Story: Ngārara – reptiles

Page 3. Guardians or enemies?

All images & media in this story

Fear of ngārara

Māori feared lizards (skinks and geckos), and to a lesser extent tuatara. Lizards were seen as representatives of Whiro, the god of darkness, evil and death. The East Coast ancestor Kahungunu kept a kawekaweau (large gecko, now extinct) in a special bowl, and brought it out to scare approaching enemies.

When green geckos (moko kākāriki) lifted their heads and chattered in a sound believed to be laughter, it was seen as a bad omen.

Overcoming the fear

A Waikato woman who eloped with a Rotorua warrior later asked her elders’ forgiveness. They challenged the warrior by making him swallow a lizard. He did, and became known as Ngārara nui (great reptile). A carving showing him swallowing a lizard is sometimes placed on the front of a house as a guardian.

Tū-tangata-kino and Moko-hiku-waru

Another of Tū-te-wanawana’s offspring was Tū-tangata-kino, who took the form of a reptile and produced insects, spiders and lizards. Tū-tangata-kino was thought to be a spiritual reptile that crawled into people’s mouths while they were asleep and gnawed their stomachs, causing illness.

Taranaki and Whanganui people believe that Tū-tangata-kino guarded the house of Miru, ruler of the underworld, with Moko-hiku-waru, another reptile.

Reptiles as guardians

Lizards and tuatara were often seen as kaitiaki (guardians) and released near burial caves to watch over the dead.

They were also used as kaitiaki for mauri – a talisman, usually a stone, which was thought to protect the health and vitality of a forest or tree. Lizards – often the moko kākāriki (Naultinus elegans) or moko tāpiri (Hoplodactylus pacificus) – were released near mauri, and were believed to stay there forever.

Lizards were also sometimes buried under a post supporting the ridge pole in a whare wānanga (house of learning) or other important building.

How to cite this page:

Bradford Haami, 'Ngārara – reptiles - Guardians or enemies?', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 30 May 2024)

Story by Bradford Haami, published 24 Sep 2007