Maui meets Hine-nui-te-po
E.R. Tregear, Maori-Polynesian Comparative Dictionary (Lyon and Blair: Lambton Quay), 1891, 234.
B.G. Biggs, 'Maori Myths and Traditions' in A.H. McLintock (editor), Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, 3 Volumes. (Government Printer: Wellington), 1966, II:449-450.
Photo: source unknown
Maui now considered himself ready to win immortality for humankind. His father tried to dissuade him, predicting that he would fail because of the mistakes in his baptismal ceremony. His father said to him,
"My son, I know that you are a brave fellow and that you have done all things. Yet I am afraid that there is someone who will defeat you."
"Who could that be?" asked Maui.
"Your ancestress Hine-nui-te-po (Great woman of the nightworld). You can see her flashing there on the horizon."
Painting: Saffron Paddy, New Zealand
"Is she as strong as the sun?" asked Maui. "I trapped him and beat him. Is she greater than the sea, which is greater than the land? Yet I have dragged land from it. Now let us see whether we will find life or death."
The beginning of the story sets the theme: Maui was grandiose (inflated) about his accomplishments thus far and he hoped to transcend all limits; his father, older and more realistic, foresaw Maui's defeat. When a conscious personality first develops it feels god-like and believes that it has created itself, not realizing that it was a pre-existing potential within the unconscious, of which that personality is just a temporary instance.
His father answered,
"You are right, my last-born, and the strength of my old age.
His words were ironic; they alluded to limitation and ending.
Go, find your ancestress who lives at the side of the sky."
"What does she look like?" asked Maui.
"The red flashing in the western sky comes from her," said the father. "Her body is like a human being, but her eyes are greenstone, her hair sea-kelp, and her mouth is like a barracouta's mouth".
She is fearsome death.
Maui, undaunted, set out westward, with his companions, to the home of Hine-nui-te-po. His companions were the smallest birds of the forest, the tomtit, the robin, the grey warbler, and the piwakawaka (fantail). [In some versions his companions were his brothers].
New Zealand piwakawaka (fantail) in flight
Photo: Copyright Nga Manu Images
The smallest birds are light, quick, fleeting, all-over-the-place, unreliable: of all the birds they most suggest the quickness of the mind. Maui's idea of defeating his ancestress was only an idea.
He found Hine asleep with her legs apart and he and his companions saw sharp flints of obsidian and greenstone between her thighs.
Hine had teeth in her vagina; this image occurs in many different cultures. Life is born from the earth and devoured by it at death. The symbolic meaning is that consciousness is born from the unconscious and dissolves back into it in sleep and in death.
"Now," Maui told his friends, "when I go into the body of this old woman, do not laugh at me. Wait until I come out again from her mouth. Then you may laugh as much as you want."
Laughter punctures grandiosity by recognizing that it is ridiculous, that it transgresses categories. The laughter of friends and siblings keeps us real.
"You will be killed!" was all the companions could say.
"If you laugh I will indeed be killed. But if I pass right through her body I will live, and she will die."
Then he readied himself, winding the cord of his battle club tightly round his wrist and casting aside his garment. As Maui began his task, the cheeks of his watching friends puckered with suppressed laughter. As his head and arms disappeared, the fantail could hold back no longer and burst out laughing.
Hine-nui-te-po and Maui
Charles Lloyd, 1880s-1912 (Photographer) : Maori wood carving, ca 1900
The old lady woke, opened her eyes, clapped her legs together and cut Maui in two. Now Maui had become the first being to die and, because he failed in his task, all human beings are mortal. The goddess keeps her position at the portal to the underworld through which all humans must travel.
The legend ends with a strangely life-affirming image, that we all die in the Great Mother's toothed vagina.
In Hindu myth Aditi is an archaic Mother Goddess who personifies infinity, eternity and also death (because she consumes everything). She appears in the Rigveda (1700 - 1100 BCE), one of the oldest extant texts in any Indo-European language. Her images resemble those of Hine-nui-te-po.
Aditi, Hindu goddess of the void,
Statuette, Iron, 19th Century. Photo courtesy of Ajit Mookerjee, Andhra Pradesh, India. In The Heart of the Goddess by Hallie Iglehart Austin, Wingbow Press, Berkeley 1990.
Aditi, Lotus-headed goddess of the sky
Sculpture: stone. Naganatha Temple, Bijapur District, Karnataka, India, c. 650 CE. Now in the Badami Museum.