Irawaru is the guardian deity of kurī. He was the brother-in-law of Māui, the demigod. Māui was angered at his laziness, so while Irawaru was snoring, Māui pulled his ears, nose and spine into the form of a dog. When Māui’s two wives, Hinetūrepo and Hinetekahere, asked after their brother, he told them to call ‘Moi!’ – the call for a kurī. When they did, Irawaru came running.
Arrival of the kurī
Many accounts speak of the kurī in Hawaiki, the homeland of Māori ancestors, and its arrival in New Zealand. Their presence suggests that early Polynesian settlers did not lack food on their voyages, otherwise they would have eaten the dogs before reaching New Zealand.
Conflict in Hawaiki
One tradition tells of a Hawaiki chief, Houmaitawhiti, who had a dog named Pōtaka Tawhiti. A rival chief, Uenuku, ate the dog. Tamatekapua, Houmaitawhiti’s son, discovered this when the dog’s spirit howled from inside Uenuku’s stomach. The incident sparked the skirmishes that led to Tamatekapua making the long voyage to New Zealand in the Te Arawa canoe.
Kurī and voyaging canoes
The explorer Kupe, often credited with discovering New Zealand, brought kurī with him on his canoe Matawhaorua. It is said that he left one dog waiting so long in Hokianga Harbour that it turned to stone.
Turi, captain of the Aotea canoe, gifted a kahu kurī (dogskin cloak) to his wife in exchange for the canoe, a gift from his father-in-law. When Turi stopped at Rangitāhua (the Kermadecs) on the way to New Zealand, two kurī were sacrificed to the god Maru.
The Tokomaru canoe, captained by Manaia, had a dog that jumped overboard as they neared New Zealand. The canoe was guided to land during the night by the dog’s noise.
Te Kurī-a-Pāoa (now Young Nick’s Head) was named by Pāoa, captain of the Horouta canoe, after his lost kurī.
The importance of kurī is illustrated by traditions in which a supernatural being takes the form of a dog.
Moekahu is a female god in the shape of a kurī. Like the wairua (spirits) of deceased people, dogs that had died were believed to go to Te Rēinga at the top of the North Island, but travelled a different path from that of humans.
You lazy dog
Sayings referring to kurī were mostly terms of scorn. An idle person, sitting near the fire like a kurī, was ‘he whiore tahutahu’ (an often-singed tail). A coward was ‘he whiore hume’ (tail between the legs). ‘He kurī e pōtete ana’ (like a dog on a leading stick) described someone under another’s influence. ‘He ihu kurī, he tangata haere’ (a dog’s nose, a travelling man) could be a put-down, comparing visiting travellers to dogs who sniff out food. But sometimes a traveller would introduce himself with this phrase, and be sure of hospitality.
A kurī named Mohorangi was said to inhabit Whangaōkena Island (off East Cape). A young woman named Pōnuiawahine saw Mohorangi and was changed into a rock. This stands today in the sea off the island.
Two stone kurī were believed to haunt Lake Taupō. It was said that if strangers in canoes heard their noise and mistakenly made the usual call to a kurī, ‘Moi! Moi!’, a storm would arise and they would drown.
Kōpūwai, in the South Island, was a giant that had the head of a dog, with a pack of 10 two-headed dogs. In Waikaremoana, a terrifying kurī named Te Kurī-nui-a-Meko attacked some locals who had been hunting for fowl. They captured it in a large cage, and speared it to death.