Ngā Atua Māori – The guardians of the natural environment Ngā Atua Māori

Every culture has its traditions about how the world was created. Māori whakapapa pūrākau (stories) that have been passed down through the generations are based on the common theme of how darkness became light.  From this nothingness then came life, as the earth and sky were separated, and nature then evolved.  Although there are different iwi versions of the creation story, a common pūrākau is how the children (Tāwhirimātea, Haumia-tiketike, Rongomātāne, Tangaroa, Tūmatauenga, Rūaumoko) separated their earth mother and sky father (Papatūānuku and Ranginui).
Let’s explore these Atua further and see how they relate to our lives every day and how they help us to connect to the natural world.

Ko ahau te taiao ko te taiao ko ahau – I am the environment and the environment is me

Papatūānuku – The Earth Mother. Papatūānuku is our earth mother, she is the wife of Ranginui. She is the foundation of all life on earth, and gives birth to all things, including humankind, and provides the physical and spiritual basis for life. Papatūānuku, the land, is a powerful mother earth figure who gives many blessings to her children. Māori believe all forms of life come from Papatūānuku, she sustains us and nourishes our bodies until we die and then at the end of life we return to Papa. One historical tradition that still exists today is when the baby’s whenua (placenta) is buried into the earth for sustenance and connection for the child and for Papatūānuku.

Ranginui – The Sky Father. Māori call the heavens Ranginui, the sky father. When the world was created, Ranginui was pressed against Papatūānuku, the earth mother. Their children did not like living in the cramped, dark space between them, all the sons of Rangi and Papa had desperately tried to separate their parents. Tāne Māhuta, the Atua of the forest, lay with his back on his mother and his feet placed on his father; he straightened his legs and pushed up against the sky with his feet. Rangi and Papa were separated and the Atua for the first time saw light.  

Tāne-mahuta – Atua of forests and birds. Tāne is the most widely known Atua. He is the guardian of the forests. Tāne is the personification of all forms of tree and birdlife.   We can learn things from Tāne such as perseverance in order to complete a task, and to reason and settle debate ideally through consensus. It was Tāne who lay on his back with his legs facing up. With total focus and strength, he pushed and pushed until finally separating his mother and father. The light came in and Tane then clothed his mother in trees and plants. It is said that Tāne Mahuta created the first human woman made of red clay from the earth, he breathed life into the sculpture and Hine Ahuone was created. This practice is now known as the hongi. Hongi” is the “sharing of breath.” It is made up of two very special words. The first is “ho”, which means the exchanging of the breath of life from one to another when you touch each other’s nose. The second word is “ngi” which is the acceptance of the mauri that we give each other.

Tāwhirimātea – Atua of weather. Well known as the atua of the four winds, storms and weather. Tāwhirimātea did not like change, Tāwhiri liked the predictable warm embrace of his parents. He was the only son who did not agree to separate his parents. He attacks his siblings in the form of storms, cyclones, droughts, and extreme weather. Tāwhirimātea is the parent of kōhauhau (atmosphere) and āhuarangi (climate). With the separation of his parents Tāwhirimātea chose to reside in the sky with his father Ranginui. Some iwi say that Matariki is an abbreviation of ‘Ngā Mata o te Ariki Tāwhirimātea’ (‘The eyes of the guardian Tāwhirimātea’). According to Māori tradition, when Ranginui, the sky father, and Papatūānuku, the earth mother were separated by their offspring, Tāwhirimātea became so angry, he tore out his eyes and hurled them into heaven.

Haumia-tiketike – Atua of uncultivated food. Haumia Tiketike is the guardian spirit of wild food such as wild berries, puha and watercress. He is associated most with the starchy rhizome of the bracken fern, te mōnehu, a common feature of the Māori diet in ancient times. The ferns were abundant and the rhizomes easy to harvest. Māori would collect and dry them in summer and use them in winter, when they would be heated and softened with a patu aruhe (beater), and the starch sucked from the fibres. Among other creatures, many insects are said to have descended from Haumia.

Close-up viof macropiper excelsum (kawakawa) plant leaf

Rongomātāne – Atua of cultivated plants. Rongmātane is known as the guardian of cultivated foods. The food that is grown within the garden.  He is also the atua of: The arts; Planting seeds; Growing and harvesting; Shared cooking & Shared kai.

Tangaroa – Atua of the sea. Guardian of the ocean and everything that resides within it. In Māori culture the sea is often considered to be the source and foundation of all life. Many people source kaimoana, edible seafood from the ocean, it is important to always give thanks to Tangaroa for providing sustenance for ourselves and our whānau. Islands are fish drawn up from the water, and people evolved from amphibious beginnings. But we mustn’t undermine the strength of Tangaroa, Atua of the sea, he can also be destructive. Traditions tell of vengeance wrought by the sea upon those who fall out of favour.

Tūmatauenga – Atua of war and hunting. In Māori culture the realm of Tūmatauenga is on the marae ātea during the welcoming powhiri, where conflicts are often resolved between the two parties. During the proceedings this is a sacred space, once the pathway has been cleared the people can then join together. Tūmatauenga is the guardian of hunting, and fishing. It is Tū who formed the hoe to plough the earth in efforts to reach  his brothers Haumia and Rongo.   

Rūaumoko – Atua of earthquakes and underground force. Rūamoko is the youngest of the Atua. It is said that he was still unborn within Papatūānuku when she was separated from Ranginui. Rūamoko is the guardian of the underground realm; he controls the geothermal activities, volcanoes and earthquakes.

In conclusion, looking at the world through a Māori world view can teach us many things.  Te Ao Māori views the past, present and future as being intertwined, where people are not separate from the natural world, but are a part of it.

Learning about Ngā Atua enables us to relate to and appreciate the different guardians and the importance they have in the natural world.  The concept of Kaitiakitanga/guardianship is strongly ingrained in Māori culture, reminding us that if we don’t take care of Papatūānuku, then how can she take care of us?  

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