All posts by tmrowe70

A mum and a writer with a passion for archaeology and history.

Animals in British Superstition

This post was first written as an article for the ‘Celtic Guide’ some years ago and is now posted here for your enjoyment – for more articles and information about the ‘Celtic Guide’ follow the link.

According to the Oxford Dictionary superstition can be defined as a “belief in the existence or power of the supernatural; fear of the unknown and mysterious; a religion or practice or opinion based on such tendencies.” 

Certain animals are often at the trench face of superstition – cats are the first to spring to mind- the following article is a brief overview of a few of the many British superstitions surrounding our furry and feathered friends.

Cats

The range of superstitions surrounding cats varies widely depending on where you are and what type of cat you have.  Black cats in Britain are believed to be good luck and white cats are unlucky however in any many other parts of the world the reverse is true, whilst tortoiseshell cats are said to be particularly lucky.  Even within the Britain there is some variation on the aforementioned luck.  Generally speaking it is believed that if a black cat enters your home uninvited this is very lucky but you must not shoo it away or disaster will befall the house.  But in East Yorkshire, the opposite is held to be true.

The cat has long been associated with magic, witchcraft and superstition – maybe because it lives on its on terms – the phrase ‘dogs have owners, cats have staff’ rings true…

For some occupations cats can either be a hazard or blessing.  Both miners and sailors avoid using the word ‘cat’ but for sailors it is lucky to have a ships cat (preferably completely black).  In contrast, in Cornwall if a cat wonders into a mine all work would stop and it would have to be killed before work would continue.  In the world of theatre it is considered very fortunate to have a resident cat, so long as it did not wander onto the stage during a performance.

There are also some strange tales of the healing power of a cat tail.  For example, a cat’s tail drawn across an eye will cure a sty and in a variation of this the tail of a tortoiseshell could cure warts when stroked but oddly only in the month of May…

Cats do not need to be alive to provide protection either.  The Museum of Witchcraft and Magic in Boscastle, Cornwall has several displays of dried, mummified cats which have been found in the roof spaces of old buildings.  It is thought they were placed there after death as protection against not only rats and mice but also other misfortunes and evil spirits.  At the Church of England school in Chelmsford (built 1887) ‘cat paws bricks’ were used in the walls as protection against witches.  These bricks had imprints of cat paws on them.

A mummified cat on display at the Museum of Witchcraft and Magic, Boscastle, Cornwall.

In Celtic myth there is a fairy creature called the Cat Sith or Cat Sidhe.  This creature is a large black cat with a white spot on his chest and is a common feature of Scottish folklore and occasionally Irish folklore.  It is said that the Cat Sith will steal a persons’ soul before it was claimed by God by passing over the corpse before burial.  Thus the corpse would be watched day and night to keep him away.  But like so much in folklore and myth the Cat Sith is not all bad.  At Samhain he would bless a house if a saucer of milk was left out but woe and betide those who did not – the house would be cursed and their cows’ milk would run dry.

Dogs

Unlike cats there are not as many superstitions surrounding dogs, perhaps as a result of the unique friendship humans have had with dogs unlike cats which are far more contrary creatures.  A dog howling at midnight is seen as a foretelling of a death, in fact it seems howling of any kind would appear to a prediction of a death.  Other superstitions associated with dogs include a dog to running between bride and groom on their wedding day was a bad omen or a completely black dog crossing a traveller’s path, but this may well be associated with the stories about supernatural hounds such as Black Shuck, Barguest and others which were always black, ferocious and terrified travellers.  

By Nbauers – Photo taken in 2018Previously published: Rural Rambles Round Bungay, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=77202164

Horses and Sheep

The horse was a vital part of the economy for thousands of years and much of the superstitions which arose did so to protect them.  There are a variety of charms to protect your horse from evil ranging from plants such as birch to amulets worn by the horse (these later became horse brasses).  Different counties would have different superstitions although in general it was considered bad luck to see a white horse, to offset the bad luck you need to cross your fingers and not uncross them until you see a dog.  In Devon white markings above all four hoofs was considered ill but one white stocking was okay.

Horse using brasses as a charm/amulet. By https://wellcomeimages.org/indexplus/obf_images/1b/d7/3c1f5ba9d6cbb144f194e7199f9b.jpgGallery:

Superstitions associated with sheep involve cures for various ailments.  Whooping cough was in the past a common childhood ailment and one of the cures involved breathing in the breath of a sheep and if that didn’t work you could find a piebald pony and do the same.  Consumption was also common and relief could be found by walking around a sheepfold or inhaling the breath of a horse, any colour or type would do.

One of the many remedies for pneumonia was to attach the lungs of a slaughtered sheep to the feet of the person taken ill – the idea was that the infection would be drawn down and into the sheep lungs.  Offal was also useful in removing a witches curse – first take the heart of a sheep, stick pins in it, then roast it at midnight and the curse is gone.

Hares and Rabbits

Many of the superstitions associated with the hare seem to be some form of Christian propaganda against the pagan symbolism of the hare.  Most are concerned with bad stuff happening – to dream of a hare was either a warning of enemies or a foretelling of a death in the family.  Should a pregnant women see a hare then her child would be born with a hare-lip or similarly to the dog if a hare was to cross in front of a wedding procession…well, who knows what would happen (all references to this particular superstition were strangely silent on what exactly would happen). 

In Cornwall white hares were believed to be maidens who had died of grief over ‘fickle lovers’ who then haunted the very same men.  Witchcraft and hares are closely connected as it was believed that witches were able to transform themselves into hares.

Rabbits on the other hand were more kindly treated, the most obvious is the use of rabbit foot for good luck (not so for the unfortunate rabbit), originally it was a hares foot which provided the charm though.  For the traveller it was considered good luck if a rabbit crossed in front of you but not so much if they crossed behind you.  If you would like your month ahead to go well say the word ‘rabbit’ three times on the first of the month before you say any other word.  However, do not say it when visiting Portland Bill in Dorset, to utter the word ‘rabbit’ is to invite misfortune.

Rabbits in the medieval period seemed to get a fairly bad rap given the way they were often illustrated in some texts. Although this is more to do with allegory than superstition (I do like the drawings though).

Birds

Not all birds have superstitions attached to them, only a select few can make that claim, mainly crows, owls, robins and magpies.

Crows in particular have got a very bad rap over the centuries; their appearance is enough to put a superstitious mind into gear.  Basically it is unlucky to see or hear a crow, so for example a crow on his own is very bad and to hear a crow cry from the left in the morning is also bad.  Crows flying around your house is not good for the inhabitants either…They even have their own rhyme which would suggest not all was doom and despair.

One for sorrow, two for joy,

Three for a letter, four for a boy,

Five for silver, six for gold,

Seven for a secret never to be told.”

Magpies also have their own predictive rhyme:

“One’s for sorrow, two’s for mirth,

Three’s a wedding, four’s a birth,

Five’s a christening, six a death,

Seven’s heaven, eight is hell,

And nine’s the devil his own sel’”

Generally speaking the magpie is regarded as a bird of bad luck and to avert the bad luck the sign of the cross would be made.  As with crows many such superstitions involved death and dying, having said that, in some places it was believed to be good luck to see two magpies provided you acknowledged them by bowing. 

Owls don’t get off lightly either, firstly it is unlucky to see an owl in the day and they are often regarded as harbingers of death (even here in New Zealand the cry of the Morepork, our native owl is regarded as a portent of a death in the neighbourhood).  Interestingly, the hooting of an owl in Welsh villages is said to indicate a girl was about to lose her virginity.

Robins on the other hand are seen as an auspicious bird as a result of the tradition of how the robin got its red breast.  Christian folklore tells of how the robin pulled a thorn from the Crown of Thorns and in doing so was stained by the holy blood.  Later traditions also have the robin covering those who have died in the open with leaves.  To kill or hurt a robin was considered very bad luck and to break a robins’ egg meant something of value of yours would also be broken beyond repair.  Unfortunately, the robin could also predict death, by either tapping at the window of sick person or entering a church and singing.

It would be easy to say many of the superstitions surrounding our animal and bird friends are connected to past Christian distrust of that which was not Christian.  Cats, owls, crows, hares, horses and dogs all have deep roots in our pagan Celtic past but the degree of bad luck versus good luck seems to come down to how useful the aforementioned animals were. 

Witchcraft and the fear of it often results in certain animals having a greater number of superstitions such as the hare and the cat (dogs were also known as familiars but there role is played down).  Cats are a difficult case, as their use in controlling the rat and mice population were often overlooked in the zeal behind witch hunts.  In the mid fourteenth century a mass culling of cats has often been cited as one of the reasons for the explosion in rat population and thus the onset of the Black Death.

Horses are rarely bad luck and even though stories of devil dogs abound in tradition, making it into popular culture, such as, Sherlock Holmes and The Hound of the Baskervilles. Their usefulness as hunting companions and guardians of the home ensure that dogs never get any truly bad press.  Both horses and dogs are easily trainable, their loyalty a given.  Animals such as cats, hares and birds can be tamed to a degree but will always have that aura of wildness and unpredictability.  It doesn’t require a great deal of an effort for a superstition to take root, no matter how illogical it may seem.

shhh…i’m trying to sleep

Flash Fiction – a super short story based loosely on one night not so long ago…

I’m tired.  I’m tired because I had a shitty nights’ sleep.  I had a shitty nights’ sleep because I was awoken at sparrow’s fart by a sore shoulder which turned out to be only the beginning of my first world problems…

You see it begins with the fact I’m not one of those people who toss and turn and who appears to forget that they share the bed with another person, but I will get to that in a moment.  I on the other hand, fall asleep in one position and then for several hours do not move.  Now it is my assumption – it is only an assumption because usually I am asleep, so therefore not awake and aware – that once I begin to feel uncomfortable I move position into a somewhat more comfortable position and do not wake – or if I do, I do not remember doing so.  Last night though was a whole different ballgame.

Last night I woke with a stabbing pain in my shoulder and with my eyes firmly shut and my brain in denial at being awake, I attempted to move to alleviate the pain. It was then I realised why I had not automatically moved in my sleep…I was penned into a small sliver of the bed by the one we shall henceforth call ‘the large hairy starfish’.  The immovable large hairy starfish had me cornered and my movability (is that a word…?) was hampered by a leg to the south and heavy breathing to the north.  Now I don’t know about you but personally I have trouble coping with the hot humid breath of another person, particularly when it’s aimed directly at my face.  After a few moments of quietly fuming over my predicament I found I was able to move just a fraction to relieve the pain in my shoulder, my eyes still shut, brain still in denial and refusing to look at the bedside clock, which we all know would simply be the end of any potential sleep.  But then another issue soon became apparent.

Please let me be clear, I have had two children, I know, only two, but in all fairness, they were two large babies with very large heads.  Since then I have become that person who before embarking on some great adventure has to make sure there is adequate toilet facilities.  No loos, no adventure.  The starfish will say, ‘go in the bush’ to which I reply ‘two large babies…’  Yep you guessed it my rebellious bladder had also awoken and was making itself known, painfully.  I could have just gone to the loo.  No, instead I tried to ignore the impending loss of dignity because if I had given in it would have required me to physically get out of bed, walk to the toilet, turn on a light, sit on a cold toilet seat and then that would be that.  I would be awake.  So I lay there pretending my shoulder was fine, my bladder was happy and that any minute now the hairy starfish would move.  How wrong was I?

After what seemed like hours but was probably only seconds, with a sigh and a huff – the latter aimed at the large hairy starfish for being insensible to my predicament – I gently slid out of bed, (like a fat wobbly sea cucumber, keeping with the seaside theme).  Tottered cross legged to the loo and with a clatter of the toilet lid, because some plonker had left the seat up, made it just in time.  The relief was sublime. I also took the moment to work out the kink in the shoulder (multi-tasking is my game) with a groan or two.

Just as I was exiting the toilet I came face to face with one of the aforementioned children, now a fully-grown man-child. Who squinted at me and smiled that adorable half smile so reminiscent of the hairy starfish.

“What’s going on,” he asked.

“Needed the loo,” I said, thinking it was rather obvious.

There was a pause as his grin grew wider, “I’m sorry mum for breaking your vagina.”  He gave me a half hug as we went our separate ways, him chuckling and heading to the fridge and me for once at a loss for words…and really rather awake.

You’re an archaeologist? Really?

I wanted to title this blog ‘How to Bluff Your Way in Archaeology’ but that would almost be plagiarism, but I am happy to admit to being inspired by the small and very funny book by Paul Bahn ‘Bluff Your Way in Archaeology’. As you read you may well think I have lost the plot in my little lockdown world, this is not the case (well, not entirely). The following is a tongue-in-cheek consideration (I am basically taking the mick) of the archaeological profession and it is not intended to offend. After all, if you can’t laugh at yourself then who can you laugh at. If you do get offended easily and do take your profession seriously then I would suggest stop here and read no more…

Lets begin at the outset in saying that to be an archaeologist is to be an accomplished bluffer. I can already hear the sharp intakes of breath as archaeologists around the world start formulating their arguments, some will even be nicely presented with bullet points and the occasional funny quote (only ever occasional because it is a serious subject, after all…) and which won’t necessarily be funny to the average person but instead will demonstrate how clever the speaker is.

Now let me qualify that first statement with my own presentation duly littered with funny quotes and memes, (I do this because I can, this is my blog…).

In the majority of cases every archaeologist begins their career as a student and it is here where our life long pattern of bluffing is established. A student must effectively bluff his or her way through numerous years of study, convincing lecturers, Professors and supervisors that they have read the book list, they thoroughly understand what theoretical archaeology is and they can be trusted with a trowel at the next training dig. The universities are themselves places where the student can learn from the best bluffers in the profession.

Lecturers and other academic staff are so good at bluffing that it is almost impossible to tell they are doing it, in fact I am sure they’re not even aware of doing it. On a daily basis they manage to convince students and those not of their pay grade that they actually know stuff when in fact they had only just read up on the subject the night before (I speak from personal experience here…). The senior members of staff are the best bluffers as having already laid the foundations of a good bluff they merely need rest on their laurels watching with glee as others attempt to climb that mountain.

Beyond the university walls there are generally speaking three types of archaeologists. The professional archaeologist (white collar, slightly better paid, tied to the spreadsheet type) who can also lay claim to be a professional bluffer. The need in this day and age to tender for jobs, apply for grants and funds means that in order to make some form of career out of that university degree one’s projects are always ‘crucial to our understanding’ or ‘vital in furthering our knowledge’. Classic bluffer language meant to impress those with the cheque books.

The second type heavily rely on the first for their job, they are the field archaeologists. Their unique take on the bluff begins the moment they start working, whether it is bluffing their way around a piece of equipment they’ve never actually used before or bluffing the boss that it’s not a fresh break/they haven’t been slacking its just a very complicated site or simply bluffing friends and family about how interesting their job is…

Field archaeologists do precisely what it says on the tin, they work in the field digging or surveying archaeological sites. When seen in public they may be mistaken for the local homeless, excavation is not conducive to cleanliness and they wear their dirt with pride. A good bluffer on excavation will always comment on how straight (or not) other diggers trench walls (known as sections) are, or quite literally lose their tempers when someone walks on their newly cleaned surface. The latter is a big no-no and an experienced bluffer will know to ask first if it is okay to enter a trench – earning them much needed brownie points.

The third group are the theoretical archaeologists (they are also sometimes attached to universities mainly so the university can bluff everyone into thinking how academic and clever THEY are). This type has taken the role of devil’s advocate and run with it so far that even the devil has lost sight of the objective. In essence they do not or will not obtain their own material/data so in order to cover up their own inadequacies they question the validity of everyone else’s work. So they ask questions such as how well was the site excavated? Is the sample representative? They publish large quantities of material usually collating and condensing everyone else’s hard won data. This type can be recognised by the excessive use of jargon and large words that mean very little; a heavy reliance on mathematical equations and complicated diagrams. All of which are smoke and mirrors designed to hide their own inadequacies.

All of this is fine and dandy but what are the practical aspects of bluffing your way in archaeology? Well in truth this can be boiled down into two points – the way you look and your attitude…get these right and no one will know you don’t have that degree.

What does an archaeologist look like? This will depend slightly on gender and age – beards are common as are spectacles; a field archaeologist will generally have a very basic wardrobe with sturdy footwear; a ruddy complexion with a touch of sun/wind burn adds to the authenticity. When on a dig be sure to wear the same t-shirt for at least three days in row. Newbies are easily spotted (and derided) based on their cleanliness and the size of their trowel – a good bluffer would have ensured that their trowel was suitably worn down prior to arriving at the dig. The more academic archaeologists are usually the bespectacled type in clothing that wasn’t even trendy in their grandparents day. They often looked confused when approached by the enthusiastic student and will be carrying a collection of papers with hastily scribbled notes that mean nothing to anyone who glances that way. This type of bluffer will always be in an immense hurry and when asked to do something will always forget citing how busy they are and they’re so sorry they’ll get onto it straight away – they don’t…

If at anytime you are asked to contribute to a conversation here are a few things to remember –

*When talking to anyone who knows nothing about archaeology and excavation it is important to emphasise that it is the processing and analysing of the data collected which takes the longest amount of time – the digging is but a small part of a larger picture.

*Desirory comments about the latest Daily Mail or BBC archaeology headline is acceptable in all circumstances. As is wondering out loud who their source of information was and why do they not employ a journo with some archaeological knowledge.

obviously not a real headline…but not too far off…

*In any conversation that focuses on individual treasures (particularly when questions of monetary value arise) it is important to let everyone know that you do not approve – a loud sigh usually works well – before launching into a lecture on how archaeologists dig not to find things but to find things out. At which point it is also acceptable to walk away muttering about context…

*When asked why you do archaeology be sure to smile and then tell a story about how as young child you found an interesting flint arrowhead (or whatever is appropriate to you) and so begun your life long passion for the subject. A really good bluffer will be able to produce said arrowhead from their pocket with a whimsical smile. Apart form this good bluffers can talk endlessly about their passion for the subject (don’t forget to get really animated) and how they long to contribute to our understanding of the past. Because lets not forget no one does archaeology to get rich.

*You must at all times pour unadulterated scorn on any who ask about the monetary value of an object and show absolute contempt for ‘treasure hunters’ and the History Channel – I may have repeated myself here…

*Finally, a really good bluffer will be found at the pub – if you’re in the UK – otherwise anywhere there is a plentiful supply of alcohol, preferably cheap…

A good bluffer will already know this and will be happy to point it out to newbies on site…

There is so much more I could wax lyrical about regarding bluffing your way in archaeology (thank you Mr Bahn) but I won’t (phew!) Please do remember that this is my own feeble attempt to get a laugh and if I have failed and you do find yourself a little bit offended perhaps a pint at the pub might help – after lockdown that is…stay safe.

Archaeology? What Archaeology?

I have had the privilege of being involved in archaeology in both the UK and to a lesser extent here in New Zealand. If you have read my bio you would know that I taught archaeology to University students and adult education students in Cornwall and here in NZ I am a volunteer with the archaeology department at the Auckland Museum.

Recently as part of the latter I was involved in a Bioblitz event on the Coromandel Peninsula.  Over this three-day event first the local schools and then on the Saturday the community were invited to participate in a range of activities, mostly to do with the natural environment. Members of the Auckland Museum, DoC Rangers and prominent locals encouraged the children and adults alike to look deeply at the world around them.  

For the first time the archaeologists were also involved and for our part we conducted a mock excavation on the beach for the school children as a way of engaging them in what it is that archaeologists do – it was an interesting experiment and it certainly brought to light an issue that is prevalent within the average New Zealanders mindset.

The mock excavation underway

At the beginning of each session the curator, Louise Furey, would ask each group what they thought archaeology was, ‘what do archaeologists do?’ And yes, you guessed it each and every group came back with, ‘digging for dinosaurs/fossils/treasure’. They can of course be forgiven after all they were just children and the forty-five minutes we had them with us was probably not enough time to get across the complexity that is archaeology.

However, what it did do was get me thinking – why is archaeology in New Zealand so invisible?

Even as a university student here in Auckland when people asked me what I was studying and told them archaeology/anthropology they either did not what they were or once again I would get the old, ‘so you dig up dinosaurs?’ It was frustrating in the least…

Moving to the UK, studying and teaching archaeology there was a completely different game. Archaeology in the UK does not need to explained, only the occasional person who thought they were being funny would mention dinosaurs and thanks to numerous tv shows (Time Team, Meet the Ancestors and others) it was much more main stream. As a teacher of adult education there was no end to those who were keen to learn about archaeology and when I came back to NZ I attempted to start adult education classes in archaeology locally but the uptake was so small (3 or 4 at the most) that it was not viable. So why might this be?

I believe ultimately it comes down to people’s perception of the past and perhaps comparing NZ to the UK is not fair, the two countries have vastly different histories but I do think we can learn something from the UK on how to promote the past as being a place everyone can visit and learn from.  

I have on several occasions had people ask me if there was any archaeology in New Zealand – they are surprised to learn that not only is the answer is ’YES!’ but that is somewhere around 70,000 archaeological sites in the country, not bad for some 800 years of human occupation. Here is the problem, in comparing ourselves with other countries which have a much longer history we do ourselves a disservice, convinced that our past is not as exciting or as interesting as others we disregard it; archaeology, heritage, history take a back seat and in the case of archaeology become virtually invisible.

The humps and bumps of terracing on Maungakiekie (One Tree Hill, Auckland), a place of importance for the Maori of Tamaki Makerau and one of many archaeological sites in New Zealand.

Archaeology in NZ has for many years been the domain of professionals and academics which has in effect built a wall between themselves and the general public that was almost impossible to climb over. Changing perceptions takes time and this process has already begun with events such as Bioblitz and New Zealand Archaeology Week which actively involve and educate the public, the enthusiastic amateur. But there is still work to be done, education is vitally important and whilst we do not want people digging up sites (please do not do this, not only is it highly illegal and get you into a whole lot of trouble – about $50,000 worth of trouble – it is ethically wrong), we do want to encourage awareness, understanding and respect.

In a recent Heritage New Zealand newsletter, the Chief Executive Andrew Coleman stated

Archaeology is one of the most questioned aspects of heritage. The questions are often negative and many highlight a significant misunderstanding on the important role archaeology plays in Aotearoa New Zealand.”

Why is archaeology important in New Zealand? In essence, because our oldest heritage can only be found beneath the ground and reading the evidence in a careful and controlled way is the domain of the archaeologist. Andrew Coleman titled his column ‘Archaeology – the unsung hero of history and heritage’ and he is right it is the unsung hero. Without it our picture of the past would be incomplete, there is only so much standing buildings, documents, oral histories and the humps and bumps of the landscape can tell us.  Each are important individually but together with the archaeological knowledge a much more complete picture can be had.

The March issue of Heritage New Zealand newsletter featuring the excavations at Mangawhea in the far north – one of several excavations which are helping us understand the lives of the first people to New Zealand.

It is the kiwi way not to blow our own trumpet but instead we wait for someone else to notice what we are doing and then tell the world – are we as archaeologists too shy to say ‘hey look at us, we’re important too!’ Perhaps we are just tired of the dinosaur jokes and the Indiana Jones references…Maybe it is here we could look to the UK and the way in which archaeology has connected to the media (Daily Mail headlines not included). Television in particular has played a significant role in awakening the public archaeological interest but it does require the archaeologists to join in. There have been several interesting albeit short lived tv shows here in NZ that have attempted to follow in these footsteps and had the potential to show the masses our unique and fascinating past.

In my own rather humble opinion awareness of archaeology in this country begins with education, not just at university level but at primary and high school. Archaeology is after all one of those subjects which encompasses all aspects of the school curriculum regardless of level. Maths, English, geography, biology, chemistry, physics, geology, environmental science, economics, statistics, computer studies, art, history, technical drawing, photography and more are all subject’s archaeology includes in its parameters. So why isn’t it being taught as a part of the school curriculum, to our children who are the future custodians of our heritage? More specifically why isn’t New Zealand archaeology being taught to our youngsters?

We often encourage our children to be themselves, to not compare themselves with others, to accept their unique points, to celebrate that which makes them different. Perhaps it is time we started doing the same to our past, to celebrate not just the parts that are visible but that which is unseen and underground, to say cheers to the archaeology!

For those who want to know more about archaeology in New Zealand both the New Zealand Archaeological Association and Heritage New Zealand are good places to start.

Addendum – I am sure there are some who might read this article and say why would I care, after all I did leave New Zealand to study and work in the UK and that would be fair to ask. At the time of finishing my BA at Auckland University in the mid-90s, I could see that opportunities for me would be limited, this combined with a desire to travel (it’s a kiwi thing) and a long-standing interest in British archaeology it was only natural for me to head overseas. But I have been back now for almost fifteen years watching from the side lines and my enthusiasm and love of the subject has not waned. It does not matter where I am, for myself it is the understanding of the past that matters and archaeology is central to this.

A is for Aoraki

Originally written for the now defunct Mythology Magazine I am unsure if it was ever published…anywho…let this be the first in an A-Z of Maori legends, stories and myths.

A is for Aoraki

By Bernard Spragg. NZ from Christchurch, New Zealand – Mt Sefton. Mt Cook NP. NZ, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=65803633

At 3,724 metres* Aoraki is New Zealand’s highest mountain.  It sits amongst the Southern Alps which in turn form the backbone of the South Island of New Zealand.  Regardless of where you travel in the world there will not be a landscape feature without a story and Aoraki is no different, even if there are a couple of different versions of the story. 

The myth of Aoraki is connected to a vast array of creation myths the Maori have to explain the land they found themselves in.  In most cases the myths and stories of creation have the same essentials but it is often the details which differ depending on whom you talk to and where in New Zealand they are from.  This can make the study of Maori mythology a little complicated.

In the beginning Aoraki was not a mountain, he was a man, the son of Raki* the sky.  In creating the world Raki married Papa, the earth, and they had many children, which is a tale for another time.  Now as it happened Raki had children from another earlier union and as we all know children from previous relationships can make life difficult for the new partner.  Some of these children came down from the sky in a giant waka (canoe) known as Te Waka-a-Aoraki.  Their names were Aoraki, Rakiroa, Rakirua and Rarakiroa and they wished to inspect their father’s new bride. 

When they arrived they found Papa lying in the ocean, a huge landmass, they sailed around her, poking and prodding until they got bored and then off they went exploring into the vast ocean hoping to find more land but all they found was more ocean.  Feeling somewhat disappointed they decided to return to the sky. However, the ritual chant which was needed to send them home was performed wrong* and their waka began to sink, turning to stone and earth.  As it sank it heeled over leaving the western side much higher than the eastern side.  The four sons of Raki climbed onto the highest side and turned into mountains with Aoraki the eldest becoming the tallest mountain with his brothers by his side.  The European names for these mountains are Mt Cook (Aoraki), Mt Dampier (Rakiora), Mt Teichelmann (Rakirua) and the Silberhorn (Rarakiroa).  For the local iwi (tribe) of Nga Tahu Aoraki is the most sacred of the ancestors, its physical form provides a link between the supernatural and nature.

A long time passed with the mountains watching and waiting, eventually a man came to the land, his name was Tu-te-raki-whanoa and his task was to prepare the land for human habitation.  In the north-east where the prow of the canoe had fallen and broken into many pieces forming the inlets and islands we now know as the Marlborough Sounds, he left alone.  But on the east coast he built up the land at Banks Peninsula and his assistant formed the Kaikora Peninsula.  He also planted the land with vegetation.

In much later times it was believed he would visit the east coast on occasion usually in the company of Takaroa.  They would appear as whales in the estuaries and river mouths and their presence was considered to be an important omen.

There is an alternative to this story, in which it is Maui – he who fished up Te Ika a Maui (the North Island) –  who was not only a descendent of Aoraki but it was his task to sail around the waka that Aoraki had left and make it safe for people to live on.  Some even say that the whole of the South Island is Maui’s waka and not Aoraki’s.  Some even go so far as to dispute the whole myth of Aoraki by saying he was a part of the crew of the Araiteuru which was wrecked and he was turned to stone along with his companions.  These alternative storylines do not originate with the Nga Tahu and it could be suggested are a case of Chinese whispers where the story has become distorted as it travels further away from the source. 

*Aoraki was previously measured as being 3,754m but a landslide triggered by the movement of the Pacific and Indo-Australian plates knocked off a few metres from the top.

*In the North Island Raki is known as Rangi.

*Or alternatively, the waka hit a reef.

By Bernard Spragg. NZ from Christchurch, New Zealand – Mt Sefton. Mt Cook NP. NZ, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=65803633

Hunting Taniwha

A SHORT STORY

One eye slowly opened and gazed out onto a world barely recognisable. 

Soon, whispered the wind.  

 The word rolled around in his awakening mind. 

Soon, whispered the wind.

The morning bell jangled across the playground, children scattered to their classrooms, some with an enthusiasm that can only come with being new to school.  Others saunter slowly; after all, what’s the rush, school sucks…  Eventually, Tapuhi Primary settles into its morning routine.  In room six Mrs Foster calls the role, ten eager faces, arms and legs crossed, fighting the urge to fidget on the rough carpet tiles. 

“Well, today we have some special visitors.  As you know all week we have been learning about the stories and traditions of Aotearoa. Today we are going to learn about taniwha. Who can tell me what a taniwha is?”

Ten eager hands shot into the air.

“Yes Samantha?”  Mrs Foster smiles.

“ A taniwha is…a taniwha is a kinda’ monster, like a really big lizard that lives in rivers and lakes and is really scary and likes to eat people!”  The words came out in a rush, nine heads nod knowingly in agreement. 

“Yes, you could say that, Samantha.  But there is much more to taniwha then just eating people and being scary.  After morning tea we will be having a visit from The Aunties,” ten little hearts leapt into ten little mouths – The Aunties!

Everyone had heard of The Aunties, most were related to them in some way; everyone listened when they spoke and did as they were told.  Except old Dave who ran the only garage for miles around, but then he was scarier than The Aunties.  The arguments between old Dave and The Aunties were the stuff legends in themselves.  Never mind the taniwha!

The morning flew by quickly.  Morning tea came and went in a flurry of biscuit crumbs and half eaten fruit.  As the children rushed back into class The Aunties were already there greeting each child by name.  The result was instantaneous, the children silently taking their places on the story mat and Mrs Foster briefly wondered if there was any way of bottling that effect…

“Everyone please welcome The Aunties to room six.”

“Kia Ora Aunties,” said room six in a sing song unison.

“Kia Ora children, thank you for having us here today.  Mrs Foster has asked to come and tell you about taniwha and we are happy to do this but first you need to tell us what you know about taniwha,” said the Auntie in the middle.

An uncomfortable silence ensued as the children looked everywhere except at the Aunties.  Speak to the Aunties?  Who were they kidding?  The slow tick-tock of the clock could be heard as the Aunties sat watching the children, waiting patiently, still as stone, their eyes missing nothing and just as Mrs Foster was just about to fill the silence a tentative hand reached up.

“Thank you Wiremu, what can you tell The Aunties about taniwha,” said a very relieved Mrs Foster.  There had been some raised eyebrows in the staffroom when she had talked about asking The Aunties to visit. 

“Umm, taniwha were creatures that lived near water and ate people?” said Wiremu hesitantly remembering what Samantha had said earlier in the day, “and my dad said they’re not real, just stories to scare people,” Wiremu finished quickly.

The Aunties exchanged a quiet look, once more the middle Auntie spoke, “yes, sometimes that is correct, the stories do sometimes tell of taniwha that eat people but they also tell of taniwha who protected people too.  Like the taniwha Tuhirangi who was Kupe’s guardian and protected the canoes that crossed the Cook Strait or the taniwha Pane-iraira who took the form of a whale and swam with the Tainui canoe from Hawaiki.”

“So they don’t eat people?” piped up Wiremu, his curiosity getting the better of him.

“Ahh, yes some do.  The taniwha Tutaeporoporo he would travel up and down the river eating people, in revenge for being badly treated by the chief of that time.”

“Is he still eating people?”

“No, the great warrior and taniwha slayer Ao-kehu killed him.”

“How?”

“He hid inside a hollow log…” Wiremu who was now thoroughly entranced began to speak again, stopping abruptly when the Auntie held up her hand…“He hid inside a hollow log, the taniwha smelt him and ate the log whole.  But, Ao-kehu was clever and had taken with him an axe which he used to chop first through the log and then through the taniwha eventually killing him.  Inside the stomach of the taniwha they found two hundred of his victims”.

“Eww!” went a collective noise from room six as they settled in for more.

The hour and half between morning tea and lunch sped by as the children were held enthralled by stories of taniwha, the good and the bad.  There were taniwha who could shape shift, there were taniwha who were sharks, whales, dolphins and giant reptiles and even some who were enchanted logs or rakau tipua.  There was some disbelief at the last but the Aunties told the story of Humuhumu the guardian of the Ngati Whatua in the Kaipara, he was a totara log drifting in a lagoon near the harbour.  

“But how do you know it’s a taniwha and not just some rotten old log?” Nine pairs of eyes widened in alarm – questioning the Aunties knowledge? Unheard of!

The three ageless women exchanged glances, “because Wiremu Collins, the log moved against the current and if it was not a taniwha how could it do that?” Faced with three pairs of eyebrows raised in a silent challenge, a red faced Wiremu had no answer.

Later, sitting on the hard asphalt of the playground eating warm sandwiches Wiremu’s mind began to wander, thoughts of taniwha filling his young head.

“Let’s go hunting for taniwha for real!” Wiremu’s words came out of the blue, as soon as he said it he knew it to be a good idea.  His mates looked at him, shook their heads and carried on eating their lunch.

 “After school, we head down to the bush and follow the track along the river.  I bet there is a taniwha down there somewhere.  We can pretend we are like the brave warriors from the olden days, it’ll be cool!”

“But Wiremu, what if we actually find one?” piped up one of the group.

Wiremu smiled, “It’ll be ok, remember what the Aunties said, not all taniwha are bad eh? And anyway Dad said they’re not real, just stories, come on…it’ll be awesome!”  Wiremu’s enthusiasm was infectious and soon there was mass showing of hands.

The decision made there was no going back and Wiremu felt his insides clench, part of him wanted to know what he was going to do if he actually found a taniwha and another part of him told him not to be stupid they were never going to find a taniwha because they were just stories – not real just like his dad said.

That afternoon as the going home bell jangled across the school, messages were sent home via brothers, sisters and cousins.  Walking out the school gates several curious adult eyes followed them, some smiled to see the kids off on an adventure, better then wasting time playing video games or watching the box. 

Afternoon sun filtered through the canopy, a bossy fantail followed them along the path flitting from tree to tree, grumpy at being disturbed.  The gurgle of the river calling them down the track to their destination.

 “Well Wiremu?  You’re the boss which way do we go? Up or down?”  Asked one of the would-be taniwha hunters once they arrived at the river.

Wiremu looked up the river and then down, he had no idea.  He closed his eyes.  At first all he could hear was the rush of the river, the wind in the tree tops and the calls of a tui, but then slowly he heard it, thump, thump.  A quiet heartbeat, he turned his head one way and then another – thump, thump.  Wiremu’s eyes flew open and walked off up river, the others scrambling to keep up.

“Hey wait!” yelled one of the others, but Wiremu had heard something and without stopping to think his feet followed the sound that resonated up through his soles.   

Eventually, little legs began to ache and puku’s rumbled as Wiremu’s relentless pace continued.  When the path became little more than a goat track, the merry band of would be warriors mutinied.  Wiremu however, was deaf to their pleas, his head filled with the stories of brave and clever warriors, the thump, thump, beneath his feet calling him forward.

“Wiremu!  Stop!” they shouted, to no avail.  This adventure was no longer fun. 

“Come on lets go back, Wiremu will be fine, it’s not like he’ll actually find a taniwha,” one of the others spoke up. 

The bush fringing the creek was dense and yet Wiremu carried on, unable to stop no matter how hard the bush tried to stop him.  Somewhere along the way he lost a shoe, kicking the other off when he realised.  The sharp stones on his bare feet not slowing him.  He knew he was close. 

Thump, thump, thump…

Eventually the bush stopped getting in his way and a smooth path opened up before him.  Wiremu’s feet stopped moving forward, his mind cleared and looking around for the first time he was suddenly very aware.  He was alone in the middle of the bush, probably miles from anywhere.  Where did everyone go?  His brothers had always said he was a dick.  Wiremu’s heart leapt in panic. 

Looking behind him he saw the dense bush and wondered how he had gotten through in the first place.  In front of him lay an easy path, smooth, wide and gentle on young feet. 

Come.

It wasn’t long before the path came to an end at the edge of a deep dark pool, the perfect place to find a taniwha.  Wiremu shivered.  The bush eerily silent, waiting, expecting.  Wiremu stood at the edge of the pool, his toes touching the cool water.  Looking at his reflection, he saw himself, a small scared boy, his chest heaving.

It is time.

Do taniwha eat people? Some do, some don’t the words of the Aunties echoed around Wiremu’s head.  How wrong was my dad, he thought as he watched mesmerised as the still pool began to churn.  The ground beneath his feet shook slightly, belatedly he realised that his brothers were right, he was a dick.  I am a dick for thinking I could hunt taniwha, I am a dick for not taking the stories of my whanau seriously and now I am a dick because I am about to be eaten by one of those stories.

The warm rancid breath of the taniwha tickled the back of Wiremu’s neck, inviting him to turn around.  Wiremu stood still as a stone gazing in terror at his reflection churning at his feet.

Turn, would be warrior, turn and gaze upon me, it is time.

Wiremu’s heart almost stopped.  Time for what?

The iridescent blue of a kingfisher fluttered past settling on a branch hanging over the pool. The kingfisher and Wiremu looked at each other, wisdom and knowledge in its small beady eyes, hope.  Words filled Wiremu’s mind. 

Ina te rua taniwha!

Pute ona karu

Murara te ohi!

Tau mai te po

Takina te whakaihi

Ki Rarohenga rawa iho

Moe ate Po

Te Po-nui

TePo-roa

Te Po riro atu ai e!

            Wiremu stumbled over the words, nothing happened, the pool still churned, he could almost feel the lick of a tongue. The kingfisher looked at him head cocked to one side, try again Wiremu, you can do better.   Deep breath, his eyes fixed on the bright blue bird, he repeated the words again, stronger, louder.  As he finished, the churning pool subsided, the warmth at his back eased.  Wiremu began to breathe once more.     

“Thank you.”

            The kingfisher flew to another branch, Wiremu’s eyes followed.  There, below the kingfisher a stepping stone path to the other side of the pool.  He didn’t need to be told twice, crossing quickly with wings on his feet he scrambled up the bank on the far side of the pool.  As he reached the top, he glanced over his shoulder amazed that all was still and quiet again.  It could have been a dream, but it wasn’t.  With a shudder he turned his back on the dark pool – time to go home.

            Three ageless ladies stood watching, silent witnesses.  The words of the karakia still echoed around the pool.  Today had been a close call.  They had seen it in his face at the school.  He was the one.  But not on this day.

            Soon though.  Very soon indeed.

Here be dragons

Taniwha in Maori Myth

Regardless of where you go in the world and what culture you study, stories of dragons are a recurring theme within the stories of any given people. Dragons abound everywhere and every time, even in our modern and increasingly sceptical world the desire to believe is still strong.  Take the stories of the Loch Ness monster or the giant serpents of the Hudson River and other similar creatures that periodically pop up all over the world. The Maori are no different, they too have their myths and traditions involving dragons, of a sort, called taniwha, who are intimately connected with the natural world.

Early drawing of waka – the double hulled waka were most likely to have been used for long sea journeys. (From Rotorua Museum, Wikicommons)

Taniwha are in essence supernatural creatures which can appear in different forms, one of which is dragon-like giant lizard, but they can also resemble sharks, dolphins, whales or even in some instances enchanted logs.  They can be the agents of good or evil and sometimes neither.  Every region of New Zealand has a host of stories about their local taniwha, many of whom came with the first explorers acting as guardians and protectors.  Some are special people who have been turned into taniwha upon their death and others are of unknown origin.

The Maori are descended from the first Polynesian explorers who arrived in the land we now know of as New Zealand approximately eight hundred years ago (give or take a few hundred years…) and there are often similarities in the myths from certain parts of the Pacific, such as the Cook Islands and Society Islands. However, the taniwha of Maori tradition have evolved as a result of the unique environment these early explorers found themselves in. New Zealand’s environment is very different from the island worlds they would have come from. It is after all a much larger world of mountains, deep forests with giant trees, fast flowing rivers and wild coasts.  Even today a person walking in the bush can come across areas, secret places where you feel it would not pay to tarry.

In Maori tradition the first people to arrive came on large seagoing waka and many of the early stories relate to these ancestors and how they adjusted to their new land. In the traditions the waka would be accompanied by a taniwha who would be its protector, such as, Kupe’s taniwha, Tuhirangi or the female taniwha Araiteuru who came with the waka Mamari.  Though there are some traditions which say she travelled with the waka Takitimu and another taniwha called Ruamono.

In the year 2000 New Zealand Post put out a series of stamps to celebrate the year of the Dragon; Araiteuru and Tuhirangi were part of this.

Araiteuru gave birth to eleven sons on arrival in New Zealand, who all went digging trenches along the way, thus creating the numerous branches of the Hokianga Harbour.  It is said that Lake Omapere was created when one of her sons burrowed inland and thrashed his tail around.  As guardian of the Hokianga Harbour Araiteuru dwells in a cave at the south head of the harbour, whilst her companion, Niua, lives in the north head of the harbour.

The taniwha Tuhirangi is said to dwell in the Cook Strait where Kupe left him to guide and protect waka as they crossed between the two islands.  Between 1888 and 1912 a Rissos dolphin named Pelorus Jack accompanied ships travelling between the North and South Islands.  At the time, local Maori believed this was the taniwha Tuhirangi in the form of a dolphin, guiding and protecting ships in this dangerous stretch of water.  A number of years later in the summer of 1955/56 another friendly dolphin appeared, but this time at Opononi in the far north of the North Island.  Nicknamed Opo, the dolphin would play and interact with visitors and many Maori believed Opo to be a guardian taniwha.

A grainy photo taken in 1911 of Pelorus Jack/Tuhirangi.

Tuhirangi and Araiteuru were part of a trio of important taniwha, the third member of this group was a female called Huriawa.  Her home is Te Waikoropupr Springs, Golden Bay. She is regarded as brave and wise, travelling through the earth to clear blocked waterways.  The springs which are her home are regarded as the purest form of water which both the spiritual and physical source of life.  The water is often used for healing and in blessing ceremonies.

Another taniwha which accompanied the ancestral waka of the Tainui from Hawaikii was the whale Paneiraira.  His name means ‘spotted head’ referring to his appearance.  He was last seen in 1863 just before the war broke out between the Maori and the newly arrived Europeans.  It is said he came to warn his people of impending disaster. 

In the story of Pania and Karitoki, their son (Moremore) became a taniwha when his father attempted a ritual to keep his mother form returning to the sea people and failed.  Moremore is a guardian, or Kaitiaki, of the harbour at Te Whanga-nui-a-Orutu.  He appears in different forms, as a shark, an octopus and sometimes a log.  Patrolling the harbour, he would protect the people from danger while they gathered seafood and fished.

A statue of Pania on the Napier seafront.

An important aspect of the people’s relationship with taniwha was acknowledgement by making the necessary offerings or appropriate chants.  The local tohunga might off the first kumara to be harvested or the first birds to be caught in the season.  Travellers when passing by a known lair might make an offering of a green twig whilst reciting a chant.  In 2002, the Ngati Nohu (a hapu of the Waikato area) objected to the construction of part of a highway on the basis it would destroy the lair of their taniwha, Karutahi.  After much discussion and to the satisfaction of the elders, the transport agency agreed to reroute the highway to avoid the lair. 

One of the more unusual forms a taniwha can take it that of a log.  In order to identify the taniwha you would be looking for a log that did behave in the manner of regular log, known as Rakau tipua.  On Lake Rotoiti the taniwha Mataura would appear on the water as a huge tree trunk with numerous branches and covered in water weed, particularly on the death of a high-ranking person. When visiting the Kaipara Harbour watch out for a log moving against the current.  It is believed to be the taniwha Humuhumu, the guardian of the Ngati Whatua. 

Other taniwha can take a myriad of forms, some can be a strange conglomeration of creatures – native lizards such as the gecko or tuatara feature strongly as do bat wings, shark teeth and octopus tentacles.

A modern rock carving of a taniwha on the shore of Lake Taupo – here their lizard like appearance is emphasised.

So far, we have only looked at those taniwha who are kaitiaki, but not all have good intentions.  Some may have begun this way, as guardians of the people, but it only takes one mistake and the taniwha can turn on the people.

“Because of their role as guardians they watched vigilantly to ensure that the people respected the tapu restrictions imposed upon them, and any violation of tapu was sure to be punished. They were usually held responsible for deaths by drowning; the person must have insulted the taniwha by breaking tapu in some way” (Orbell M. 1995)

 In December 1876, a news article in a Maori language paper told of four young girls who went swimming in a waterhole at Waipapa.  Local tradition knew this place to be the lair of the taniwha Taminamina.  One of the girls swam to the far side of the waterhole where she climbed up onto a rock and started to drink the nectar of the red flowers of the sacred Rata tree. Without warning, the girl slipped into the water, one of the other girls tried to save her but failed.  The water began to froth and swirl and the girls believed it was the taniwha.  The elders were of the firm belief that the girl was punished for breaking tapu and drinking the nectar of the sacred Rata.

Southern Rata near Franz Joseph Glacier (Photo by Graham Rabbitts wikicommons)

In 1955, a photograph was taken on the Whanganui River.  It depicts a swirling mass in the middle of the river and the inscription on the back of the photo reads:

“On many occasions a large flow of water gushes up from the head of the Wanganui river below the bluff of Buckthaughts Redoubt, just past the village of Upokongaro. This phenomenon is accompanied by a loud bubbling noise and small pieces of waterlogged wood and debris are brought to the surface. Few people have ever seen this occurrence and this photograph was taken in 1955 by one of a party of Wellington visitors camping at Mosquito point.”

In another story the guardian (Takere-piripiri) of Otautahonga Pa, a hillfort of the Ngati Raukawa would have offerings of food left below his cave.  One day a gift of eels was mostly eaten by the people who had brought it.  This angered the taniwha and he ate the people instead, unfortunately this gave him a taste for human flesh and he left the pa and went to the mountains where he would prey upon travellers. 

There were though taniwha who were just plain nasty, such as Ngarara Huarau from the Hawkes Bay who just liked to eat people and then there were the taniwha who liked to kidnap beautiful young women to keep as wives.

However, not all is lost because where there is a threat to the people there will always be heroes.  In this case warriors who used their strength and cunning to defeat the taniwha and protect the people. Pitaka, Tamure, Potoru and Ao-Kehu were all famous warriors known for their prowess in defeating taniwha. Tamure had a special mere (greenstone club) which had the power to defeat taniwha.  He is well known for defeating the taniwha at Piha who had a taste for people.  Interestingly, he did not kill this taniwha but wounded it enough that it could not eat people.  The warrior Ao-Kehu hid himself in a hollow log with a shark tooth club and when the taniwha smelt him he swallowed the log whole. Ao-Kehu then hacked his way out of the log and out of the taniwha killing it in the process.

Photo of a drawing of an unknown Maori warrior by Sydney Parkinson (photo by Szilas at the Canterbury Museum Christchurch)

The earliest stories are those connected with the arrival of the first waka.  These stories or traditions are in the style of creation myths adapted to the local landscape.  Hence, many taniwha are responsible for the sinuous rivers, the many inlets in a harbour or in the case of the Porirua taniwha, Awaru, the flat appearance of Mana Island which she crashed into as she was learning to fly. 

Others are stories which serve to identify valuable resources and offer a means of protection of those resources.  Then there are those which all societies have; sagas that glorify desirable human qualities.  For the Maori, the great warriors used both their minds and their strength to defeat the undesirable taniwha. 

The traditions of taniwha are often complex narratives which serve to enforce what was considered acceptable behaviour within an iwi/hapu (tribe/subtribe), whilst at the same time providing reassurance to the people – reasons for why certain events happened.  If a group of travellers went missing in the mountains, the most likely reason was that they did not make the right offerings and were eaten by the taniwha.  Even today the New Zealand bush is not a place for an inexperienced hiker, accidents can and do happen.  Rivers and lakes are deep and full of hazards, drownings are a far too common event, landslides and earthquakes are a regular occurrence.  We are all familiar with the sense of helplessness, the feelings of not being in control.  Attributing such events to the taniwha, a creature you can placate with offerings, or in some cases can hunt and kill, helps to explain such events and at the same time offers a way to take control once more of their world.

Ureia, a kaitiaki taniwha – carved on a poupou (house post) inside Hotuni, a carved meeting house of the Ngati Maru. The building can now be found inside the Auckland War Memorial Museum.