Story: Māori prophetic movements – ngā poropiti

Page 1. The first prophet – Te Papahurihia

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Tohunga and prophecy

The power of prophecy was part of traditional Māori society and was carried out by tohunga and matakite (seers). The transition from the traditional form of prophecy to later prophetic movements was brought about by Māori interaction with Christian missionaries. While initially Māori focused on the New Testament, it was not long before prophetic movements based around the Old Testament sprang up. Towards the end of the 20th century millennialism would become part of the mix.

An example of the link between the traditional tohunga and new prophet is a prophecy made just prior to the arrival of Europeans by the tohunga Toiroa. He said:

Tiwha tiwha te pō
Ko te Pakerewhā
Ko Arikirangi tēnei rā te haere nei.

(Dark, dark is the night/There is the Pakerewhā/There is Arikirangi to come.)1 This prophecy foreshadowed the coming of one of the great 19th-century prophets, Te Kooti Arikirangi Te Tūruki.


Papahurihia was the first Māori prophet who drew on both Māori and Christian knowledge systems. His original name was Pukerenga; initially he claimed to be the ‘waka’ (canoe) of the god Papahurihia. He took the name Papahurihia when, from 1833, he criticised the teachings of the Anglicans at Rangihoua, the earliest mission station founded in New Zealand. After he shifted from the Bay of Islands to Hokianga in the late 1830s, he adopted the name of Te Atua Wera (the fiery god).

Te Nākahi (the serpent)

Papahurihia appeared at the time of the first Māori Christian baptisms. He offered an alternative vision: a heaven full of European cargo, and plenty to eat. He was Hōne Heke’s war prophet in the 1845–46 northern war, and he held séances in which Te Nākahi (serpent) spoke in a curious ‘whistling sighing kind of sound’.2 Papahurihia was a ventriloquist like many previous Māori prophets, including his own father, Te Wharetī, and his mother, Tūhoehoe. The new element was his adoption of the serpent from the scriptures as his medium of communication (ariā) with the other world.

Māori as Hūrai (Jews)

Papahurihia identified Māori as Jews, naming them Hūrai, people lost in their own lands. He established the Jewish sabbath (Saturday) as his day of worship. Papahurihia upheld the principle that underlies all subsequent Māori prophetic movements: the search for the recovery of Māori authority. He embellished Jewish traditions, restating God’s promise to recover Canaan, their lost land, found in the earliest missionary-translated texts and oral messages.

Tāria – wait a while

In 1898 Hāmiora Mangakāhia, a Coromandel chief, said, ‘Nga whakatauki me nga kupu Whakarite me nga kupu Poropiti, na o tatau Tipuna hei Tohutohu i a tatau nga Tamariki.’ (The sayings, explanations and prophecies are handed down by our ancestors to advise the children.)3 He had been trained by Toiroa who told him, ‘Taria e hohou te Rongo kia tupu i te Miha ki a Kauna ki a Hawaiki, kei tua te Rongo Takekake.’ (Wait to make peace until the distant descendant grew up at Kauna in Hawaiki.) It was Te Kooti whose coming Toiroa had predicted before Cook’s arrival.

From Papahurihia to Hōne Tōia

Papahurihia died in 1875. But his teachings live on, directly and indirectly. He was baptised into the Wesleyan Church in 1856, taking the name Penetana (penitance, or possibly Fenton) Papahurihia. He was critical of the wartime prophet leaders of the 1860s, and was considered ‘loyal’ by the government. Nevertheless his teachings inspired local protest movements, notably the May 1898 ‘dog tax war’ at Waimā, where he himself had lived.

Now Te Nākahi appeared in séances held by a new prophet, Hōne Tōia, counselling resistance to this hated tax. Tōia called the faith ‘Whiowhio’ (the whistling sect). Some ritual objects, notably a rākau atua (god stick) named Rangi Āwhiowhioa (whistling head), the medium used to invoke Te Nākahi, survived with the descendants of Hōne Heke’s brother, Tuhirangi. These sacred objects of the faith of the Nākahi (‘te hono ki Nākahi’), as preached by Te Atua Wera, were unequivocally tied to Hōne Heke’s aspirations to self-determination.

  1. Quoted in Judith Binney, Redemption songs: a life of Te Kooti Arikirangi Te Turuki. Revised edition. Auckland: Auckland University Press, 1997, p. 11. Back
  2. John Webster, Reminiscences of an old settler in Australia and New Zealand. Christchurch: Whitcombe & Tombs, 1908, pp. 261. Back
  3. Te Puke ki Hikurangi, 7 June 1898. Back
How to cite this page:

Judith Binney, 'Māori prophetic movements – ngā poropiti - The first prophet – Te Papahurihia', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 22 April 2024)

Story by Judith Binney, published 5 May 2011