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Maori Religion and Mythology Part 2

The Story of Kupe and the Wheke a Muturangi

The Story of Kupe and the Wheke a Muturangi

The full story of Kupe the Polynesian voyager has been recorded in Vol. 4 of the Memoirs of the Polynesian Society, pp. 41-68. This is the version generally known; another version differs somewhat. Kupe and Ngake (also known as Ngahue) were two seafaring men of the eastern Pacific who made a voyage into these southern seas and discovered New Zealand; they are said to have found these islands uninhabited by man. Kupe is said to have lived at Tahiti, though his father hailed from Rarotonga and page 204his mother was from Rangiatea isle now known as Ra'iatea. It would appear that, when the trouble arose that induced Kupe to make his famous voyage, he was living at Rarotonga. We are told that Muturangi, with whom he quarrelled, belonged to Rarotonga; and one version of the story of the quarrel states that it occurred at Rarotonga.

Tradition states that the cause of the quarrel was the antics of a cuttle-fish, said to be a pet or retainer of Muturangi, a chief of those parts. This pernicious cuttle-fish always appeared when Kupe and his companions went a fishing, and filched the bait from their fish hooks, hence they could catch no fish. In this activity the cuttle-fish is said to have been influenced by Muturangi, to whom Kupe appealed without avail. Kupe then busied himself in fashioning a canoe, the vessel known as Matahorua, the stone anchors of which were obtained from the Maungaroa hill at Rarotonga. On this vessel he and his companions set forth to slay the giant cuttle-fish that had interfered with their fishing operations at the fishing ground known as Whakapuaka. That creature was a giant size, its body being three arm-spans in length while its arms were five arm-spans long. The great Wheke-a-Muturangi, as it was termed, fled out into the deep ocean. Ngake, on his vessel Tawirirangi at once took up the pursuit of Wheke, this being employed in the narrative as a proper name for the creature, while Kupe hastened to land in order to procure a stock of sea stores ere he set forth to follow Ngake. Unfortunately Kupe was a married man, and so domestic troubles broke out when he stated his intention of faring out on the ocean. In the end it was decided that his wife, Hine-te-aparangi, and their five children should sail on Matahorua. Far out on the ocean the vessel of Ngake was overtaken.

Even so did Kupe the seafarer and his companions pursue Wheke across wide seas until they saw land loom up before them, and so they came to Muriwhenua in the far north of New Zealand. Still in pursuit they came down the coast, but Kupe landed at one place and went inland and across to Hokianga, where both he and his dog Tauaru left deep footprints in soft clay; in the course of time that clay was converted into rock, and in that rock are still seen the footprints of Kupe and his dog Tauaru.

Kupe overtook Ngake again at Rangiwhakaoma (Castle Point) where Wheke had sought refuge in a cave still known as the Ana o te Wheke a Muturangi. There is a place at Castle Point named Rerewhakakaaitu after one of Kupe's children, also another, apparently, lower down the coast at Pahaoa. Many places were so page 205named after those children, but in narrating this semi-mythical story a native always states that the children were left at such places, hence we are told that Mokotuarangi was left at Akitio, Rere-whakaaitu at Pahaoa, Mataoperu at Tuhirangi, Matiu and Makaro at the Whanganui-a-tara, and so on. Matiu and Makaro are represented by Somes and Ward isles in Wellington Harbour. All these marooned children are said to have been fed on wind, in which case they assuredly had no lack of provender. And so we hear how Kupe left his children at divers places on the coast and of how they are still seen standing in the form of rocks. Some narrators explain that such places were simply named after Kupe's relatives, but the Maori prefers the other version and so states that a certain rock is so and so, an ancestor of his.

Another popular tale connected with Kupe the voyager is that he severed several parts of this land and so formed islands. Thus he formed the isles of Kapiti, Mana and Arapawa, as shown in the following song:

Ka tito au, ka tito au, ka tito au ki a Kupe,
Te tangata nana i topetope te whenua,
Tu ke a Kapiti, tu ke Mana, tu ke Arapawa,
Ko nga tohu tena a taku tupuna, a Kupe
Nana i whakatomene Titapua, ka tomene ia te whenua nei

Herein Kupe is also credited with having not only formed the three islands mentioned, but also with having explored Titapua, but if this is the name of Stephens Island, as stated by one informant, then it should not have taken him long to explore it.

Here follows another form of the short song concerning Kupe and his doings, it refers to his slaying the Wheke a Muturangi, To Nga Whatu islets, and the famed cormorant or Potoru that perished at French Pass.

Ka tito au, ka tito au, ka tito au ki a Kupe
Te tangata nana i hoehoe te moana e takoto nei
Te tangata nana i patu te Wheke a Muturangi
Koia Nga Whatu-Kaponu, koia Matairangi i roto o Puna-te-waro
Hei ma … i te kawau paihau tahi a Potoru
E angi noa mai ra i te Aumiti, Auel Ha!

Yet another myth that has been attached to the name of Kupe is to the effect that he and Ngake found Wellington Harbour a fresh water lake, and that both endeavoured to force an entrance thereto. Ngake tried to force his way through what is now Kilbirnie isthmus, but failed, he merely succeeded in forming Lyall Bay. Daylight overtook him ere he had completed his task, and these supernormal beings cannot continue such activities during hours of daylight. We are not told why he did not continue page 206the job the next night. Meanwhile, however, Kupe had succeeded in forcing his way through the barrier and so forming the present entrance to the harbour.

When Kupe and his fellow voyagers reached Palliser Bay they landed at Oruapaeroa, near the outlet. This place was so named because of the long trench-like hollow formed by the canoe of Kupe in the sand when it was hauled ashore. Our voyagers then came onto Wellington Harbour, where they sojourned a space and then moved onto Sinclair Head. One version of the tale has it that Kupe left his daughters here while he continued his pursuit of Wheke, which he seemed in no great hurry to do. He was absent so long on his trips that his daughters concluded that he had perished, hence they mourned for him after the manner Maori, lacerating themselves and so causing their blood to flow and stain the surrounding rocks red, even as we now see them. Such was the origin of the colour of what we call the Red Rocks at Sinclair Head. These are samples of the myths that become attached to the names of famous persons in Maori tradition. In my own youth an almost equally absurd story was related in connection with Capt. James Cook, who was credited with having sailed into Wellington Harbour over the Kilbirnie isthmus.

While at Sinclair Head (Te Rimurapa) our voyagers saw afar off Wheke crossing the ocean, whereupon Kupe commenced to exert his magic powers in order to enfeeble Wheke, he did so by repeating certain charms termed tupe and matapou. He then despatched two of his young relatives, Titapu (or Titapua) and Whatu-kaiponu, also their attendant the komakohua (this is a shark name) in pursuit of Kupe. These overtook Wheke in Cook Strait, where Kupe joined them, and then occurred the great sea fight between Kupe and his companions on the one side, and Wheke, the great cuttlefish, on the other. Wheke grasped the canoe of Kupe with his long tentacles, and we are told in one version that the spread of these arms was forty cubits, which seems to indicate a robust form of devil-fish. Kupe threw overboard a bundle of gourds which Wheke at once attacked, and so Kupe was able to attack and slay the cuttle-fish. The eyes of Wheke were taken out and placed upon a rock at the islet known as The Brothers to us, but as Nga Whatu (The Eyes) to the Maori, and ever since that place has remained tapu, or at least until godless Europeans built a lighthouse there.

The next act of Kupe was to exercise his magic arts and so cause a strong current to be established near Nga Whatu so that no canoes would venture to approach the tapu spot. There are page 207two other quaint stories connected with Kupe and Cook Strait. One of these concerns what was apparently an attempt made by Kupe to throw a land bridge across the straits. We are told that he laid down his spear (tao) across the Strait, but that the strong current swept it aside, and so the would-be bridging feat ended in disaster. A portion of that bridge remains in the form of the headland at Queen Charlotte Sound known as the Tao-o-Kupe (Spear of Kupe) and Taonui-o-Kupe to the Maori, but to the Pakeha folk as Jackson Head.

Another weird tale is that connecting the famous Pelorus Jack of the French Pass with Kupe. This creature has been credited by the Maori with a fairly long life, inasmuch as it is said to have guided Kupe in his pursuit of the Wheke of Muturangi about a thousand years ago. Pelorous Jack was known to the Maori as Tuhirangi, and Tuhirangi guided the vessel of Kupe hither from the far-off isles of Polynesia. Even so was Kupe led to New Zealand, to Castle Point, and into Cook Strait, after which Tuhirangi took his place at Te Aumiti or French Pass. It was here that the vessel of Potoru was wrecked and so the duty of Tuhirangi down the changing centuries has been the guiding of canoes through the Pass, even as, in late times, he has guided the steamers of the white man. As usual we find references to these tales in Maori song, as in the following:

Ko te ngaro pea i a Tuhirangi ki roto o Kaikai-a-waro
I waiho ai e Kupe hei rahiri waka rere i te Aumiti i raru ai Potoru

All these quaint fables have become attached to what was, apparently, a voyage made from Polynesia to these isles by one of the old Polynesian sea rovers in times when such adventures were not uncommon.

Now afar off at the Marquesas the word Veke denotes a malefactor, and in the Tuamotus "crime". It is possible that the wheke pursued by Kupe was a human enemy who was followed to these isles even as Manaia was hunted by Nuku. It seems at least possible that the wrong meaning of the word has been stressed.

In the story of Rata we have another illustration of what is possibly a distorted account of an old-time voyage. It appears under the heading of Nature Myths.