Go to National Library of New Zealand Te Puna Mātauranga o Aotearoa
Volume 38, 1905
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Mythical Origin Of Death.

In perusing ethnographical works we often meet with the statement that certain primitive peoples or races appear to be or have been imbued with the idea that death is unnatural; that in the dawn of time man was immortal, and knew not death until it was introduced by some accident, or offence committed against the gods. Among such peoples are invariably found singular myths to account for such introduction.

The Maori of New Zealand come under the above heading, as will be shown anon. In studying Maori cosmogony and anthropogeny we are first met with the statement that man is descended from immortal personifications—i.e., from Rangi, the Sky Parent, and Papa-tuanuku, the Earth Mother; also that from the same source sprang the sun, the moon, and the stars, who are termed the “whanau marama” (the Shining Ones, the Children of Light, who know not death). In the words of

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an old Native, who was explaining to me the origin of death, “The people of the sky [i.e., the heavenly bodies], they do not decay, neither do they fall; they are not like the people of this world. As for the origin of decay among the people of this world, it was caused by the act of Tane in seeking the female element. Rangi, our parent [the Sky] said to Tane, ‘The female element is below. Above is the realm of life, of immortality; below is the realm of death, of decay, of misfortune.’ Hence, through that quest of Tane, came decay into the world. Had he not sought the female element, then would man have been like unto the multitude in the sky above—he would have lived for ever.”

Here we see that the Maori traces his descent from a primal pair, Sky and Earth, the male and female nature respectively, and also that the deathless Shining Ones, the heavenly bodies, had a similar origin. He saw that all these were immortal—“they do not decay, neither do they fall”—hence something must have happened in the dawn of time which caused man to decay, something that caused death to enter the world. The mind of the primitive Maori was equal to the task of explaining that cause. He evolved the myth of Maui and the Goddess of Death. The dead person is often referred to in funeral speeches as having been caught in the snare of Hine-nui-te-Po, the guardian of Te Po (Hades, the realm of darkness), she who drags men down to death. It was this Hine who first proposed that decay and death should be the lot of man (see first page of this article), and her proposal was opposed by Tane, or, according to some authorities, by Maui. “In regard to natural decay and death, it was proposed by our ancestors that man should die as the moon dies; for when the moon wanes and comes near to death he hies him to Te Wai-ora-o-Tane [the life-giving waters of Tane], in which he bathes and so recovers his youth and strength. Our ancestors said, ‘Let man so decay and revive, that he may return to this world.’ But Hine would have none of this. She said, ‘Not so; for man would not be mourned. Let man die as earth-born creatures die; let him return to our Earth Mother, even that he may be mourned and lamented’ (‘me matemate a one, kia mihia ai, kia tangihia ai’).” Then came the struggle between Hine and Maui, the attempt of Maui to gain eternal life for man being thwarted by the Goddess of Death.

An old-time saying of the Maori people (published by Sir George Grey in his “Maori Proverbs”) is this— “Me tangi, ka pa ko te mate i te marama”; which he translates, “Let us weep over him; he has departed for ever; if he had disappeared like the old moon we would not have mourned—he would have appeared to us anew after a time.”