The Earth Mother concept in Te Ao Māori
Traditionally Māori see Papatūānuku, the Earth Mother, as the source of all life. She is a parthenogenic mother; her offspring are produced without fertilisation. Her first son was Tāne, and from her all life came. This idea is shadowed in the Greek mythology of Gaia, the ancestral mother of all life. In both cases, the parthenogenic mother is both a person and the earth itself.
Papatūānuku as the earth
Māori have a spiritual link to the land that is the land of their ancestors. In one respect, respecting the land connects them with their ancestors in the distant past. In another respect, it is directly respecting and maintaining the authority of Papatūānuku. Papatūānuku gives us the air we breathe, rivers and lakes in which to clean our bodies, food and medicine in plants and animals. Conflicts over land and mana whenua (territorial rights, authority over the land) are common, but Papatūānuku herself shows manaaki (care) for her tamariki (children).
Māori consider themselves tangata whenua, people of the land. As tangata whenua, they are therefore the kaitiaki (guardians) of Papa’s natural environments: te takutai (the coast), ngā repo (wetlands), ngā moutere tapu (islands), te pō (the night), te whenua waotū (the high country) and Te Wao Nui a Tāne (the forest). This role is important for sustainability of these treasured environments.
Papatūānuku as a mother
Papatūānuku is a nurturer. She, in her wisdom, impart life’s essential lessons to her tamariki (children). In other words, she teaches us how to act, what to value, what to prize and what to let go of in life. Her gifts include endurance, action and decision, caution, humour, hope and courage, judgement and fairness.
One way Papatūānuku plays the role of the mother is by letting her children make mistakes and work out for themselves the right way to go. She patiently watches as children fall short of their goals, and have to learn for the next time how to improve, and she makes sure we have a tūrangawaewae (place to stand).
Another aspect of her identity is that she values the smallest and the youngest of her children (which is to say forms of life) as much as the greatest and most experienced. Papatūānuku knows that all children are special (taonga). She knows that all beings have a contribution to make to the greater collective. She ensures that they have the confidence to succeed.
She teaches her children to become knowledge-seekers. She knows that children must be curious and inquisitive to gain the fruits of life, as embodied in ngā kete e toru o mātauranga. He who does not seek will not find. Ko ia kāhore nei i rapu, tē kitea.
It is important to reflect on the lived experiences of our great Earth Mother Papatūānuku. The love that she gives is unfailing, and we strive to be good kaitiaki (guardians), for her sake.
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