Mud hens hide
fire’s origin

The Secret of Fire-Making


Very long ago the people of Hawai'i knew fire. Lava flowing down a mountainside set trees and plants aflame. After the flames died down men sometimes found roasted breadfruit or bananas. Cautiously, they tasted. Oh, how good! After that they tried to get and keep the fire.

Men found they could light a stick at the edge of a lava flow. From that stick they could light another and another and so carry the fire home. Then all the village could roast sweet potatoes or broil fish. Everyone might feast on cooked food. But the next day, the fire was dead. With no one to feed it, it went out while men were sleeping. And no one knew how to make fire, only to carry it from a lava flow.

One morning Maui and his brothers had gone fishing. They reached their fishing ground and dropped their lines, then looked about them. Sea and sky were touched with pink, and the land was a gray line rising into cloud. Against the pale gray of the cloud one of the brothers saw a tiny column of darker gray. "Smoke!" he exclaimed. "Look! Someone has fire."

The others stared. "Whose fire can it be?" they asked. "It is near our beach. Someone has brought fire from the fire pit and has not shared it with us."

"Let us return at once and cook our food," said one. "The bananas in our ripening pit are ready. Let us roast some."

But the oldest answered: "First we shall fish. In the cool of the morning the fish are hungry. See!" as he pulled up a red-gold beauty.

"Yes," all agreed, "first we shall fish, then paddle back to cook our fish and our bananas."

Soon they had enough fish and paddled home. "The smoke dies down," said one. "I hope the owner of the precious fire will not let it go out."

"When we reach the reef," Maui said, "I'll run to get the fire and bring some ripe bananas. You beach the canoe." The moment they reached shallow water Maui sprang out and ran.

The brothers beached the canoe, made offering to Ku'ula, god of fishing, in thanks for their good catch, and gathered wood for a fire. "Why doesn't Maui come?" they asked each other.

Then they saw him, walking slowly, empty-handed. "Maui, where's the fire?" they shouted.

"I thought men had that fire," Maui answered. "But it was 'alae birds, mud hens. They scurried away just as I reached the place. On the ground I found ashes, but no spark of fire. Do you know what else I found? The skins of roasted bananas! The mud hens have taken all the ripe bananas from our pit, cooked and eaten them."

The three brothers were angry. "We'll watch those mud hens!" they cried. "They won't get any more bananas!"

"Yes," Maui was thinking, "I too shall watch the mud hens. How do they get fire? Can a small bird carry a burning stick from the fire pit? Perhaps they know some secret way to make fire." Every day he watched, but saw no mud hens.

AFTER SOME DAYS, the brothers again went for fish. Just as they reached their fishing ground, Maui turned to look. "There it is again!" he exclaimed. "The smoke! Let us go back at once." They paddled fast, then Maui leaped from the canoe and ran with all his speed. He saw the mud hens scurry away. He saw where they had cooked bananas.

Again and again this happened. If the brothers stayed at home to watch, there was no fire. If they went out in the canoe, smoke rose in a tiny column. But, however fast they paddled, the fire was out before they could reach the place.

"And we never see the mud hens bringing fire," Maui thought. "They must make it somehow, and I shall learn their secret. Leave me behind tomorrow," he said aloud. "If they see you paddle out the mud hens will make their fire, and I shall watch them."

As the canoe was paddled out in the gray of the next morning, Maui crawled quietly through the reeds. He had almost reached the place where the birds had their fire, when he heard voices. The mud hens talked softly as they watched the canoe. "There go those brothers," one said. "Let us make our fire."

"Wait!" said another voice. "One, two, three. There are only three in the canoe. Perhaps the fourth has stayed behind to watch us. Today we shall not cook bananas."

The disappointed hero saw the birds scatter. "They are clever!" he thought. "I must outwit them."

That night he said to his brothers: "You three go fishing as you did today, leaving me behind. This one shall take my place." The others watched as Maui picked up the tall gourd in which they kept their fishhooks. He wrapped it in old kapa, making kapa head and arms.

The brothers laughed. "Why take that thing?" they asked him.

"The mud hens will count," he answered. "In the dim light of dawn they'll think they see four fishermen. Then I shall learn their secret."

NEXT MORNING, as the canoe paddled out, Maui lay hidden. "There goes the canoe!" he heard a mud hen say. "One, two, three, four. The brothers have all gone fishing. Let us make our fire."

In the dim light the mud hens had thought the gourd a man as Maui hoped. But that early morning dimness made it hard for Maui himself to see. Peeping through the reeds he watched the birds bringing sticks. The leader was rubbing something. Was that a wisp of smoke that rose? Yes, surely there was smoke! What was the mud hen rubbing? He must get nearer.

Carefully he crawled through the reeds. A small stone rolled. The mud hens had sharp ears. "Someone is coming!" the leader cried. "It may be Maui, the Quick One." With wings and feet they beat out the fire, scattering the ashes. Then they scattered. But the leader waited a moment to be sure no sparks remained. That moment was enough for Maui. He caught and held her fast.

"Wicked bird!" he shouted. "You know how to get fire and have kept the secret from man. How do you get it? Tell me or you die!"

"If I die you'll never learn the secret," the mud hen answered.

That was true. Maui began to hurt her a little -- then a little more. "How do you get the fire?" he asked again.

"Do not tell!" called the other birds from the bushes where they were hiding. "Oh, do not tell the secret."

"I must tell," the leader answered. "The ti stalk hides the fire. Take a ti leaf, O Maui, and rub its stalk with the broken stick that I was using." There was laughter hidden in the bird's eyes. She thought that he would let her go.

But Maui held her firmly as he broke off a ti leaf. He held its stalk with his bare feet as he sat on the ground.

One hand was free for rubbing, while with the other Maui held the bird. He worked with all his might. He rubbed a groove in the ti stalk and squeezed out water. No fire came. "You have fooled me!" he said angrily to the mud hen. "I shall kill you."

"If you kill me you will never know the secret."

"That is true," said Maui. "Then I shall hurt you until you tell me in which plant fire is hidden."

"Oh, I will tell! It is in the taro stalk. Rub that stalk, and fire will come forth."

SO Maui rubbed. He rubbed a groove in the taro stalk and squeezed out water, but no fire came. Turning quickly, he saw the laughter in the mud hen's eyes. "Where is the fire?" he shouted angrily.

"Oh, I will tell you," the bird answered. This time it was green wood she told Maui to use. Green wood has just been cut and is full of sap. So, for all his labor, Maui got only sap!

This time, in his anger, Maui was ready to kill the mud hen. "Oh, I will tell you truly," she cried in fright. "Take that piece of dry hau wood that I was using. There is a groove in it already. Rub with the hard stick. You will get powdered wood, then fire will come."

Maui held the piece of hau with his bare feet. He rubbed with all his might, back and forth, faster and faster. The groove was filled with powdered wood. Was that a spark?

No, the smoke was gone. Maui stopped for breath and looked angrily at the mud hen whom he still held. This time he saw no laughter in her eyes. "That is the way, Maui," she said. "Fire is in the hau, but you must rub fast and long to bring it out."

The hero rubbed again. Smoke rose. He saw sparks in the powdered wood. Faster and faster he worked! At last his stick was blazing. With the blazing stick Maui made a red mark on the little mud hen's head. "By this mark," he said, "all men shall know that you mud hens knew the secret of the fire and kept it hidden. But at last you told. Now all shall know."

And all men knew, for Maui taught them the secret of fire-making. Now meat, fish and vegetables could be roasted in the imu, or cooked over hot coals. When men were in the mountain forests snaring birds or shaping a canoe, they could make fire to warm themselves. No wonder Maui was the hero of Hawai'i nei.

Kamehameha Schools Press
Hawaii Digital Library

"The Secret of Fire-Making" is from "Tales of the Menehune," compiled by Mary Kawena Puku'i, retold by Carline Curtis and illustrated by Robin Burningham. Published by Kamehameha Schools Press, ©1960 and 1985 by Kamehameha Schools. Reprinted by permission.

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