Story: Whakairo – Māori carving

Page 1. Legendary origins of carving

All images & media in this story
Rukuhia te ata o te whakairo
Rukuhia te ata o te wānanga
Rukuhia te ata o te wharekura.
Whano, whano, hari mai te toki,
Haumi e, hui e, tāiki e!
Delve deep into the image of carving,
Delve deep into the essence of knowledge,
Delve deep into the image of the schooling,
Proceed! Advance! Welcome the adze!
Unite! Assemble the (vessels), ribs and hull!1

The legend of Ruatepupuke

According to an East Coast legend, the art of carving was discovered by Ruatepupuke, the grandson of the sea god Tangaroa. Ruatepupuke’s own grandson had an insatiable appetite for kai moana (seafood) and to meet his demands, Ruatepupuke fashioned a stone into an exquisite fishing lure which he named Te Whatukura-o-Tangaroa (the sacred stone of Tangaroa).

Tangaroa was offended that his name had been used without permission, and sought revenge. When Ruatepupuke’s son, Manuruhi, tried the prized lure he caught a massive haul but did not observe the custom of offering the first fish back to Tangaroa, further aggravating the sea god. Tangaroa decided to punish his great-grandson by pulling him down to the depths of the ocean, where Manuruhi was transformed into a birdlike tekoteko (carved figure) on the top of Tangaroa’s house, Hui-te-ana-nui.

Ruatepupuke, noticing that his son was missing, followed his footsteps to the edge of the ocean and dived into the water. He came upon the underwater village and found Hui-te-ana-nui. To his amazement, the whare was covered in carvings that spoke and sang to each other. When Ruatepupuke asked about his son’s whereabouts, one of the talking poupou (carved posts) told him that the bird-shaped tekoteko of the house was Manuruhi.

Ruatepupuke hid in the house and waited for its residents, the fish people, to fall asleep, whereupon he set the house ablaze. He had time only to rescue his son and some of the poupou – which were unable to speak – from the mahau (porch). Thus the first carvings came into the world.

Many years later, Ruatepupuke’s descendants brought these examples from the legendary homeland of Hawaiki to Aotearoa, where they served as models for Te Rāwheoro, the famous whare wānanga (school of learning) established by Hingaangaroa at Ūawa (Tolaga Bay). Future students of the wānanga, such as Tūkākī and Iwirākau, spread the influence of this school throughout the East Coast and eventually beyond.

Links with other Polynesian carving traditions

The legend of Ruatepupuke establishes carving as a taonga tuku iho, a divine gift from the gods handed down from ancestors, and therefore an art form that requires ritual respect. It also indicates that the tradition of carving was established in Hawaiki and brought to New Zealand. Linguistically and technologically the cultures of the early Māori and of other eastern Polynesian societies such as Rarotonga, Tahiti, the Marquesas and Hawaii are closely related, so it is not surprising that there is a direct relationship between the carving found on these islands and those of the earliest phases of Māori art. Those early forms evolved as the first Māori became accustomed to their new islands, and an art emerged that reflected the local flora, fauna and climate.

  1. Quoted in Ranginui Walker, Tohunga whakairo: Paki Harrison: the story of a master carver. Auckland: Penguin, 2008, p. 190. Back
How to cite this page:

Brett Graham, 'Whakairo – Māori carving - Legendary origins of carving', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 15 June 2024)

Story by Brett Graham, published 22 Oct 2014