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Legends of the Maori

There were Giants in the Land

page 238

There were Giants in the Land.

A Story came by cable not long since of the discovery of gigantic human footprints in ancient rock at Limpopo, in South Africa. The narrative recalled certain Maori traditions of uncommonly tall warriors of Old New Zealand. The legends do not mention the dimensions of the Maori feet, but it is probable that they would compare passing well with those of the huge rovers of the African stone age. What our New Zealand traditions do lay stress on is the great reach with a weapon, especially the taiaha, or the hani, a kind of two-handed sword, which made the big chieftains of old such formidable foes in battle. The numerous stories, though obviously exaggerated in some particulars, all go to show that a marvellous physical development was attained by some of the ancestors of the present Maori.

There is the story of Kiharoa, a giant of the Ngati-Raukawa and Ngati-Whakatere tribes, who met his death about a hundred and fifty years ago. His stronghold was Tokanui Pa, on the middle hill of the “Three Sisters,” the conical hills which are seen close to the present motor road through the King Country a short distance south of the Puniu River. The story has it that he was twice the height of an ordinary man, and he wielded a hard-wood taiaha of unusual length and weight. He was killed at last when he slipped on some karaka leaves as he fought in a battle just outside his pa. His enormous head presently decorated the palisades of Totorewa, a pa of the Ngati-Maniapoto. An excavation for an oven to cook the huge body was made where he fell, and in one’s youth in those parts the “Giant’s Grave,” as it was called, in the fern, was pointed out by the Maori; the spot is close to where the Tokanui Hall now stands at the cross-roads. Two fathoms long and a foot over, is the native word-of-mouth record of Kiha-roa’s height. It may seem slightly exaggerated; but let us be generous and allow that he was at least eight feet.

There was another giant of these parts long ago, one Matau; like Kiharoa, he was a man of the Ngati-Raukawa tribe, and, too, his favourite weapon was the taiaha. He lived on a hill above the Wairaka River, a few miles beyond Orakau. Maori accounts aver that he was eleven feet high.

In the Rotorua country, too, there are stories, no doubt based on fact, of huge warriors of the past. There was the chief Tuhourangi, for one; he lived three centuries ago. He was nine feet high, according to tradition, and was about six feet up to his armpits. His bones were buried on the east side of Pukurahi Pa, on Mokoia Island, above the present little settle- page 239 ment on the flat. The old man Tamati Hapimana told me, at Mokoia in 1896, that Tuhourangi’s bones were still there, deep in the ground, enclosed in stone slabs. His story was that Sir George Grey, during his first Governorship of New Zealand, visited Mokoia and, hearing about the bones of a man of enormous size, obtained the consent of the chiefs to dig for the skeleton. The men whom he employed purposely dug in the wrong place and so the relics were never brought to light. This long-gone warrior’s bones, in olden times, were disinterred at kumara planting time and were set up on the edge of the cultivations on Mokoia, while the priest recited the prayers for a bountiful harvest. The presence of the sacred bones was supposed to promote the fertility of the crop.

They were men who made some noise in the land, those giants. The Maori delighted to embroider such tales with amazing details, such as the story that Tuhourangi used to shout from the mainland to Mokoia Island, three or four miles away, bidding his slaves prepare food for him.

In other parts there are old-time giant tales, and the ancestors of certain families are said to have been of uncommon size—such families as Kaihau of Waikato, Wahanui of the King Country, Haupapa of Rotorua, Tareha of the Bay of Islands. They are big men to-day, some of them. Far away in North Auckland, there was a great fellow named Te Pute, a hero of the Ngapuhi folk. His eyes, they aver, were as large as the largest pawa shell—about the size of a saucer. When he sneezed the thundering sound thereof was heard from Punakitere as far away as Kaikohe, and that is several miles distant.

In the South Island there are somewhat similar legends of gigantic warriors with a mighty reach of weapon. In historic times there is the authentic memory of a strong man who, though not a giant, was famed for his powers as a fighter, and was an adventurous sailor and traveller. This was Tikao, a chief of the Ngati-Irakehu, a section of the Ngai-Tahu tribe, whose homes were at Opukutahi, on Akaroa Harbour. From the description of Tikao given me by his nephew, the old man Hone Taare Tikao, he must have been a splendid figure of a warrior. He was six feet four or five inches in height, or more, and so powerful that he could swing two men, supporting their entire weight, on his outstretched right arm. His commanding height, his long reach with the taiaha and spear, and his great physical strength, made him a most formidable antagonist in battle; and his mental endowments befitted his stalwart nobility of stature. A curious feature of the big man’s appearance was his half-finished tattoo; he was moko’d in the blue spirals and wrinkle-following lines on one cheek only. No one could touch him with the taiaha, and when in 1830 Te Rauparaha captured the Akaroa people and slaughtered many, he spared Tikao be- page 240 cause of his warrior bearing, and his skill with the weapon. A few years later Tikao shipped from Kapiti Island as a sailor in a French vessel and made a voyage to Europe. His strength and sailorly courage gained him the high regard of officers and crew. We may well imagine how such a powerful fellow at a capstan bar or tailing on to a rope would be worth half a dozen “Tangata Wiwi.”

Maori artifact