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Legends of the Maori

Mahuika the Fire-Goddess

Mahuika the Fire-Goddess.

One of my earliest Maori-life recollections is that of the hika-ahi act, the kindling of fire by wood-friction, demonstrated at our old home at Orakau, Waikato. Maori were frequent visitors, and Maori labour was employed at times on the farm, and one day two men, at my father’s request, showed how fire was produced without pakeha matches or flint and page 16 steel. By the stockyard fence, one toiled away rubbing a stick on a block of wood which the other held steady while a shallow groove was worked in it. I looked on, a small boy, intensely interested in the strange sight of old Ngata, of Ngati-Raukawa, on his knees rubbing away furiously to raise the seeds of fire. I remember vividly enough the sight, but it took a long time to produce a spark; perhaps it was not kaikomako wood, for that is the chief timber in which Mahuika’s magic flame is preserved for the use of mankind.

This is the legend of the Ahi-a-Mahuika, and of the deception of the fire-guardian by this arch-worker of miracles and arch-deceiver of the gods, Maui-tikitiki-a-Taranga.

Maui was told by his father, Makea-Tutara, and his mother, Taranga, that a certain strange glowing appearance on the distant horizon was the fire of the goddess Mahuika. Great scintillations of light came from her mysterious fires; her appearance was fearful, for flames glowed at her finger-tips and her toes. He set out to visit her, declaring before he departed that he would play a trick on her and steal her magic fires. “Beware,” said the old people, “it is not wise to take liberties with your ancestress Mahuika.” But Maui was determined to pit his wits against the fiery one.

“E Kui, I beg you give me of your magic fires,” said Maui, after greeting the grim goddess. She responded by plucking off the end of one of her big toes which contained the fire. Maui pretended to go away towards his home with the treasure of fire, but he threw it into the near-by stream, where it was extinguished. Returning, he begged Mahuika to give him more to replace the lost flame. The goddess did so, and Maui repeated his trick until the ancient one had given him the fiery nails of all her fingers and toes but one. By this time she had become aware of Maui’s tinihanga, his deception practised on her. In her anger she plucked off the remaining finger-nail and threw it at him, uttering an incantation to cause it to consume the earth and the forest and all other things and so destroy her tormentor.

Maui now was in sore peril. He ran hither and thither, frantically seeking a way of escape, but fires blazed all around him; the ground was a sheet of leaping flame, the forests roared with the mighty voice of blazing trees.

In his extremity Maui called upon his ancestral gods for aid. He appealed to the gods of the storms and rain, to Tawhiri-matea and Whatitiri, the powers of the air. And instantly came succour from the sky. Torrents of rain descended and extinguished the raging fires. The Ua-nui, page 17 the Ua-roa—Great Rain, Long Rain—flooded the land, and Maui was saved from death in the raging furnace of earth and forest.

But the last remnant of the atua’s fires was not lost. When the flames were extinguished the seeds of fire remained in certain trees, and the chief of those is the kaikomako*, which ever since that day has been the fire-friction timber of the Maori. Some fire also entered the hinahina or mahoe, the patete and the totara, but most of it is in the kaikomako.

“Te Ahi-a-Mahuika” is an expression which frequently occurs in ancient poems, in allusion to this story of Maui and the fire deity. It really means volcanic fires; Maui’s journey was to some great active volcano and an outburst of lava placed him in deadly peril.

“Aue! Ko Mahuika koe!” said an old Maori when he was shown the wonders of the wireless transmitting apparatus in a Government station. The operator, he meant, was like the fire-goddess, because he had the “singing spark” at his finger tips. And now some of the islands of the great ocean of Kiwa have their radio stations; the young Polynesians themselves operate the wonderful apparatus in New Zealand’s tropic islands, modern magicians of a science that transcends even the deeds of Mahuika.