In Māori tradition patupaiarehe, also known as tūrehu and pakepakehā, were fairy-like creatures of the forests and mountain tops. Although they had some human attributes, patupaiarehe were regarded not as people but as supernatural beings (he iwi atua).
They were seldom seen, and an air of mystery and secrecy still surrounds them. In most traditions, those who encountered patupaiarehe were able to understand their language. But in one account they were unintelligible.
Patupaiarehe had light skin, and red or fair hair. Historian James Cowan was told that ‘they were a lighter complexion than Maori; their hair was of a dull golden or reddish hue, urukehu, such as is sometimes seen in Maori of today.’ 1
Unlike Māori, they were never tattooed. Mohi Tūrei of Ngāti Porou described their skin as white, albino or the colour of red ochre. Their eye colour varied from light blue to black.
There is still debate about their height. The Tūhoe tribe records that they were small, but others say they were similar in size to humans. Whanganui stories claim them to be giants, more than 2 metres tall.
Patupaiarehe were generally found deep in the forests, or on mist-covered hilltops. In these isolated places they settled and built their homes, sometimes described as forts. In some stories their houses and pā were built from swirling mist. In others, they were made from kareao (supplejack vine).
In the North Island they were said to live mainly in the Waikato–Waipā basin, the Cape Colville–Te Aroha range, the hills about Rotorua, the Urewera ranges and Wairoa districts, and the Waitākere ranges in the Auckland region.
South Island traditions had them living mainly in the hills around Lyttelton Harbour, Akaroa and the Tākitimu range, and in the hills between the Arahura River and Lake Brunner.
Patupaiarehe society was kinship-based, similar to Māori society. In 1894 Hoani Nahe, an elder of the Ngāti Maru people, recalled three sub-tribes of patupaiarehe: Ngāti Kura, Ngāti Korakorako, and Ngāti Tūrehu. Tahurangi, Whanawhana, and Nukupori were important chiefs. They were generally a closed group who shunned intruders, and were unfriendly to those who ventured into their midst.
Patupaiarehe were hunters and gatherers, surviving on raw forest foods and sometimes fishing from the shores of the sea or a lake. Their canoes were made of kōrari (flax stalks). Cooked food was offensive or foul to them. In different traditions, albino birds and eels, red flax and red eels were considered their property, and trouble befell Māori who took any of these.
Fearing the light, they were active mainly in the twilight hours and at night, or when the mist was heavy enough to shield them. They wore flax garments (pākērangi), dyed red, but also rough mats (pora or pūreke). They were also known for playing kōauau and pūtōrino (flutes).
The explorer Īhenga became thirsty while climbing a mountain in Rotorua, and a patupaiarehe woman gave him a drink from a calabash. So he named the mountain Ngongotahā (‘drink from a calabash’). In another story the mountain Mauao, in Tauranga, was rejected by the beautiful mountain Pūwhenua. The lovelorn mountain asked his patupaiarehe friends to drag him to the sea. As they did so, the dawn rose, forcing them to flee. Stranded at the water’s edge, the mountain became known as Mauao (‘caught at dawn’).
Ponaturi are sometimes described as sea fairies. They had red hair and white skin, and fingers with long, evil claws. They spent their days under the sea, only coming onto land at night. Like the patupaiarehe they feared sunlight and fire.
One tradition tells of Tāwhaki taking revenge on the ponaturi for killing his father. He tricked them into staying in his house after dawn. Then he and his brother opened the doors and windows to let light flood into the house, in order to kill their captives.
Patupaiarehe were known to lure people, especially attractive women, to their midst. A patupaiarehe would use hypnotic magical sounds from his flute to lure a young woman to his side, and then take her back to his camp. There he would make love to her before taking her home. The spell he had cast on her meant that he could call her at any time and she would be compelled to return to him.
The urukehu (red-heads) and albinos among Māori were said to be the descendants of such unions of patupaiarehe and mortal women. Men who were captured were either mistreated and then released, or killed.
There were different methods of avoiding the sometimes evil intentions of the patupaiarehe. Homes would be smeared with kōkōwai (iron oxide mixed with shark oil) when patupaiarehe were known to be close. Also the cooking ovens were put into operation. The smell coming from both the kōkōwai and cooked food was repugnant to patupaiarehe, and kept them at bay.
Patupaiarehe were also afraid of the light of open fires, so as long as the campfire was still glowing at night, people considered themselves safe. Young children too were warned not to stray from the village ‘in case the patupaiarehe gets you’.
Pakepakehā is another word for patupaiarehe. It may have given rise to the term Pākehā (a New Zealander of European descent). To Māori, Europeans resembled the pakepakehā or patupaiarehe, with their fair skin and light-coloured hair.
One traditional account tells of a chief, Kahukura, who when travelling north found himself on a lonely beach just as night set in. He slept in the sand dunes, but was awoken by the sounds of voices and laughter. At the water’s edge were a group of patupaiarehe, the fairy people, catching great numbers of fish in a net of woven flax. Despite his fear Kahukura crept among them, hoping to take the net and find out how it was made. As it was dark, and he was short and fair like the patupaiarehe, they did not notice him as being different. He knew that if he could delay them until dawn they would flee to avoid the sun, leaving the net behind. He helped thread the gutted fish onto lines, but tied his knots so they would come undone again. This tactic worked, and the fairy people fled as the sun rose, leaving behind their net and the fish. From this Kahukura discovered the secret to making the net, and taught it to his people.
A patupaiarehe named Miru is credited with giving Māori the sacred knowledge and wisdom of his mysterious world. Married to a mortal woman, Miru took his father-in-law to his world and taught him these things. In this way the rites of mākutu (magic arts), ātahu (love charms) and other priestly skills were passed on to the Māori world. Miru’s people also taught the visitors whai (string games) and tititorea (stick games).
Cowan, James. Fairy folk tales of the Maori. Auckland: Whitcomb & Tombs, 1925.
Hyland, Rikihana. Illustrated Maori myths and legends. Auckland: Reed, 2003.
Nahe, Hoani. ‘Maori, tangata maori.’ Journal of the Polynesian Society 3 (1894): 27–35.
Reed, A. W. Reed book of Māori mythology. Rev. by Ross Calman. Auckland: Reed, 2004.