Māui slowed the sun's passage across the sky so people could get more done; a giant octopus led Kupe to discover New Zealand; Tāne created the world of light when he separated his parents Rangi and Papa. Most children of Aotearoa New Zealand know these stories in some form. That they know them at all, in most cases, is thanks to the efforts of a Pākehā writer and publisher, A.W. Reed (1908-1979) who collected them – not from Māori but mainly from versions assembled by other Pākehā.
His Treasury of Māori Folklore was published in 1963. Ross Calman, a descendant of Te Rauparaha, first revised this in 2004 as The Reed Book of Māori Mythology – cutting some dubious material, de-bowdlerising in places, including alternative versions, identifying sources and including more te reo Māori.
October sees the publication of a further revision, including updated spelling and a new title He Atua, He Tangata (Gods and People) -The World of Māori Mythology.
But the core of the book remains the stories of gods and heroes, lovers and monsters as collected by Reed and retold by him. Which raises the question – in the middle of a Māori cultural renaissance, why is Māori mythology and lore continuing to be transmitted via the medium of some old white guy?
Because it's there, is one simple answer. "The accessibility is important," says Calman, an author, editor and licensed translator. "Reed wasn't going back to original manuscripts or kaumatua. He was taking what an earlier generation of Pākehā, like Elsdon Best and Percy Smith, had done and making it accessible."
Not only is it there, it is nearly all there: "Lots of books have come out before and since that might have been a tribal view or a snapshot. This book is an overview that enables you to get a comprehensive picture. If you come across a reference in everyday life and think you would like to know more about it, this is a starting point. Go to the index and you will find every supernatural being in Māori folklore in there."
Calman has worked to decolonise the original book by including tribal variants and disentangling tales that Pākehā writers had combined into one story. "This is something I started in 2004, where I tried to take out references to 'Io' and a post-Christian overlay." Io is a supreme being of dubious origin who may not have been known to Māori before missionaries suggested him.
But to thoroughly decolonise the stories, says Calman, "you would have to go back to Māori sources and not have the Western overlay at all. I have done what I can and it has been a project of almost 20 years."
Although the book can claim to some degree to be comprehensive, accessible, and post-colonial, Calman is aware of other drawbacks of the Reed version.
"If you take any story and compare it with a 19th century manuscript from a kaumatua, or speak with Māori today who know these stories well in their own tribal region, you will find differences, things that have been romantically added to make a better story. You will find things that may have come from Western folklore or Christianity or all the other influences in the last 200 years."
Calman knows that "authentic" is a tricky word and can simply mean the version of a story that one person or group knows. "All the stories we know, such as Māui catching the sun and the other classics, just through being retold become authentic and real to people."
And yet, there will always be a lingering doubt that somewhere just out of sight, there is a purer, more genuine version of the story. These originals might give us an insight into the past that A.W. Reed and the prejudices of his time could never have achieved. Scholars know where they are, so why not go back to them? Calman says he would love to do it but he is not sure that people would love the result.
"Having looked at the original versions, there are some things about them that we would find very strange today. Traditional cosmology comes from a non-Western, indigenous world view, which takes a lot to get your head around."
The original stories are not necessarily laid out neatly, like a Western yarn. Existing in an oral tradition, they tended to be shortened and condensed. It was taken for granted that listeners knew the background to the tales and did not need things explained to them. Modern readers could find this frustrating.
But the stories are also important to writers. In books like her collection Once Upon a Time in Aotearoa, Tina Makereti has used them as a source. Important to her now, they were not always part of her life. "I was taken away from my culture as a child and got back in touch with it at about 17," says Makereti. "A lot of that was through books and I'm pretty sure Reed was one of the first. They were valuable to me as a young person who didn't have access to the stories any other way."
She still doesn't discount these versions. "There will be a teenage kid out there somewhere who will read it and go, 'I didn't know that,' and that is important."
As she matured, she started to see some problems. "The thing that was missing was a female point of view. It doesn't make any sense, because nothing happens in te ao Māori without women. But I imagine Best and Smith would not have been hearing women's stories from their sources." And therefore these would not have come down to Reed. It's this sort of omission writers like Makereti and others have confronted.
"A really good example is the book Pūrākau that Witi Ihimaera and Whiti Hereaka edited. They have a couple of dozen writers who played with or rewrote stories. I think it is a testament to these stories that they will be rewritten and made new every generation. They are dynamic things. That is why there are lots of versions. Culture isn't as breakable as we like to think. We say pre- and post-European, but it was not just one thing 'pre'. It was changing even then."
Another question raised by the complicated transmission history of these stories is: just whose lines are they anyway? Who owns traditional tales and Māori intellectual property that is this old? Who has the right to tell them and who is allowed to make the T-shirts?
"I have a very liberal view of ownership in terms of creative output," says Calman. "Some people have written against that type of thing but I want people to read the stories and make them into their own. I don't know if I am in a minority in terms of Māori thought. However, in terms of taking them and making money out of them … that wouldn't be well received in te ao Māori."
On the question of how Pākehā should approach accessing Māori culture, broadcaster, author and educator Professor Scotty Morrison says it depends on respect and goodwill. "The doors to the Māori world are always open, and we will welcome those who enter with genuine intent and humility. Māori are very big on process. It's why we have the word tikanga. Having respect for the culture shows you are more sincere. It's the same with te reo. For non-Māori coming to learn it, the doors are open, but come with humility and respect. Be mindful that a lot of Māori can't speak it. If you are learning in order to help with the revitalisation and normalisation of it that's awesome. The same applies to the stories."
He approves of the Reed version of the traditional tales, up to a point.
"It's safe to say it is definitely one version but the more contact you have with different tribes, the more you come to the realisation that they have different variations of the same story. Although the Western world view tends to think written accounts are more valid than oral traditions, oral and visual modes of transmission are just as valid and in fact, more valid to Māori."
For him, the stories are invaluable teaching tools. "I like to pull back the layers, because for so long we have been given the surface version of the stories. Experts in Māori traditions, like Te Wharehuia Milroy and Pou Temara analyse the stories, and you realise they are there to demonstrate important values and behaviour for us as a society to adhere to."
He cites the familiar tale of Māui slowing down the sun. "It is a great story. It is entertaining and kids love it. But if you get into the depth, the story tells us which plants to use to treat burns - makomako and the gum of the mānuka. It also provides a rationale for a younger sibling or pōtiki to achieve greatness. And Māui has flaws and is vulnerable – he demonstrates that we are not perfect but greatness can be achieved through combination of determination and belief."
Throughout He Atua He Tangata readers encounter the personifications of the spirits in all living things. Next time you're in a storm, acknowledge Whaitiri, the personification of thunder, descended from Te Kanapu and Te Uira, personifications of lightning. You don't have to read very far into the book to get the sense that the things being talked in the stories are all around you. Moreover, they are unique to this place.
"For people looking for a way to connect with Aotearoa tanga and who we are as people of this country, one of the easiest ways is to look at the stories, especially the traditional narratives regarding place names," says Morrison. "Everything in the Māori world is holistic and connects you to your environment. Say you live in Tauranga and see Mt Maunganui every day. If you got told the full story of that mountain - how it got there and where its name comes from - it takes on a whole new meaning. It's a sad love story, and you look at it differently and connect better with it. You feel more aroha for that mountain and you may start to greet it on the way to work in the morning, saying, 'Tēnā koe, Mauao.'"
Such possible uses for Reed's versions are not enough to win the endorsement of Professor Rawiri Taonui, who was New Zealand's first Professor of Indigenous Studies, at AUT University, and head of the School of Māori & Indigenous Studies at Canterbury.
He believes these versions are corrupted Pākehā distortions and should be shunned altogether. "It is really important to the identities of Māori to be able to understand their heritage and their history, and to be able to access authentic versions of their histories that were written by their ancestors or were written down from what they said," says Taonui.
After all, it's not as though the originals have been lost forever. "A lot of Māori oral traditions were recorded between about1840 and 1890. At that time the oral traditions continued to live in orality – they were still being spoken."
Governor Grey was just one of several reliable 19th century collectors. "Richard Taylor, Edward Shortland and Reverend Wohlers transcribed things faithfully, and a lot of the manuscripts were written by Māori who could read and write. But very few made their way into publication and unfortunately when they did, they were subject to editing by Pākehā authors because Pākehā had a monopoly on publishing."
And when the Māori population declined dramatically in the late 1800s, and those who knew the stories began to die out, the rush was on. "Pākehā amateur ethnographers started gathering all the manuscript material together. Then they started trying to combine separate tribal traditions and applying European-type chronology to events. If they had two versions, they would decide one was right and one wrong. If there were gaps they tended to fill those in, even if they had to make them up."
It is this tradition that Reed used. "His sources were based principally on material that Percy Smith had produced, so it is quite faulty. The traditions are not the traditions people used before 1890 and aren't an accurate enough reflection of the material that was collected in the 50 years before that."
The good versions are hidden, not lost. "A lot of that body of oral traditions is intact, not only in manuscripts but in big chunks in Land Court records and things like that. And if hapu have been able to retain a sequence of knowledgeable people, then local kaumatua- and kuia-level information is invaluable."
But, until then, surely something – even A.W. Reed's version, sensitively updated by Calman – is better than nothing?
Not according to Taonui: "It perpetuates an understanding and interpretation of oral traditions that is not an accurate reflection of what the ancestors and authorities of different tribes said.
"It needs to be unwoven. It is good if Māori and Pākehā share our histories of Aotearoa, including the waka traditions. The problem with Reed's rendering of the Smith accounts is that it perpetuates the situation where Pākehā decide what is good and valid Māori."
Taonui says to bring all the unpublished manuscripts to light would be a mammoth effort. "I have read most of them. You are talking about thousands of pages of manuscripts and documents, of which a large part of the most valuable material is in te reo Māori."
Mammoth, but not impossible: "We have seen big efforts revitalising te reo, and revitalising tikanga, kapa haka and waiata. We want to share those with Pākehā New Zealanders and that is happening. The oral traditions and histories are an integral part of that identity and it is good if these become part of our shared history, but we need to see an investment in scholarship, particularly at the tribal level, to revitalise those unique identifying oral traditions for local people so they can have a better understanding of who they are and where they are from and we then share that with our Pākehā fellow citizens."
Taonui's hardline attitude may seem extreme, but it has at least one surprising supporter. "I have a lot of sympathy for his point of view," says Calman. "I look forward to the day when we no longer have to rely on versions of stories that have been filtered through various Pākehā lenses. But it would require a lifetime's work and many Māori scholars no doubt feel that there are more pressing matters to focus their attention on. In the meantime, works like He Atua, where I have put a Māori lens back over the material, continue to serve a very useful function. With the growth of interest in Māori traditions and spirituality, it is only a matter of time before editions of the original traditions are published and become more widely available."
He Atua, He Tangata: The World of Māori Mythology by A.W. Reed, revised by Ross Calman (Oratia Books, $60) is available in bookstores now.