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The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 14, Issue 11 (February 1, 1940)

Cross-Roads of History — The Days of the Taniwha

page 39

Cross-Roads of History
The Days of the Taniwha

(Govt. Publicity photo.). A scene on the Upper Wanganui River.

(Govt. Publicity photo.).
A scene on the Upper Wanganui River.

The pakeha sea serpents are not in the same street as the old-time Maori giants and taniwhas. Take the case of the noted warrior of the Ngati-whatua, for instance–Kawharu—he stood twenty-four feet in height, and measured six feet in girth, so that he was elegantly slender. This fellow drove all before him, and sacked pas at the rate of two a day.

For the most part, the Maori monsters did not take the shape of the human form, but rather resembled that of a tuatara, or alligator. They were formidable creatures, and though no living person has seen one—and the unbelieving pakeha maintains that in fact none has ever been seen—the Maori certainly respected and feared them. Sometimes they were benevolent, more often evil.

They lived in all parts of New Zealand, for the most part in caves near the sea-shore, or by a lake. The landing at the mouth of the Taunga-a-Tara River, on the Taranaki coast, was difficult for canoes. Here in former times, when the Maori canoes were about to go to sea for fishing, an old tohunga, by the power of his karakias (charms), would call up from the deep no less than twelve taniwhas to convey the canoe through the breakers. He would stand up in the water, facing inland, and the taniwhas, six on each side, would come and pass quite close to the shore, where the canoe was, and then remain on each side of it till it had passed through the breakers. These taniwhas were about two feet long, nine inches deep, with the head cut squarely off, and with spikes all over them.

At Pahiatua, one used to live in a cave in the limestone hills. It was apparently an expert whistler, and the name of his home was given to the town, i.e., Pahiatua, “house of the god.”

The celebrated taniwha Pupu-KareKawa was a great excavator, his greatest achievement being to cause the lake at Wairarapa to break out to sea. He cut a subterranean channel through the shingle and the waters rushed out with great force. The malevolent creature had so timed his digging operations that there was, at the danger moment, a canoe on the lake, in which there were some women of the Ati-Awa. The canoe was carried out into the breakers, and all were drowned. This taniwha usually lived in the sea near Wairarapa, but when the passage to the lake was closed for any length of time he used to migrate to the Wairau River, in the Maryborough district. This may have been the same monster that was said to have been seen at Pelorus recently.

Percy Smith mentions that one of his Taranaki friends told him a story of a miraculous escape from taniwhas. “I was fishing off Okahu (Cape Egmont),” he said. “One of the fishermen had brought some flax, gathered from a wahi-tapu, or burial ground. Presently the sea became disturbed, the waters rising up in an unnatural manner, and there appeared a number of taniwhas. These came round the canoe, getting under it and lifting it up and letting it down gently. All on board were much alarmed. The principal man on board told the others to keep quiet—not to say a word. (His warning may have been unnecessary.) Then he asked, ‘Kei a wai te hara i a tatou?’—‘which of us had done wrong?’ One of the men replied: ‘Perhaps it is the flax I brought from the burial ground,’ which, of course, was tapu. ‘Then throw the flax away!’ This was done. The chief, repeating a karakia, took hairs from his body which he threw into the sea. The taniwhas then departed.”

Probably the most amusing story in Maori legend concerns a taniwha named Ikaroa, in shape like a fish, which came ashore and lay on the beach in the Patea district. Now, as Pou, a dweller in these parts, was wandering along the beach, he came across this great fish, and thought it a good opportunity to get some food. page 40 Having with him his mira-tuatine, or shark-tooth saw, he commenced to cut up the fish but to his great surprise, as soon as he had made a cut it closed again. So he began to say his karakias in correct form. Ikaroa was listening all the time, and, fearing that Pou would succeed in the end with the aid of his powerful incantations, suddenly he took up Pou and carried him away to Muru-wai-o-Hawaiki. On arrival in this distant country, a council was called (presumably by the people of Hawaiki) to adjudicate on the case, as to whether Ikaroa was justified in his abduction of Pou. The decision came to was that Ikaroa was in the wrong, inasmuch as he was out of his element when Pou attempted to cut him up. The story does not say whether the decision also carried costs against Ikaroa, but at any rate the powers that ruled in Hawaiki engaged another taniwha to bring Pou back again.

The Maoris were not utterly defenceless against evil taniwhas. They knew the correct way to prepare snares of flax and supplejack, and the correct charms or karakias to keep the enemy at bay. Their most curious device was that of the “goblin house,” as John White terms it. When the people were determined to catch a taniwha, a raft made of raupo was formed, and on it was built a house woven by the people, in which not any wood was used, but only reeds, flax and grass. In this was put the flesh of the seal, and the raft was taken out into midstream of a river and anchored. When the taniwha smelt the seal's flesh, it would climb on to the raft and enter the house. All this time the people would be watching, and when it had entered they would cry aloud and say: “O Rongo! Let your belt be held fast, and be strong!” Thus fortified, they would attack the taniwha and kill it. Naturally all proceedings connected with the attack on a taniwha were conducted in a very formal manner. While the raft and house were being made, food was kept in specially small baskets, called “taniwha baskets.” The Maoris told Mr. White that “the reason those baskets are so small is that the food contained in them may all be consumed before the taniwha comes, and before he attempts to get on the raft.” In other words, the natives regarded them as “iron rations,” though the underlying motive is far from clear.

There are not many accounts of the taniwha houses being actually used; the best of the few records that have been preserved concerns two taniwhas named U-reia (“rush for the breast”), and Haumia (“fern root”). U-reia belonged to the Ngati-tama-te-ra tribe, at Hauraki, while Haumia appears to have been the property of the Tainui, at Manuka. “Haumia swam by sea,” says the old chronicle, “and went towards Hauraki to pay a visit to U-reia, and invited him to go back to Manuka. U-reia said: ‘Why did you swim to this place? Is there nice food at your place?’ Haumia answered: ‘Yes, food is plentiful. There is the huia, the kotuku, the shrub raukawa taramea and tawiri.’ U-reia said: ‘Let us two swim to that place, that I may see the good things there.’ Haumia said: ‘You go first.’ U-reia came out of his cave and swam to Kaponga, while the deceitful Haumia followed behind. Here the people had made taniwha houses. U-reia went right into one of these, and was killed by the people there. This was the origin of the war between the tribes of Hauraki and the tribes of Manuka.”

The possibilities of tempting a wary taniwha into a “house” seem to us rather remote; for the most part the dragons were slain on land. Such was the fate of Hotu-puku, a renowned taniwha which was slain by the Rotorua people. Parties of Maoris travelling between Rotorua and Taupo were disappearing unaccountably. This perturbed the Taupo natives, so a war party set out to deal with what they supposed to be a hostile tribe. After traversing the Kaingaroa plains they came to Kaponga, where what appeared to be a moving hill of earth suddenly confronted them. It was a dreadful taniwha, which snapped up the stragglers as the party ran for their lives! It had dreadful spines, and a spear-like head. When the remnants of the war party returned, they gathered together 170 proved fighters, and set out to attack the taniwha. First they laid a network of plaited flax ropes along a valley. When the party came to the lair of the taniwha, he rushed forth and chased them along the valley, where his feet got entangled in the ropes. Up one side of a hill stretched his neck, and up the other side his tail, so he was indeed a monster. The Maoris now turned on the enemy, and hacked and slashed at him till he was dead. Next day he was cut open, whereupon the remains of many Maoris were found in his stomach.

A friendly taniwha lived in a cave overlooking Lake Tikitapu, the Blue Lake which every tourist to Rotorua sees when going to Wairoa. He was named Kataore, and was made a pet of by the chief Tangaroa-miki. Unfortunately Kataore devoured a highborn maiden who chanced to pass his lair, consequently he was slain, much to the annoyance of Tangaroa-miki.

Another friendly monster was named Takere-piripiri, of the Upper Waikato. In return for a meal of cooked eels every day, he ate any hostile Maoris who sought to attack Ngati-Raukawa. But one day the children whose duty it was to bring the cooked eels to Takere-piripiri, ate the best portions of the eels themselves, leaving the taniwha only the heads. Takere-piripiri, annoyed at this trick, promptly forsook the Ngati-Raukawa, and went elsewhere. But in his new home nobody brought him eels, so he was forced to eat Maoris. It was not long before the Maoris objected to his taking ways and slew him.

I have not been able to discover when the taniwha finally left these parts, but I should imagine that 1869 is about the latest date. In this year the Rev. A. Stock stated publicly that one had been sighted by his nephews in Waitara Lake, near Otaki. He mentioned that the sighting of the creature had revived the memories of old natives, who swore positively that in 1842 they saw this taniwha upset a canoe in the lake, causing the death of one of the Ngatitoa, chief Rangihaeta's slaves. Mr. Stock's nephews said that the monster resembled an alligator, with a ridge along its back or neck, about 20 feet in length. “My nephews are not imaginative,” said Mr. Stock, “but they will not bathe again in this lake.”

Shortly afterwards there was a rumour that fishermen were trying to catch the taniwha, using sharp hooks baited with sheep. However, the taniwha was never caught.

“The true function of food,” said the host, with a laugh, “is to prepare the palate for tobacco, so lunch being over suppose we adjourn for a whiff? I can't offer you a cigar—don't smoke them. But I can give you a pipe of the best—something to write home about!” The guest filled and lit up. Silence. Presently he said: “This baccy of yours is really fine, old man, what is it?” “N.Z. Cut Plug No. 10 (Bullshead),” replied the host, “thought you'd like it. There's nothing better—or so good–to my mind. And it's so harmless! It's toasted.” “What difference does that make?” enquired the guest. “All the difference, my boy. It extracts the nicotine from the tobacco and makes it as pure as rock crystal.” The guest eagerly noted the names of the five toasted brands: Navy Cut No. 3 (Bulldog), Cut Plug No. 10 (Bullshead), Cavendish, Riverhead Gold and Desert Gold—” for future reference,” as he said. “But have a care when buying,” counselled the host, “there are some rotten imitations about!” There are.*