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The Legend of Tangaroa – A Maori

“Tiaki mai i ahau, maku ano koe e tiaki”… If you look after me, then I will look after you…”

The above words are associated with laws made by Tangaroa, the atua (spirit) of the ocean, in his resolve to protect the sea and all its creatures. Affiliated with the Maori and Polynesian mythologies, Tangaroa was the supreme ruler of the sea. His main duty was the protection of the ocean and all life within, a responsibility Tangaroa took seriously since the ocean was believed to be the foundation of life.

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The History of Tangaroa

The story of Tangaroa, like anyone else’s, traces back to his parents, Papatūānuku, the earth, and Ranginui, the sky. According to the Maori creation story, Papatūānuku and Ranginui were initially joined, and in their tight embrace, and in darkness, they produced seven children, Tāne Mahuta, Tūmatauenga, Tangaroa, Haumia-tiketike, Rūaumoko, Rongomātāne, and Tāwhirimātea.

The children lived in the darkness, unable to see the light or to stand until one day, by chance, Ranginui slightly shifted his feet, inadvertently allowing some light through to his children. Mesmerized by the new concept of light, the children were hooked and craved for more. It was then, in a master plan crafted by Tane, that the children of Papatūānuku and Ranginui forcefully separated their parents. This they did by placing their feet against their father, and their hands against their mother, and pushing with all their might. 

As the offspring pushed against their parents, the separation from his wife caused Ranginui to rise to the sky, hence becoming the sky god. Papatūānukuon, on the other hand, remained grounded and was covered with the forest’s greenery by Tane to cover her nakedness; she thus became the mother of the earth. This is how the light was born into the world. 

Having been forcefully separated from his mate, Ranganui was struck with grief and cried while in the heavens. His tears came down and pooled to form lakes, rivers, and seas. One of the sons, Tangaroa, had a son of his own, Punga, who in turn gave rise to Ikatere and Tutewehiweni. Ikatere and his children later went to sea and turned into fish, while Tutewehiweni and his children turned into reptiles. For this reason, Tangaroa decided to rule over the ocean in order to protect his offspring.

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Variations Of the Tangaroa Myth

Different subtribes of the Maori and Polynesia cultures have varying theories and variations of the legend as we shall see below.

  • The Feud

The Maori hold a myth that Tangoroa got into a fight with Tane, the father of birds, trees, and humans because Tane gave refuge to his descendants, the reptiles who sought cover there. This was after Tāwhirimātea, the god of storms, attacked Tangaroa and his family because he was angry at him for joining in the forceful separation of their parents.

A feud ensued, and this is why humans, the descendants of Tane, go fishing as a continuation of the war against Tangaroa’s progeny, the fish. Nevertheless, since the Maori revere Tangaroa as the controller of the fish, they appease him with chants whenever they go fishing.

  • Origin of Paua Shells

In the Maori community, it’s believed that Paua, the snails, have Tangaroa to thank for their strong, beautiful shells. In this myth, the god of the sea saw that it wasn’t right for Paua to be without a cover to protect him, and so he took from his domain, the ocean, the most incredible blues, and from his brother Tane he borrowed the freshest of greenery. To these two, he added a tinge of dawn’s violet and a tinge of sunset’s pink to make a strong, dazzling shell for Paua that could camouflage into the rocks of the ocean. Tangaroa then tasked Paua with the responsibility of adding layers to his shell to protect the secrets of his inner beauty.

  • Energy of Water

The Taranaki of New Zealand believe that water has different energies. It could be very calm and peaceful one minute and be destructive and dangerous the next. The Maori refer to this energy as Tangaroa, the “god of the sea”. 

  • A Different Origin Myth

The Rarotonga tribe believes that Tangaroa is not only the god of the sea but also the god of fertility. The Mangai tribe, on the other hand, has a whole different myth of his parentage.

According to the latter, Tangaroa was born to Vatea(daylight) and Papa(foundation) and had a twin called Rongo with whom he unselfishly shares fish and food. Moreover, the Mangai believe that Tangaroa has yellow hair, which is why they were very welcoming when the Europeans first arrived in their land because they thought they were the descendants of Tangaroa.

  • Tangaroa as the Origin of Fire

The Manihiki tribe has a story that portrays Tangaroa as the origin of fire. In this story, Maui, his brother, goes to Tangaroa to beg for fire on behalf of humankind. Maui had been advised to approach Tangaroa’s abode by taking the most common path, but he instead takes the forbidden way of death, which angers Tangaroa, who tries to kill him.

Maui, however, manages to defend himself and pleads with Tangaroa to give him fire, a request that’s declined. Angered by the denial, Maui kills his brother, which in turn angers their parents, and so Maui is forced to use chants to bring him back to life then takes the fire he had come for.

Tangaroa Blue 

The Tangaroa Blue is a foundation found in New Zealand and Australia that aims at the conservation of water masses, both fresh and salty, as they are all interconnected. Since they strive to continue the work of Tangaroa, the god of the sea.

Tangaroa Blue works closely with Aboriginals and the Maori, both subscribers of the legend of Tangaroa. Together, they protect the ocean and promote the philosophy that it is improper for humans to take from the ocean environment without giving back in equal measures.

Wrapping Up

As is the case with many cultures, the arrival of Europeans in Polynesia impacted native beliefs, causing many to abandon their gods for Christianity. However, interestingly, as the belief in other gods faded, Tangaroa remains alive and strong in the region, as is evidenced by chants sung by their musicians, the Tangaroa symbol on T-shirts, and the Tangaroa tattoos common in the area. 

We can only hope that the legend of the great protector of the sea remains alive, if not for any other reason, then because it helps steer humans towards the respect and conservation of the ocean.

Affiliate Disclosures

Rose Mulu
Rose Mulu

With a keen interest in understanding why life was and is as it is, Rose has been studying religion, culture, and history for over fifteen years. She has a Bachelor of Arts degree in Mass Communication and uses this, together with her knack for literature, to share her knowledge and insight with the world.