21 Jun 2023
Māori culture is rich in pūrākau (legends), and within these legends, mythological, supernatural, and magical creatures are featured prominently, often acting as kaitiaki (guardians) of people or places worth protecting.
As pre-European Māori had no written language, they relied on oral retellings and symbolic meanings embodied in carvings, knots and weavings to pass their histories, traditions, knowledge, and mythologies from generation to generation.
Fascinating tales of magical creatures including taniwha, whales, sharks and manaia tell of the observable world for pre-European Māori and provide insights and understanding into Māori worldview and the spiritual connection Māori had to the natural world in which they lived.
In this blog, we look at some of these legends and uncover how our artists use Māori mythological creatures as inspiration for their designs.
Taniwha are supernatural creatures that are thought to take many forms from ferocious water monsters to reptiles, sharks and whales. To this day, they are believed to live in our lakes, rivers and the sea, and are considered to be protectors of specific locations, representing the mauri (life essence) of the place in which they roam.
In New Zealand, pounamu can only be found in the South Island, mainly on the West Coast – which is why the island is also known as Te Waipounamu, which translates to “the waters of greenstone”. One story of the origin of pounamu, is that of Māori legend and the tale of a taniwha named Poutini - the guardian of pounamu.
One day, as he rested in the northern seas of the Bay of Plenty, Poutini watched a beautiful young woman named Waitaiki come down to the water to bathe. Enchanted by her beauty, Poutini captured Waitaiki and fled south with his treasure. Waitaiki’s husband, the powerful chief Tamaahua, soon discovered his loss and furiously paddled his canoe in pursuit of his love and her captor. The chase was relentless, and Poutini finally stopped on the West Coast of the South Island, hiding up the Arahura River. Not wanting to give her up, he knew the only way to keep Waitaiki for forever, was to turn her into his own essence. So Poutini transformed Waitaiki into pounamu and lay her in the river bed. He quietly escaped past Tamaahua, and is thought to have ever since swam up and down the West Coast guarding the land and its precious pounamu.
Pictured above: New Zealand Pounamu Taniwha Serpent Necklace by Ana Krakosky
Many legends tell that whales accompanied or guided the canoes of Māori ancestors on their journeys to Aotearoa. One well-known legend is that of Paikea who journeyed on the back of the Tohorā whale from Hawaiki to a new life in New Zealand.
According to the story, Paikea was the sole survivor of a vengeful plot devised by his jealous brother Ruatapu to drown all the first born sons of Hawaiki out at sea under the guise of a fishing expedition. However, Paikea called on the kaitiaki of the sea to help him and guardian in the form of a whale was sent to take him to safety.
Sharks are revered as powerful, resilient creatures that dominate the oceans and are symbolic of guardianship and protection. Sharks also play a role in many Māori legends.
One of significance is the creation of Te Māngōroa - The Milky Way. It is believed that demi-god Māui placed a roa (long) māngō (shark) into the sky to to protect the Māori tribes on earth. This is where the name Māngōroa comes from.
Māori ancestors possessed a wealth of astronomical knowledge and they used it to navigate the ocean, plant crops, harvest kaimoana and to tell the time. It was held that when Māngōroa was curved, bad weather was likely.
Pictured above: New Zealand Greenstone Mako Shark Necklace by Akapita Scally
Believed to be a messenger that moves freely between the spirit realm and the human world, the manaia is a mythological creature, greatly respected in Māori culture and a predominant motif in wood and greenstone carving.
What manaia traditionally meant to Māori remains somewhat a mystery, but commonly it is considered that they are magical creatures and spiritual kaitiaki (guardians) of things worth protecting.
Pictured above: New Zealand Greenstone Manaia Necklace by Tamaora Walker
Pekapeka (bat) are New Zealand's only native land mammals. Maori folklore speaks of the pekapeka with dark undertones, associating bats with the ominous mythical bird, hokioi, which comes out at night and foretells death or disaster.
Pictured above: New Zealand Pekapeka with wax eyes by Akapita Scally