People have long had an obsession with flight. Characters from legends and fairy tales often have the surprising ability to take off from the solid Earth and glide effortlessly through the air. One of the earliest accounts of flight comes from Greek mythology.

Icarus

Icarus was the son of a master craftsman, Daedalus. Both Daedalus and Icarus were imprisoned by King Minos in a palace on the island of Crete. This was because Daedalus had helped an enemy of King Minos.

Daedalus fashioned two pairs of wings out of wax and feathers for himself and his son so that they could escape from Crete. Daedalus warned Icarus not to fly too close to the Sun and not too close to the sea. However, Icarus, exhilarated by the experience of flying, came too close to the Sun. The wax melted on his wings, and the feathers fell out. Eventually, he was left flapping his bare arms, at which point, Icarus fell into the sea. The sea bears his name to this day – the Icarian Sea near Icaria, an island south-west of Samos.

Māori kites

Ancient Māori also have flight embedded in their traditions. They saw kites as connectors between the heavens and the Earth. Kites were believed to be messengers, and like birds, Māori felt they had spiritual connections with the gods. Tohunga (priests or men of knowledge) saw kites as a means of communicating with the gods. These kites or manu atua (literally, bird gods) were operated by several people and, using kilometre-long ropes, went into the clouds.

Manu tangata (literally, bird people) were large and complex kites that were used to physically pick people up and are recalled as having been used by attackers to gain entry to pā fortifications and also as a means of escape from captivity.

The most generic name for Māori kites is manu aute, which means bird made of aute or paper-mulberry. Although aute became scarce and later kites were made of more common materials, the kite has retained this name.

Kite mythology is prolific in Māori folklore. Legends tell of Tāwhaki trying vainly to follow Tangotango to heaven on a kite and of Rahi using a kite in pursuit of Te Ara. Māui, the hero god, was himself a kite flyer. He compelled the winds with his kite, and in the hands of a powerful tohunga, the manu aute could do wonderful things.

As an instrument of divination, it could tell whether it would be wise for a war party to attack a fortified position, and it could be used as a means of seeking land for settlement and to communicate between tribes. It is believed that, wherever Māui’s adventurous descendants settled, they brought the practice of flying kites with them. It also appears to have been customary for early Māori kite flyers to chant a song as the kite goes up – a type of karakia called turu manu or kite charm. It was believed that these songs, full of poetic fancy, made the kite fly properly.

Māori kite-flying stories also focus on Matariki – a small cluster of stars also known as Pleiades. The strong connections to Matariki are because of the kite’s link to the heavens. To Māori, the appearance of Matariki signals the end of a year and the beginning of the next. The legend tells of Ranginui (the sky god) lifting up out of the eastern horizon at the start of the Māori New Year and marking it out with star clusters that included Matariki. Kite flying today is therefore an important part of the celebrations of Matariki and includes kite development and prototype testing.

Nature of Science

Science often has its beginnings embedded in people’s wishes and dreams. Our obsession with flight can be seen in early mythology. Eventually, things that could fly were studied until, finally, flight principles were established and we were able to make our own flying machines.

    Published 21 September 2011