Oceanic Mythologies: Australian Aborigine and Polynesian
Maui, the Hero and Trickster
What is the story of Maui?
In the many versions of his history, Maui takes on the aspects of the archetypal hero, beginning with a miraculous conception and birth. He is also clearly a culture hero, playing a role in the creation process and the civilizing of his people. And he is just as clearly, like Coyote in North America or Ananse in Africa, a trickster whose acts can cause difficulties in the world, even bringing death to creation. In one myth, Maui is said to have been conceived when a woman looked at the rising sun. The Maori say that when a premature son was born to Maui’s mother, she wrapped the child in a lock of hair from her top knot (tikitiki) and then threw him into the sea. Rangi, the sun, and presumably his father, rescued him and raised him in heaven, but when grown he emerged from the sea as Maui Ti’itit’i. In Hawaii, the island of Maui was named for him.
Upon his emergence, Maui became a culture hero/trickster. In most Polynesian islands he is credited with helping the people by catching the sun and slowing it down to provide more time for work and with bringing the islands themselves up from the depths, making him a type of earth-diver creator. One of Maui’s greatest feats was tricking the goddess of fire into revealing the secret of that element. In Samoa they say that Maui descended to the Underworld—a universal heroic act—to retrieve fire.
Maui died in the act of trying to overcome a female monster and death goddess, Hine-nui-te-po, by entering her vagina and emerging from her mouth. In this case the monster won and Maui was cut in half. By dying, Maui, who had sought immortality for humans, allowed death into the world.
Maui myths, like those of other tricksters, are often highly sexual and focused on genitals. One famous story can be seen as a fertility myth, perhaps reminding us of the ancient story of the Mesopotamian Inanna and her lover, Dumuzi. The beautiful goddess (or, some say human) Hina was living with Tuna the Eel (Te Tuna). Dissatisfied with Te Tuna, Hina went in search of more satisfying love. When she arrived at the land of the Male Principle Clan, she introduced herself as the “shameless pubic patch in search of love.” The men were afraid of Te Tuna, however, and sent her on her way. Now even more desperately craving love, Hina came to the land of the Maui Clan, and Maui, acceding to his mother’s urging, took Hina as his wife. The two lived together and experienced great passion for some time until some of the people informed Te Tuna of what was happening. When Te Tuna asked the people about Maui, they told him the hero’s penis was inferior. The people now warned Maui that Te Tuna was on his way to seek revenge, and Te Tuna approached Maui’s land from the sea, revealing a penis so large that it caused a tidal wave. Maui’s mother urged her son to reveal his own penis to Te Tuna to stop the wave. This Maui did, raising his member before the oncoming wave. In a great fight, Maui then killed Te Tuna’s companions but spared him. For a time the two rivals lived together with Hina, but finally they decided to fight for the sole rights to her. In a sexualized struggle, the rivals entered each other, and finally Maui cut off Te Tuna’s head and buried it (some say that Hina performed the burial). Before long a huge tree, known now as the coconut tree, grew from this “planting,” and the people have benefitted from the coconut’s nourishment to this day.