EP 025: The Great Fish of Māui

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If you’ve ever glanced at a map, or flown economy class, you’ll know that the first thing to say about New Zealand is that it is extremely far away. From everything. Except Australia. So it’s unsurprising that, so far as we know, the islands that make up New Zealand were the last large habitable landmasses to be settled by humans.

How they were settled, originally, isn’t quite the subject of the aforementioned stowaway/sibling/angling based adventure, but it’s quite remarkable, so I’m going to talk about it anyway.

Around, so far as we can tell, 1250 CE, the East Polynesians were already wildly capable seafarers. They traversed their coastlines in canoes, fishing, exploring, trading, and otherwise proving that seasickness really is a state of mind. I should pause her to mention, in case anyone has taken this imaginative leap, that these were not the miniscule plastic and fiberglass affairs with which Olympians zoom down rapids, collecting coloured flags, and occasionally crashing into runaway logs. No doubt they came in a variety of sizes (fun for all ages), but the really serious ones were, often, double hulled, outrigger canoes, with masts, oars, and far more baggage space than you have travelling by air, even if you do shell out for a first class ticket.

The Eastern Polynesians were also chronic explorers, and their very sophisticated navigational techniques (along with their secrets of ship building) were passed down through storytelling. Which is what you should tell people when they ask you why you listen to this podcast. Although to be strictly honest, their stories often took the form of song, which I solemnly swear never to subject you to.

In some Polynesian oral tradition, the geography of their navigation was often likened to an octopus, with its head on Ra’iātea, and its tentacles sprawling across the Pacific. The Octopus has many names, the most romantic of which are the Grand Octopus of Prosperity and the Beginning-of-Heaven-and-Earth. I couldn’t find any guides on how to pronounce those names in Polynesian, so rather than butchering the language, I’ve stuck with the translation, and I’m hoping somebody will write in and educate me.

Prodigious skill taken as read, deciding to take sail and set off for New Zealand was an undertaking that required not a little courage. Particularly since nobody really knew it was there. Imagine how reluctant most of us are to undertake the simplest of trips without the continual interference of Google Maps, and then multiply that by… a lot.

The first wave of explorers, having spent what must have felt like weeks at sea, particularly if their spouses had elected to make the journey, must have been delighted when the islands came into view. Some historians believe that they used cloud formations over the islands to find their way; others think that, upon first sighting the islands, they believed that all they were was low hanging cloud. In either case, this is where many the current Maori name for New Zealand comes from – Aotearoa, or, the Land of the Long, White Cloud.

It isn’t clear, however, whether this was originally the name given to the entire country, or indeed, whether these early settlers gave the whole country a name at all. They did, however, name the two islands. The North Island was Te Ika-a-Māui, and still is, while the South Island was, to many, Te Waka a Māui.

Now its important to remember that subsequent groups of intrepid Polynesian travelers joined over the course of many years, and as time passed, people spread out over the islands, creating distinct pockets of culture. The mythology changed and grew slightly differently in different places, and we couldn’t begin to do justice to all versions of this story. So we’ve gone for one that loosely encompasses as many variations as we can fit into short-form comedic history, and I strongly urge you to do a little bit of internet browsing afterwards.

Te Ika-a-Māui translates roughly as The Great Fish of Māui, and it comes from the ancient myth of how the islands came to be.

Māui, so the story goes, had four brothers. In some versions, he’s a demi god (and they aren’t) and in other versions, they’re just mean to him because, reasons. Every day they go out fishing, and every day – as all younger brothers have done since time immemorial – he asks to go with. Everyday, as all older brothers have done (etc. etc.), they say no.

They come up with a variety of excuses, ranging from the creative (You’re so skinny we might mistake you for bait and throw you overboard) to the just plain irritating (you’re too young).

Eventually Māui is fed up. He starts to weave a fishing line, reciting an ancient karakia, or prayer, to imbue it with special strength. He takes a jawbone bequeathed to him by one of his ancestors, and probably not intended for sibling revenge, and ties it to the end. And then he hides himself at the bottom of his brothers’ canoe.

The brothers, apparently, are not very observant, because they only notice their young stowaway when the craft is well out to sea, and noticeably heavier than it should be.

There is no evidence in the original tale to suggest that Māui jumped out and yelled “Surprise”, but that’s what I like to believe.

The brothers, predictably, are not amused. But apart from blaming Māui for their substandard fishing so far, there’s not much they can do. Presumably they don’t want to explain any sudden and permanent disappearances to his mother.

When Māui shows them his hook, they mock him mercilessly, and refuse to waste any bait on it. Undeterred, Māui punches himself in the nose (do not try this at home) and coats the hook with his own blood. As he recites his karakia again, he flings the hook far out to sea, where it sinks below the surface, and is immediately taken. The line goes taut, and the very apparent size of the fish causes the brothers to stop their arguing and hold on for dear life, as the boat goes zooming off towards the submerged hook. The four brothers begged Māui to cut his line, but, as anyone who has ever caught the biggest fish at a bachelor’s weekend will relate, he was not keen. He held on, and eventually a giant fish was pulled up above the surface of the water, until it towered over their canoe. In some versions, he fishes out the island itself, and in others, he accidentally pulls up the underwater beach pad of Tonganui, the grandson of Tangaroa, god of the sea.

In most versions, Māui recognizes his great catch as the one promised to him by his ancestors, and recognizes that he needs to give thanks, and to appease the gods. (This latter point is particularly important in the versions that have him unwittingly hauling one of their homes from the tranquil depths, into the dazzling and chaotic sunshine).

He turns around to do this, leaving his brothers with strict instructions to touch nothing. They ignore this, starting a fantasy trope that continues to this day. The begin hacking the fish to pieces, creating the mountains and valleys which make New Zealand so beautiful, but destroying the perfect shape of the fish. When Māui returns, he is, understandably, furious. What he does to his brothers is unclear, but he himself is clearly forgiven by the gods, which only seems fair, because, in most versions, he goes on to be a much-beloved figure amongst his people.

Te Waka a Māui, for anyone wondering, was the name of the South Island, and it means Maui’s canoe.

One shudders to imagine the parking fee he’ll incur when he comes back to get it.

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