The similarities between Greek Mythology and Māori Mythology.

There are numerous similarities between the Greek myths of how the world was created, and the Māori mythological creation account.

This is a fascinating fact, given the disparity between the time periods of Greek civilization and Māori civilization and the geographical distance between these parts of the world.

In this post, we aim to show some of their differences and comparisons of similarities.

A belief in gods, supreme beings, demigods and humans

The Titans were the Greek mythological deities that preceded the Olympians. The world of the twelve Titans was carnage. Although bigger than the gods, the gods were more powerful and defeated them. Zeus, a god, was the son of Cronus, a Titan, and ruled the Earth from Olympus once this action had occurred.

In the Māori stories of Creation, the first period was in darkness. Rangi and Papa, out of whom all beings grew, were locked together, the sky flat down on the earth. The gods were their sons, Tāne of the forest, Haumia of uncultivated things, Tūmatuaenga of war and mankind, Rongo of peace, Tangaroa of the sea and Tāwhirimatea of the wind. All creatures grew tired of living in this constant darkness and the brothers decided that they had to find a solution. Tū thought killing them was the answer. However, it was decided to separate them. Each god in turn tried his best to push them apart. Tāne, the last to attempt it, succeeded where the rest had failed. This brought about Te Ao Tūroa.

Here we have the elements that shaped from nothing a world we can relate to in form and substance.

There is a moral in this story about the way a child will outlast and outgrow its parents.

The role of the gods

The gods were each responsible for a different part of creation. The Māori world was governed by the six brothers, and each was passionate and staunch in what they loved. They conflicted with each another when they came into contact with one other. The Greek Olympians were Zeus who ruled the Earth, Poseidon who ruled the ocean, Hades who ruled the Underworld (these three brothers decided their respective kingdoms by lot.) Aphrodite was the goddess of love. Athena was the goddess of wisdom, war and useful arts. Ares was the god of war. Hera was the goddess of marriage, mothers and families. Apollo was the god of the sun and the temple and Artemis the god of the hunt. 

The gods in Māori mythology also intervened in the affairs of humans. The story of Rōna and the Moon tells of how Rōna’s face was fixed in the moon when she tripped while carrying water gourds over the night. The story of Putauaki tells how the mountain was forced to remain in place forever on the Hauraki Plains when he tried to betray his wife, Tarawera, in adultery with Whakaari (White Island). This is similar to the Greek legend of Atlas, forced to bear the weight of the heavens on his shoulders forever. Mythologies offer non-scientific explanations for the way things are but they also tell morals.

Where it gets interesting…

…is where, driven by emotion, the gods interfere in the affairs of humans, or took sides in human conflicts. Blessed with heavenly powers, they were able to give divine attributes to humans, to bestow blessings upon those they fell in love with and bring misfortune to those they despised or disrespected.

The difference between god and human is of course another moral of these stories. Among humans, who is like God? (This question is the meaning of the Archangel name Michael).

Can you really say that any god can decide the fate of one person or another? Of course, you can’t. Just as Juno tried to curse Aeneas journey to Italy after the fall of Troy, Venus tried to guide him. Neither god was really responsible for what ultimately happened in the story. Yet, there is an unfailing network of gods, semi-gods and humans, who keep each other sound company.

Death

Both cultures share a mythology of the Underworld. In Māori mythology, the underworld is called Rarohenga and is the domain of Hine-nui-i-te-pō, the goddess of death. Curiously, the underworld in te ao Māori is seen as a place of light. This reflects the way Māori mythology defines the two worlds as two interlocking axes. For example, when Mataora crosses into the Underworld from Te Ao Tūroa (the natural world) to seek marriage with a tūrehu (spirit) Nīwareka, he finds that it is a world of light and not darkness as he had expected. In Greek mythology, Hades is the name for both the god of death and the place where he resides. Greek mythology also has a River Styx, which represents death. (In one Greek myth, Achilles is dipped in the river by his mother by the heel to render him invincible.) Māori mythology does not have a river, but there is an entry-point into the Underworld. Both myths carry a concept of a fall which led the god or goddess to become ruler of the Underworld. Before Hine-nui-i-te-pō was goddess of death, she was Hinetītama, the Dawn Maiden. She became the goddess of death when she discovered that she had committed an incest with Tāne, her father. Hades drew lots with Zeus and Poseidon to decide which part of the world each would rule. Hades drew the short end of the stick and it was established he would rule the underworld. In Greek mythology, Hades is the most feared and loathed god, for the spectre of death haunts us all til the day we die. Hades is stern, cruel and unpitying but just. Both mythologies have a guardian to the Underworld. In Greek mythology, it is the boatman Charon, who carries you across the River Styx when you are able to die. In Māori mythology, Te Kuwatawata guards the entrance to the underworld.

Violence

There was no shortage of conflict, war and fighting in both cultures’ creation myths. The Trojan War, which is told in a combination of poetic and historic styles in The Iliad by the ancient Greek poet Homer, was an epic of extreme violence and mass death steered and guided by the work of the gods. In Māori mythology, the god of war is also the god of mankind. The oral histories of war and noble fighting were passed down through generations of Māori before the time of James Cook. The abuse of Nīwareka by Mataora or the death and destruction wrought by the rage of Achilles show the faiblesse of mankind for violence in both cultures.

Demigods and human nobility or sacrifice and spirit

There are also demi-gods in both myths. The purpose of the demi-god is unclear. Some say it exists to show mankind that it is capable of elevating itself to divine virtues in extreme, non-ordinary circumstances. Hercules was the first demi-god of the Greek creation. His extrahuman strength was seen by ancient Athenians as a noble virtue to inspire them in their ways and lives. Who can say how much mana had Tāne, the first man, or Māui, when he caught the sun in his net crafted with flax fibres?

Places of mythology like the Underworld become interesting when people from the mythology stories outwit the gods and defy the logic which guided creation. For example, Māui who sought the baskets of knowledge from the Underworld was a trickster and was able to visit the Underworld without dying. The mysteriousness of our existence and the power of the imagination are suggested by such stories. The many labours of Hercules, the Odyssey of Ulysses and the journey of Jason and the Argonauts belong to the Greek mind. The fish, the sun and the kete of Mātauranga are among the great conquests of Māui. 

Why are mythologies important?

Mythologies are morals. We can say that the North Island is just an uplifted section of the Australasian Plate, but it won’t tell us anything about human suffering, or struggle against nature. We can say that Herculean strength is a fabrication, but it does well to explain the strength of a mother when she pushes her baby out of the uterus. We can say Tāne hoisting Rangi above his head, standing on Papa is a pretension, but who can deny the intensity of love and hate that is all parceled into a father-son relationship, and even the Oedipan complexity of a mother-son relationship. A body of mythology is essential, and both Māori and Greek myths are beautifully crafted tales that surprise in all the most amazing ways.