Story: Ngārara – reptiles

To Māori, reptiles were the descendants of Punga – the ugly god whose progeny were repulsive. Lizards and tuatara were feared as bringers of bad luck, and stories tell of hideous giant reptiles that captured women and married them. However reptiles were also seen as kaitiaki (guardians).

Story by Bradford Haami
Main image: 'Whakapakoko III' clay sculpture

Story summary

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Ngārara is the Māori name for reptiles – tuatara, lizards (geckos and skinks) and the giant reptiles in some stories.

Descended from Punga

Māori believed that reptiles were descended from Punga. He was the son of Tangaroa, god of the sea.

Punga’s descendants are seen as ugly and repulsive. They include not just reptiles, but also some sea creatures, insects and birds.

Types of ngārara

  • Tuatara are lizard-like reptiles. The word tuatara means ‘spiny back’.
  • The kawekaweau, now extinct, was the world’s largest gecko – about 60 centimetres long, with brown and red stripes.
  • Māori believed in giant reptiles, also called ngārara, although there is no scientific evidence that these existed.

Stories about reptiles

  • Te Ngārara Huarau was a giant reptile that was burned alive. Its scales and tail escaped and turned into lizards.
  • A huge reptile called Te Whakaruaki forced a woman to marry him. Her family trapped him in a house and burnt him, but his tail broke off and became the father of the mokopāpā (Pacific gecko). It is said this is why lizards lose their tails when they are in danger.
  • A tuatara argued with his brother, a mangō (shark), about whether they should live on land or in the sea. The shark stayed in the sea, but the tuatara moved onto the land, saying that his frightful appearance would scare people away.

Fear of reptiles

  • Māori feared lizards and tuatara, linking them with Whiro, the god of darkness, evil and death.
  • Kahungunu, the ancestor of the Ngāti Kahungunu tribe, kept a kawekaweau (large gecko) in a bowl and used it to scare his enemies.
  • Moko kākāriki (green geckos) made a chattering sound that sounded like laughter, and was considered a bad omen.


Because people feared them, lizards and tuatara were also seen as guardians.

  • They were put near burial caves to watch over the dead.
  • Lizards were released near mauri – special stones that were believed to protect the forest.
  • Lizards were sometimes buried under a post in a whare wānanga (house of learning).
How to cite this page:

Bradford Haami, 'Ngārara – reptiles', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 25 April 2024)

Story by Bradford Haami, published 24 September 2007