Cook Islands mythology

Cook Islands mythology comprises historical myths, legends, and folklore passed down by the ancient Cook Islanders over many generations. Many of the Cook Islands legends were recited through ancient songs and chants.[1] The Cook Islands myths and legends have similarities to general Polynesian mythology, which developed over the centuries into its own unique character.

Cook Islands carved wood figure detail, British Museum
An iron wood figure depicting the agricultural god Rongo and his sons at the British Museum.
Stone carving in Rarotonga, Cook Islands
A basalt stone relief depicting the moon god Avatea, Rarotonga.
British Museum - Wooden carving from Rarotonga 18th-19th century
A wood figure depicting the sea god Tangaroa with painted tattoo markings, British Museum.

Creation myth

In Cook Islands creation myth, the universe was conceived of as being like the hollow of a vast coconut shell, the interior of this imaginary shell being Avaiki, the under world, and the outer side of the shell as the upper world of mortals. At various depths there are floors of different levels, or lands, which communicate with each other. At the very bottom of this coconut is a thick stem tapering to a point, which represents the beginning of all things. This point is the dwelling of a spirit without human form called Te aka ia Roe (The root of all existence). The entire fabric of the universe is constantly sustained by this primary being.[1] Above this extreme point is Te tangaengae (Breathing) or Te vaerua (Life) this being is stout and stronger than the former one. The thickest part of the stem is Te manava roa (The long lived) the third and last of the primary, ever-stationary, sentient spirits, who together form the foundation, permanence, and well-being of the rest of the universe.[1]

We now advance into the interior of the supposed coconut shell, the lowest part of Avaiki, where the sides of the shell almost meet, there lives a goddess of flesh and blood called Varima te takere (The very beginning). Her territory is very narrow, so much so that her knees touch her chin, no other position being possible. Varima te takere was very anxious for progeny. One day she plucked off part of her right side, like a fruit from a tree, and it became the first human being, the first man Avatea (or Vatea). He became the father of gods and men, having the right half of a man and the left half a fish, split down the middle. The land assigned by the Great Mother to Avatea was called Te paparairai (The thin land). Varima te takere continued to pluck from her body more pieces of flesh, from which more children were created, the right side of her body created gods, and from her left side of her body she created goddesses.[1]

Prominent figures and terms

  • Avaiki, the land of the gods and ancestors.
  • Avatea, the first man, a sky and moon god.
  • Auparu, a stream, bathing place for nature spirit
  • Ina, the lover of the moon god Marama.
  • Marama, the god of the Moon.
  • Nganaoa, a myth hero from Aitutaki.
  • Papa, the goddess of the Earth
  • Rongo, the god of vegetation.
  • Tamangori, a cannibal giant
  • Tangaroa, the god of the sea.
  • Vaitakere, the father of Ina, father-in-law of Tangaroa.
  • Varima te takere, the primordial mother goddess.
  • Vatea, similar to Avatea, a god of Mangaia.


  1. ^ a b c d William Wyatt Gill. Myths and Songs from the South Pacific. pp. 1–7. Retrieved 27 February 2013.


  • William Wyatt Gill, preface by F. Max Müller (1876). Myths and Songs from the South Pacific. London: Henry S. King & Co.
  • William Wyatt Gill (1880). Historical sketches of savage life in Polynesia; with illustrative clan songs. Wellington: George Didsbury, Government Printer.
  • Jon Jonassen (1981). Cook Islands Legends. Cook Islands: The Institute of Pacific Studies, University of the South Pacific. ISBN 982-02-0171-3.
  • Shona Hopkins (2010). Legends of the Cook Islands. Bruce Potter (illus.). New Zealand: Penguin Group Limited. ISBN 014350407X.
  • Robert D. Craig (1989). Dictionary of Polynesian Mythology. United States of America: Greenwood Publishing Group. ISBN 0-313-25890-2.
  • Jukka Siikala (1991). ʻAkatokamanāva: myth, history and society in the Southern Cook Islands. Auckland: Polynesian Society in association with the Finnish Anthropological Society. ISBN 0473011336.

External links


In Cook Islands mythology, Auparu ("gentle dew") is a stream in Rarotonga, the bathing-place of nymphs or fairies.


In Cook Islands mythology, Avatea (also known as Vatea; meaning 'noon' or 'light') was a lunar deity and the father of gods and men in Mangaian myth of origin. His eyes were thought to be the sun and the moon; he was also known as the god of light.According to one myth, Vari-Ma-Te-Takere (The primordial mother) created six children from her body. Three were plucked from her right side and three from her left. The first of which was Avatea, the first man, who was perceived as a moon god. As he grew he divided vertically into a hybrid being; the right half was a man and the left half a fish.In song, the gods are called "children of Vatea". The same shortened phrase is in use at Rarotonga: at Aitutaki and Atiu the full form "Avatea" is used, e.g. kia kakā te mata o Avatea Nui meaning "when the eye of Great Avatea is open;" in other words "when the sun is in its full glory;" still in contrast with the darkness and gloom of Avaiki, or the Underworld.

Bathymunida avatea

Bathymunida avatea is a species of squat lobster in the family Munididae. The name is derived from the goddess of the moon, Avatea, in Cook Islands mythology. It is found off of French Polynesia and Tonga, at depths of about 455 metres (1,493 ft).

History of the Cook Islands

The Cook Islands are named after Captain James Cook, who visited the islands in 1773 and 1777. The Cook Islands became a British protectorate in 1888.

By 1900, the islands were annexed as British territory. In 1901, the islands were included within the boundaries of the Colony of New Zealand.

The Cook Islands contain 15 islands in the group spread over a vast area in the South Pacific. The majority of islands are low coral atolls in the Northern Group, with Rarotonga, a volcanic island in the Southern Group, as the main administration and government centre. The main Cook Islands language is Rarotongan Māori. There are some variations in dialect in the 'outer' islands.

List of religions and spiritual traditions

While religion is hard to define, one standard model of religion, used in religious studies courses, was proposed by Clifford Geertz, who defined it as a

[…] system of symbols which acts to establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in men by formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic." A critique of Geertz's model by Talal Asad categorized religion as "an anthropological category." Many religions have narratives, symbols, traditions and sacred histories that are intended to give meaning to life or to explain the origin of life or the universe. They tend to derive morality, ethics, religious laws, or a preferred lifestyle from their ideas about the cosmos and human nature. According to some estimates, there are roughly 4,200 religions in the world.The word religion is sometimes used interchangeably with "faith" or "belief system", but religion differs from private belief in that it has a public aspect. Most religions have organized behaviours, including clerical hierarchies, a definition of what constitutes adherence or membership, congregations of laity, regular meetings or services for the purposes of veneration of a deity or for prayer, holy places (either natural or architectural) or religious texts. Certain religions also have a sacred language often used in liturgical services. The practice of a religion may also include sermons, commemoration of the activities of a god or gods, sacrifices, festivals, feasts, trance, rituals, rites, ceremonies, worship, initiations, funerals, marriages, meditation, invocation, mediumship, music, art, dance, public service or other aspects of human culture. Religious beliefs have also been used to explain parapsychological phenomena such as out-of-body experiences, near-death experiences and reincarnation, along with many other paranormal and supernatural experiences.Some academics studying the subject have divided religions into three broad categories: world religions, a term which refers to transcultural, international faiths; indigenous religions, which refers to smaller, culture-specific or nation-specific religious groups; and new religious movements, which refers to recently developed faiths. One modern academic theory of religion, social constructionism, says that religion is a modern concept that suggests all spiritual practice and worship follows a model similar to the Abrahamic religions as an orientation system that helps to interpret reality and define human beings, and thus religion, as a concept, has been applied inappropriately to non-Western cultures that are not based upon such systems, or in which these systems are a substantially simpler construct.

Marama (mythology)

In Cook Islands mythology, Marama was a male lunar deity, who loved Ina, the goddess of light. She married Marama and lives in the sky during the daytime and rarely sees her husband.


In Cook Islands mythology (Aitutaki), Nganaoa is a hero in the story of Rata's canoe who killed three sea-monsters: a gigantic clam, a huge octopus, a finally a great whale in the stomach of which he found his father, Tairitokerau, and his mother Vāiaroa alive (Gill 1876:147).

Papa (mythology)

In Cook Islands mythology of the southern Cook Islands group, the earth goddess Papa was created when Varima-te-takere, the primordial mother goddess, plucked her out from the left side of her body. Papa married her brother, the sky god Vatea. They had twin sons, the sea god Tangaroa and the vegetation god Rongo.

Raka (mythology)

In Cook Islands mythology, Raka (Trouble) was the god of winds and storms. He was the fifth child of the Great Mother, Vari. Raka found a congenial home in Moana-Irakau (Deep ocean). According to Gill, Raka received from Vari a great basket, in which contained the hidden winds, as well as the knowledge of many useful inventions. The children of Raka are the numerous winds and storms which distress mankind. Each child was assigned a hole in the horizon through which he blew at pleasure. Gill's informant, Mamae, gives his wife and children but not the parents of the wife, Takatipa; whoever they were, they formed additional contemporaries of Vari.


Rarotonga is the most populous of the Cook Islands, with a population of 10,572. (census 2011), The country's total population of 14,974. Captain John Dibbs, master of the colonial brig Endeavour, is credited as the European discoverer on 25 July 1823, while transporting the missionary Reverend John Williams.

The Cook Islands' Parliament buildings and international airport are on Rarotonga. Rarotonga is a very popular tourist destination with many resorts, hotels and motels. The chief town, Avarua, on the north coast, is the capital of the Cook Islands.


In Māori mythology, Rongo or Rongo-mā-Tāne (also Rongo-hīrea, Rongo-marae-roa, and Rongo-marae-roa-a-Rangi) is a major god (atua) of cultivated plants, especially kumara (spelled kūmara in Māori), a vital crop. Other crops cultivated by Māori in traditional times included taro, yams (uwhi), cordyline (tī), and gourds (hue). Because of their tropical origin, most of these crops were difficult to grow except in the far north of the North Island, hence the importance of Rongo in New Zealand.

He was also an important god of agriculture and god of war in the southern Cook Islands, especially on Mangaia where the Akaoro marae and Orongo marae were centres of his worship; where cooked taro and human sacrifices were offered to him to assure success in battle and the fertility of land.

A legend concerning Rongo flying the first kite is told in the waiting room of Walt Disney's Enchanted Tiki Room, in which Rongo is voiced by Ernest Tavares.

Tango (mythology)

In Cook Islands mythology, Tango (Support) was the third child of the primordial mother goddess, Varima-te-takere. He was assigned to live at Enua-kura (The land of red parrot feathers). According to Mamae, Gill's informant, Tango was the progenitor of a skilled fishing family. That the six grandsons of Tango were good workers is shown in the native text. The enclosure (akeke) for fish mentioned in a chant has not been retained in the local culture of the people.


In Cook Islands mythology, Tu-metua was the sixth child and most beloved daughter of the mother goddess, Vari. Tu-metua lived in Te-enua-te-ki "The-mute-land" (enua, "land" + te, used as a negative, + ki, "to speak"). This was a place said to have no spoken language, but communication only by signs—such as nods, raised eyebrows, grimaces, and smiles. Gill states that Vari and Tu-metua lived together in Enua-te-ki, but he was in error in treating Te Aiti as a descriptive word and not as Vari's own distinct land. Mamae's native text (Gill's informant), however, shows that the two lands were close together. It also explains the meaning of Tu-metua's name, which differs from Gill's translation as "Stick-to-the-parent".


In Cook Islands mythology, Tumu-te-ana-oa was the female personification of Echo. She was the fourth child of Vari, the primordial mother goddess. Both her name and the land she occupied had to do with the production of echoes. Her name means "the cause (tumu) of the call or voice (oa) heard from caves (ana)". The term oa is used by people when calling out to evoke an echo. Her land was Te Parae-tea, which Gill translates, "The-hollow-gray-rocks". Mamae (Gill's informant) gives no more detail, but Gill recounts that Tumu-te-ana-oa frequented the caves of Mangaia, where she was seen by Rangi, one of the first inhabitants. The cave in which she was first seen was Aitu-mamaoa.


In Cook Islands mythology, Vaitakere is the father-in-law of Tangaroa. He discovered breadfruit in the mountains. His daughter, who married Tangaroa, is Ina. It is not clear if Vaitakere was a god or human.


In Cook Islands mythology, Varima-te-takere ("goddess of the beginning") also called Vari ( VAH-ree), was the primordial mother of the gods and mortals.

According to Gill, Vari, a female spirit or demon of flesh and blood, was admitted to the lowest depth of the interior of Avaiki, a place described as resembling a vast hollow coconut shell. Such is the narrowness of her territory that her knees and chin touch, no other position being possible. Her name in full, Vari-ma-te-takere, Gill translates as "The very beginning". The word vari, however, also means "mud", and, taken in conjunction with takere (canoe bottom or keel), the name literally means "The mud at the bottom"; suggesting the mud on the bottom of Avaiki. Vari is the mud of taro swamps and connotes potential plant growth. As applied to a female, it means menstruation and conveys a connection with the female womb and the origin of human growth. The following passage from a dramatic song of creation (circa 1790) mentions Vari:

But we have no father whatever: Vari alone made us. That home of Vari is The very narrowest of all! Vari's home is in the narrowest of spaces, A goddess feeding on raw taro At appointed periods of worship! Thy mother, Vatea, is self-existent.

Vari was very anxious for progeny. At various times she created six children, three bits of flesh were plucked from each side of her body, and moulded into human form. These six are the primary gods of the universe. Yet no marae or image was ever sacred to them, nor was any offering made to them. These gods are: Vatea (or Avatea), the father of gods and men; Tinirau, lord of the seas; Tango, lord of the birds; Tumu-te-ana-oa, echo of the rocks; Raka, lord of the winds; and Tu-metua, a beloved daughter whom Vari kept close to her in Avaiki. Tu-metua (or Tu-papa) was the tutelary deity of the island of Moorea, and the fourteenth night in every moon was sacred to her.


In mythology of Mangaia and the southern Cook Islands, Vatea is the father of gods and men. His mother is Varima-te-takere, who lives deep in Avaiki, the underworld. She plucks off a piece from her right side and it becomes Vatea or Avatea.

In Mangaian myth, a beautiful woman visits Vatea in his dreams, and he is certain that she ascends from the underworld to his side, but when he wakes he can never find her. He strews scraped coconut about, and, at last, watchers see a slender hand reach for the delicious food. Vatea catches her and discovers that her name is Papa, and marries her. Tangaroa and Rongo are their twin sons. Rongo's wife bears a daughter named Tavake. Tavake gives birth to Rangi, Mokoiro, and to Akatauira. Rangi pulls up Mangaia from the underworld, and becomes the first king of the island. His wife's name is Te-po-tatango (Tregear 1891:392).

World egg

The world egg, cosmic egg or mundane egg is a mythological motif found in the cosmogonies of many cultures that descend from the proto-Indo-European culture and other cultures and civilizations. Typically, the world egg is a beginning of some sort, and the universe or some primordial being comes into existence by "hatching" from the egg, sometimes lain on the primordial waters of the Earth.

Mythology by region

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