An ugly group
Reptiles are believed to be descended from Punga, a son of Tangaroa, the sea god. ‘Te aitanga a Punga’ (the progeny of Punga) traditionally refers to a wide range of sea and land creatures. As well as lizards and tuatara, it includes sharks, sea and freshwater fish, eels, lizards, stingrays, octopus, insects and various birds. As Punga’s descendants these creatures are seen as repulsive, ugly or offensive.
Who was Punga?
There are various tribal traditions about the identity of Punga. In most, he is the son of Tangaroa, the god of the sea. In other traditions, he was the eldest son of Whaitiri, the goddess of thunder, and her husband Kaitangata. Punga was named after the anchor stone of his father’s canoe.
In the late 19th century, there were a number of sightings of large ngārara. In 1875, a large reptile, said to have six legs, was caught near Hokianga. However, its Māori captors were so horrified that they hacked it into unidentifiable pieces. In 1898 a Māori bushman said he had seen a giant lizard, 1.5 metres long. It disappeared, but its footprints were photographed by W. D. Lysnar, the owner of the farm where it was seen.
Sayings about Punga
‘Te aitanga a Punga’ or ‘te whānau a Punga’ (Punga’s offspring) were terms for ugly people or dark-skinned, ill-favoured people.
The saying ‘Me aha hoki, ngā uri o Punga aruaru kai’ (what does it matter, these are descendants of Punga who chased food), describes an objectionable person who is likely to be shunned at a feast. It refers to Punga’s behaviour in his guise as a shark – when he approaches food, the other fish move away quickly.