Story: Tangaroa – the sea

Page 5. Water as the source of life

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All cultures have been fascinated by water – its moods, nature, strength and tranquility. Like fire, water is a crucial life-giving element that is also destructive. Sages have used water to guide and predict human behaviour, or for ritual purposes, believing that its cleansing properties reach beyond the physical plane of human existence.

The spiritual plane

In Māori culture, many tribes directly or indirectly consider water as the source or foundation of all life. This is reflected in traditions which speak of te taha wairua, often translated as ‘the spiritual plane (of existence)’.

The term te taha wairua is widely used to refer to the ‘real world’, which lies both behind and within the world of normal experience. Much of life, according to the traditional world view, is concerned with coming to see, experience and understand the interplay of this ‘real world’ with our more limited everyday life. Te taha wairua can literally be translated as ‘the dimension of two waters’, a conception that likens spirituality to water.

However, it might be argued that te taha wairua does not mean ‘the spiritual plane’ at all. Instead, references to te taha wairua might be saying that there is a fundamental dimension to all life and it takes the form of water.

Categories of water

In traditional Māori knowledge, wai (water) is classified in a number of ways. Some of these categories include:

  • waikino – dangerous water, sometimes inclement seas or swollen rivers
  • waitapu – sacred water, waters used for ceremonial purposes
  • waimāori – pure water, water rich in mauri, used for cleansing and for ceremonial purposes
  • waitai – sea water, saline water
  • waimanawa-whenua – water from under the land
  • waikarakia – water for ritual purposes
  • waiwhakaika, waikotikoti – water to assist in the cutting of hair.
How to cite this page:

Te Ahukaramū Charles Royal, 'Tangaroa – the sea - Water as the source of life', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/tangaroa-the-sea/page-5 (accessed 13 December 2019)

Story by Te Ahukaramū Charles Royal, published 12 Jun 2006