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Legends of the Maori

The Diving Cage. — The Tale of the Dragon-Slayers of Te Awahou

page 235

The Diving Cage.

The Tale of the Dragon-Slayers of Te Awahou.

“Far away in the twilight time
Of every people, in every clime,
Dragons and griffins, and monsters dire,
Born of water, or air, or fire,
Crawl and wriggle and foam with rage,
Through dark tradition and ballad age.”

The glass-clear stream called the Awahou, at Rotorua, has its source in a great fountain spring not more than a mile from the lake. It gushes up a full-grown river from a mighty hidden well. The Rotorua-Tauranga motor road skirts the ferny banks under which the lake-like fountain pool swirls and bubbles about eight miles from Rotorua town, and from here a by-road leads down the right side of the stream to Te Awahou village. The silver river, almost ice-cold, flows between banks verdant with shrubs and bracken and flax; cresses sway in its strong current.

The kainga near the lake shore is a pretty place, with its carved and brightly-painted houses, its stilt-legged pataka or storehouses and its rustic bridge that spans the willow-fringed river.

The great spring, the river source, is called Te Waro Uri (The Pit of Darkness). The story told by the Arawa people concerning this fathomless “pit” takes one back to the days of medieval dragon-slayers. There once lived, they say, in the depths of Te Waro Uri, a man-eating ngarara or taniwha. Many parties of people travelling between Rotorua and Wai-kato had been mysteriously lost, and at last suspicion rested on this fierce saurian, whose name was Pekehaua. So a small party of Arawa, who had already made a name by killing a saurian monster at Te Kapenga, to the southward, arose and grappled with the problem of slaying that taniwha. They cut supplejack canes and tough creepers in the forest and made of them a strong taiki, a stout basketwork cage, large enough to hold several men. They brought this cage to the river bank, and the priests repeated their wero taniwha, and other powerful incantations, to weaken the monster and render him a less formidable foe.

A call was made for the bravest man in the party to beard Pekehaua in his den. A young warrior named Pitaka stepped out. He and several of his friends entered the cage, which was decorated with tufts of birds’ feathers, and weighted with a rock, and the Maori St. Georges were lowered page 236 into the depth of the fountain, while the priests on the banks betook themselves to their prayers.

This is the translation of one of the karakia recited by the priests to “send to sleep” (whakamoemoe) the monster, so that the daring hunters might safely noose it—a karakia magical as the glamorous spell and the enchanted potion with which Medea mesmerised the dragon that kept guard over the Golden Fleece. The original was given to me by old Tupara Tokoaitua of Ohinemutu in 1895:—

The monster there!
Vast as a rock he lies!
How angrily his eyeballs glare!
How flash his fiery eyes!
Come Sleep, come Sleep;
Let the slumbrous spell be laid,
In depths below, in depths below,
Let the sleep be as of night,
Like the Great Night,
The Long Night,
The Sleep-bringing Night.
Sleep on—sleep on!

The taniwha lay his dreadful length in his watery cave. The karakia for the moment locked the taniwha’s jaws. The valiant Pitaka, reaching out through an opening in the cage, slipped the noose of a strong line over the monster’s head and round his body and gave a tug at the cage rope as a signal to those above to haul away. The breathless heroes in the taiki were quickly hauled to the surface and the good air again, and then the taniwha-killing army hoisted away with a will, and with tremendous shouts the struggling Pekehaua was brought up to the river-bank.

Then resounded the mighty blows of the army’s weapons as they pounded away on the ngarara’s head and back and spiny tail, and presently he gave one last expiring wriggle and lay dead. The exultant people cut up Pekehaua for food, and in his huge maw they found a great number of dead bodies, many of them swallowed whole. There they lay, heaped up in the monster’s stomach, men, women and children, besides innumerable garments of flax and feathers, and weapons of all sorts and sizes. The dragon-slayers potted what was left of his body for a winter supply, and interred the corpses—this time in the earth—and that was the end of the man-eating Pekehaua.

* * *

It may be that these curious taniwha tales are really recollections, magnified by the lapse of many centuries, of the crocodiles or alligators and the enormous pythons that were the terror of our Maori’s remote page 237 ancestors in tropic lands. There may be also a localised and magnified remembrance of that quite authentic dragon found by naturalists on the island of Komodo, in the East Indies. Such stories as those describing the capture of Kataore at Lake Tikitapu and Hotupuku on the Kapenga plains (between Rotorua and the Waikato Rivers) strongly suggest a Komodo-like origin.

Again, some of these taniwha stories may embody vague traditions of the giant man-eating sharks of tropical waters. The big fighting shark of the Bay of Plenty, which the Maori catch at the Island of Tuhua for the sake of its teeth, is called mako-taniwha. One of the large sharks found in Samoan waters is called a tanifa. And the description of how Pitaka noosed Pekehaua in the Waro Uri is worth comparing with a present-day method of catching sharks at Aitutaki, in the Cook Group. The natives of that Eastern Pacific island dive into the submarine caves, under the coral patches, and put a slip-noose round a shark’s tail while the monster is asleep or otherwise oblivious of their presence.

The Aitutaki diver is the modern Pitaka, and he doesn’t need a cage.