Insects play a role in two traditional stories of voyaging canoes. The first is about respecting nature, and the second explains how insects came to New Zealand.
Rātā and the multitude
‘Te Tini o Hakuturi’ means ‘the multitude of bow-legged ones’, which included insects, birds and fairy spirits. They had the task of avenging any desecration of the forest’s sacredness.
An old tradition tells of a man named Rātā, who did not say the required incantations before he felled a large tree in the forest, cutting off its branches to make a canoe from the trunk. The insects and birds were angry, and after Rātā had retired for the day, they raised the tree up again, calling on all the branches and broken pieces to bind together. Twice Rātā felled the tree, and twice the multitude of Hakuturi raised it up.
Finally Rātā hid, and saw the forest creatures raising the tree. He accused them of interfering in his work. The creatures asked him, ‘What authority do you have to fell the forest god to the ground? You had no right to do so.’ Rātā was so overcome with shame and remorse that Te Tini o Hakuturi told him they would build him a canoe, if he returned to his village. The ornamental stern and prow of the vessel were carved by the spiders (pūngāwerewere).
This story is one of many throughout Polynesia that explain proper conduct. It emphasises the importance of paying respect to your kinsfolk and the forest trees, and the importance of placating the spirit world before taking something from nature.
Biters on board
In one tradition, an ancestor named Manaia brought the namu (sandfly) and waeroa (mosquito), whose bites cause intense itching, to New Zealand on his canoe. He did this as an act of revenge against some of the tribes who had not invited him to join in their hākari (feasts). He released them in the Bay of Islands, in the north, and from there they are said to have spread far and wide.
How insects arrived in New Zealand
A Ngāti Porou tribal account describes how the Māngarara canoe, led by Wheketoro and other chiefs, brought insects and reptiles to New Zealand from Polynesia. On board were the insect family of weri (centipedes), whē (caterpillars) and other crawling species, and the reptile family, including teretere (geckos) and tuatara. The Māngārara left Hawaiki, the traditional homeland of Māori, and came to Whanga-o-keno island on the East Cape. Before travelling on to the mainland, Wheketoro left most of his insect and reptile passengers on the island, to save them from ‘the plundering propensity of man.’ 1