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
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.