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Story: Kōrero taiao – sayings from nature

Eyes like the night of the full moon, weaving as intricate as a spider’s web, a glutton with the stomach of a shark … Drawing on their keen observations of the natural world, Māori had a fund of vivid sayings and proverbs.

Story by Basil Keane
Main image: Snow-capped Ruapehu

Story Summary

All images & media in this story

Sayings about the sky, sea and land

The stars, sea and land were all important to Māori. They had sayings about the link between the stars and the seasons. When they saw the Matariki cluster (Pleiades) in the sky, it meant harvest time, with plenty of food.

The sea was used for fishing and travel, so there were names for different types of water. The gentle East Coast water was ‘Te Tai Tamawahine’ (the female sea), while the rough waves on the West Coast were ‘Te Tai Tamatāne’ (the male sea).

Land was very important. There was a proverb, ‘Te toto o te tangata, he kai; te oranga o te tangata, he whenua’ – ‘While food provides the blood in our veins, our health is drawn from the land’.

Beauty

Beautiful teeth were compared to white shells, or the brilliant white feathers of the albatross. A woman’s eyes were compared to the full moon, and her beauty was like the star Venus coming over the horizon. Very detailed weaving was compared to a spider’s web.

Good qualities

Persistence was encouraged, and people who were firm were compared to a boulder standing strong in the sea. Those who overcame great problems were likened to the small korimako (bellbird) that reached the top of the tall kahikatea tree.

Laziness and greediness

Māori society was tribal and people needed to take part in group work. Lazy people were likened to the koekoeā (long-tailed cuckoo), which left its eggs to be raised by another bird. People who only made a small effort were called ‘he harore rangitahi’ – a mushroom that only lasted a day.

Greedy people were also thought of badly. They were like the kahawai fish, which gulped down food. Sometimes they were said to have a stomach like a shark.

How to cite this page:

Basil Keane, 'Kōrero taiao – sayings from nature', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/korero-taiao-sayings-from-nature (accessed 27 September 2017)

Story by Basil Keane, published 24 Sep 2007