Symbolism of the Seven Mythic Canoes of the Maori
One defining theme of Maori mythology centers on the memory of their first arrival in New Zealand by canoe in ancient times. Based on our experience interpreting myths of other ancient cultures it seems appropriate to characterize these myths as quasi-historic, meaning that that the myths might possibly reflect actual historical events, might serve as a symbolic mask for references of cosmology, or, like the Dogon concept of the Field of the Arou Priest, might possibly be interpreted both historically and cosmologically.
According to surviving myths, the Maori people arrived in New Zealand in seven mythic canoes. To any researcher who is conversant with the numerology of ancient cosmology, the numbers seven or eight, when encountered in a mythic context, should strongly suggest meanings that relates to the processes of creation, which according to the Dogon tradition occurs in seven physical stages, followed by an eighth conceptual stage. One way of distinguishing symbolism that is cosmological from statements that are possibly historical is by comparing any special terms emphasized within the myth to words or phonetic values that have obvious cosmological meaning.
Our source for information about the mythic arrival of the Maori by canoe comes from Sir George Grey, an accomplished nineteenth-century soldier, explorer and governor of both Australia and New Zealand who carefully sought an understanding of Maori culture, language, and mythic lore. Our reference is to his 1885 book Polynesian Mythology and Ancient Traditional History of the New Zealand Race as Furnished by Their Priests and Chiefs, in which he includes a list of the Maori names of the seven mythical canoes.(1) A close examination of these names, in the context of other creational references we have explored in this series of volumes, strongly suggests that they represent seven sequential stages of the creation of matter.
Grey gives the name of what he describes as “the first canoe completed” as Arawa. From a phonetic perspective, this term combines the Maori word Ara, meaning “to arise,” “to awaken,” or “to arouse,”(2) with the word wa, meaning “an interval of space.”(3) A related term wai, from the same phonetic root, implies the concept of water or liquid.(4) The term calls to mind symbolism from the Hindu Fable of the Seven Houses that defines the first stage of the creation of matter as an awakening. Both reflect the notion of an act of perception of matter in its conceptually dormant, wavelike state, that initiates the formation of matter.
The name of Grey’s second mythical canoe is given as Tainui. This name combines the Maori root Ta, meaning “to strike”(5) and the word nui, meaning “great” or “large.”(6) The combined term implies the Polynesian sense of the word tanui, meaning “to increase,” and upholds Dogon assertions that the perceived wave grows as it is next drawn upward.
The third mythical Maori canoe was called Matatua. The Maori word mata means “the face,”(7) and Tregear cites as a specific example “the face of the ocean,” and so calls to mind the creational phrase from Genesis, “the face of the waters.” In the Hindu myth of the Seven Houses, it is a sleeping housewife (by some interpretations, a sleeping goddess) who is awakened during the initial stages of creation. Appropriate to those meanings, the Maori word tua is a term for “deity” or “infinity.”(8)
The fourth canoe of the Maori myth is referred to as Takitumu. The Maori word taki means “to begin to speak,”(9) while the word tumu can refer to “a low sound.”(10) In keeping with a Dogon metaphor that compares the stages of the creation of matter to the speaking of a Word, this term refers to the initial vibrations that are prerequisite both to the formation of particles of matter, and to the vocalization of a word.
The fifth Maori canoe is assigned the three-part name Kura-hau-po. The Maori word kura means “to redden,”(11) and in the parlance of the ancient cosmology implies the notion of reeds, which are symbolic of the concept of existence. From our perspective, a single reed defines the concept of “that which is,” and two reeds in combination represent the concept of “existence.” The Maori word hau means “wind,”(12) which is a cosmological term that is symbolic of vibration. The Maori and Dogon word po, along with the Egyptian word pau, represent the concept of matter, or more specifically in the Dogon sense, the atom. Based on these definitions, the combined term Kura-hau-po would refer to the “vibrating reeds (or perhaps threads) of matter.”
The sixth of the mythical Maori canoes was called Toko-maru. The Maori word toko means “to stretch out,”(13) and the word maru refers to a sheltered space.(14) The cosmological implication of the term is that of the formation and expansion of space.
The last of the seven canoes was given the name Matawhaorua. According to Edward Tregear, the Maori term Mata, cited above as meaning “face” in the sense of “the face of the ocean,” can also refer to “the surface of the earth.” Within the context of the ancient cosmology, the term “earth” is symbolic of mass. On one level, the Maori word wha means “four,” which is number assigned to our material universe in the numerology of the Dogon tradition, perhaps reflective of three dimensions and time. However, the word also means “revealed,” “disclosed,” or “known.”(15) The word whao means “to grasp” or “to lay hold of,” or “to put into a receptacle.” Rua is a familiar cosmological term that refers again to vibration or sound. For the Maori, the root ru means “earthquake.”(16) Based on these definitions, the combined name Matawhaorua implies the concept of the emergences of mass as a kind of receptacle that encloses vibration. From a cosmological perspective, this is a description of the Dogon egg-of-the-world, or of a Calabi-Yau space in string theory.