I’m guessing Hawaiian Disney superfans are pretty excited about the ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi version of Moana, hot on the heels of last year’s reo Māori version. Moana and the demigod Māui now front an international smash-hit film in not one but two Polynesian languages. Ka pai. But also, as Māui superfans know already: Māui in Moana is not the same as Māui in Hawai‘i or Aotearoa or wherever, whatever the language. Why? A number of reasons, but I’m thinking mostly of Hine-nui-te-pō. You know, the R18 underworld-level boss discreetly unmentioned by Disney? That’s her.
Most (though not all) Māori traditions about Hine-nui-te-pō agree on the basics: Hine-tītama flees her father/husband Tāne after discovering that she has been a victim of incest. As Hine-nui-te-pō, she calls the dead to Rarohenga. One day, Māui decides to end mortality by crawling into her vulva, through her uterus, and out her mouth, all while she is sleeping (a tenuous grasp of female anatomy at best.) Understandably, she wakes, tenses, and crushes/slices him in half. ‘He ai atu tā te tangata, he huna mai tā Hine-nui-te-pō’ (humans create; Hine-nui-te-pō destroys). But, alongside the image of the man-slicing she-monster, another view has long been available: that Hine-nui-te-pō is a beneficent, powerful Great Mother, a representative of mana wahine.
Hine-nui-te-pō is reasonably well known worldwide. Not The Rock famous, but legit famous all the same, appearing in dozens of books from John White’s Ancient History of the Maori (1888) to Barry Powell’s World Myth (2014). You’ll even find references on the internet and elsewhere to Hine-nui-te-pō outside Aotearoa – later echoes of Māori tradition. She’s not in Moana, obviously; there’s no way anyone would put the real Hine-nui-te-pō in a Disney movie. In development, however, the supposed villain Te Kā (‘the fire’ or better ‘the burning’ in te reo) was called Te Pō, apparently in reference to Hine-nui-te-pō. And Te Kā turns out, spoiler alert, to have been Te Fiti all along – a life-giving, maternal goddess (a bit like Hine-nui-te-pō).
Anyhow, here’s the kicker: experts on oral traditions in the Pacific agree that Hine-nui-te-pō is indigenous to Aotearoa. Historically, Māui was known throughout Polynesia and even (usually by different names) in other parts of the Pacific. But Hine-nui-te-pō’s defeat of Māui is historically attested only in Māori tradition. That is: the evidence we have (and the kind of evidence we don’t have) suggests that it was tūpuna Māori who first spoke of Māui’s most ambitious undertaking, his great cosmic failure, giving his life story what has been called a ‘tragic dimension’. And it was tūpuna Māori who first spoke of Hine-nui-te-pō.
Physically, she is most often presented as a threatening, monstrous character: an old woman (ruahine, kuia) who lives at the edge of the world and whose genitals flash like lightning as her thighs open and close. Not to mention the four physical attributes which flesh her out: eyes of pounamu, hair of kelp (rimurehia), a mouth like that of a barracouta (mangā) and last but far from least, labia ridged with sharp obsidian (koi mata). Yep, folks, Hine-nui-te-pō has a vagina dentata. What’s more, allowing for judicious censorship, these four specific attributes are the standard formula for descriptions of Hine-nui-te-pō in English worldwide. So where did this formula come from? Apparently, this four-pronged formula comes from a single handwritten manuscript by a 19th century Māori writer: ‘Tama a Rangi’ (1849) by Te Rangikāheke, also known as GNZMMSS 43 and held in the Auckland Public Library. This is the most influential text of pūrākau Māori in the world, and I know only a handful of people who have ever heard of it.
Wiremu Maihi ‘William Marsh’ Te Rangikāheke (Ngāti Kererū, Ngāti Rangiwehiwehi, Te Arawa) is known, or should be, as a pioneering Māori writer. When Governor George Grey compiled two groundbreaking books of Māori narratives, Ko Nga Mahinga a Nga Tupuna Maori (The Works of the Māori Ancestors, 1854) and the English translation Polynesian Mythology (1855), he relied on Te Rangikāheke for a number of kōrero. Grey’s books are flawed, inaccurate, and misleading. But for a long time they were (and for some, still are) the standard texts of pūrākau, especially Rangi and Papa, Māui and Hine-nui-te-pō, for which ‘Tama a Rangi’ was his source. Te Rangikāheke’s manuscript itself was ignored for a long time. The best edition of the Rangi and Papa narrative is in a restricted-access 1983 Master’s thesis by Jeny Curnow (widow of the poet Allen) from the University of Auckland. The Māui narrative was only transcribed, published, and translated in a full edition in 1992, in a now out-of-print academic study by Agathe Thornton, a retired German classicist! (Seriously.)
These days, many people, most people maybe, first encounter Māui not in the work of Agathe Thornton or George Grey, let alone Te Rangikāheke or any other Māori source, but in Moana. And what with these new indigenous-language soundtracks, it’s worth remembering Disney’s Māui is still, well, Disney’s Māui.
There are hundreds, thousands of Māui, all unique. But Hine-nui-te-pō? Moana or no Moana, she’s one of a kind.
The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed, free daily curated digest of all the most important stories from around New Zealand delivered directly to your inbox each morning.