Gods & Pantheons: Polynesia

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Rangitihi.pngWhile the cultures of Hawaii, New Zealand, Easter Island, and islands between span a geographic space of 4,000 miles, there are many similarities in their mythologies. This section merges many of them, and only mentions a few conflicts.

Maori priests are called “Tohunga”; their methods of calling forth spirits “karakia”, and the tales of their history and religion, “korero”.

The head is the source of many taboos; in some Polynesian cultures no person could step over the head of another. Cutting hair might require special amends or ritual cleansing. Even passing a hand over the head of a king could result in execution.

Rituals are extremely important. Burial rituals placate the hostile dead, which include even those who were loved when alive. Maui was condemned to eventually die for his father’s failure to correctly observe a benediction ritual.

Tiki, images of the gods, are kept for worship and protection (the same thing, often), and made of stone or wood.

The world began when the formless space Atea divided into male and female: heaven and earth. Rangi (heaven) and Papa (earth) became the parents of all the gods. They stayed together after bearing their children, who had to tear the two elder gods apart to make room for themselves and for humans. The lands that the Maori live on were once one land, but were broken into pieces during this primeval war. Waters filled the spaces between when Tawaki, grandson of the thunder goddess Whaitiri, enraged by human evil, broke heaven’s crystal by stomping on it, and the waters of the upper world poured down to the earth.

Night is the time of the gods, day is the time of man.


Hine was created by Tane out of sand and clay, and then taken by him as wife. When Hine learned that her husband was also her father, she fled in shame to the underworld and became the ruler there, where she acts to entice the living to her kingdom. Only after Hine fled to the underworld did death enter the world.

Names: Hine-Nui-Te-Po
Sobriquets: Great Lady of the Night, Dawn Maiden, Watchwoman
Symbols: Sand, Two faces, Moon
Status: Goddess
Worshippers: Mourners, Priests, Travelers
Moral Codes: Order
Prophets: Order, Ordered Good, Ordered Evil
Spirits: Prophet, Death, Weather, Healing, Protection

Hine has two faces, in the front and in the back. She is also the person in the moon: when the moon is bright, you can see the bark-cloth (tapa) which she makes while on the moon. As the watcher on the moon, Hine is the patroness of travelers, following them to assure their safety. Hine protects the dead from Whiro.

Hine’s hair is like seaweed, her eyes red fire, her mouth like a barracuda’s with sharp teeth, and a human body.

Polynesia: Maui

Maui is the Polynesian trickster and culture hero. He acquired the secret of fire from Mahuika, the mud-hen at the far edge of the seas who guarded it (and who was also his ancestress). He tried to steal the secret of immortality for mankind as well, by sneaking up the death goddess’s vagina. A bird laughed at the sight and gave him away. In some stories, he was then crushed between the goddess’s thighs. Others say that even so, he can return to life after death because he is both man and god.

Names: Maui, Tikitiki
Sobriquets: Tiki
Symbols: Fish hook, Cat’s Cradle, Phallus, Jaw-bone
Status: Demigod
Worshippers: Fishermen, Thieves,
Moral Codes: Any
Prophets: Chaotic Good, Fishing
Spirits: Prophet, Prophecy, Fire, Sea

Some credit him with drawing land from the sea while fishing; his brothers cut the land up as they would cut up fish, leaving the islands behind. Some also credit him with lifting the sky to give men more room to walk—before this, everyone had to crawl. In the beginning of time, the days were too short. His mother didn’t have enough time to get her work done, so Maui lassoed the sun with a rope of coconut and slowed it down, lengthening the day.

He invented the fish trap and the cat’s cradle. He created the domestic dog when his brother-in-law Irawaru refused to share the day’s fishing catch: Maui changed his brother-in-law into a dog to punish him for his selfishness.

Maui eats his food raw. He was born, early and half-dead, of a human mother. His mother threw him into the ocean thinking him a miscarriage. The baby was saved by the Sun, his true father, who kept him to adolescence, whereupon he returned to earth, sought out his mother, and lived with his human family. His father, enjoying Maui’s adventures on earth, attempted to give his son a divine blessing but committed a ritual error. Because of this, Maui is destined to die by betrayal of the gods.

His wife is Hina. Hina fled the monster eel Te Tuna, her first husband, in search of a new lover. No one dared face Te Tuna’s wrath until Maui’s mother sent Maui, for Hina was his sister. In a great storm that covered the world, Maui confronted Te Tuna and with his enormous phallus clubbed the eel god’s cronies and defeated him. Hina bore Maui four sons, all fishermen.

He also uses the magical jaw-bone of Muri-Ranga, his divine ancestress, in battle. Some say that rather than the coconut rope, he used the jaw-bone to club the sun into submission so that it moved more slowly across the sky. Maui starved his grandmother to obtain her jawbone.

Polynesia: Papa

Papa is the earth goddess and mother of all the gods. She and Rangi were once the genderless void Atea. Atea split into Papa and Rangi, female and male, earth and sky, who became the parents of all the gods.

Names: Papa, Atea
Sobriquets: Great Mother, Mist
Symbols: Rock, Clay
Status: Elder God
Worshippers: Farmers
Moral Codes: Any
Prophets: Any
Spirits: Prophet, Plants, Healing, Death

Joined in an eager embrace, Papa and Rangi left little room for their children or for mankind. When Tane broke the two gods apart, he sent Rangi far away, but kept Papa close.

Now Rangi cries for his wife with the rain, and Papa sighs the mists into the air in longing for her husband.

Polynesia: Rangi

Rangi is the god of heaven and sky, and the father of all the gods. In the beginning, all life was born of the embrace of Rangi and Papa. Rangi lived close to Papa, which meant that all humans had to crawl or walk crouched to avoid hitting the sky. After the rest of the gods discussed the problem, Tane moved the sky much higher, allowing mankind to walk upright. Tane was opposed by Tu (who wished to kill their parents) and Tawhiri (who wished to keep them together).

Names: Rangi, Atea
Sobriquets: Sky, Great Expanse of Sky
Symbols: Star, Cloud
Status: Elder God
Worshippers: Farmers, Scholars, Sailors
Moral Codes: Any
Prophets: Any
Spirits: Prophet, Weather, Fire

Polynesia: Rongo

Rongo is the god of rain, agriculture, fertility, partying, and peace. He abhors blood sacrifice. He appears in the world as the rainbow.

Names: Rongo, Ro’o, Lono
Sobriquets: The Sounding One, Sound
Symbols: Rainbow, Triton’s horn
Status: God
Worshippers: musicians, farmers, sex workers
Moral Codes: Chaotic, Chaotic Good
Prophets: Chaotic, Chaotic Good
Spirits: Prophet, Peace, Animal, Weather, Plant

Rongo enjoys festiveness and song, and blows the triton’s horn (a spiral-shelled conch).

Rongo was the favorite of Papa, the mother of the gods. While the other gods fought over how to separate Papa and Rangi, Rongo hid from the dissension inside Papa.

Polynesia: Tane

Tane supplied mankind with canoes, spears, fish-hooks, and nets, that they might capture and kill the offspring of Tangaroa. He is the god of forests, birds, light, “and all that is beautiful,” and is the patron of craftsmen. He created the first woman, Hine, out of sand and clay. When he separated earth and sky by means of a pillar, light entered the world.

Names: Tane-mahuta, Kane
Sobriquets: The Chirper, The Artisan
Symbols: Sunset, Snake
Status: God
Worshippers: Foresters, Fishermen, Craftsmen, Woodworkers
Moral Codes: Good, Chaotic Good, Ordered Good
Prophets: Ordered Good
Spirits: Prophet, Animal, Plant, Protection, Prophecy

He is the embodiment of man against nature. Tane is known for supporting the peaceful separation of earth and sky (Papa and Rangi) when Tu called for the death of the parents in order to make room, and Tawhiri called for neither death nor separation. Tane took it on himself to separate the two elder gods, but afterward battle raged between the three partisans.

“Tane’s way” is westward. His enemy among the gods is Whiro. In his search for a wife, he fathered the streams, rocks, snakes, and grass of the islands. His final wife, Hine, left him when she discovered that he made her, and was thus also her father.

In Hawaii, Kane, with Tu and Rongo, created light by shattering the primordial chaos, and created the heavens with the earth as a footstool. Man was created from red earth and spit in the likeness of Kane. Kane destroyed the first world in fire due to the evilness of its people.

Polynesia: Tangaroa

Tangaroa is the sea-god, god of wind, fishing, and the night. In Tahiti this makes him the creator of all things. He created Atea and divided Atea into Rangi and Papa. Others give this latter feat to his enemy, Tane, and say this precipitated Tangaroa’s flight to the sea. There, Tangaroa is merely the oldest of Rangi and Papa’s children.

Names: Tangaroa, Tangaloa, Tana’oa, Ta’aroa, Kanaloa, Tangaroa-Upao-Vahu
Sobriquets: Father of Fishes, Moonfather
Symbols: Bird, Mussel-shell, Eel
Status: God
Worshippers: Fishermen, Sailors, Carpenters, Housebuilders
Moral Codes: Any Chaotic
Prophets: Chaotic
Spirits: Prophet, Water, Animals, Weather, Chaos

His messenger is the bird Tuli. He is the father of fishes and reptiles. His enemy is Tane; Tangaroa’s waters eat Tane’s canoes, and Tane’s hooks capture Tangaroa’s children. He lives in a dark mussel-shell.

Tangaroa’s refusal to let his dead child go created the moon, his half of a child that he and Rangi both claimed were theirs. The mother, Papa, cut the child in half and gave half to each god. While Rangi threw his into the sky immediately, where it became the sun, Tangaroa kept his until it began to decompose. When he finally threw his into the sky, it was pitted and pale, and became the moon.

In Hawaii Kanaloa comes as a huge Kraken. As the sea, he sinks canoes in revenge for men taking fish, his children.

Polynesia: Tawhiri

Tawhiri is the god of winds and tempests. Alone among the gods he did not want to separate sky and earth to make room for living things to grow.

Names: Tawhiri
Sobriquets: The Tempest
Symbols: Closed clamshell
Status: God
Worshippers: Sailors
Moral Codes: Ordered, Ordered Evil
Prophets: Ordered Evil
Spirits: Prophet, Water, Animal, Weather, Death

When Tane separated sky and earth (who were the gods’ father and mother), Tawhiri went to his father and sent an army of winds to attack his brothers.

Tu alone was able to hold out against Tawhiri’s armies. All other gods fled. In Tawhiri and Tu is the struggle between too much order and too much chaos. Where Tawhiri wished to keep their parents together and let humanity die, Tu wished to kill them in favor of men.

Polynesia: Tu

Names: Tu, Ku
Sobriquets: Ku With the Maggoty Mouth, He Who Stands, Angry Face, Narrow Face, Man-eater
Symbols: Breadfruit
Status: God
Worshippers: Warriors, Sorcerors
Moral Codes: Chaotic, Chaotic Evil
Prophets: Chaotic Evil
Spirits: Prophet, Plant, War, Death, Chaos

Tu is the war-god. Hawaiians sacrificed humans to Ku. Tu is also invoked to make breadfruit trees flourish. Tu is forever at war with Tawhiri.

Tu stood alone against the winds of Tawhiri, but later lost in battle to Tane. Tu had wanted to separate sky and earth by killing each—and sky was Rangi, father, while earth was Papa, mother. Tane opposed this. When Tane’s way won, Tu took revenge on all his brothers, snaring the birds of Tane’s forests, netting the fish of Tangaroa’s sea, and pulling up Rongo’s crops. To wage this war, Tu learned many secret spells with which to do battle.

Polynesia: Whiro

Whiro is the god of darkness, evil, and death. He controls the spirits of illness and sends them against the living. He may not send them against the dead, for they are protected by Hine. His adversary is the god of light, Tane.

Names: Whiro
Sobriquets: Lizard-King
Symbols: Lizard
Status: God
Worshippers: Healers, Revenge-seekers
Moral Codes: Evil, Ordered Evil, Chaotic Evil
Prophets: Evil
Spirits: Prophet, Death, War, Charm, Healing
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