First PagePrevious PageBack to overviewNext PageLast Page


Taniwha have become a political football of late, some politicians take life too seriously or just like to stir it. A bit of background info. is required so have a look at the NZ Herald articles below.


In Māori mythology, taniwha (pronounced [ˈtanifa]) are beings that live in deep pools in rivers, dark caves, or in the sea, especially in places with dangerous currents or deceptive breakers. They may be considered highly respected kaitiaki (protective guardians) of people and places, or in some traditions as dangerous, predatory beings, which for example would kidnap women to have as wives.

At sea, a taniwha often appears as a whale or as a large shark; compare the Māori name for the Great white shark: mangō-taniwha. In inland waters, they may still be of whale-like dimensions, but look more like a gecko or a tuatara, having a row of spines along the back. Other taniwha appear as a floating log, which behaves in a disconcerting way (Orbell 1998:149-150, Reed 1963:297). Some can tunnel through the earth, uprooting trees in the process. Legends credit certain taniwha with creating harbours by carving out a channel to the ocean. Wellington's harbour, Te Whanganui-a-Tara, was reputedly carved out by two taniwha. The petrified remains of one of them turned into a hill overlooking the city. Other taniwha allegedly caused landslides beside lakes or rivers.

Taniwha can either be male or female. The taniwha Araiteuru is said to have arrived in New Zealand with the early voyaging canoes and her eleven sons are credited with creating the various branches of the Hokianga Harbour.

As guardians

taniwha Ureia

Most taniwha are associated with tribal groups; each may have a taniwha of its own. The taniwha Ureia, depicted on this page, was associated as a guardian with the Māori people of the Hauraki district. Many well-known taniwha arrived from Hawaiki, often as guardians of a particular ancestral canoe. Once arrived in New Zealand, they took on a protective role over the descendants of the crew of the canoe they had accompanied. The origins of other taniwha are unknown.

When taniwha were accorded the appropriate respect, they usually acted well towards their people. Taniwha acted as guardians by warning of the approach of enemies, communicating the information via a priest who was a medium; sometimes the taniwha saved people from drowning. Because they lived in dangerous or dark and gloomy places, the people were careful to placate the taniwha with appropriate offerings if they needed to be in the vicinity or to pass by its lair. These offerings were often of a green twig, accompanied by a fitting incantation. In harvest time, the first kūmara (sweet potato) or the first taro was often presented to the taniwha (Orbell 1998:149-150).

Arising from the role of taniwha as tribal guardians, the word is also used to refer in a complimentary way to chiefs. The famous saying of the Tainui people of the Waikato district plays on this double meaning: Waikato taniwha rau 'Waikato of a thousand chiefs' (Mead & Groves 2001:421).

Witi Ihimaera, author of “The Whale Rider” says that he has a female kaitiaki (guardian) taniwha named Hine Te Ariki who lives in the Waipāoa River.

As notorious monsters

In their role as guardians, taniwha were vigilant to ensure that the people respected the restrictions imposed by tapu. They made certain that any violations of tapu were punished. Taniwha were especially dangerous to people from other tribes. There are many legends of battles with taniwha, both on land and at sea. Often these conflicts took place soon after the settlement of New Zealand, generally after a taniwha had attacked and eaten a person from a tribe that it had no connection with. Always, the humans manage to outwit and defeat the taniwha. Many of these taniwha are described as beings of lizard-like form, and the some of the stories say the huge beasts were cut up and eaten by the slayers.[7] When Hotu-puku, a taniwha of the Rotorua district, was killed, his stomach was cut open to reveal a number of bodies of men, women, and children, whole and still undigested, as well as various body parts. The taniwha had swallowed all that his victims had been carrying, and his stomach also contained weapons of various kinds, darts, greenstone ornaments, shark's teeth, flax clothing, and an assortment of fur and feather cloaks of the highest quality.[8]

Many taniwha were killers but in this particular instance the taniwha Kaiwhare was eventually tamed by Tamure. Tamure lived at Hauraki and was understood to have a magical mere/pounamu with powers to defeat taniwha. The Manukau people then called for Tamure to help kill the taniwha. Tamure and Kaiwhare wrestled and Tamure clubbed the taniwha over the head. Although he was unable to kill it, his actions tamed the taniwha. Kaiwhare still lives in the waters but now lives on kōura (crayfish) and wheke (octopus).

Relationships with people

Sometimes, a person who had dealings with taniwha during their lifetime might turn into a taniwha after they died. This happened to Te Tahi-o-te-rangi, who had been a medium for the taniwha, and had been rescued at one time by one of the creatures. Tūheita, an early ancestor who drowned, became a taniwha despite the fact that he had no prior dealings with the mythical beasts. Sometimes relationships are formed between humans and taniwha. Hine-kōrako was a female taniwha who married a human man, and Pānia was a woman from the sea who married a human and gave birth to a taniwha (Orbell 1998:150).

In the legend “The Taniwha of Kaipara” three sisters went out to pick berries. One of the sisters was particularly beautiful. The taniwha caused havoc on their walk back and the sisters fled. The taniwha caught the sisters one by one, trying to capture the beautiful one. On succeeding, he then took her back to his cave. Many years passed and the woman bore the taniwha six sons, with three like their father and three fully human. She educated all her sons and in particular taught her human sons the art of war, helping them to fashion and use weapons. The human sons then killed their three taniwha brothers, and eventually their father. They all went back to their homes.

Modern controversy

Beliefs in the existence of taniwha have a potential for controversy where they have been used to block or modify development and infrastructure schemes.

In 2002, Ngāti Naho, a Māori tribe from the Meremere district, successfully ensured that part of the country's major highway, State Highway 1, be rerouted in order to protect the abode of their legendary protector. This taniwha was said to have the appearance of large white eel, and Ngāti Naho argued that it must not be removed but rather move on of its own accord; to remove the taniwha would be to invite trouble. Television New Zealand reported in November 2002 that Transit New Zealand had negotiated a deal with Ngāti Naho under which “concessions have been put in place to ensure that the taniwha are respected”. Some like controversial journalist Brian Rudman have criticised such deals in respect of 'secretive taniwha which rise up from swamps and river beds every now and again, demanding a tithe from Transit New Zealand'.

In 2001 “another notable instance of taniwha featuring heavily within the public eye was that of a proposed Northland prison site at Ngawha which was eventually granted approval through the courts.”

Māori academic Dr Ranginui Walker, in a detailed letter to the Waikato Times, said that in the modern age a taniwha was the manifestation of a coping mechanism for some Māori. It did not mean there actually was a creature lurking in the water, it was just their way of indicating they were troubled by some incident or event.[citation needed]

In 2010 there was an episode of Destination Truth where Josh Gates and his team went looking for the taniwha, but turned up no good evidence.

Heeding the taniwha can help avert expensive blunders

By Kepa Morgan

Two cases show that indigenous wisdom could be linked to unknown factors, writes Dr Kepa Morgan, senior lecturer in civil and environmental engineering at Auckland University.

Attempts to sensationalise the taniwha issue raised by Glen Wilcox should be condemned. A Herald article on the Auckland Council's Maori Statutory Board warning to planners about the taniwha who lived in an ancient creek running past the Town Hall and down Queen St, was deemed significant enough to warrant front-page attention. It seems there should be great concern that Ngati Whatua are raising issues informed by their cultural knowledge and values.

Has the possibility been considered that the concerns raised by Ngati Whatua may contribute to an improved design for the downtown rail link? What these concerns relate to is unclear but one would have to assume they relate to fears that the Maori Statutory Board may expect to participate in other decision-making if allowed to influence the design process for this project.

So why shouldn't Ngati Whatua be asking Auckland's transport committee to give consideration to the taniwha? It is suggested that in the past Maori have dredged up myths of taniwha in other places with the sole intention of frustrating the progress of projects.

Examples offered include Karu Tahi stopping construction on State Highway 1 near Meremere and causing the road to be rerouted, and the protests at the Ngawha prison site near Kaikohe. It is of relevance to consider what has happened subsequently in each of these cases.

The indigenous wisdom of Ngati Naho states that Karu Tahi lives in the boggy marsh which would have been encroached upon by construction of the state highway when the Waikato River floods (Herald, November 9, 2002). In February 2004, about 14 months after the state highway construction was complete, unseasonal wet weather caused flooding of the Waikato River which would have threatened the integrity of the original highway batter design. Fortunately the redesigned section, which accommodated the Ngati Naho concerns and avoided encroaching on the swamp - an integral part of the flood plain - remained intact, avoiding what could have been potentially costly flood repairs.

In the case of the Ngawha Prison, the taniwha is the log Takauere. Professor Patu Hohepa (Waitangi Tribunal) considers taniwha to be esoteric minders, protectors of important places, which then have their importance enhanced by the presence of taniwha. At Ngawha, the prison construction continued without change, despite similar opposition to the project that was experienced in the Karu Tahi example. Following completion of the prison complex issues arose regarding foundation instability. These had been noted by workers during construction. In 2007, the Government admitted the prison (which cost $137 million - $100 million more than the original project estimate), was sinking into the ground and required repairs.

In conclusion, it is suggested that taniwha be considered as manifestations of complex phenomena that are not well understood within the narrow constraints of many people's reasoning. In the case of Karu Tahi, the perils of constructing on flood plains are very real to engineers but in this case, before the intervention of Ngati Naho, a potential risk seems to have been overlooked. In the case of Ngawha, quite possibly the ground instability was a known manifestation of that area associated with the taniwha in indigenous wisdom. If the initiative had allowed a more thorough investigation of tangata whenua concerns, it is possible the current situation may have been avoided. The point is not whether the engineers in either case could have done a better job, but rather that developments are not always appropriate everywhere that they are proposed. And that in most cases the information that engineers are relying on to make decisions is incomplete and fallible.

Therefore it is prudent to take into account all sources of knowledge, rather than assuming that a poorly informed mono-cultural understanding of an issue is the only one that really matters. Assumption is often the father of ignorance.

Role of taniwha misunderstood - professor

Taniwha are a “pre-European method of resource management”, a history professor says, and would be less likely to ridiculed if they were seen in this context. After Auckland Council Maori Statutory Board member Glen Wilcox advised council of the taniwha Horotiu who lives under the Auckland CBD, sparking fears the spiritual creature could threaten the proposed rail loop under the central city. However representatives of Auckland's Ngati Whatua hapu have assured mention of the taniwha should not be taken as a threat to a $2.4 billion rail tunnel.

AUT Maori studies professor Paul Moon said the role of taniwha is misunderstood. Dr Moon attributed part of the problem to the portrayal of taniwha as some sort of indigenous swamp-dwelling dragon. “Traditionally, taniwha existed in some circumstances as a warning,” he said. “They were invoked in order to get people to pause from a particular activity and force them to think about the processes, issues, and consequences of that activity. Taniwha were part of the pre-European method of resource management in New Zealand. “Taniwha are placated only when all the issues associated with the place where they reside have been adequately resolved.”

In 2002, Transit New Zealand agreed to slightly reroute the Waikato Expressway near Meremere after a local hapu said the planned route cut through the domain of the taniwha Karu Tahi. Later that same year a Northland iwi was unsuccessful in stopping a prison being built at Ngawha because of a taniwha.

First PagePrevious PageBack to overviewNext PageLast Page

living_in_new_zealand/taniwha.txt · Last modified: 2011/11/18 21:16 by art
CC Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 4.0 International Valid CSS Driven by DokuWiki do yourself a favour and use a real browser - get firefox!! Recent changes RSS feed Valid XHTML 1.0