Fairytale Friday: The Golden Kowai
This month I embarked on the trip of a lifetime to visit Australia, New Zealand, and the Cook Islands. To prepare myself for the tour, I decided to take a look at some of the South Pacific’s cultural background. It was there that I stumbled across the Maori people, the native people of New Zealand. The Maori people make of 14% of New Zealand’s population, and traveled to New Zealand around 1300 from the mythical Polynesian land of Hawaiki. In ancient times, the Maori people used oral delivery to tell their folklore, mythology, and beliefs. They began translating the stories to text in the 19th story. Today I present you The Golden Kowhai, a story of beauty, miracles, and love.
The Golden Kowai
Told by James Cowan
The following Maori folk-tale of the Golden Kowhai is, says James Cowan, surely “as pretty a tree-myth and as satisfying an explanation of the Kowhai's freakish flowering habit as any lover of fairy tales and any poetic soul could wish.”
The blossoming of the Kowhai, New Zealand's flower of spring, came rather later than usual this year, and the tui and the bellbird, those melodious honey-suckers that mimic each other's songs, must have wondered what delayed the opening of their favourite sweets feast.
The peculiarity of this loveliest of our small flowering trees is the fact that it produces its blossoms before the leaves. The most charming of forest pictures is the scene on the edge of the bush or along a river, such as the upper part of the Wanganui, when the pendulous Kowhai flowers cover every bough without a sign of foliage, and when the tuis are chattering joyously as they flutter from branch to branch, sometimes giving a kind of looping the loop exhibition in their excited exploration of the honey-laden blooms.
Long ago, in the back country of the Rotorua Lakes region, I heard a Maori explanation of the Kowhai's singular habit of flowering on bare and leafless branches.
The Miraculous Flowering.
On the shore of one of these lakes, said the arboreal fairy tale, there sat one day in the misty long ago a young Maori man and girl. The man pressed his love on the beautiful Kotiro; he sought her for his wife, but the maid laughed—Maori maids are as “kittle cattle” as their Pakeha sisters—and said she'd see; she would wait; she would not accept his love until her suitor—who was an Ariki of high rank and a tohunga too—performed some great and unexampled deed before she would become his wife. She would wed none but a famous man, a man whose exploits no one could outdo.
The lover accepted the challenge. “You shall see what I can do,” he said, He turned to the tree under which they were sitting. It was a Kowhai. The time was about our Pakeha month of August. The tree was quite bare of both flower and leaf.
To Please a Maiden's Eyes.
“I shall,” said the young tohunga, “cause this tree to spring into flower before your eyes.” With those words he put forth all his occult powers, the command of mind over matter, which had been taught him by the wise men in the sacred house of instruction. He recited in quick tense tones his magic prayers. And, all in a moment, a miracle! All at once the tree burst forth into a blaze of blossom. All its naked boughs were covered in a breath with golden hanging flowers.
The amazed girl saw, and was conquered. No man surely could rival that wonder-feat of her priestly lover.
And ever since that day, says the Maori, the Kowhai has flowered on leafless branches, a sign and a reminder of the ancient miracle.
(The Scarlet Cianthus, which is called by the Maoris the Kowhai-ngutu-kaka, or “Parrot's beak,” because of the shape of its very rich flowers, does not carry any special association with native folk-talk. It is the yellow Kowhai that is heard in tradition and song. “Te ura o te Kowhai” (the glow of the Kowhai) is a common expression, and the Maori was as quick as any Pakeha artist or poet to appreciate the beauty of the drooping clusters of golden blossom reflected on the glossy waters of a lake or harbour, or in a gliding river. There is a mystical “Kowhai-turanga ora,” or “Tree of Life,” in the classic legendry of the Waikato people; it is used symbolically in song and speech to-day in allusion to powers and authorities—the British Crown was thus referred to in an address I remember—to which the Maoris look for help and life.)