Māori and their Polynesian forebears have been island peoples for many generations, so it is not surprising that water, particularly the sea, figures prominently in their world view. In some traditions the oceans’ depths are considered to be the origin and source of all life. The islands are believed to be fish, pulled up from beneath the sea, and humans are thought to have evolved from aquatic beginnings.
The sea dominated traditional Polynesian and Māori life for many practical reasons. It was an essential source of food and other resources. A number of Polynesian islands become covered by the sea once a year, causing those who lived there to fear and revere its waters. After Polynesians settled in New Zealand, life was centred less around the sea, but it nevertheless retained its mystery and power.
Carving and tattooing are said to have been discovered under the ocean by Ruatepupuke and Mataora. In some genealogies human history is traced from fish to amphibian, before finally taking human form. Perhaps the most well-known expression of this idea can be found in the whakairo (wood carvings) which adorn meeting houses throughout the country. The bulbous heads of the carved ancestors, their three fingers and serpentine bodies indicate the belief that humankind had marine origins.
Traditional Māori knowledge includes genealogies of fish and other creatures that live under the sea. Numerous legends and stories are dramas of underwater life. One of the most well known explains the enmity of Tinirau, ancestor of all the fish, towards the tohunga Kae, who killed Tinirau’s favourite whale.
Types of water
Māori noted different types of waters. Seas could be calm and refreshing, boisterous and masculine, or extremely dangerous. Water was considered to be an energy possessing myriad characteristics, shapes and natures. It upheld life, yet was also able to bring terrible destruction. This energy with all its forms, moods and expressions is called Tangaroa. The common translation, ‘god of the sea’, does not adequately convey its meaning.