Cryptozoology, BioForteana, Zoological Oddities, Unusual Natural History

BioFortean Review, (October 2007)

Historical Note: The Taniwha and other Maori Folkloric Creatures

Excerpt from ch. 5, "Myth and Folk Lore"
Elsdon Best's The Maori, Vol. I, 1924 (Wellington, NZ)

In Maori folk lore we meet with many stories concerning taniwha, huge monsters of man-killing tendencies that are said to have existed in these isles in past times. Our acquaintance with these myths dates from the days of Captain Cook, and some early writers deem it possible that these tales contained an element of truth. They are certainly remarkable illustrations of versimilitude, so marked are they by precise and detailed accounts of the location and doings of these monsters, and of encounters between them and men. Most of them are described as being water-dwelling creatures of saurian form, while a few are said to have inhabited caves; few were harmless, and most of them were man slayers and man eaters. Some of these wild tales appear to have been introduced from Polynesia and localised here; probably many were evolved here by a folk who had been conceiving similar myths for many centuries in other lands. Some writers see in the huge, man-eating saurians of Maori folk lore a remembrance of the crocodile of the western Pacific or of Asia, and this may be so. The man-destroying taniwha of native myth are often described as resembling great lizards, and indeed are often called by the same name, moko. This word moko is a name for the crocodile in one part of the western Pacific. The word taniwha is also the name of a species of shark.

The circumstantial aspect of these folk tales is remarkable. Captain Cook gives us the following passage concerning information gained from a South Island native: “We had another piece of intelligence from him … though not confirmed by our own observations, that there are snakes and lizards there of an enormous size. He described the latter as being eight feet in length, and as big round as a man's body. He said they sometimes seize and devour men; that they burrow in the ground, and that they are killed by making fires at the mouths of the holes. We could not be mistaken as to the animal, for, with his own hand, he drew a very good representation of a lizard on a piece of paper, as also of a snake, in order to show what he meant.”

Now this feckless tale of snakes and of lizards eight feet in length in New Zealand was simply the result of imagination. Doubtless that native could depict a lizard, for New Zealand possesses several species of those creatures, and Sphenodon punctuatum attains a length of about sixteen inches, but no Maori of Cook's time knew of the existence of land snakes.

Monsters of the taniwha type have been believed in the world over. Water monsters and dragons appear in Babylonian myths. In Borneo are found genuine taniwha, crocodiles that attain a length of fifteen to twenty-five feet in some cases. The Sarawak natives destroy man-eating crocodiles on all possible occasions, often catching them with a wooden hook, or a gorge. When such a man-eater is caught it is ripped open in search for human remains, and is then cut in pieces. In many of our local taniwha stories we are told that the beast's stomach was opened, and human remains found therein, as also garments and weapons that belonged to those consumed ones.

Nicholas, who was in New Zealand in 1814-15, remarks that the native description of the taniwha described closely the alligator.

The Maori tells us that these taniwha and all mokopeke (lizards) originated with one Tu-te-hurutea, offspring of Tane and Hine-maunga, the Mountain Maid. We occasionally hear of cases of transmigration wherein a person has, after death, reappeared in the world of life in the form of a taniwha, or marakihau, the latter being a mythical sea denizen.

We will now discourse a while on the peculiarities of the genus taniwha, and relate a few of the many tales concerning them, as preserved by the Maori. The following is a northern story, “The Taniwha of Kaipara”:—

It was in days long past away, in times truly remote, that three women of a hamlet situated south of Kaipara went into the adjacent forest for the purpose of collecting tawa berries. Having wandered afar in their search for berries, they were surprised to come across a smooth, wide path evidently much used. They followed this path for some distance until they came to what seemed to be the end of it, where a fence or barrier existed, overgrown with a dense growth of climbing plants. They now resolved to return homeward, when all at once a taniwha appeared and pursued them. The women fled in dismay, but the creature soon caught one of them. Seeing, however, that she was but ill looking, the taniwha released her, and pursued her companions. He succeeded in capturing another, but she, too, was ugly, and so he let her escape and gave chase to the third. On his catching her he found her to be young and good looking, and so he took her away to the cave which served him as a home. Her companions found their way back to their home.

The captive woman was unable to escape, and so was compelled to live with the taniwha as his wife. She bore six children to him, three of whom were monsters like their father, while the other three were of human form. She taught her taniwha children the arts of weaving and cooking, but her human offspring she trained in the arts of war, to bear arms, to thrust, strike and parry with spear and club, hence they became expert in such exercises.

One day during the absence of her taniwha husband, the captive wife said to her children: “Let us all go to the forest streams and catch eels.” So off they went, and, when far within the forest solitudes, she proposed that her human sons should exhibit their skill in the use of their weapons. While they were so exhibiting their skill, she prompted them to attack and slay the three monster children, which they did. The mother then proposed that they should return home and seek an opportunity to attack and slay the taniwha, so that they might all escape from so odious a creature. On arriving at the cave home they found the taniwha fast asleep therein, whereupon the three youths at once attacked and slew him; they cut off all his limbs and left the remains lying in the cave.

The mother now set off to return to her old home, taking her three sons with her. After walking a long way she began to recognise the outlines of some of the distant hills, and at length they arrived at her home village. Now was the hapless woman welcomed by the survivors of her old-time friends, welcomed with tears, and song, and many speeches.

It was now decided that the villages should make a journey to the cave in order to cook and eat the body of the taniwha. On arriving at the cave they prepared a huge steam oven and placed therein for cooking the severed pieces of the monster's body. The oven was carefully covered, and preparations made for the coming feast. When, however, the oven was opened up, the people were amazed to see the severed portions of the monster's body join together, the limbs attach themselves to the body, and the taniwha regain life. The monster at once attacked the assembled people, killing many. The survivors fled in many directions, some to the sea coast; these were pursued by the monster, who caught one woman and threw her into the sea. At length he became wearied, whereupon the terrified fugitives mustered up courage to attack him, and so he was slain a second time. Now his body was cut into many pieces and each piece was separately burned, while from his bones were fashioned fish hooks and spear points. Thus was that odious monster slain for all time.

The woman who had been cast into the sea by the monster was saved and nurtured by the gods. They enveloped her in a mass of sponge which, after long drifting about in the ocean, was cast up on the beach at Waiarohia. It was there seen and opened by some fishermen, who found the woman inside it still alive, and so she was returned to her friends and home.

Such is the marvellous story of the Taniwha of Kaipara, as related by old Whakaue in the year 1847.

A well-known taniwha name is Te Whakaruaki, or Kaiwhakaruaki, and variant forms of the story of this creature have been recorded from a number of places in both islands. The following is a North Island version of the story of Te Whakaruaki, and how lizards came to lose their tails:— This monster resembled a lizard in form, but was of a huge size, and repulsive appearance. He dwelt in a cave in the forest, to which cave he took a woman whom he had captured in the forest, and whom he compelled to live with him. He feared that she might escape from him, and so, whenever he or she left the cave alone, he plaited one end of a long rope into her hair. This rope he occasionally pulled in order to ascertain if it was still connected with the woman.

As time rolled on the captive woman gave birth to a child that was half lizard and half human in form, a truly disagreeable creature to look upon. Now one day the woman went to the stream, taking with her a vessel in which to obtain a supply of water; as usual the rope was attached to her hair. On entering the forest she severed the cord by cutting it with a shell knife, and then tied the end of the cord to a slight, pliant sapling, so that, when the monster pulled the cord, he would believe that it was still attached to her hair. The woman now fled through the forest and made her way home to her people. Here, after many plans had been discussed for the destruction of the monster, it was resolved that he be asked to visit them and that a special house be constructed for his accommodation. On the arrival of the monster he was welcomed by the people, his captive wife rejoined him, and they abode together in the new house.

After the monster and the woman had lived together for some time, the people took advantage of his absence one day, and made preparations for his destruction. They procured a block of wood, wrapped the woman's garments around it, and laid it on her sleeping place. On the return of the monster he entered the house, whereupon the people secured the door and window and set fire to the house. On hearing the roaring of the fire Te Whakaruaki called out to ask the meaning of the sound, and was told that it was the wind roaring in the trees. At last the whole house was in flames, and the monster attempted to escape. Not so; there was no escape; in vain he strove to pass through the burning walls. So perished the monster Te Whakaruaki in the raging flames. But not the whole of him, for, strange to relate, his tail escaped; it became separated from his body, wriggled out through the wall of fire, and sought refuge in the forest.

Now the tail of Te Whakaruaki was the origin of the species of lizard known as moko papa (the tree lizard, Dactylocnemus pacificus), and ever since the remarkable occurence described above lizards have possessed the power of shedding their tails.

These folk tales concerning women being carried off by ogres of lizard form were also current at Tahiti. (See Walpole's “Four Years in the Pacific,” Vol. 2.)

In another such story contributed by one Te Whetu, of the Atiawa tribe, the taniwha bears the name of Te Kaiwhakaruaki. This monster dwelt in the Nelson district, and became the terror of the place by destroying travellers proceeding to Takaka and Motueka, well-known places in that region. The story appearel in Vol. 3 of the Journal of the Polynesian Society. It was over twenty years after collecting that myth from Te Whetu that I met a certain native of Tahaa Isle, of the Society Group of eastern Polynesia. He gave me some interesting notes concerning that isle, and told that a man-destroying monster named ” Aifa'arua'i lived on a small islet called Motue'a, at Tahaa (Taha'a) in ancient times. In these names I at once recognised the Maori names of Kai-whakaruaki and Motueka, remembering, as I did, the dropped k of the Taha'a dialect, and the f as used instead of the Maori wh. Near the islet of Motue'a is, said my informant, another islet named Ta'a'a,' and here is our Takaka of New Zealand. This story of the man-slaying monster must have been introduced here by the ancestors of our Maori folk, as also the place names connected with it, when they moved down from eastern Polynesia to New Zealand.

Another taniwha name met with in both islands of New Zealand is that of Ngarara-huarau. In one of these stories the monster is said to have been slain at Tupurupuru, Wairarapa district. The method employed in ridding the district of this pest was emphatically a novel one. A number of trees in the forest were “scarfed” so as to be near falling. A dog was then sent to lure the monster in among the trees, whereupon his huge body coming into contact with the scarfed trees caused them to fall, and the falling of many trees caused his death.

In some cases the taniwha stories unquestionably contain a moral, and so we may assume that they were invented, or at least approved of, by the priesthood. The following, “Parekawa and the Taniwha, or the danger of breaking the laws of tapu,” is a specimen of such stories:— In olden times a certain young woman named Parekawa was employed by her father to cut his hair. As he was a tapu person the hair-cutter became tapu, a condition that continued for some days. While she was in this condition a number of visitors arrived at the hamlet, and Parekawa, with culpable thoughtlessness, assisted in the task of preparing food for the guests. By thus coming into contact with crooked food, she of course violated one of the principal laws of tapu, and so not only was the protection of the gods withdrawn in her case, but she also became exposed to many dangers.

Soon after the above occurrence it was noticed that Parekawa had changed much in appearance and in manner. Ere long she became as one demented, and finally she fled to the forest, where she lived no one knew how. On being pursued by her friends one day she leaped into a river and disappeared. Her friends thought that she had been drowned, but not so; she had been carried off by Peketahi the taniwha. This being dwelt with his kindred apparently in some subterranean region, for he conducted Parekawa through the water and through the earth until they emerged in the region where dwelt the strange taniwha folk. These seem to have been a peculiar breed of taniwha, for the story tells us that they lived in houses and cultivated food products. These strange beings offered food to Parekawa, but Peketahi, who was the chief of the taniwha folk, warned her not to partake of it, or never more would she look upon the world of light.

It was now apparent to Parekawa that Peketahi was by no means a vindictive enemy, and, ere long, he allowed her to return to the upper world, guided by one of the taniwha folk. She was given very careful instructions as to how to proceed, and was told to pass through the water to her old home, and there gain the tuahu or sacred place of the village without being seen by her people. Now while dwelling with the strange underground folk Parekawa had lost some of her human attributes, but had acquired some strange ones from them, and so she was enabled to pass under water up the Puniu river until she arrived at her old home. Here, however, she was unfortunate enough to be seen by the people ere she could reach the tapu place of the village. Owing to this misadventure her guide took her back to the subterranean demon world.

Parekawa was now much cast down, and despaired of ever again seeing home and friends, for she had lost her human aspect, and had acquired the appearance of the demon folk of the underworld. Here again Peketahi stood her friend, however, and he himself conducted her back to her home. This time she was successful in gaining the tapu place without being observed. Now came her father to her, who, by performing a certain rite over her, restored to her human form, appearance, and attributes.

Ever, in after times, the story of Parekawa was repeated as a warning to persons not to disregard the laws of tapu, lest they be carried off by demons to dismal regions of the nether world.

The name mokonui was applied to taniwha of former times, the two words meaning big or huge reptile. Thus we hear of one Mokonui who in olden days infested the Patea river, and of Mokonui who was slain by the Wai-rarapa folk in days of yore.

The story of the slaying of Tutae-poroporo, the great taniwha scourge of the Whanganui river, by the gallant hero Aokehu, is a moving one, as showing the desperate situations in which a dragon slayer may find himself. This Aokehu had himself enclosed in a stout wooden vessel which was then cast into the river and allowed to float down it. It was seized and swallowed by the monster as easily as it had swallowed canoes laden with people. Now Aokehu emerged from the great chest into the stomach of the monster, drew his cutting implement of sharks teeth, and cut his way out to the world of light through the body of the hapless taniwha, who died from the effects of this rude treatment.

In some cases these taniwha lived in caves, in others they were water dwellers, and yet others dwelt underground. One known as Te Kuri nui a Meko (the Great Beast of Meko) resided in a cave near Waikare-moana. This monster was a man slayer, and was eventually killed by a number of men who constructed a large and very strong taiki, a kind of cage made of wicker work and timbers lashed securely together. The men enclosed themselves in this structure, where they were attacked by the monster. They succeeded in cutting off a number of his legs and arms, and so eventually overcame him, thus freeing the district from a dread scourge.

My genial old friend, Hurae Puketapu, of the Waimako, near the above-mentioned cave, tells me that the proper name of the Beast of Meko was Hau-taruke. Meko flourished fifteen generations ago. He was a being of supernormal characteristics, but had a human brother named Kura-tawhiti, whose descendants are still dwelling in the district. One of his descendants, named Tuwhai, who lived nine generations ago, was the leader of the party of braves who slew Hau-taruke. Meko and his brother were of the fourteenth generation in descent from Mahutonga. The precise spot where the above monster was slain is known as Whakamarino.

The Tuhoe folk apply the names tuoro and hore to huge mythical monsters believed to live underground, where they seem to move about somewhat freely. They are said to form great chambers and tunnels in so moving about, and sometimes uproot great trees during their progress. A cave in the bank of the Whirinaki river at Te Whaiti is known as Te Ana tuoro (the Tuoro Cave). One of these monsters is said to have lived in the pond or lakelet named Otara, on the summit of Maunga-pohatu. This creature is said to have formed, in olden days, the deep gorge through which the Waikare stream now runs, on its way to join the Whakatane river. Another creature spoken of in some parts is the tuna tuoro, described as resembling a large eel. It is heard of in both islands. A Waikato native stated that its touch paralysed a person, and that it pursued persons on land as well as in the water. The names of puku tuoro and kumi are heard occasionally, as applied to some species of taniwha.

In both islands we have places named Te Rua o te Moko, which may be rendered as “The Den of the Moko.” Presumably they were held to have been occupied by taniwha in former times.

In Hine-korako we have a taniwha of the female sex who lives, or formerly lived, in the deep pool under the falls of Te Reinga, in the Wairoa district. This creature is said to have become enamoured of one Tanekino, a member of the genus homo some fifteen generations ago, and to have lived with him as his wife. Owing, however, to unpleasant personal remarks made by the women of the village, Hine eventually retired to her former home beneath the dark waters of Te Reinga. Prior to her retirement, however, she bore a son to Tanekino, who was named Tuarenga, and from this man many natives claim descent.

South Island natives report that the pouakai was a huge bird of prey that formerly existed in those parts, and carried off persons from the native villages. One of Mr. Beattie's native contributors, however, stated that pouakai was the old native name of the huge extinct moa (Dinornis).

The small lakelet known as Waingaro, on the summit of Maunga-pohatu, was formerly occupied by a taniwha named Rongo-te-mauriuri. We are told by the Tama-kai-moana folk, who dwell under the Enchanted Mountain, that a certain ancestor of theirs was once pursued by the fearsome Rongo, and narrowly escaped destruction. He had, however, the presence of mind to pluck a hair from his head, cast it into the agitated red waters of Waingaro, and repeat the Whakaeo charm, when, behold, instantly the taniwha retired, the rolling waters became calm, and the world of life was regained!

In days gone by I had an opportunity to peruse a manuscript collection of Maori lore made by one of the most famous of early collectors. It contained an account of the slaying of what the collector described as a “large guano,” in past times. The description of the attack of the “guano” on the hero and his dog was a thrilling one, but need not be described here. Eventually that “guano” was overcome by the enraged populace, and so perished miserably.

Lest our readers weary of taniwha we will not discuss more of these numerous dragon myths of the Maori, but there are other strange creatures to be mentioned. Amongst these are certain denizens of the ocean, sometimes described as taniwha. Such is the famous Ruamano, who is said to have been the offspring of Tutara-kauika. This latter name seems to be a proper name for the right whale, and both these creatures were appealed to for assistance by the Maori when in danger at sea. Thus if a canoe were capsized, or in danger, a leading man would call for assistance thus:—

“Tutara-kauika E! Kawea au ki uta ra
Ruamano E! Kawea au ki uta ra.”
(O Tutara-kauika! Convey me to land.
O Ruamano! Convey me to land.)

Whereupon, we are told, the monsters of the deep would come to the rescue and bear the supplicants to land. This Ruamano was one of the sea monsters that acted as convoy to the Takitumu canoe on its long voyage from eastern Polynesia to New Zealand. A taniwha bearing the same name is said to have occupied the Papuni lake in former times.

Paikea is the name of another species of whale that was appealed to by mariners in distress, and the names of these creatures are encountered in old religious formulæ. The Maori also possessed a vague, ill-defined belief in certain beings of supernormal nature who dwelt far out in the ocean wastes, and who have been known to succour human beings. This is made evident in the story of Maui, and also in the curious myth of Uenuku-rangi and Uenuku-titi. In this tale the sea folk are termed Tini o Te Petipeti and they succoured and reared the immature offspring of Uenuku, as they did in the case of Maui.

Yet another peculiar sea folk are the weird beings called marakihau. These are described as being of human form and as possessing long tubular tongues termed ngongo. They are a kind of sub-species of taniwha and are credited with swallowing through their ngongo appendages not only men but also canoes. This myth may be based on observation, on the strange appearance of such creatures as the sea elephant, for example. In Maori carved work we sometimes see representations of marakihau, which are depicted as having heads and bodies of human form, with the tail of a fish in lieu of legs. The ngongo is also shown in a most prominent manner, projecting far from the mouth, and having a large bell-mouthed orifice.

Several stories are on record in which the Maori claims that certain ancestors of his were, after death, transformed into marakihau. In the tribal meeting house of the Tuhoe folk of Ruatahuna, known as Te Whai a te motu, are carved wooden images representing many tribal ancestors. Among them is one carved in the form of a marakihau, and this represents Te Tahi o te rangi, an ancestor who lived at Whakatane, and who became a marakihau after his death. This man was once marooned on Whakaari (White Island) by enemies, and escaped from that weird isle by calling upon the monsters of the deep to carry him to Whakatane on the mainland. His people wished him to raise an armed force and attack those who had served him so ill a turn, but his answer, which has passed into a proverbial utterance, was: “Waiho ma te whakama e patu.” (Leave them to be punished by shame.)

In some cases one hears of weird creatures of yore whom it is difficult to classify; they may be supernormal man-like beings, or monsters of the taniwha type possessing the power to assume different forms. The natives of the Whanganui valley told me of a strange being that dwelt in that river in days of old. A woman dwelling in a village on the river bank was visited nightly by a strange creature who appeared from the river, and whose skin was unpleasantly cold and clammy. It was discovered that he was a water denizen, and that he left the river each night in order to visit the woman. The village folk determined to destroy this creature, and so surrounded the woman's house early one morning, and slew the intruder as he was returning to his haunts in the river. The body of the river man was cut to pieces, and then the people heard, to their great amazement, the severed and scattered parts of the body actually singing a song. That song has been preserved by the natives of those parts.

We have now to deal with another class of supernormal creatures, and supernormal objects. The latter serve as illustrations of animatism, which, says the Handbook of Folk Lore, is the attribution of life and personality to things, but not a separate or apparitional soul. The word tipua, of which tupua is a variant form, is applied to anything of a supernatural or supernormal nature, hence it may be applied to a person, an animal, or to an inanimate object, or rather to objects deemed inanimate by us. It equals our terms demon and goblin, and is sometimes applied to taniwha. In our own folk tales the word “enchanted” would often be rendered as tipua by a Maori, thus such an abnormal object as an enchanted tree would be termed a rakau tipua. The first European visitors to New Zealand were called tipua. In parts of the western Pacific the word tipua means spirit, and it must very frequently have that meaning assigned to it here.

Although a tipua log, tree, or rock would probably possess supernatural powers, yet it is not well to classify them as atua; in many cases such a tipua may be styled a genius loci. In most cases natives cannot explain how a certain object came to be viewed as a tipua.

At Samoa deified spirits of chiefs are termed tupua, and the word denotes wizardry and wizards in several regions of Polynesia. In the Paumotu group tupua means a ghost. In some dialects, as that of Mangareva, the word equals to hunga, as denoting a wise man, an adept. At Niue the word carries much the same meaning as in New Zealand, and in the latter land it includes anything that we would describe as uncanny.

It is doubtful if any Maori could give a lucid explanation of a tipua. Take, for instance, a rakau tipua. The Maori believes that tree to be possessed of certain supernormal powers, and, in fact, to be what we must term a sentient being. The spirit or abnormal qualities that it possesses emanated in many cases from some defunct tribesman. The wairua or soul of that person passed to the spirit world at his death; such is the common belief, yet a native will tell you that the wairua of the deceased is enshrined in the tipua object, tree or stone. Such contradictory statements and discrepancies are often encountered by those who sojourn among barbaric folk. Tylor has given us some highly interesting matter concerning this belief in what he calls Embodiment in his chapters on animism.

This question of tipua objects is so closely allied with the subject of uruuru whenua that the two cannot be separated. This phrase denotes a remarkable custom that seems to have been known in all parts of the world, namely the depositing of simple offerings at certain places. In many lands the offerings consisted of stones cast at the base of a so-called sacred tree, or rock, and the object was to avert some misfortune or ensure good fortune of some nature. With the Maori it was a placation of the local gods or spirits of the land, and the offerings he made consisted of a branchlet, or handful of vegetation. Why stones were not more used by him in a similar way I cannot say; at no such place I have seen have I ever noted any collection of stones that may have been used as offerings. In a few cases I have heard of them being so used. For instance, a native of the Bay of Plenty informed me that, in olden days, whenever a person passed a spot where a curative rite had been performed over a person suffering from ngerengere (syn. mumutu, a form of leprosy), he would cast a stone on the spot, lest he be afflicted by the malady.

In most, if not all cases, the objects at which the simple uruuru whenua ceremony was performed, were viewed as tipua, and such places were treated with respect. As to the origin of a tipua rock or tree, should an important person chance to die while on a journey, or should bearers of a corpse stop at a place to rest, then any prominent stone, rock or tree at on near such spot might be viewed henceforth as representing the defunct one, and as a tipua. Natives have told me that it absorbed the wairua or soul of the deceased, which endowed the tipua object with mana or force, inherent powers. Travellers would deposit their simple offering at such an object, not only to secure good luck, such as fine weather for their journey, but also to uphold the mana of the tipua, that is the innate powers of the talismanic object. The offering, and the brief utterance accompanying it, showed that the observers still kept green the memory of their ancestor and still upheld his mana. A stream in which a dead body has been washed has been treated as a tipua, and in this case the offering consisted in some cases of a stone cast into it. Should any witless person pollute a tipua object by taking near it any cooked article of food, it was believed that the powers of the wairua vivifying the tipua would destroy such person. Natives tell us that, occasionally, when a seer was a member of a party travelling across unknown lands, he would be able to detect any tipua object passed on the way because his spiritual vision enabled him to see the wairua that animated the object. Here it would appear that the wairua or spirit was not enshrined in the object but hovering about it. Branchlets or leaves of the kawakawa and karamu (Piper excelsum and Coprosma sp.) were favoured offerings to an uruuru whenua, those two trees being much employed in ritual performances.

Historical Reprints