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Tangaroa – the sea

by  Te Ahukaramū Charles Royal

In Māori culture the sea is often considered to be the source and foundation of all life. Islands are fish drawn up from the water, and people evolved from amphibious beginnings. But Tangaroa, god of the sea, can also be destructive. Traditions tell of vengeance wrought by the sea upon those who fall out of favour.

The importance of the sea

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 knowledge

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.


Tangaroa – son of earth and sky

In the most well-known version of the Māori creation story, Tangaroa is the son of Papatūānuku, the earth mother, and Ranginui, the sky father. He is one of the 70 children who, when earth and sky were separated, went to live in the world that was created.

Tangaroa – husband of earth

In other versions, however, Tangaroa is the husband of Papatūānuku and a competitor of Ranginui. The following account was dictated to Sir Donald McLean by Hūkiki Te Ahukaramū of the Ngāti Raukawa tribe, in 1856:

Ka moe (a) Rangi i a Papatūānuku, te wahine o Tangaroa, i pūremutia e Rangi … Ka puta ki waho ko … Tānenui-a-rangi … Ka whakaaro rātou kia puta iho te rā i te kēkē o Rangi. Ka mea (a) Tānenui-a-rangi ‘Tēnei te rā kei runga e whiti ana.’ Ka mea (ia), ‘Me toko tō tātou matua kia waiho ko te wahine ko Papa hei matua mō tātou.’ Ka mea rātou, ‘Tokona, wehea rāua, kia tau kē te wahine kia tau kē te tāne, kia tupu ai tātou ki te Ao.’ Kātahi ka tokona te rangi. E tū iho ana a Rangi; e takoto nei a Papa.
The sky (Rangi) cohabited with the earth (Papa) who was the wife of the sea (Tangaroa). She was seduced by the sky. They had a child whom they called Tānenui-a-rangi, ‘Tāne, great of the heavens.’ The family thereupon decided that the sun should be allowed to shine through the armpit of the sky. ‘Tāne-great of the heavens’ said, ‘The sun shines above.’ He then said, ‘Let us raise our father above and leave the female, Papa, as our parent.’ They joined in and said, ‘Raise him up, separate the two. Let the female be set apart, let the male be set apart so that we may prosper in the world.’ The sky was then raised above. Hence, the sky stands above and the earth lies below. 1

It is likely that this version of the creation story – where water lies between the earth and sky – reflects an islander’s view of the world, where much of the earth appears to be under the sea. Following the separation of the adulterous lovers by their child, the earth returns to her place beneath the water and what is left above is the whenua – a word meaning both land and placenta, which comes from the womb of the earth and floats on the sea. The Māori term for island is moutere – ‘floating land’.

  1. See Te Ahukaramū Charles Royal, Native traditions by Hūkiki te Ahu Karamū o Otaki, Jany 1st 1856. Ōtaki: Te Wānanga-o-Raukawa, 2003. › Back

Tinirau and Kae

The story of Tinirau and Kae is very old, and numerous versions exist in New Zealand and the Pacific Islands. Tinirau, ancestor of all the fish, lives at Te Motutapu-o-Tinirau (Tinirau’s Sacred Isle), which in some traditions is located under the sea. The priest Kae’s people are called Te Aitanga-a-Te Poporokewa (the descendants of Poporokewa – a type of whale).

The baptism of Tūhuruhuru

The story begins with the difficult birth of Tūhuruhuru, the son of Tinirau and his wife Hineteiwaiwa. Following the birth, Tinirau needed to find a priest to conduct the baptism. He travelled to Te Tihi-o-Manono, where he secured the services of Kae. They returned to Tinirau’s island, Te Motutapu-o-Tinirau, where the ceremony was performed. Afterwards, Tinirau summoned his pet whale, Tutunui, and cut off a piece of flesh, which he gave to Kae as payment. Tinirau also offered Kae a waka (canoe) to travel home in, but Kae asked if he could ride home instead on the whale’s back. Tinirau reluctantly agreed, giving explicit instructions that when they neared the shore and the whale shook himself, Kae must disembark.

The death of Tutunui

Despite these instructions, Kae drove Tutunui towards the shore and beached him. The whale was cut up and cooked in the village ovens, and the aroma of the flesh was brought by the winds to Tinirau’s home. Learning of the creature’s fate, Hineteiwaiwa convened a group of women, including Raukatauri, goddess of flute music, to travel to Kae’s home and capture him. Unsure what Kae looked like, the women were advised to make the villagers laugh – they would be able to identify Kae by his niho tāpiki, a tooth that has grown over the top of another.

Kae is captured

When the women arrived at Kae’s village, people were gathered in the whare tapere for the evening’s entertainments. Kae assumed his customary place nearest the door. The women danced and told stories, but they could not get Kae to laugh. It was not until their dances became more erotic that they finally succeeded in spotting the tooth and confirming Kae’s identity. The women removed him from the house and placed him on a waka, taking him while he slept to Tinirau’s island and into a house identical to his own. When Kae finally awoke, he wondered why Tinirau was sitting in his house. Tinirau killed Kae and avenged Tutunui’s slaughter.

Ruatepupuke and the origin of carving

The story of the discovery of whakairo (wood carving) from under the sea is famous in Māori tradition. It tells of the imprisonment of Te Manuhauturuki, the son of Ruatepupuke. Te Manu was captured by Tangaroa, taken to his house deep in the ocean, and mounted on the gable. Ruatepupuke undertook the journey to find his son.

The following translation is from a version of the story recounted by Mohi Ruatapu and Hēnare Pōtae of the Ngāti Porou tribe:

This is the story of Ruatepupuke, who first made wood-carving known. The cause of his discovery was the going of his child, Te Manuhauturuki, to sail a boat. The child was captured by Tangaroa, taken to his home, and set up on the gable of his house as an image. When the child was missed, his father set forth to look for him … he went there, and so found the body of his child set up on the roof-gable of the house.
When Rua entered the house the carved posts were talking amongst themselves; he heard the posts talking, but those outside remained silent. He closed up all the interstices of the house … and when the sun had set, Tangaroa and his family arrived and sought repose within their house. There they amused themselves with posture-dancing, hand-clapping contests, cats’ cradle and other games, as is usual when many folk meet together … When day came the interior of the house was still in darkness …
By this time Ruatepupuke had come and taken a position in the porch of the house with his weapon at the ready … He set the house on fire, and the folk inside ran out; the first was Kanae (mullet) … then came Maroro (flying fish) … then came Kōkiri (trigger fish) … But most of Tangaroa’s children were destroyed … The carved posts of the outside of the house were taken away; some of those did not talk, and so it is that carved images of the present time do not have the power of speech. 1
  1. Translated from the Journal of the Polynesian Society 37 (1928): 261. › Back

Water as the source of life

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.

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Te Ahukaramū Charles Royal, 'Tangaroa – the sea', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 16 May 2021)

Story by Te Ahukaramū Charles Royal, published 12 Jun 2006