Hey there! Are you interested in learning more about Polynesian mythology?
Well, you’re in the right place!
In this article, we’ll be exploring the rich and diverse world of Polynesian mythology. From the hero-trickster Maui to the sacred power of mana, we’ll cover all the basics and more.
The Polynesian islands are a vast region of the Pacific Ocean, consisting of many hundreds of culturally and politically diverse island groups.
From Hawaii in the north to New Zealand in the south, the triangular area known as Polynesia also includes Tahiti, Samoa, Tonga, and many other islands.
Although the mythology of these islands took different forms, many of the basic stories, themes, and deities were surprisingly similar throughout the region.
In this guide, we’ll learn about the foundations of Polynesian religion and myth, the importance of nature and the sea, and the pantheon of gods and goddesses that emerged.
Be sure to check out my World Mythology 101 article for an overview of all major mythologies in the world.
What is Polynesian Mythology?
Polynesian mythology is the collection of myths, legends, and traditional beliefs of the indigenous people of the Polynesian islands.
These stories often revolve around deities, nature, and the sea. If you’ve ever heard the story of the hero-trickster Maui, you’re already familiar with Polynesian mythology!
Many of the basic themes and characters of Polynesian mythology are similar throughout the region, although the myths and legends took different forms on different islands.
The Importance of Nature
Polynesian religion placed a great emphasis on the power of nature and the importance of the sea.
The Polynesians were incredible navigators, and their religion and mythology reflected this connection to the ocean.
They believed in a sacred and supernatural power called mana, which could be good or evil and was present in all things in nature. Because mana was sacred, they had strict rules, known as tapus, to protect it. Breaking these rules could result in punishment, even death.
Forms of Worship
The Polynesians worshiped many gods and goddesses, both local and part of their pantheon. Worship involved chants, prayers, and elaborate rituals, as well as sacrifices.
Priests played a central role in these rituals, and some were even oracles. Magic was also an important part of Polynesian mythology, with people using incantations and charms to summon the gods or ask for their guidance.
Prominent Polynesian Myths
Of the many tales that exist among Polynesian mythology, some of the major ones are:
- The Hawaiin Creation Myth: According to the Hawai’ian creation story, the world began in darkness and was gradually filled with light through the union of male and female darkness. Each union resulted in the birth of new creatures, with the world becoming a little brighter with each birth, until the pig and rat were born at the first Dawn and the first man and woman were created.
- The Moai Statues of Easter Island: This tale describes the massive stone statues that stand on Easter Island. According to legend, the god Makemake descended from the heavens and created the first man and woman on the island. He also created the statues to watch over the island and its people.
- The Legend of Hina: The goddess Hina is a popular figure in Polynesian mythology, appearing in many stories and legends. One such story describes her supernatural conception and the legendary birth of her son, Māui. In some versions of the story, Hina is said to have ascended to the moon and continues to make Kapa cloth for the gods out of the bark of a Banyan tree. This legend is found in the myths of many Polynesian groups, including those of Samoa, New Zealand, and Tonga.
- The Voyage of Kupe: This story tells of the great navigator Kupe and his journey across the Pacific Ocean to New Zealand. Kupe and his crew were the first humans to discover the islands of Aotearoa, and they named many of the landmarks and landmarks we know today.
- The Battle of Māui and the Giant Fish: Māui is a god in Polynesian mythology known for his cunning and bravery. In one of his most famous feats, he fought and defeated a giant fish to create the North and South Islands of New Zealand.
Polynesian Mythology Characters
Next, here are some of the most significant characters to feature in Polynesian mythology:
- Tāne: The god of forests and birds. He was the son of Ranginui (the sky father) and Papatuanuku (the earth mother). He is often depicted as the creator of humans and animals, as well as the bringer of light.
- Hine-nui-te-pō: Hine-nui-te-pō, also known as the “Great Woman of Night,” is a giant goddess of death and the underworld in Polynesian mythology.
- Tangaroa: Tangaroa is the great atua of the sea and its creatures, particularly fish. He is also associated with control over the tides and is sometimes depicted as a whale. In some of the Cook Islands, he has similar roles, though in Manihiki he is the fire deity that Māui steals from. In Māori mythology, this role is instead filled by Mahuika, the goddess of fire.
- Hina: Hina is the name given to a number of powerful female deities who have dominion over specific entities. The name Hina is often paired with words that identify the goddess and her power, and it continues to be a figure of worship in many Polynesian religions. Her stories serve as traditions that unite the cultures of Polynesia, particularly the Hawaiian Islands.
- Rongo: In Māori mythology, Rongo is a major god of cultivated plants, especially kumara, and is also an important god of agriculture and war in the southern Cook Islands. A legend involving Rongo and the first kite is told in Walt Disney’s Enchanted Tiki Room.
- Maui: One of the most famous characters in Polynesian mythology, Maui was a demigod who performed many great feats, such as lassoing the sun to slow its journey across the sky and fishing up the North Island of New Zealand. He was also the god of fire and trickery.
- Tūmatauenga: Tūmatauenga is the primary god of war and human activities such as hunting, fishing, and cooking. As the god of war, all taua are dedicated to him, and he is the inspiration for the name of the New Zealand Army’s Māori unit.
- Paikea: Paikea is a notable ancestor who originated in Hawaiki according to Māori tradition. He is particularly known to tribes with origins in the Gisborne District such as Ngāti Porou and Ngāi Tahu. He is famous for having survived an attempt on his life by his half-brother Ruatapu with the help of a whale.
- Kupe: Kupe was a legendary Polynesian explorer, navigator and rangatira of Hawaiki who is said to have been the first human to discover New Zealand.
Polynesian Mythology Sources
There are not many texts that can be considered primary sources of Polynesian mythology, as it was mostly told orally until written down by scholars. But here are some good sources to review:
- Oceanic Mythology by Roland B. Dixon: This book is a comprehensive study of the mythology of the peoples of the Pacific Ocean, including the Polynesians, Micronesians, and Melanesians. It includes many stories and legends, as well as interpretations and analysis of the myths.
- Polynesian Mythology by Sir George Grey: This book is a collection of traditional Polynesian myths and legends, including stories of creation, gods and goddesses, and the adventures of legendary heroes. It also includes an introduction and notes by the author.
- Hawaiian Mythology by Martha Warren Beckwith: This book is a comprehensive study of the mythology of the Hawaiian people, including stories of creation, gods and goddesses, and the deeds of legendary heroes. It also includes an introduction and notes by the author.
- The Kumulipo: This is a Hawaiian creation chant that tells the story of the universe from its beginning to the present day. It includes many references to gods and goddesses, as well as to the genealogy of Hawaiian royalty.
- Māori Myth and Legend by A.W. Reed: This book collects and retells many traditional Māori myths and legends, including stories of the gods, the creation of the world, and the deeds of legendary heroes.
Polynesian Mythology Artifacts and Weapons
Polynesian mythology doesn’t have many artifacts or weapons, but here is one of them:
- The Fishhook of Maui: This was a magical fishhook that was used by the demigod Maui to fish up the islands of New Zealand. It was said to be so strong that it could hold the largest fish in the sea.
Polynesian Mythology Creatures
Polynesian mythology is rich with tales of incredible creatures. Here are a few:
- Taniwha: In Māori mythology, taniwha are supernatural beings that live in rivers, caves, or the sea, and may be considered protective guardians or dangerous predators.
- Pele: Pele is the goddess of fire and volcanoes in Polynesian mythology. She is said to live in the volcano of Kilauea on the island of Hawaii, and she is known for her temper and her ability to control the power of the volcano.
- Pua Tu Tahi: In Tahitian mythology, Pua Tu Tahi was a giant monster clam from the legend of Rata.
Polynesian Mythology in Popular Culture
Although originating from the Polynesian islands, Polynesian mythology is still popular today. Here are a few examples of Polynesian mythology in modern pop culture:
- Moana: This Disney movie, released in 2016, features the demigod Maui and his magical fishhook as key plot points.
Captain Cook’s Misunderstanding: A Cultural Warning
Captain James Cook’s visit to the Hawaiian Islands in 1778 is a prime example of the misunderstandings that can arise when cultures with vastly different belief systems come into contact.
In 1778, English explorer Captain James Cook became the first European to visit the Hawaiian Islands.
His arrival was met with confusion and misunderstanding, and ultimately cost him his life.
The Hawaiians initially thought that Cook was the god Lono and welcomed him with open arms. They escorted him to their temple and took part in their religious rituals, unaware that Cook was not actually Lono.
When Cook left and then returned, the Hawaiians became anxious and confused. In order to ensure that Lono would “die” as he was supposed to, they killed Cook.
The Polynesian people had deep-seated beliefs in the power of their gods and the importance of their religious traditions, and Cook’s actions were seen as a threat to the natural order.
Despite the tragedy, this is a great case study on the power of mythology, both for those who believe it, and for those who disrespect it.
In either case, we would do well to exercise caution.