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.
One eye slowly opened and gazed out onto a
world barely recognisable.
Soon, whispered the wind.
word rolled around in his awakening mind.
Soon, whispered the wind.
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
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?”
eager hands shot into the air.
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.
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
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!
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…
please welcome The Aunties to room six.”
Ora Aunties,” said room six in a sing song unison.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
they don’t eat people?” piped up Wiremu, his curiosity getting the better of
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.”
still eating people?”
the great warrior and taniwha slayer Ao-kehu killed him.”
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”.
went a collective noise from room six as they settled in for more.
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.
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!
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.
sitting on the hard asphalt of the playground eating warm sandwiches Wiremu’s
mind began to wander, thoughts of taniwha filling his young head.
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
“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
Wiremu, what if we actually find one?” piped up one of the group.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
“Wiremu! Stop!” they shouted, to no avail. This adventure was no longer fun.
on lets go back, Wiremu will be fine, it’s not like he’ll actually find a
taniwha,” one of the others spoke up.
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
Thump, thump, thump…
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
heart almost stopped. Time for what?
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 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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.