "song of plenty" over a feather-ornamented, crescent-topped digging stick. The song recalled how Māui, in the guise of a pigeon, had perched on his father's stick after having sneaked after him to his underworld sweet potato garden. Using Māui's charm, fishermen would weaken a large fish's reluctance to leave the ocean, and hostile invaders would recite it to unnerve people and force them to leave their homes. High priests who had been influenced by Western religion rejected the common version of the earth-fishing story and divulged its esoteric, "real" meaning. The high god Io, they explained, gave Māui, his brothers, and their descendants—the Maori—possession of the earth (i.e., New Zealand).
Wherever Māui was known he was claimed as an ancestor. In the Hawaiʻian Islands the claim received royal recognition in the genealogical prayer chant, the Kumulipo ("source in deepest darkness"), which belonged to the family of King Kalakaua (1836–1891) and his sister Queen Lili'uokalani (1838–1917), and which described the family's descent from the time of primary gods to that of deified chiefs. Eighteen lines of the fifteenth of the sixteen chants comprising the Kumulipo cryptically list the principal events in Māui's life. The sixteenth chant opens with the names of Māui and his wife and ends with that of Lono-i-ka-makahiki. High chiefs once intoned this two-thousand-line prayer to consecrate an infant sacred chief; they gave him the revered name of Lono-i-ka-makahiki and activated his mana by naming his ancestors (who included spiritualized natural phenomena, cosmogonic gods, demigods like Māui, and deified chiefs). In 1778, high chiefs chanted the Kumulipo over Captain James Cook, welcoming him as a returned god whose name, like the sacred child's, was Lono-i-ka-makahiki.
Priests exploited Māui for several reasons. To Society Islands priests, Māui was a submissive helper who raised the low-lying sky and regulated the time of the sun's journey to enable his eldest brother, a priest, to build temples. In Rarotonga in the Cook Islands, high priests interpreted Māui as a giant who, the first time he stood up, pushed up the sky with his head; later Māui became the weary avenger of insults made by other gods against Tangaroa, his foster father.
References to worship of Māui are obscure, rare, and based on unsupported hearsay. Tongans, it is said, formerly had a shrine and priest of Māui. One Hawaiʻian priest declared that Hawaiʻi had long ago had a Māui cult and priests; another informant stated that Kamehameha I had built a temple to honor Māui. Most Polynesians usually respected Māui as an ancestor, despite his tricks, and they appreciated the benefits derived from his craftiness. But rather than to worship him, it seems that they preferred simply to enjoy the stories of how he humiliated many senior gods and earthly elders.
Lessa, William A. Tales from Ulithi Atoll: A Comparative Study in Oceanic Folklore. Berkeley, 1961. Included are previously unrecorded versions of the earth-fishing myth, a description of its distribution in the Pacific, and a detailed comparative analysis of the versions.
Luomala, Katharine. Oceanic, American Indian, and African Myths of Snaring the Sun. Honolulu, 1940. A detailed study of the distribution and versions of sun-snaring myths in three parts of the world.
Luomala, Katharine. Māui-of-a-Thousand-Tricks: His Oceanic and European Biographers. Honolulu, 1949. The most comprehensive general survey to date on Māui in Oceanic culture, the major myth cycles that interpret his character and exploits, and the many theories of European scholars about him.
Luomala, Katharine. Voices on the Wind: Polynesian Myths and Chants. Honolulu, 1955. Includes a chapter on Māui and, with chapters on other heroes and on Polynesian narrative art, puts him in a broad setting.
Katharine Luomala (1987)