Skip to main content
Logo: Te Ara - The Online Encyclopedia of New Zealand. Print all pages now.

Papatūānuku – the land

by  Te Ahukaramū Charles Royal

In the Māori world view, land gives birth to all things, including humankind, and provides the physical and spiritual basis for life. Papatūānuku, the land, is a powerful mother earth figure who gives many blessings to her children.

The importance of Papatūānuku

Mother earth

In Māori tradition and history, Papatūānuku is profoundly important. Papatūānuku is the land, a mother earth figure who gives birth to all things of the world and imparts many blessings to her children. She is seen as the birthplace of all things and the place to which they return, and is considered a foundation for human action. Papatūānuku is the first kaupapa (platform) in the traditional world view.

Emerging from water

In many Māori creation traditions, Papatūānuku emerged from under water. This reflects the experience of island people living within the vast expanse of the Pacific Ocean. A similar theme is expressed in the stories of the legendary trickster Māui fishing up various islands of Polynesia.

Life from the land

After the earth emerged from water, it gave birth to all life. Trees, birds and humans emerge from the land and are nourished by it. Figuratively, humans are born from the womb of Papatūānuku, and return there after death. People’s emotional, intellectual and spiritual selves are born daily from the land, and thought itself is seen as coming from the land.

Land as stability

For an island people, land is hugely important. The traditional Māori world view is based in early Polynesian experience, where whole islands were sometimes lost beneath the sea. The world seemed unstable, as it consisted mainly of water. Land could not be taken for granted. A person’s search for their own foundation, values and principles is compared to a journeying canoe looking for land. An island comes as relief to the weary ocean traveller.

A place to stand

These ideas inform the concept of tūrangawaewae – a place to stand. In the Māori world view, much of life is about finding one’s tūrangawaewae, one’s foundation and place in the world. This is traditionally expressed through a people’s relationship with particular places, such as a mountain, a river and other important sites.

Papatūānuku – the earth mother

Creating the world

In the Māori creation tradition (there are numerous versions), Papatūānuku, along with Ranginui, the sky, was born in the darkness known as Te Pō. Papatūānuku and Ranginui had several children while remaining in an embrace. The children grew frustrated with living in darkness between their parents, and conspired to separate them by thrusting Ranginui above and Papatūānuku below. Thus the world of light, Te Ao Mārama, came into being.

Earth mother and sky father

Papatūānuku and Ranginui’s many children gave birth to more children, including birds, fish, winds, and water. They became the progenitors of all life and all natural phenomena. In this tradition, all things of this world are descendants of the children of Ranginui and Papatūānuku, and all life is interconnected.

Born from the earth

Papatūānuku is a powerful figure, as she represents the generative foundation of all life. All things are born from her and nurtured by her, including humankind. Many tribal traditions discuss the birth of humans from the earth. In the Hineahuone tradition, the first woman was formed from clay at Kurawaka by Tāne, a son of Ranginui and Papatūānuku. Her name, Hineahuone, means earth-formed woman. In a Northland tribal tradition, the ancestor Tuputupu-whenua emerged from the ground.

Women and land

Papatūānuku and women

Traditional Māori culture aligns women with the land, because the land gives birth to humankind just as women do. As the world was born from Papatūānuku, so humankind is born from women. A woman’s womb, called te whare tangata (the house of humanity), is seen as the same as the womb of the earth.

Authority over land

In tribal history, individual women had authority over, and embodied, particular areas of land. Ruawehea, a high-born woman of the Ngāti Hako tribe, had particular authority in the Hauraki region. Visitors are welcomed with the following expression:

Haere mai, nau mai
Haere mai, kuhu noa mai ki ngā hūhā o Ruawehea.
Come forth, welcome
Come forth and enter the thighs of Ruawehea. 1

This saying recognises Ruawehea as the doorway to the land, and as being one with the land.

Women and land

An oft-quoted saying associates women with land, and expresses the extraordinary degree to which men will act to protect the mana (status) of their women and land:

Mā te wahine, mā te whenua, ka ngaro te tangata.

By women and land do men perish.

Women’s influence

Women also exhorted men to act, to fight to secure land, or to express a particular kaupapa (plan or proposal). Women played an important role in keeping issues alive and resolving grievances and problems. Waitohi, a sister of the Ngāti Toa chief Te Rauparaha, was instrumental in convincing Ngāti Raukawa leaders to move south with their people. She said:

Ngāti Raukawa, e hoki ki Maungatautari! Mā wai o koutou e mau mai aku werewere hei noho mai i runga i te whenua i haha nei? 2
Ngāti Raukawa, return to Maungatautari! Who of you will bring my barnacles here to settle upon these lands that have been procured?

Traditionally, a chief is likened to a mighty whale. A whale’s barnacles can only move when the whale does, and similarly, the people would only move if the chief did. This powerful metaphor bore fruit when the Ngāti Raukawa chief Hūkiki Te Ahukaramū replied that he would bring the barnacles on the broad back of the whale. It was accepted that those who migrated did so because of Waitohi’s invitation.

  1. Taimoana Tūroa, Te takoto o te whenua o Hauraki: Hauraki landmarks. Auckland: Reed, 2000, p. 45. › Back
  2. Ngārongo Iwikātea Nicholson, personal communication, 2003. › Back

Whenua – the placenta

The placenta

The Māori word for land, whenua, also means placenta. All life is seen as being born from the womb of Papatūānuku, under the sea. The lands that appear above water are placentas from her womb. They float, forming islands.

The womb of the world

In another perspective, all life takes place within the womb of the world. In that womb, preparations are being made for a new world. We are children within the womb of the world, soon to be born into another reality.

Tangata whenua

Tangata whenua – literally, people of the land – are those who have authority in a particular place. This is based on their deep relationship with that place, through their births and their ancestors’ births. As tangata whenua express themselves in that place, they gain the authority and confidence to project themselves into the world. This idea, in turn, underpins the notion of mana whenua – spiritual authority in a given area.

Burying a placenta

Traditionally, the whenua (placenta) and pito (umbilical cord) of newborn babies are buried in a significant place. The placenta is placed in a specially prepared receptacle and buried in a particular location. This practice reinforces the relationship between the newborn child and the land of their birth.

Te pito – the umbilical cord

The place where one’s umbilical cord was severed is called ‘te wāhi i kotia ai te pito’. This is a place of special importance for each person. It is their place of first emergence into the world, of first maturation and foundation.

Tūrangawaewae – a place to stand

Tūrangawaewae as foundation

Tūrangawaewae is one of the most well-known and powerful Māori concepts. Literally tūranga (standing place), waewae (feet), it is often translated as ‘a place to stand’. Tūrangawaewae are places where we feel especially empowered and connected. They are our foundation, our place in the world, our home.

Tāwhiao’s tūrangawaewae

Tāwhiao, the second Māori king, referred to tūrangawaewae in a saying:

Ko Arekahānara tōku haona kaha
Ko Kemureti tōku oko horoi
Ko Ngāruawāhia tōku tūrangawaewae.
Alexandra [Pirongia township] will ever be a symbol of my strength of character
Cambridge a symbol of my wash bowl of sorrow
And Ngāruawāhia my footstool. 1

As well as meaning a place to stand, tūrangawaewae can also be translated as footstool.

Marae as tūrangawaewae

King Tāwhiao’s granddaughter, Te Puea Hērangi, fulfilled this saying when she established Tūrangawaewae marae at Ngāruawāhia. A person’s marae (tribal forum for social life) is often seen as their tūrangawaewae. For each person, the marae is the place where their ancestors are present, where they spend their formative years and learn important lessons. They gain the right to stand upon their marae and proclaim their views about the world and life.

Pepeha – tribal sayings

Tūrangawaewae can include other places as well. Many tribes identify themselves in terms of their mountains, waterways and important ancestors. When Ngāti Porou identify themselves, they say:

Ko Hikurangi te maunga
Ko Waiapu te awa
Ko Ngāti Porou te iwi.
Hikurangi is the mountain
Waiapu is the river
Ngāti Porou is the tribe.

Here, the sense of tūrangawaewae is broadened into a region and located within a wider world.

Outer world and inner world

In the concept of tūrangawaewae, the external world is a reflection of an inner sense of security and foundation. The mountains, rivers and waterways to which one can claim a relationship also express this internal sense of foundation.

  1. Carmen Kirkwood, Tawhiao: king or prophet. Huntly: MAI Systems, 2000, p. 138. › Back

Birth from the earth – being indigenous

Indigenous peoples

To be indigenous is to be born from the land where you live, and continually born and reborn through an intimate relationship with earth, sea and sky. Tribal stories of humans born from the land include the fashioning of Hineahuone, the first woman, from the soil of Papatūānuku, and Tuputupu-whenua who emerged from the earth in Northland. Some tribes see themselves as descended from environmental phenomena; for instance, the Tūhoe people say they arose from the mist that surrounds their mountains. These traditions speak of an intimate relationship between humankind and the earth.

Place names and the human body

The human body and the physical landscape were metaphorically united when the Ngāti Toa people named the Tararua Range as Te Tuarātapu-o-Te Rangihaeata – the sacred back of Te Rangihaeata (a Ngāti Toa leader). The naming followed a peace pact between Ngāti Toa on one side of the range and Ngāti Kahungunu on the other.

When the Te Arawa voyaging canoe arrived from Polynesia, crew members laid claim to pieces of land by naming them after parts of their body. This is known as taunaha whenua. The Ōkūrei peninsula at Maketū in the Bay of Plenty was called Te Kūreitanga-o-te-ihu-o-Tamatekapua (the bridge of Tamatekapua’s nose). A small hill nearby was named Te Takapū-o-Tapuika (Tapuika’s belly). A large piece of land was called Te Takapū-o-Waitaha (Waitaha’s belly).

A child of the earth

The idea of being born from the earth is the foundation for kinship between earth and humankind. There is no sense of ownership of land – rather, one is a child of the earth.

Stories of people and land

Rākaihautū’s landscape

There are many tribal stories about the relationship between a people and their land. These stories capture every corner of the New Zealand landscape in some way. The South Island’s lakes are referred to as Ngā puna karikari a Rākaihautū – the springs dug out by Rākaihautū (a founding ancestor of the Waitaha tribe). Each lake has a particular story, and these are woven into a larger narrative. Te Waihora (Lake Ellesmere), for example, is called Te Keteika-a-Rākaihautū (Rākaihautū’s fishing basket).

Volcanic Plateau traditions

There are many stories about the North Island’s Volcanic Plateau, which stretches from Whakaari (White Island) to Tongariro. The various geysers and ‘hot spots’ in between are said to have been created by Te Hoata and Te Pupu, the sisters of the priest Ngātoroirangi. The two sisters travelled from Hawaiki to bring fire to New Zealand.

Tamatekapua of the Te Arawa people also left his name at many locations. Rangitoto Island in the Waitematā Harbour is known as Te Rangi-i-totongia-ai-te-ihu-o-Tamatekapua (the day that Tamatekapua had a bloody nose). Moehau mountain on the Coromandel Peninsula is called Te Moengahau-o-Tamatekapua (Tamatekapua’s windy sleeping place). Tamatekapua is buried at the peak of the mountain.

Kahungunu’s forebears

Rongokako was the grandfather of Kahungunu, the founding ancestor of the Ngāti Kahungunu people. Rongokako was said to be able to take giant strides, and he left footprints at a place known as Te Tapuwae-o-Rongokako (Rongokako’s footprint), near Whāngārā. Te Mata Peak in Hawke’s Bay is known as his final resting place. It is said his form can be seen in the adjacent hills.

Rongokako’s son (Kahungunu’s father) was Tamatea-pōkaiwhenua. He is mentioned in a place name said to be the world’s longest: Taumata-whakatangihanga-kōauau-o-tamatea-turi-pūkaka-piki-maunga-horonuku-pōkai-whenua-ki-tānatahu. It means ‘the place where Tamatea, the man with the big knees, who slid, climbed and swallowed mountains, known as landeater, played his flute to his loved one’.

Whakapapa and kaupapa

Papa – the land and its derivations

The root of the word Papatūānuku is papa, which means base and foundation. Two closely related words are whakapapa and kaupapa. Popularly, whakapapa is used to mean genealogy, but it literally means to create a base or foundation. Whakapapa is the recitation of genealogies or stories which create a base or foundation of meaning for people. As whakapapa can include genealogies or stories about the entire world, whakapapa are ways by which people come into relationship with the world, with people, and with life.

Kaupapa means principles and ideas which act as a base or foundation for action. A kaupapa is a set of values, principles and plans which people have agreed on as a foundation for their actions.

A grand fabric of knowledge

Traditional Māori knowledge includes elaborate genealogies about the world. There are various classifications of species of flora and fauna, rocks, fish and so on. These interlink to form a grand fabric, in which all things are interrelated, and all are descended from the children of Ranginui and Papatūānuku.

A framework for traditions

The genealogies form a framework which is ‘clothed’ in a vast array of stories and traditions. These explain the essential character and features of those in the genealogies. For example, a genealogy of relationships between bird species included stories about the birds themselves. One such story tells how the legendary hero Māui was turned into a kererū (New Zealand pigeon) while holding his mother’s colourful clothes. Genealogies and stories together make up whakapapa, a body of knowledge about the nature of the world.

Whakapapa as layering

‘Whakapapa’ describes the actions of creating a foundation, and layering and adding to that foundation. This is done by reciting genealogies (tātai) and stories, and through ritual. Whakapapa allows people to locate themselves in the world, both figuratively and in relation to their human ancestors. It links them to ancestors whose dramas played out on the land and invested it with meaning. By recalling these events, people layer meaning and experience onto the land.

Kaupapa – the land within

Kaupapa is a plan, a set of principles and ideas that inform behaviour and customs. Mana whenua (authority in the land) is achieved when a person’s inward kaupapa is aligned with the outward land. When the relationship with the land is lost, people’s inner sense of security and foundation may be lost too.

Loss of land

Land loss in the 19th century

Much tribal land was lost in the 19th century. While some tribes willingly released some land, much land was taken against their will and the will of others. The New Zealand wars were followed by land confiscations, and the Native Land Court also facilitated the sale of land by transferring land titles from tribes and putting them into individual names. Iwi (tribes) made many attempts to halt this loss. The felling of forests and loss of land were a catastrophe for their traditional world view. The trees of the forest were a model for the tikanga or behaviour of a people, so their destruction was a calamity. The widespread loss of land meant the loss of foundation and stability, and of the centring, nurturing principle of Papatūānuku.

When the waves rolled in

The desperation felt in the 19th century was captured by Wi Naihera of Ngāi Tahu:

When the waves rolled in upon us from England, first one post was covered, then another till at last the water neared us and we tried to erect barriers to protect ourselves. That is we entered into agreement with those who purchased our lands from the Queen, but when the flood tide from England set in our barriers were cast down, and that is why you find us now, clinging to the tops of these rocks, called Native Reserves, which alone remain above water. 1

He likened the loss of land to its disappearance under the sea, an echo of the old mythological idea of land rising up from the sea.

    • Michael Reilly and Jane Thomson, eds, When the waves rolled in upon us: essays in nineteenth-century Maori history. Dunedin: University of Otago Press, 1999, frontispiece. › Back

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Te Ahukaramū Charles Royal, 'Papatūānuku – the land', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 21 September 2021)

Story by Te Ahukaramū Charles Royal, published 24 Sep 2007