Taniwha

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In Māori mythology, taniwha (pronounced [ˈtanifa]) are beings that live in deep pools in rivers, dark caves, or in the sea, especially in places with dangerous currents or deceptive breakers. They may be considered highly respected kaitiaki (protective guardians) of people and places, or in some traditions as dangerous, predatory beings, which for example would kidnap women to have as wives.

Contents

Etymology and Pacific analogues

Linguists have reconstructed the word taniwha to Proto-Oceanic *tanifa, with the meaning "shark species". In Tongan and Niuean, tenifa refers to a large dangerous shark, as does the Samoan tanifa; the Tokelauan tanifa is a sea-monster that eats people. In most other Polynesian languages, the cognate words refer to sharks or simply fish.[1] Anthropologists such as A. Asbjørn Jøn have recognised that the taniwha has "analogues that appear within other Polynesian cosmologies".[2]

Characteristics

At sea, a taniwha often appears as a whale or as a large shark; compare the Māori name for the Great white shark: mangō-taniwha. In inland waters, they may still be of whale-like dimensions, but look more like a gecko or a tuatara, having a row of spines along the back. Other taniwha appear as a floating log, which behaves in a disconcerting way (Orbell 1998:149-150, Reed 1963:297). Some can tunnel through the earth, uprooting trees in the process. Legends credit certain taniwha with creating harbours by carving out a channel to the ocean. Wellington's harbour, Te Whanganui-a-Tara, was reputedly carved out by two taniwha. The petrified remains of one of them turned into a hill overlooking the city. Other taniwha allegedly caused landslides beside lakes or rivers.

Taniwha can either be male or female. The taniwha Araiteuru is said to have arrived in New Zealand with the early voyaging canoes and her eleven sons are credited with creating the various branches of the Hokianga Harbour (Orbell 1995:184-185).[3]

As guardians

Most taniwha are associated with tribal groups; each may a taniwha of its own. The taniwha Ureia, depicted on this page, was associated as a guardian with the Māori people of the Hauraki district. Many well-known taniwha arrived from Hawaiki, often as guardians of a particular ancestral canoe. Once arrived in New Zealand, they took on a protective role over the descendants of the crew of the canoe they had accompanied.[4] The origins of other taniwha are unknown.

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