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).
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.
Individuals were encouraged to take on good qualities by being compared with examples in nature.
Great endurance was praised with the saying ‘Manawa tītī’ (the heart of a tītī, or petrel), as this bird was noted for its ability to stay aloft for long periods at sea. A person was encouraged to be as firm as ‘te toka tū moana’ (the boulder standing in the sea), not like ‘te toka rurenga tai, neneke i te ngaru’ (the rock rolling in the tide, shifted by a wave).
A lookout person was exhorted to have an eye like the star Rēhua (Antares), which was unblinking. But someone with a sharp eye for small objects was said to have ‘he kanohi hōmiromiro’ – the eye of a tomtit, which was noted for this ability.
Individuals were also encouraged to succeed by looking at how birds and grubs could overcome the lofty kahikatea (white pine). One saying was ‘He iti te kōpara ka rērere i te puhi o te kahikatea’ (though the bellbird is small, it can reach the crown of the kahikatea). Another was ‘He iti te mokoroa nāna i kakati te kahikatea (though the grub is small, it gnaws away at the white pine).
Tribal society was communal and it was vital that each person contributed. Because the economy involved group effort, for example in agriculture, fishing, and hunting, qualities such as laziness were particularly despised. Lazy people were said to be like the koekoeā (long-tailed cuckoo), which often left its eggs to be hatched in the nest of the tātaihore (whitehead). Similarly, there was the pointed question ‘I hea koe i te tangi o te pīpīwharauroa?’ (Where were you when the shining cuckoo sang?). When the bird’s call signalled the time for all to help with planting, some people stayed away – but they showed up to eat at harvest time.
In the same way, a person who put in a short burst of activity was likely to be labelled ‘He harore rangitahi’ (a one-day mushroom). With so much work to be done, late sleepers were reviled. They were compared to the native dandelion that opens late in the day: ‘E moe tonu ana te tohetaka’ (the dandelion still sleeps).
Food was a communal resource, so gluttony was frowned on. A greedy person was said to have the mouth of the voracious kahawai fish, or a ‘puku taniwha’ (shark’s stomach). The saying ‘He kākā honihoni, he kūkū tangai nui’ (a nibbling parrot, a pigeon with a stuffed crop) compared the small appetite of the kākā (parrot) with the greed of the kūkū (New Zealand pigeon).
Grace, Patricia. Earth, sea, sky:images and Māori proverbs from the natural world of Aotearoa New Zealand. Nelson: Craig Potton, 2003.
Kōhere, Rēweti T. He konae aronui: Maori proverbs and sayings. Wellington: A. H. & A. W. Reed, 1951.
Mead, Sidney M. Ngā pēpeha a ngā tīpuna: the sayings of the ancestors. Wellington: Victoria University Press, 2001.