Story: Tapa whenua – naming places

Page 2. Names from Polynesian mythology

All images & media in this story

Polynesian settlers often gave names from the Māui mythological tradition to the New Zealand landscape. Māui is the trickster hero of Polynesian myth, and oral traditions about him are also found as far west as Yap in Micronesia and as far east as Mangareva in French Polynesia, east of Tahiti. About 4,000 years old, these traditions were taken from island to island over centuries of migration.

Māui’s fish

The most common tradition tells how Māui fished up land from the sea. The North Island is called Te Ika-a-Māui (the fish of Māui), and takes the form of a giant stingray. When the explorer James Cook asked Māori the name of the North Island he wrote down ‘Eaheinomauwe’. He may have heard either He Mea-hī-nō-Māui (the things Māui fished up) or Te Ahi-a-Māui (the fires of Māui) – referring to Māui having brought fire to the world and the volcanic nature of much of the island. The South Island is Te Waka-a-Māui, the canoe from which Māui caught his prize. Rakiura (Stewart Island) is Te Punga-a-Māui, the canoe’s anchor stone.


Hawaiki was the most significant name transferred from Polynesia. In mythology it is the place from which all bounty came, including life, food and treasures. Ancestors referred to it as the source of life and destination of the dead – a paradise to which the spirits returned. The concept was so important that the name was given to many islands and places during migrations across the Pacific.

The earliest Polynesian name for Hawaiki was Sawaiki, probably given to the Lau islands of eastern Fiji. This is possibly where the first Polynesians crossed over to Tonga and Samoa. People named the islands they subsequently discovered after this first Hawaiki, including:

  • Savai‘i in Samoa
  • Havaiki in Niue
  • Savaiki in Tongareva
  • Havai‘i, the old name for Ra‘iatea in Tahiti
  • Havaiki, the atoll Fakarava in Tuamotu
  • Havaiki in the Marquesas
  • Hawai‘i
  • ‘Avaiki in Mangareva
  • ‘Avaiki, the spiritual name for the islands of Rarotonga.

There are several places called Hawaiki in New Zealand, including at Maketū, Aotea Harbour, Lake Rotongāio, Motutapu Island in the Hauraki Gulf, and the Auckland suburb of Mt Eden.

Sound switch

Māori share many place names with other Polynesians. But how can Whangaroa, Fagaloa, Fa‘aroa, Hangaroa and Hanaloa be the same name? While Māori is closely related to other Polynesian languages, some letters used in Māori are slightly different in those languages. H in Māori becomes S or F; R can become L; NG turns into G; W into V; and WH into F or H. All of these except W can also be replaced with a glottal stop.

Te Rerenga Wairua

Guardian mountains on the west coast of Rarotonga, including Maunga Piko, Maunga Tea, Maunga Ko‘u and Te Rēinga-a-Pora, stand above a distinctive black rock called Te Rerenga Vairua. This was where spirits were said to depart to the paradise of ‘Avaiki. The same name pattern is repeated in New Zealand, where Maunga Piko, Whangakea, Maunga Kohu-a-naki and Te Rēinga stand as sentinels along the eastern and western pathways to Te Rerenga Wairua (the spirit’s leap), at Cape Rēinga.

How to cite this page:

Rāwiri Taonui, 'Tapa whenua – naming places - Names from Polynesian mythology', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 21 April 2024)

Story by Rāwiri Taonui, published 24 Nov 2008