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  • Published: 20 October 2020
  • ISBN: 9780143774990
  • Imprint: RHNZ Vintage
  • Format: Hardback
  • Pages: 432
  • RRP: $45.00

Navigating the Stars

Maori Creation Myths


Chapter 2 

First There Was Nothing 

Te Kore

Some believe that at the beginning there was nothing. Others, when considering our ancient origins, reckon existence began with darkness. Imagine the darkest darkness, and it was darker than that. They saw a daily reminder of the fabulous odyssey of humankind in the way that night gave way to day: a progression from darkness to the incredible moment when the sun brought light and warmth. And then there were those who said that a god created everything.

The Māori definition for ‘nothing’ is a two-syllable word, ‘kore’. For whatever reason, the kore began to change, to move from one state of nothing to another. All this was before the existence of male and female elements, so perhaps the process was parthenogenesis. Two thousand species of plants and invertebrate animals still reproduce in this way. But I’m only guessing and, where sacred knowledge is involved, sometimes it’s best not to speculate.

Māori gave names to nine of the changes and, because they liked to think genealogically, one of the ways the process was described was that each kore was giving birth to the next. The first nothing was the parent of the second nothing. The second nothing was the parent of the third, and so on. At every birth the nothing became larger, longer, it stretched and expanded, lengthened and deepened, wove itself together and became stronger.

‘Ah, Te Kore, The Nothing,’ my father, Te Haa, said to me when I was a young boy and was always pestering him with questions about who, what, how, where, why and when. ‘It wasn’t just a process, it was a place too.’

The place Dad talks of was located at the very beginning of time and space. By ‘space’, people wiser than I am (but not wiser than Te Haa) pictured Te Kore as an abyssal emptiness without anything confining it. There was no up or down, nor inside or out, and nobody knew how large it was because there was nothing relative to measure it by. By ‘time’ those same wise people thought of The Nothing as a place where no spans could be observed between now and then; there was nothing to define a second from an eon, no sun to define day from night, no turning tide, no season, no birth nor death.

However, Te Kore was changing. So while it might have begun in stasis, a state of inactivity, by the time the ninth kore had begun it was no longer nothing — or empty or inactive. It had almost reached its maximum density and expansion. Still formless and intangible, but potent. If you had been an imaginative boy like I was, The Nothing was the dark cupboard at the end of a cosmic corridor.

But Māori weren’t the only people in the world who thought their world began in this way. New Zealand scholar Agathe Thornton, for instance, saw parallels between Te Kore and Chaos, which was the time and place from which the Greeks thought existence sprang. In her book Māori Oral Literature: As Seen by a Classicist, Thornton wrote that out of Chaos arose two entities: Erebus (darkness) and Nyx (night). Something similar happened in the Māori genesis, which led to the very important and stunning arrival into the Māori genealogy of our first and most ancient deities. The first in the Māori narrative to be given names. The first to be recognisable as individuals with personal characteristics.


Te Kore’s point of potential having been reached, it gave birth to a son called Te Mangu, a.k.a. Te Mākū. Now here’s a trick to remember: proper names in Māori myth almost always describe the attributes of that person or what he or she symbolises. If we translate Te Mangu into English we end up with The Black(ness) or, perhaps, The Absence of Light; maybe he was our Erebus.

In time, Te Kore also gave birth to a daughter, Māhorahora-nui- a- rangi so, clearly, The Nothing’s generative capacity had moved from parthenogenesis to the creation of gender. Māhorahora’s name defines her as possessing infinite-capacities- from- heaven. Indeed, her appearance may well mark the beginning of te ara uwha, the pathway by which the female element arrived in the Māori genesis —perhaps she was our Nyx.

Te Mangu and Māhorahora-nui- a- rangi married. There’s a certain logic in the joining of darkness with a being who could provide infinite possibilities, don’t you think? And the immediate result was that they produced four sons.

The intangible Nothing moved closer to achieving a physical form.

The names that Māori gave to the four sons of Te Mangu and Māhorahora were Tokomua (elder prop), Tokoroto (middle prop), Tokopā (end prop) and Rangi-pōtiki (Rangi, the youngest born); the word ‘toko’ itself means ‘to prop up’. The boys sound like equivalent props in an All Black forward pack! Indeed, some experts say there were actually more sons, enough to field a game of touch rugby. There was definitely a big job to do: nothing less than to act as pou (posts) to hold up all the work that Te Kore had so far achieved. If you like, to act as architectural scaffolding in the making of what we now recognise as the time–space continuum.

It makes you faint just thinking about it. All that effort holding up what are conventionally regarded as three dimensions of space and one of time — but which Māori believe was a much more complex construction.

And because the boys did such a great job, their names were memorialised in the posts holding up the backbone or ridgebeam of the modern Māori communal meeting house. The eldest, Tokomua (front post), was probably the pou at the very beginning of what was to be nine transformations. His siblings, born later, existed spatially throughout the process. They must have been strong and fit, with big shoulders to distribute the weight of Te Kore evenly. And don’t forget that they had to work while the continuum was still under construction, bits unfinished, other parts shored up temporarily. Their thighs must have been massive, eh?

‘Can you take the weight at your end, kia kaha, brothers, my end is getting a bit heavy?’, or ‘Kia tūpato, watch out brothers, the middle section is sagging — one, two, three, lift!

In this way, the old people visualised Te Kore as a place where a vast and wondrous wharenui was under construction. The communal house had the beginnings of a framework but floated without walls, roof or ceiling. It was a place where everything was possible and anything could happen.

To be honest, it’s taken me a long time to think of Te Kore in this new, creative way. Mainly because, when I was a young man, that dark cupboard seemed stacked full of scary things, and I was either too frightened by Te Kore because I didn’t understand its power, or over-awed by it when I did. But today I comprehend the cupboard to be actually stacked with gifts — ihi, energy; mana, strength; wehi, terror; and aroha, love. Its legacy remains in the creative part of the human brain, expressing itself in all humankind’s technological advancements through the ages.

But, of course, the gifts could become scary if not used properly. Instead of dreams they could become nightmares that go bump in the night and, certainly, many examples have come down to us where they have been abused. We have to make sure that the powers are used constructively. The world might possess the capacity for destruction, but Te Kore offers us ways to turn things around.

To return to our rugby props. They got better at balancing the space–time continuum. Like their parents, they also married — the ara uwha, the female element of the universe had strengthened and differentiated — and the boys and their wives all have genealogies that reach from those cosmological beginnings down to us in the present day.

The genealogy that was important for the story of humankind, however, was the whakapapa of the youngest and last-born. He was the son who, in time, is closer to us than his brothers. He was the remarkable Rangi-pōtiki.


There should really be a storyteller or story singer telling you all this. You shouldn’t be reading the words off the page because the reo rangatira is a singing word. The epic Māori myths are more appropriately expressed in waiata, chant or haka. In fact, the original manuscripts were written from oral forms of whakapapa and karakia and are therefore more akin to sung poetry than to narrative anyway.

Imagine the Te Kore genealogy in recitation:

Te Kore-tuatahi, the first nothing,
Te Kore-tuarua, the second nothing,
Te Kore-nui, the time when Te Kore became larger,
Te Kore-roa, the time when Te Kore became longer,
Te Kore-para, the time when Te Kore wove itself together,
Te Kore-whiwhia, the time when Te Kore was no longer in possession of itself,
Te Kore-rawea, the time when Te Kore rapidly flourished
and Te Kore-te- tāmaua, the time when Te Kore became ours.

Believe me, the whakapapa is better delivered orally, dramatically and visually in performance where the verbatim delivery and oratory skills can crack the kupu, the words, open, and the body can dance into existence their inner talismanic meanings and mysteries. Indeed, in 1849, Kai Tahu tribal leader Matiaha Tiramōrehu defined creation as being the process by which the gods sang the world into existence.

‘Kei a Te Pō te tīmatatanga o te waiatatanga mai a te Atua,’ Tiramōrehu said.

By comparison, reading the genealogy as prose takes longer and is an utterly miserable way of getting to know it — and I am forlorn just thinking about it. As for translating Māori into English and trying to convey every meaning, ugh. Once you start down this track, you are forced to apply different kinds of understanding to the original. You begin to think of creation, for instance, as a linear sequence when we know that a straight line — the true ‘breadthless length’ as Euclid described it — doesn’t exist in nature.

Perhaps it would be better to think of how whakapapa, genealogy, is constructed. ‘We could think of the universe as being like a tree,’ my colleague and friend Brad Haami says. ‘It has many roots and branches that the world hangs on, or . . . ’ — Brad always likes to dazzle my brain cells — ‘ . . . it could be an upside-down tree for that matter!’

To recapitulate, Te Kore reached the limit of its ninth expansion. Te Mangu and Māhorahora-nui- a- rangi must have sensed an ending. And their four sons probably paused, thinking they were at a new beginning. They certainly were.

Enter Te Pō. A progression from nothing to a time and space of impenetrable darkness. Not in the sense of coming after. More as an event, occurring in parallel with the nine kore, in which a number of pō brought epochal nights to the creation process.

‘Oh, that’s where the hard lifting happened,’ my father, Te Haa, said.

I should explain that Dad and my Nani Mini Tupara — she was actually my grand-aunt — were the two great storytellers in my life, and I loved hearing the Māori pūrākau from them. Dad was a farmer and ‘bush carpenter’, so he was fond of describing the creation process in terms of carpentry.

Te Haa put my expectations out of kilter. I had expected nine pō for nine kore but, ‘Oh no, son,’ Dad said, ‘in our tribe we say there were 21.’

Which brings up another point I had better mention before I go any further. All Māori tribes have different variations to the myths and even clashing versions of them. Some iwi also have non-identical sets of characters involved, and often people and places are spelt differently. Some have macrons (the horizontal bar over the vowel) and others don’t; the macrons show which vowels should be pronounced long and, believe me, for some tribes, the meaning is made different — and it matters.

I shall risk the ire of other iwi by giving Dad’s version. ‘Twenty-one Te Pō, don’t leave any out.’

Okay, Dad, but you won’t mind if I take shelter behind a wall as I do it, will you?

Nā Te Kore Te Pō, Te Pō-nui, Te Pō-roa, Te Pō-papakina, Te Pō-pakarea, Te Pō-ki-tua, Te Pō-ki-waho, Te Pō-tawhito, Te Pō-ruru, Te Pō-āio, Te Pō-whero, Te Pō-mā, Te Pō-pango. Te Pō-whakaruru, Te Pō-kumea, Te Pō-whakarito, Te Pō-i-runga, Te Pō-i-raro, Te Pō-matau, Te Pō-mauī.

See what I mean about how difficult the words appear on the page? They look intentionally obstructive but, again, in recitation they represent an entirely different and exciting experience. The poet or singer is able to invest greater breath and intensity on the long vowels. The rhythmic utterance on the plosives (the p, t and k letters) propels the text forward faster than when you are reading it. And the reciter can use all the physical motions of hands and body in dramatising the experience: striding back and forth, leaping, gesticulating. In translation, the English is barely able to keep up.

From the abyss the night, the great night, the deep night, the long night, the night that can be felt, the night beyond, the night within, the ancient night, the sheltered night, the calm night, the red night, the white night, the black night, the agitated night, the night that prolongs itself, the night above, the night below, the night to the right, the night to the left.

The propulsive urgency crackles with energy. It’s a description of 20 shades of darkness — perhaps also 20 shades of grey — like tribe after tribe on the march. Indeed, one of the metaphors that Māori loved to use when describing the process was that one tribe of Te Pō — or one race of night — was following the other. Where were they heading?


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