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Sport 8: Autumn 1992

How Maui Challenged the Earthquake God

How Maui Challenged the Earthquake God

Everyone has heard of the adventures of the great hero, Maui. Of how he stole the fingernails of his grandmother, Mahuika, so that he might bring fire to the earth. Or how he wounded the sun with a magic jawbone, so that it was forced to move more slowly, thus giving us day as well as night. Here is another of the trickster god's adventures. It tells of how he travelled deep down beneath the surface of the earth to challenge the mighty earthquake god, Whakaruaumoko, so that the earth might be freed from earthquakes. For in those days Whakaruaumoko walked indiscriminately across the surface of the world and his passing caused great fear, for fire and earthquakes sprang up in his footsteps, and the earth trembled and shuddered at his approach.

It seems that the earthquake god lived in an enormous whare set on an island in the middle of one of the mighty rivers that flowed into the underworld. The river was swift and dangerous, its waters boiling hot and filled with sulphurous fumes. Nonetheless, Maui and the two brothers who had agreed to come with him succeeded in bringing their canoe unscathed through the water, until they came to the rapids in front of Whakaruaumoko's island, and there, standing up in the rapids, and towering over the tiny canoe, were three enormous gateposts, intricately carved. Fire flickered behind their flashing eyes, inside their grimacing mouths. They were the sentries of Whakaruaumoko, whom he had carved himself and set there to guard his house while he slept.

When Maui's brothers saw these terrifying figures they cried out in alarm and confusion, and would have paddled back the way they had come. But page 11 Maui instructed them to hold the canoe steady against a rock while he himself stood up and addressed himself to the gateposts, greeting them boldly. The gateposts did not answer. Instead, they reached down and seized hold of Maui and his two brothers and their canoe, and they held them tightly in their wooden arms, without saying a word. And this is how Maui and his brothers might have stayed until the earthquake god came out of his whare and killed them, if Maui had not seen the reason for their silence. The reason for the gateposts' silence was that they had been carved without tongues, for Whakaruaumoko believed that they would make better sentries if they could not speak. But when Maui saw that the gateposts had no tongues, a plan began to form in his mind, for he knew that above all else, all living things desire a voice.

Then Maui addressed himself to the gateposts. 'Gateposts,' he said, 'if you release my brothers and I and our canoe, I shall carve each of you a tongue.'

One by one, the gateposts released Maui and his two brothers and their canoe. Their huge wooden arms dropped back to their sides, and Maui climbed up on each of them in turn and carved tongues in their huge, horrible mouths.

When he had finished, and was back in his canoe, the gateposts, began, one by one, to move their tongues in their mouths.

The first one said, 'Whakaruaumoko sleeps in the afternoon. That is a good time to approach him.'

The second said, 'Behind the whare of Whakaruaumoko is a small whare pataka. That is where Tuatara lives, in whose body the earthquake god keeps half his strength.'

The third said, 'Next to Tuatara in the whare pataka is the net which Whakaruaumoko uses to fish, and no other in the world is as large or as strong.'

Then Maui and his brothers passed through the rapids beneath the gateposts, but the gateposts did not notice them go, they were too busy trying out their new tongues.

Soon Maui and his brothers drew near to the island of Whakaruaumoko, and saw his whare which was as big as a forest. The floor was filled with ash and lava, fires slumbered uneasily behind the doors and windows, and dimly, in the glow of the embers, they could see the gourd containers in which Whakaruaumoko kept the floods and tidal waves.

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Maui and his brothers paddled to the far side of the island where they would be out of sight, and they waited until the afternoon, when they could tell by the rumbling and shaking of the ground that Whakaruaumoko was asleep. Then they came on shore and crept across the island to the whare pataka, and Maui climbed up inside it and found Tuatara dozing there, just as the second gatepost had told him. Before Tuatara had time to wake, Maui bound his limbs with flax cords and popped him into his kete. Behind Tuatara, just as the third gatepost had told him, he found the fishing net, and he brought it out with him. Then Maui and his brothers spread the net over the entire island, and when it was fastened, Maui began to pull on it.

The movement woke Whakaruaumoko from his sleep. He emerged from his whare in a fury, and when he saw that he was surrounded by his own net, he raged and fumed and tried to break out of it, but Whakaruaumoko had knotted the flax himself and strengthened it with powerful spells, and it could not easily be broken.

All the same he would have killed Maui and his brothers with his fiery breath if Maui had not stood up in the canoe and showed him Tuatara. 'Now you must obey me,' said Maui, 'or else lose half your strength.'

Then Whakaruaumoko raged and fumed some more, but he saw that he had been tricked, and he asked Maui what he wanted of him.

But Maui saw that Whakaruaumoko, even with only half his strength, was too strong for him ever to destroy. Then he racked his brains to think what good might come of the adventure, and he said to the angry god: 'You must come with me to a place below the regions of the earth, far away from the villages of men and women, and promise to remain there. Tuatara shall be my hostage. As long as you keep your promise Tuatara will live. But if you ever break it and walk across the earth, then Tuatara will die.'

Then Maui dragged Whakaruaumoko deep down beneath the earth, the lakes, and the rivers, below even the ocean floor. Down, down, into the underworld, he dragged the weary god. And he tied him there beneath the roots of the mountains, to sleep for eternity.

Whakaruaumoko sleeps there still, and the children of the earth are able to continue with their lives; to build villages and prepare gardens for the cultivation of plants. But every time that Whakaruaumoko has a nightmare, he turns in his sleep and wakes to find himself trapped beneath the mountain; then he struggles and tries to break free and the force of his struggle sends tremors as far as the surface of the earth, before he feels the page 13 folds of his own net about him, and remembers his promise to Maui. Whakaruaumoko has never broken his promise, and for that reason Tuatara is still alive, and is the oldest living creature in the world, and he is so old that he has almost turned into stone. And some people say that when Tuatara turns into stone, then his strength will return to Whakaruaumoko, and on that day the earthquake god will wake up, shake off his bonds, and return to the earth.

By the time I have finished reading this story the curve of the bay and the outline of the Trembling Isles have dropped far behind us.

I put the book aside and gaze out the window again. Oh, but this is an attractive part of the line! Ferns brush the top of the carriage and purple foxgloves grow amongst the wild grass in the cuttings. I doze uneasily beneath the flickering shadows of the telegraph poles, and then I must fall asleep, because I dream.

In the dream I am walking up a hillside. The hillside is bare, except for some patches of gorse, dried and stunted by the wind. Wind scrapes the surface of the hillside, the side of my face. I must lean into it to make any progress. In my arms I am clutching a copy of the Dictionary of the New Shetland Vernacular. It weighs me down; its sharp edges bite into my arms. However, I clutch it more tightly and toil on. There is a voice in the wind. I listen hard, I strain to catch it, but I cannot understand what it is saying.

I wake beneath the flickering shadows of the telegraph poles, still struggling to understand.