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Mythology, Culture, and Law in the South Pacific

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An 1885 map of Maui, Hawaiian Islands
Maui, Hawaiian islands (Hawaiian Government Survey, 1885). Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division.

May is Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage month here in the United States. During this month, we are encouraged “to learn more about our Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander heritage.” In thinking about how to further this goal for readers of In Custodia Legis I was initially inspired by the release last year of the first animated Disney film to have a Polynesian “princess” and to provide a depiction of Pacific Island culture and geography.

If you’ve seen or read about the movie Moana you no doubt have some idea about how it incorporated the mythology and cultures of the people of the Pacific into the story. In particular, there is the demigod Maui, who shows up in many legends and place names across Polynesia. Growing up in New Zealand, I learned the Māori legends involving Maui. These include stories about his fishing exploits (one legend tells of how he fished up the North Island of New Zealand, where I lived – Wellington, the capital, is also called “Upoko o te Ika a Maui,” the head of the fish of Maui). Another is about how he slowed the sun to lengthen the days.

In addition, there is a goddess in the movie who has transformed her body into an island, and the ocean itself is portrayed as an actual character. (In fact, “moana” means “ocean” in Māori and Hawaiian.) This is something that you will come across frequently in Polynesian cultures across the Pacific – geographic or natural elements characterized as living entities and associated legends that explain their actions or features. For example, in New Zealand, there is a legend involving the mountain god, Taranaki, and several mountains of the volcanic plateau in the center of the North Island. According to the legend, Taranaki wooed Pihanga away from her husband, Tongariro. This led to a battle and the subsequent defeat and retreat of Taranaki to the west coast of the island, with the Whanganui River being carved out in his path. You may have recently seen reference to this river in the news – it was the first in the world to be granted the rights and liabilities of a legal person.

Such perspectives regarding the land and other aspects of the natural environment were reflected in the customs and legal systems that developed in Pacific Island countries prior to their colonization by Western nations. Myths and legends also illustrate cultural norms, values, and beliefs in relation to other matters, such as dispute resolution, decision making structures and processes, family or community relationships, the treatment of food and its cultivation, customs upon a person’s birth or death, or punishments for wrongdoing.

Elements of customary law continue to (or perhaps increasingly) have an impact in practice and may even be a source of law or be incorporated into the statutes of different countries. This might be seen in the context of relationships between people and the land or environment, or in relationships between or among people.

There are various resources available regarding Pacific myths and cultures and the application of customary laws in the region. For example, a search of the Pacific Legal Information Institute’s databases (PacLII) for “customary law” returns more than 1,300 results. At the Library of Congress you will find materials with information on the laws of different Pacific Island countries, as well as many books (some geared at younger readers) containing myths and legends that were originally passed down orally throughout the region. The following are a few examples of such items:

A traditional Samoan house stands in the grass next to the ocean. The house consists of wood beams holding up a thatched dome. The house has no permanent walls and is open all the way around.
A traditional Samoan house (fale – pronounced “fah-leh”). Photo by Kelly Buchanan.

Comments (6)

  1. Good vibrations…

  2. Manaia tele lava, Kelly!

    • Fa’afetai, Meloni! Glad you enjoyed it.

  3. Dear Kelly: My interest in these sources is based on my readings of the stories of the “mythical” Hawaiian “Menehunes”, a race of very small people who are supposed to have made a home in Hawaii long before it was settled by the polynesians. The evidence for their existence are the very real structures (fishpond and irrigation ditch) which are quite easy to view on the island of Kawaii. Are you aware of any sources that contain tales of “small people” in any areas in the general South Pacific?

    • Hi Gary – I haven’t read any particular books on “small people” myself, but am aware of the myth of the Patupaiarehe in New Zealand. The Te Ara site has some links/sources related to this: It may be that such tales are contained in various sources. Searches of the Library’s catalog for “menehunes”, “patupaiarehe”, and “Pacific mythology” do return several results that may be of interest.

  4. Hello everyone,

    I am searching for a symbol (traditional) of Maui, I am a fan of the Trickster archetype, literary and mythological (no offense intended, religious if you prefer) other than the hei matau,

    Thanks in advance for any help


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