Polynesian Mythology





Polynesia is a vast region of the Pacific Ocean consisting of many hundreds of widely separated, culturally and politically diverse island groups. Ranging from Midway and Hawaii in the north to New Zealand in the south, the triangular area called Polynesia also includes Tahiti, Samoa, Tonga, Tuamotu, the Cook Islands, and the Pitcairn Islands. Although the mythology of Polynesia took different forms on various islands, many of the basic stories, themes, and deities were surprisingly similar throughout the region.


Foundations of Religion and Myth. Scholars believe that humans first migrated to Polynesia from Southeast Asia about 2,000 years ago. These people carried with them their mythological traditions about events, deities, and heroes. As time passed and people moved to different island groups, they adapted their mythology and religious beliefs to suit their new environments. In the process, they added new characters and events to the traditional myths and legends. Nevertheless, the basic elements of religion and myth remained relatively unchanged throughout the island groups, and a fairly distinct pantheon of gods and goddesses emerged.

Polynesian religion and mythology placed great emphasis on nature, particularly the ocean environment. The Polynesians became masters of navigation and other seafaring skills, and their religion and myths strongly reflected the importance of nature and the sea. Polynesians believed that all things in nature, including humans, contained a sacred and supernatural power called mana. Mana could be good or evil, and individuals, animals, and objects contained varying amounts of mana.

Because mana was sacred, Polynesians invented complicated rules to protect it. Ordinary people were not allowed, for example, to touch even the shadow of a great chief. Nor could they step inside sacred groves or temples. The punishment for breaking important rules, known as tapus (the source of the word taboo), was often death. Illness and misfortune were believed to come from breaking minor tapus.

The Polynesians' religion included many gods, local deities as well as the great gods of their pantheon. The people felt a close personal connection to their deities and to various heroes, demigods, and tricksters of their mythology. The most popular character was Maui, a hero-trickster well known throughout Polynesia.

Worship of the gods involved chants and prayers, elaborate rituals, and sacrifices (including human sacrifice) performed by various classes of priests, some of whom acted as oracles. Magic also flourished among the Polynesians, who used incantations, charms, and spells to summon the gods or ask for their guidance or assistance.

Origin of Yams

The yam, or sweet potato, is one of the basic food crops of Polynesia. A number of myths explain the origin of this important food. One Maori myth tells how the god Rongo-maui went to heaven to see his brother Wahnui, the guardian of the yam. Rongo-maui stole the yam, hid it in his clothing, and returned to earth. Soon after, he made his wife, Pani, pregnant, and she later gave birth to a yam, the first on earth. Rongo-maui gave this food to humans.

deity god or goddess

pantheon all the gods of a particular culture

supernatural related to forces beyond the normal world; magical or miraculous

demigod one who is part human and part god

trickster mischievous figure appearing in various forms in the folktales and mythology of many different peoples

ritual ceremony that follows a set pattern

oracle priest or priestess or other creature through whom a god is believed to speak; also the location (such as a shrine) where such words are spoken

incantation chant, often part of a magical formula or spell

cult group bound together by devotion to a particular person, belief, or god

Priests usually organized and led religious festivals and celebrations. In some places, special cult organizations, consisting of storytellers, musicians, dancers, and other performers, took charge of staging ceremonial activities. Sacred ceremonies often included singing, dancing, storytelling, and dramatic performances. The Hawaiian hula dance originated as a sacred ceremonial dance.

Polynesian Mythology

Polynesian Deities
Deity Role
Haumia god of wild plants and vegetables
Kamapua'a pig god
Kane god of creation and growth
Ku creator god
Lono god of the heavens
Maui trickster god and hero
Oro war god
Papa, Po supreme creator goddess, mother earth
Pele fire goddess
Rangi, Ao supreme creator god, father sky
Rongo god of cultivated plants
Ta'aroa, Rua-i-tupra supreme creator god
Tane god of the forest
Tangaroa, Kanaloa, Tangaloa god of the seas
Tawhiri god of the wind and storms
Tu god of war

Major Gods and Characters. The most important gods of the Polynesian pantheon were those associated with creation myths and legends. Best known were Rangi (Father Sky) and Papa (Mother Earth), the two supreme creator gods of the Maori people of New Zealand. According to Maori legend, Rangi and Papa served as the source from which all things came.

The counterparts of Rangi and Papa in Hawaiian mythology were Ao and Po. Ao represented the male force in the universe and was associated with the sky, the day, and light. Po, the feminine force, was linked with the earth, darkness, and night. According to Hawaiian myth, a creator god named Ku separated Ao from Po. Ku then worked with Lono, god of the heavens, and Kane, the chief god of generation and growth, to create the earth and all living things. After Kane made the first man and woman, he became angry at their bad behavior and decided that humans would be subject to death. He then left the earth and went to live in heaven.

cosmic large or universal in scale; having to do with the universe

In Tahitian mythology, the supreme creator deity was Ta'aroa, also called Rua-i-tupra (source of growth). Ta'aroa emerged from a cosmic egg and started the process of creation. To fill the emptiness around him, he used part of the egg to make the sky and the other part to create the earth. Satisfied with his accomplishment, he filled the world with all the creatures and things that are now found in it. The Tahitians believed that Ta'aroa sent both blessings and curses, and they tried to appease him with human sacrifices.

The Maori gods Rangi and Papa had many offspring, including Tangaroa, the god of the seas. According to legend, Tangaroa fled to the sea to escape the wrath of his brother Tawhiri, the storm god. Tangaroa later quarreled with another brother, the forest god Tane, and forever after he enjoyed sinking canoes made from wood from Tane's forests. In Hawaiian mythology, Tangaroa was called Kanaloa and the Hawaiian counterpart of Tane was Kane. The Samoans and Tongans knew Tangaroa as Tangaloa.

Perhaps the best-known and most feared deity in Hawaii was the fire goddess Pele, a violent figure associated with volcanoes. Renowned for her beauty but also for her ability to destroy, Pele symbolized the power of natural forces. Many Hawaiian legends deal with her unpredictable temper and dangerous nature.

Another prominent deity in Hawaiian mythology was Kamapua'a, the pig god. Known both for his warlike nature and for his romantic exploits, this energetic god appeared in many tales. The

Captain james Cook visited the Hawaiian islands in 1778. When he came ashore, the people mistook him for one of their gods. This illustration shows the Hawaiians offering gifts to the English captain.
Captain james Cook visited the Hawaiian islands in 1778. When he came ashore, the people mistook him for one of their gods. This illustration shows the Hawaiians offering gifts to the English captain.
Hawaiians often sought Kamapua'a as an ally during war and used his adventures to explain various natural phenomena.

By far the most popular figure in Polynesian mythology was Maui, the trickster god and hero. Though small in stature, he displayed amazing strength and had various magical powers. The many tales about his adventures reveal a cunning and determined hero who performed many great and wondrous deeds, including creating the Pacific islands with a magical hook and providing humans with more hours of daylight by slowing the sun's passage across the sky. Maui also tried, but failed, to become immortal.


Major Themes and Myths. The best-known myths in Polynesia deal with creation and with the origin of gods, humans, and other living things. The adventures of characters such as Pele and Maui also figure prominently.

Some Polynesian myths describe creation as a process of growth or evolution from a primal state of chaos, nothingness, or darkness. The Hawaiian myths of Ao and Po, the male and female forces of the universe, reflect this idea. From a great watery chaos at the beginning of time, the creator god Ku separated Ao and Po, thus producing day and night and making the world possible.

Other Polynesian creation myths focus on a preexisting creator who lives alone and forms all things from nothingness. This idea is expressed in stories from Samoa and Tonga about Tangaloa. According to legend, while Tangaloa ruled over a vast expanse of ocean, his messenger, the bird Tuli, searched endlessly for somewhere to rest. Tangaloa eventually threw some rocks into the water, and these became the islands of Samoa and Tonga.

In the Maori creation myth, two primal beings—Te Po (Night) and Te Kore (Darkness)—existed in a realm of chaos at the beginning of time. From them sprang Rangi and Papa, the first gods of the universe. For many ages, Rangi and Papa were locked in an embrace, and their offspring, including numerous gods, were caught between them. The gods grew weary of their confinement and finally separated Rangi from Papa, thus providing room for themselves and for all things to grow and multiply.

The origin of humans and other living things is explained in various ways. According to myths about Tangaloa, after he created the islands of the Pacific, he used a vine to cover the bare land and provide shade. The vine spread, and parts of it decayed and became full of maggots. Tangaloa took the maggots and shaped them into humans. When he gave them a heart and soul, they came to life.

In Maori myth, several of the gods—especially Tane-mahuta, Tangaroa, and Rongo-ma-tane (the god of cultivated crops)—played an active role in creating lands, plants, and humans. According to some legends, all living creatures, including humans, emerged from Tangaroa's vast body.

Captain Cook and the Gods

In 1778 English explorer Captain James Cook became the first European to visit the Hawaiian Islands. He arrived during a period of political turmoil, and some scholars believe that a misunderstanding about the native religion cost him his life. When Cook came ashore, the people thought that he was the god Lono. They escorted him to their temple, where he took part in their rituals, unaware that doing so confirmed their beliefs that he was Lono. The Hawai ¡ans believed that Lono would ritually "die" and then leave them. Cook left, but soon returned, which confused the ¡slanders. Anxious to make sure that Lono died as he was supposed to, the Hawaiians killed Cook.

immortal able to live forever

primal earliest; existing before other things

chaos great disorder or confusion

In another myth, the god Tane went searching for a wife. He united with several different beings and produced mountains, rivers, and other living and nonliving things. Tane longed for a partner with a human shape, however, so he formed a woman out of sand and breathed life into her. This woman's name was Hine-hauone (Earth-formed Maiden), and she had a daughter named Hine-titama (Dawn Maiden). Tane later took the girl—who did not know he was her father—as his wife, and they had many children. When Hine-titama discovered Tane's identity she fled to the underworld, dragging her children after her. The relationship between Tane and his daughter resulted in the arrival of death for humans.

A Hawaiian myth tells how Kane longed for a companion in his own image. His mother, Papatuanuku, told him to make a likeness of himself from clay and to embrace it. When he did as she suggested, the clay figure came to life and became the first woman.

Numerous myths explain the origin of various plant foods and other things of value. According to some stories, humans had to steal food from the gods or trick them into giving up certain foods. In others, however, the gods felt sorry for humans and generously gave food to them. A number of myths also explain that foods were the offspring of a particular god or grew from part of the body of a god.

Some Polynesian myths tell about characters who possessed extraordinary or supernatural powers and acted as miracle workers, mischief makers, or tricksters. The Hawaiians called these figures kapua and loved to hear about their many adventures. The kapua were often raised by grandparents who used magic to help them in their adventures. They generally grew up to be monstrous creatures who could change shape and perform great feats of strength. Among the more popular tales were those in which the kapua slayed monsters, rescued maidens, defeated rivals, and competed with the gods.


underworld land of the dead

Legacy. With the introduction of Christianity in Polynesia in the 1700s, traditional religious beliefs began to fade. Although the Polynesian gods no longer play a major role in religion in most parts of the region, the rich heritage of myths and legends remains part of the literature, folklore, and imagination of native cultures.

See also Creation Stories ; Maui ; Melanesian Mythology ; Menehune ; Micronesian Mythology ; Pele ; Rangi and Papa ; Ta'aroa ; Tiki ; Tricksters .

The carving on this hei tiki jade pendant is a fertility symbol in the mythology of the Maori people of New Zealand. The figure represents the first man, Tiki, in the stories of other Polynesians.
The carving on this hei tiki jade pendant is a fertility symbol in the mythology of the Maori people of New Zealand. The figure represents the first man, Tiki, in the stories of other Polynesians.



User Contributions:

Te Koha Wihongi.
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Jul 30, 2006 @ 8:20 pm
Just a comment on the topic 'RONGO' According to Ngapuhi Whare Waananga: Marino Kato. When Rongo appeared before the people of Tahiti during the great war between the native people of Tahiti and the migrating Hawaiian Ancestors, Tohunga recorded in carved Whakairo - Shiloh, That on the morning of the great battle, a ship of unusual make entered into a Tahitian Bay, upon it there were many men, the ship had multiple decks and masts. From this great ship, a smaller vessel was hoisted down from it, and upon the smaller vessel there the crew made their way towards land, and the descent of the crewmen were polynesian and the people of Tahiti could correspond with them.
With these unusual events happening before the Tahitian Ancestors, the rage of war ceased and the attention of the people were fixated on a solitary figure that stood upon this great ship, and he was not of polynesian descent, his countenance shone like the sun, his hair glowed red as the sunrays Stuck him, but there was no vessel to receive him.
What happened next was by far the greatest incident to occur before the people of Polynesia, the fair skinned man descended upon the water, and the water held his weight, and he walked upon the ocean surface, to dry land.
Knowing that they were in the presence of a supernatural being/a God, the natives watched as he walked amosngst them, healing their sick, and Raising their dead.....

Healing and Medicine = Rongoa,
Rongo-a = Rongo; meaning to heal, a; Is the Command
Rongoa thus mean: To Heal.
Rongo-a also means: Of Rongo or What Rongo had done.
Tekoha Wihongi
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Jul 30, 2006 @ 8:20 pm
.....after these great miracles were performed.
This personage of Godliness, Spoke to us and we listend....

(Rongo = To Listen and to Hear.
In the Maori Language, a singular word can have adverse translations, depending on the use of the word)

......the natives then named the great god 'Rongo' because He healed the sick, raised the dead, And by the definining fact that the natives Listened to him.
In other words, he proslited to the people and gave them new commandments so to speak, he instilled a new law amongst them and he taught them good principles, (Te Rongopai - The Good words of Rongo. Also meaning Gospel)
Rongo then beseached the people of Tahiti to enter into a covenant with him, to obey his will. Tohunga named this covenant

Houhou-te-Rongo = To enter a covenant with Rongo.
Tekoha Wihongi
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Jul 30, 2006 @ 8:20 pm
Rongo could see much conflict amongst the people of Tahiti, That he taught them how to build Marae,
And commanded the people
that they must not fight anymore,
Instead they should work out there diffrences one with another.

Tohunga remmember how magnificent his carpentry skills were, and with him being the first founder of the Marae, Maori have named Rongo, the god of the Marae.
Tekoha Wihongi
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Jul 30, 2006 @ 8:20 pm
With human sacrifice being the greatest tribute to the gods for the polynesians, they began sacrificing people in honour of Rongo.
Rongo put a hault to this. He snarred what Maori remmember as Te Koururu, or Owl took the dead bird into the newly built Marae and said to the spiritual men, that Koururu would be the last blood sacrifice, for he was the great sacrifice.
He then burried Koururu at the backwall of the Wharenui of the Marae, and until this day, Maori have recorded that the back wall of the Wharenui is the wall of death.

The people murmured to Rongo that they may forget his teachings, upon hearing this, Rongo taught the people how to carve history down, Rongo then taught them of the greateness of Io-matua-Kore

(Io-matua-Kore = He who hath no father. also The great God)

And he taught them to carve huge bulging eyes into the carving in remmembrace of Koururu, in the remmembrance that he was the great sacrifice.
Tekoha Wihongi
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Jul 30, 2006 @ 8:20 pm
Rongo saw the fatigueness of the people because the vastness of food sources were limited, Canniblism was at a high and therefore Rongo then instructed the people on how to find the Kumara - Yam or sweet potato to give body to their diet.

Rongo ordainned and blessed chosen people to carry out his teachings, he called them Tohunga,

(Tohunga = Chosen Ones. also Specialists)

Rongo now accomplished his work amongst the people, made plans to leave Tahiti, the people of Tahiti, begged him to stay, and it is recorded that he stayed many weeks longer in Tahiti before leaving.

This event was by far the greatest day in Polynesian history.
The History protected by the Tohunga right up until 1927 when the Government brought to power 'The Tohunga Suppression Act' and with this many of the history of Maori right back to the beggining were lost.

But the teachings of Rongo have continued to be passed on from father to son etc.
Tekoha Wihongi
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Jul 30, 2006 @ 8:20 pm
The Yam: or Sweet Potato.

The Instuctions and Directions given by Rongo to the people of Tahiti were followed, The Tahitians ventured into the pacific and made port in Peru were they found the 'Kumar' or what Maori call 'Kumara' they also found the Small Potato and named it after the land they found it in 'Peruperu'.
The waka or Vessel that took them to Peru, was named

Ara-i-te-uru meaning = The Pathway to Uru.

Uru: Is what Maori know as ; The First Home.

and from this Rongo
also became the God of Gardens.
Te Koha Wihongi
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Jul 30, 2006 @ 8:20 pm
God of the Sea?????

Tangaroa is known as 'The Sea God'
His extended name Ngapuhi remmember as

Tangaroa-Wehenga-Wai-ki-Ura traslated meaning;
Tangaroa who speads the red Sea.
Tekoha Wihongi
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Jul 30, 2006 @ 8:20 pm
Tangaroa

The Whare Waananga; Marino Kato.
recorded that Tangaroa was not the blood brother of Tane and Tu Matauenga. But a man who lived in the days of

Te-Ariki-Wahanui : The God with a big mouth. Or the God who ordered us around.

In a Land known as; Te Whenua i Raro. which was governed by
Wharo,
Wharo meaning; A great house, or perhaps it is connected with the word Pharoah, pronounced the same and has similar translations.

Tangaroa and his blood brother, Tane-Atua were the god sons who saved the Maori Ancestors from Nga Ariki Wahanui or the Pharoahs.

And then Tangaroa-Wehenga-Wai-ki-Ura received such a name.

some may make the mistake of classing Moses as Tangaroa, but this is a common mistake, for Moses did not command the red sea to part, But Aaron his elder brother who held what Maori call Mana-atua or The Power of God, given to the first born.

Moses we believe is Tane-Atua
which in translation means: Gods male interpreter not Gods Son.
Te Koha Wihongi
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Jul 30, 2006 @ 9:21 pm
The First Parents:

Maori recorded their first father to be Tiki, who was created by Tane.

Tiki = Human Embryo.

Once Tiki was created, Tane touched noses with him, and breathed life into Tiki, and then chanted the words

Kia Ora which in the years has lost its origins and many believe it to be Hello or greetings,

Kia Ora in its perfect translation means: Come Alive

Ora: meaning, Life; Kia: is the Command.

And then looking Tiki face to face Tane said unto him

"Tena Koe" = "There you are"

Isnt this a better insight to the creation of the first man than that of Genesis?

and from the ribs of Adam came Eve.

The first Maori Mother is named Iwi or Ko-Iwi.

Koiwi - Human Bone

because we remmember that she was made from the side of Tiki, and from his Left Rib she rose, and by his side she stood...as equal entities.

Maori descend from the son of Tiki and Iwi named 'Kapiri'
his full name is,

'Kapiri-nga-rakau-o-te-wao-nui-a-tane'
named after the closing of the trees of the land of god after the first parents were cast out of the land.

Maori call this transition from god to man as

'Te-Ohia-Hemorere'
This is when Blood begins to flow through the body.
Te Koha Wihongi
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Jul 30, 2006 @ 9:21 pm
Papatuanuku or Te Papa-tu-a-nuku

The consolation of stars known as Plieades or 'the seven sisters'
Maori have named Matariki,

The Stars are called

1) Matariki
2) Tupu-a-Nuku
3) Tupu-a-Rangi
4) Wai-Tii
5) Wai-Ta
6) Wai-puna-Rangi
7) Uru-Rangi

Maori Tohunga believe that Plieades has Eight Stars, the Eighth being Earth, or Papa-tu-a-nuku.

After Io-matua-kore and his apprentice Tane
had accomplished the construction of Earth, they returned to 'Ururangi'

And spoke to the hosts of Uru-Rangi, telling them
that their new home had been built.
The spirts, so to speak; asked Io, where is this home.

Io said, 'Kei reira, Te Papa-tu-a-nuku'
'It is there, 'The-Land-that-stands-afar-off'

Papatuanuku was not named on Earth.
Te Koha Wihongi
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Jul 30, 2006 @ 9:21 pm
The Battle of the Gods.

Whilst still in the presence of Io-matua-kore
or 'the councel of Heaven' in our first home 'Uru-Rangi'
the councells and multitudes were gathered, and the plans of Tumatauenga and Tane were put forth before Io-matua-kore.

the hosts of Uru-rangi were then split apart with much contention and conflict brewing over the ture or laws
that will command the purpose of Te Papatuanuku

The people of Uru-Rangi with War on the verge of exploding gathered at the battlefield 'Awarua' where Tane and Tumatauenga fought in a deciding battle of good and evil, After much battle, Tumatauenga was prevailled over by Tane, and Tane banished Tumatauenga out of Ururangi to the land where Tumatauenga dwells til this day, in 'Kaihewa'
marcelo de almeida
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Oct 27, 2009 @ 8:20 pm
I am interested to know if there is a fundamental difference between the culture and attitude of the maori in relation to the tropical polynesians. Cook seems to have stated that the maoris were fiercely inteligent but not generally receptive. However, he loved the tongans, cooks, and society is. for their friendly ways. Could I conclude that temperate climates produce cold, calculated and war-like cultures, even if derived from tropical cultures? Thankyou
james hohaia
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Apr 10, 2012 @ 11:11 am
Maori are men like any other,we have a Culture that has been around since the dawn of time.The Greek's,Sumerian's,Chinese,Mongolian's,Egyptian's and the Arab's did not venture to far into the Pacific,so the people of the pacific were not privileged to the advancement's,these great cultures blessed the WEST with. Charles Darwin theory of evolution by means of natural selection,is why the Polynesian's were able to adapt in the harsh condition's of the Pacific.From this transition Maori became a war-like culture.Survival of the fittest,the instinct to live,the will to conquer the largest ocean on the planet unhindered by time, Religion, or politics.Captain James Cook discovered the Pacific had already been discovered & populated by the greatest seafarer's the world has ever known.

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