When the ancestors of Māori arrived in New Zealand, they found it was very different from their Polynesian homeland. They had been primarily seafaring people, but on these larger, colder islands, they also needed to know about the bush.
Understanding the forest was vital to life. As Māori explored and learnt about the forests, Tāne, the god of the forest, found an important place in tribal consciousness and traditions. People developed a reverence for and knowledge of te waonui-a-Tāne – the great forest of Tāne.
Tāne is a figure of great importance in tribal traditions. Tāne separated earth and sky and brought this world into being; he fashioned the first human; he adorned the heavens, and brought the baskets of knowledge, wisdom and understanding down from the sky to human beings.
Tāne is sometimes given different names to reflect his different roles. He is called Tāne-mahuta as god of the forest, Tāne-te-wānanga as the bringer of knowledge, and Tānenui-a-rangi as bringer of higher consciousness.
Tāne is a model for masculinity and action in the world. His various names suggest freshness, youth, someone who can overcome others’ actions, and who is true, loyal and authentic. He is seen as upright and able to bear the weight of an enterprise; he has his roots in the earth and his head in the heavens.
In most Māori creation traditions, Tāne separated earth and sky. His parents, Ranginui (sky father) and Papatūānuku (earth mother), had produced many children while lying in a close embrace. The children became frustrated with living in darkness between their parents, and decided to push the pair apart.
This creation story by Wiremu Maihi Te Rangikāheke of Te Arawa tells how Tāne’s brothers tried and failed to separate earth and sky:
Rongomātāne arose to separate the two, but the two were not separated. Tangaroa arose to separate the two but they were not separated. Haumia-tiketike arose but the result was the same. Tūmatauenga arose and the result was the same. Finally, Tāne-mahuta arose… 1
It was Tāne who successfully separated Ranginui and Papatūānuku, and created Te Ao Mārama – the world of light.
Trees in the forest are seen as Tāne-mahuta, rising to separate earth and sky. Tāne, the tree, holds the sky aloft, bringing light into the world. The widespread felling of forests in New Zealand in the 19th and 20th centuries was calamitous to the traditional world view of tribes that lived in the forest – it was like the sky rejoining the earth, and the world returning to darkness.
The felling of forests also went against traditional models of behaviour. The word ‘tika’ means erect, upright and correct – as a tree is upright and erect. It informs the concepts of tikanga – correct behaviour or action – and whakatika, which means to arise. Correct behaviours arise from within a person, as a tree rises from the ground.
The pōwhiri, which welcomes visitors to a marae, is based on creation traditions, which tell of the separation of earth and sky and the movement from darkness to light. In these traditions, Tāne pushed earth and sky apart. The pōwhiri, which takes place upon the ground in front of the meeting house (marae ātea), is a re-enactment of the creation of the world through the separation of earth and sky. Orators speaking upon the marae ritually re-enact Tāne separating earth and sky, the action through which light came into the world. The work of the orator is to bring light and resolution to the community through his oratory.
On the marae, the world of light (Te Ao Mārama) is represented by the meeting house. Darkness (Te Pō) is represented by the marae ātea. The pōwhiri is designed to address conflict and difficulty, and find resolution. The Tāne energy is born out of darkness. It separates earth and sky, allowing light into the world. Tāne represents the energy of growth and action, and the expression and fulfilment of the earth.
Orators on the marae act like Tāne in his various roles. Their role is to be upright like Tāne-ua-tika (Tāne with a straight backbone), to bear the weight of an issue like Tāne-uehā (Tāne supporting the heavens), and bring higher thought and consciousness like Tānenui-a-rangi and Tāne-te-wānanga (Tāne as bringer of knowledge).
The orator speaks to the issues of the day and seeks māramatanga (illumination) – understanding and wisdom to resolve the matter. The orator re-enacts Tāne’s actions by figuratively hoisting the sky above and allowing light to shine into the world.
In the traditional Māori world view, plants and animals were rich in meaning. The diverse heights, girths and other features of trees suggested the variety of human dimensions. Children were named after trees, plants and birds, and people’s characters were likened to features of the forest.
The tī kōuka (cabbage tree, Cordyline australis), which often grows alone, symbolises stoic independence. It was sometimes called tī-tahi – the lone cabbage tree.
The raukawa (Pseudopanax edgerleyi) evokes romantic love – it was used to make perfume for the East Coast ancestor Māhinaarangi’s meetings with her lover Tūrongo. They named their child (the ancestor of the Ngāti Raukawa tribe) after the plant.
Harakeke (flax, Phormium tenax) symbolises the family and the cycle of life. Similarly, the flax bush represents the family – the new leaf at its centre is the child, and larger leaves on the outside are older relatives.
Māheuheu (weeds) symbolise abandoned places. They were sometimes deliberately cultivated to hide sacred sites, giving the impression that they had been abandoned.
The maire (Nestegis cunninghamii) is a hardwood, and represents strength. A saying about the maire asks where to find the most important part of a speech:
Kei whea te maire o ngā kōrero?
Where is the maire of the speechmaking?
A mother often sang this song while nursing a child.
Taku hei piripiri
Taku hei mokimoki
Taku hei tāwhiri
Taku kati taramea 1
My little neck-satchel of sweet-scented moss
My little neck-satchel of fragrant fern
My little neck-satchel of aromatic gum
My sweet-smelling neck-locket of speargrass.
All these plants were admired for their scents. Their leaves, or gum in the case of the tāwhiri, were worn in satchels around the neck.
Trees and plants came to represent poetic and symbolic ideas, expressed in classical oratory and storytelling. In the 19th century, Europeans (and perhaps uneducated Māori) sometimes struggled to understand orations despite speaking the Māori language, because they did not know the symbolism.
A saying from Tāwhiao, the second Māori king, used native plants as symbols:
Māku anō e hanga tōku whare
Ko tōna tāhuhu, he hīnau.
Ōna pou he māhoe, he patatē
Me whakatupu ki te hua o te rengarenga,
me whakapakari ki te hua o te kawariki. 2
I will build my house
Its ridge pole will be made of hīnau
Its posts will be made of māhoe (whiteywood) and patatē (seven-finger)
Those who inhabit that house shall be raised on rengarenga (rock lily)
and nurtured on kawariki.
His tongi (saying) has been interpreted to mean that the native plants used to build the house and feed its inhabitants represent Māori self-sufficiency.
A pou, or post, is made from a tree and re-erected in another place to make a statement. For example, a pou rāhui is a boundary post that marks a restricted area. The site of the post and the wood it is made of communicate certain meanings.
A person was also sometimes described as a pou. This meant that they too had been carved – tattooed with a moko – and were then commissioned to do certain tasks. They often had to take a position, stake a claim and uphold the weight of an enterprise – doing metaphorically what a post does literally.
A tumu is another kind of post – a tree stump that remains in the place where it grew, rather than a tree that is felled, carved and erected in another place. Canoes were tied up to stumps, which were firmly rooted in the ground. High chiefs were compared to stumps, because they remained in the lands where they were born and were not easily overcome by the events of the day:
Ko te tumu herenga waka.
Like a tree stump to which the many canoes are tied.
Many whakataukī (sayings) use trees and plants as symbols and metaphors.
The tōtara (Podocarpus totara) is symbolic of a great chief. The following expression describes the death of a chief:
Kua hinga te tōtara i Te Waonui a Tāne.
A tōtara has fallen in the great forest of Tāne.
A great chief is also referred to as a tōtara haemata – a strong-growing tōtara.
Another saying compares people to the tōtara and the pukatea:
Ka haere te tōtara haemata, ka takoto te pukatea wai nui.
The tōtara floats, while the pukatea lies in deep water.
This proverb suggests that young people are like the soft-wooded tōtara – they move around easily and can attend meetings in different areas. Older people are more settled – they are like the pukatea, a tree with heavy wood that grows in swamps.
A difficult person is identified with the stinging ongaonga (tree nettle, Urtica ferox):
He tangata ongaonga.
A prickly person.
A bold and committed person is compared to the maire (Nestegis cunninghamii), a hardwood:
E, ko te matakahi maire.
Like a wedge of maire.
Cowardice is likened to the soft berry of the tawa (Beilschmiedia tawa):
He tawa para, he whati kau tāna.
The pulp of the tawa berry is easily crushed.
A courageous person is compared to the tawa’s hard kernel:
Ka mahi te tawa uho ki te riri.
Well done, tawa kernel fighting away.
Another proverb notes that when a person dies, they return to Te Pō (the darkness) forever, unlike the tī kōuka (cabbage tree), which grows back even if it is cut down.
Ehara i te tī e wana ake.
Man is not like the tī, which renews itself.
Another proverb refers to the tough climbing frond of mangemange (Lygodium articulatum):
Kia pēnei te mārōrō o tō kākahu me te mangemange.
Let your clothes be as strong as the mangemange, which never wears out.
Best, Elsdon. Māori religion and mythology. 2 vols. Wellington: Te Papa, 2005.
Brougham, Aileen E., and A. W. Reed. The Reed book of Maori proverbs – Te kohikohinga whakatauki a Reed. Auckland: Reed, 1999.
Grey, George. Polynesian mythology and ancient traditional history of the New Zealand race: as furnished by their priests and chiefs. Hamilton: University of Waikato Library, 1995 (originally published 1885).
Henderson, J. McLeod. Ratana: The origins and the story of the movement. Wellington: Polynesian Society, 1963.
Royal, Te Ahukaramū Charles, ed. Native traditions by Hūkiki te Ahu Karamū o Otaki Jany 1st 1856. Ōtaki: Te Wānanga-o-Raukawa, 2003.