Wednesday, 13 November 2013

Mahuika's Tales No. 12 How Maui brought fire to the world


One day when all the children had found Mahuika and Hekeheke for a story one of the boys said to Mahuika “You have never told us the story of Maui and fire. Why do you not do that?”
Mahuika laughed, “You are teasing me because you know that the fire goddess Mahuika is in the story. Instead of me telling you the story perhaps Hekeheke should tell it instead.”
Hekeheke laughed too. “If I tell the story it will be different from the way Mahuika tells it as I have known the story since I was a little girl but have never heard Mahuika tell it. So I will sit a little further away from her in case she pokes me in the side for something I have missed.”
Mahuika smiled and nodded at her. Already Mahuika had spoken to Hekeheke’s mother and suggested her daughter should live with her so she could pay more attention to her new husband. Hekeheke’s mother had agreed knowing that it would bring great credit to her daughter to live with the widow of a former chief.
So Hekeheke started the story:

One evening after eating his meal Maui lay beside his fire staring into the flames watching them flicker and dance and thought, "I wonder where fire comes from?" Maui was determined to find out, so in the middle of the night while everyone was fast asleep he went from village to village and extinguished all the fires until not a single fire burned in the world. He then went back to his whare and waited.
The next morning there was uproar in all the villages.
"How can we cook our food? There is no fire!" called a worried mother.
"How will we keep warm at night?" cried another.
"We can't possibly live without fire!" all the villagers said to one another.
Everybody was frightened so they asked Maui’s father Taranga, who was their rangatira (respected chief) to help.
"Someone will have to go and see the great fire goddess Mahuika and beg her for fire," said Taranga.
None of the villagers was eager to meet Mahuika, they had all heard of the scorching mountain where she lived. So Maui said he would go in search of her, secretly glad that his plan had worked.
"Be very careful," said Taranga his father. "Although you are her grandchild, Mahuika she will not take kindly to you if you try and trick her."
"I'll find the great ancestress Mahuika and bring fire back to the world," Māui assured his parents.
Maui walked to the scorching mountain at the end of the earth following the instructions from his mother and found a huge mountain glowing red hot with heat. At the base of the mountain he saw a cave entrance. Before he entered, Maui whispered a special karakia (prayer) himself as protection from what lay beyond, but nothing could prepare Maui for what he saw when he entered the sacred mountain of Mahuika.
Mahuika, the goddess, rose up before him, fire burning from every pore of her body, her hair a mass of flames, her arms outstretched, and with only black holes where her eyes once were. She sniffed the air.
"Who is this mortal that dares to enter my dwelling?"
Maui gathered the courage to speak, "It is I, Maui."
"Aha!" yelled Mahuika. "Maui, the son of Taranga?"
"Yes the last born child, Maui-tikitiki-a-Taranga."
"Well then Maui-tikitiki-a-Taranga, welcome. Welcome to the essence of the flame, welcome my grandchild."
Mahuika stepped closer to Maui, taking a deep sniff of his scent. Maui stood completely still, even though the flames from Mahuika's skin were unbearably hot.
"So... why do you come, Maui-tikitiki-a-Taranga?" Mahuika finally asked.
Maui said, "The fires of the world have been extinguished, I have come to ask you for fire." Mahuika listened carefully to him and laughed. She pulled a fingernail from one of her burning fingers and gave it to him.
"Take this fire as a gift to your people. Honour this fire as you honour me."
So Maui left the house of Mahuika carefully holding the blazing fingernail.
As Maui walked along the side of the road he thought to himself, "What if Mahuika had no fire left, then where would she get it from then?"
Maui couldn't contain his curiosity. He quickly threw the fingernail into a stream and headed back to Mahuika's cave.
"I tripped and fell," said Maui. "Could I please have another?"
Luckily Mahuika was in a good mood. She hadn't spoken to anyone in quite some time and she liked Maui. She gladly gave Maui another of her fingernails.
But Maui soon extinguished that fingernail as well and returned to Mahuika with another excuse.
"A fish splashed my flame as I was crossing the river," Maui said.
Mahuika provided another of her fingernails not suspecting that she was being tricked.
This continued for most of the day until Mahuika had used all her fingernails and had even given up her toenails as well. When again Maui returned to ask for another Mahuika was furious. She knew now Maui had been tricking her and threw the burning toenail to the ground and a great wall of flame surrounded him and she chased him out of the cave.
Maui was not deterred and changed himself into a hawk and flew up into the sky but the flames she had set off burned so high that they singed the underside of his wings, turning them a glowing red.
Maui dived into a river hoping to avoid the flames in the coolness of the water, but the immense heat all around made the water boil.
Maui was desperate. So he called on his ancestor Tawhiri-matea who was the god of the wind and the rain. "Tawhiri-matea atua o nga hau e wha awhinatia mai!" (Ancestor god, bring forth a wind this way to help!)
So then in answer to his prayer, a mass of clouds gathered, the wind blew and a torrent of rain fell to put out the fires. Mahuika's mountain of fire no longer burned so hot.
Mahuika had lost much of her power, but still she was not beaten. She took her very last toenail and threw it at Maui in anger. The toenail of fire missed Maui and flew into a group of trees behind him (The Mahoe, the Totara, the Patete, the Pukatea and the Kaikomako trees). These trees cherished the gift they had been given by Mahuika and even now their cut wood is the best to make fire.
When Maui returned to his village he didn't bring back fire as the villagers had expected. Instead he brought back dry wood from the Kaikomako tree and showed them how to rub the dry sticks of it together that would eventually start a fire. The villagers were very happy to be able to cook their food once more and to have the warmth of their fires at night to comfort them.
Maui had satisfied his curiosity in finding the origin of fire, although he very nearly paid the ultimate price in doing so. To this day the Kahu, the native hawk of Aotearoa (New Zealand) still retains the feathers singed red on the underside of its wings, a reminder of how close Maui was to death when Maui took its form.

The story over, Mahuika looked at Hekeheke with love and pride and thought “She may not be my daughter, but she is surely a daughter of mine.”

Even the children looked at her with admiration.


  1. What a lovely explanation for how they got fire. I love the fact that fire was given to Maui but he abused the gift in his curiosity and then when the god was angered she accidentally gave them a source to start fires the trees.An excellent fable.

  2. He lost my sympathy as soon as he threw the fingernail away. So disrespectful.