The rich culture of the Maori people is resplendent with stories of supernatural beings. The taniwha is a recurring subject of many myths and folk-tales.
The legend of Aotearoa starts with the demi-god Maui, who fished the North Island from the sea, the South Island his waka (canoe) and Stewart Island its anchor. Then Kupe discovered this land, sailing on the first great voyage from Hawaiiki. He gave it its name, the Land of the Long White Cloud.
Taniwha Arrive From Hawaiiki with the Voyagers
When settlement followed, the first Polynesian voyagers brought their legends with them, and adapting them to their new home. Featuring prominently in every village across all tribal territories were the stories of the taniwha. After all, many taniwha had escorted the tiny vessels of those first travellers from Hawaiiki to New Zealand.
Taniwha live in or near water, sometimes the sea, sometimes the rivers, lakes and the swamps of Aotearoa. One may be a great serpent, another a dragon, a mighty whale, a shark, a reptile or a humble but revered eel. Sometimes the creatures change shape, taking the form of different beings, and they may be male or female. Some taniwha are evil, and their stories are interwoven with those of their heroic slayers. Other taniwha protect their people from harm. In the case of every taniwha, there’s a story that tells of its deeds and its relevance to the Maori people. Even today, it is still an important symbol of cultural identity.
Paikea, and the Whale Rider Story
Take the story of Paikea, made popular by the movie Whale Rider. Paikea is a revered ancestor of both Ngato Porou of the North Island’s east coast, and Ngai Tahu, who settled the South Island. As Kahutiaterangi he was the favourite son of a chief, whose jealous brothers conspired to drown him on a fishing trip. But he was saved by a taniwha in the form of a humpback whale, paikea to the Polynesians. In respect for the creature that saved his life, Paikea assumed the taniwha’s name.
The people of the Wairarapa tell of the giant reptile known as Ngarara Huara,who occupied a Hawkes Bay cave. One day Ngarara Huarau decided to visit his sister who lived to the south. As he emerged from his cave, some of the taniwha’s scales fell off to become tuataras. Moving southward, Ngarara Huarau’s trail cut gorges that would later hold the region’s rivers, until finally he was blocked by the Wairarapa hills. But he knew he’d reached his destination, and that his sister was nearby.
After a joyful reunion, Ngararau Huarau made a new lair in the Kourarau Valley, near present day Gladstone, to prey on the human inhabitants. As their people fell victim to Ngararau Huarau, the warriors decided he must be killed. So they set a trap by tying a dog to a tree while he slept. Lured from his lair, Ngararau Huarau was attacked by the warriors with their taiaha (spears) and patu (clubs). Driven out, he drowned in the swamp at Uwhiroa.
Taniwha and Earthquakes in New Zealand
Taniwha stories are regularly shown to have their basis in the formation of New Zealand’s natural landscape. Tane, god of the forests and son of Ranginui and Papatuanuku, sky father and earth mother, was forced to do battle with a great taniwha at Te Aute in Hawkes Bay, after it had travelled north from Porirua amid a trail of destruction. When the taniwha encountered Tane, the thrashing of its tail created an island in Lake Roto-a-Tara, which along with lakes Poukawa and Hatuma was dammed by seismic activity centuries ago.
In a Waikato swamp lives Karutahi, whose lair was in the way of a 2002 project to rebuild State Highway One at Meremere. To the local Ngati Naho people, Karutahi’s home had to be protected. Consultation ensued, and the highway was realigned to ensure the important cultural site was not disturbed. Official papers show the process was a measured one, completed with sensitivity and common sense. But for the media, it was great story that highlighted a lack of understanding about one of Maoridom’s great cultural icons.
- Grapes, Rodney, Magnitude Eight Plus, New Zealand’s Biggest Earthquake, Victoria University, Wellington, 2000
- Teara.govt.nz, Taniwha