Mahuika, Fire Goddess

Kate Farrell (author of Story Power) shares a legend of another primal goddess from the South Pacific islands, Mahuika.

Mahuika is the Māori Fire Goddess. In some legends, she is the younger sister of Hine-nui-te-pō, Goddess of Death. It was from her that Māui obtained the secret of making fire. She married Auahi-Turoa and together they had five children, named for the five fingers on the human hand, called collectively Ngā Mānawa.

The symbolism of this connection between fingers and fire is revealed in the stories where Māui obtains fire from Mahuika by tricking her into giving him her fingernails, one by one.

One evening, after eating a hearty meal, Māui lay beside his fire staring into the flames. He watched the flames flicker and dance and thought to himself, “I wonder where fire comes from.”

Māui, being the curious person that he was, decided that he needed to find out. In the middle of the night, while everyone was sleeping, Māui went from village to village and extinguished all the fires until not a single fire burned in the world. He then went back to his hut and waited.

The next morning there was an uproar in the village.

“How can we cook our breakfast, there’s no fire!” called a worried mother.

“How will we keep warm at night?” cried another.

“We can’t possibly live without fire!” the villagers said to one another.

The people of the village were very frightened. They asked Taranga, who was their rangatira, to help solve the problem.

“Someone will have to go and see the great goddess, Mahuika, and ask her for fire,” said Taranga.

None of the villagers were eager to meet Mahuika, they had all heard of the scorching mountain where she lived. So Māui offered to set out in search of Mahuika, secretly glad that his plan had worked.

“Be very careful,” said Taranga. “Although you are a descendant of Mahuika she will not take kindly to you if you try and trick her.”

“I’ll find the great ancestress Mahuika and bring fire back to the world,” Māui assured his mother.

Māui walked to the scorching mountain to the end of the earth following the instructions from his mother and found a huge mountain glowing red hot with heat. At the base of the mountain Māui saw a cave entrance. Before he entered, Māui whispered a special karakia to himself as protection from what lay beyond. But nothing could prepare Māui for what he saw when he entered the sacred mountain of Mahuika.

Mahuika, the goddess, rose up before him, fire burning from every pore of her body, her hair a mass of flames, her arms outstretched, and with only black holes where her eyes once were. She sniffed the air.

“Who is this mortal that dares to enter my dwelling?”

Māui gathered the courage to speak, “It is I, Māui, son of Taranga.”

“Huh!” Yelled Mahuika. “Māui, the son of Taranga?”

“Yes the last born, Māui-tikitiki-a-Taranga.”

“Well then, Māui-tikitiki-a-Taranga, welcome, welcome to the essence of the flame, welcome my grandchild.”

Mahuika stepped closer to Māui, taking a deep sniff of his scent. Māui stood completely still, even though the flames from Mahuika’s skin were unbearably hot.

“So… why do you come, Māui-tikitiki-a-Taranga?” Mahuika finally asked.

Māui said, “The fires of the world have been extinguished, I have come to ask you for fire.” Mahuika listened carefully to Māui, and then she laughed. She pulled a fingernail from one of her burning fingers and gave it to him.

“Take this fire as a gift to your people. Honour this fire as you honour me.”

So Māui left the house of Mahuika taking with him the fingernail of fire.

As Māui walked along the side of the road he thought to himself, “What if Mahuika had no fire left, then where would she get her fire from?”

Māui couldn’t contain his curiosity. He quickly threw the fingernail into a stream and headed back to Mahuika’s cave.

“I tripped and fell,” said Māui. “Could I please have another?”

Mahuika was in a good mood. She hadn’t spoken to someone in quite some time and she liked Māui. She gladly gave Māui another of her fingernails.

But Māui soon extinguished this fingernail as well and returned to Mahuika with another excuse.

“A fish splashed my flame as I was crossing the river,” Māui said.

Mahuika provided another of her fingernails, not suspecting that she was being tricked.

This continued for most of the day until Mahuika had used all her fingernails and had even given up her toenails. When Māui returned to ask for another, Mahuika was furious. She knew Māui had been tricking her and threw the burning toenail to the ground.

Instantly Māui was surrounded by fire and chased from the cave.

Māui changed himself into a hawk and escaped to the sky, but the flames burned so high that they singed the underside of his wings, turning them a glowing red.

Māui dived towards a river, hoping to avoid the flames in the coolness of the water, but the immense heat made the water boil.

Māui was desperate. He called on his ancestor Tāwhirimātea for help. “Tāwhirimātea atua o ngā hau e whā, āwhinatia mai!”

Then, a mass of clouds gathered and a torrent of rain fell to put out the many fires. Mahuika’s mountain of fire no longer burned hot.

Mahuika had lost much of her power, but still she was not giving up. She took her very last toenail and threw it at Māui in anger. The toenail of fire missed Māui and flew into the trees, planting itself in the Mahoe tree, the Tōtara, the Patete, the Pukatea, and the Kaikōmako trees. These trees cherished and held onto the fire of Mahuika, considering it a great gift.

When Māui returned to his village he didn’t bring back fire as the villagers had expected. Instead he brought back dry wood from the Kaikōmako tree and showed them how to rub the dry sticks together forming friction which would eventually start a fire. The villagers were very happy to be able to cook their food once more and to have the warmth of their fires at night to comfort them.

Māui satisfied his curiosity in finding the origin of fire, although he very nearly paid the ultimate price in doing so. To this day the Kahu, the native hawk of Aotearoa, still retains the red singed feathers on the underside of its wings, a reminder of how close Māui was to death.

This is the story of how Māui brought fire to the world.



Note: Compare a similar legend of how fire came to Earth in the Shoshone tale, “How Coyote Stole Fire.” Though the Shoshone tribe lived in the Snake River Plain, this legend of the trickster, coyote, was told throughout the Northwest’s indigenous peoples.

Story Power by Kate Farrell

Story power

Secrets to Creating, Crafting, and Telling Memorable Stories

Stories are everywhere. The art of storytelling has been around as long as humans have. And in today’s noisy, techy, automated world, storytelling is not only prevalent—it’s vital. Whether you’re interested in enlivening conversation, building your business brand, sharing family wisdom, or performing on stage, Story Power will show you how to make use of a good story.

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