Story: Kōrero taiao

Page 1. Sayings and proverbs from the natural world

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A link with nature

In traditional Māori society, people looked to nature for sayings and whakataukī (proverbs) about human activity. This practice continues today.

The sky was particularly important in signalling the changing seasons, which were so vital to agriculture, fishing and hunting. There were many sayings about the stars and their relationship with the seasons. For example, the pre-dawn rising of Matariki (the Pleiades cluster) signalled both the Māori new year around June and the end of the harvest. One saying was ‘Matariki ahunga nui’ (Matariki, provider of plentiful food).

The sea was very important for fishing and coastal travel. Various iwi (tribes) observed that the East Coast of the North Island had gentle water, so it was named Tai Tamawahine (female sea). The rough water of the West Coast was called Tai Tamatāne (male sea). The relentless erosion caused by the sea was ‘te ngaungau o Hinemoana’ (the gnawing of the sea maiden).

The importance of land was described in the 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).


Tribal society was communal, and images were often drawn from nature to describe social groups. ‘Me te tumu kuku’ (like a bed of mussels) referred to a large group tightly gathered in a house. ‘He pukenga wai, he pukenga tāngata’ translates as ‘a flood of water, a flood of people’. ‘Tēnā te ngaoko nā me te onepū moana’ (they shift like the sands of the beach) describes a crowd of people moving.

People fleeing were ‘Me te pīngao i te tuauru e rere ana i te one’ (like the pīngao grass on the western coast driven by the wind on the sandy beach). To describe important chiefs who began to draw large numbers of followers, people would say, ‘E tupu atu kūmara, e ohu e te anuhe’ (as the kūmara grows, the caterpillars gather round it).


Beauty was often illustrated using images from nature. Beautiful teeth in a smile were likened to the white tusk shell (pipi-taiari), or ‘Me te pōhoi toroa tērā, pūaho ana’ (like the intensely white down of an albatross).

Clothing for a bird

Making a pūreke, a garment of undressed flax, was likened to building a nest for the mātātā (fernbird), which nests in the flax swamps. And weaving a cloak from kiekie, a climbing plant, was described as making the nest of a tieke (saddleback), which nests in kiekie.

The beautiful eyes of a woman were compared with Ōturu – the night of the full moon. A similar saying for a beautiful woman was ‘Mehemea ko Kōpū e rere ana i te pae’ (like Venus appearing over the horizon in the morning).

Beautiful weaving, showing great intricacy, was likened to ‘He whare pūngāwerewere’ (a spider’s web). An offbeat analogy is ‘He horo ki tūparimaunga, he hewa ki te tangata kotahi’ (a landslide on a mountain is like baldness in man). Both were believed to have lost their good looks.

How to cite this page:

Basil Keane, 'Kōrero taiao - Sayings and proverbs from the natural world', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 15 June 2024)

Story by Basil Keane, published 24 Sep 2007