Story: Tapa whenua – naming places

Page 3. Traditions and place names from Polynesia

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Sometimes entire Polynesian traditions were taken to new islands. For example, on the island of Taha‘a in Tahiti a taniwha named ‘Aifa‘arua‘i is said to have terrorised people travelling between Taha‘a and Motue‘a. It was killed by a man from Ara‘ura. The tradition was carried to New Zealand, where Kaiwhakaruaki was a taniwha who lived in the Parapara Stream, in Aorere (Golden Bay). It attacked and ate people travelling between Parapara and Motueka, and was killed by a man from Arahura.

Place names

Other names were relocated because of the characteristics they described. Islands at the entrance of Polynesian harbours were named Motutapu (sacred island), and were sanctuaries where voyagers could rest or regroup before reaching the mainland. There are Motutapu islands at the entrance to Tongatapu harbour in Tonga, the Te Avanui passage in Borabora, and in the Te Arearahi passage between Ra‘iatea and Taha‘a. In New Zealand, Motutapu stands at the entrance to Waitematā Harbour, and is also an island off the north-east of the South Island. Inland, the ancestors gave the name Motutapu to island bastions in lakes Te Rotoruanui-a-Kahumatamomoe and Wānaka.

Place-name clusters

Hikurangi and Aorangi

Hikurangi and Aorangi were a pair of names transferred from Tahiti via Rarotonga to different parts of New Zealand. Aorangi and Hikurangi are mountain names of special significance to Māori. Te Hokuwai of Te Āti Haunui-a-Pāpārangi said the first light of creation shone upon Hikurangi:

Ka tau te rangi
Te ata tuhi
Te ata rapa
Te ata ka māhina
Ka māhina te ata i Hikurangi.
The heavens settled
The dawn began to glow
The dawn began to flash
The early morning light shone on Hikurangi.

The ancestors of Māori carried the names of these two mountains across the Pacific Ocean.

Aora‘i is the second-highest mountain in Tahiti, and Hi‘ura‘i stands nearby. The pairing next appears in Rarotonga, where ‘Ikurangi is the high peak overlooking the capital, Avarua. Arorangi stands on the other side of the island. Hikurangi mountains in particular are guardian mountains.

Tamatea translocated

New Zealand’s longest place name is Taumata-whakatangihanga-kōauau-o-tamatea-turi-pūkaka-piki-maunga-horonuku-pōkai-whenua-ki-tānatahu (the place where Tamatea, the man with the big knees, who slid, climbed and swallowed mountains, known as landeater, played his flute to his loved one). Ngāti Kahungunu claim that the name refers to their ancestor Tamatea, while the Rangitāne tribe say the name should be Tānenui-a-rangi, their ancestor.

In the North Island of New Zealand, Hikurangi and Aorangi are side-by-side in the Ruahine and Raukūmara ranges, and several other locations visited by the ancestor Tamatea. The two names were also taken to the South Island along the trade routes forged by Tahumatua, Tahupōtiki, and Tamatea-pōkaiwhenua of Ngāti Kahungunu. Hikuraki is found in Pelorus Sound and the Wairau River, and was once the name of Banks Peninsula and a small lake in Southland. Aoraki/Mt Cook is the tallest mountain in the South Island.

Other names

Some name clusters have been translocated without corresponding legends or traditions. For instance, Rarotonga’s Atiu island and Ahuahu (an early name for Mangaia) are repeated in New Zealand’s Atiu and Ahuahu in the Mercury Islands group.

How to cite this page:

Rāwiri Taonui, 'Tapa whenua – naming places - Traditions and place names from Polynesia', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 5 March 2024)

Story by Rāwiri Taonui, published 24 Nov 2008