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Graphic: An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand 1966.


This information was published in 1966 in An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, edited by A. H. McLintock. It has not been corrected and will not be updated.

Up-to-date information can be found elsewhere in Te Ara.




Every Maori social group had its own body of traditional belief which validated its claims to the territory it occupied, gave authority to those of high rank, and justified the group's external relationships with other groups. These purposes were served because the members of the groups concerned believed that the traditions were true records of past events, and they acted accordingly. Alliances between groups were facilitated if it was believed that they shared a common heritage, and the commoner's respect for and fear of his chief were based, in part at least, on his belief in the semi-divine ancestry of those of high rank.

At this point it is convenient to divide tradition itself into three types, namely, discovery or origin traditions, migration and settlement traditions, and local traditions.

The two best-known discovery or origin traditions are, first, that which assigns the discovery of New Zealand to Kupe, and, secondly, that which regarded Toi as the first important origin ancestor. Both traditions were current over wide but apparently complementary areas of the North Island. Attempts to place the two in a single chronological sequence are misguided, since there is no reliable evidence that they ever formed part of the same body of traditional lore.

According to the tribes of the west coast of the North Island, and those of North Auckland, Kupe was the discoverer of New Zealand. He sailed here from the homeland, called Hawaiki, after murdering a man called Hotu-rapa, and stealing his wife, Kura-maro-tini. References in traditional songs attest his voyaging along the coast of New Zealand. A well-known one says, “I sing of Kupe, who cut up this land, so that Kapiti, mana, and Aropawa stand apart”. Proverbs refer to the rough seas (nga tai whakatu a Kupe), and the nettles, brambles, and sword grasses with which he protected the coasts of the newly discovered land. It is proverbial, too, that he sailed back to Hawaiki and never returned to the land he discovered. But, later, settlers came here according to his directions.

Toi-kai-rakau (Toi-the-wood-eater) was regarded as origin ancestor by the tribes of the East Coast of the North Island. The traditions of the tribes who trace descent from him contain no reference to his coming to New Zealand, and the inference is that he was born here. According to the Tuhoe tribe of the Bay of Plenty hinterland, it was Toi's ancestor Tiwakawaka who first settled the country, but only his name is remembered.

It is typical of discovery and origin traditions that they are confused and contradictory. In particular, consistent genealogical validation is lacking. The traditionalist will refer this inconsistency to the great time span involved. The functionalist might regard it as evidence that these traditions played little part in the social organisation of the people, serving only to account for their presence in the land.

Migration traditions are more numerous than origin traditions, and pertain to smaller areas and fewer tribes. Each group of tribes had its migrant ancestors who arrived from Hawaiki in a named canoe, though certain tribes appear to have emphasised their canoe migration tradition and descent from crew members more than the others. In particular, the Hauraki, Waikato, and King Country tribes (Tainui canoe) and the Rotorua and Taupo tribes (Te Arawa canoe) appear to have placed special emphasis on their descent from a particular canoe migration.

According to some tribes, those of matatua, for example, a people derived its mana, its prestige, and nobility through the descent lines from the canoe people, while its land claims rested ultimately on descent from the origin ancestor, in this case Toi. Other tribes, those of Te Arawa descent for example, rest both their territorial rights and inherited status on their descent from such land-claiming ancestors as Tama-te-kapua, Ngatoro-i-rangi, Tia, Kahu, and Hei, all of whom came on the canoe.

But both status and land rights had more important and more immediate locus in later ancestors, and the main function of canoe traditions appears to have been to give a sense of unity to whole groups of tribes, even though they might at times be warring one with another. The shifting alliances within groups of tribes were facilitated by appeals to common descent from the ancestral canoe and it was not unusual for a whole canoe area, when threatened, to present a common front to outside aggression.

Europeans first became aware of migration traditions in 1842, when the Tainui tradition, in much the same form as it is told today, was recited to the missionary Hamlin at Orua, near Waiuku, on the south shore of the Manukau Harbour. Within a year or two the stories of a number of canoes were known, in outline at least, and by 1850 virtually all that is now known of the canoe traditions had already been collected.

  • “There the plume of Te Arawa floats on the water”
  • In what follows, the tradition of Te Arawa canoe is presented in some detail as a typical example of a migration tradition. It is followed by brief summaries of the traditions concerning a number of other canoes.

    The chain of circumstances resulting in the voyage of Te Arawa canoe to New Zealand began when a dog called potaka-tawhiti, owned by Hou-mai-tawhiti and his sons Tama-te-kapua and Whakaturia, licked a festering sore on the high chief Uenuku. This was sacrilege, and the dog was killed and eaten by Uenuku's companion, Toi. Tama-te-kapua and Whakaturia came looking for their dog, which, hearing their calls, barked loudly within Toi's stomach. Toi clapped his hands over his mouth and said “Alas! Hidden within the great belly of Toi, still you bark. You wretch!” In revenge for the death of their dog, Tama and Whakaturia made themselves stilts, and by means of them stole the fruit from the lofty poporo tree which shaded Uenuku's house. This was a further act of sacrilege and Uenuku's men lay in wait for the brothers when next they came to steal fruit. Tama escaped but Whakaturia was taken captive. With Tama's help, however, he, too, escaped, and the incident was followed by a series of battles between Hou-mai-tawhiti and his sons on the one hand, and Uenuku on the other. Hou and Whakaturia were killed, and Tama-te-kapua decided to seek another home.

    We are told that his canoe, Te Arawa, was built by Rata, Wahie-roa, and others, all characters from mythology, and it is typical that the stories of the closing period in Hawaiki mark the borderline between myth and tradition. When the time came for Te Arawa to sail, Tama-te-kapua, having already persuaded Whakaoti-rangi, wife of Ruaeo, to abandon her husband, also managed to kidnap Ngatoro-i-rangi, navigator and priest of the Tainui canoe, together with his wife Kea-roa. On the voyage Tama incurred Ngatoro's wrath by seducing Kea-roa. In revenge the priest called on the gods to swallow up the vessel in the whirlpool called the Throat-of-the-Parata. The canoe tilted dangerously towards the vortex, and only the cry that the pillow of Kea-roa had slipped from beneath her head aroused Ngatoro's pity and persuaded him to save the vessel.

    Te Arawa made land near Cape Runaway when the pohutukawa trees were in bloom, and one of her crew, exclaiming at the prodigal display of their sacred colour, red, cast his treasured ornaments of crimson feathers into the sea, and plucked the flowers, only to find that they faded almost as soon as they were picked.

    In a series of incidents Tama was discomfited for his earlier misdeeds. He was worsted in a battle of wits with the captain of Tainui canoe over the ownership of a stranded whale. He was humiliated by Ruaeo who, although left behind in Hawaiki, appeared dramatically in New Zealand and, after defeating Tama in a duel, rubbed his head in filth and vermin. And finally, his canoe, Te Arawa, was burned by Raumati.

    According to the tradition, Tama-te-kapua, Ngatoro-i-rangi, and others of the crew of Te Arawa travelled widely in the Bay of Plenty and its hinterland, from Maketu to Moehau, and inland to Tongariro, naming and claiming the land as they went. Whatever the truth of the story it is certain that the tribes who trace their ancestry to Te Arawa did, in fact, occupy the lands described, and many scholars would see in the validation of land claims, social status, and inter-tribal alliances, rather than in historical fact, the ultimate reality of tradition.

  • “Haul Tainui, haul her to the sea”
  • The Tainui canoe, under its captain, Hotu-roa, is also said to have made its landfall at Whanga-paraoa, near Cape Runaway. After quarrelling with the people of Te Arawa canoe over the ownership of a stranded whale, the Tainui people coasted northwards and (according to most versions) crossed the Tamaki isthmus at Otahuhu. The crossing was not accomplished without difficulty because Marama-kikohura, one of Hotu-roa's wives, had committed adultery with a slave, and so rendered ineffective the canoe-hauling spells that should have made the portage easy.

    Eventually Tainui pulled out through the Manukau Heads, to be drawn ashore finally at MakeTu, the Maori settlement on the shores of Kawhia Harbour, about a mile to the west of the town. Here two upright limestone slabs, 76 ft apart, are said to mark her resting place. The people spread inland until, after some centuries, they occupied the territory stretching from Tamaki in the north to Mokau and Taumarunui in the south. Their inland boundary, marking the division between the Te Arawa and Tainui tribes, lay in the mountainous country that stretches from Coromandel south to Taupo.

  • “Aotea is the canoe, and Turi is the chief,
  • And Te Roku-o-whiti is the paddle”
  • The Aotea canoe was owned by Toto, father of Rongorongo, the wife of Turi. As the climax to a series of incidents Turi had killed Hawe-potiki, the young son of Uenuku. To escape Uenuku's revenge Turi obtained sailing directions from Kupe, and the canoe Aotea from Toto, and set off for New Zealand. On the way they called in at an island called Rangitahua, and picked up there the castaways from the wrecked canoe Kura-hau-po. Aotea reached New Zealand at the harbour which still bears her name. Working south, the people finally settled at Patea. Here, Turi's daughter, Tane-roroa, quarrelled with her brother, Turanga-i-mua. Today, we find that Taneroroa's descendants, the Ngati Ruanui tribe, live north of the Patea River, extending northwards to Oeo, near New Plymouth. Turanga's descendants, the Nga Rauru, live south of the river, extending southwards to Wai-totara, and Kai-iwi.

  • “You are destroyed, even as Kura-hau-po was destroyed.
  • The cable loosed, and the anchor lost.
  • And her plumes broken off and cast into the sea.”
  • The Kura-hau-po traditions are contradictory, and the tribes claiming descent from this canoe have a broken distribution. Te Au-pouri and Te Rarawa tribes of North Auckland say that the canoe reached New Zealand under its commander, Pou, and then either returned to Hawaiki, or became a reef which still lies off the coast. The Taranaki tribe, whose coastal boundary extends from O-nuku-tai-pari in the north to Oeo in the south, say that Kura-hau-po. under the command of Te Maunga-nui, was wrecked at an island called Rangi-tahua on the way to New Zealand. The castaways transferred to Aotea canoe and reached New Zealand in that vessel. The Muaupoko and other tribes between the Whangaehu River, and Lake Horowhenua, near Levin, agree with this story in general, but say that the commander's name was Ruatea.

  • “Recline, oh friend, on Tokomaru,
  • The canoe of Whata,
  • By Rakei-ora and Tama-ariki
  • Paddled to land.”
  • Although the Tokomaru canoe is always mentioned in any tally of the important canoes, very little information, and that suspect, is available about it. Tribes claiming descent from this canoe occupy the north Taranaki coastal area from Mokau south to O-nuku-pari, near New Plymouth. According to the published traditions about Tokomaru, it was commanded by Manaia, who left Hawaiki as the result of a series of incidents which began with the rape of his wife by a party of workmen (or her seduction by a man called Tomowhare, according to another version). The canoe is said to have made its landfall in the South Island and to have travelled north along the west coast of the North Island, to be drawn ashore finally at Tonga-porutu. A puzzling feature of the traditions about this canoe is that the tribes who claim it do not have genealogies showing their descent from Manaia.

  • “My canoe is Takitimu
  • A canoe of the gods.”
  • In the tradition of Takitimu (also called Takitumu) we once again find Uenuku involved in the incidents leading to a migration to New Zealand. He became annoyed with Ruawharo, who kept taking fish from Uenuku's net. Poutama, acting on Uenuku's instructions, tipped Ruawharo up among the fish in the net. Ruawharo and his brother Tupai went to learn magic from Timu-whakairihia. They reached Timu's home when he was away and raped his wife. Because of this, Timu would not teach the most effective spells to Ruawharo. There is a hiatus in the story at this point and we next hear of Ruawharo on board Takitimu.

    Though contradictory at many points, all versions of the story of this canoe agree that it was extremely tapu, because of the gods it carried. Accordingly, no cooked food could be brought on it. The crew suffered from hunger, and Ruawharo only saved himself from being sacrificed and eaten by using his magic knowledge to lure fish to the surface of the sea.

    The canoe is said variously to have made its landfall at North Cape, Tauranga, and Cape Runaway. The tribes that claim Takitimu are Ngati-Rangi-nui, of Tauranga, Ngati-Kahungunu, of Hawke's Bay, and the tribes of Poverty Bay and the East Coast. They all trace descent from a man named Tamatea through his sons Kahungunu and Rangi-nui, but it has also been denied that this particular Tamatea came on Takitimu at all.

  • “We came, you and I, on Horouta and Takitimu.”
  • The Horouta canoe, under its commander, Pawa, came to New Zealand as a result of quarrelling that took place in Hawaiki among sections of the Ngati Ira tribe. On board Horouta were a section of the Ngati Ira, a man named Pouheni and his followers, and a woman named Hine-kau-i-rangi and her followers. The canoe landed at O-hiwa, near Whakatane, where it went aground on the bar called Te Tukeraeo-Kanawa (Kanawa's eyebrow). Hine-kau-i-rangi and her people did not wait for the canoe to be repaired but struck inland, crossing the Rau-kumara Range and coming down the Tapuae-roa River, reached the coast at Tupa-roa, near Ruatoria. They then followed down the coast to Whangara, where they met Pouheni and his people, who had travelled round by way of East Cape, almost dead of starvation. When they had been revived, the whole group came on to Muri-wai, south of Gisborne, where they found Ngati Ira, who had come round by sea in Horouta. The Ngati Porou tribe, whose territory extends from Cape Runaway to Whangara, claim Horouta as their ancestral canoe.

  • “Now let me act the man.”
  • The matatua canoe, under the command of Toroa, made its landfall at Whanga-paraoa (Cape Runaway). It then sailed across the Bay of Plenty to Tauranga, then back to WhakaTane, where it entered the mouth of the river. While most of the people were ashore the canoe went adrift, and Toroa's daughter, Wairaka (or as some say, his sister, Muri-wai) had to play the part of a man and paddle the canoe back to shore. The name WhakaTane (act-the-man) commemorates this incident.

    Toroa quarrelled with his brother, Puhi, who took the canoe and went off to North Auckland. His son, Rahiri, is the main ancestor of the Ngapuhi and Rarawa tribes of the Bay of Islands and Hokianga districts. Ngati Awa and Te Whakatohea tribes of the Bay of Plenty and Ngai Tuhoe of the Urewera country are included in the matatua canoe area proper which extends from Nga kuri-a-Wharei (near Katikati) to Tikirau (Cape Runaway).

    Local Traditions

    Each tribe and sub-tribe kept its own particular traditional record, told for the most part in terms of great battles and great men, and tied in with the genealogical record. In some cases the story is continuous and internally consistent from the migration down to the present. In other cases it is fragmentary and discontinuous earlier than about 1600.

    Local traditions may be illustrated with a grim incident from the life of Papaka, a single chapter in the centuries-long internecine warfare among the tribes of the Waikato Valley. While Papaka was still a child his father Tapaue was killed by his own brothers-in-law, and the wife, Te Ata-i-rehia, and her son, Papaka, were taken to live at Orua (now Wattle Bay), in the hill fort still known as Ata-i-rehia, above Turner's boardinghouse. While living there the boy was ill treated by his uncles who, after their fishing trips on the Manukau Harbour, turned their backs on him and, keeping the best fish for themselves, fed him only on the scraps. Worst of all, he had to watch them use his father's skull as a fishing talisman which they taunted with the cry “Oh, Tapaue e—e! When do we get a fish?”

    It was more than Papaka could bear and he travelled up river to his father's people who agreed to help him gain his revenge. The war party came down the Waikato and crossed by the Awaroa portage into the Manukau, at Waiuku. Papaka himself killed his uncles, answering their pleas for mercy with the words, “Your fat fish! Your faces turned away!”

    The bodies were cooked and eaten, and the entrails used to lubricate the canoe skids in an ultimate insult to the dead.

    Local traditions were not always so bloodthirsty, as witness the well-known story of Hinemoa who swam across Lake Rotorua to wed her lover, Tu-Tanekai. To the descendants of the couple, however, the story has more than romantic interest, since inter-tribal relationships and the ownership of lands depended on recognising it as history.

    The Historical Value of Maori Legends

    It is one thing to agree that Maoris themselves regarded their traditions as true records of the past, but another to decide our own attitude in this respect. There is a widespread belief that Maori legends were handed down, word for word, through the generations. But in fact this does not seem to have been the case, for there is very considerable variation in the many versions of the principal myths and traditions available for comparison. Although this is so for the prose versions of the legends, the fixed form of words and the generally archaic language of poetry encourage the hope that in the songs and chants which are associated with the legends we may find unaltered material from the past.

    Comparison within and beyond New Zealand, however, shows that with the passing of many centuries even the most carefully preserved poetry has altered, until various versions of what must once have been the same text show little resemblance one to the other. Nevertheless, we cannot discount entirely the possibility that in some cases traditional lore has been transmitted without substantial change for many generations, for in spite of many alterations of detail the plots, the principal characters, and the main incidents of the great myths of Polynesia and New Zealand approach identity. This is clear proof that the Maoris and their Polynesian kin were capable of preserving the main theme of a story for centuries.

    In the case of the traditions, which deal entirely with the period since the settlement of New Zealand, it is not possible to cross check them against Polynesian versions. Our only tests of their reliability as historical records are their internal consistency, the complex way in which they dovetail with the genealogical records, and the compatibility with the information gained from archaeology and related studies.

    It is significant that most people who have worked intensively and with due regard to these criteria on the great body of tradition available to us regard it as having a considerable amount of historical value, and when the traditional record approaches nearer to the present, the sceptics are few who would regard it as other than largely a factual record of the past.

    by Bruce Grandison Biggs, M.A.(N.Z.), PH.D.(INDIANA), Associate Professor of Anthropology, University of Auckland.

    • Ko nga Mahi a nga Tupuna Maori, Grey, G. (1928)
    • Ancient History of the Maori, White, J. (6 vols. 1887–90)
    • Tuhoe, the Children of the Mist, Best, E. (1942)
    • The Coming of the Maori, Buck, P. (1958).