Polynesian Creation Myths: Ever Wondered How Hawai’i Was Created?

Polynesian creation myths helped their creators make sense of the world and lay the building blocks for their culture.

Jan 17, 2022By Arthur Grainger, MA in Archaeology

wilhelm maui kahukiwa rangi papa painting


The creation myths told by Polynesian people are connected in many ways through their shared links to Austronesian ancestors. However, over the last two thousand years, as distinct Polynesian societies developed on various islands, these stories became varied from place to place. This article will showcase some of these creation myths to show how the Polynesian creation myths bore the rich culture seen today in Polynesia.


Māori Polynesian Creation Myths 

stone tools bay plenty lintel carving
Lintel carving, made with stone tools in the Bay of Plenty showing Rangi and Papa during the stage of creation during darkness and light coming to the world, 1850, via Teara.gov.nz


Māori legends reflect many Polynesian creation myths related to the birth of the universe and everything inside of it, including gods. This is not surprising, seeing as the indigenous cultures of the Pacific are all related. So, what is the creation myth for Māori?


They say that in the beginning, there was just Te Kore (the nothing) until one day there came Te Po (the night). After this first partnership, two thoughts passed between them as Rangi (the sky father) and Papa (the Earth mother). Rangi and Papa loved each other so much that they refused to let go of each other, and so, as they embraced, there was no light on the Earth. The embrace was so tight that even time could not slip between them.


The partnership between Rangi and Papa gave birth to 100 children. Some of these included Tangaroa (God of the sea), Tāne (god of the forest), Tūmatauenga (god of war), Whiro (god of darkness), and Tāwhirimātea (god of wind). These children were trapped between their parents and wished they could move, so Tane suggested separating them.

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Tane carried four poles to the four corners of the Earth and pushed the parents slowly apart over several years. Eventually, they became separated, and the blood of Rangi became the red of the sky at night. So, likewise, the blood of Papa became the red clay on Earth.


robyn f kahukiwa rangi papa painting
Ko Ranginui, Papatuanuku Me Ruaumoko (Rangi and Papa), by Robyn F. Kahukiwa, 1950, aasd.com.au


Light came into the world, and time began with the separation of Rangi and Papa. Finally, the four God children could move, so they went each to the four corners of the Earth to hold up the sky. However, despite this new freedom, Tāwhirimātea was angry at what his siblings had done, so he ripped his eyes out and threw them into the sky, where they became the first stars. Next, he made natural disasters such as storms and hurricanes to show his fury had no end. The whistling of his pain for his parents and his disdain for his siblings’ actions will fuel his winds to this very day.


In the end, Papa and Rangi missed each other so much that their tears became rain and created the rivers and oceans which still flow today. You might even see the mist and dew which settles on the ground, which are reminders that Papa sighs in eternal loneliness for her one true love.


Māori’s interpretation of life coming into being is one reflected in many Polynesian cultures as the idea of there first being darkness and the life coming with light.


Māui and Aoraki Polynesian Creation Myths 


There are many tales from various parts of the Pacific about how the islands came into being. In Māori culture, there are two legendary events that crafted the two giant land masses which make up Aotearoa.


Following the world’s creation, men started to inhabit it and frolic about in the waves of Rangi’s tears. One important character of Māori legend is Māui, the favorite son, trickster, and expert fisherman who helped fish up the North Island of New Zealand (Aotearoa). Polynesian people across the Pacific have tales of this legendary hero Māui who, as the Polynesian creation myth goes, was born with magical powers. He held an equally magical fishhook, a fishing implement traditionally curved and carved from the jawbone of his grandmother.


dittmer wilhelm maui fishing new zealand drawing
Māui Fishing New Zealand out of the Ocean, by Dittmer Wilhelm, 1907, via Natlib.govt.nz


One day, he and some men were fishing in the great oceans aboard a waka when he cast his line into the deep water and caught something impossibly large. He pulled the fish out of the ocean with great effort, where it became a solid landmass. Thus, the great fish became the home of the Māori, Aotearoa.


Years after the fishing-up of the North Island, Aoraki and his brothers went fishing to the south. Unfortunately, their waka became sick. Over time, Aoraki and his fishermen became frozen, their waka became the greater South Island, and the brothers became the highest peaks of the mountains. For example, Aoraki was the largest of the brothers, so he became known as the mountain Aoraki Mount Cook.


Hawai’ian Polynesian Creation Story

creation world polynesian creation myth kumulipo book
The world’s creation from darkness to the coming of Dawn, by Doug Po’oloa Tolentino, via ke-kula-o-kulaniakea.myshopify.com.


Moving to the northern reaches of the Polynesian cultural triangle is the crescent-shaped archipelago of Hawai’i. The Hawai’ian creation story goes that in the beginning there was darkness. From the darkness came Kumulipo (male essence of darkness) and Po’ele (female darkness itself). Together, they created all the creatures of total darkness, shellfish from the ocean’s bottom, and grubs inside the Earth.


These creatures gave birth to Pouliuli (male of deep darkness) and Powehiwehi (female darkness with a bit of light). They came together to create creatures of almost darkness, such as fish swimming in deep oceans and land creatures that only lived in darkness. Moreover, with each dark creature born, the world’s light became a little brighter.


These beings gave birth to a third union between Po’el’ele (male of the night) and Pohaha (female of the coming of Dawn). They created creatures of the near Dawn, including insects, caterpillars, and a large egg. From this large egg hatched all the birds that fly at the hour before the coming of Dawn.


turtle polynesia tonga wood carving
Wooden Turtle Carving, from Tonga, 1983, via Tepapa


Next, Popanopano and Palalowwehi created sea turtles, lobsters, and shellfish. Finally, their most significant children Po’hiolo and Po’ne’a’aku, ended the night, giving birth to the pig and rat just as Dawn came upon the Earth.


The pig and rat created the first Dawn with the children of the first man Ki’l and the first woman La’ila’a. Holding hands, man and woman were both dark, but as the sun rose and they had children in the light, their skins became lighter and lighter until they are the colors seen today.


The Polynesian Creation Myth of the Hawaiian Islands

david howard fire goddess pele painting
Pele, by David Howard Hitchcock, c. 1929, via Honolulu Star-Bulletin


Now, like with how Māori legends tell of the formation of Aotearoa, Hawai’ians tell of a similar story for how their islands grew up from the oceans through the actions of gods. Polynesian creation myths often depict elements of the supernatural or celestial when coming up with legends about how the world came into being.


After gods created humans, the Hawai’ian Islands grew during a battle between sisters. It began with Pele (the fire goddess) and Nāmaka (the sea goddess), who hated each other. One day Pele got angrier than ever before and so tried to attack her sister with fire, and this caused the island Kauai to form.


They continued to fight, heading southeast where she formed islands through her rage, forming Moloka’i and Māui. Pele formed the Haleakalā volcano in these lands; however, during the battle on Māui, Nāmaka thought she had finally killed Pele.


Pele returned, proving her sister’s hopes wrong, and she found her final resting place on the big island. She created Mauna Loa, and Nāmaka came to accept that she could not kill nor stop her sister, so she left her there to spew in eternal anger. Even today, Pele resides on top of Kīlauea in the Halemaʻumaʻu Crater.


Tongan Polynesian Creation Myths: The Birth of Tonga

chris van doren tangaloa god sculpture
Tangaloa (god of Tonga), by Chris Van Doren, 2021, via Artis Gallery


Tongans share Polynesian creation myths that are not dissimilar to Hawai’i and Aotearoa, usually involving a period of darkness before the light comes to the world. Therefore, to avoid retreading similar ocean waters with previous Polynesian creation myths, let’s look at the unique story of how humans came into being on Tonga.


The legend is called ‘Talatupu’a‘ and involves the god Tangaloa’ Atulongolongo taking the form of a plover and descending from the sky onto an uninhabited island. Tongaloa is the god of Tonga, but to all Polynesian people he is the god of the sea as well, and he helped give birth to the first Tongan people. As a plover, he pecked at a single maggot which divided into three, and from these grew three men. However, then the problem was they needed to find partners to procreate!


spur winged plover phorograph
Plover bird, by Duncan Watson 2009, via NZbirdsonline.org.nz


This problem resolved itself when the demigod Māui went to fetch women from Pulotu (the underworld) to find wives for these men if humans were to survive. So, they were partnered, and from this, Togan and Polynesian peoples flourished across the Pacific.


Polynesian Creation Myths & Polynesian People

solomon enos papa wakea painting
Papa and Wakea, Hawai’ian creation myth of the sky father (Wakea) and the earth mother (Papa) coming together to make Papahanaumoku, by Solomon Enos, via Teara.govt.nz


As Polynesian creation myths are rich and full of variety, this article alone is not enough to describe them all in detail. These stories show a complex culture full of interesting oral traditions and characters in both gods and demigods who shaped the world Polynesian people exist today through conflict or sheer magical power.


The creation myths of the Polynesian people draw on the reality of their environment to chisel an understanding of their world, which lay down the frameworks for their cultural ideologies. By consuming these as stories and cultural artifacts of archaeology, we can preserve the history of their original meanings and ensure the continued appreciation and preservation of these indigenous cultures for years to come.

Author Image

By Arthur GraingerMA in ArchaeologyArthur is an archaeologist with experience in fieldwork around New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, and Micronesia. He received his MA in Archaeology with honors from the University of Otago, New Zealand. Now a freelance archaeologist and contributing writer looking to share the joys of archaeology and uncovering the mysteries of the past!