Death creation myths


A Melanesian Myth
At first men never died, but when they advanced in life they cast their skins like snakes and crabs, and came out with youth renewed. After a time a woman growing old went to a stream to change her skin. She threw off her old skin in the water, and observed that as it floated down it caught against a stick. Then she went home, where she had left her child. The child, however, refused to recognize her, crying that its mother was an old woman not like this young stranger; and to pacify the child she went after her cast integument and put it on. From that time mankind ceased to cast their skins and died.


An Indonesia Myth
Thus the natives of Poso, a district of Central Celebes, say that in the beginning the sky was very near the earth, and that the Creator, who lived in it, used to let down his gifts to men at the end of a rope.

One day he thus lowered a stone; but our first father and mother would have none of it and they called out to their Maker, ‘What have we to do with this stone? Give us something else.’ The Creator complied and hauled away at the rope; the stone mounted up and up till it vanished from sight. Presently the rope was seen coming down from heaven again, and this time there was a banana at the end of it instead of a stone.

Our first parents ran at the banana and took it. Then there came a voice from heaven saying: ‘Because ye have chosen the banana, your life shall be like its life. When the banana-tree has offspring, the parent stem dies; so shall ye die and your children shall step into your place. Had ye chosen the stone, your life would have been like the life of the stone changeless and immortal.’ The man and his wife mourned over their fatal choice, but it was too late; that is how through the eating of a banana death came into the world.


An Australian Myth
In one of the Wotjobaluk legends it is said that at the time when all animals were men and women, some died, and the moon used to say, ‘You up-again,’ and they came to life again. There was at that time an old man who said, ‘Let them remain dead.’ Then none ever came to life again, except the moon, which still continued to do so.


An Australian (Aranda Tribe) Myth
From a floor of rock they issued forth, south of Ilkanara, from a little rock-hole. The rock was first opened by a curfew woman, who thrust her nose through the hard stone. A second curfew woman followed, then a third, a fourth, a fifth, and so on. And then a curfew man appeared, followed by a second, a third, a fourth, a fifth, and so on to the last. Finally they had all emerged.

The men who had issued forth last all grew angry against the man who had appeared first perhaps because he had followed too closely upon the women. The first-born man lit a great blazing fire; and the others pointed a magic bone at him. The doomed man stretched himself out; he lay motionless for two nights. Then he died, and the rest buried him east of the floor of rock. Some of the women went to Tjolankuta, deep in grief; others went to Lkebalinja; others again sat down at the entrance of the gap where the Ilkanara creek breaks through the range. They moved about in a women’s dance, to the accompaniment of shouts by the men: ‘bau! bau! bau! bau!’

But the dead man hollowed out the soil from underneath. Then his forehead emerged through the crust; next his temples reappeared; next his head became visible, up to his throat. His two shoulders, however, had become caught below.

Then the Urbura, the magpie, came from Urburakana. He rushed along in haste; he saw from a great distance away what was happening: ‘See, he has begun to sprout up again only a moment ago; but his two shoulders have become caught tightly and are still pinning him down.’The dead man rose a little higher. The curfew women were approaching with dancing steps; they encircled him. The magpie rushed up, filled with deadly anger, to a mountain near-by, called Urburinka. Then he grasped a heavy mulga spear, thrust it deep into the neck of the dead man, stamped him back into the ground with his heel, trampling fiercely upon him: ‘Remain rooted down firmly for all time; do not attempt to rise again; stay for ever in the grave!’

Then the curfews all turned into birds and flew to Running Waters; they all left, both men and women. Their wailing shrieks rang out without ceasing; their tears fell without ceasing; they were deeply stricken with grief.

The Urbura, too, soared up like a bird and returned to his own home, where he remained forever.

My informant added briefly that, but for the cruelty of the Urbura, the dead man would have grown up into life a second time; and if he had risen of his own accord, all men who died since that day, would have risen again after death in the same manner. But the Urbura had finally crushed the unfortunate curfew man, and stamped his head down a second time into the grave: ‘And now all of us die and are annihilated for ever; and there is no resurrection for us.’

Maui and Hine-Nui-Te-Po

A Polynesian Myth
Maui now felt it necessary to leave the village where Irawaru had lived, so he returned to his parents. When he had been with them for some time, his father said to him one day, ‘Oh, my son, I have heard from your mother and others that you are very valiant, and that you have succeeded in all feats that you have undertaken in your own country, whether they were small or great. But now that you have arrived in your father’s country, you will, perhaps, at last be overcome.’

Then Maui asked him, ‘What do you mean? What things are there that I can be vanquished by?’ His father answered him, ‘By your great ancestress, by Hine-nui-te-po, who, if you look, you may see flashing, and, as it were, opening and shutting there, where the horizon meets the sky.’ Maui replied, ‘Lay aside such idle thoughts, and let us both fearlessly seek whether men are to die or live for ever.’ His father said, ‘My child, there has been an ill omen for us. When I was baptizing you, I omitted a portion of the fitting prayer, and that I know will be the cause of your perishing.’

Then Maui asked his father, ‘What is my ancestress Hine-nui-te-po like?’ He answered, ‘What you see yonder shining so brightly red are her eyes. And her teeth are as sharp and hard as pieces of volcanic glass. Her body is like that of a man. And as for the pupils of her eyes, they are jasper. And her hair is like the tangles of long seaweed. And her mouth is like that of a barracuda.’ Then his son answered him: ‘Do you think her strength is as great as that of Tama-nui-te-Ra, who consumes man, and the earth, and the very waters, by the fierceness of his heat? Was not the world formerly saved alive by the speed with which he travelled? If he had then, in the days of his full strength and power, gone as slowly as he does now, not a remnant of mankind would have been left living upon the earth, nor, indeed, would anything else have survived. But I laid hold of Tama-nui-te-Ra, and now he goes slowly, for I smote him again and again, so that he is now feeble, and long in travelling his course, and he now gives but very little heat, having been weakened by the blows of my enchanted weapon. I then, too, split him open in many places, and from the wounds so made, many rays now issue forth and spread in all directions. So, also, I found the sea much larger than the earth, but by the power of the last born of your children, part of the earth was drawn up again, and dry land came forth.’ And his father answered him, ‘That is all very true, 0, my last born, and the strength of my old age. Well, then, be bold, go and visit your great ancestress, who flashes so fiercely there, where the edge of the horizon meets the sky.’

Hardly was this conversation concluded with his father, when the young hero went forth to look for companions to accompany him upon this enterprise. There came to him for companions, the small robin, and the large robin, and the thrush, and the yellow-hammer, and every kind of little bird, and the water-wagtail. These all assembled together, and they all started with Maui in the evening, and arrived at the dwelling of Hine-nui-te-po, and found her fast asleep.

Then Maui addressed them all, ‘My little friends, now if you see me creep into this old chieftainess, do not laugh at what you see. Nay, nay, do not, I pray you, but when I have got altogether inside her, and just as I am coming out of her mouth, then you may shout with laughter if you please.’ His little friends, who were frightened at what they saw, replied, ‘Oh, sir, you will certainly be killed.’ He answered them, ‘If you burst out laughing at me as soon as I get inside her, you will wake her up, and she will certainly kill me at once, but if you do not laugh until I am quite inside her, and am on the point of coming out of her mouth, I shall live, and Hine-nui-te-po will die.’ His little friends answered, ‘Go on then, brave sir, but pray take good care of yourself.’

Then the young hero started off. He twisted the strings of his weapon tight round his wrist, and went into the house. He stripped off his clothes, and the skin on his hips looked mottled and beautiful as that of a mackerel, from the tattoo marks, cut on it with the chisel of Uetonga [grandson of Ru, god of earthquakes; Uetonga taught tattooing to Mataora who taught it to man], and he entered the old chieftainess.

The little birds now screwed up their tiny cheeks, trying to suppress their laughter. At last the little Tiwakawaka could no longer keep it in, and laughed out loud, with its merry, cheerful note. This woke the old woman up. She opened her eyes, started up, and killed Maui.

Thus died this Maui we have spoken of. But before he died he had children, and sons were born to him. Some of his descendants yet live in Hawaiki (Hawaii), some in Aotearoa (or in these islands). The greater part of his descendants remained in Hawaiki, but a few of them came here to Aotearoa. According to the traditions of the Maori, this was the cause of the introduction of death into the world (Hine-nui-te-po was the goddess of death. If Maui had passed safely through her, then no more human beings would have died, but death itself would have been destroyed.) We express it by saying, ‘The water-wagtail laughing at Maui-tiki-tiki-o Taranga made Hine-nui-te-po squeeze him to death.’ And we have this proverb, ‘Men make heirs, but death carries them of