Story: Traditional Māori warfare – Riri

Page 5. Preparations and entering into battle

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Time for war

The fighting season was usually the summer months once the harvest had been completed. This was the time when food was plentiful and warriors had time for fighting. The preferred time for an attack was around dawn.


In some cases a hapū would seek assistance from an ally prior to the battle. One method of asking for this assistance was to send a valued weapon or taonga (treasure) to a neighbouring tribe as a gift to invite them to take part in a battle. Accepting the gift implied agreement. Take-kai-kīnaki involved a gift of food. Acceptance of the food indicated a willingness to join.


The role of a tohunga was to act as a medium for the war god. The tohunga was relied on to interpret signs and inform the rangatira as to whether they would be successful in war. Their role was also to say the appropriate karakia and put the war party under tapu prior to leaving for battle.

‘Flying fish’ and ‘first fish’

When warriors were travelling to battle, the first person encountered on the way would be slain. This person was known as a ‘maroro kokoti ihu waka’ (flying fish crossing the bows of the canoe).

The first person slain in battle was known as the mataika (first fish) and to slay the mataika was prestigious. Other terms for the first person slain were mātāngohi or ika i te ati. When two men were slain by a single blow, this was known as ‘ika hui rua’ (two fish together). The person who slayed the first enemy would say, ‘kei au te mataika!’ The heart of the mataika would be cut out and undergo the whāngai hau ceremony – an offering to an atua.

The battle

Before a battle a war party would perform a haka. The haka peruperu (a haka with weapons) was often performed. The rangatira of a war party would usually stand at the rear to exhort his troops. The loss of important war leaders sometimes threw the warriors into disarray. A strong warrior who was steadfast during battle was known as a ‘toka tū moana’ (rock withstanding the tide).

After the battle

Following a battle the victors would take prisoners of the defeated people, particularly women and children, who would become slaves. In some cases, some of the defeated enemy would be killed and eaten. The consequences for the defeated would depend on the closeness of the relationship and degree of enmity between the parties. In some cases, some of the victors would marry women from the defeated group and merge the groups.

The taua (war party) would return home and undergo ritual cleansing, which involved lifting of tapu.

How to cite this page:

Basil Keane, 'Traditional Māori warfare – Riri - Preparations and entering into battle', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 23 July 2024)

Story by Basil Keane, published 20 Jun 2012