Māui and the Giant Fish

Sibling rivalry spurred an adventure that defined New Zealand geography.

Published February 29, 2016

Postage stamps are lessons in history, politics, science, or geography packed onto a small piece of gummed paper. They’re also beautiful works of art. In Stamped we’re going coastal, with postal.

A major figure of Polynesian mythology, demigod Māui uses a combination of mortal guile and divine magic to accomplish such feats as descending into the underworld, inventing the barbed hook and spear, prolonging daylight by ensnaring the Sun, and teaching mankind how to produce fire, to name only a few.

In one such episode, Māui is frustrated that his older brothers constantly exclude him from their fishing trips. Determined to prove himself, he stows away in their waka (canoe) as they prepare for an excursion. Once clear of land, Māui reveals himself, eliciting groans of chagrin. The brothers’ annoyance quickly gives way to mockery once they notice Māui’s unusual tackle: a jawbone repurposed as a fishing hook (and formerly belonging to his grandmother, but that’s another story).

Undeterred, Māui baits his hook (with his own blood, no less), casts his line, and soon catches something large enough to tow the craft at increasingly terrifying speeds. To his brothers’ bewilderment, Māui succeeds in wrangling his undersea adversary, a fish so gargantuan it towers far above the waka—decisively putting an end to any further sibling rivalries related to angling.

Māui’s brothers proceed to bicker over the catch upon their return home, hacking into its flesh as they try to stake claims, and inadvertently carving out what the Māori will one day call Aotearoa and latecomers will call the North Island of New Zealand. The legendary waka, in turn, comes to be known as the South Island.

In 1994, the story was featured in a stamp set issued by New Zealand’s postal service that pays homage to several Māori myths passed down through the ages. The medium befits the message: Māui’s tale is personal yet multifarious, its countless versions the products of an oral-storytelling tradition spanning seas and centuries.