Why have we in these isles no fairy dell,
No haunted wood, nor wild enchanted mere?
asked Alexander Bathgate, a nineteenth century Scottish immigrant to New Zealand, in his poem Faerie.
Our woods are dark, our lakelets’ waters clear,
he goes on,
As those of any land where fairies dwell.
In every verdant vale our streamlets tell
Their simple story to the list’ning ear,
Our craggy mountains steep are full of fear –
Even rugged men have felt their awful spell.
Yet lack they glamour of the fairy tale,
Nor gnome nor goblin do they e’er recall,
Though Nature speaks, e’en in the wind’s sad wail
Who shall give meaning to Her voices all?
The poet’s art, – as yet without avail, –
Must weave the story of both great and small.*
I must admit, as a fellow British immigrant to New Zealand obsessed with myth and fantasy, I sometimes feel like this. I long for the magical creatures of Europe – from the Fair Folk of the forests to the nymphs of the pools – to become interwoven with the beautiful landscape of New Zealand. Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films went some way towards appeasing this desire, but they’re no substitute for a rich folklore that’s been passed down and embroidered for thousands of years.
Of course, to think like this is to show a high level of ignorance. New Zealand does have a rich folklore that’s been passed down for maybe not thousands, but at least hundreds of years. Māori folklore contains many magical creatures, not just the taniwha, the one that everyone knows about. It has spirits and demons; ogres and wild men. It even has its own version of fairies – and not the cute kind.
Here, I have compiled a list of magical New Zealand creatures. It is by no means comprehensive. Indeed, to my knowledge, no such comprehensive list exists, at least not on the Internet, and I simply don’t have the time to embark upon a serious academic study. Nevertheless, I hope you find it interesting. I’d like to think that Alexander Bathgate would have done at any rate, and perhaps, one day, I myself will write a fantasy story inspired by New Zealand folklore.
(Apologies for coming across all pompous and Victorian there.)
Taniwha are man-eating monsters, usually dwelling in deep water, both salt and fresh. They somewhat resemble dragons, although they have the ability to shape-shift into natural creatures, such as whales, or objects, such as bits of wood. They sometimes act as guardians, but have also been known to kidnap humans, dragging them down into their lairs to either feast upon or rape.
I first heard tell of the taniwha when my family was on a New Zealand campervan trip that included Rotorua. They love regaling tourists with the story there: When Hotu-Puku, the great taniwha of Rotorua, was slain, his belly was slit open to reveal several remarkably undigested human bodies, along with their still perfectly usable possessions. These included fine cloaks and weapons – sounds like every RPG I’ve ever played.
Poua-kai are huge, black-and-white birds with greenish-yellow wingtips and red crests. They have terrible cries and are known for carrying people off and eating them. Rather scarily, they may have once existed as real creatures in New Zealand: the now-extinct Haast’s eagle was certainly large enough to hunt the now-extinct moa, so it is not unreasonable to suppose that they could have swooped down upon human beings as well. If only Gandalf had been around to communicate with them.
Some believe manaia to be monsters, but they are actually messengers, go-betweens for mortal humans and spirits. They have the bodies of men, but the heads of birds. In highly stylised forms, their image becomes a symbol of protection.
Tipua are shape-shifting demons. They can take the form of anything, be it animal, vegetable or mineral. If something that is ordinary, such as a fish, a tree, or a stone, looks somehow uncanny then it is likely a tipua. If you ever come across a place inhabited by one or more tipua, you should make an offering or face the consequences.
Maero are wild men of the forest. They have long, shaggy, black hair and sharp, spindly fingers. They are cannibals, killing with stone clubs and their knife-like fingernails. Large and exceptionally strong, maero display no supernatural powers. Indeed, many have thought them to be entirely natural creatures, and some Maori even claim maero heritage.
Te-tini-o-hakuturi translates into English as ‘the multitude of bow-legged ones’. These are the fairy spirits that live amongst the trees. It is their job to avenge any desecration of the sanctity of the forest. (Before taking something from nature, you must first placate the spirit world.) These fairy spirits often take the form of insects or birds.
Porotai are creatures that are half-flesh; half-stone. They have two faces, but little else is known about them, as they are invisible to humans.
The Kahui-Tipua were a band of ogres, the first inhabitants of New Zealand’s South Island. They were shape-shifting giants who lived in caves and hunted with two-headed dogs. They could stride from mountain to mountain and drink rivers dry. An ogre once captured a human woman and kept her as his pet, but she escaped, and the retribution sought by her brothers was swift. They blocked up the mouth of the ogre’s cave and set it on fire with the ogre inside. The Kahui-Tipua did not long survive the arrival of humans in New Zealand.
Nuku-mai-tore are strange, human-like creatures that sit upon the branches of trees like birds. They have short limbs and eat only raw food, as they are terrified of fire. All offspring of the nuku-mai-tore are delivered by Caesarean section, guaranteed to kill the mother. The legendary human adventurer Tura endeavoured to teach the nuku-mai-tore the values of simple home cooking and natural childbirth.
Patupaiarehe are New Zealand’s Fair Folk, inhabiting forests and mountains. They have pale skin, pale eyes and red hair, and are similar in stature to humans, although tribes of both very tall and very small fairies have been reported. Their pale skin and eyes make them sensitive to sunlight, so they may only be seen moving about at night, or on misty days – if they are seen at all. They are known to lure people astray with their ethereal flute music, sometimes kidnapping them. In the old days, if a Maori child was born an albino, or with reddish hair, it was assumed that their real father was a fairy.
Pakepakeha are little people; pale-skinned fairies like the patupaiarehe. They can sometimes be glimpsed drifting down rivers on bits of wood, singing as they go. Their name, pakepakeha, and their pale-skinned nature is why the white colonisers of New Zealand, with their pale skin, came to be known as pakeha. Some people believe that the old stories of patupaiarehe are evidence that New Zealand was originally inhabited by white people – ‘Celtic’ Europeans – who were assimilated and/or exterminated when the Maori arrived. While an interesting idea, the main proponents of it all seem to be racist conspiracy theorists, convinced that the government is suppressing historical finds.
Pona-turi are sea fairies. By day they lurk under the water, for, like the patupaiarehe, they have pale skin and fear both sunlight and fire. Come the night, however, they venture out onto the land. Upon their long, thin fingers are long, sharp claws. They are somewhat goblin-like. It is said that they have a hidden land beneath the sea, but they sleep in huts on the shore. They are right to fear sunlight: it is death to them.
* From The New Place: The Poetry of Settlement in New Zealand 1852 – 1914, by Harvey McQueen
For J. K. Rowling’s version of the magical history of New Zealand, see Harry Potter in New Zealand…