Tongan legends portray Maui as a scientist, but in poetic language, say scholars

Tongan fananga or tales portrayed the demigod Mauis in poetic language as if they were real men – and they were scientists, said Professor Tēvita.‘O. Ka’ili.

Professor Ka’ili said stories about Maui who captured the sun was a poetic expression for Maui mastering scientific knowledge relating to the celestial movement of the sun, the seasons as regulated by the sun, summer solstice knowledge pertaining to navigation and astronomy.

“Maui was a top astronomer and a master navigator”, he told Kaniva News.

“Throughout Oceania, Maui utilised mountains, such as Mt Haleakalā in Hawaiʻi, and megalithic structures, such as the Haʻamonga ʻa Maui (Maui’s Stone Arch) in Tonga, to study the movement of the sun.

In addition, he observed constellations and applied the knowledge to his long-distant voyages to “fish up” new lands. Maui was not only a famous demigod but also a great indigenous scientist.”

Professor Ka’ili of Brigham Young University in Hawaiʻi made his comments after Kaniva News ran a story in May about a mythical rock in the village of Kalaʻau in Tonga which was known as Makatolo ʻA Maui.

Professor Ka’ili said: “The demigod  Maui placed this gigantic boulder in the village of Kalaʻau in Tonga. There are two tales about this Maui’s Rock”.

“Maui threw this boulder at a gigantic man-eating chicken. He killed the chicken and saved people.

Some tales said:

“Maui used this boulder together with a magical rope from the goddess Hina’s hair to anchor the sun and slow it down from racing across the sky. This act of slowing down the sun gave people more daylight to complete their work.

“The tales of Maui relating to this boulder are probably metaphoric references to the earthquake or underground turbulence that caused tsunamis to bring this boulder to the surface”, Professor Kaʻili said.

Scientists theorised that a mega tsunami brought this massive boulder from the sea to the surface of Tongatapu.

“According to Tongan tradition, Maui Motuʻa resides in the subterranean world, Lalofonua, and he bears the world on his shoulders. When he falls asleep the world shakes. Maui Motuʻa is the cause of earthquakes or underground turbulances. Thus, Maui’s earthquake brought the boulder to the surface of Tonga. This boulder is known in Tongan as Makatolo-ʻa-Maui or Makatolo-Moa-ʻa-Maui, The Throwing Boulder of Maui. Indigenous Tongan science is poetically encoded in the stories of Maui, ” Professor Kaʻili said.

Professor Futa Helu

The late Professor Futa Helu classified Tongan fananga into three categories dealing with creation myths, about heroes and tale about people or folk tales.

He said tales were how people attempted to interpret nature and what happened naturally including earthquakes, tornadoes, cyclones and tsunami.

Professor Helu said in a paper published in the Tala ʻO Tonga journal, Voliume 2 by the Tonga Ministry of Education in 1990 that people in the olden days may have had more imaginative minds than people nowadays.

The tale about earthquake, according to Professor Helu, was how people attempted to explain why the earthquake happened.

Because they did not have the technology to search underground to find out what had actually happened, they just used people’s actions to describe the earthquake.

“People’s action were the only thing they knew,” Professor Helu said.

The only human actions they were familiar with was that when men slept they could become numb. As a result, they could react to their condition and at some stage they could move and shake.

Professor Helu said people thought that was what actually happened underground. A man was sleeping, became numb and all of a sudden he reacted physically, causing the land to vibrate.

The same thing happened in the Tongan tale about tornadoes, he said.

People thought the natural disaster was blind and when it hit the only thing people could do was to make as much noise as they could to chase it away.

He said that was the result of the imagination of people in past times. They interpreted nature  through human nature and action. They thought the tornado was blind because once it hit it did not see the houses and trees and destroyed them.


There were various Mauis in the Tongan legends, including Maui ‘Esiafi or Maui who first brought the fire to earth.

Professor. Helu claimed there was a real man named Maui ‘Esiafi. According to the legends Maui stole the fire from Pulotu, the underground paradise.

There was Maui Fusifonua or Maui who fished the land from underwater.

Professor Helu said there was a man Maui Fusifonua. While he did not fish the land, he was the one who found land and gave them to people to live on.

There was another Maui known as Maui Tekelangi meaning he pushed the sky up into the atmosphere.

According to the legends the sky was just above ground level and people were crawling under it as they did not have space to stand up. Then Maui Tekelangi finally pushed it and sent it to the atmosphere.

Professor Helu claimed there was a man known as Maui Tekelangi, but he did not push the sky as no man could have that physical ability to do so. Instead the tale poetically said that Maui Tekelangi freed the people from an authority that had enslaved them.

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