Mamari Stephens

Māmari Stephens

I was a funny kind of kid. A lonely one, even. While I had older brothers, they were teenagers — too old to hang out with me. And I had few friends. I look at my own kids now and marvel at their ability to let new children into their lives. To not be as hesitant and aloof as I think I probably was.

Yet, I missed connection with others. I remember going to the house of a girl I went to school with for some reason I no longer recall. She lived several doors down from me on Papanui Road in Christchurch. It was Christmas time — they were wealthy and had a real Christmas tree. I’d never seen one before. I was nine, I think.

As I left their house, I remember having this sense of yearning for something. Connection. Belonging. Pine-scent, maybe. So I hid in the bushes of their long, sweeping driveway and pretended I lived there. Eventually, the girl’s mother came out and saw me. She told me in a gentle but very firm voice to Go Home.

Yeah. No wonder I didn’t have many friends.

I can blame some of my loner tendencies on a period of a couple of weeks around the same time when I had scarlet fever and rubella together. I was bedridden for a while, and someone, perhaps my Pākehā nana, gave me a copy of Thomas Bulfinch’s Age of Fable to read. Well, I had nothing else to do. So I immersed myself in this book, written in 1855, telling the stories of Greek, Roman, and Norse mythology.

This, not any church, not Māui or Tāwhaki, or any of the stories of Māori mythology, introduced me to images and ideas of the divine. I read and reread that book many times. The language, so dense and allusive, gradually became clearer and clearer to me, and more and more beautiful.

I read about Prometheus and Pandora, Cupid and Psyche, the Sphynx, Orpheus and Euridyce. Thor, Phaeton, and Pan. I imagined a world peopled with these creatures. I think these stories made me feel a little less lonely.

Each story in that book included snippets of poetry from famous 19th century English poets. Here I got my first taste of Wordsworth, Shelley, Byron, and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, among others.

After the story of Pan, the goat-footed god of woods and fields, flocks and shepherds, there sits a poem by Barrett Browning. This poem broke my heart, and it still does. The Greek and Roman old gods, she told my nine-year-old self, had been swept away, and something new, Christianity, had taken their place.

     By your beauty, which confesses
     Some chief Beauty conquering you,
     By our grand heroic guesses
     through your falsehood at the True,
     We will weep not! earth shall roll
     Heir to each god’s aureole —
     And Pan is dead.

     Earth outgrows the mythic fancies
     Sung beside her in her youth;
     And those debonair romances
     Sound but dull beside the truth.
     Phoebus’ chariot-course is run.
     Look up, poets, to the sun!
     Pan, Pan is dead.

She was triumphant — I was desolate. How could this be? These gods and goddesses had … died. Replaced by something that meant nothing to me, at least back then. They had left me with nothing to imagine.

Sensitive kid, I was.

I was reminded of this sadness that I felt as a lonely kid when I was challenged this week by a young woman to explain how I, as a Māori woman, forty years on from being that lonely kid, could still profess to be a Christian and yet acknowledge atua Māori, and wairua Māori, as I do.

I don’t have any particular issue with that. Personification of nature and culture as Māori aspects of the creation is not difficult for me, or for most other Māori Christians I know. I had to learn to be Māori in my teens and twenties, long before I learned to be Christian, and those personifications and understandings came with the territory. Bishop Don Tamihere has spoken about this tension/not tension, and I’d recommend a read of his whakaaro.

But this conversation has reminded me of just how present ngā atua Māori remain in modern Māori life and practice. Of course, they are in pōwhiri and tangihanga, as we cross the boundaries between tapu and noa, between the realm of Tūmatauenga, god of war on the marae ātea, and Rongo, the guardian of peace inside the wharenui.

I expect to hear Rangi and Papa acknowledged in whaikōrero. I expect to hear our dead being acknowledged and then farewelled again beyond that impenetrable curtain, to the night, to Hine Nui i te Pō, the great goddess of death.

Reference to these denizens, however we conceptualise them, tells me we live still, as a people of shared language and concepts. Not all of us understand and use those concepts equally or with the same degree of importance or respect, but they do comprise a shared knowledge.

And then there is the use of atua Māori as emblems of political identity and survival. I’d say that, of all the atua Māori, the unparalleled atua of Māori political identity has been Papatūānuku, the earth goddess, partner of Ranginui, forever separated from him by Tāne Mahuta, forever yearning for connection again.

While Papatūānuku was spoken of in 19th-century Māori oral literature, only very rarely, as a physical earthen foundation point, she is now more often granted her own personality and actions. An early example of focus on Papa as a political emblem is provided by Hone Tūwhare, in Papa-tu-a-nuku, which was inspired by the Māori Land March of 1975.

     We are stroking, caressing the spine
     of the land.
     We are massaging the ricked
     back of the land
     with our sore but ever-loving feet:
     hell, she loves it!
     Squirming, the land wriggles
     in delight
     we love her.

Then there is the poetry of Roma Potiki:

     i am Papatuanuku
     giving them completely i hold strength in its upright form –
     my base maps the pattern of mottled life,
     rain and rivers.
     when the rest is gone
     you will know me –
     you who press on my skin
     tread the body you do not recognise.
     with my face made of bones
     my stomach eternally stretching
     i need no definition
     i am Papatuanuku, the land

Largely silent since the creation of the natural world, and always spoken of by others, in modern Māori poetry and art, Papa was able to speak for herself, no longer just one of two. This new voice accompanied the upsurge in the consolidation and recreation of a viable political iwi identity, of Māori sovereignty — tino rangatiratanga.

Instead of the eternal Rangi and Papa, the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s gave us a new coupled image: Papatūānuku and ngā atua Māori in a nurturing and embracing relationship on the one hand — and rootless tauiwi bent on destruction of the land on the other.


     You worked hard
     raping the belly of Papa
     slashing fern
     exposing inner fertility
     burning seeds
     raging fires
     across brown breasts
     – greed
     aborted tapu
     rooting ancient coverings
     bringing to Aotearoa
     ragwort gorse
     and new words:
     lazy black Hori –
     sowing money crosses
     across barren earth
     stripping Papatuanuku bare
     stamping your queen’s head
     on the land
     You worked hard.
     We are working,
     Covering our naked mother,
     Regenerating the earth,
     Nourishing with love,
     Unclasping greed shackles,
     Reshaping body beauty,
     Singing growing songs.
     Working still.
     (Hinewīrangi Kohu in Ihimaera, 1993)

In the fight for recognition of the foreshore and seabed, Sean Ellison and Angeline Greensill retold the story of Papa and other atua Māori before the Waitangi Tribunal in 2004:

Tangaroa still embraces Papatūānuku. Ranginui still embraces Papatūānuku. The foreshore is the space where one can clearly witness the movement and exchange of energies, and the preparation, bustling and adaptation made by the divine influences of the gods as they perpetually seek to express the inherent universal balance and harmony, one with another, within the ever-changing reality of the physical world …

Jessica Hutching, Rose Pere, and Tagan Paul, among others, have also identified Papa as the protector and progenitor of mana wahine:

Mana wahine is uniquely Māori in that it is grounded in Papatūānuku, with roots in tikanga Māori. Māori women, who form the fibre, are at the centre of this approach.

Papatūānuku is also the vanguard of climate change action and care for the environment. She has been co-opted, too, in national party political strategy focused on climate change and environmentalism. In 2008, a vote for the Māori Party could be described as a vote for Papatūānuku. Papa makes it into the Māori Party constitution, just as she was included in the Mana Motuhake manifesto more than 20 years earlier.

Kaupapa Māori is the foundation of Māori culture and is derived from this Māori world view. Growing from within the kaupapa are our tikanga, like the trees that spring from Papatūānuku. The tikanga are the policies, practices and organisational structures of the Party that are aligned to and consistent with the foundation kaupapa, and will benefit not only Māori but all those people who lay claim to this country as their homeland. (Māori Party Constitution, ratified on 20 February, 2016.)

In 2017, lawyer Kingi Snelgar argued for legal recognition of Papa:

Things like Papatūānuku as a concept should be recognised as part of our legal framework. And, if we’re going to flourish as a human race, we need to embrace our indigenous thinking and not rely on individual, corporate minds.

In July this year, an idea was publicly announced to erect a massive pou of Papatūānuku in Auckland, at Wynyard Point or Bastion Point. The role and authority for Ngāti Whātua in supporting the idea, pushed by Ian Taylor and Animation Research Ltd, has now been hotly disputed.

The idea caused a bit of a stir, not least because the pou is intended to speak to, and for, all New Zealanders, not just to Māori.

For others, perhaps, it is jarring to think of an enormous pou of Papa rising above the earth. What are we supposed to do when we utter, or hear, those words, “ki a Papatūānuku e takoto nei, ki a Ranginui e tū ake nei” — to Papatūānuku lying there, to Ranginui rising above — referring to the separated nature of our modern world, with earth and sky forever apart? Do we now say, “ki a Papa e tū mai nei”?

But, really, the idea is not all that startling when we see it as just another moment in more than a century of the development of Papa as a focal point, a personality, and a presence that serves to underscore and protect a broad Māori political identity.

Time will tell what happens with that pou, and whether we will ever see Papatūānuku as our great “statue of liberty”, rising from her very own … ground.

Perhaps it doesn’t really matter in the great sweep of Māori cultural history.

From person to person, and from collective to collective, amid conflicting ideas of the divine and the transcendent, Māori exercise very different conceptions of what atua Māori really are.

And yet, such differences fall away. In short, we have imagined and recreated, in our modern and various understandings of Papatūānuku, our very cultural survival.

So, unlike Pan, Papa is not dead. She is not a quaint cultural artefact overcome by the brute force of modernity, who left us bereft and lonely. Our poets still sing of her — looking not to the sun but to the ground on which we all stand.


© E-Tangata, 2018

Thank you for reading E-Tangata. If you like our focus on Māori and Pasifika stories, interviews, and commentary, we need your help. Our content takes skill, long hours and hard work. But we're a small team and not-for-profit, so we need the support of our readers to keep going.

If you support our kaupapa and want to see us continue, please consider making a one-off donation or contributing $5 or $10 a month.