• The Listener
  • North & South
  • Noted
  • RNZ

Māori writers reimagine their mythology in Pūrākau

Photo/Getty Images

Set in strikingly modern contexts, each of the stories in this collection shines a new light on another facet of te ao Māori.

In the Māori world, the past lies before us, the future behind, unseen. The prepositions in the language say as much: “I ngā wā o mua” (“In the times in front of us”) is the English equivalent of “in the olden days”.

The point is made glancingly in the editors’ introduction to this excellent collection of foundational stories of Māori mythology, which are mostly set in strikingly modern or everyday contexts.

The editors marvel, perhaps extravagantly, at how “a people considered to be the youngest of all human populations [developed] one of the most magnificent and richest of origin narratives”. But as these stories underline, Māori myth is a lived tradition in the modern world: time and again in this collection they fix the central tenets of legendary narratives firmly into a contemporary setting. This habit, on show in every whaikōrero and pōwhiri, may not be peculiar to Māori, but it is deeply embedded in the Māori way of being.

A lot of the work has been published elsewhere, but for the rest, Witi Ihimaera and Whiti Hereaka have assembled a dream team of mostly well-known Māori writers who have taken to their brief with vigour and imagination. A standout is David Geary’s Māui Goes to Hollywood, which conceives of the folk hero as a rugby league player dogged by injury and down on his luck. Geary plays riskily with the celebrated method of Māui’s death.

Hereaka’s own Papatūanuku, perhaps the most cheekily funny of the stories, has the earth mother as a solo mum: Rangi’s shot through, leaving her with these ungovernable boys, including Rongo, who is forever in the garden, and Tangaroa, who is always at the beach.

Hēmi Kelly’s deceptively simple Rata uses the story of an old woman gathering medicinal plants as a lovely meditation on the meeting of ancient and modern. It’s plain enough to make a bedtime story for the mokopuna.

Each of the stories, in its own way, shines a new light on another facet of te ao Māori and reminds us of how special this land is.

PŪRĀKAU: Māori Myths Retold, edited by Witi Ihimaera and Whiti Hereaka (Penguin Random House, $38)

This article was first published in the August 3, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.