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Traditional Māori warfare – Riri

by Basil Keane

Māori warfare traditionally involved hand-to-hand combat, with weapons designed to kill. Reasons for war could be practical, such as for land or resources, but could also be to increase mana or as revenge for insults.

Atua – origins of wars

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.

Making war and making peace

Reasons for war

War between tribal groups occurred for both practical and cultural reasons. Practical causes included population pressure, competition for land – particularly horticultural land, competition for natural resources and the need to protect stored food supplies. Cultural reasons were linked to the concepts of mana and utu. Tribal groups might seek to fight others to increase tribal or personal mana. Additionally, utu might require a group to make reprisals for insult, injury or trespass. A well-known saying about warfare states, 'He wāhine, he whenua, e ngaro ai te tangata' (Through women and land do men die).

Rise and distribution of

Pā seem to have first appeared in New Zealand around the 1500s. There are thousands of pā around New Zealand. The fact that 98% of pā are located in horticultural areas suited to Polynesian crops suggests that there was a relationship between horticulture and war. It was common for pā to have areas for storage of the harvest.

Mana and utu

Traditionally the mana or prestige of a tribe and its members was all important. Tribes and their rangatira could increase mana by triumphing over other tribal groups. Insults, slander, theft, murder, assault and adultery by other tribal groups could negatively affect mana. To restore the tribal mana it was often believed necessary to seek utu. A common translation of utu is revenge; however, culturally it refers to returning balance. Any reason for waging war on another tribe was known as a ‘take’.


At the conclusion of a war, it was vital to make peace. Women often had a role in sealing the peace. Arranged marriages between victors and high-ranking women of defeated tribes was common. Ngāti Porou elder Tuta Nihoniho spoke about the importance of women and peacemaking:

[K]i te houia e te tane te rongo o te whawhai, e kore e mau, ka kiia tera he rongo tama-tane, he atua, he taitahae. Engari ka riro ma te wahine e hohou te rongo, ka kiia tera he rongo tama-wahine, ka mau te rongo, he rongo taketake.
If a peace is concluded in time of war by men, it will not be a firm or lasting one. It is termed a male peace, and stands for treachery, deceit, trouble. But if women assume the function of making peace, that is known as a female peace, and it will be a firm, durable one.

Tatau pounamu

A peace arrangement known as a tatau pounamu (greenstone door) was a metaphorical reference to an enduring peace. The door represented safe passage between the territories of two tribal groups. Pounamu referred to the enduring nature of the peace, and in some cases a pounamu weapon would be handed over to signify the peace.

A saying suggested that this, and peace made by women, were the two enduring types of peace. ‘He whakahohou rongo wahine, he tatau pounamu’ (a peace secured by a woman is as lasting as a peace from tatau pounamu.)

Peace on Rēkohu

The Moriori people of Rēkohu (Chatham Islands) were able to forge a continuous period of peace. According to Moriori tradition, after a series of wars an important chief, Nunuku-whenua of the Hamata tribe, declared an end to war, putting a permanent restriction on murder and cannibalism. ‘From now and forever, never again let there be war as this day has seen!’ This became known as Nunuku’s law. It is likely that the ability to hold to Nunuku's law was assisted by the wealth of food resources on the Chatham Islands.

Rākau Māori – Māori weapons and their uses

Rākau Māori (Māori weaponry) was designed for hand-to-hand combat. In battle it was common for toa (warriors) to take a long handled weapon such as a taiaha (long-handled fighting staff) and a short weapon such as a patu (club) tucked into a belt. Māori wore little into battle apart from a maro (kilt) or a tātua (belt). In some cases a tapahu (dogskin war cloak) or a pauku (cloak to shield spear thrusts), was worn. Māori did not use bows and arrows, so fighting was almost entirely hand-to-hand. Famous weapons were given names and handed down from generation to generation.

Long-handled weapons

Taiaha (fighting staff)

One of the most well-known Māori weapons is the taiaha. It is usually made from wood, though sometimes it is made from whale bone. Due to its shape, it is sometimes mistakenly referred to as a spear. The staff has a pointed end, and is usually between 1.5 and 1.8 metres long. The pointed end (the arero or tongue) comes out of the upoko (head) which then becomes the ate (liver) or tinana (body). It is used for stabbing, parrying (warding off blows) and striking.

Pouwhenua (pointed fighting staff)

This is similar to a taiaha, but the end is more pointed and sometimes the blade or body is wider than that of a taiaha. It is also used to stab, parry and strike.

Tewhatewha (axe-like fighting staff)

A tewhatewha is a long-handled staff. Its shape is similar to an axe with a long handle, though it is shaped from a single piece of wood or sometimes bone. The end of the handle is pointed and blows from the axe-like part were made with the handle rather than the blade.


The hoeroa is a rare weapon made from the jaw of the sperm whale. It is not certain how it was used, but one explanation is that a rope was tied to one end and it was thrown. After hitting a person, it could then be reeled in by the rope.

Tao (short spear) and huata (long spear)

The tao (short spear) was between 1.5 and 1.8 metres long. It was made from mānuka or akeake. It could be used for stabbing, parrying and striking. The huata was a longer spear, which could range from about 3.5 to more than 4 metres long. It was held by more than one warrior and was thrust into oncoming enemy from within the safety of a palisaded .

Short-handled weapons

Patu (club)

Patu were made from wood, stone or whale bone. Both the tip and the blade could be used. It was used for striking, stabbing or parrying.

Patu onewa

A patu onewa was any patu made from stone.

Mere pounamu

Patu fashioned from pounamu (greenstone or jade) were highly prized weapons, and were known as mere pounamu. This was also a symbol of authority.

Patu paraoa

The patu paraoa was fashioned from whale bone.


The kotiate is a patu named for its shape, which resembled a split human liver (‘koti’ is cut and ‘ate’ is liver). It could be made from wood or whale bone.


This is shaped like a normal patu except that it has a small human-like figure just above the handle and the oval shape at the top of the patu is interrupted. The name means mouth (waha) of the fish (ika), which may refer to the hook-like shape of the patu.

Strategies and battle terms


The war party was called a taua. It usually involved toa (warriors), rangatira (leaders) and a tohunga (ritual expert). A large war party would often travel to battle in a waka taua (literally a war party canoe). There were various names for avenging war parties, including taua toto or taua hiku toto (war party seeking blood vengeance), taua tapu (war party under restriction) and taua whawhati rau rākau (taua that tramples the forests). The sizes of taua varied from small groups up to a few hundred people. A taua was sometimes described as a hokowhitu, meaning 140. Rau ma whitu, meaning 170, could refer to a group of people of between 100 and 200. Kotahi rau mā whitu or Kotahi rau hokowhitu literally meant 340. However, these numbers were approximate and did not necessarily indicate specific numbers.


Trickery and deception were common strategies to win a battle. Because combat was hand-to-hand, surprise could have a vital effect on the outcome of a battle. The two places that these strategies were commonly put into place were when visitors arrived at a marae, or attempted to get into a during a siege. At a welcome onto a marae either visitors or hosts might suddenly fall upon the other in a pre-meditated attack. A number of strategies were devised to get into pā, which, if properly constructed and defended, could be virtually unassailable.

Whale strategy

Beached whales were a valued resource, as they were used for meat, and their teeth and bones used for weapons and ornamentation. Strategies were used that tricked people safe in a pā into going to the seashore to investigate whale strandings. One tribe made a fake whale from the skins of numerous kurī (Polynesian dogs). A hundred warriors were concealed in the ‘whale’ and when the villagers left the pā to harvest the whale they were overcome by the warriors. The tribe that came up with this strategy became known as Ngāti Kurī.

In Hawke’s Bay, Taraia ordered his warriors to lie on a beach covered in black mats to resemble pilot whales. In the pre-dawn the inhabitants looked down and saw what they thought was a row of pilot whales, but when they went down to harvest them they were attacked by the warriors.

Smoke strategy

The Te Aupōuri tribe were formerly known as Ngāti Te Awa. While under siege in Makora pā, the people lit a huge fire which covered Whangapē Harbour with dark smoke. They were able to escape under cover of the smoke, and they became known as Te Aupōuri (au means smoke and pōuri means dark) after this strategy.

Formations and terms

There are a number of terms used relating to warfare:

  • He ō kākā – warriors travelling with a weapon in one hand and food in the other.
  • Hono te hono o te kiore – walk as the kiore does. War parties walked single file like kiore (Pacific rats).
  • Riri-tuku-tahi – headlong charge.
  • Tuku-tahi-pātata – close hand-to-hand combat.
  • Te āpiti-tū – a face-to-face fight when forces are locked together.
  • Toka-tū-moana – short-range fight where every man fought equally.
  • Kura-takai-puni – encircle the encampment.
  • Kawau-ruku-roa – the long diving cormorant.
  • Kawau-mārō – the cormorant of firm flight.

Preparations and entering into battle

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.

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Basil Keane, 'Traditional Māori warfare – Riri', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 26 June 2024)

Story by Basil Keane, published 20 June 2012