Story: Whenua – how the land was shaped

Page 1. A dramatic landscape

All images & media in this story

Just as iwi (tribal) traditions contain stories and genealogies about the creation of the world, they also explain how the world, once created, was shaped.

New Zealand’s landscape is dramatic and varied, with mountain peaks and ranges, flatlands, winding rivers, hot springs, volcanoes, lakes and fiords. These stimulated the Māori imagination and inspired stories of how they came to be.

Origins of the land: Papatūānuku and Māui

Two traditions explain how the land emerged from the sea. One presents the land as the placenta, or whenua, from the womb of Papatūānuku, the earth mother. The bulk of her body is underwater but the whenua remains buoyant, and it is for this reason that islands are said to float (moutere). A second, well-known tradition says that the demigod Māui fished up the land from the depths of the ocean. Both traditions evoke a land that is undulating and dramatic.

Shaping forces

Other traditions speak of fantastic and powerful presences in the earth itself, and of characters who sculpted and arranged the world as we see it. They lived on mountain tops or in the depths of lakes, and scoured out rivers and gorges. Giant ancestors dug out the lakes, and the mountains moved. The stories about the forces that have shaped the land are a combination of explanation and metaphor.

Maps of the landscape

Stories about the land were part of an oral tradition, and could function like maps. By likening the North Island to a fish – usually a stingray – people could remember its shape and various important locations. Likening the South Island to a canoe served the same purpose.

Accounts of the formation of river beds mapped the paths taken by various rivers. Stories about the major mountains detailed the distinctive topographical features that had been observed by local tribes. The maps could also record the locations of geothermal areas.

How to cite this page:

Te Ahukaramū Charles Royal, 'Whenua – how the land was shaped - A dramatic landscape', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 22 May 2024)

Story by Te Ahukaramū Charles Royal, published 12 Jun 2006