Oral and Traditional Stories

I am one of the people lucky enough to work in an industry that records and researches the Oral and Traditional History of Maori (our indigenous people) in New Zealand.

But I’m not going to talk the technical language about that side of my life. It was the history and stories that we hear that got me thinking though. These are all the traditional stories that are passed onto us, generation after generation through our friends and families. In Maori folk lore there are legends and stories that stay alive through the ‘camp-fire’ story telling sessions. And every now an then, I’m told one. Some of these stories are true, right down to the precise time of when the story occurred… some are the legends… and some have been altered by the original story tellers to make them more palatable to the audience.

But many of the stories have a sordid premise, and that’s the part that I’m really interested in. How the stories and and legends came about in the first place, and the original character motivations. One of the stories from the area of where I grew up is the story about the Purakanui Massacre at Mapoutahi Pa.  ‘Purakanui’ means pile of wood, in which the meaning behind is loosely translated to ‘piles of bones that were buried beneath the sand’ after a tribal war in 1750. Today when you are standing on Purakanui Beach, you would never have even thought that anything horrific had ever happened in that serene little piece of paradise. “There is nothing to suggest the tragedy of which it was once the scene, yet these green slopes once ran red with blood and the yells of the victors and the vanquished could have been heard above the noise of the surf that laves its rocky base.” I always knew, instinctively, not to go near the Matoutahi Pa at night. It is within these legends and stories that strike warnings into the centre of our hearts – whether we were there or not. Regardless what we believe in and knowing the histories of the area, brings respect of the area and its people into context.

Maui and the Sun - a story that most New Zealanders know. Click the image for the full legend

But these stories and legends aren’t told just through the Maori. They are told through generations of people in every single culture, all over the globe. Story telling is a universal past time that we all love. Either we are the story tellers, or we are the audience.

The beautiful thing about the indigenous people is that their stories live on like recent memories through the tribe as each story is retold over and over again to the people. Stories are told through art, fire, dance, music, and through the use of our senses. Some are experience enhanced through the use of illicit drugs, hypnosis, or trance. Some are drawn. Some are even written down.

But regardless of what medium they are told in… they are all stories and legends, given to us from our ancestors. Some writers are so inspired by these legends and stories, they incorporate the legends, myths, and the learnings of the stories into their work to share with everyone. One of the more well known NZ legends told globally in recent times is Whale Rider, which was turned into a movie. Some of the authors inspired by legends that spring to mind immediately are writers like HomerRick Riordan, David Hair, and a multitude of others around the globe.

While we can listen and learn the stories from our past… It is up to us to create the stories for the future.


Leave a Comment

  1. Hopefully by living the stories first, then telling. Simply sitting at a keyboard writing the stories of next week’s best seller list isn’t likely to produce anything of more lasting value than December.


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