While the Māori word for weather is rangi (also meaning sky), in Māori tradition the deity who controls the weather is Tāwhirimātea.
In the creation story, the children of Ranginui (the sky father) and Papatūānuku (the earth mother) wished to separate their parents so that light could come into the world. The only brother who did not agree to this was Tāwhirimātea, the god of wind and storms. When Ranginui and Papatūānuku were separated, he ascended to the sky to be with his father. Together they plotted revenge against the other brothers. At this time Tāwhirimātea began to produce his numerous offspring.
Tāwhirimātea sent away his wind children: one to the north (tūāraki), one to the south (tonga), one to the east (marangai) and one to the west (hauāuru). The direction to which each child was sent became the name of that wind.
Tāwhirimātea then sent forth a variety of clouds, including Aonui (dense clouds), Aopōuri (dark clouds), Aowhētuma (fiery clouds), Aowhēkere (clouds which precede hurricanes), Aokanapanapa (clouds reflecting glowing red light), Aopakakina (clouds wildly drifting from all quarters and wildly bursting), Aopakarea (clouds of thunderstorms), and Aotakawe (clouds hurriedly flying).
To take revenge on his brothers, Tāwhirimātea first attacked Tāne Mahuta – the god of the forest, who had separated Rangi and Papa. The mighty trees of Tāne’s domain were snapped in the middle and fell to the ground. Then Tāwhirimātea attacked Tangaroa, the god of the sea, causing the waves to grow as tall as mountains. After this he turned on Rongomātāne, whose domain was cultivated food and the kūmara (sweet potato), and Haumia-tikitiki, god of fern root and uncultivated food. To escape, they hid within their mother Papatūānuku. That is why kūmara and fern root burrow into the earth.
During this time, Tāwhirimātea also released Uanui (terrible rain), Uaroa (long continued rain) and Uawhatu (fierce hail-storms). Their offspring were Haumaringi (mist), Haumarotoroto (heavy dew), and Tōmairangi (light dew).
Tāwhirimātea finally attacked Tūmatauenga, the god of war and of humans. Tūmatauenga stood firm and endured the fierce weather his brother sent. He developed incantations to cause favourable winds, and tūā (charms or spells) to bring fair weather to the heavens. But because neither brother can win, Tāwhirimātea continues to attack people in storms and hurricanes, trying to destroy them on sea and land.
Kōanga is the Māori word for spring (September to November). It includes the word ‘kō’, a digging implement: spring was the time for digging the soil. ‘Takē Kōanga, whakapiri Ngahuru’ (absent at planting time, close by at harvest) refers to people who disappear during the hard work of planting in spring, but show up when food was abundant at the autumn harvest.
Light spring showers were known as ‘ua kōwhai’ or kōwhai showers, referring to the September bloom of yellow flowers on the kōwhai tree.
Summer, from December to February, is known as raumati. One tradition holds that Te Rā (the sun) and Hine Raumati (the summer maid) had a child, Tānerore. The saying, ‘Te haka a Tānerore’ (Tānerore's war dance) refers to the shimmering of the hot air during summer.
In other traditions, Parearohi, the wife of the star Rehua (Antares), personifies heat-shimmer. When she dances around the margins of the forests, summer is approaching.
Antares is one of the brightest stars in the night sky. Known to Māori as Rehua, it was closely linked with summer, when it became visible. There is a saying, ‘Te tātarakihi, te pihareinga; ko ngā manu ēnā o Rēhua’ (the locust and the cricket are Rehua’s song birds) because these creatures sing when the heat of summer has arrived.
The flying kēkerewai or green manukau beetle was also known as ‘Rehua’s bird’. Plentiful in summer, the beetle was harvested for food when it became trapped in mud around streams and lakes. Similarly, ‘Ngā pōtiki a Rēhua’ (Rehua’s infants) were the fish maomao and moki, which ran in large shoals during summer.
Days of good and bad weather were compared to the birthdays of good-natured or unpleasant ancestors. On a beautiful day people would say, ‘Mehemea ko te rangi i whānau ai a Te Rangitauarire’ – ‘It’s like the day when Te Rangitauarire was born’. On a stormy, miserable day, they would say, ‘Mehemea ko te rangi i whānau ai a Te Tuarariri’ – ‘It’s like the day when Te Tuarariri was born’.
Māori often expressed a negative attitude towards the arrival of summer. ‘Rehua whakaruhi tangata’ meant Rehua the weakener, and referred to the exhaustion which summer could bring about. ‘Ngā te rā o te waru’(‘the days of the eighth month’, in the traditional lunar calendar) meant the height of summer, when food was often scarce. ‘Rehua pona nui’ (Rehua of the big joints) referred to how the summer heat could make people lose weight and their joints appear larger.
The name for autumn was ngahuru, an archaic word for ten. This was because autumn started during the tenth month (February–March) in the traditional calendar. Ngahuru was also the name for harvest, which occurred at this time. The saying ‘Ngahuru, kura kai, kura tangata’ (harvest-time, wealth of food, the wealth of people) indicated that food was plentiful in autumn.
Hōtoke and Makariri were two words for winter (from June to August), and for cold. Winter was associated with the star Sirius or Takurua – another word for winter. People would say, ‘Takurua hūpē nui’ (winter, when your nose runs).
There are many words for clouds, but the most common is kapua. Another word, ao, is used in the Māori name for New Zealand: Aotearoa – long white cloud. In one tradition Kuramārōtini, the wife of Polynesian explorer Kupe, named New Zealand after the cloud stretching over the land.
While there are still many names relating to clouds and cloud formations, some have fallen out of use. These include:
An East Coast elder explained how to read a cloud that had sharply defined points, known as pīpipi o te rangi (‘pīpipi’ means ‘the wind will come’). The points indicated the direction from which the wind would arrive. If the cloud was red, rain would also arrive. If it was pale, only wind would come. If yellow, a gentle wind and fine weather would follow. If it projected upwards and was pale, there would be a long storm. If it was dark, the storm was near.
There were a number of metaphors for cloud formations. Clouds in layers were known as te kupenga a Tara-mainuku (the net of Taramainuku). ‘A mackerel sky’ is a European metaphor, likening the clouds to the markings on a fish. However, Māori saw in this pattern the raised beds of kūmara (sweet potato), and named it te māra kūmara a Ngātoroirangi (the kūmara gardens of Ngātoroirangi). Mares’ tails (high, wispy clouds) were known as iorangi (strips in the sky).
Horizontal cloud bands were like a belt:
Certain types of clouds were used to predict the weather or certain events:
Te Ihorangi is the god who personifies rain, while Hinewai is the female personification of light misty rain.
The word for rain was ua, but a drop of rain was kōpata. Whakataritari ua was the name for weather leading up to rain, while taru whakaru was damp, cloudy weather. Maomao was the moment when rain stopped. Māwake rangitahi referred to a sudden short squall, and māwake pā roa to a continuing rainstorm. A day’s rain was called koripo marama.
When it came to distinguishing different types of rain, Māori had a remarkable range of descriptive words.
Light rain was described as:
Heavy rain was described as:
Many tribes interpreted rain or a storm as an expression of grief at a funeral, as at the burial of Te Puea Hērangi (a Waikato leader and granddaughter of King Tāwhiao):
As the cortege approached Taupiri mountain, fierce rain began to fall. All the Maori kings were, it is said, buried in heavy rain, but no rain could have been more violent and powerful than it was on this occasion. It was the heavens weeping. 1
Tribal laments sometimes compare the rain to their tears falling when they mourn. This is an extract from the lament, ‘E pā tō hau’, for Te Wano of the Ngāti Apakura tribe:
E ua e te ua e taheke
Koe i runga rā
Ko au ki raro nei riringi ai
Te ua i aku kamo.
Come then, O rain, pour down
Steadily from above
While I here below pour forth
A deluge from mine eyes. 2
This charm was intended to stop rain falling, and was known as ‘he tūā i te rangi’ (weather charm). It was documented from Tuta Nihoniho, a 19th-century Ngāti Porou leader.
E ua, e te uaua; e mao, e te maomao!
Tihore mai runga, tihore mai i raro,
Koi mate nga tamariki a te ika nui
E kiko! E kiko e.
Rain, O rain, cease raining, fair sky!
Clear away from above, clear away from below,
Lest the offspring of te ika nui be distressed
Bring about a blue, unclouded sky. 3
Te whānau puhi, the wind family, comprises many different winds. The common word for wind is hau. Hauraro is the north wind, or wind from below. Tonga is the south wind, and Hauāuru the west. There are numerous tribal names for winds.
The east wind was known as Marangai, also meaning a storm, or bad weather. However, in some districts, marangai meant the north wind. It is likely that its meaning depended on the quarter from which bad weather tended to come in that district. Similarly, ori meant wind from a bad quarter and could be north-west, or north-east to south-east, depending on the locality.
Particular districts had specific names for winds:
It was thought that tohunga (priests) were able to bring winds that would favour their own people, or upset the enemy. They used prayers known as whakaarahau. Pururangi, or tūāumuiterangi, were the incantations that deprived winds of their power – for instance, to bring about calm weather for a fishing trip.
On his first voyage to New Zealand in 1769, Captain James Cook arrived at a spot on the East Coast of the North Island, and named it Tolaga Bay. He believed that this was the Māori name. But Rēweti Kōhere of Ngāti Porou has noted that the name was actually Ūāwa. Māori who met Cook thought he was asking what the name of the wind was, and so they said Tāraki (north wind). Tolaga is a corruption of Tāraki.
Āwha, tūpuhi and marangai were all storms. A rōpu was a squall and a taupoki was a hurricane. The saying, ‘Ngā uaua o te whitu rāua ko te ono’ (meaning ‘the strenuous times of the sixth and seventh months’ in the traditional calendar) referred to the gales and extreme weather that could begin in the warmer months of November and December.
Whaitiri or Hinewhaitiri was the goddess of thunder. Papaki whaititiri was a clap of thunder, while paoro was the moment when thunder crashed. Aputahi a pawa was both the personification of thunder and a single peal. Ngaruru mai rangi described a low, continued, rumbling thunder. Tangi pōhutu was a loud peal of thunder. Oho rangi was a rite that was believed to cause thunder.
Tamateuira is the god who personifies lightning, and the ancestor Tāwhaki was also associated with lightning. The Moriori people of the Chatham Islands linked Tāwhaki with both lightning and thunder.
In the early 1900s Teone (Hōne) Taare Tīkao, a Ngāi Tahu elder, described three types of lightning. He said uira was ordinary lightning, kohara was the zigzag flashes of lightning across the sky, and kapo was an occasional flash all round the horizon, which he believed was a sign of wind.
The association between lightning and death was described by the Ngāti Porou leader Tuta Nihoniho:
A rua kōhā or rua kanapu was a place, usually a mountain top, where lightning was seen. A double flash is particularly dramatic on a mountain, and was seen as a sign that an important member of the tribe had passed away, or might soon do so. There are frequent references in tribal laments to lightning flashing over important mountains.
Kia ata titiro ki te hiko, haunga ia te uira me te kanapu, ko te hiko hiko he toto rangatira e hinga i te parekura, i te waka tahuri, i te whare wera ranei, i te mate tupapaku ranei.
Look carefully at the distant lightning, and disregard the ordinary lightning and the gleaming electric lightning at the horizon. Distant lightning predicts the death of chiefs in battle, or an overturned canoe, or a fire, or a natural death.
The connection with death is also made in a lament for Te Huhu, a chief of Te Rarawa:
Tērā te uira e hiko i te rangi
E wahi rua ana rā runga o Tauwhare
Kāore ia nei ko te tohu o te mate.
The lightning flashes in the sky
Splitting in twain over the sacred hill Tauwhare
Assuredly a token of death. 1
Snow was known as huka or huka rere. Hail was either ua whatu (rain stones) or huka-ā-whatu (stone like snow). Hukapapa was ice or frost, while hukapiri referred to hard frost. Upokomārō referred both to hard frost and the frozen ground.
The Ngāi Tahu people believed snow was the offspring of the deity Whēkoi. When it snowed they would say, ‘Kai te rere te tama a Whēkoi’ (the son of Whēkoi is falling). Others saw ice and snow as the children of Whaitiri (goddess of thunder), or described them as ‘the fish of Whaitiri’. In other traditions, sleet and drifting snow were the children of the mountains Tongariro and Pīhanga, no doubt because these were often covered in snow.
Pūkohu is the word for mist. Mist uniformly covering the sky is papanui, said to be a sign of calm the next day. In one tradition, mist is said to be the soft, warm sighs rising from the mountains and valleys – the earth mother Papatūānuku. This was a sign of her love for Ranginui (the sky father), who was separated from her.
To the Tūhoe people of the Urewera mountains, Hine-pūkohu-rangi is the personification of mist (kohu) and fog. According to tradition, Tūhoe are the descendants of the mist maiden and Te Maunga (the mountain). The tribe is often known as ‘Ngā tamariki a te Kohu’ – the children of the mist.
One word for dew is haukū. In the Māori story of the creation, dew is the tears of Ranginui, mourning his separation from Papatūānuku. The tears fall on her breast, as dew settles on the land. A saying among people of the moist, fertile lands of Hawke’s Bay is ‘Heretaunga haukū nui’ (Heretaunga the dew-covered land).
There are a number of names for the rainbow, the most common being āniwaniwa and āheahea. The phenomenon was sometimes described as atua piko, a curved deity.
The personified forms of the rainbow are Kahukura, Uenuku and Haere, and there are other minor names. In tradition, Kahukura appears in the heavens in the form of a double bow. The red lower bow is a female known as Pu-te-aniwaniwa, while the upper, which is darker-hued, is a male known as Kahukurapango.
Best, Elsdon. The astronomical knowledge of the Maori, genuine and empirical. New ed. Christchurch: Kiwi, 2002 (originally published 1922).
Best, Elsdon. >Māori religion and mythology. 2 vols. Wellington: Te Papa Press, 2005 (originally published 1924).
Orbell, Margaret. A concise encyclopedia of Māori myth and legend. Christchurch: Canterbury University Press, 1998.
Reed, A. W. Reed book of Māori mythology. Revised by Ross Calman. Auckland: Reed, 2004.
This has comprehensive information on Māori astronomy, which is important in understanding traditional knowledge of the seasons and weather.
The Maori Research and Development Unit (National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research) found that members of Ngāti Pare (Coromandel) and Te Whānau ā Apanui (Eastern Bay of Plenty) had an intimate understanding of local weather and climate. Some examples of this knowledge are listed.