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The International Folk-Lore Congress of the World's Columbian Exposition, Chicago, July, 1893/The Mythical Story of Maui, the Prometheus of Polynesia



It would be impossible to compress into a paper of reasonable length an account of the whole story of the Polynesian hero and demi-god, Maui, which we find divided up into many branches, without putting it into such a dessicated condition as to make it unfit to be offered as literary pabulum. The mythical legend of Maui belonged to Southern, before it came into the possession of Northern, Polynesia, before it crossed the equator and rooted itself in Hawaiian soil. The chief centres for Maui-legends are New Zealand and the Hervey Islands. But there is hardly a group (in Southern Polynesia) that does not furnish its own variant, or commentary on this fruitful theme.[1]

No less than nine centres in South Pacific are mentioned as giving more or less important and different versions of this story. While in Northern Polynesia, the Hawaiian group tarnishes not less than four versions which bear the stamp of originating independently of each other. The exploits of Maui concern affairs of vast human importance, the length of the day, the possession of fire, and the secret of its production, and they so often trench on the supernatural as to seem worthy of being classed as myths.

A Polynesian legend, as originally obtained, is generally so prolix, repetitious, and overladen, as to make a very dull story. The elements of human interest, however, are all there, and, for the sake of truth and science, must not be rudely or unwisely handled, lest something vital be lost, and the healthy aroma of mountain and ocean evaporate, leaving behind only a handful of mud.

The abundant store of myths and legends of Southern Polynesia have been fortunate in falling into the hands of such men as Sir George Gray, Edward Tregear, S. Percy Smith, Wm. Wyatt Gill, and others who have dealt with them in wise and loving fashion.

The store of Hawaiian myth, legend, and tradition has also been skilfully touched by such writers as Sheldon Dibble, James Jackson Jarvis, Jules Remy, Abraham Fornander, W. D. Alexander, S. B. Dole, Rollin M. Daggett (with the late King Kalakaua) and others; but still the field does not begin to be exhausted.

In dealing with Hawaiian legends, it is necessary to bear in mind that many of them have a Southern origin, and valuable work is yet to be done in tracing some of them to still earlier and remoter sources, perhaps to Asia. The single version of the Maui story which I offer, is not by any means the most interesting, nor the most important of the four or five variants of this legend furnished by the Hawaiian Islands. It connects itself well, however, with Southern legends on the same theme, through the incident of Maui's voyage in pursuit of the Sun, in which he went as far as Kukulu-o-Kahiki, which was a general expression that included not only Tahiti but all the lands known to us as Southern Polynesia, until it came to mean any foreign country. I regret that I cannot present the version as given on Kauai, the western-most island of the group, which has striking points of resemblance to the Southern legends, and is full of interest. But the Kauai variant I have, though rather long, is not entirely complete. The marks of this Southern origin are very evident. There is an Oahu-variant (Oahu is the southeastern neighbor of Kauai) which is of great interest, but as yet I have it only in a fragmentary form.

The Maui[2] version, places the scene of the hero's exploits in that vast caldera of Hale-a-ka-la (house-of-the-sun), which is famous as the greatest extinct crater in the world. The story of Maui's great exploit, of hooking up islands from the bottom of the ocean, is common property throughout Polynesia.

For information embodied in this paper I am greatly indebted to my brother, Joseph S. Emerson.


Hina was a famous maker of paper-cloth[3] (tapa), who lived with her four sons in the rainy district of Hilo. They were called Maui-first, Maui-second, Maui-third, but the youngest of them, the hero of this story, was the Maui par excellence.

The four brothers were fishermen, and resorted, with their canoes, nets, and tackle, to the little, rocky island in Hilo bay called Mokuola,[4] now popularly called "Cocoanut Island," whence they were wont to launch away on their frequent fishing excursions.

Often, while shivering at sea in damp and chilly weather, they would see the gleam of fires on their little island. They knew that these were lighted by the mud-hens (alœ), who alone possessed the secret of producing fire, and they longed to enjoy the comfort and luxury of this boon denied to mortals. But as often as they returned to shore the fires invariably disappeared.

Maui,[5] determined to get at the secret of producing fire, one day remained ashore hid in the shrubbery, while his brothers went on their fishing expedition. But the cunning birds observed this and said to each other, "There are only three in the canoe; one has remained ashore; we will make no fire to-day." So Maui was disappointed. The next day Maui went with his brothers in the canoe, and the fires gleamed as usual. Maui now resorted to stratagem. He rigged up a dummy-image, which he made to resemble himself by girding it with his own loin-cloth (malo), and placing on its head his own helmet, at the same time his paddle was put into its hands, as if in the act of rowing. Thus equipped, the three brothers sitting in their customary places, the canoe put to sea, while Maui himself laid low in the bushes.

Thinking that the four brothers were gone a-fishing, the birds built their fires and gathered to enjoy them in fancied security. Maui now made a rush, and having caught one of them, demanded to know the secret of how to produce fire. The ala[6] at first told Maui to rub the leaf of the taro[7] (kalo) with a stick and he would have fire; Maui did this, but no fire was produced. Repeating his demand, the bird bade him try the same operation on the banana leaf; still there was no fire. Then the lying bird said, "Try a sugar-cane leaf and you will have fire." Maui did this, and yet there was no fire. Then Maui was angry, and threatened to wring the bird's neck; whereupon it said, "Rub two sticks together." This Maui did, but as the sticks were damp, he got no fire as yet. Maui, now in earnest, seized the bird by the neck to execute his threat, but the poor mud-hen begged him to desist, and it would tell the whole truth, plausibly arguing that if Maui took its life he would defeat his own purpose, as the secret would die with it.

Maui stayed his hand, and following the instructions of the bird, this time used dry sticks of hibiscus[8] wood (hau), and the result was fire. In spite of his success, Maui was so vexed that he rubbed the top of the bird's head and beak violently, saying, "Now let us see if we can't get fire out of your head."

As a result of this rough treatment, all the descendants of this mud-hen have red heads to this day; also the longitudinal furrows found on the stem of the taro, banana, and sugar-cane leaf are pointed out as caused by Maui's rubbing them for fire.

This success, as may be imagined, won Maui not a little distinction. About this time Maui began to heed the complaints of Hina, that the Sun went through the heavens so fast, and the days were so short, that her sheets of tapa were not dried properly.

Maui was always good to his mother, and he resolved to take this matter in hand and see what he could do about it. So Maui go into his canoe and sailed far out, till he had reached the horizon, and found the place where the Sun came up from beneath the ocean. The moment the Sun rose, Maui seized him, and broke off some of the rays which stood out from his body, as do the sharp spines from the body of the sea-urchin. Blood poured from the wounds thus made, so that the Sun has looked red ever since. The Sun, also, was so weakened by Maui's rough handling, that he was obliged to slow down his pace, and as a result, the day has since then been considerably lengthened, to the great accommodation of the human race generally, and of Hina, the tapa-maker, in particular. These adventures made Maui unpopular with the gods; his continual successes also turned his head and made him haughty, so that he got to putting on airs, and swaggering about with a spear in his hand, hunting for adventures, after the fashion of a Knight-errant. At this time a certain chief of the district offered violence to Hina, and as the good woman resisted, he turned a portion of the Wailuku[9] stream into her cave to drown her out. The water rose higher and higher, until it had reached her chin and was about to cover her nose. At this moment Maui appeared, spear in hand, and thrusting it into the bottom of the cave succeeded in making a passage through which the water was drained away, thus saving his mother's life. The hole is still pointed out by which Maui discharged the water from Hina's cave. After this Maui became more than ever a braggart, and forsaking his honest calling as a fisherman, lived an aimless life, wandering about, ready to sponge on anybody who would receive him. His wanderings at length brought him to the large, well-watered and fertile valley of Waipio, where he could easily sustain himself on the bananas that grew spontaneously in its wilds.

At this time the two great gods, Kane and Kanaloa, who are always represented as associated, were living together in Alakahi, one of the five tributary valleys that debouch into Waipio. Though surrounded by the countless lesser deities (Kini-a-ke-Akua, Mano-a-ke-Akua, Lehu-a-ke-Akua),[10] sprites and elves that peopled the wilderness, their bounden servants, whose duty it was to wait upon them, and fetch and carry at their bidding, Kane and Kanaloa lived in democratic simplicity, waiting upon themselves, plucking and roasting their own bananas.

One day, while these great gods were thus engaged preparing a frugal meal, Maui crept up, and by means of a long pole, such perhaps as the ancient bird-catchers were wont to use in snaring birds, reached across the narrow torrent that rushes through rocky Alakahi, and dexterously spearing the roasted fruit, secured them for himself. One of the gods noticed that the bananas were gone and said, "Who is this that has stolen our bananas?" "It is that thievish Maui; he is up to another of his tricks." But Kanaloa, Who was of violent temper, leaped across the stream, caught Maui, dragged him forth from his hiding-place, and dashed him against the cliff of Alakahi, staining the wall with his blood.

Thus ended the adventures of Maui. When the Alakahi stream is discolored by the red, ochrous, soil washed down from the cliffs, the natives say: "Look at the blood of Maui." Certain red-colored shrimp that abound in the waters of this romantic place are popularly said to be tinted with the blood of Maui. An old man relating the story of this mythological hero, ascribed the red color in the rainbow to his blood that had bespattered the heavens.

  1. The Maori-Polynesian Comparative Dictionary, by Edward Tregear, Wellington, N. Z., 1891.
  2. This Maui is the name of the Island, and is to be pronounced, Mow-ee. (Mow as in the first part of mouth.)
  3. Tapa, or kapa, was commonly made by beating out the macerated inner bark of the wauki (Broussonetia papyrifera, Morus papyrifera of Linnæus) into thin sheets. It was often decorated with patterns in different colors, applied by means of stamps made from plates of bamboo.
  4. Moku-ola— literally, "Island of life," so called because designated as one of the three cities or places of refuge on the island of Hawaii, to which resorted fugitives for safety.
  5. Maui— This proper name is to be pronounced Mah-wee, with accent on the penult, as is generally the case with Hawaiian words and proper names. The name of the Island of the Hawaiian group, spelled in the same way, Maui, is to be pronounced Mow-ee.
  6. There are two species of the so-called mud-hen. The thick fleshy skin on the forehead of the one is white, on that of the other bright red. The other parts are blue-black, and in habits and appearance both birds resemble the loon.
  7. Taro or kalo pronounced tah-ro or kah-lo, is the arum esculentum of Linnæus, or Colocasia antiquorum of Schott, the tuber of which, after cooking, was pounded into a dough-like mass, then mixed with water and eaten with the fingers as poi. It was the staff of life to the Hawaiians. There is no vegetable in the world equal to taro. It may be prepared in many ways. As poi it is, when fresh, especially adapted to invalids and those suffering from mal-nutrition, a wholesome food for all.
  8. Hau. Paritium tiliaceum—Hibiscus tiliaceus of Linnæus. Other woods are used in rubbing for fire; but the hau or hibiscus is plentiful, and the one most commonly used.
  9. Wai-luku—Water of destruction, so-called because lives are often lost in this stream In times of high water.
  10. In archaic Hawaiian, Kini meant 40,000, i. e. an indefinitely large number; Mano, 4,000; Lehu, 400,000, and was the highest in the Hawaiian series of numbers, representing a countless multitude. This multitude of minimal gods, which infested every Hawaiian wilderness, were capable ot great mischief and must be propitiated with appropriate offerings before any important work was undertaken.