Story: Tangaroa – the sea

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.

Story by Te Ahukaramū Charles Royal
Main image: Waves along New Zealand's western coast

Story summary

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Māori people and their Polynesian ancestors lived close to the sea and relied on it for food and other resources.

The sea also has spiritual importance. In many traditions it is thought to be where all life began. People evolved from fish to human form. Traditional carvings of the ancestors show snake-like bodies, three fingers and large heads – a lot like amphibians, which can live on both land and water.


Māori believe that water is an energy, with many moods. It can be calm and life-giving, or dangerous and destructive. This energy is called Tangaroa – ‘god of the sea’.

Creation stories

In the most well-known creation story Tangaroa is the son of Papatūānuku, the earth mother, and Ranginui, the sky father. According to some traditions, however, Tangaroa is the husband of Papatūānuku and a rival of Ranginui.

There are many other myths and legends relating to the sea. One explains how Tinirau, ancestor of all the fish, killed the priest Kae to avenge the death of his pet whale.

The origin of carving

Whakairo (carving) is said to have come from under the sea. Ruatepupuke discovered it when he went to rescue his son, Te Manuhauturuki, who had been captured by Tangaroa and taken to his house, where he was mounted near the roof. Ruatepupuke set the house on fire, killing most of the fish, which were Tangaroa’s children. He took away the carved posts of the house.

Types of water

Māori describe wai (water) in a number of ways. For example, it can be waikino – dangerous water, such as stormy seas or swollen rivers. Waitapu is sacred water used in ceremonies. Waitai is salty water, while waiwhakaika or waikotikoti is the water used when cutting hair.

How to cite this page:

Te Ahukaramū Charles Royal, 'Tangaroa – the sea', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 13 June 2024)

Story by Te Ahukaramū Charles Royal, published 12 June 2006