Fairy Folk Tales of the Maori
Chapter VII — A Basket of Eels
A Basket of Eels
The ancient man Tu Takarei told the story, as we sat on the sun-bathed verandah of a pioneer settler's house, looking out across the paddocks to the eastern hill scarp, where the sharp-cut earth-works of an old-time Maori fortification showed black and square against the glowing sky. Tu was well on to his eighties, a fine-featured veteran, very dark of complexion; his grey moustache looked a brush of snowy white upon his old bronze face.
He was born over yonder on the famous battlefield of Orākau, and he had lived all his life within a radius of a few miles from where we sat, and was steeped to the backbone in local legend and song and nature-myth. This is a specimen caught from the sage's lips, in a morning's korero, but I wish I could reproduce for you also the dramatic manner of the telling, the gesture and the chuckle of fun that went with it.
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Yonder fern-grown fort of our ancestors (began the old man) is by name Otautahanga page 78 —let us call it Otau' for short. Long ago it was crowded with people, and the slopes around it were covered with food gardens, and it was a famous place throughout the land. For it was Ngati-Raukawa's great stronghold—so strong that it was impregnable. No enemy foot was set within the parapets of Otau', at any rate not while its god, the ngarara, lived in its cave down yonder, in the valley below the southern cliff face of the pa. And that is what I want to tell you—the tale of our ancient guardian, the strange ngarara, whose name was Takere-piripiri.
Now let me explain what the ngarara was like, my pakeha friend. It was like a tuatara lizard in appearance but very much larger. It was an enormous reptile—indeed it was a dragon, with shining mottled scales, immensely strong, with a row of sharp spines on its back, and a spikey tail which it could swing with terrific force. How big was it? you ask. Well, I think it must certainly have been as long as from this verandah to that cabbage-tree at the front gate. How long is that? Yes; well then, it was perhaps twenty feet long, perhaps more. As for girth, why it was thicker page 79 through than any living man you or I have ever seen—and I have seen some extremely fat ones—and women, too! Its eyes were about the size of our tin pannikins, and full of fire, and its rows of teeth were bigger and sharper than the teeth of the greatest shark.
Now you know what this ngarara of ours was like. As for its dwelling-place, there is a hole down there by the side of a quick-thorn hedge on the farm, the dip below the pa, that is the mouth of Takere-piripiri's cave. There is another putanga, or entrance to the cave; it is on the top of the cliff over there, a hole four or five feet wide at the top, but much bigger below; this is where the dragon was accustomed to emerge on sunny days, and lie basking on the hilltop, by the trail side, watching the passers-by and the work of the village.
Now, this ngarara of ours was really a mild-mannered, kindly dragon, in spite of his so terrible appearance. He was the guardian of the pa, and indeed he was a kind of god in himself, for he protected the pa from all harm by his presence. Warparties sometimes attempted to surprise and storm Otau' fort in the night, but always they were hurled back with great slaughter, page 80 for Takere-piripiri was against them. And at that time of which I speak the people made much of the dragon and treated him with exceeding great respect. He was the mokai, or pet of the head chief of the pa, and every day the chief sent his people with food for the big creature, so that he might rest contentedly there and not be tempted to stray away to some other tribe in search of sustenance, for even god-like dragons require food; and in thus carefully feeding Takerepiripiri the chief, my ancestor, showed good sense, did he not?
Well, there was one kind of food of which the ngarara was extremely fond, and that was cooked tuna, or eels. The streams and swamps were full of tuna, and so the chief had no difficulty in supplying Takere-piripiri with all he required. A good store of the best and fattest of the eels was always steam-cooked for him, and every day a large flax basket was carried down and left at the mouth of the cave.
The children obeyed, and, carrying the large basket between them, they set out down along the winding foot trail to the cave.
Now, friend, it had been wiser of the chief, my ancestor, had he allowed his grandchildren to eat their dinner before he sent them on such an errand, for what happened? Why, what would any hungry tamaiti do? As the boy and girl trudged along, the savoury smell of the eels tickled their nostrils, and they said, one to the other, “What truly delicious tuna these are that we are bearing to that hungry old dragon below yonder!” And they paused awhile to gaze with longing eyes on those eels, and then from gazing they fell to taking up one and tasting, and from tasting one they passed to eating ravenously of the fattest tuna.
Ano te rekareka! How sweet and melting they were! Never were there sweeter eels in all the waters of Wairaka! And tuna after tuna went down their throats, until their bellies were distended like that barrel yonder at the gate.
But, look you, they ate only the tail half of the tuna, the fattest part; they left the page 82 heads, which they carefully replaced in the basket. Cunningly they placed handfuls of fern in the bottom of the basket and so arranged the heads that to all seeming the kit was packed with beautiful eels. Then, picking up their load again, they went on, very contentedly, being very full of fat tuna, and laughing to think that they were playing such a trick upon the ngarara.
The children came to the cave entrance, and, peering down into the gloomy pit, they could dimly see the dragon lying there, with his great eyes fixed on his fern-hung door, waiting for his food. Hurriedly they set down their basket and turned to climb the steep trail to the village.
Out came Takere-piripiri, hungry, for his midday meal. Sniffing, with pleasure the agreeable odour of the tuna, he pounced upon the basket and with his fore-claws capsized the contents on the ground, as was his way. To his amazement and disgust he saw that only the heads of the eels were left. Roaring with rage he swept up the track after the deceitful children, and seizing them before they had time even to reach the foot of the cliff, he bore them back to his cave. There, by the side of the pile of eelheads, page 83 he slew those greedy tamariki. With one bite—two bites—of his great jaws he killed them, and their heads fell on the ground beside the heads of the tuna. Leaving all the heads where they lay, he retreated into the depths of his cave, and there he devoured the boy and girl who had thought to play a joke upon him.
Now (continued the old legend-keeper), the ngarara lay there a long while, thinking, after he had finished his meal, of the two children. His anger was not yet assuaged. He had been treated with contumely by the grandchildren of the chief, and therefore the chief was his enemy now, though they had been such good friends in the past. So the ngarara resolved he would no longer live there as guardian of Otau' pa. He would travel far away and seek a new home.
That night, as soon as darkness fell, Takere-piripiri crawled out from his cave and, turning his head northward, he travelled steadily across country, over plains and through swamps and rivers. When daylight came he had reached the foot of Maungakawa, that high range that overlooks the Waikato country. He ascended the mountain and there he found a convenient cave, near page 84 the track by which the Maoris of the Ngati-Haua tribe travelled up and down the forested range.
In the meantime, of course, the two children were missed, and a search was made for them. But it was not until morning that their heads were found, where the indignant ngarara had bitten them off and spat them out. And the story was plain to all eyes. There was the capsized basket of eel-heads by Takere-Piripiri's cave. The chief and all his people at once divined the cause of the ngarara's sudden anger, and the killing of the young people. And though they sorrowed greatly, yet they did not blame the ngarara heavily, after all. They agreed that it was exceedingly wrong of the children to have robbed the tribal pet of his meal, and they could understand his anger. But what they sorrowed over more than anything else was the loss of their god-like guardian. Takere-Piripiri had abandoned them, and, greatly they feared that the mana of their fortress had departed with him.
Hastily and in fear they set their defences in order. But it was not long before it was proven to them in blood that their pa was no longer impregnable. They were assailed page 85 suddenly, and in great force, by an enemy war-party (maybe that tribe had heard of Takere-Piripiri's migration), and the fort of that hapu of Ngati-Raukawa fell to the strong hand.
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And what became of the ngarara, you ask, pakeha? Well, he, too, fell upon evil days. When he settled himself in his mountain cave on Maungakawa, he soon began to famish for food, for there was no kind chief there to send him baskets of eels every day. It came about, therefore, that he soon took to man-hunting for his food. He lay in wait by the trailside for Maori travellers. Sometimes a single wayfarer came along the track; he was an easy prey. Sometimes a large party of travellers would pass; in that case the ngarara would lie hidden until all but the last man had gone by, and then he would pounce upon that one and drag him to his cave.
At last, so notorious did the ngarara become, and so weary the tribes of his continual marauding and man-eating, that they resolved to put an end to Takere-Piripiri. This was how they went about it:page 86
The Waikato warriors constructed a great taiki or wickerwork cage, cunningly and strongly woven from the tough creeper plant called mangémangé. It was just like an eelbasket on an immense scale, with trap-door and all. This taiki they dragged down to the track and set it up near Takere-Piripiri's usual hunting ground.
On the top of the cage sat a man, as a poa or bait for the dragon. On either side the host of warriors, armed with long spears and heavy clubs, and ko, or digging implements, crouched in the bush.
Out rushed the ngarara, scenting man. Down the track he came, and right into the trap he blundered. He thought he could seize the man on the cage, but before he knew it he was securely caught in the dragon-basket.
The warriors dashed out from ambush. They fell upon the caged dragon with their sharp-pointed ko and their long spears, and soon stabbed and pounded it to death. And that was the end of the great ngarara, Takere-Piripiri, who had caused the death of so many people, and all because of that basket of eels at Otau Pa.
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So ended the old man his moving tale of the dragon of Ngati-Raukawa. It seems to me that there should be a moral somewhere bound up in this story of the ancient Maori. Maybe it can be formulated thus:
Firstly, don't be mean to your gods, tribal or otherwise; see that they get of your best; no threepenny-bits, no eelheads. Secondly, don't take liberties with even the most good-natured of your friends, lest, peradventure, they turn and rend you.
And, lest you entertain the slightest doubt as to the authenticity of this story of Takere-Piripiri, let me tell you that not only have I been in the ancient hill fort of which he was the guardian, but I have even been in his cave, which is there to this day, below the quickthorn hedge, and empty, which, of course, confirms Tu's tale.