The creation of pounamu
There are many different tribal traditions about the origins of pounamu. The following is adapted from a version given by Tipene O’Regan of the Ngāi Tahu tribe. 1
Poutini was a taniwha or guardian of pounamu. He feared another taniwha named Whaitipū, the guardian of Hinehōaka, who was the goddess of sandstone. Traditionally, sandstone knives were used to cut pounamu.
Once, Poutini was being pursued in the sea by Whaitipū and took refuge in a bay at Tūhua (Mayor Island, in the Bay of Plenty). There, Poutini observed a beautiful woman named Waitaiki coming down to the water to bathe. Enthralled by her beauty, he captured her and swam towards the mainland.
When Tamaāhua, Waitaiki’s husband, discovered that his wife was missing, he used karakia (incantations) and divination with a small, dart-like spear to find her. He threw the spear, which pointed towards the location of Poutini.
Tamaāhua chased Poutini through the North Island and down to the South Island, eventually finding him at the Arahura River. Fearing capture, but refusing to give Waitaiki up, Poutini turned her into his own essence – pounamu – and laid her in the river bed at the junction of the Arahura and a nearby stream. That stream became known as Waitaiki, and ever since it has been a significant source of pounamu, as is the Arahura River. Tamaāhua did not see Poutini, who slipped past him, and on finding his wife turned to īnanga (a type of pounamu) he grieved for her and then returned home.
Poutini, having eluded Tamaāhua, continued down the river to the coast. Since that time, he has swum the West Coast acting as a guardian spirit of the land and pounamu. From this comes the name Te Tai Poutini (the tides of Poutini) for the West Coast.
Geologists have determined that nephrite and bowenite formed deep in the earth, probably at depths in excess of 10 kilometres. Hot fluids caused a chemical reaction in zones where volcanic and sedimentary rocks were in contact, which produced narrow deposits of pounamu. High-quality pounamu is usually surrounded by altered material classed as serpentine.
As the mountains of the South Island were formed over the last two million years, the narrow bands containing pounamu were lifted up to the earth’s surface. The action of rivers and glaciers released the stone from its host rock into screes, river gravel and glacial deposits. Pounamu continues to be carried into rivers and down to the sea by erosion. In the more accessible areas, any exposed pounamu has been quickly collected.