‘Te aitanga pepeke’ (the insect world) refers to a wide range of insects and other creatures in the Māori world that share certain features: they have four or more legs, sit in a crouching position, and some can leap or jump. Mosquitoes, butterflies and moths, spiders and sandflies belong to this group.
The words used for this group of creatures refer to their characteristics:
- The root word ‘peke’ means to spring, leap or jump.
- Pepeke means to move quickly, and is used for the whole group of insects.
- Pēpeke (the first ‘e’ is long) means to draw up the legs or arms, or to crouch.
Whiro, Tāne and the army of insects
The insect world features in the Māori creation stories, particularly those about the rival brothers Tāne (god of the forest) and Whiro (god of the underworld).
In the narratives of the Wairarapa region, Whiro competed with Tāne to obtain the three baskets of whatukura (sacred knowledge) from the heavens. He sent a war party of insects – namu poto (small sandflies), naonao (midges), rō (stick insects), peketua (centipedes), pepe-te-nuinui (butterflies), and pekepeke-haratua (hopping things of the May season), as well as birds and bats. His aim was for them to pursue Tāne, strike his head and kill him, but they could not get close enough – Tāne called on the winds, who spun the army in circles.
The next battle
Having gained the baskets of knowledge, Tāne descended to the heaven known as Rangi-te-wanawana, only to be met by Whiro and a war party of beetles, including pekepeke-matarūwai (beetle with a silly face), pekepeke-haurutua (beetle with dew on it), pekepeke-harakuku (scraping beetle) and pekepeke-matanui (beetle with large face).
Tāne also defeated this army, and took Whiro’s army of birds and insects down to earth as prisoners. Among them were waeroa (mosquitoes), namu poto (small sandflies), naonao (midges), rō (stick insects), wētā, pepe (moths and butterflies), rango (blowflies) and kāwhitiwhiti (grasshoppers). There they dwelt among the trees under the care of Tāne, whose domain was the forests.
Māori know the bright star Antares as Rehua. It was linked with summer, when it became visible. ‘Ngā manu a Rehua’ (Rehua’s birds) is a term for the winged insects that appear in summer, such as kēkerewai (Pyronota festiva), a small green beetle found on mānuka trees, and tūtaeruru (Costelytra zealandica), a night-flying beetle.
Tāne and Tangaroa
Tāne also battled with his brother Tangaroa, god of the sea. Tangaroa’s ocean-dwelling children included the families of lizards and fish. When Tāwhirimātea the wind god attacked the sea with storms, the fish decided to stay there, but the lizards moved into the forests. In retaliation Tangaroa waged war by wearing away the land with large oceans that swept away the forests, drowning birds and insects. Inside the broken tree trunks were two of Tāne’s descendants – tātaka, the larva of the huhu beetle (Prionoplus reticularis), and pepe (a butterfly). Tangaroa engulfed them, casting them to the hungry mouths of the fish. Tāne struck back – he allowed the trees to be made into canoes, hooks and spears, so that humans could snare and catch fish, the sons of Tangaroa.