Looking for the age of mythic heroes? It might be closer than you think.
It used to be the definitive judgement of Classical scholars that Troy never fell to the Greeks - and that that was because Troy never existed. This judgement stood until Heinrich Schliemann headed off to Turkey and dug up the ruins of the city. It has been the same with many myths: their origin has been taken to be purely fantastic but has turned out to be actually based on a historical reality.
Troy fell in the Bronze Age - long enough ago for any amount of mythic accretion to coat the historic fact. And indeed we think of the age of mythic heroes as being long, long ago. Odysseus the trickster, Aeneas the founder of a nation, Hanuman the monkey king, Gilgamesh searching for immortality - how far into the past must we gaze to dimly discern their colossal stature? A time when my ancestors were busy sewing gold buttons on the admiral’s coat at McBryde Bros Naval Outfitters in Plymouth, England; when Victoria was ascending the throne and Charles Darwin was working on his ideas of the origins of the species - this is not the time when mythic figures strode the earth. Or so we think.
Te Houtaewa, so they tell us, was eight feet tall and could run at 60 miles an hour. They said much the same of Ajax, but Ajax lived 4,000 years ago: Te Houtaewa was alive in the 1830s at precisely the time that McBryde Bros Naval Outfitters were stitching away at uniforms for the Royal Navy. Te Houtaewa was a chief of the Te Aupouri peoples living in the far north of New Zealand and it is unlikely that he was very interested in what was happening in bonny old Mother England. His uncle visited that distant county - as was not all that unusual for Maori of that time to do:
Te Houtaewa was an old-time Maori who honoured the traditions and customs of his ancestors. He despised the new things that the settlers were bringing into New Zealand. It is said that when his uncle returned from a visit to England he brought back a double-barrelled musket and an axe. He intended to give the musket to his nephew and keep the axe for himself. But Te Houtaewa was so horrified when he saw his uncle shoot a bird that he refused to accept the gift, saying that it was fit only for a coward. He chose the axe.
We all know the story of Te Houtaewa and the kumara and the run along Te Oneroa A Tohe. (-*-) His running prowess was famous:
So great was his fame that it spread throughout New Zealand, bringing mana (glory) to his tribe and arousing envy in the hearts of his enemies. When the Waikato people heard how fast he was they sent their two greatest runners to challenge him in a foot race. This took place on the Ninety Mile Beach, beginning at Hukatere. Te Houtaewa gave his challenges a start, but at Ngapai he overtook the slower of the two and, without losing any speed, he dashed out his brains with his club. Several tremendous strides brought him up to the second man whom he killed in the same way. After this, no one was so foolhardy as to challenge him again.
Ah, that we too might be like Te Houtaewa! That we might be eight foot tall and refuse the coward’s way of facing life; that we might dash out the brains of our enemies - our enemies: pride, ignorance, unwillingness, smallness of vision - and do so without breaking stride in our never-ending race through life. On his way back up the beach from Ahipara on his famous journey to steal the kumara, Te Houtaewa stopped his running for a little hunting.
Halfway up the beach, he saw a flock of godwits, and he decided to catch some to take home to his mother. He put his bags down, crept as close as he could, and waited for the waves to break, for he knew that godwits always faced the breakers and were then off their guard. When that happened he swooped on them and gathered up an armful before they were aware of their danger. Satisfied with his morning’s work, he hurried home.
Godwits fly every year from the narrow beaches of New Zealand out, out across the boundless ocean, through the vast expanse of sky, to the uttermost ends of the Earth, to the endless tundra of Siberia. In the time that most of us get as far as to work and back with dreary regularity, they encompass the globe. May we too, like Te Houtaewa, gather up the godwits, the followers of that vast vision. May we draw into ourselves, be sustained and nourished by, that largeness of vision, that high-flying, broad-horizoned, all-encompassing view of life that the godwits are . . . that will surely sustain us in our brave running.