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Te aitanga pepeke – the insect world

by  Bradford Haami

Why do sandflies bite us so fiercely? They are taking revenge on Tū, the god of humankind, for killing Namuiria, the first sandfly. Midges, moths, cicadas, mosquitoes and other insects feature in many traditional Māori stories, especially the battles fought by Tāne, guardian of the forest and its tiny creatures.

What is te aitanga pepeke?

‘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.

Summer bugs

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.

Insects and canoes

Insects play a role in two traditional stories of voyaging canoes. The first is about respecting nature, and the second explains how insects came to New Zealand.

Rātā and the multitude

‘Te Tini o Hakuturi’ means ‘the multitude of bow-legged ones’, which included insects, birds and fairy spirits. They had the task of avenging any desecration of the forest’s sacredness.

An old tradition tells of a man named Rātā, who did not say the required incantations before he felled a large tree in the forest, cutting off its branches to make a canoe from the trunk. The insects and birds were angry, and after Rātā had retired for the day, they raised the tree up again, calling on all the branches and broken pieces to bind together. Twice Rātā felled the tree, and twice the multitude of Hakuturi raised it up.

Finally Rātā hid, and saw the forest creatures raising the tree. He accused them of interfering in his work. The creatures asked him, ‘What authority do you have to fell the forest god to the ground? You had no right to do so.’ Rātā was so overcome with shame and remorse that Te Tini o Hakuturi told him they would build him a canoe, if he returned to his village. The ornamental stern and prow of the vessel were carved by the spiders (pūngāwerewere).

This story is one of many throughout Polynesia that explain proper conduct. It emphasises the importance of paying respect to your kinsfolk and the forest trees, and the importance of placating the spirit world before taking something from nature.

Biters on board

In one tradition, an ancestor named Manaia brought the namu (sandfly) and waeroa (mosquito), whose bites cause intense itching, to New Zealand on his canoe. He did this as an act of revenge against some of the tribes who had not invited him to join in their hākari (feasts). He released them in the Bay of Islands, in the north, and from there they are said to have spread far and wide.

How insects arrived in New Zealand

A Ngāti Porou tribal account describes how the Māngarara canoe, led by Wheketoro and other chiefs, brought insects and reptiles to New Zealand from Polynesia. On board were the insect family of weri (centipedes), whē (caterpillars) and other crawling species, and the reptile family, including teretere (geckos) and tuatara. The Māngārara left Hawaiki, the traditional homeland of Māori, and came to Whanga-o-keno island on the East Cape. Before travelling on to the mainland, Wheketoro left most of his insect and reptile passengers on the island, to save them from ‘the plundering propensity of man.’ 1

  1. John White, The ancient history of the Maori, his mythology and traditions. Vol. 2. Wellington: Government Printer, 1887, p. 189. › Back


Kūmara or sphinx moth (hīhue)

The origins of many insects are explained in tribal narratives and whakapapa (genealogies).

The Ngāti Awa tribe have a whakapapa for the kūmara (sweet potato) and the caterpillars that live on it. For example, according to the Ngāti Awa whakapapa concerning the origin of the kūmara, Whānui (the star Vega) is known as the celestial parent of the kūmara. One day, Whānui’s younger brother Rongomāui stole some kūmara tubers and took them to the earth as a food source for mankind. Whānui was so angered that he sent three creatures, Anuhe, Toronū and Moko, down to earth in punishment for the theft. Ever since then, they have ravaged the leaves of the kūmara. They are all the caterpillars of the kūmara moth (Agrius convolvuli).

Pūriri moth (pepetuna)

According to a Ngāti Kahungunu tradition, an ancestor named Hinepeke (jumping woman) married Tūteahuru, a grandson of Tāne, god of the forest. They produced a vast number of insects and lizards that dwell within the earth, on the land or stones, and in the water.

One descendant was the pepetuna, commonly known as the pūriri moth or ghost moth (Aenetus virescens), a parasite of pūriri trees. Because it flies at dusk and into the night, commonly regarded as the realm of spirits, the pepetuna was known as a spiritual messenger, or a ghost of an ancestor returning to visit his or her descendants. This giant moth has huge, bright green wings that may span 15 centimetres.

Meaning of pepetuna

Pepetuna means ‘eel moth’: the caterpillars were used as bait for eels. The term could also be a reference to the fact that they are eaten by migrating eels that head for the sea on rainy nights, between September and January. This is the time when the moths lay their eggs as they fly through the forest. They then die, falling to the forest floor.

Damaging trees

After the eggs hatch, the anuhe or larvae, known as mokoroa, gnaw into the trunks of trees such as the pūriri and tītoki. They live on the sap of the tree, eventually causing its death and decay – hence the saying ‘he iti mokoroa e hinga pūriri’ (the little mokoroa grub fells a pūriri tree). This reminds people that small things can have a big impact.

Mosquitoes and sandflies

In a whakapapa (genealogical narrative) from the Tūhoe region, certain insects originate from Haumia, god of the bracken fern rarauhe and its edible root, aruhe. Haumia gave rise to te mōnehu (the fine, rusty fern spores), who produced the biting insects waeroa (mosquito) and namu (sandfly), along with rōtāne (male mantis), pūngāwerewere (spider) and other insects.

These creatures are strongly associated with their fern habitat, which sheltered them. Also, to relieve the intensely itchy bite of the mosquito and sandfly, Māori would rub moisture from the bruised fronds of the bracken fern onto the skin.

Attacking humans

An old tradition explains the origins of the fierce bite of these insects. The god of humans, Tūmatauenga (Tū), killed Namuiria, the first sandfly, when the creature stole his spiritual essence. In retaliation, the tribes of Waeroa (mosquitoes) and Namu (sandflies) attacked the sons of Tū – humankind. Waeroa suggested striking at night, as his army might perish in the daylight. But Namu said, ‘Let us fight in the light of day. I am going while it’s light. Although I will die in great numbers, what does it matter, so long as his blood flows? If you attack at night, when the fires are burning, you will be smothered in smoke.’

The army of sandflies set out in daylight and were defeated by Tū, dying in their thousands. Waeroa observed their downfall and commented in a song that it was better for the mosquito to wait for the darkness of night and hum in the ears of humans, even though he might be suffocated with smoke. The sandfly repeated, ‘What does it matter, brother, if I am killed, as long his blood gushes forth? None but the offspring of Mahuika [fire] shall stop me from fighting. Only then will I flee, and you will run too.’ That is why the sandfly bites in the daytime, and the mosquito at night.

  1. Te Pēhi (Elsdon Best), Tuhoe: the children of the mist. Te Whanganui-a-Tara: Board of Maori Ethnological Research, Te Rōpū Poronihiana, 1925, wh. 778; 993. › Back

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Bradford Haami, 'Te aitanga pepeke – the insect world', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 26 July 2024)

Story by Bradford Haami, published 24 September 2007