A well-known hero or demigod of Polynesian legend.
The New Zealand legends differ somewhat as to his parentage, but the most trustworthy give his descent as the son of Wahieroa and Kura; Wahieroa being the son of Tāwhaki. Rata's father, Wahieroa, had been slain in a treacherous manner by a goblin chief named Mātuku-takotako, and it became the duty of the son to revenge the murder. He set out for this purpose, found the dwelling of Mātuku, and learned from Tama-uri-uri, the man in charge, that the fairy foeman only came from underground at the time when the new moon first became visible each month; then he emerged and devoured men. Rata waited till the ogre had come forth and was stooping over a fountain plunging his head therein: then the avenger seized him by the hair and killed him. Alternatively, Mātuku was killed by Rata with a noose at the time of performing the rites of thistle-cutting.1
Rata could not find his father's bones, which he wished to take away with reverent care; he found that they were in the possession of a people called the Ponaturi, a race dwelling at a distance; therefore Rata had to hew out a canoe for himself. He went into the forest, and proceeded to fell a tree, and out off the branching top. When his day's work was finished he went home, and, returning in the morning, found the tree standing upright and apparently untouched. He again felled the tree, and on again returning found the tree as before. He therefore hid himself, and soon heard the voices of "the multitude of the wood-spirits" (see Hakuturi), who, assembling, proceeded to set the tree upright, and replace each chip in its place. He rushed out and seized some of them, who, in answer to his questions, replied that they had done this because he had insulted the lord of forests (Tāne-mahuta) by not repeating the proper invocations before cutting down the tree. Rata was ashamed, and repented of his impiety. Then the elves promised to make a canoe for him, which task they instantly performed. The name of the canoe was the Riwaru.2
Rata and his tribe set out in this canoe in search of the Ponaturi. Having found them, he surrounded them by stratagem, slew their priests, and rescued the bones of his father. The Ponaturi collected their armies and pursued him. The battle was going against Rata; but he repeated an incantation named Titikura, which he had heard their priests reciting while they beat together the bones of Wahieroa. By this means all his slain warriors were restored to life; and rushing on the enemy, they slew the whole of their foes. Rata took Tongarautawhiri to wife, and she bore him a son, Tuwhakararo, who was the father of Whakatau.3
The story is told differently as to the tree-felling, thus: Rata was unable to fell the tree until his elder sister, Hine-tū-a-hōanga, informed him that he must sharpen the axe upon her sacred back. When this was done, he was unable to use the tree for a canoe, as it was set upright again by the wood-fairies; but after proper invocations had been repeated, the canoe was properly set afloat and used.4
Rata is said to have killed a boy named Kōwhiti-nui, the son of Rākatauā, and to have hidden his body in the chips of the canoe.5 Rata (in company with Wahieroa, Ngahue, Rarata, and others) was one of the builders of the Arawa canoe in Rarotonga.6 Rata's mother, named Matoka-rau-tāwhiri, wife of Wahieroa.7 Rata, the son of Wahieroa, who was the son of Tāwhaki and Maikuku-makaka.8 Rata killed Mātuku-takotako by the aid of the god Tama-uriuri.9 Rata killed the ogre Pōuahaokai, who had helped Mātuku-takotako.10 Rata married Kani-o-wai. Their son was Poumatangatanga, who took Rangiahua and begat Paimahutanga, the wife of Ue-nuku.11 Rata's canoe was called by three names, viz., Riwaru, Tuirangi, and Pakawai these marking stages of its progress.
For the Hawaiian genealogy of Rata, see Laka and Kaha'i. The bottom of the ocean is called "the table of Laka"; this was broken up in the fishing of Māui, and the broken pieces came to the surface as islands. This, however, is probably the elder Laka, the son of Kumu-honua; not the son of Wahieroa.
In Mangaia the legend has not been preserved, but a relic may be found in the canoe-making song:
- "Slash away, O Una,
- With the wonderful axe from another land.
- Even that which enabled Rata to fell the forest."
In Rarotonga the chant with which the wood-fairies bore the canoe they had made to the sea, was sung when the natives were hauling heavy timber:
- "A pathway for the canoe! A pathway for the canoe!
- A path of sweet-scented flowers!
- The entire family of the birds of Kupolu
- Honour thee (Rata) above mortals."
This is the song repeated in the tradition as told at the island at Aitutaki. Rata was born in the fairy-land of Kupolu and started off to fell a tree. He saw a sea snake and a white heron in deadly fight; at first he thought to kill the snake, but was asked by the latter not to interfere, so Rata heeded not the heron's cry for help, but went on with his work, and hewed down his tree. When he came back next day the tree was standing, not a chip being missing, and the fight of snake and heron still going on. A second and a third time this was repeated; then, at last, Rata understood a remark made by the heron, that Rata would be unable to fell the tree properly without the birds' assistance.
The hero slew the snake with his axe; then all the birds of the air assembled, pecked out a canoe from the huge log, and carried it to the sea. Rata sailed away, and reached the land of Iti-te-marama (moonlight), a sort of paradise; but afterwards returned to Avaiki (Hawaiki).
Rata's canoe, turned into stone, is shown at Pangaroa, in the island of 'Upola. The Māori name of the axe given to him by Ngahue in Hawaiki is Papaariari.
- White, John. (1887). Ancient History of the Maori. 6 vols. Wellington: G, Disbury, p. 1:72.
- Wohlers, J. F. H. (1875). "Mythology and Tradition of the Maori." New Zealand Institute, Transactions 7:3-53, p. 47.
- Grey 1855, p. 67.
- White 1887, p. 1:69.
- Shortland, Edward. (1856). Traditions and Superstitions of the New Zealanders. London: Longmans Green, p. 6.
- Grey 1855, p. 83.
- White 1887, p. 1:67.
- ibid., p. 3:2.
- ibid., p. 3:4.
- ibid., p. 3:4.
- ibid., p. 3:5.
- Grey, Sir George. (1855). Polynesian Mythology. Auckland: Brett, p. 67 ff.
- Tregear, Edward. (1891). Maori-Polynesian Comparative Dictionary. Wellington: Government Printer, pp. 316, 399-400.
This article incorporates text from Maori-Polynesian Comparative Dictionary (1891) by Edward Tregear, which is in the public domain.