Te Tau Ihu o Te Waka a Aoraki


The ancient name of the South Island was Te Waka a Aoraki, a name given by the early Polynesian inhabitants of Aotearoa. Te Tau Ihu o Te Waka a Aoraki is therefore an alterative name for the Top of the South Island - Te Tau Ihu o Te Waka a Māui is now more widely used.

Te Awatea HouTe Awatea Hou [waka taua built for 1990 Waitangi celebration depicting regional myths]. photo by Roy Gregory, courtesy Huia Elkington
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The gods, Aoraki and his three brothers (begat by Ranginui-e-tu-nei and his first wife Poharua Te Po), were half brothers of Tāne, Tangaroa, Kiwa, Tāwhirimātea and their seventy brothers (offspring of Ranginui’s second marriage to Papatūānuku). These brothers were born into a state of never-ending nothingness, trapped between the bodies of their parents who were eternally united in their undying love. Tiring of this unchanging existence, under Tāne’s leadership, the brothers succeeded in forcing their parents apart. Tāne and most of his brothers remained with their mother; Tāwhirimātea became his father’s ally, as god of storms and tempests, while Rūamoko was trapped within his mother’s body.

The energies released in the violence of their separation created the universe: heaven, earth, seasons, and the diurnal cycle. Ranginui became Sky Father and Papatūānuku became Earth Mother, separated for all eternity. Rangi’s tears fall on his beloved Papatūānuku as rain, while Papa’s tears rise to Rangi as mist.

Tāne and his brothers began beautifying Papatūānuku by sculpting her features and populating her domains, but were constantly beset by storms whipped up by angry Tāwhirimātea. Rūaumoko, incensed at being trapped in his mother’s vast body, vented his anger by causing upheavals in the earth’s crust to destroy his brothers’ works.

prow sculptureTim Wraight - sketch of prow of Te Awatea Hou depicting regional stories.
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Aoraki and his brothers later descended from heaven, curious to meet their half-brothers. While they explored the southern ocean, Tāwhirimātea sent a devastating storm, capsizing their waka. Aoraki, his brothers and crew, scrambled onto the side of their overturned canoe to avoid being flung into the maelstrom. The storm’s violence turned everything to stone - the waka, the crew and their cargo - so creating the South Island, or Te Waka a Aoraki. The crew became the Southern Alps, with Aoraki petrified as the highest peak, Aoraki - Mount Cook, surrounded by his brothers as neighbouring peaks.

Two different canoes from the Tasman areaTwo different canoes from the Tasman area. Edmond Francois 1833Alexander Turnbull Library, PUBL-0038-1-035
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Nga whakairo ātaahua (beautiful carvings) of the taurapa (sternpost) of Aoraki’s waka became Fiordland, while the ornate tau ihu (the prow) formed Farewell Spit, Golden Bay, Tasman Bay and the islands and coves of the Marlborough Sounds and Cloudy Bay. This was Te Tau Ihu o Te Waka a Aoraki – The Prow of the Canoe of Aoraki.

Over millennia, the sons of Ranginui and Papatūānuku continued to adorn their mother. Tangaroa stocked the oceans, Tāne populated her lands with flora, fauna and humankind, Rūaumoko created new landforms, and their artistic brother, Tū-te-Rakiwhanoa, further beautified Papatūānuku by sculpting the main coastal features of Te Waka a Aoraki. But, on arriving in Te Tau Ihu, Tū-te-Rakiwhanoa rested, as not even his creative talents could enhance the elegant original carvings of Te Tau Ihu o Te Waka a Aoraki. The beauty of our region has been recognised since earliest times!

Other ancient traditions attribute the name, Te Tau Ihu, to Māui-Tikitiki-a-Taranga, the demi-god who, from the South Island (Te Waka a Māui), fished up the North Island (Te Ika a Māui – the fish of Māui). Some say that it was on Arapaoa Island, a prominent feature of the prow of his canoe, that Māui stood to land his sacred fish.


Updated April 2020

Sources used in this story

  1. Mitchell, H & J (2004) Te Tau Ihu o Te Waka: A History of Maori of Nelson and Marlborough Vol I The People and the Land, pp18-21, and the references cited there.

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  • This is not the story the Iwi of Te Tau Ihu tell. Te Tau Ihu o Te Waka a Maui is the name in common usage across the region today. It is the predominant name used in waiata, referred to in marae carvings and found in the names of Maori community groups that represent this region in national fora, for example – Te Tau Ihu o Te Waka a Maui Maori Performing Arts Council, and Te Ara a Maui (The Maori Regional Tourism Organisation). For the Western side of Te Tau Ihu – the Iwi who hold the strongest customary relationship are the Tainui and Taranaki people. The favoured story about the origins of Te Tau Ihu, from our Iwi, is the one from the Maui cycle.

    Posted by Ropata Taylor, ()

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