An artistic depiction of Papatūānuku.

Papatūānuku, also known as ‘Papa’ is both the deity and personification of the land in Māori mythology. She was believed to have been born into the darkness which is known as Te Pō, and was locked in an embrace with her husband Ranginui, also known as Rangi, who was the deity of the sky. While they were in this embrace, they bore several children who eventually grew frustrated at living in Te Pō. Their son Tū; the deity of war proposed that they should kill their parents in order to bring the light into the universe, a being known as Te Ao Mārama. However, this suggestion was dismissed by Tāne, the god of the forests and flora. Instead, Tāne suggested separating Papatūānuku and Ranginui to ensure that they could still receive their nourishment from the land. Their children then conspired to push Ranginui towards the sky and Papatūānuku towards the earth. This would formally create the universe and bringing Te Ao Mārama to life. The brothers tried many times to separate them to no avail, until Tāne who was believed to be the strongest of them all, lay on his back and pushed using his strong legs. There was also a forgotten son of Papatūānuku and Ranginui named Uru. He was said to cast down ‘sparkling tears’ which were than gathered together and thrown alongside Ranguini. This then created the sun, moon and stars in order to keep him company.

However, not all of the children were happy with the introduction of Te Ao Mārama and the separation of Papatūānuku and Ranginui. She was said to have become so beautiful as the land, that Ranginui would weep that he could no longer embrace his wife but had to admire her from afar. He would then weep which produced the rain and caused the earth to become wet and grey thus losing its beauty. Papatūānuku was also unhappy with their separation and would attempt to cast herself up to reach him, almost breaking herself apart to do so. However, she was unable to and instead earthquakes ravaged the land with each of her attempts. Their son Tāwhirimātea; the storm deity was angered by the sadness this cast on his family and punished his brothers on earth with violent storms. Firstly, he bore many winds which he sent across the globe to create storms that would devastate the land. These would rip apart the forests of Tāne, breaking his trees and leaving them to decay on the ground. Then, Tāwhirimātea turned his focus onto Tangaroa; the ocean deity and father of smaller creatures such as fishes, insects and reptiles. In the wake of his anger, these creatures fled deep into the seas or into the forests of Tāne for protection. Tangaroa resented Tāne for hiding his runaway children from him. As a result, he will forever overturn wooden canoes into his waters and send floods into his forests to destroy houses made from his wood and the trees themselves. Next, Tāwhirimātea turned his attention on Rongo and Haumia-tiketike who were the deities of food. In response to his threats to destroy all food on earth, Papatūānuku intervened and hid them so well that he could not find them. In his anger, he then turned on Tūmatauenga; the deity of mankind who stood fast in his anger against him. Through his non-response, Tāwhirimātea was appeased and his attacks against mankind ceased.

All of these children of Papatūānuku and Ranginui bore their own children. These then further represented their own aspects of the earth until the world and those upon it came into being. It is through her children and grandchildren that Papatūānuku is believed to have given birth to all things in the universe, making her the mother of the earth and the most powerful figure of all life. Not only did everything come from her, but they will also all return to her at the end of their life thus creating a circle that both begins and ends with her land. The word ‘whenua’ means both land and placenta in the traditional Māori language. Many islands in the Pacific Ocean were each believed to be a separate placenta that had come from the womb of Papatūānuku. These lands were said to have emerged from under the water, which reflected the experiences of those residing in these islands. A similar idea is told through a legend of the demi-god Maui, who was said to have ‘fished’ several islands in Polynesia from the ocean.

The creation of mankind on these islands is told through the myth of Hineahuone, the first human being and whose name means “earth-formed woman”. She was believed to have been created from clay by either Tāne or Tūmatauenga at Kurawaka depending on the region of the myth. Both she and the deity were said to have a demi-god daughter known as Hinetītama who became the custodian of both Te Pō and Te Ao Mārama. Hinetītama would bring the sun to the earth in the morning and set with it each night.

Papatūānuku has most recently been the inspiration behind the island goddess Te Fiti in the 2016 Disney film Moana. Overall, the legend of Papatūānuku is one of the most beautiful creation stories I have come across, and more information on the deity can be found here.

-Devon Allen
Junior Girl
Girl Museum Inc.

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