Māui and the Giant Fish (Māui Me Te Ika Nui) by Ross Firth

In the time before mankind walked on the world, there lived the demi-god known as Māui. A trickster from a young age, Māui was a plague to his two older brothers, Māuitaha and Māuiroto, and they went out of their way to avoid his company, often taking long fishing trips on the ocean just to be away from him. 

One day, when Māuitaha and Māuiroto came back from their latest fishing trip, Māui found them unloading their catch on the beach. He strode over, stood before them, and spoke over their grumblings.

“Let me come with you next time,” Māui said. “You never let me come with you!”

Māuitaha and Māuiroto looked at each other wearily. Setting down the fish he was skilfully gutting, Māuitaha towered over Māui. Any of his younger siblings would have scurried away at Māuitaha’s anger, but not Māui. Standing his ground against his older brother, Māui picked up the fish Māuitaha had been gutting, brought out his own knife, and deftly finished the job. He placed the perfectly cut fish at Māuitaha’s feet and looked at him proudly.

“You know I won’t get in the way,” Māui continued, “besides, I’m too small to be a problem.”

“That is the problem, little brother,” Māuitaha said with a small smile.

“You’re so small, we’ll mistake you for bait and throw you overboard,” Māuiroto added, without looking up from his work. 

 “Another time, little brother. Maybe when you’re a bit bigger.” Māuitaha laughed, patting Māui on the head.

“That could be years!” 

“Exactly!” Māuitaha and Māuiroto said in unison. 

Tired of their brother’s complaints, Māuitaha and Māuiroto collected up their catch. As they passed their seething younger brother, Māuitaha looked down at the fish Māui had gutted and rolled it over with his foot, examining the cuts Māui had made. Careful to hide his silent pride, he laughed shortly and strode away, catching up to Māuiroto as they walked towards their huts. Stung, Māui threw the fish back into the ocean and followed silently in his brothers’ wake.

That night, when his brothers and mother had long since gone to bed, Māui sat awake in the firelight. In his hands he held long pieces of flax, and with his knife he set to work making himself a fishing line. After a few minutes, when the work was almost done, he heard footsteps behind him. Sure that it was Māuitaha, Māuiroto, or his younger brothers, he hid the fishing line away and turned to find himself face to face with his grandmother Murirangawhenua. She smiled kindly and, taking the place beside Māui at the fire, she retrieved the fishing line from where Māui had stuffed it and held it in her wrinkled hands, testing the strength and texture as her mouth worked silently.

“It is a beautiful line,” she said at last, “but not nearly strong enough.”

“I want to enchant it with a karakia*, but I guess even that won’t be enough,” Māui replied sulkily.

“Perhaps not. You will need a strong hook, or everything but the smallest fish will be able to break away. And something tells me that you will not be fishing for the smallest fish, will you my child?” Māui’s grandmother said, a twinkle in her eyes.

Murirangawhenua ruffled Māui’s hair, making him laugh. She smiled and handed the line back to him, but now it was not only a line. On the end there was now a fish-hook, crafted from jaw bone of a whale. Māui looked at it closely, mesmerised by the swirling patterns of lines and runes that had been etched into the surface, as it hummed with power in his hands.

“Is it magic?” Māui asked.

“If you would like to use such a word, then yes,” his grandmother replied. “Show your brothers the line you have made, and they will have no choice but to take you with them.” 

“They’ll just laugh, and take the line from me to use for themselves!” Māui cried. “You know they never let me go with them.”

Māui’s grandmother scoffed. “And here I thought you were a trickster. If they will not let you go with them, you must find another way.”

An idea suddenly came to Māui, and he kissed his grandmother on the cheek in thanks. He went straight to his bed, the fishing line in his arms, and woke bright and excited just as the sun was beginning to dawn. He sped out of his hut, passing his brothers as they ate their breakfast with his mother and grandmother.

“Māui, where are you going?” His mother Taranga called after him. “You will miss your breakfast!”

Māui did not hear her. His mind was already on the task ahead, and he ran to the beach without pausing for breath. On the shore he found his brothers’ waka~, already provisioned for the day’s fishing. Moving aside the nets and bait, he stowed away in the hull of the waka and waited there in complete silence.

Māuitaha and Māuiroto soon finished their breakfast and, eager to escape whatever antics Māui had planned, they went to their waka and were soon out to sea. Māuitaha and Māuiroto rowed as hard as they could, but even with their combined strength they struggled to get the waka moving anywhere nearly as gracefully as they had every time before. Just as Māuitaha considered turning back, he heard a soft banging noise from within the hull of the boat. Already fearing the worst, he watched with resignation as Māui emerged from his hiding place.

“What are you doing here?” Māuiroto snapped. “No wonder the boat was so hard to row!”

“I knew you wouldn’t let me come with you if I’d asked.” Māui protested. “I’ve made a new line!”

“We have plenty of lines,” Māuitaha said dismissively. “If we’d needed a new one, we’d have made one ourselves.”

“This is no ordinary line,” Māui replied. “Lend me some bait, and I’ll show you.”

The brothers looked at each other. Māuitaha saw the excitement on Māui’s face and, nodding to Māuiroto, watched as his younger brothers set about attaching bait to Māui’s new line. Once they were finished, Māuitaha stopped rowing the waka.

Ok, little brother. Show us this new line of yours.”

Māui brought out his line and slowly chanted his karakia. He swung the line around his head and threw it far out to sea, with Māuitaha and Māuiroto following suit. In no time, the older brothers pulled up fish after fish, and soon the bottom of the waka was full. Māuitaha and Māuiroto congratulated themselves on their catch, but Māui sat silent.

Suddenly, the line was nearly torn from Māui’s hands. Māui was almost thrown overboard, and would have been pulled into the water if Māuitaha and Māuiroto had not quickly caught Māui’s arms and held him steady.

“This fish is too strong!” Māui cried. ”Help me!”

Māuitaha and Māuiroto both took hold of Māui’s line, and together the three brothers heaved with all of their combined might. After straining and pulling for what seemed like an age, a fish bigger than anything any of the brothers had seen broke the surface. It was so large that the brothers could climb onto its back, and they walked upon the back of the great fish as it floated on the surface.

“This is magnificent!” Māuiroto said. “This is Te Ike a Māui!^

But Māui was worried. He knew this giant fish was from the realm of the gods, and that it would become a great island. Worried that that Gods might be angry about this, he asked his brothers to wait for him as he went to find a quiet place to pray to the Gods. 

“This new land is a wonder!” Māuitaha cried.

“I think we should possess this land together,” Māuiroto said, “of course, I’ll be taking the larger share.”

“What do you mean?” Māuitaha snapped. “It was my waka that caught this fish. I should get the larger share.”

“And I gave Māui the bait, and without that he’d have never caught this fish in the first place,” Māuiroto replied sharply.

Māuitaha and Māuiroto drew their weapons, and each carved out which part of the new land they wanted. Where their blows landed became deep valleys and tall mountains, and soon the once flat landscape of this new land was filled with the brothers’ creations. 

When Māui returned, he found the brothers arguing and was enraged. Deciding that they could keep the giant fish to themselves, he used the magic within him to make the waka they had fished from into another island for himself. This he named Te Waka a Māuiª, though that is not how they are known to the men of today. The land they pulled up from the sea become known as the North Island, and Māui’s waka was known as the South Island. Together these lands became known to the Māori as Aotearoa, though to others in is known by another name: New Zealand.

* An incantation of prayer.

~ A Canoe

^ The Fish of Māui

ª The waka of Māui

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