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 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Withdrawn now is the dragon from his lair. 1
Many taniwha were associated with the sea. A large number were said to have come with the voyaging canoes that brought the Polynesian ancestors of the Māori people to Aotearoa (New Zealand).
Kupe was the great navigator who is reputed to have discovered New Zealand while travelling in the Matawhaorua canoe. He placed one of his guardian taniwha, Tuhirangi, in Cook Strait. Tuhirangi guided and protected canoes, and was later believed to have reappeared in the form of a well-known dolphin named Pelorus Jack, which accompanied ships in this stretch of water.
Āraiteuru was a female taniwha, believed to have escorted the Māmari canoe to New Zealand from Hawaiki. In other traditions Āraiteuru and another taniwha named Ruamano guided the Tākitimu canoe.
When she arrived, Āraiteuru gave birth to 11 sons. All went exploring, and on the way they dug trenches – creating the branches of the Hokianga Harbour. One son, Waihou, burrowed inland and lashed his tail about to form Lake Ōmāpere. Another, Ōhopa, was angered by the large number of rocks he encountered, and came to hate all living things. He terrorised the people near the Panguru mountains.
Āraiteuru was a guardian of the Hokianga Harbour, and had her lair in a cave there. She lived at the south head of the harbour, and her companion, known by some as Niua, lived in the north head.
Whātaitai and Ngake were also sea taniwha who created Wellington Harbour. In tradition, the harbour was once a lake in which these taniwha lived. But Ngake was restless and smashed his way through to nearby Cook Strait. Whātaitai tried to get out a different way and became stranded on dry ground. It is said that his spirit took the form of a bird named Te Keo, which flew to the top of Wellington’s Mt Victoria and mourned (tangi), hence the name of the mountain, Tangi te keo.
Taniwha were also believed to inhabit lakes, rivers and other freshwater areas.
Te Tau-a-Porirua was a taniwha from Heretaunga (Hastings), said to live on the Ruataniwha plains. A chief named Tara was responsible for capturing this taniwha, which had killed many people. Tara made a giant hīnaki (eel pot), put in 200 dogs as bait and set the pot in the Roto-a-Tara lake. Lured by the dogs, the taniwha entered the trap. Tara then dragged the creature ashore and killed it. When it was cut open, more than 200 victims were found inside. They were buried, and the taniwha was eaten by Tara and his people.
Hine-kōrako was a female taniwha who married a human named Tāne-kino. They had a child named Taurenga. Some of Tāne-kino’s relatives insulted Hine-kōrako, so she left and went to live under Te Rēinga waterfall in Wairoa. But she remembered her ties to the community when the Wairoa River was in flood, threatening the lives of some. An old man called out to her as a canoe was being swept towards the falls. She managed to slow the canoe and then push it upstream so that those on board were saved.
In the 1870s, Mohi Tūrei, an elder of Ngāti Porou, sent a letter in to the Māori language newspaper Te Waka Maori o Niu Tirani. He described the case of a girl who was said to have been killed by a taniwha.
On 20 December 1876, four young girls had gone to bathe in a waterhole at Waipapa. This spot was renowned as the lair of a taniwha named Tāminamina. While three of the girls began to bathe, the fourth, Mereana, swam to the other side of the waterhole, climbed out onto the rocks, and began sucking nectar from the red flowers of the sacred rātā tree. Suddenly, she slipped back into the water. Her friend Rāhera tried to grab her, but failed. The two other girls screamed, because they saw the water whirling near where she had fallen, and knew it to be the taniwha named Tāminamina who had got their friend.
Rāhera dived to find her, but could not. Rāhera swam to shallow waters and then saw the water was rising into waves. Days later Mereana was found, back on the rock where she had slipped. But when a group came to get her body, she had once again disappeared. An elder believed she had been taken by the taniwha as punishment for sucking the flowers of the sacred rātā tree.
It was believed that many taniwha took the form of giant reptiles. They were known as ngārara, and less commonly as kumi. One that is known by tribes throughout New Zealand is Ngārara Huarau.
In one tradition, Ngārara Huarau wreaked havoc first at Waimārama in Hawke’s Bay before visiting his sister, Pari-ka-whiti, in the Wairarapa. When he left his cave in Waimārama, his scales remained and became tuatara (lizard-like reptiles). He began to eat passing travellers until eventually one escaped and returned home, alerting his people. The chief of the village came up with a strategy to capture and kill the taniwha.
Along the path used by Ngārara Huarau a number of trees were cut almost to the point of falling. A spell was cast on a dog, which was then sent to the taniwha’s cave. It barked, provoking the taniwha to give chase. Pursuing the dog, Ngārara Huarau reached the cut trees and struck them, making them fall. He tried to wriggle out, but all the trees fell and crushed him.
Takere-piripiri looked like a giant tuatara with a spiky tail. He acted as guardian at Ōtautahanga pā, a stronghold of the Ngāti Raukawa tribe. The people prospered under his protection, and would place a basket of the best food below the walls of his cave. One day, a gift of eels was mostly eaten by the people who brought it – all that was left were the eel heads. In his anger Takere-piripiri ate those who had taken his food. He then went to the Maungakawa Range, where he began to eat the travellers passing by. Eventually, warriors from the Ngāti Hauā tribe trapped him in a giant, cage-like eel pot, and speared him to death.
Some taniwha took the shape of sharks. The northern bay of Mangōnui (meaning great shark) is named after a guardian taniwha, in the form of a giant shark, that accompanied the canoe Riukaramea into the harbour. There are several stories of these taniwha in Māori tradition.
‘Pānia of the Reef’ is one of the great romantic stories in Māori tradition. Pānia was a sea maiden who swam ashore at sunset and returned to the sea before dawn. She would hide in a clump of flax beside a freshwater spring at the foot of Hukarere cliff in Napier. One day Karitoki, a chief in the area, was thirsty and came to the spring for a drink. He caught sight of Pānia, and took her home to be his wife. But every morning Pānia would return to the sea.
After some time Pānia had a son, Moremore, who was without hair. The chief worried that he might lose his son and wife to the sea people. He consulted a tohunga, who told him that if he placed cooked food on the mother and child while they slept, they would never return to the sea. He did this, but the ritual did not work and Pānia was turned into a rock, forever in the ocean. Moremore became a taniwha in the form of a shark. He lived in a cave in the sea, and his descendants used to frequent the Ahuriri harbour. He was a kaitiaki (guardian), patrolling the coastal waters and inner harbours while his people fished and gathered seafood.
Tūtaeporoporo, the renowned taniwha of the Whanganui River, also began life as a shark. A chief named Tuariki caught a shark and kept him as pet in a nearby river. The shark soon grew until he was as large as a whale. Then he began to change, with hard, spiky skin, bat-like wings, a lizard-like tail, webbed feet and claws like a hawk’s. His head became like that of a featherless bird, but he retained shark’s teeth.
Later the chief Tuariki was killed by warriors from Whanganui. Tūtaeporoporo set out to avenge his master’s death, making his way to the mouth of the Whanganui River. He made his home in a cave under a high cliff. After a while, some canoes came down the river. The taniwha swam out and, though the people tried to escape, he swallowed them and their canoes whole.
This was the first time he had tasted human flesh, and he liked it. He devoured everyone who travelled down the river. They began to look for ways to slay him. An old chief named Tama advised them to find Ao-kehu, renowned as a taniwha slayer. They did, and Ao-kehu returned with them to Whanganui, taking 70 people and two māripi (shark-tooth weapons). He got his people to take a log and hollow it out so that a man would fit inside. A lid was then made. Ao-kehu got in, the lid was fitted, and any holes in the log were filled with clay to make it watertight. The taniwha Tūtaeporoporo smelt Ao-kehu, and came down and swallowed the log. Then Ao-kehu used his māripi to cut the ties around his container and slash his way out of the taniwha’s stomach.
Tūtaeporoporo was soon defeated. When his body floated to the river bank, the people came and cut a hole in it. Inside they found people, canoes, weapons, tools and pounamu (greenstone) pendants. They buried the people, and left the body of the taniwha for the birds and fish.
In some traditions, taniwha took the shape of whales. One story tells of four such taniwha, Hine-kōtea, Hine-mākehu, Hine-kōrito and Hine-huruhuru, who escorted the voyaging canoe Tākitimu from Hawaiki, the Polynesian homeland. Another, Pane-iraira, was a taniwha who swam with the Tainui canoe from Hawaiki. The famed east coast ancestor, Kahutiaterangi, later known as Paikea, was rescued from drowning by a taniwha in the form of a whale.
In another story, Te Tahi-o-te-rangi, a well-known tohunga (priest) from Whakatāne, was abandoned by his people on Whakaari (White Island). He chanted a spell and called up the great whale-shaped taniwha Tūtarakauika, who took him back to the mainland.
It was believed that a taniwha that acted as a protector for Ngāti Tamaterā of Hauraki would take the form of a dolphin and play about in the river to warn its people of an impending invasion.
In the late 1800s and early 1900s a white dolphin known as Pelorus Jack guided ships across a dangerous stretch of water around French Pass, in the Marlborough Sounds. Some Māori believed that this dolphin was Tuhirangi, a taniwha that had escorted the explorer Kupe from the traditional homeland, Hawaiki. In 1900, a correspondent for the Māori-language newspaper Te Pipiwharauroa described this dolphin playfully escorting his steamer near the French Pass. He described it as an ‘ika tipua’ (supernatural fish) and suggested it could be a taniwha.
In the Far North in the summer of 1955–56, a friendly female dolphin delighted thousands of children and adults by playing with them in the sea at Opononi. Nicknamed Opo, she was believed by many Māori in the area to be a taniwha.
In 1907 Te Pipiwharauroa newspaper received a letter about a taniwha sighting at Waimārama. The taniwha, which emerged from the sea, had a head like a dog and fur on its body. It was killed by a local. The editor responded, ‘[K]o te ingoa o te taniwha na he kekeno he oioi ranei, he taniwha tapu, kua turengia e te Kawanatanga’ 1 (that ‘taniwha’ is either a sea lion or seal. It is a sacred ‘taniwha’ protected by law). He noted further ‘taniwha’ should be left alone to avoid prosecution.
Enchanted logs were known as rākau tipua. Other things such as fish, dogs, stones, trees, and mountains might also be described as tipua. For example, a kōhatu tipua was an enchanted rock. But rākau tipua in particular were usually thought to be taniwha.
Whaiwhaiā was an enchanted log which was mainly seen drifting in rivers in the Waikato area. However, it was believed to have travelled to other areas, including the South Island. Because of the numerous places it was seen, a saying arose: ‘Ngā paenga he rau o Whaiwhaiā’ (the many stranding places of Whaiwhaiā).
At Waikaremoana there was a log, known as Tūtaua, which would sing. When the ethnographer Elsdon Best heard it, he compared the sound to the whistling of the wind. Others would say, ‘Kō Tūtaua e waiata haere ana’ (it is Tūtaua singing as it goes).
A taniwha named Humuhumu acted as a guardian of the Māhuhu canoe on its voyage to New Zealand. Later he acted as a guardian for his people, Ngāti Whātua in Kaipara. He was seen as a tōtara log drifting in a lagoon near the harbour. Like other rākau tipua he was recognised as a taniwha because he moved against the currents. He was said to have finally disappeared because his people had taken shellfish from his lagoon.
Another enchanted log was Mataura, who would mourn the death of a chiefly person by appearing as a huge tree on the water.
Although many taniwha were kaitiaki, or protectors of iwi and hapū (tribes and sub-tribes), others were killers, sparking the need for heroic slayers. They often used ingenious methods to capture the dangerous creatures.
Hotupuku, a taniwha on the Kāingaroa Plains, was lured out by some fast runners acting as decoys. He raced into a large noose woven from cabbage tree leaves. Led by Pitaka, these slayers used a different method for a taniwha named Pekehaua in Rotorua. They wove a large basket from supplejack and bush lawyer, and decorated it with pigeon feathers. Some of the men climbed into the basket and were lowered into the depths of a spring, where they said karakia (charms) to weaken the taniwha. Pitaka placed a noose around the taniwha, tugged on the rope, and the rope was pulled up, killing the creature.
Here is a translation of a karakia (charm) to slay a taniwha.
The monster there!
Vast as a rock he lies!
How angrily his eyeballs glare!
How flash his fiery eyes!
Come Sleep, come Sleep;
Let the slumberous spells be laid
In depths below, in depths below;
Let Sleep be as of night,
Like the Great Night,
The Long Night,
The Sleep-bringing Night,
Sleep on – sleep on! 1
Kaiwhare was a taniwha who lived near Manukau Harbour in an underwater cave and blowhole, named the Gap, south of Piha. After being lured out, he was killed by a man named Tāmure with a special mere (club) that had the power to destroy taniwha.
Te Kaiwhakaruaki was a fearsome taniwha who lived near Collingwood, in Golden Bay. A seal hunter tried to slay him by punching him in the snout. The first blow hurt the taniwha, but on the second blow the hunter’s hand went into the taniwha’s gaping mouth, along with the rest of him. Pōtoru, a chief from Arahura, had a more successful strategy. His party divided into three, the first to lure the taniwha into a trap, and the other two groups to flank him – one would attack and as he swung to them they would retreat and the other group would attack. This plan succeeded and the beast was slain. In many cases, like the dragon slayers of old, these heroes also rescued maidens from the clutches of the taniwha, and were rewarded with their love.
In the early 2000s, two construction projects caused debate because they were planned for areas where taniwha were believed to live.
In 2002, the Ngāti Naho hapū in Waikato objected to construction of a highway in a particular area, because it would destroy the lair of one of their taniwha, known as Karutahi. Eventually, Transit New Zealand agreed to partially reroute the highway.
The building of a prison in Ngāwhā, Northland, was also opposed because of belief in a taniwha. Takauere, a taniwha in the form of a log, was said to have been created by a Ngāpuhi ancestress, Kareariki. While he was mainly located at Lake Ōmāpere he was also believed to manifest himself at Ngāwhā Springs and other geothermal areas. Local hapū were concerned that the prison would impede his travel. Ultimately, against these objections the prison was built.
In both cases, raising taniwha as an objection led to controversy. Some people suggested that the objection was an attempt to get compensation, and that the taniwha could be paid to go away. Even among Māori there was disagreement as to whether the concerns about taniwha were genuine or not.
Witi Ihimaera, author of The whale rider, says that he has a kaitiaki (guardian) which is a taniwha. Her name is Hine Te Ariki and she lives in the Waipāoa River.
When Tahu Pōtiki was chief executive officer of the administrative body of the Ngāi Tahu people, he expressed disbelief in taniwha. However, he noted that ‘the old Maori view of the world allowed for taniwha, as they explained descent lines from the gods.’ 1
While debate continues, taniwha continue to play an important role in the cultural identity of many tribal groups.
Orbell, Margaret. A concise encyclopedia of Māori myth and legend. Christchurch: Canterbury University Press, 1998.
Reed, A. W. Reed book of Māori mythology, revised by Ross Calman. Auckland: Reed, 2004.