Māori Culture in New Zealand – Our three favourite Māori legends

One of our favourite things about Māori Culture in New Zealand is the stories. From legends of star-crossed lovers to the creation of light and dark, these myths form an oral history of our people, and have been passed down through the generations. Many of the legends form the basis of Māori beliefs, revealing how pre-European Māori saw the world. We’ve got fond childhood memories of sitting with our elders, enraptured as we listened to stories of the bonds between the human, natural and spiritual world.

Here are three of our absolute favourite Māori legends.

Hinemoa and Tutanekai, Rotorua’s star-crossed lovers

The love story of Hinemoa and Tutanekai has been told around the shores of Lake Rotorua for centuries. Māori legend has it that Tutanekai lived on Mokoia Island in the middle of Lake Rotorua. Every evening, Tutanekai would play his flute and the sound of the music could be heard across the lake on the mainland at Owhata. Here, it charmed the beautiful and noble-born Hinemoa who lived there. When Tutanekai paddled his waka (canoe) to visit the mainland, he met Hinemoa face to face and they fell in love.

From then on, every evening Tutanekai would serenade Hinemoa with his flute from across the water. But Hinemoa’s people did not approve of the match, so they hid all of the wakas. However, this wasn’t about to stop Hinemoa – instead, she went about finding six large, dry, empty gourds as floats and decided to swim to the island. Arriving at Mokoia Island, Hinemoa stumbled across a hot spring, jumping in to warm up and refresh herself after the long journey. At that moment Tutanekai’s slave came over to collect water and Hinemoa lured him over, smashing his gourd and sending him back to his master. Tutanekai flew into a rage and came to investigate, only to find Hinemoa waiting for him in the hot pool. Like all good stories, the Māori legend of Hinemoa and Tutanekai ends with the couple living happily ever after.

Te Ika a Maui, the creation of the North Island

Take a look at a map of New Zealand – doesn’t the North Island look a heap like a fish? According to Māori history, the North Island of New Zealand is known as Te Ika a Maui – ‘Maui’s fish’. Maui appears in many Māori and Polynesian legends; he was the clever, gifted demigod of supernatural parents. But one of his most impressive achievements was fishing up New Zealand’s North Island.

The story goes that because Maui’s brothers weren’t too fond of him, they decided to leave him behind when they went out fishing one day. Maui overhead them chatting, and secretly made a fishhook from an ancestral jawbone before hiding under the floorboards of his brothers’ canoe.

Once the canoe was far off shore, Maui jumped out from under the floorboards and threw his fishhook over the side of the canoe. Suddenly, Maui felt the hook touch something, and it dug in fast. With the help of his brothers, Maui hauled the fish to the earth’s surface. Right away, before Maui could appease Tangaroa, the god of the sea, his brothers began to carve out bits of the fish – these are the mountains, lakes, valleys and rocky shorelines of the North Island. The fish’s head is in the south of the island, and the tail is at the top. New Zealand’s South Island is known as Te Waka a Maui, or ‘Maui’s canoe’, and the Stewart Island is Te Punga a Maui – Maui’s anchor stone.

The first woman

According to Māori legend, the world as we know it was formed when Tane Mahuta – the god of the forest – prised apart Ranginui, the father of the sky, and Papatuanuku, the mother of the earth. Afterwards, Tane Mahuta and his brothers slowly went about making all things on earth and in the sky. When they were done, they had created a dazzling and beautiful world, but there were no people to enjoy it.

Tane Mahuta went about convincing the gods that they should make a woman, who could then go on to have children. The gods agreed, so Tane Mahuta took red earth from Papatuanuku, and shaped it into the form of a woman. Impressed, Tawhiri Matea, god of the winds, whispered “take my breath. Give her life”. And so Tane Mahuta bent over the woman he had created, placed his nose against hers, and breathed deeply. Her chest moved, and she sneezed – “Tihei!”

The gods were ecstatic, and together they gave her the gift of life – mauriora – and the first woman, Hineahuone, was made.

Today, the hongi is the traditional greeting of the Māori people. It is known as the ‘breath of life’, and is performed by pressing noses – just like Tane Mahuta did to breathe life into Hineahuone. This greeting makes the visitor at one with the tangata whenua, or hosts.

We love sharing the legends of our people, and a part of the Tamaki Māori Village experience is the telling of authentic stories that have been handed down through generations, just like these ones. Beneath the canopy of an ancient tawa forest, guests get to enjoy many of the most colourful myths of New Zealand’s Māori culture.