The rising of the sun, the journey it makes across the sky, and its setting in the west is a cosmic mystery. Because this cycle is repeated every day, traditional Māori considered it the basic principle of the world. The sun represents the birth and growth of mana (power) in the world. The birth, rise and death of the sun came to be the primary model for all existence – all of life should in some way give expression to this pattern.
When an orator rises to speak on a marae, he will often announce himself by saying:
Ki te whaiao, ki Te Ao Mārama
The breath, the energy of life
To the dawnlight, to the world of light
The words refer to a world constantly emerging from darkness into light.
The orator’s speech is considered to be a re-enactment of Tāne separating earth and sky, the means by which light came into the world. Tāne was the father of humankind. When he separated his parents, Papatūānuku (the earth mother) and Ranginui (the sky father), the sun was able to shine into the world that was created. If the orator’s words offer guidance and wisdom, he brings his audience out of the ‘night’ of conflict and into the ‘day’ of peace and resolution. This occurs when mana (a spiritual force) enters the person – just as the sun illuminates and brings forth the new day.
Looking back on history, we try to imagine the world view of the people of that time. Inevitably we see the past, or a traditional philosophy of life, through the lens of our own knowledge and experience. A people’s world view is complex and dynamic.
The world view of Māori changed immediately after they arrived in New Zealand. Encounter with European settlers brought further change. It is not possible to say that there is a single viewpoint in Māori culture today. The ideas set out here are only an attempt to understand the world view of Māori before Europeans arrived.
In traditional Māori knowledge, as in many cultures, everything in the world is believed to be related. People, birds, fish, trees, weather patterns – they are all members of a cosmic family.
This linking was explained in tātai (genealogies) and kōrero (stories), collectively termed whakapapa (meaning to make a foundation, to place in layers). Experts recited the whakapapa of people, birds, fish, trees and the weather to explain the relationships between all things and thus to place themselves within the world. This helped people to understand the world, and how to act within these relationships.
The entire world was seen as a vast and complex whānau (family). In the Māori story of creation, the earth and sky came together and gave birth to some 70 children, who eventually thrust apart their parents and populated the world. Each of the children became the god of a particular domain of the natural world. Their children and grandchildren then became ancestors in that domain. For example, Tangaroa, god of the sea, had a son called Punga. Punga then had two children: Ikatere, who became the ancestor of the fish of the sea, and Tūtewehiwehi, who became the ancestor of the fish and amphibious lizards of inland waterways.
Whakapapa (genealogies and stories) express our need for kinship with the world. They describe the relationships between humans and the rest of nature. In one tradition, some tribal groups and the fish of the sea claim descent from Tangaroa, the god of the sea.
Whakapapa also explain the origins of animals, plants and features of the landscape. To tell a story about the origin of a bird, for example, is to invoke its true essence or character.
Although many of the stories are myths, they also have a practical function. They can pass on knowledge about the natural world, such as where to find kererū (New Zealand pigeons) and how to harvest them.
Although science is another way of understanding the natural world, the traditional principle of interconnectedness is still important and meaningful to Māori. For example, the genealogy of fish and sea animals makes clear the kinship of people and other creatures. It also points out values that guide people’s interaction with other species, teaching respect and correct conduct.
As the sun rises each morning and sets each evening, the world follows a daily cycle of light (Te Ao) and darkness (Te Pō). Māori creation stories emphasise this movement from nothingness and darkness to the world of light – Te Ao Mārama. It is said that the world itself is created each morning with the rise of the sun.
In traditional Māori belief there is something beyond the world of everyday experience: we do not live in a closed system where what we see is all there is. This other world or dimension is known as Te Kore, the ‘void’, in most tribal traditions.
Cleve Barlow has suggested that Te Kore means chaos – a state which has always existed and which contains ‘unlimited potential for being’. 1 Māori Marsden, a Tai Tokerau elder and Anglican minister, had a similar belief. He said that Te Korekore (a variant of Te Kore) was ‘the realm between non-being and being: that is the realm of potential being.’ 2
Some believe that Te Kore is where the ultimate reality can be found. Others think that it is where Io, the Supreme Being, dwells. The idea of Te Kore is central to notions of mana (status), tapu (sacred and restricted customs) and mauri (life force).
Until the arrival of Europeans in the late 1700s, Māori held a world view that originated in their Polynesian homeland. This grew and changed according to life in the new land. The Polynesian influence is still widely evident, although it is challenged by some.
Some iwi (tribes) hold that their ancestors did not come from over the sea, but sprang from the New Zealand landscape. For example, the Ngāi Tūhoe people claim that their ancestor is Hinepūkohurangi, the mist that dwells in the valleys of the Urewera Ranges. Similarly, Ngāti Whātua tradition states that their ancestor, Tuputupu-whenua, came up from beneath the ground. Some Whanganui traditions speak of the inland mountains as their place of birth.
The world is a vast family, and humans are children of the earth and sky, and cousins to all living things. Such unity means that nature is the ultimate teacher about life.
Traditional knowledge is inspired by heritage, passed down the generations by word of mouth. There is no alternative – to ensure success in fishing, long journeys, or handling life’s challenges, you have to trust your ancestors, who include the entire natural world.
Humans are born of the earth and achieve fulfilment when the earth speaks through the human community. True tangata whenua (people of the land) can speak authoritatively about the world they inhabit – the animals, plants, weather patterns and natural rhythms of life. Tangata whenua are descendants of other tangata whenua, and know the histories of their forebears and how life spoke through them.
According to this world view, when people are asked about their identity, they do not mention themselves directly. They refer to their mountain, their river, and their esteemed ancestor. For example, a Ngāti Tūwharetoa person from the Taupō region would respond in this way:
Ko Tongariro te maunga
Ko Taupō te moana
Ko Te Heuheu te tangata.
Tongariro is the mountain
Taupō is the waterway
Te Heuheu is the person.
Mana refers to an extraordinary power, essence or presence. This applies to the energies and presences of the natural world. There are degrees of mana and our experiences of it, and life seems to reach its fullness when mana comes into the world.
The most important mana comes from Te Kore – the realm beyond the world we can see, and sometimes thought to be the ‘ultimate reality’.
Certain restrictions, disciplines and commitments have to take place if mana is to be expressed in physical form, such as in a person or object. The concepts of sacredness, restriction and disciplines fall under the term tapu. For example, mountains that were important to particular tribal groups were often tapu, and the activities that took place on these mountains were restricted.
Mauri is an energy which binds and animates all things in the physical world. Without mauri, mana cannot flow into a person or object.
The idea that mana can flow into the world through tapu and mauri underpinned most of Māori daily life. For example, sacred stones possessing mauri were placed in fishing nets, where they were able to attract fish. The stones were placed in bird snares for the same purpose. When fish arrived in the nets or birds in the snares, Māori saw something more than just the creatures before them – they saw energy within these physical forms. The harvest of fish was the arrival of Tangaroa, god of the sea, which meant the arrival of mana.
Mauri stones were also used to prepare people who would receive mana. In the traditional whare wānanga (school of learning), small pebbles (whatu) were used in a student’s initiation ceremony. It was believed that when the student swallowed the pebbles, the mauri in them was taken into the stomach, establishing the conditions whereby mana in the form of knowledge and learning could come into the person. This is the theory behind Māori meditation practices, known as nohopuku (to dwell inwardly, in the stomach).
Taniwha are ferocious creatures or guardians, representing the life force (mauri) of a place in physical form. They were seen as a constant presence in waterways, ensuring that fish and other resources remain plentiful.
Tohunga (priests and other experts) were able to harness mauri and cause it to enter a boulder, a tree or a fish. This had such a powerful effect that the object seemed to take on a life of its own. There are many stories of trees moving against river currents and having a supernatural aspect, leading to a belief that these objects were taniwha.
Taniwha were closely linked to the local chief, who was also known as a taniwha. The fertility of a region was seen as directly linked to the mana of that land and its chief, who would control the taniwha in the river. This is important in the concept of tangata whenua (people of the land). Only tangata whenua could control the mauri, and therefore the fertility, of their region.
Barlow, Cleve. Tikanga whakaaro: key concepts in Māori culture. Auckland: Oxford University Press, 1994.
Marsden, Māori. ‘God, man and universe: a Maori view.’ In Te ao hurihuri: aspects of Maoritanga, edited by Michael King, 118–138. Auckland: Reed, 1992.
Marsden, Māori. The woven universe: selected writings of Rev. Māori Marsden, edited by Te Ahukaramū Charles Royal. Ōtaki: Estate of Rev. Māori Marsden, 2003.
On the Ministry of Justice site, this article includes a section on traditional Māori concepts.