Ngārara is the Māori name for reptiles – including tuatara, lizards, and the giant reptiles of Māori tradition.
Types of ngārara
The tuatara is named for its appearance – tara means spiny, and tua means back.
Māori call lizards (skinks and geckos) mokomoko. The kawekaweau, now extinct, was the world’s largest gecko. It was described as ‘about two feet [60 centimetres] long, and as thick as a man’s wrist; colour brown, striped longitudinally with dull red’ 1.
Māori also believed in giant reptiles, although no scientific evidence of them has been found. Simply called ngārara, they were a type of taniwha and looked like lizards or tuatara.
Descendants of Punga
Ngārara are believed to be descended from Punga, a son of Tangaroa, the sea god. All descendants of Punga – including other creatures such as sharks and insects – are said to be repulsive.
Punga’s son Tū-te-wanawana, along with Tūpari, produced the following offspring: the large gecko kawekaweau (Hoplodactylus delcourti), tuatara (Sphenodon punctatus and Sphenodon guntheri), mokopāpā (Pacific gecko, Hoplodactylus pacificus) and mokomoko (skink, Oligosoma and Cyclodina species).
Some tribes have other traditions that explain the origins of reptiles. In one tradition, reptiles originated from Peketua (the son of the earth mother, Papatūānuku, and the sky father, Ranginui). He made an egg from clay, and took it to Tāne, god of the forest, who said, ‘Me whakaira tangata’ (give it life). This egg then produced the first tuatara.
In some stories, lizards originate from the death of a ngārara – a hideous giant reptile. The reptilian monster Te Ngārara Huarau was a terrifying giant reptile that burned to death. Its scales escaped and turned into lizards.
Another ngārara, Te Whakaruaki, forcibly took a woman as his bride. Her family trapped and burnt him inside a house. As he was dying, his tail broke off and escaped, becoming the father of the mokopāpā (Pacific gecko). It is said that since then, lizards have shed their tails when they are in danger.