Polynesian Mythology

Polynesian Mythology, Sir George Grey, 1854 (full title: Polynesian Mythology and Ancient Traditional History of the New Zealand Race, as Furnished by Their Priests and Chiefs … the man obviously could have used a good editor)

This was a definite step up from Dixon, but still pretty boring. Also, I really wish I could have found an early work of Maori mythology written by a Maori. Sir George Grey, as he writes in his preface to this work, was appointed governor of New Zealand in 1845 and “soon perceived that [he] could neither successfully govern, nor hope to conciliate, a numerous and turbulent people, with whose language, manners, customs, religion, and modes of thought [he] was quite unacquainted.” Well, duh, but in some ways he seems to have been fairly enlightened for a 19th-century European colonist. He writes of his motivation to learn Maori–in order to better understand and help those he was appointed to govern–and spent the better part of eight years collecting legends and poems in order to better understand Maori culture. Unlike Dixon, who converts Polynesian mythic poetry into extremely dull prose, Grey undertook to translate it as closely as possible into English, preserving wherever he could the original sense of movement and poetic language. On the other hand, he closes with “That their traditions are puerile is true; that the religious faith of the races who trust in them is absurd is a melancholy fact…I believe that the ignorance which has prevailed regarding the mythological systems of barbarous or semi-barbarous races has too generally led to their being considered far grander and more reasonable than they really were.” And throws in, as consolation, that actually the Maori aren’t stupid themselves–they’re smart enough to be converted to Christianity and then be ashamed of their former “barbarism”. So, you know, let’s not give Grey too much credit.

Featured image
To the Sea, Linoprint, 2006

Now, on to the text itself. Comparative religion isn’t really my thing, and I get tired of reading myths after a couple of verses (I can’t tell you how many times I’ve tried to get through the Bible, in the interest of better understanding Western culture and literary references–I was a medievalist before I was a scientist, and a pretty thorough knowledge of biblical text is required–but I never make it out of Genesis before I move onto something with a little bit more forward plot momentum), but there was enough here to keep me pretty well engaged. If you’re someone who likes reading religious texts and mythology, you’ll probably be pretty happy with this. The Maui cycle in particular is interesting–he’s sort of the Polynesian Prometheus, who steals fire from the gods and gives it to humans, and gets up to lots of other shenanigans (like turning his brother-in-law into a dog, much to his sister’s dismay) and eventually dies because a bird laughs at the wrong time (really). There are a few fairly endless chapters of migration myths, which tell the stories of the voyages of the Ancestral Canoes and the colonization of Polynesia. It’s pretty cool because it references an actual historical event: Polynesia was populated in successive waves of migrations from somewhere in Southeast Asia, and this event was obviously immortalized in Polynesian legend. But there are about twenty different variations of the same story, all with slightly different heroes (who are often fighting each other) who land in different parts of New Zealand and establish different tribes, and in each story the hero and all his companions are named, and also their canoes, and their oars, and their weapons. It’s kind of like reading Anglo-Saxon or early Welsh literature where the hero goes hunting and the poet has to list all two hundred of his dogs by name. It’s probably incredibly impressive when it’s a poet reciting it all from memory, but as a text it’s fairly tedious.

My favorite was the story of Hine-Moa, a high-ranking maiden who falls in love with Tutanekai, the son of a nearby chief. They’re both secretly crushing on each other, but too shy to say it, and anyway Hine-Moa’s family thinks she’s too good for anyone. Even after they figure out that their attraction is mutual, Hine-Moa’s friends hide all the canoes so she can’t paddle out to the island where Tutanekai lives, even though he’s playing some incredibly soulful flute/trumpet duets with his friend Tiki. But, not to be deterred, she just decides to swim for it (3.2 kilometers, according to modern geography). Here was the part where I thought she would drown, or be caught by her dad and dragged back to her house, because that’s what Western fairytales have taught me to expect. But no, she makes it to the island, takes a quick skinny-dipping break in a convenient hot spring, and then goes home with Tutanekai to spend the night (and thus they’re married–that’s all it takes). Having spent a long time with medieval literature and Christianity (not to mention Disney movies) I’m accustomed to women being either weak, wicked, or absent from my folk tales, so it was nice to see a story about equality in romance that doesn’t end in the heroine getting squashed for her presumption.

Another nice sky to go with the one from last week. Ireland, 2010

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