Sports and games, widely played by both adults and children, were important in traditional Māori society. As well as providing entertainment, they could be educational or form part of a ritual.
Miru travelled from his home in the underworld to Te Ao Mārama (the world of light). There he enchanted Hinerangi and became her lover. After they had two children together Miru returned to his home in the underworld, taking some of Hinerangi’s family with him. At his wharekura (school) Huiterangiora, he taught them knowledge of games and other arts. When Hinerangi’s family returned to Te Ao Mārama, they built a wharekura that they also named Huiterangiora. There they passed on the knowledge of the arts they had learnt in the underworld.
Games are considered part of te whare tapere (the house of entertainment, also known as whare ngahau, whare tākaro and whare rēhia). This is a branch of knowledge that also encompasses the performing arts.
Sports and games fall within the realm of the atua Rongomaraeroa, representing peace and harvest bounty. They were played at gatherings where there was an abundance of kai (food).
Game origins are ascribed to various traditional figures. In one story the knowledge of games including whai (string games), karetao (puppets) and tītī tōrea (a stick game) came from Miru, an atua of the underworld.
For certain iwi Raukatauri, the goddess of flute playing, and her sister Raukatamea are the atua of music and games. Both sisters feature in the ancient story of the chief Kae, performing games and other arts to make him laugh.
Other iwi see games as derived from the atua Takatakapūtea and Marere-o-tonga, children of the sky father Ranginui and the earth mother Papatūānuku.
Some hold that the skills and patterns of whai came from the ancestral hero Māui.
Rehua, a god of the highest heaven, is described in a waiata as the ancestor of the kite.
The story of Kae
Kae visited Tinirau, and borrowed his pet whale Tutunui to ride home. Then, instead of returning the whale, Kae killed and ate it. Tinirau sent a group of women, including Raukatauri and Raukatamea, to find Kae. They were to identify him by his broken teeth, and so they needed to make him laugh.
They used their entire repertoire of dance, music and games. As well as performing various styles of haka and playing musical instruments including tōkere (castanets), pūtōrino (flutes) and porotiti (humming discs), they used puppets, string games, hand games and spinning tops.
Community participation in sports and games
The marae was a primary venue for sports and games.
Sometimes neighbouring kāinga would meet to compete. All kinds of contests were held, including mamau (wrestling), para whakawai (weapons skills), canoe racing, haka, tī rākau (stick games), dart throwing, kite flying and ruru (knucklebones).
Sports and games were closely associated with the traditional new year festival for the rise of the constellation Matariki (the Pleiades) or the star Puanga (Rigel) around winter solstice.
They were also enjoyed at social gatherings including tohi (baptisms), kai tamāhine (wooing), tomo (betrothals), pākūhā (marriages), hohou rongo (peacemaking), tangihanga (burials), hahunga (exhumations), and planting and harvest festivals.
Water sports and athletics were popular in the summer, while indoor pursuits such as whai, tī rākau, tī ringaringa (a popular hand game) and karetao were played on winter evenings and during unpleasant weather.
Both genders participated in martial arts such as para whakawai and mamau, and for many activities age was no barrier: ‘Even old men sometimes participated in games, or would spend much time in the manufacture of toys for children and paraphernalia employed in games played by adults.’1
Ritual use of games
All games involved an aspect of ritual, often employed in serious contexts. Manu tukutuku (kites) were used to claim land, to determine the success of an attack and to rally reinforcements to a pā under siege.
Games were always accompanied by words – spoken, chanted or sung. These chants were sometimes repeated by a rangatira as a prelude to launching an attack. In 1845, at Waiaruhe, the rangatira Hōne Heke repeated a tutukai (guessing game) chant before attacking a taua (war party) led by Tāmati Wāka Nene.