Maui and the Creation of the Islands

Background Information

All cultures have their own traditional stories that they pass down from generation to generation. Some of these stories, also called "creation myths," tell of ancestors, kings, gods and goddesses, or supernatural beings who played a part in the origin of Earth and all life on it. They also express the values of the culture or explain natural events such as rain and the Sun.

Creation, or origin, stories describe the beginnings of the universe, including the Sun, Moon, stars, and Earth. Many creation stories focus on the origins of a particular region and people. For example, the story of how Maui attempts to catch a fish for his mother and ends up pulling the Hawaiian Islands out of the ocean is a creation story.

Creation stories often try to explain the natural phenomena that people see around them. Ancient Hawaiians observed during their travels that there were differences in the soil and vegetation of the different islands. They recognized that these differences showed that the islands to the northwest were older than those to the southeast. This idea was handed down from generation to generation in the legends of Maui and other creation stories. When Maui fishes the land out of the ocean, the islands break apart—beginning with Kaua‘i in the northwest and ending with Hawai‘i in the southeast.

Finally, creation stories often embody the values of the culture that they represent. For example, Maui instructs his brothers not to look back or else they risk ruining his magic. This exemplifies the Hawaiian belief in the importance of concentration in any ritual or activity. When Maui's brothers can't resist turning to look at what is happening behind them, it relates to the Hawaiian belief that the loss of focus leads to the loss of a goal. It also connects to a cross-cultural theme of human difficulty to resist temptations.

There are many Hawaiian creation stories about Maui and other figures that describe the islands' origins and the beliefs of its people, and these stories all co-exist happily. Many of these stories have similarities with the stories of other Polynesian nations, and even nations with no immediate connection or proximity to Hawai‘i. This may be because many cultures have a desire to understand their world and share that knowledge with families and communities. Stories have been the means for sharing this knowledge for thousands of years, and they continue to be a source of information today for those who want to learn about the people who told them.

To learn more about how stories are passed down through oral traditions, check out the Oral Traditions Learning Center.

To learn more about creation stories, check out the The Raven Story Learning Center.

To learn more about the formation of the Hawaiian Islands, check out the web site Plate Tectonics: The Hawaiian Archipelago.