An extract from Witi Ihimaera’s new book Navigating the Stars: Māori creation myths.
This is an abridged passage of a deeply empathetic section analysing the life story of Hine-nui-te-pō, who crushed Māui to death with her vulva. At the end of the book, Ihimaera argues that Hine-nui-te-pō should be instated to her “rightful place among the pantheon of gods”.
We come to the final labour of the demigod, Māui-pōtiki. It was the third encounter with a tipuna wahine; this time, Hine-nui-te-pō. I have written previously of her as the great mother of Te Pō. Her court was at Te Rua-tewhenua in a beautiful meeting house called Wharau-rangi. She sometimes bathed in a spring named Wai-mahuru. Her biography traversed a rather moving and altogether upsetting arc. To recap, she was brought up without her biological mother. As a young girl, she epitomised all the unfettered joy of innocence. She fell in love, married and became a mother herself. But her husband, Tāne, was not who she thought him to be; unknown to her, he was also her father. Worryingly, Tāne was not the one who took accountability; she did. For the sake of her child – for all children – and for the sisterhood, she sacrificed herself. She became the mother who would take us to her at death; rather her than Whiro.
In so doing, Hine-nui-te-pō should have risen triumphant, don’t you think? Instead, she was demonised. Like her sister Mahuika, and daughter Muri-ranga-whenua, she was introduced in menacing imagery: “Her body is human but her eyes are greenstone. Her hair is sea-grass and her mouth is a barracouta,” was Te Rangikāheke’s description (quoted in Grey’s Polynesian Mythology, 1855). But the most despicable focus was on the representation of her outer genitalia as having a monstrous life of their own.
Then he [Māui] said, “What does she look like?” He [Māui’s father] answered, “That flashing over there is her thighs opening. The redness comes from inside her labia. The repeated shining is the flash of her brightly shining labia, which are in fact formed from sharp obsidian.”
The trope preferred for Hine-nui-te-pō was not as mother of Te Pō but, rather, as a malevolent goddess of sex and death. It was this frightening atua, the antithesis of life, that traditionally became Māui’s opponent. Perhaps, though, we could conclude that Tāne’s treatment of her was the cause of the transformation from the innocent young woman: in other words, just as he had shaped her mother from Earth, so his abuse had shaped Hine-nui-te-pō into a monster. Alternatively, like many a victim, was this how she now felt about herself: defiled, despoiled, monstrous? Maybe she had just had enough of being the passive victim and wanted to be a badass.
Whatever the reason for this depiction, naturally, such a creature – like the other tīpuna kuia – reigned in a place beyond the known, a realm of danger and death. They ruled there beyond any known psychology and, because of this, any human character who went there acted according to the dictates of the storyteller. They were the imperilled and their own moral conduct applied. At the extremities of civilisation and sanity, all that was required of the hero was to survive by whatever means, conquer the inhuman opponent and return.
Here then follows the narrative by which Māui decided to embark upon the greatest challenge of all. He who had snared the sun and fished up islands would now attempt to destroy death itself. His own mother had believed that he had “died” once already, when he had supposedly been aborted by her – and thus he was immune to death. But was he?
Oh, Māui’s reason for attempting the impossible was so laudable! All humankind would acclaim him because if he conquered death he would make them immortal. How would he achieve his aim? He would confront Hine-nui-te-pō through a reversal of the journey of birth: enter her vagina and pass upward through her body – and pull her heart out.
The thrust of the Māui cycle has conditioned us to accept everything he does and how he thinks; by this stage of his career we truly believe he can do it!
So Māui embarks on his journey to face Hine-nui-te-pō via the subterranean world, a physical descent that is immensely potent as an allegory. He seeks entrance from Te Kūwatawata at the same crossing where Tāne pursued Hine-tītama, Girl of the Dawn. Māui’s mission is a reversal of his ancestor’s – not to save Hine-tītama, now known as Hine-nui-te-pō, but to kill her. He negotiates at the entrance with Te Kūwatawata and, on the way, he picks up mates, including one Tīwakawaka in his ariā as a fantail. They are the sidekicks, the blokes, the comic relief, in on an act tantamount to rape.
Māui goes by way of the dead, even though only they can enter. But the sense of impending menace is not through confrontation with malevolent spirits. Instead, it is focused on escalating Māui’s heroic stature – he is characterised as māia, a term suggesting bravery and boldness.
The text also continues the sinister and derogatory sexual descriptives for Hine-nui-te-pō. In the course of his journey, Māui hears a strange sound, as if something is whispering to someone.
“Who is that talking?”
“It is the puapua of Hine-nui-te-pō,” Tīwakawaka says. “Her vulva.”
“But who is it talking to?”
“It is murmuring to itself.”
Colonial ethnographers, by the way, chose not to include this and other sexual imagery in their versions of the story, just as the early missionaries removed penises from Māori carvings. The explicitness, however, is very much part of Māori culture and should be acknowledged. It might reveal a misogynistic view of women (no different to the rest of the world), but it also acknowledges the power of women: power through their sexuality as well as their ability to create life. After all, this is part of the Māori creation story, though here this power is highlighted through a potent reversal of the journey of birth. A reversal that makes Hine-nui-te-pō not the mother of life but the mother of death.
The journey of Māui takes him through the wondrous realm of light. In another reversal of the expected, it is he, the so-called lord of light, who brings, this time, darkness.
Finally, Māui and his party come across Hine-nui-te-pō sleeping. It is here that we see Māui at the peak of an arc of confrontations with women from Taranga to his tīpuna kuia, Muri-ranga-whenua and Mahuika. Before him lies Hine-nui-te-pō as the goddess of sex and death. All sense of her as a living female entity is erased; she is a monster. Her thighs are open and her puapua is gaping.
“Do not utter a sound as I enter the belly of that old lady,” Māui instructs Tīwakawaka and the others. “Only when I have emerged through her mouth can you cheer.”
He lashes his sharp patu onto his arm, sheds his clothes and stands before Hine-nui-te-pō’s open thighs.
But the sight is very funny to the blokes. When he is halfway through her vulva, Tīwakawaka can’t help it – he laughs. Startled awake, Hine-nui-te-pō realises she is being molested. She screams with fear, horror and disgust. Without thinking, her puapua close around the loins of Māui. Their flint edges cut him in two.
Navigating the Stars: Māori Creation Myths, by Witi Ihimaera (RHNZ Vintage, $45) is available from Unity Books Wellington and Auckland.