The diminutive Polynesian culture hero and trickster. He appears in myths from New Zealand to Hawaii and enjoys a reputation as a kind of Heracles. Usually a youngest son, sometimes an abandoned child, either abortive or premature, Maui was thrown into the sea by his mother, Taranga, who first wrapped him in a tuft of her hair. Saved by his great ancestor, Tama-nui-ki-te-Rangi, he eventually returned to earth and rejoined his family. Then it was that his mother called him Maui-tiki-tiki-a-Taranga, ‘Maui formed in the top knot of ‘Taranga’.
The best known of Maui's legendary exploits were fishing up islands from the bottom of the sea, snaring the sun to slow it down in its passage, lifting the sky to give men more room on earth, and getting fire. In Maori myth, Maui used the jaw bone of his ancestress, Muri-ranga-whenua, as his enchanted weapon. With its keen point he drew land from the sea, but his brothers, ignoring his warning, sliced it all up, thus causing the island-studded triangle of Polynesia and the mountains of New Zealand. With the mighty jaw bone and a flaxen rope Maui also assaulted the sun. The hero undertook the task ‘when he began to think that it was too soon after the rising of the sun that it became night again’. He caught the sun in a noose and dealt it many fierce blows, till weak from its wounds the sun could only creep along its course.
The Tongans say that the sky is sometimes dark because of the poker which Maui used to force it upwards. It happened that he was preparing an earth oven when his poker got jammed in the sky, then much lower than today. Infuriated, Maui reversed it and pushed the sky upwards. An Hawaian legend, however, recounts that he performed the sky-lifting feat to gain the favour of a certain woman.
The source of fire is variously interpreted. Some traditions explain that Maui stole the secret of fire from ‘the mud hens’ while they were roasting bananas. Each time he approached these celestial chickens they scratched out the flames. When he finally managed to seize the smallest hen, she told him that fire was in the tree called wai-mea, ‘sacred water’, and showed him how to obtain it. According to the Maori version, it was the ancient fire goddess, his relation, who pulled out her nail to give Maui a flame. But his trickery almost got the better of his judgement in this adventure because he asked for more flaming nails than he could handle safely.
Other tales surrounding Maui concern his birth, marriage, and death. Of interest is the story of Hina and Maui recorded in the Tuamotu Archipelago, which is east of Tahiti. The wayward Hina deserted her husband the monster eel Te Tuna, and searched the world for a new lover. She cried aloud: ‘I am a woman to be possessed by an eel-shaped lover; a woman come all the way hither to unite in the struggle of passion upon the shore … the first woman thus to come utterly without shame seeking the eel-shaped rod of love.’ Nobody dared to satisfy Hina's desire, for fear of the wrath of the monster eel, till Maui was directed to her by his own mother. At first Te Tuna took no notice of their liaison, but the taunts of neighbours eventually roused him to anger. Amid darkened skies, thunder rolls and lightning flashes, and an empty sea, littered with stranded monsters, the rivals Te Tuna and Maui compared their manhood. With his gigantic phallus in hand the trickster hero struck down three of the eel monster's frightful companions, overawed his rival, and claimed the day. Thus did Hina, the archetype of the faithless wife, confidently change husbands. Later Te Tuna made another attempt on Maui but he was ‘rent apart’, a victim of the trickster's superior magic. From the buried head of Te Tuna grew the first coconut tree.