Story: Traditional Māori songs – waiata tawhito

Page 2. Origins of waiata

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Mythological precedents

Like many aspects of traditional Māori culture, waiata have mythological precedents. Deities who are strongly associated with waiata and haka include Hineruhi, Tānerore and Rēhia.


Hineruhi is a deity found at dawn, and her dance is said to be the sparkle of light that is reflected in the morning dew. When a woman performed in the whare tapere (house of entertainment) and excelled her performance would be described by the proverb ‘Ko Hineruhi koe, nāna i tū te ata hāpara’ (You are Hineruhi, the one who brings about the dawn).

Poi whakapapa

The poi has its own whakapapa, which can be traced to Tānemahuta, the ancestral god of the forests and all things living in it. Tānemahuta mated with Hineiterepo (the swamp maiden) and they produced raupō (bulrush). Tānemahuta also mated with Pakoti (Pakoki) and created a superior species of harakeke (flax). Raupō and harakeke are the main traditional sources for making poi.


Hineruhi’s companion is Tānerore, another deity from the natural world who relates to the behaviour of light. Tānerore is the son of Tamanuiterā (the sun god) and Hineraumati (the summer maid) and is credited with the origin of haka. The dance of Tānerore is the shimmering, rising, trembling air as seen on a very hot day. This trembling is represented by the wiriwiri (quivering of hands) in the dance, hence the saying, ‘Te haka a Tānerore’. ‘Ngā mahi a te rēhia’ is another phrase which refers to the pursuit of pleasure, and is often used in conjunction with the notion of performing arts.

Tinirau and Kae

In the story of Tinirau and Kae, the rangatira Tinirau and his wife Hineteiwaiwa had a child called Tūhuruhuru, upon whose birth Tinirau sent for the tohunga Kae to perform the tohi (baptismal ceremony). In payment, Tinirau gave Kae a piece of flesh from his pet whale, Tutunui. After partaking of a little of the sweet flesh, Kae stole the whale and took him to his island, where Kae and his people killed and ate the animal. Tinirau learnt of Kae’s treachery from the scent of Tutunui’s cooking flesh wafting to his kāinga some distance away. Upset at this treatment of their pet, Tinirau and Hineteiwaiwa convened a troupe of women, who tricked Kae by entertaining him in his house. Kae was kidnapped by the women and taken to Tinirau’s island, where he was killed in retribution.

Raukatamea and Raukatauri

Two atua wāhine (female deities) who commonly feature across the different tribal versions of the tradition of Tinirau and Kae, Raukatamea and Raukatauri, are seen as deities in their own right. Raukatamea (or Hineraukatamea) is the atua of entertainment, and Raukatauri (or Hineraukatauri) is the atua of music. Hineraukatauri is personified as the case moth, on which the pūtōrino flute is modelled.

The whare tapere

Traditional Māori waiata are also connected to the whare tapere, a dwelling house or guest house that was used for the purpose of recreation. Charles Te Ahukaramū Royal notes, ‘Whare Tapere were pre-European Māori village “houses” and events of entertainment and amusements of various kinds. They included storytelling, songs and singing, dance and dancing, musical instruments, puppets and many games.’1 Whare tapere feature regularly in tribal histories and traditions and were often the venue where important ancestors met and fell in love.

Other traditions

Other traditions also refer to song and dance. These include the story of the famous demigod Māui and his quest to be reunited with his parents and brothers, the Te Arawa tradition of Tamatekapua and Whakatūria’s narrow escape from the wrath of Uenuku and his people, and the Ngāti Raukawa story of Wairangi’s haka. Waiata feature in these and other iwi narratives, underscoring the important role of song and dance in traditional Māori society.

  1. Charles Te Ahukaramū Royal, ‘Te whare tapere: towards a model for Māori performance art.’ PhD thesis, Victoria University of Wellington, 1998, p. 3. Back
How to cite this page:

Rawinia Higgins and Arini Loader, 'Traditional Māori songs – waiata tawhito - Origins of waiata', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 14 July 2024)

Story by Rawinia Higgins and Arini Loader, published 22 Oct 2014