Story: Whenua – how the land was shaped

Page 2. The North and South islands

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The North and South islands of New Zealand are known respectively as the fish and canoe of the legendary hero Māui.

Māui fishes up the North Island

One of the greatest stories of Māori literature recounts the fishing up of the North Island. It begins with Māui and his brothers setting off on a fishing expedition. The elder brothers did not want to take Māui, so he hid in the canoe and did not reveal himself until they were out at sea. When he emerged he managed to convince his brothers to row out to the deepest part of the ocean, where he cast a fish hook made from his grandmother’s jawbone. It sank below the waves and fastened to the underwater house of Tonganui, the grandson of Tangaroa, god of the sea. Māui hauled up his catch above the water. The land, the North Island, became known as Te Ika-a-Māui (the fish of Māui).

How the North Island got its shape

Te Rangihaeata of the Ngāti Toarangatira tribe dictated this version of how the North Island got its shape after it was pulled from the sea:

Māui left his brothers and returned home. He said to his older brothers, ‘After I leave, please do not partake of the fish ... Do not cut up our fish …’ However, [after he left] they did not do what he said. They began to cut it up and eat it … When he returned Māui became enraged … He was greatly distressed as they cut the head, the tail, the gills and the fins … This is why this land lies unevenly – there are mountains, plains, valleys and cliffs. If they had not fought over the fish, then the land would have retained its fish shape. 1

In some traditions the fish is said to be a pātiki (flounder); in others it is a whai (stingray). The head of the fish lies at the south of the North Island, at present-day Wellington, and its tail is the Northland region. The barb at the base of the tail is the Coromandel Peninsula. The pākau (fins) are Taranaki and the East Coast, and the backbone runs between Taupō and Rotorua. The heart is at Maungapōhatu, in the Urewera district.

Māui and Nukutaimemeha

It is often said that the North Island is Māui’s fish and the South Island his canoe, but the East Coast tribe, Ngāti Porou, believe the canoe ended up somewhere else. They say that the first part of the fish to emerge from the water was their sacred mountain, Hikurangi. Māui’s canoe, Nukutaimemeha, became stranded on it, and is still there in petrified form.

The South Island: Māui’s canoe

The stern of Māui’s canoe is the southern tip of the South Island, and the prow is the north. When Māui hauled up his great catch he stood on the Kaikōura Peninsula, which is called Te Taumanu-o-te-waka (the thwart or seat of the canoe). Stewart Island is believed to be the anchor.

Footnotes:
  1. George Grey, Ngā mahi ā ngā tūpuna, 4th ed., edited by H. W. Williams. Wellington: A. H. & A. W. Reed, 1971. › Back
How to cite this page:

Te Ahukaramū Charles Royal, 'Whenua – how the land was shaped - The North and South islands', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/whenua-how-the-land-was-shaped/page-2 (accessed 19 November 2017)

Story by Te Ahukaramū Charles Royal, published 12 Jun 2006