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Sacred places from Māori mythology in New Zealand

Last updated 31 May 2021

With high mountains, coloured lakes and huge Kauri forests, there are many natural wonders in New Zealand, all closely linked with the indigenous culture. The local Māori beliefs and myths reflect both the unstable nature of the local landscape and their underlying respect for nature, with mountains and rivers still considered sacred today.

For those travelling through the country, many major tourist attractions and landmarks offer an opportunity to learn the local legends and gain some insight into why these places are sacred.

Aoraki / Mt Cook National Park

One of the most beautiful spots in New Zealand is Aoraki / Mt Cook National Park. Situated in the Southern Alps, the national park's highest peak is named for Aoraki, the son of Rakinui, the sky father.

Tasman Lake and the Southern Alps in Aoraki / Mt Cook National Park

Tasman Lake and the Southern Alps in Aoraki / Mt Cook National Park

According to a local (Ngāi Tahu) legend, Aoraki left the sky with his brothers to explore the earth and the oceans. Eventually, they decided to return to their father, however, Aoraki became distracted as he launched their waka (canoe) back into the sky, and the boat crashed back into the ocean.

The impact overturned the canoe and Aoraki and his brothers climbed onto the base of it. There they stayed, stranded in the ocean, until eventually the canoe and the brothers turned to stone. The canoe formed the landmass of the South Island and the bodies of the brothers formed the Southern Alps. Aoraki, as the eldest, became the highest mountain.

One of the traditional names for the South Island is Te Waka o Aoraki – The Canoe of Aoraki.

Te Whanganui-a-Tara (Wellington Harbour)

Ringed with green hills, Wellington Harbour is at the heart of the capital’s city centre. Yet, many years ago, before there was a harbour in Wellington, the stories say that the ring of hills was complete, encircling a lake.

Wellington Harbour at night.

Wellington Harbour at night. Photo by Ian Trafford.

Two taniwha or sea monsters lived in the lake, until one of them heard the waters in the south (the Cook Strait). It decided to try to reach the distant waters, breaking through the rocks into the strait. The second taniwha, Whataitai, tried to follow him, but the water was flowing out of the lake, and he was stranded on the shore.

His soul left in the form of a bird, Te Keo, which flew above the harbour and wept for his body down below. To this day, Mount Victoria is known to Maori as Tangi Te Keo, “The weeping of Te Keo”, and the area on the hills directly below is called Hataitai.

Tongariro National Park

The beautiful mountainous landscape of the central North Island is intertwined with rivers and dotted with lakes.

The Blue Lake in Tongariro National Park

The Blue Lake in Tongariro National Park Photo credit: Destination Lake Taupo

The Emerald Lakes in Tongariro National Park

The Emerald Lakes in Tongariro National Park Photo credit: Destination Lake Taupo

This part of the country is an area of deep cultural and spiritual significance. There are many stories about how that landscape formed and, according to Māori tradition, the mountains were once gods and warriors of great strength.

The great mountain, Tongariro was one of seven mountains surrounding Lake Taupo. All the mountains were male, except for Pihanga who was exceptionally beautiful. The other mountains were in love with her and battled each other for her favour. The land erupted with fire, smoke and hot rocks as they fought, the ground trembling beneath them.

Eventually, Tongariro emerged the victor, winning Pihanga’s devotion and the right to stand next to her. The defeated mountains were given one night to move away from the couple and at dawn remained in their location forever.

Mount Taranaki

Rising high above the land and looked out towards the ocean, Mount Taranaki, meaning “Gliding Peak”, is a spiritually important landmark for Maori.

Mount Taranaki reflected in the Whanganui River.

Mount Taranaki reflected in the Whanganui River. Photo by James Heremaia.

Taranaki, was one of the mountains that fought for Pihanga’s favour and lost. Travelling through the night, he scarred the earth with a huge trail as he moved west. In his new place by the sea, he cried for Pihanga and his tears flowed into the trail, becoming the great Whanganui River. When cloud covers the mountain, Taranaki is hiding his tears.

The scenic coastal route in Taranaki passes old battle grounds and historic Māori pa (fortified villages) that tell stories about the region’s history and culture.

Lake Taupo

Surrounded by mountains, Lake Taupo was created nearly 2000 years ago by a huge volcanic eruption. The lake is so large that, standing on one side, you cannot see across to the far shore.

The blue waters of Lake Taupo

The blue waters of Lake Taupo

According to legend, when the early Polynesia explorer Ngatoro-i-rangi first saw Taupo, it was just a huge bowl of dust in the ground. In an effort to promote growth, he uprooted a totara tree and threw it into the barren bowl. The wind caused him to miss his mark and, after striking a hard bank, the tree landed upside down, its branches piercing the earth.

Fresh water welled up, forming Taupo moana – ‘The sea of Taupo’. This tree is said to still be visible under the water about 70 metres off the shore at Wharewaka Point. After giving thanks, Ngatoro-i-rangi threw strands from his cloak into the water where they became the native fish of the lake.

Rotorua

Rotorua is a region that could be from a fairytale, with coloured lakes, boiling mud pools and thick forests. It’s not surprising that many local legends and myths are set in Rotorua, with a particularly interesting story centering on Kuirau Park.

The steaming lake and boiling mud in Kuirau Park, Rotorua

The steaming lake and boiling mud in Kuirau Park, Rotorua

The park is open to the public, its boiling lake a major attraction, but the stories say that the lake was cool in the distant past. A man, Tamahika, and his lovely wife, Kuirau, were the first to live at its shores. One day when Kuirau was bathing in the lake, a taniwha, grabbed her and dragged her down into the depths of the lakes.

The gods saw this and were angry, so they made the waters of the lake boil. The Taniwha was destroyed but Kuirau was also killed, and since that time the lake and the park around it have taken her name.

Waipoua Forest

Driving towards Hokianga from Auckland, the road winds through the beautiful Waipoua Forest, home to three quarters of New Zealand’s kauri trees. While the entire forest is sacred, just a short walk from the road, stands Tane Mahuta, the largest kauri tree in the country at 51m high and with a girth of 13.8 metres.

The giant kauri tree, Tane Mahuta.

The giant kauri tree, Tane Mahuta. Photo by Bgabel at Wikivoyage shared

One of the "Four Sisters" - a huge kauri tree in Waipoua Forest

One of the "Four Sisters" - a huge kauri tree in Waipoua Forest

In the Māori creation myth, Tane Mahuta created the earth by lying between his parents – the earth and sky – and pushing them apart to make space for him and his siblings to live. He still stands like that now in the forest, his shoulders pushing against the earth, and his feet stretching out towards the sky.

Kapowairua (Spirits Bay)

Just before reaching Cape Reinga at the top on the North Island, there is a stretch of beach where spirits gather to leave this world.

Cloudy skies at Kapowairua or Spirits Bay

Cloudy skies at Kapowairua or Spirits Bay

Kapowairua is where the kuaka (godwit) embarks on its seasonal journey north, a place of crashing waves at the tip of the country. The name Kopowairua comes from the words of a Māori chief, Tōhē, who, when leaving to visit his daughter, told his people to grasp (kapo) his spirit (wairua) if he died during his journey.

This is where Māori souls finally let go of this land and enter the ocean-door of Po. Following the setting sun to the west, they return to Hawaiki. Kopowairua a lovely, isolated spot and seems an apt place for souls to say goodbye to this beautiful land.

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