The whakapapa (genealogy) of kiore is associated with kūmara (sweet potato). Rongo-māui stole celestial kūmara from his older brother, Whānui (the star Vega), and brought them back to earth in his scrotum. He impregnated his wife Pani, who gave birth to earthly kūmara. She cooked them to break the tapu from their celestial origin. But the demigod Māui had watched Pani giving birth to the kūmara, and told the people they were eating her impurities. In shame she fled to the underworld of Mataora with her youngest daughter, Hinemataiti (‘the small-eyed girl’). Hinemataiti was to become the ancestor of kiore. And just as her father Rongo-māui had stolen kūmara from the sky, Hinemataiti stole them from Pani while they were overwintering in underground storage pits.
Some tribes believe Hinamoki is the father of kiore. Hinamoki is also the name given to a type of rat.
The traditions of the Aotea, Horouta and Māmari waka (canoes) mention that kiore were passengers on their voyages to New Zealand. Carvings on a window frame of Te Ōhākī wharenui at Roma marae in Ahipara depict the story of Ruanui’s kiore. Ruanui was captain of the Māmari canoe. On arriving in Hokianga Harbour, he released his kiore onto an island now called Motukiore (rat island).
Kiore are remembered in the names of people, houses, landscapes, plants and animals. Nihootekiore (rat’s tooth) and Motukiore (rat island) are places, Hine-kiore (rat girl) is a name, and tūtae-kiore (rat excrement) is a plant. Kiore is the name of a star cluster, while kiri-kiore (rat skin) and Pū-kiore (rat’s nest) are patterns in carvings and tattoos.
A weakness for rats
Although appreciated as an energy-giving food, kiore were used as a metaphor for weakness. A weak person was said to have ‘he uaua kiore’ (sinews of a rat), compared with a strong person’s ‘he uaua parāoa’ (sinews of a whale). A person whose boasts exceeded his abilities might hear the saying, ‘He nanakia aha tō te kiore nanakia?’ (How fierce is the kiore?)
Kiore feature in proverbs, songs and dance. ‘Ko tini o para kiore’ (a swarm of rats) refers to a heavily populated area. ‘Honoa te hono a te kiore’ (gather as rats do) was used by the Ngāi Tūhoe ancestor Karetehe to rally warriors who were facing defeat. His warriors knew to group together like rats and run straight through enemy ranks.