Atua is another stunning large-format book by Gavin Bishop (Tainui, Ngāti Awa), one of Aotearoa’s best loved storytellers and illustrators. It is richly illustrated and packed with stories about the pantheon of Māori gods, demigods and heroes. Bite-sized facts about Māori culture and our native flora and fauna have been woven in throughout.
The stories have been arranged in three story cycles, each flowing on to the next, just as they would have been passed down from generation to generation.
Part One starts with the darkness:
“Before the beginning there was nothing. No sound, no air, no colour – nothing. TE KORE, NOTHING. No one knows how long this darkness lasted, because there was no time.”
Eventually, the long darkness became light. Then there was a stirring and Ranginui (the Sky Father) and Papatūānuku (the Earth Mother) emerged. Before their heart-rending separation, they produced seventy children, all of them boys! Gavin Bishop had to create a four-page fold out spread to fit them all in. Each of these atua was destined to perform a different task in the natural world.
Ranginui and Papatūānuku held their sons tightly between them, but the boys wanted room to move, to escape from the darkness into the light of the world. Only Tānemahuta was strong enough to separate them.
Tānemahuta plays a central part in the Creation stories. After adorning the heavens, he covered Papatūānuku with forests filled with birds, insects, reptiles, and flowers, and created the first woman. The prominence of Tānemahuta reflects Māori understanding of our connectedness with the natural world, both as a source of sustenance and as a taonga that needs to be loved and protected. This message of kaitiakitanga (guardianship) resonates in a world in which global warming shows what happens when this balance is broken.
He defines kaitiakitanga as:
“The care of the natural world, not based on ownership but on shared responsibility for all New Zealanders to care for the environment."
Tāwhirimātea, the atua of the weather (including storms and winds) was still angry with his brothers for separating his parents and plotted his revenge. This escalated into mighty battles between the gods that Bishop recounts in enthralling detail.
Part Two of Atua is filled with the adventures of Māui, including his heroic mission to slow down the sun. Gavin Bishop suggests (tongue-in-cheek no doubt) that as Māui was always rushing off to his next adventure, he may have been the first in the world with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), a proposal many young readers will enjoy and relate to.
Māui’s attempt to defeat death, and so make humans immortal, ends tragically. In other versions I have read this was blamed entirely on the laughter of the pīwakawaka (fantail), but Bishop discloses that Māui was pre- ordained to fail at some stage of his life because of an omission his father made, for which the gods could not be appeased. Bishop’s thorough research adds depth and freshness to the stories in the book.
Tāwhaki, one of Maui’s descendants, is the focus of Part Three. Like Māui, Tāwhaki was brave and brought sacred and useful knowledge, but was far more handsome than Māui.
His grandmother, Whaitiri, was a fearsome atua, definitely a grandmother not to mess around with. She was a god of thunder and fond of cannibalism. In one of the stories, Tāwhaki seeks her advice on how to get to heaven to find his wife. She had run away with their baby girl because he had offended her. His grandmother points him and his brother to a vine but warns them not to look down as they climb towards heaven or they will get dizzy and fall.
“If you land by my door- I’ll eat you,” she threatens them.
In Part Four, Gavin Bishop tells how these stories were brought to Aotearoa by Polynesian ancestors who navigated across Te-Moana-Nui-a-Kiwa, the Great Pacific Ocean. This may well surprise many readers who thought the stories were unique to Aotearoa.
As iwi settled in different parts of New Zealand, stories were passed on from generation to generation. Over the years, as they were retold, variations appeared, many of which are still told today. In Atua, Gavin had to weave “a linear path through the complex flow of stories, told differently by each tribe, from the creation of the sky and the earth to the establishment of the natural world we live in today.”
For Māori these stories are deeply significant. They are guiding stories that link the past and the present, they are whakapapa.
For non-Māori New Zealanders, the stories provide a window into Te Ao Māori, the Māori world.
The stories have not been sanitized. There is love and courage, but there is also revenge and violence. There are some gory details, so best not used as bedtime stories for toddlers.
Older children will be captivated by these stories, told with wit and wisdom, and adults too will enjoy them and find there is much to learn.
A copy of Atua deserves a place in every home and classroom.
Reviewer: Lyn Potter