Te Tau Ihu o Te Waka a Aoraki
The ancient name of the South Island was Te Waka a Aoraki, a name given by the early Polynesian inhabitants of Aotearoa.
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The gods, Aoraki and his three brothers (begat by Ranginui-e-tu-nei and his first wife Poharua Te Po), were half brothers of Tane, Tangaroa, Kiwa, Tawhirimatea and their seventy brothers (offspring of Ranginui’s second marriage to Papatuanuku). These brothers were born into a state of never-ending nothingness, trapped between the bodies of their parents who were eternally united in their undying love. Tiring of this unchanging existence, under Tane’s leadership, the brothers succeeded in forcing their parents apart. Tane and most of his brothers remained with their mother; Tawhirimatea became his father’s ally, as god of storms and tempests, while Ruamoko was trapped within his mother’s body.
The energies released in the violence of their separation created the universe: heaven, earth, seasons, and the diurnal cycle. Ranginui became Sky Father and Papatuanuku became Earth Mother, separated for all eternity. Rangi’s tears fall on his beloved Papatuanuku as rain, while Papa’s tears rise to Rangi as mist.
Tane and his brothers began beautifying Papatuanuku by sculpting her features and populating her domains, but were constantly beset by storms whipped up by angry Tawhirimatea. Ruamoko, incensed at being trapped in his mother’s vast body, vented his anger by causing upheavals in the earth’s crust to destroy his brothers’ works.
Aoraki and his brothers later descended from heaven, curious to meet their half-brothers. While they explored the southern ocean, Tawhirimatea sent a devastating storm, capsizing their waka. Aoraki, his brothers and crew, scrambled onto the side of their overturned canoe to avoid being flung into the maelstrom. The storm’s violence turned everything to stone - the waka, the crew and their cargo - so creating the South Island, or Te Waka a Aoraki. The crew became the Southern Alps, with Aoraki petrified as the highest peak, Aoraki - Mount Cook, surrounded by his brothers as neighbouring peaks.
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Nga whakairo ataahua (beautiful carvings) of the taurapa (sternpost) of Aoraki’s waka became Fiordland, while the ornate tau ihu (the prow) formed Farewell Spit, Golden Bay, Tasman Bay and the islands and coves of the Marlborough Sounds and Cloudy Bay. This was Te Tau Ihu o Te Waka a Aoraki – The Prow of the Canoe of Aoraki.
Over millennia, the sons of Ranginui and Papatuanuku continued to adorn their mother. Tangaroa stocked the oceans, Tane populated her lands with flora, fauna and humankind, Ruamoko created new landforms, and their artistic brother, Tu-te-Rakiwhanoa, further beautified Papatuanuku by sculpting the main coastal features of Te Waka a Aoraki. But, on arriving in Te Tau Ihu, Tu-te-Rakiwhanoa rested, as not even his creative talents could enhance the elegant original carvings of Te Tau Ihu o Te Waka a Aoraki. The beauty of our region has been recognised since earliest times!
Other ancient traditions attribute the name, Te Tau Ihu, to Maui Tikitiki a Taranga, the demi-god who, from the South Island (Te Waka a Maui), fished up the North Island (Te Ika a Maui – the fish of Maui). Some say that it was on Arapaoa Island, a prominent feature of the prow of his canoe, that Maui stood to land his sacred fish.
Updated April 2020
Sources used in this story
- Mitchell, H & J (2004) Te Tau Ihu o Te Waka: A History of Maori of Nelson and Marlborough Vol I The People and the Land, pp18-21, and the references cited there.
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Further sources - Te Tau Ihu o Te Waka a Aoraki
- Beattie, J.H (1949) The Maoris and Fiordland Dunedin : Otago Daily times & Witness, pp.7-13 http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/9033334
- Cowan, J. (1910) The Maoris of New Zealand. Christchurch, N.Z., London, Whitcombe and Tombs, p.57
- White, J (1887,1888) Ancient History of the Maori..Wellington: Government Printer. vol 3, p. 116.
http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/6497007/editions?editionsView=true&referer=di and full-text
- Best, E. (1918) The land of Tara, Journal of the Polynesian Society, 27(105)
- Best, E. (1907)Transactions of the New Zealand Institute, vol XL, p. 188
- Pakauwera, E.W. & Smith, J (translator) (1917) Notes of the Ngati Kuia tribe of New Zealand, Journal of the Polynesian Society, 26, pp.116-129
- Smith JPS (1894) Geneaology of the Te Mamaru family of Moeraki, Northern Otago, New Zealand, Journal of the Polynesian Society , 3 1894, p. 13.
- Mitchell H&J (2008). Te Tau Ihu tribes. Retrieved from Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand:
- Pou Pou carvings (ancestors of the South Island and Nelson). Retrieved from Nelson City Council, 10 February 2010
- Te Ahukaramu Charles Royal (2008). Māori creation traditions. Retrieved from, Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand: