Mataora and Niwareka in the Underworld*
In the days of long ago, Mataora, the warrior chief, tossed restlessly in his sleep. He dreamed that his taiaha was in his hand, and that he was engaged in a combat to the death. All round him were men and women seated on the ground, crying out in delight at every thrust and blow. Then in his dream the cries of the people changed to laughter. He looked round in amazement. The clouds of sleep drifted away from his eyes and he sprang to his feet. White faces were peering at him through the doorway and the window. He looked round and saw the flame of their hair framed in the opening like the plume of the toetoe in the morning sun.
“Who are you?” he cried.
“We are the Turehu,” came the reply.
“Where do you come from?”
“We come from the Underworld. What are you? Are you a god?” one of them asked. Another said: “Are you a man?” and at this they laughed, for the Turehu were all women.
“Why do you ask?” Mataora said angrily. “Can you not see that I am a man?”
They laughed again. “We did not know because you are not tattooed. The designs are only painted on your face.”
He stared at them in surprise. “How else could they be drawn?” he asked.
No one answered for a moment, but presently a tall girl said: “Some day perhaps you will know.”
Mataora forgot her reply at once. He was filled with curiosity, for the Turehu had never been seen in that place before. “Come inside,” he invited, “and I will give you something to eat.”
“Yes, we will eat,” they said, “but we will wait outside.”
Mataora hurried to his storehouse and brought cooked food. The Turehu were strange in their ways. “Is it good?” they asked, and someone who had looked at it said: “No, it is bad.”
Mataora was angry when he heard this. “Look,” he shouted, “I will show you,” and he ate some himself. The Turehu crowded round him, smiling and nodding to themselves as they watched him. One of them opened his mouth and looked inside and cried: “Oh, he has eaten mussels!” while several others shouted, “It is bad food!”
When they said this Mataora remembered hearing that the Turehu ate their food raw, so he went to the pond and caught them some fish and put them in front of the fair-skinned women.
The Turehu laughed again with delight and quickly finished them up. While they were eating Mataora watched them closely. They had fair skins and flaxen hair which grew to their waists. They held themselves erect and their noses were thin. They wore waistmats of dried seaweed.
When they had finished their meal, Mataora sprang to his feet and danced before them. As he whirled round he noticed one young woman watching him closely. She was taller than the others and Mataora could pick her out at once from her companions. Every time their eyes met he felt love for her rising inside him.
He sat down, and the Turehu joined together in a stately dance. It was different from any poi-dance or haka that Mataora had ever seen. The tall girl who had been watching him came to the front and wove a pattern with her feet. The others joined hands and followed her, bending under their companions’ arms and gliding in and out till Mataora grew dizzy watching them. They sang as they danced but the only words he could hear were:
When the dance was over, Mataora asked them if he could choose a wife from amongst them.
“Which of us do you want?” they asked, crowding eagerly towards him.
He pointed to the tall girl who was behind her friends. There was more laughter and jostling until the young woman came forward shyly and pressed noses with Mataora. As he held her hand he felt contentment in his heart. Presently the Turehu went away, while Mataora and his wife stood at the door watching them.
“Where are they going now?” he asked, and niwareka replied a little sadly, “Back to the Underworld, where everything is beautiful and full of light.”
Mataora put his arm round her. “Ah, no, you will find the light only where Te Ra, the hot sun, shows himself. Tell me, my wife, who is your father?”
She turned to him. “I am called Niwareka. I am the daughter of high-born Ue-tonga of Rarohenga, the Underworld, but now I belong to Mataora; the mighty chieftain of the Overworld.
Mataora loved his wife dearly, and the passing days increased that love. There was only one thing that ever caused a dark cloud to rise in their sky. Mataora sometimes had moods and fits of evil temper, and in one of these he struck his wife. She looked at him sorrowfully, for the Turehu are gentle people, and not used to violence.
That night Niwareka ran away from home, and though Mataora searched everywhere for her, he could not find her. He missed her and sorrowed, for the light had gone out of his life. When many days had passed and she had not returned, he knew that she had gone back to her home in Rarohenga, the Underworld. He determined to follow her, even though he knew the dangers of the journey that lay ahead.
Presently he came to the House of the Four Winds where the spirits of the dead return to Rarohenga. He asked the guardian of the House: “Have you seen a woman pass this way?”
“What is she like?” was the reply.
“She is beautiful and pale, with long flaxen hair and fair skin, and a straight nose.”
The guardian said: “Ah, yes, I have seen her. She passed this way many days ago, weeping as she went.”
“May I follow her?”
“Yes,” said the guardian, “you may follow if you have the courage. This is the way.”
He opened a door and through it Mataora saw a tunnel leading downwards. He lowered himself into it and the door was shut behind him. There was no glimmer of light anywhere and the place felt airless and cold. He felt his way down through the thick darkness until, after hours of stumbling and silence, he saw a light shining in the distance. He hurried on, and soon in the half-light he saw Tiwaiwaka the fantail fluttering about.
“Have you seen a woman pass this way?” Mataora asked.
Tiwaiwaka said: “Yes, I have seen her. Her eyes were red with weeping.”
Mataora quickened his steps until he came to the end of the tunnel. He came out into a new world. There was no sun, nor any blue in the sky above. Only the rocks roofed the vast world he had entered, but light seemed to fill every part of it; birds sang and reeds and grasses waved in the breeze, and somewhere he could hear water moving over stones. He went on till he came to the village where Ue-tonga, the father of Niwareka, lived.
Ue-tonga was sitting on the ground and Mataora stopped to watch him. A young man was stretched full length on the ground while Ue-tonga cut lines into his face with a bone chisel and hammer, and smeared pigment into the wounds. Mataora looked on in astonishment as he saw blood flowing under the sharp edge of the chisel.
“That is not the way to tattoo!” he cried. “Up above we paint the designs in red and white and blue.”
Ue-tonga looked up at him. “Bend down your head,” he ordered.
Mataora bent his head and Ue-tonga rubbed his hand quickly across his face. The painted design was wiped off, and he heard the laughter of the fair-haired people that had woken him from his dream when he first met Niwareka. he looked round to see if there was one woman taller than the rest, but he could not recognize anyone he knew.
“You see how useless your painted moko is,” Ue-tonga said. “You have not learned the art. Here in Rarohenga we carve designs in the flesh so that they will never wear out.”
Mataora looked closely at Ue-tonga’s face and saw ridges and grooves there, stained with the pigment that remains fast through the changing years. When he saw the whorls that had come from the hand of a master-craftsman, he felt ashamed of the simple design that had been painted on his face.
“You have destoyed my moko,” he said to Ue-tonga. “Now you must carve it on me.”
“It is well,” said Ue-tonga simply. “Lie down.”
Mataora lay on his back while the design was drawn on his face with charcoal. Wu-tonga bent over him and tapped the bone chisel into his flesh. Mataora shuddered as he felt the rending edge. A tuft of grass that was caught in his hand snapped at the roots. The tap-tapping chisel crept slowly across his face while waves of agony swept over his body. Presently he began to sing:
Show yourself, O Niwareka!
‘Tis love of you that brought me here,
The younger sister of Niwareka was not far away. She heard the words of his song and hurried to her sister. “A man is being tattooed over there and he keeps calling your name. Who can it be?”
Niwareka’s friends said: “Let us all go and see.”
They crowded over to the place of tattooing. Ue-tonga was annoyed at the interruption. “What do you want here?” he called.
Niwareka replied: “We have come to fetch the stranger to the village to entertain him.”
By this time Ue-tonga had finished, for the operation was painful and he could see that Mataora could bear no more. The brown-skinned man got slowly to his feet. His face was swollen and disfigured and streaming with blood, so that no one recognised him, but there were many exclamations at his broad shoulders and handsome figure. Niwareka watched him closely. “This is the body of Mataora,” she said, “and these are the garments I wove for him.”
When he had sat down, she stood at a little distance from him and said: “Are you Mataora?”
He could not see her, for his eyes were sunken in his swollen face, but as soon as she spoke, Mataora knew her voice. He beckoned with his hand and she knew that he was indeed her husband, and came and wept over him for joy.
When the tattooing was finished and the wounds had healed, Mataora said to Niwareka: “Let us now return to our longstanding world above Rarohenga.”
Niwareka looked at him. “I think we should stay here,” she said. “Let us ask my father.”
Ue-tonga said at once: “Let it be you alone who goes back, Mataora. Niwareka will stay here.” He looked straight at his son-by-marriage. “I have heard it said that men sometimes beat their wives in the Upper World.”
Mataora was ashamed. “That is past,” he replied. “In future I will follow only the good that is done in Rarohenga.”
Ue-tonga smiled. “If your words come from the heart, my son, you may go and take Niwareka with you. The Upper World is a place of darkness, but here in Rarohenga it is full of light. Take our light into your world of darkness.”
“Look at my face,” said Mataora. “Now you have carved it with the moko of the Lower World, and it will never wash off. So is my desire to follow the ways of peace and love.”
The reunited husband and wife set off together. When they came to the entrance of the tunnel that leads to the Upper World they were met by Tiwaiwaka.
“You will need someone to guide you,” he said. “Take Popoia and Peka with you.”
“If we take them they will be chased by the forest birds of Tane.”
“They will hide in the darkness of the night,” said Tiwaiwaka. So they took the owl and the bat with them to become birds of the night, and these two showed them the way through the tunnel.
At last they came to the House of the Four Winds, and the guardian said to Niwareka: “What is in the bundle you are carrying?”
She replied: “It is nothing. It is only the clothes we must wear in the Upper World.”
The guardian frowned. “It is more than that. You are trying to deceive me. I will never allow anyone to come again from Rarohenga to the Upper World. The way is closed Only the spirits of the dead may pass on their way to Rarohenga. You have there the garment of Te Rangihaupapa.”
“It is so,” Niwareka admitted for she had brought it to the Upper World as a pattern for the beautiful borders that women wore on their cloaks in after years.
The guardian held out his hand and Niwareka placed the bundle in it. The guardian unrolled it. Its colours shone in that gloomy place when he hung it on one of the walls.
Mataora and Niwareka passed on as his back was turned. They went to their own home, and there they lived happily for the rest of their days.
It was Mataora who handed on to men the secret of the moko that cannot be rubbed off; and it was Niwareka who taught women how to weave coloured borders for their cloaks. From their love came these things, from the love of Mataora and Niwareka in the beginning of the world.
*Excerpted from "Maori Myths and Legendary Tales" by A.W. Reed.