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No. 51 (June 1965)
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VISITS TO THE UNDERWORLD IN
MAORI MYTHOLOGY

In the last issue of ‘Te Ao Hou’ there appeared the texts of two ancient Maori stories telling of visits to the underworld: the story of Niwareka and Mataora, and the story of Pare and Hutu. This article attempts to discover something of the original significance of these two stories.

In the first story, Mataora beats his wife Niwareka and she runs away to the under-world. He goes down to the underworld in search of her and there he meets the tohunga Uetonga, the father of Niwareka. Uetonga scoffs at the marks painted on Mataora's face, and he tattoos Mataora with his chisel.

Niwareka, who has been occupied with the weaving of garments, finds Mataora and looks after him. When his wounds have healed they return to the upper world. But Mataora omits to pay Kuwatawata, the guardian of the door to the underworld, by giving her one of the garments which Niwareka had woven in the underworld. Because of this omission, Kuwatawata no longer allows anyone to return from the underworld.

Teaches Art of Tattooing

When he returns to this world, Mataora teaches people the art of tattooing.

In the story of Pare and Hutu, Pare is a young woman (‘puhi’) of very high birth, who lives in a house full of the most beautiful cloaks. She falls in love with a nobleman named Hutu who visits her village and distinguishes himself in the games held by her people. When he rejects her, she hangs herself. With the aid of incantations, Hutu visits the underworld in search of her, and there he attracts her attention by making a new kind of swing (‘morere’). She sits on his shoulders, and by swinging up very high, they escape from the underworld.

When they return to her home, Pare's spirit re-enters her body. Pare's people acclaim Hutu and say that it is his powerful incantations which have brought her back to life. Pare marries Hutu, and from this time onwards she is known as Pare-Hutu.

These two stories, together with similar accounts, are re-told in Mr A. W. Reed's ‘Treasury of Maori Folklore’ (1963) pp. 96–115.

They follow a pattern which is to be found in similar stories all over the world; two of the best known versions are those of Orpheus and Eurydice, and Demeter and her daughter Persephone. A great many of these stories have been closely examined by Sir James Frazer in his monumental work, ‘The Golden Bough’.

In all of these myths the first of the two personages, having been offended in some way, goes down to the underworld. The second person, who is either a relative or a lover, follows the runaway down to the underworld and attempts to bring him or her back to life on earth.

Associated With Planting of Fields

In his book Frazer shows that these myths of death and resurrection are associated with the planting of the fields. The first of these personages represents the seed (barley, rice, root crops and other products of the earth); he or she goes under the ground just as the seed does at planting time. The second figure, who pursues the first and attempts to bring him or her up again, is often associated with a human sacrifice whose death is regarded as assisting in the annual renewal of the fertility of the fields.

Myths following this pattern, and concerned with the renewal of fertility, have been found among agricultural societies all over the world.

In the Greek legend of Demeter and Persephone and in the parallel Latin legend of Ceres and Proserpine, the names of the goddesses Demeter and Ceres both signify ‘grain’.

In my opinion the names Pare and Niwareka can also be shown to signify a food plant, in that they are related to Sanskrit words for rice. After the Maori people left South-East Asia and the rice plant behind them, they retained these names but forgot their original significance.

For a discussion of the sound-shifts upon

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which this theory rests, the reader is referred to the article which follows this one.

The name Pare appears to be derived as follows:—

Maori : Pare
Malay : padi
Sanskrit : phali-kri

The Malayan word ‘padi’ signifies rice. The Sanskrit word ‘phali-kri’ means ‘to winnow rice’. (‘Kri’ is the common word for ‘to do or make’.)

Percy Smith in his book ‘Hawaiki’ (p.61), discusses another related Indian word for rice, ‘vari’, and associates it with the Rarotongan expression ‘Atia te Varinga nui’, said to be one of the ancient homelands of the Polynesians; he tells us that in Tregear's opinion, this is to be translated as ‘Atia, the be-riced’—that is, ‘the great riceland’.1

In Indonesia the name Pare (sometimes in variant form, Padi) occurs as a component in many of the names given to the rice-goddesses in those areas.2

The Maori name Niwareka may be derived as follows:—

Maori : Niwareka
Sanskrit : nivara

The Sanskrit word ‘nivara’ means wild rice. There is also a related Sanskrit word ‘varaka’ which means ‘a kind of rice’.

Sacrifices to Ensure Fertility

In primitive society it was regarded as essential that the fertility of the earth and of the next year's seed should be preserved and strengthened. This was done by means of religious ceremonies which sometimes involved human sacrifice. The earth must be fertile, or the world would perish, and even the gods would not receive their food. (In the Greek story of Demeter, she forces the god of the underworld to return her daughter by inflicting barrenness on the world). The gods have to be honoured with worship and to be fed with good, nourishing food, so that they are willing and able to ensure the fertility of the earth. They must receive the most precious of gifts: and often, these gifts took the form of human flesh and blood.

There are many myths describing human sacrifices made at the time of the planting of crops. In James Frazer's ‘The Golden Bough’ several volumes are devoted to a discussion of this very wide-spread custom, and the beliefs which underlie it.

It has been said above that in the myth the first person who goes down under the earth represents the seed which has been planted in the ground. The second person, who pursues the first in order to bring him or her up to the surface, represents the sacrificial victim whose death helps to ensure the growth and abundance of the new crop.

Often, the first person in the myth runs away because he or she has been offended by the second person. Frazer associates this with the fact that it was often felt that the act of reaping and thrashing was likely to offend the spirit of the grain. It was partly for this reason that a sacrifice was felt to be necessary at the time of the planting of the new crops. Furthermore the tears shed by the offended person were identified with the rain necessary to make the new crop grow.

In the two Maori myths discussed here, it is Hutu and Mataora who go under the earth to bring back to this world Pare and Niwareka, the woman whom they love and have lost.

The names Hutu and Mataora both appear to be derived from Sanskrit words connected with sacrifice.3

Maori : Hutu
Sanskrit : Huta
meaning : a sacrifice or offering
Maori : Mata-ora
Sanskrit : Medha
meaning : a sacrificial victim; sap: a nourishing drink; marrow (especially of the sacrificial victim).
Sanskrit : urja
meaning : life, breath

In both myths there are certain features which require further discussion, though this can only be done very briefly here.

1. ‘Ari’, which may be a variant form of the word, is one of the ‘bloodless foods’ of Hawaiki referred to in Takitumu tradition and mentioned by Elsdon Best in his book, ‘Maori Agriculture’, p. 3.

2. Sir James Frazer, ‘The Golden Bough vol. V, p. 180 ff.

3. Since initiation ceremonies marked the arrival of puberty; and the tapu areas tattooed were chiefly the face and thighs, it seems possible that although the word ‘Mataora’ appears to be derived from the Sanskrit words ‘M [ unclear: ] eAdha’ and ‘urja’, there may also have been a secondary underlying association with ‘M [ unclear: ] eAdhra’, the word for the male organ. The importance of the pun in mythology and psychology has been widely recognized.

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In the much fuller version of the story of Niwareka and Mataora given by Percy Smith,4 Mataora is visited by a party of turehu (female supernatural beings) who have come from the underworld. They perform a dance: ‘And then the company of turehu stood up to perform a haka before Mataora. As they danced, one of them came to the front, while the others danced backwards and forwards, chanting, “Thus goes Niwareka”. All of the turehu chanted this. As they danced they held hands, skipping. Some of them held up their joined hands as an archway, while others passed beneath them, still chanting, “Niwareka, Niwareka”.’

Since this is not like any known Maori dance, it seems that the description must refer to a dance, probably a ritual one, carried from an older culture. One is reminded of the ancient Mediterranean dance sometimes known as ‘the game of Troy’ which was danced in the labyrinth at Crete by the young men and women who were about to be sacrificed, and which appears in differing forms in fertility rituals in many cultures.

An Initiation Ritual

In the underworld Mataora is tattooed by Uetonga, father of Niwareka. After this Mataora and Niwareka return to the surface, and Mataora teaches the art of tattooing; this is said to be the origin of tattooing. All young men and women other than slaves were tattooed when they reached puberty, and this ceremony must be regarded as an initiation ritual, or ‘rite de passage’.

If the interpretation put forward in this article is correct, we have in the story of Mataora and Niwareka a clear association of a vegetation myth of death and resurrection, with an initiation ritual. Similar associations are known to have existed elsewhere, for example in the ancient world around the Mediterranean; the most famous case is that of the Eleusinian Mysteries of the Greek barley goddess Demeter. However, in most cases detailed information on the subject is not available.

But the imagery of death and re-birth is known to be one of the main features of the ritual ceremonies which in the ancient world and in primitive societies, marked the transition from childhood to adult life. (Among other important features of initiation rituals were a painful ordeal, and a permanent visible sign of the initiate's new status. With the Maori tattooing served both these purposes).

Knowledge of Art of Weaving

The version of the story of Mataora and Niwareka published in ‘Te Ao Hou’ mentions that in the underworld Niwareka spent her time weaving cloaks. The fuller version of the story given by Percy Smith has many more references to cloaks, and tells us that as a parting gift Uetonga presented to Mataora ‘the garment named Te Rangihaupapa … this garment was kept in Pou-tere-rangi (the guardhouse of Hades) and it became the original pattern for the work of women … the belt named Ruruku o te Rangi was added to the other garment and likewise has become a pattern for all later belts’.

So knowledge of the art of weaving, like that of tattooing, was brought from the underworld. (Weaving, a most tapu activity, was one of the most important of women's tasks).

In the myth of Pare and Hutu, cloaks are also mentioned. At the beginning of the story we are told that Pare's house contained the most beautiful cloaks, several different kinds of cloak being listed.

The swing which Hutu invents in the story is called a ‘morere’. But as pointed out in Te Ao Hou's notes to the story, Hutu's swing is quite different from those which the Maori people possessed; in fact, one cannot imagine that Hutu's swing would be possible in reality. It appears to have some mythical (and perhaps, ritual) significance which had been forgotten.

A Third Legend

A third Maori legend, less well known than the two so far discussed, comes from the South Island.5 A man named Tama-nui-a-raki had a wife named Rukutia. He was ugly, and she left him for a handsome man, dressed in beautiful garments. This man's name was Tu-te-koropango. Tama went down to the home of his ancestors (in one version this is called Te Reinga, and in another is called

4. S. Percy Smith, ‘The Lore of the Whare Wananga’, vol. III pp. 67 and 82 ff. The translation of the passage describing the dance is by the present writer.

5. See John White's ‘Ancient History of the Maori’, vol. II p. 36, and J. F. H. Wohlers' article in ‘The Transactions of the New Zealand Institute’, vol. VIII pp. 111–112. Compare also S. Percy Smith's ‘Hawaiki’ (second edition) p. 26 ff.

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‘the place of Mataora’), and there he was made beautiful by tattooing. He went on to the home of Tu-te-koropango where he found his wife, who admired his beauty and the glow of his red garments. She swam out to his canoe; he cut her body in half, wrapped the top half in his garments, took it home and buried it. When summer came he heard a sound, unburied the body and found Rukutia restored to life.

According to one of the two versions of the story quoted by White, ‘from that time her name was changed to Patunga-tapu’.

Similar in Many Ways

This myth has obvious similarities with the two myths discussed above. By being tattooed and wearing beautiful garments, Tama-nui-a-raki wins back his wife. Rukutia dies, and is subsequently restored to life.

Though there are many references to garments, it is not said that Rukutia learnt the art of weaving in the underworld. However, it is interesting to note that a figure named Rukutia is elsewhere said to be the ‘founder of the art of weaving’.6

As mentioned above, when Rukutia is restored to life she receives the new name of ‘Patunga-tapu’, that is, ‘sacred victim’. In the same way, when Pare is restored to life she is given the new name of ‘Pare-Hutu’. As shown above, the name ‘Pare’ refers to the spirit of the rice, and the name ‘Hutu’ means ‘a sacrifice’. Hence ‘Pare-Hutu’ means ‘the sacrificed spirit of the rice’, a similar meaning to ‘Patunga-tapu’.

This article is a preliminary attempt to consider relationships existing between Maori mythology and the mythology and customs of India and South-East Asia. I consider that despite the great difficulties, many names occurring in Maori mythology can be identified with their Asian originals, and that this is potentially one of the most rewarding approaches to a study of Maori mythology.

6. See Apirana Ngata's ‘Nga Moteatea’ vol. I, p. 200.