A creature of many forms
Taniwha are supernatural creatures whose forms and characteristics vary according to different tribal traditions. Though supernatural, in the Māori world view they were seen as part of the natural environment. Taniwha have been described as fabulous monsters that live in deep water. Others refer to them as dragons – many taniwha looked like reptiles, had wings and ate people. They could also take the shape of animals such as sharks, whales, octopuses, or even logs. Some taniwha could change their shape, moving between different forms.
Taniwha were either male or female. They usually lived in or near the water – lakes, rivers or the sea. They hid in lairs known as rua taniwha, which could be deep pools, caves, or dangerous waterways – areas that people avoided.
In some traditions, taniwha were terrifying creatures that captured people and ate them. Occasionally, it was said that they would kidnap women to live with them as wives. These monsters would inevitably be killed and the women returned to their families.
Others were kaitiaki, or protectors of iwi (tribes) and hapū (sub-tribes). These ones were respected, and people who passed by their dens would say the appropriate karakia (charm) and leave an offering, often a green twig.
Taniwha and chiefs
Taniwha were also a symbol for great chiefs. There is a proverb from Waikato:
Waikato taniwha rau, he piko he taniwha.
Waikato of a hundred taniwha, every bend a taniwha.
For some this refers to the many taniwha of the Waikato River, while for others it is about the many important chiefs of the area.
This figure of speech is used in laments for chiefs who have passed on, such as this one for Te Haupā, chief of the Ngāti Pāoa tribe:
Unuhia noatia te taniwha i te rua.
Withdrawn now is the dragon from his lair. 1