Story: Te Waonui a Tāne – forest mythology

Page 1. Tāne and his forests

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Encountering the bush

When the ancestors of Māori arrived in New Zealand, they found it was very different from their Polynesian homeland. They had been primarily seafaring people, but on these larger, colder islands, they also needed to know about the bush.

Understanding the forest was vital to life. As Māori explored and learnt about the forests, Tāne, the god of the forest, found an important place in tribal consciousness and traditions. People developed a reverence for and knowledge of te waonui-a-Tāne – the great forest of Tāne.

Tāne in tribal traditions

Tāne is a figure of great importance in tribal traditions. Tāne separated earth and sky and brought this world into being; he fashioned the first human; he adorned the heavens, and brought the baskets of knowledge, wisdom and understanding down from the sky to human beings.

Tāne is sometimes given different names to reflect his different roles. He is called Tāne-mahuta as god of the forest, Tāne-te-wānanga as the bringer of knowledge, and Tānenui-a-rangi as bringer of higher consciousness.

Tāne as a model

Tāne is a model for masculinity and action in the world. His various names suggest freshness, youth, someone who can overcome others’ actions, and who is true, loyal and authentic. He is seen as upright and able to bear the weight of an enterprise; he has his roots in the earth and his head in the heavens.

Creation traditions

In most Māori creation traditions, Tāne separated earth and sky. His parents, Ranginui (sky father) and Papatūānuku (earth mother), had produced many children while lying in a close embrace. The children became frustrated with living in darkness between their parents, and decided to push the pair apart.

This creation story by Wiremu Maihi Te Rangikāheke of Te Arawa tells how Tāne’s brothers tried and failed to separate earth and sky:

Rongomātāne arose to separate the two, but the two were not separated. Tangaroa arose to separate the two but they were not separated. Haumia-tiketike arose but the result was the same. Tūmatauenga arose and the result was the same. Finally, Tāne-mahuta arose… 1

It was Tāne who successfully separated Ranginui and Papatūānuku, and created Te Ao Mārama – the world of light.

Trees in the forest

Trees in the forest are seen as Tāne-mahuta, rising to separate earth and sky. Tāne, the tree, holds the sky aloft, bringing light into the world. The widespread felling of forests in New Zealand in the 19th and 20th centuries was calamitous to the traditional world view of tribes that lived in the forest – it was like the sky rejoining the earth, and the world returning to darkness.

The felling of forests also went against traditional models of behaviour. The word ‘tika’ means erect, upright and correct – as a tree is upright and erect. It informs the concepts of tikanga – correct behaviour or action – and whakatika, which means to arise. Correct behaviours arise from within a person, as a tree rises from the ground.

  1. George Grey, Polynesian mythology and ancient traditional history of the New Zealand race: as furnished by their priests and chiefs. Hamilton: University of Waikato Library, 1995 (originally published 1885), p. 8. Translation by Te Ahukaramū Charles Royal. › Back
How to cite this page:

Te Ahukaramū Charles Royal, 'Te Waonui a Tāne – forest mythology - Tāne and his forests', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 14 April 2024)

Story by Te Ahukaramū Charles Royal, published 24 Sep 2007