Chapter 5, Part 2 - NGA PURAKAU
Carvings from Mythology
Please enjoy listening to 'hinepukohurangi' sung by maisey rika while reading chapter 5, part 2.
The pōhutukawa is often referred to as the New Zealand Christmas tree, because around that time of the year it becomes ablaze with a mass of scarlet flowers. The pōhutukawa also features in Māori lore for a variety of reasons, and it is the theme of the heru (below right) carved from kauwae ūpoko hue. Stories about the taniwha dolphin Kaikaiawaro are numerous among the iwi of Kāti Kuia and Ngāti Koata in the area where I live. I have been told about a pool in the Te Hoiere (Pelorus) River where he was sometimes seen, as well as in his familiar haunts in Te Hoiere (Pelorus Sound), and at its entrance, Te Aumiti (French Pass). The heru below has a stylised shape cut out to represent Te Hoiere, with its many curves and sheltered bays. It also has a manaia at the top of the Sound to represent Kaikaiawaro by the whirlpools of Te Aumiti, which are represented by the koru at the peak of the carving.
Kaikaiawaro became famous in the early 20th century as Pelorus Jack, carved at the top of the pendant below. This whitish Risso’s dolphin even had an Act of Parliament passed for his protection. He used to meet and accompany boats making passage through Te Aumiti, where the legendary Kupe had left him to assist seafarers because the tidal surge creates dangerous currents and enormous whirlpools that are potentially lethal. Te Aumiti divides Rangitoto ki te Tonga (D’Urville Island) from the mainland. The area is the home of taniwha that are special to the local iwi of Kāti Kuia and Ngāti Koata. Te Kawau a Toru, the shag, who was a pet of one of Kupe’s daughters, is at the bottom of the carving below. He liked a challenge and defied the perils of Te Aumiti but was sucked into a whirlpool and drowned. His broken wing bones are the rocks which still breach the swirling waters, adding further danger to those who don’t know about them or who overlook their significance. In the centre are a pair of
tuatara, one on each side. Ngāti Koata are now the kaitiaki of this creature, which is also one of their own kaitiaki. Programmes are running to reintroduce tuatara to other areas, and to breed them in captivity in order to learn more about them and to educate people. There is a strong tuatara population on Takapouwera (Stephens Island), an island beside Rangitoto, partly because the nesting tītī, or shearwaters, some of which accidentally die while landing, provide an important annual food source. There are many variables that could impact on the population of the birds, which would also affect the viability of tuatara on this island stronghold. So Ngāti Koata need support in their mission to be ‘kaitiaki of the kaitiaki’ if our descendants are to continue to experience these unique reptiles. Many years ago Rangitoto ki te Tonga (D’Urville Island) was home to a waka taua, or war canoe, named Te Awatea. This craft had the reputation of being capable of winning races even when others had a halfway start. When the ravages of colonisation led to the decay of many traditions, it is said that Te Awatea became a spirit canoe, and I talked with old island residents who recalled hearing the sound of its paddlers chanting through the mist long after it was last seen. Its function then was to take away those lost traditions for safekeeping, but the recent revival of old traditions has seen the building of a new waka in the area, Te Awatea Hou, which is used to unite people, revive traditions and affirm pride in them. When Hilary and John Mitchell asked me to do some illustrations for their book Te Tau Ihu o te Waka, I created the image of Te Awatea below as a spirit canoe floating in the mist. The design concepts which are the basis of my carving are also incorporated into this graphic.
The most ancient canoe legend I know of comes from the southern Waitaha wānanga, recorded by Herries Beattie. Millennia ago when ancestors first came to the Pacific Coast they were concerned that they would be squashed if they ventured out over the sea to the horizon where the sky came right down onto the sea. So they made a craft from huruhuru manu (feathers), tied a long string to it and said a karakia for its successful journey. They released it to the offshore wind, but the string broke and the feather canoe drifted from sight. After a few days a storm arose and the rather battered canoe drifted back to shore. When it was divined to have survived its passage through the horizon the people built a wooden canoe, named it Te Waka Huruhuru Manu after the venturesome feather canoe, and so began their exploration and settlement of the Pacific Islands and eventually Aotearoa. The carving above celebrates that spirit of daring to venture into the unknown and is shaped like a large feather, with the small manaia faces around its edge representing the smaller feathers that complete the structure. Inside them, at either end, are four larger manaia faces representing ngā hau e whā, the four winds, which denote voyaging to all quarters of the planet. The rib of the feather is shaped as a ngarara, or lizard. Its back is ridged in a manner common to carvings of the Waitaha, who brought us the story of Te Waka Huruhuru Manu. Because a single ngarara is a deadly omen, a balancing male lizard is carved into the toggle that holds the pendant – this balance has the effect of creating an equally powerful symbol of life and positive elements. The pendant was carved from a niho parāoa, a sperm whale tooth, for a renowned New Zealand artist, Max Gimblett, who has made his mark overseas. It recognises that he too has dared to venture out over unknown horizons, both physically and in the works he creates.
This ancient waka was remembered much later, when its name Huruhuru Manu was reused for the ‘mythical canoe’ which brought taniwha to Aotearoa. I have carved its story into a slice cut from the jawbone of a sperm whale named Tahi by Bill Solomon who gave it to me (bottom). The top figure on this tokotoko kōrero, or talking stick, represents the captain of the waka, who is shown playing a nguru (below). The crew were Maerōero, a feared tribe of mysterious people who lived in the bush and were revered for their flute playing, which was heard even when the player could not be located. Below the handle is Kōpūwai, who is famed for swallowing the Matau (Clutha) River in an endeavour to catch a Rapuwai woman, Kaiāmio. On his death he was turned into a mountain range bearing his name, while his pack of 10 two-headed dogs roamed the area until they too became transfixed as prominent rocks in several locations.
Further down the stick is the fearsome Ngarara Huarau (below), who is known in several parts of the land, most notably in the Nelson region. He was partial to dining on people, but also loved the company of females, which led to his eventual demise. Ruru, his captive wife, escaped and hatched a plan with her people, whereby she returned to him and persuaded him to join her family at a feast in his honour.
As he slept off the lavish meal, Ruru’s family set fire to the tinder-dry whare they had constructed for the purpose. Although he was mortally wounded, he managed to escape and raced for home. Seeking the soothing cold waters of the mountain caves, he burrowed deep into Takaka Hill, creating the chasm now known as Harwood’s Hole. Some of his scarred scales were shed and lie dormant until some future time – they can still be seen from the road on the Takaka Hill as strangely fluted marble rocks, creating a surrealistic landscape. At the end of the canoe is depicted another reptilian taniwha, Kaiwhakaruaki (below), who lived at Parapara in Golden Bay. Over the years this monster devoured countless travellers as they passed his estuarine home, and he was only bested when tribes from the area put aside their differences and assembled a combined force of 360 warriors. They armed themselves with weapons made from a great pōhutukawa tree, and devised a battle plan with the emphasis on avoiding the danger of his vicious lashing tail. An amazing array of treasures was recovered from his insides when his body was opened up.
Another taniwha, Pukutūaro, is described in the story as harmless, though it was obviously frightening to be in such company. In the absence of further information I represented Pukutūaro as a giant wētā, whose name wētāpunga has been translated as ‘the god of ugly things’ – even the latin classification means ‘terrible grasshopper’. With a body length of 100 millimetres they scare most people who come across them in the bush, and so a pair of these are depicted as ‘harmless taniwha’ (below).
The two birds in the waka were Pouākai and Komakōhua, which are both now extinct. I have portrayed Pouākai as a giant eagle, more often famed in mythology as the great Hōkioi or Hākuwai. Stories exist of these birds nesting on the mountain peaks and preying on people in North Canterbury, until a trap was set by a brave warrior who acted as decoy then destroyed the last bird. Komakōhua is less well known, but was described as a white bird with a sharp beak that lived in the cliffs, and was last sighted by an informant at Cape Farewell on the west coast of Golden Bay.
The stern of the waka is shaped as a whale’s tail in acknowledgement of these ocean-travelling leviathans. The story came from the ancient southern Waitaha whare wānanga, and so the carving style is inspired by, and echoes, ancient southern artefacts. Other taniwha were said to have come in the waka, and many other taniwha stories exist, so this portrayal of the mythical canoe is merely a small representative one. Traditional weapons like the wooden ones used to slay the taniwha Kaiwhakaruaki are still made, but nowadays they are used in weapon-based training regimes intended to instill discipline and encourage fitness. Smaller ones like the patu parāoa below are prized by orators, who use them with traditional gestures to emphasise aspects of their oratory. It was an honour to be asked to create these weapons for an orator who I admire and respect enormously.
While looking at a picture of a small ancient carving of which only the head remained, I wondered what form the rest of the body might have taken. So I began with a similar simplified face, and working within the confines of a slab of beef bone created my own version. As it was the ‘Year of Peace’ I decided to carve the trilogy below, which follows three young men through life.
In the first photo they are shown doing their best to grow straight and tall, like the rīmu tree, and so they are mounted on a rīmu base. In the second, they are depicted as toa, or warriors, holding their traditional weapons, and are mounted on a base of kānuka, a wood prized for weapon making. Finally they are depicted as spirit beings with heru in their hair to denote their elevation to rangatira status. Here they are mounted on a base of the sacred maire.
I assembled these three sets with a double spiral-based form in the background, which I called ‘The Spiral of Peace’ (below). Although its form is derived from the figurehead of a waka taua, or war canoe, by doubling it and showing the spiral as the dual entities of Ira Atua and Ira Tangata I have emphasised peace as the alternative to conflict. The carving style comes from the Te Ati Awa people, who live in the shadow of Taranaki. Their peaceful stance at Parihaka when confronted by military forces trying to remove them from their traditional land was the inspiration for this peace spiral.
When I was a boy and we moved from the city to Colac Bay, a local Māori family welcomed us by giving us a pōhā, or kelp bag, full of muttonbirds, the prized tītī. I remembered this as strange food but soon developed a great fondness for the delicacy. It was decades, however, before I became aware of the significance of that traditional gift. I was then able to reciprocate by making the pōhā opposite from a whale tooth for Ronnie and Mhari Bull of Kāi Tahu, the children of that kind family with whom I had enjoyed my schooldays. Because I regard my pendant carvings as wearable sculptures I carve them accordingly, often with the intention of allowing the owners to keep one side exclusively to themselves or to show only to special friends. I imagine it is easy to guess what the contents of these pōhā are.