Ngārara is the Māori name for reptiles – including tuatara, lizards, and the giant reptiles of Māori tradition.
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.
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.
Punga, son of Tangaroa (god of the sea), had two offspring: Ikatere (fast fish) and Tū-te-wehiwehi, also called Tū-te-wanawana (reptiles). After the separation of Ranginui (sky) and Papatūānuku (earth), Tangaroa was forced to flee into the sea. His offspring argued over staying in the sea or going onto the land.
Ikatere and his descendants, some species of fish, decided to stay in the sea. Tū-te-wehiwehi chose the land. The saying ‘tāua ki uta, tāua ki te wai’ (we of the land, we of the sea) refers to the choices they made for their descendants.
Ikatere told Tū-te-wehiwehi, ‘Fly inland, the fate of your race will be a frightful one. You will be caught by men. When you are cooked they will burn your scales over a wisp of lightened fern.’
Tū-te-wehiwehi shouted back, ‘Go to the sea. Do you know what will happen to you? When they put the baskets of cooked vegetables in front of the people, you will be placed on top as a relish.’
An ancestral canoe of the Ngāti Porou tribe, the Māngārara, was said to have brought a cargo of reptiles, insects and a bird to New Zealand. The chief Wheketoro set them free on Whangaokeno Island (East Island) by East Cape. Wheketoro made the island sacred, and made a home for the tuatara in the fern. He took the other creatures to the mainland, but his canoe was wrecked at Pariwhero, and turned to stone. The reptiles ran and hid under overhanging banks, where they are still said to live today.
In another tradition, a tuatara called Ngārara argued with his younger brother Mangō (shark) over whether to live in the sea or on land. Ngārara chose the land, while Mangō remained in the sea. Just as Ngārara moved onto the shore, Mangō swam up and asked him to return to the sea.
Ngārara cursed his brother: ‘Stay in the sea to be served on a dish of cooked food for man to eat.’ Mangō replied, ‘Go ashore and be smoked out of your hole with burning fern leaves.’
Ngārara replied, ‘Indeed, I will go on ashore, away unto the dry land, where I shall be looked upon as the personification of Tū [the war god], with my spines and ridgy crest, causing fear and affright, so that all will get out of my way, hurrah!’
The brothers’ curses came to pass. Māori often ate dried shark as a relish with kūmara (sweet potato) or potato, and caught reptiles by lighting a fire at the entrance of their hole.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
‘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.
Miller, David. ‘Insect People of the Māori.’ Journal of the Polynesian Society 61 (1952): 1–61.
Mead, Sidney Moko, ed. Te Māori: Maori art from New Zealand collections. Auckland: Heinemann, 1984.
Orbell, Margaret. The illustrated encyclopedia of Māori myth and legend. Christchurch: Canterbury University Press, 1995.
Reed, A. W. Reed book of Māori mythology. Rev. ed. Auckland: Reed, 2004.
White, John. The ancient history of the Maori, his mythology and traditions. 13 vols. Hamilton: University of Waikato Library, 2001.