Story: Traditional Māori religion – ngā karakia a te Māori

Page 1. Ngā atua – the gods

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At the centre of Māori religion were the atua or gods. In Māori belief the natural and supernatural worlds were one – there was no Māori word for religion. The use of the term ‘whakapono’ for religion was introduced by missionaries. Whakapono also means faith and trust.

Te Kore

Accounts of creation usually began with Te Kore (chaos, or the void), then Te Pō (the night), and then Te Ao Mārama (the world of light). This proceeded over eons of time. There are numerous stages of Te Kore, Te Pō and Te Ao Mārama recorded in different whakapapa, with each stage begetting the next. Sequences vary in different tribal retellings.

Rangi, Papa and their children

A significant creation story concerns Rangi and Papa. Ranginui (sky father) and Papatūānuku (earth mother) were locked in an eternal embrace. Their children, the departmental gods, were trapped between them in eternal darkness, and decided to try and separate their parents. The children (except Tāwhirimātea) tried and failed to separate them. Then Tāne used his legs to push the sky apart from the earth.

Tāwhirimātea became god of the wind, Tāne god of the forest, Tangaroa god of the sea, Rongo god of cultivated foods and Haumia god of uncultivated foods.

Other significant gods were the war gods, Maru, Uenuku and Kahukura.

Gods and whakapapa

In Māori tradition all living things were linked through whakapapa. Tāne, the god of the forest, shaped the first woman, Hineahuone, from soil and took her as his wife. They became the ancestors of human beings.

In another tradition it is a different god, Tiki, from whom humans descend. There are whakapapa that show how people, birds, fish, trees and natural phenomena are all related.

Godly tics

People searching for evidence of Māori having one supreme being, Io, have researched early manuscripts. Missionary John White recorded the term ‘io’ in an account of Ngāti Ruanui traditions. The manuscript includes interpretations of omens such as muscular twitches in various parts of the body. Some twitches are termed io, and occasionally the word has an initial capital. But as scholars have pointed out, this alone does not constitute evidence of a Māori God.

Io – supreme god

There has been debate about whether there was a supreme god in Māori tradition, centred around a god known as Io. Io has many names, including Io-matua-kore – Io the parentless one.

Those who argue for Io as a pre-European supreme being point to traditions collected by Te Whatahoro Jury from two Wairarapa tohunga, Te Mātorohanga and Nēpia Pōhūhū. They argued there were references to Io in early traditions.

The fact that there was a higher and a lower form of knowledge, the Kauwaerunga (upper jaw) and Kauwaeraro (lower jaw), is also used as proof of Io as a supreme being. Only certain people had access to the Kauwaerunga while all knew of the Kauwaeraro. In the 20th century Io was an accepted part of Ngāti Kahungunu and Ngāpuhi traditions.

Those who think that Io came from the Christian concept of God argue that there is no concrete evidence of such a being in early Māori traditions. Māori scholar Te Rangi Hīroa (Peter Buck) observed, ‘The discovery of a supreme god named Io in New Zealand was a surprise to Maori and Pakeha alike.’1

Other supernatural beings

Supernatural beings are known as tipua. Taniwha are tipua who dwell in the environment. Sometimes described as monsters or dragons, they take many different forms and often act as guardians.

Lesser gods were also known as tipua and were often placated by small offerings of branches or twigs when passing by places they inhabited.

Rākau and kōhatu tipua

Sometimes trees and rocks were seen as embodying supernatural entities and were termed tipua. Rākau tipua (supernatural trees) and kōhatu tipua (supernatural rocks) would often have offerings such as twigs or branches left near them by passing travellers.

  1. Peter Buck, The coming of the Maori. Wellington: Whitcombe & Tombs, 1950, p. 526. Back
How to cite this page:

Basil Keane, 'Traditional Māori religion – ngā karakia a te Māori - Ngā atua – the gods', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 17 April 2024)

Story by Basil Keane, published 5 May 2011