Story: Traditional Māori warfare – Riri

Page 1. Atua – origins of wars

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Conflict in the creation story

Warfare is woven into the Māori creation story. The primal parents Ranginui (the sky father) and Papatūānuku (the earth mother) were locked in an endless embrace. Their children were trapped between them in the darkness. Tūmatauenga (or Tū), god of war and mankind, wanted to kill the parents, but the others wanted to separate them. Tāne, the god of forests, separated the parents by pushing them apart. Tāwhirimātea, god of weather, was angry at the separation and fought his brothers, introducing the idea of ‘utu’. Tūmatauenga fought Tāwhirimātea, but neither could defeat the other. Tūmatauenga was angry at his other brothers for not helping him defeat Tāwhirimatea, so he fought them and defeated them. Through his actions he made his brothers ‘noa’ or common. He made tools and canoes out of Tāne (trees), he fished up Tangaroa (fish), and dug up Rongo (kūmara) and Haumia (fern root). This story has been said to explain cannibalism among Māori tribes after battle, as a debasement of a defeated enemy.

Names of the war god

Tū had a number of names, all of which represented an aspect of his personality:

  • Tū-mata-uenga (Tū of the angry visage)
  • Tū-te-ngangahau (Tū who grimaces)
  • Tū-ka-riri (Tū the warmonger)
  • Tū-kai-taua (Tū eater of war parties)
  • Tū-kai-tangata (Tū destroyer of men)
  • Tū-whakaheke-tangata (Tū slayer of men).

War gods

As well as Tūmatauenga, there were a number of other well-known war gods. Kahukura and Uenuku were both war gods associated with rainbows. Maru was a well-known war god in Taranaki. In tradition, he was brought to New Zealand by Turi, the captain of the Aotea waka (canoe).


Tohunga took a part in dedicating boys to Tūmatauenga or other local war gods during the tohi, a baptism or dedication ceremony. Tohunga also played an important part during wars by acting as mediums for the war gods. An example was Ngāi Tuhoe tohunga Uhia who became a medium for an atua Hope-motu. Uhia renamed the god Te Rehu-o-Tainui and he became a principal war god among the Ngāi Tūhoe people.

How to cite this page:

Basil Keane, 'Traditional Māori warfare – Riri - Atua – origins of wars', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 23 July 2024)

Story by Basil Keane, published 20 Jun 2012