Skip to main content
Logo: Te Ara - The Online Encyclopedia of New Zealand. Print all pages now.


by  Te Ahukaramū Charles Royal

Hawaiki – a real island? Or a mythical place?

Hawaiki is the traditional Māori place of origin. The first Māori are said to have sailed to New Zealand from Hawaiki. And in Māori mythology Hawaiki is the place where Io, the supreme being, created the world and its first people. It is the place from which each person comes, and it is where each will return after death.

The significance of Hawaiki

The source and destination of life

Hawaiki is a rich, many-sided place in Māori history, mythology and tradition. It is often referred to in songs, proverbs and genealogies. For example, parents welcome their newborn children with the phrase:

E taku pōtiki, kua puta mai rā koe i te toi i Hawaiki.
My child, you are born from the source, which is at Hawaiki.

Similarly, orators farewell the dead with the phrase:

E ngā mate, haere ki Hawaiki,
Ki Hawaiki nui, ki Hawaiki roa, ki Hawaiki pāmamao.
To the dead, depart to Hawaiki,
To great Hawaiki, to long Hawaiki, to distant Hawaiki.

Hawaiki is the place from which we are born, and it is where we go after we die. Hawaiki, therefore, is deeply associated with the cycle of birth, life and death.

Hawaiki in Kepa Ehau’s speeches

Orator Kepa Ehau of Ngāti Tarāwhai and Ngāti Whakaue made many eloquent speeches that are still quoted today. One of these, delivered at the funeral of a returned soldier around 1937, gives another insight into the meaning of Hawaiki. It concludes:

‘Te otinga o tāua te tangata, ko Hawaiki-nui, ko Hawaiki-roa, ko Hawaiki-pāmamao. Haere rā i a koe ka kōpikopiko atu ki Te-Hono-i-wairua, ki te kāpunipunitanga o te wairua.’ (The inevitable destiny of mortal men, Hawaiki-nui, Hawaiki-roa, Hawaiki-pāmamao farewell you as you wend your way to Hono-i-wairua, the meeting place of departed souls.)

A place of mystical power

This cyclic dimension is only one aspect of a concept shrouded in mystery and complexity. In some traditions Hawaiki is perceived to be a physical place from which the Māori people first emerged before arriving in New Zealand. Others associate it with certain compass points, particularly the east, or regard it as an actual island located somewhere in Polynesia. Yet others believe that Hawaiki can be found in New Zealand.

All these traditions and versions represent Hawaiki as a special place full of mystical power and regenerating force – the source and origin of life itself. It is the homeland of many of the major figures of tribal mythology and traditions, including Māui, Tāwhaki, Tiki and Rātā. These and many others lived in Hawaiki, and their deeds serve as examples for succeeding generations.

A model for humanity

Over numerous generations Hawaiki has become a mythical template for everything that is good, powerful and benevolent in the traditional Māori world view. The importance of Hawaiki traditions to succeeding generations, as both the source and the model for life, is found in the expression:

Ehara i te mea poka hōu mai: nō Hawaiki mai anō.
It is not a new thing done without proper cause: it has come to us all the way from Hawaiki.

Hawaiki is significant as the place where the fullness of life is first envisioned and experienced. It is the beloved image of life’s origin and purpose. And Hawaiki is where human regeneration is secured and human life finds meaning.

Home of the gods

Creation stories

Mysterious things happen in Hawaiki: people turn into birds, fish gather in armies, people descend to the underworld and ascend to the heavens. Hawaiki is a paradise where the gods live and perform miraculous deeds. The story of the creation of Hawaiki has been described by the Reverend Māori Marsden:

In the night regions of soft light, Io established the several Hawaiki: Hawaiki-nui, Hawaiki-roa, Hawaiki-pāmamao, Hawaiki-tapu (great Hawaiki, extensive Hawaiki, far distant Hawaiki, and sacred Hawaiki) in which Io chose to dwell with his divine assistants. The Hawaiki became the abode of gods and heroes. But no one, other gods included, could enter Hawaiki-tapu for it was sacred to Io. The other Hawaiki were also sacred and in ancient times were not mentioned in common talk except by oblique reference as Tawhiti-nui, Tawhiti-roa, Tawhiti-pāmamao. 1


Another story holds that the creation of the first human took place in Hawaiki. Here is the account of Hūkiki Te Ahukaramū of Ōtaki:

Ka awatea te rā, ka mea a Tāne-nui-a-rangi, ki te wahine māna. Ka kī atu a Papa, ‘Haere ki a Hine-tua-oni, ahuahua e koe kia whakatangatatia.’ … Ka mahia, kātahi ka puta mai hei tangata. 2
Day came forth and Tāne-great-of-the-heavens desired that he should have a woman. Earth said to him, ‘Go to Hine-tua-oni, there to fashion a human.’ … He worked these items and fashioned a human.


One of the great characters of Hawaiki is Māui, a figure known throughout Polynesia. Māui is a trickster hero famous for many deeds; amongst them, capturing the sun, fishing up islands, turning into a bird and pursuing his father into the underworld. Such is Māui’s continuing appeal that he remains the central figure in creative and performing arts, and in numerous written and oral stories.

  1. Māori Marsden, The woven universe: selected writings of Rev. Māori Marsden, edited by Te Ahukaramū Charles Royal. Ōtaki: Estate of Rev. Māori Marsden, 2003, p. 17. › Back
  2. Te Ahukaramū Charles Royal, Native traditions by Hūkiki te Ahu Karamū o Otaki, Jany 1st 1856. Ōtaki: Te Wānanga-o-Raukawa, 2003, p. 31. › Back

Location and associations

Hawaiki in Polynesia

Generations of Māori have wondered about the physical location of Hawaiki. The arrival of Europeans and the establishment of communications with other Pacific islands led to a renewal of Māori interest in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In a 1929 letter, Taranaki elder Ōriwa Haddon wrote about a visit he made to Tahiti, where he learned of many similarities between Aotea canoe traditions and those of Tahiti.

Hawaiki and Rangiātea

Rangiātea is an ancient name that is strongly associated with Hawaiki. An old expression goes:

Kia puta ai te ihu ki Rangiātea.
So that your nose may arrive at Rangiātea.

This is an exhortation to excellence and the fulfilment of potential.

Like Hawaiki, Rangiātea is seen as both a physical place and a spiritual realm – the fount of wisdom about the nature of existence. In the myth that describes Tāne’s ascent to the 12th heaven, Tāne received the baskets of knowledge from Io, the supreme being. These baskets were suspended within a building called Rangiātea. Hence, Rangiātea is said to be the first whare wānanga (house of higher learning).

Hawaiki place names in New Zealand

Numerous places in New Zealand have names that are said to have come from Hawaiki. Some examples are:

Hawaiki – a garden in Kāwhia

Te Motutapu-a-Tinirau – the name for both Mokoia Island in Lake Rotorua and Motutapu Island in the Waitematā Harbour

Waihīhī – on the western side of the Firth of Thames, and in Auckland

Waihāhā – in Auckland.

The name Rangiātea has been given to various localities. Ra‘iātea, an island in Tahiti, is said to be Rangiātea. The Ngāti Raukawa ancestor, Tūrongo, gave the name Rangiātea to his meeting house near Ōtorohanga. The most well known locality bearing this name is Rangiātea Church in Ōtaki, where an earlier tribal altar has been incorporated into a Christian church. In each of these cases the name Rangiātea is imbued with spiritual power.

Theories about Hawaiki

Interpretations by early scholars

When European scholars began to investigate tribal traditions in depth, some were taken by stories concerning Hawaiki. Given the ubiquity of Hawaiki in tribal traditions – all describe Hawaiki as some kind of originating point – some Europeans attempted to understand more.

One scholar was S. Percy Smith, the founding president of the Polynesian Society and author of numerous texts on tribal history and traditions. In his book Hawaiki, the original homeland of the Maori (1904), Smith advanced his theories as to the physical location of Hawaiki. He suggested that islands such as Savai‘i in Samoa, Hawaii and even Java near Indonesia were actually Hawaiki in localised forms. His method was to develop a view on the origins of the Māori people by analysing the traditions held by Māori in his time. This method had widespread acceptance and many scholars, both Māori and Pākehā, were excited by his conclusions.

Other theories about the origin of Māori

Smith’s book led to a proliferation of texts and discussions that attempted to draw a picture of ancient Polynesian migrations moving in an easterly direction from Asia. These analyses, based on interpretation of Māori traditions in New Zealand, gave rise to theories such as the notion of a ‘great fleet’ arriving from central Polynesia. Some writers went further, arguing that Māori origins could be found in India and even Mesopotamia, the ancient region of present-day Iraq. Alfred K. Newman’s Who are the Maoris? (1912) is an example of a work that argues for the Indian origins of Māori people.

Recent interpretations

Criticisms of Smith’s methodology are numerous, but two presented by Margaret Orbell in Hawaiki: a new approach to Māori tradition (1985) are particularly telling. First, she suggests that it is inappropriate to view iwi (tribal) traditions as historical; in other words, they should not be read literally as a record of actual events. She argues that by the time Europeans arrived in New Zealand, iwi traditions were on the whole mythical in character. In her view the ‘memory’ of a Polynesian homeland was transformed into myth over a long period. Therefore, it is more useful to interpret iwi traditions as symbolic of past events rather than as a literal representation. Second, she points out that Smith and others were too willing to explain away inconsistencies and to smooth over difficulties. Orbell writes: ‘Unfortunately they approached their material in such a wildly speculative and uncritical manner that the whole subject … is now in some disrepute.' 1

    • Orbell, Margaret, Hawaiki: a new approach to Maori tradition. Christchurch: Canterbury University Press, 1991, p. 8. › Back

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Te Ahukaramū Charles Royal, 'Hawaiki', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 23 May 2024)

Story by Te Ahukaramū Charles Royal, published 8 February 2005, updated 1 April 2015