Story: Māori humor – te whakakata

Page 1. Traditional forms of humour

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Humour in traditional stories

Many traditional Māori myths and legends contain examples of humour and absurd situations. The trickster hero Māui tried a novel way to overcome the death goddess Hine-nui-te-pō. He crept towards the giant woman as she lay sleeping and attempted to enter her body through her vagina, in a reversal of birth. As he was disappearing between her thighs, the fantail accompanying him found the sight so hilarious that it laughed out loud. Hine-nui-te-pō woke up and crushed Māui between her massive legs, ensuring that the human race remains mortal.

Kahungunu was a legendary lover, and the founder of Ngāti Kahungunu, the large tribe that now bears his name. Arriving at the Māhia Peninsula, he hoped to win the favours of the high-born and beautiful Rongomaiwahine, although she was already married to the chief Tama-Takutai. Kahungunu ate a large meal of pāua (abalone), then lay down in the house that Rongomaiwahine and her husband shared with him. During the night the kina produced a succession of odorous farts, for which the married couple blamed each other and squabbled fiercely. Kahungunu soon succeeded in marrying Rongomaiwahine, who bore him four children.

The strangeness of strangers

In 1814 a group of missionaries and other travellers were welcomed at the Bay of Islands by local Māori. One woman evidently found the strangers hilarious. John Liddiard Nicholas reported, ‘We could easily perceive, from the effect her sallies [jokes] had on her companions … that the packaha, or white man, was the subject of some extraordinary remarks, and called forth the rarest specimens of her witty effusions. I do not doubt but her jokes upon us were indulged with a great deal of freedom, as all our movements excited the loudest bursts of laughter.’1

Humour in whaikōrero

Māori have traditionally admired leaders, including religious and military figures, who can employ jokes and witty anecdotes in their oratory, often while also delivering hard truths. Anthropologist Joan Metge has said that joke-telling has been an integral part of whaikōrero (speech-making) because the audience for speeches on marae typically covers a wide range of ages and social status, and speeches can go on for a long time. Regularly inserting humour into speeches is a way to hold the audience’s attention and prevent them becoming bored and distracted.

Humour in traditional songs

Sometimes the singers who accompany a speaker will provide the comic element. Kuia in particular were known to compose ruri (ditties) to comment humorously on proceedings in the marae. A military surgeon, John Savage, who visited the Bay of Islands in 1805, reported that the local people found some of their songs so hilarious ‘as, in many instances, to occasion a total suspension of the performance, by the laughter of the audience’.2

Humour at tangihanga

Even at a tangihanga, while farewelling a departed friend or relative, an orator may include a funny anecdote or good-humoured put down. This may be most likely to happen on the last evening of a tangihanga, when laughter and levity can enable the loosening of spiritual bonds with the tūpāpaku (deceased person) and enable the wairua (spirit of the deceased) to depart.

  1. Quoted in A. Salmond, Between worlds: early exchanges between Maori and European, 17711815. Auckland: Viking, 1997, p. 461. Back
  2. Quoted in Between Worlds, p. 342. Back
How to cite this page:

Mark Derby, 'Māori humor – te whakakata - Traditional forms of humour', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 2 December 2023)

Story by Mark Derby, published 5 Sep 2013