This is the story of Tawhaki as told by the Tainui tribes of Aotearoa New Zealand. The story provides the theme for Te Papa’s 2012 Matariki Festival. As you’ll discover, Tawhaki’s journey towards knowledge was part of a wider story of redemption.
Tawhaki was an ancestor of Hoturoa, the captain of the waka (vessel) Tainui – one of the waka that brought the first settlers to Aotearoa New Zealand.
Tawhaki was married to the beautiful mist maiden Hāpai. Like most couples, they had their ups and downs. After Tawhaki offended his wife, she took their child and left him, returning to Ngā Rangi Tūhāhā (the heavens), from which she originally came.
As Hāpai ascended, Tawhaki begged her to return one day so that he could see her and their child again. Hāpai’s reply was, ‘Kia mau ki Te Aka Matua, kei mau ki Te Aka Tāepa!’ (Hold onto the parent vine, not the swinging vine.) Those words would prove prophetic for Tawhaki.
The two vines
Tawhaki missed his wife and child very much. There was only one thing to do. With the help of his younger brother, Karihi, he set out on an adventure to find them.
Tawhaki and Karihi came across two vines. Only one of these vines would lead to the heavens above.
Karihi hastily chose a vine and started climbing without performing the appropriate karakia (incantations). While climbing, he was attacked by the biting children of Tūmatauenga (god of war) – namunamu (sandflies), waeroa (mosquitos), and ngārara (insects). Then he was attacked by the children of Ranginui (the sky father) – the coldest winds known as Puhi-anu-māeke, Puhi-anu-makariri, and Puhi-anu-mātao.
The death of Karihi
Karihi had no protection whatsoever. He had chosen Te Aka Tāepa, which, though rooted securely to the earth, reached aimlessly into the sky above. As he climbed higher and higher, his vine swung violently in the freezing winds. Karihi fell to his death.
Tawhaki grieved for his fallen brother. He performed funeral rites over him and removed both his eyes. One of them, he planted in the earth. It is said that this eye grew into the first hīnau tree, the kernels of which are called karihi. Tawhaki kept the other eye.
Tawhaki, with his resounding voice, chanted a powerful karakia, at which the other vine reverberated loudly. This was a sign that Tawhaki had found Te Aka Matua (the parent vine), which was anchored securely to both earth and heaven.
When Tawhaki climbed Te Aka Matua, he too was attacked by the legions of Tūmatauenga and the violent winds of Ranginui (the sky father). But Tawhaki’s saving grace was the power of his karakia.
Te Aka Matua reached only as far as the first heaven. There, Tawhaki found another route called Te Aratiatia, made up of the star clusters Matariki (Pleaides), Tautoru (Orion’s belt), and Takurua (Sirius). Using his karakia, he travelled along this path, which can be seen in the morning sky during the Māori New Year.
Tawhaki then found another pathway, Te Ara-angi Tama Tāne, also known as Te Ara a Tawhaki (the pathway of Tawhaki), which led him to the next heaven.
Whaititiri and the second heaven
Te Rangi Tuarua (the second heaven) is the domain of the blind old crone Whaititiri. She is the personification of thunder – a giant. Though blind, she is a force to be reckoned with.
Upon Tawhaki’s arrival, Whaititiri was blessing her new whare (house). A raukakai (sacrifice) was required to complete the rituals associated with opening a house. Whaititiri sensed the presence of a human. She hunted him with her toki (adze). This mortal would be her raukakai!
Tawhaki hid behind one of the pou (posts) in the whare. With her keen sense of smell, Whaititiri knew exactly where he was. She was about to grab him when he jumped out and surprised her. Tawhaki thrust Karihi’s eye into one of her eye sockets.
Now the stunned Whaititiri could see the man in front of her and realised that he was one of her descendants. She exclaimed, ‘Pūrangiaho tōku karu, e Tawhaki!’ (My eye has such perfect sight, oh Tawhaki). Instead of sacrificing him, she embraced her mokopuna (grandchild).
Tawhaki spent time with Whaititiri in her wānanga (house of learning). She taught him her knowledge, which he used on future adventures. Eventually, he returned to Papatūānuku (the earth mother) and shared this knowledge with his people.
But what of Hāpai and child? Let us just say that life does not always have a happy ever after. It is more a montage of choices, a medley of lessons, and a matrix of pathways marked with infinite possibilities and adventures.