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Traditional Māori religion – ngā karakia a te Māori

by Basil Keane

The Māori natural world teemed with gods and unseen beings and required thoughtful navigation. Tohunga (priests) assisted people with special incantations and rites to appease the gods.

Ngā atua – the gods

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.

    • Peter Buck, The coming of the Maori. Wellington: Whitcombe & Tombs, 1950, p. 526. Back


What is a tohunga?

Priests were known as tohunga. Māori scholar Te Rangi Hīroa (Peter Buck) suggested that the term derives from tohu, meaning to guide or direct. Ngāpuhi elder Māori Marsden suggested tohunga comes from an alternative meaning of tohu (sign or manifestation), so tohunga means chosen or appointed one.

The term tohunga is also used for an expert in a particular field. An expert in tattooing (tā moko) was a tohunga tā moko. An expert in carving (whakairo) was a tohunga whakairo. A priest was a tohunga ahurewa (sacred place tohunga).

Too tapu

Some tohunga were so tapu that they were unable to feed themselves. They were fed with food placed on a stick and put in their mouths, and water was tipped into their mouths from a container. In some cases, a specially made funnel, a kōrere, was used to pour water into their mouths. Tapu tohunga could not get their hair cut.


Atua and spirits would communicate through a tohunga, who acted as their medium. The tohunga would speak in a different voice, regarded as the voice of the god. One example is a famous tohunga of Ngāi Tūhoe named Uhia, who became a medium of a spirit, Hope-motu, whom he renamed Te Rehu-o-Tainui.

A person through whom a god was being channelled was termed a waka atua (vessel of a god), or kauwaka (medium).


A matakite was someone who could divine information about the future, or about present events in other places. A tohunga was often a matakite.

In one example a group was marching to battle when the god Maru appeared to their tohunga. He instructed where the battle ground should be, and, despite being outnumbered, they overwhelmed their enemy.

In the mid-1840s a tohunga was accompanying a large party who had been spear-fishing at the island of Rua-papaka in Northland. When they landed the tohunga told the group that a young girl named Nga-ripene had died, as her spirit had passed the bow of the boat and informed him. She had been young and healthy when they last saw her, and they doubted his word. However, on their return it was confirmed that Nga-ripene had indeed died.

What did tohunga do?

It was the role of tohunga to ensure tikanga (customs) were observed. Tohunga guided the people and protected them from spiritual forces. They were healers of both physical and spiritual ailments, and they guided the appropriate rituals for horticulture, fishing, fowling and warfare. They lifted the tapu on newly built houses and waka (canoes), and lifted or placed tapu in death ceremonies.

Ruahine (elderly women) and puhi (young virgins) also played a role in the removal of tapu from canoes and buildings.

Spiritual concepts


Mana describes an extraordinary power, essence or presence. It relates to authority, power and prestige. Mana comes from the atua (gods) and is highest amongst rangatira (those of chiefly rank), particularly ariki (first born), and tohunga (experts).

The concept of mana is closely tied to tapu.

Tapu and noa

A person’s tapu is inherited from their parents, their ancestors and ultimately from the gods. Higher born people have a higher level of tapu.

Flora, fauna and objects in the material world could all be affected by tapu. When a person, living thing or object was tapu it would often mean people’s behaviour was restricted.

Noa means ordinary, common or free from restriction or the rules of tapu. Often ceremonies were carried out to remove the influence of tapu from objects or people so people were able to act without restrictions.


Mauri is the life principle or vital spark. All people and things have mauri. People placed physical objects in forests as talismans. These embodied the mauri, and were protected.

If people’s mauri becomes too weak, they die.

Travelling hau

When the demigod Māui had fished up the North Island he said to his brothers, ‘[K]aua hoki e kotikotia tatou ika; e ngari waiho kia tae au ki te kawe atu i te hau o tenei tanga-ika; a, kia tae atu au ki te tohunga, kia whangaia ki te atua, ka hurihia te hurihanga takapau, ruahine rawa, kakahi rawa, ka noa’ (do not cut up our fish, but wait until I can carry the essence of this offering, and, when I get to a tohunga, its essence will be offered to the atua, and the hurihanga takapau (lifting of tapu), the ruahine rites and the kakahi rites will be carried out, and then it will be free from tapu).1


The hau of a person or other living thing is its vital essence, or power. A talisman known as a mauri protects the hau of a person, or of a locality. A forest with a mauri talisman was considered to have greater numbers of birds or fish because of the talisman.


Wairua is the spirit of a person. Wairua can leave the body and go wandering. When a person dies it is their wairua which lives on. Traditionally Māori believed that when they died they would go to rarohenga (the underworld). In northern traditions, this involved travelling te ara wairua (the pathway of spirits) to te rerenga wairua (the leaping place of spirits). Wairua would then descend to the sea.

    • George Grey, Ko nga mahinga a nga tupuna Maori. London: George Willis, 1854, p. 22. Back


What are karakia?

Karakia are the way people communicate with the gods. Te Rangi Hīroa (Peter Buck) suggested a karakia was ‘a formula of words which was chanted to obtain benefit or avert trouble.’1 Karakia were not used to worship or venerate gods. One type of karakia, a tūā, was a spell.

Who used karakia?

Tohunga (priests) were the most appropriate people to use karakia, as they were mediums for the gods. Karakia relied on the words chanted, and also on the mana of the speaker.

All people – children as well as adults – used karakia. For adults, a simple chant to ward off unseen presences was ‘Kuruki, whakataha!’ (Lose power, pass aside.)

Types of karakia

There were numerous kinds of karakia. There were a number of karakia tamariki (children’s karakia). This is a simple karakia for children, to halt the rain:

E rere te kotare
Ki runga i te puwharawhara
Ruru ai ia o parirau
Kei maku o kuao i te ua
Mao, mao te ua
Fly o kingfisher
On to the bunch of astelia
And there shake your wings
Lest your young become wet by the rain
Cease, cease the rain.2

The kī tao type of karakia was used to infuse a weapon with power in battle. Tā kopito was a karakia used for sickness. Tūā moe was a spell used by fowlers to make the tūī go to sleep. Tūā pana was a spell to help with childbirth. Hoa tapuae were a group of karakia used by warriors to increase their speed.

Common endings for traditional karakia are:

Tūturu ka whakamaua kia tina, tina, haumi e, hui e, tāiki e!


Whano, whano, hara mai te toki, haumi e, hui e, tāiki e!

Classes of karakia

Types of karakia include:

  • ātahu: love charms
  • hoa: to split stones, wither leaves or kill a bird
  • hoa tapuae: to give speed to the feet and to retard an opponent
  • hono: to unite fractures
  • kaha: to gain success in fowling
  • kawa: to remove the tapu from new houses
  • kī tao: to give power to spears – also known as reo tao.
  • kī rākau: to give power to weapons
  • ngau paepae: to avert sorcery against a war party
  • pou: to fix memory during instruction
  • rāoa: to expel the foreign body in choking
  • rotu: to put people or the sea to sleep
  • tā kōpito: to cure abdominal troubles
  • tohi: to instill tapu and mana into a baby
  • tohi taua: to sprinkle a war party proceeding to war
  • tūā: to dedicate children after cutting the navel cord
  • tūā : to ward off ill luck
  • whai: to cure injuries, burns, choking
  • whakanoa: to make common (noa) by removing tapu.
  1. Peter Buck, The coming of the Maori. Wellington: Whitcombe & Tombs, 1950, p. 489. Back
  2. The coming of the Maori, p. 491. Back

Rituals and ceremonies

Because spiritual forces such as mana, tapu and mauri were seen as all-pervasive, people navigated the spiritual world through karakia and ritual. Most ceremonies and rituals required the services of tohunga.

Scholar Te Rangi Hīroa (Peter Buck) defined ritual as ‘the form of conducting the whole rite relating to one subject and it may include various ceremonial acts in addition to the chanting of appropriate karakia.1


Babies were named after the tāngaengae (navel cord) was severed. The tūā rite was performed in the place where the child was born. It removed the tapu from both the mother and child, and ensured health for the child.


The tohi ceremony followed the tūā rite. It was performed at a sacred stream. Children were dedicated to particular gods at the tohi ceremony. Boys were often dedicated to Tūmatauenga, the god of war, and girls to the goddess Hineteiwaiwa.


The pure rite followed the tohi rite. This made the child’s spiritual powers or mana permanent. Adults who had taken part in the tohi and pure rites then underwent a process of whakanoa (the removal of tapu) at a ceremony conducted near the latrine (turuma), or at a stream.


Tapu could be placed on particular places or things to limit people’s access to them. This was called a rāhui. Rāhui might be placed where a person had died. For example if someone drowned, a stretch of water might have a rāhui placed on it by a rangatira or tohunga to prevent it being used for a period.

Tā i te kawa

Tā i te kawa literally means to strike with a branch of kawakawa. This was a ceremony carried out in connection with the opening of a new carved house, or the launching of a new canoe. It could also occur at birth, or during a battle.

First fruits

Most activities involving the cultivation or collection of food were under the domain of an atua. The first fruits were reserved for the relevant atua.

  • People fishing would throw their first catch back for Tangaroa, god of the sea. In one traditional story, Manuruhi, the son of Ruatepupuke took a fish without saying a karakia to Tangaroa, and did not offer up the first of the catch. Tangaroa was enraged. He came and took Manuruhi under the sea, and turned him into a tekoteko on top of his wharenui.
  • Rongo, the god of cultivated foods, would be offered the first kūmara harvested. The kūmara for offer were planted in a separate garden plot, called a māra tautāne.
  • Bird fowlers offered their first catch to Tāne, god of the forest.
  • Tūmatauenga, the god of war, would receive te mata-ika (the face of the fish), the first man killed in battle.

Tapu removal

There were a number of rituals to remove tapu and make a person or thing noa (free from the restrictions of tapu). Whakanoa means to make noa.

Bite the bar

Anthropologists Allan and Louise Hanson studied early manuscripts in their bid to understand the rite of ngau paepae. Their conclusion was that the gods did not shun the latrine in the way humans did – when Rupe ascended to the home of the god Rehua, there was excrement lying about – so biting the beam of the latrine was a way of conducting tapu from their realm, or back to it.

Whakahoro was a ritual to remove tapu from people using water. Another ceremony was hurihanga takapau (turning the mat). This was used by Māui to lift the tapu from his great fish (the North Island).

Whāngai hau

Whāngai hau involved a ceremonial offering of food to an atua. It was to feed (whāngai) the essence (hau) of the offering to the atua.

Ngau paepae

A ceremony conducted to increase the tapu of warriors going into battle, and also to neutralise certain types of tapu, was ngau paepae (biting the beam between the two posts of a latrine).

    • Peter Buck, The coming of the Maori. Wellington: Whitcombe & Tombs, 1950, p. 500. Back

Tūāhu and wāhi tapu

Tapu places and objects

Particular places and objects were tapu. These included shrines, objects used to contain gods, waterways set aside for religious purposes, and places which were intrinsically tapu, or tapu due to important events which had happened there.


A tūāhu was a simple shrine located away from a kāinga (village). It consisted of a heap of stones. A tūāhu with an enclosed post was a pouahu. A wooden waka (box) containing the tribal god would be kept in the enclosure. Small carved wooden houses set on posts – kawiu – also contained waka. Sometimes a whata (stage) was erected.

Village latrines

Village latrines were known as turuma or paepae. These were used by tohunga in various rituals, including ngau paepae (biting the cross-bar of the latrine).

Wai tapu

A number of rituals required water from a stream or pond. Wai tapu (sacred waters) were set aside for the purpose. These waters were used for the dedication of children to gods, cleansing of people from tapu, and lifting tapu from warriors returning from battle.

Wāhi tapu

Some areas were considered tapu (restricted). These included burial grounds, sites where people had been killed, trees where the whenua (placenta) of children had been placed and the tops of tribal mountains. Certain prohibitions applied to these areas. People either had to stay away from them, or refrain from doing things which would break their tapu, for instance taking food to wāhi tapu.

Taumata atua and godsticks.

Some objects contained atua and were used in ceremonies associated with fertility. Taumatua atua (abiding place of the gods) were images shaped from stone that were placed near food crops as mauri to protect their vitality. Whakapakoko atua or atua kiato (god sticks) were usually carved and had a pointed end so they could be inserted into the ground. They were used as temporary shrines for atua, and were also used to ensure the fertility of crops, or the abundance of fisheries.

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Basil Keane, 'Traditional Māori religion – ngā karakia a te Māori', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 21 April 2024)

Story by Basil Keane, published 5 May 2011