Go to National Library of New Zealand Te Puna Mātauranga o Aotearoa
Volume 40, 1907
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Mythical Origin of Trees and Birds.

The most widely used term employed by the Natives of New Zealand to denote a forest is ngahere or ngaherehere. In some parts, as among the Aotea tribes, the word motu takes its place. In others, the latter term is only applied—as motu rakau—to an isolated clump of trees, a grove or small wood. Such a small patch of timber-growth would be called an uru rakau by the Matatua tribes.

There is, however, another term used to denote a forest, but which, as a rule, is only employed as a kind of emblematical expression. This is the word wao, which is usually connected with the name of the tutelary deity or personification of forests, the great Tane, offspring of the Earth Mother and of Rangi, the Heavens. Thus, forests are termed te wao nui a Tane (the

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great forest of Tane), or te wao tapu nui a Tane (the great sacred forest of Tane). A single tree or bird is often spoken of as though it itself was Tane. In speaking of one of the prized timber trees, such as totara, a Native would often say, “That is your ancestor, Tane.” A canoe made of such trees was often termed te riu tapu nui o Tane. It was doubtless this feeling of Tane being incarnated in the forms of trees and birds that induced the Maori to perform some very peculiar rites prior to felling a tree, as also on the opening of the bird-taking season. When engaged in the task of felling some rimu trees which overhung my camp, passing Natives would call out to me, “Kai te raweke koe i to tipuna, i a Tane” (You are meddling with your ancestor Tane); or, on the fall of a tree, “E! kua hinga a Tane” (O ! Tane has fallen).

This singular phase of primitive mentality is noted in all Maori myths—viz., the belief in an anthropomorphic origin and personification of all things, such things being looked upon as the descendants of such mythical being, and also as being imbued with a certain amount of his personality. Thus the origin of the gourd-plant (hue) in Maori myth is one Putehue, a descendant of Rangi and Papa (Sky and Earth). The saying of Putehue was, “Ko nga kakano o roto i a au hei utu wai mo aku mokopuna. Ko tetehi o nga kakano he tane, tena e kore ia e whai uri.” (The seeds within me shall become water-vessels for my descendants. But some of them are male seeds which will not have offspring.) In this ancient myth we note an early proof of Maori recognition of sex in plants.

The following mythical genealogy is of a cosmogonic nature, needing explanation.