Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Great Woman of the Night

Today's request for awesome mythic ladies says this: How about you guys talk about the Goddessesof Australia (or Polynesia, whichever you fancy about the moment)? Both together is way too huge an undertaking - there are myriad different religions with different goddesses all across Australia alone, and while Polynesia has many deities in common, the area also has plenty of specific gods indigenous to different islands and faiths - but we can certainly simplify down to talk about a few!

I'm going to take us to New Zealand, because if we're going to specify somewhere in the many amazing mythologies of Polynesia, it might as well be the one that was most likely the original source for many of the myths that later spread east to the other islands! While there are excellent and important goddesses all over Polynesia, I'm thinking of a particular Maori goddess today: Hine, the goddess of night, darkness and the underworld itself.

"Hine" just means "woman", so more often than not this particular goddess will be referred to by longer titles, the most popular being Hine-nui-te-po ("Great Woman of the Night"), Hine-ata-uira ("Woman of the Dawn") and Hine-titama ("Disgusted Woman"). Maori mythology, as well as many other Polynesian religions, often uses this device to distinguish between deities that have similar names or functions but are not actually the same, so that you can tell that Rangi-nui ("sky father") is not necessarily the same as Rangi-roa ("vast sky"), although often they are related in some way. It also sometimes allows gods to change names when they change function or go through some great transformative event; in Hine's case, she ceased to be Hine-ata-uira and became Hine-titama and then Hine-nui-te-po when her happy life was shattered by horrific events, but we'll get to that in a second.


Maori deities often look fearsome in traditional art, since sharp lines, large teeth and warlike glowering are the norm in that style, but even among the other gods, Hine-nui-te-po is generally pretty frightening. As goddess of the underworld, she receives all the dead who were not wicked or unrepentant in life, or who did not break severe religious tapu (prohibitions) that would cause them to instead end up somewhere nastier than under her care. She is generally pretty misanthropic; legend has it that she inflicts bad luck on humans seemingly at random or at least finds it entertaining when bad things happen to them, and that her laughter can be heard in the wilderness celebrating the end of human hopes and dreams that means they are closer to becoming part of her domain.

But she is also generally benevolent to those mortal dead who come under her care; often, she is portrayed as treating them like her own children, kept in the underworld but not mistreated, and she is frequently said to defend them from the depredations of Whiro, another underworld god who personifies evil and misfortune and delights in human suffering. Human beings who are still alive shouldn't bother her, since it's generally understood that she would refuse to let them out of the underworld if they were silly enough to enter it, but on the whole she is one of the kinder powers of the great unknown.


So, if Hine-nui-te-po is generally a nice person, how did she end up in the underworld, and why did she cease to be the carefree young Dawn Woman? The answer is, as it often is in mythology, that some dude was terrible to her - in this case, her father, the powerful creator god Tane.

Tane is possibly the most important god in Maori mythology, or at least definitely among the top three. Among other things, he instigated the separation of Rangi and Papa (sky and earth) so that life between them could flourish, created humanity from sand and gave them life, set the clouds in the sky and the lights in the heavens, and became ancestor to enough of humanity that he is a de facto father figure for the entire universe. This is all well and good, of course, until we get to the part where he's also kind of a terrible person.


Although he had created everything, Tane was lonely and wanted a wife, so after consulting with his mother Papa for instructions, he attempted to marry several of his ancestors and fellow deities, but all such unions only yielded new creations for the world rather than true offspring. After much frustration, he finally created the first of the goddesses, Hine-ahuone ("Earth-Born Woman"). With her he had a daughter, Hine-ata-uira, and decided that since she was so beautiful he would put Hine-ahuone aside and marry her instead. Hine-ata-uira had no idea that her husband was also her father, since he had raised her with the intention of marrying her, so life continued peacefully and they had several children before she eventually thought to ask him why she didn't have any parents.

Tane didn't particularly want to answer this question, most likely because while ancient Maori society had much less restrictive morals about sex, parent-child incest was still a very strict tapu, so he just laughed at her and put her off. Eventually, when she persisted in asking, he pulled a solemn old man act and essentially said, "Yes, who is your father?" with a lot of significant nodding, winking and pointing at the things he had invented, until Hine-ata-uira eventually realized that it was, in fact, him.

Hine-ata-uira took it about as you would expect; she was horrified, and immediately fled the house and ran as far away from Tane as she could, eventually ending up down in the underworld since it was the only place he would not follow her. When he begged her to come back and take care of their children, she told him that this situation was his own fault (Tane has trouble arguing with her on that one), that she would now be known as Hine-nui-te-po, and that she would never be coming back and would instead receive all of Tane's children and descendents to care for them after life was over.


Hine-nui-te-po went on to settle into the underworld, perform the important work of keeping a lid on Whiro's antics and eventually remarry the god Ruaumoko, but alas, her tribulations with guys who really need to learn to keep their hands to themselves were not over. Her second most famous problem is the Polynesian trickster extraordinaire Maui, who in addition to other greatest hits such as "devastatingly injuring the sun god forever" and "almost literally setting the entire world on fire" now decided to add "harassing possibly the most powerful goddess in existence" to his resume.

Maui, while visiting his aged parents, was cautioned by them against ever going to bother Hine-nui-te-po; his mother explained that she had actually forgotten to perform part of the ritual of his baptism at birth and was afraid that it would cause him to die, while his father extolled Hine-nui-te-po's great powers and fearsome appearance and cautioned Maui that it would be foolish to go anywhere near her. Considering Maui's track record, it shouldn't surprise anyone that he saw this as a dare rather than a warning and immediately departed to go to the underworld and look for her. He gathered together one of every bird native to the islands to help guide him and find his way, and eventually made it to the underworld, where he saw Hine-nui-te-po, much larger than himself, asleep in her home.

Maui then decided that, since Hine-nui-te-po was the goddess of death, he should be able to prevent her from ever killing him by passing through her body in the reverse of birth, making himself essentially "never-born" and therefore also never-dying (and also, he confided in his bird friends, he was pretty sure that he would be able to kill her by doing so as well). In what is possibly the most simultaneously reprehensible and poorly-planned move in all of Maori myth, he then made himself tiny (in some versions of the story, turning into a lizard) and crawled into Hine-nui-te-po's vulva, intending to travel up into her womb and then out through her mouth, killing her in her sleep.


The fantail bird that Maui had brought with him was so entertained by the sight that it couldn't help laughing at him, however, which woke Hine-nui-te-po up, and upon discovering that Maui was sexually assaulting her in her sleep, she quite appropriately crushed him to death with her vagina. Thus Maui, the most famous of all Maori heroes, came to an ignoble end, and his assault on her caused Hine-nui-te-po to declare human lifespans all mortal and subject to death after a very short time from that point forward, so we have him to thank for our current mortality rate. At this point in her mythology, it's hard to blame poor Hine for much of this; if anything, her restraint in not just permanently killing everyone is pretty admirable.

Hine-nui-te-po is an example of a goddess whose power is undeniable and universal, and whose importance and reputation have not suffered in spite of the many injustices done to her. No matter what the other gods of the pantheon have thrown at her, Hine-nui-te-po survives, thrives, and destroys the opposition in pursuit of her own benevolent goals. Young Heroes who have the good (or bad?) fortune to encounter her should probably be respectful and avoid in any way irritating her, because she is no longer subordinate to anyone, and she does not tolerate any kind of abuse against her.