The Song of the Maori Kupe

Everywhere you go in New Zealand you see unique land forms and find that each has an associated Maori legend explaining its origin. Some of the most intriguing traditions relate to the Maori fisherman leader-cum-adventurer Kupe. He is credited by the Maori to have discovered New Zealand.

The Maori enjoy song and this put Longfellow’s epic poem ‘The Song of Hiawatha’ in mind. I present this poem as a tribute to the Maori Kupe and with apologies to both the Maori and Longfellow for the many foibles which my work inevitably contains.

Maori words are hard for us to pronounce but know that ‘wh’ is spoken as ‘f’. This sets the octopus’s phonetic name as close as we can get as ‘Te-feke’. Since many of the Maori words and names which I use for their poetic ring, are unique I also give an explanatory list at the end of this piece.

I  Introduction

Should you ask me, whence this song,
Whence this legend, and mythology,
Of islands cradled in saline foam?
I should answer, I should tell you,
“From the lands of Aotearoa,
From the islands of long white cloud,”
Should you ask where Aotearoa,
Found this story and tradition?
I should tell you,
“In the minds of the Maori,
In the golden sanded beaches,
In the languid coves and inlets,
In the rocks rent by seas,
In the thermal inland mud pits,
In the eely mountain lakes,
In the precipitous fjords,
In the songs of the land.”
If further, you should ask me,
I should answer, I should tell you,
“Ascend the Nelson city mount
Take in mysterious beech forest air,
Breathe the milky morning mist,
Climb to the ‘Center of New Zealand’,
Read the Maori legend inscription,
Disregard the cited Kupe story,
Myth of kidnapping and murder,
Myth of fleeing and revenge.
Instead, listen carefully to my verse
This truly quoted epic of Kupe’s band
Dream of the birthing of a land.”

II The Maori Kupe and Muturangi

In the vast blue Pacific Ocean,
In the fish-filled Bay of Plenty,
On the island of Hawaiki,
Lived the noble Maori, Kupe.
Strong in limb, keen of eye.
Skilled rangatira fisherman.
Moon and tide pull together,
Put out to sea on cradling waves,
Returned, fish laden waka,
Gifts from Tangaroa and Hinemoana.
Seagulls swooping, squawking,
Fed waiting people on sandy shore,
Wondrous plenty to share and more.
Then, one day, there were no fish
All luring bait nibbled clean
Day after day the whanau hungered.
Called a hui around evening fire
“Did our rangatira anger Tangaroa?
That fishless, we must starve?”
Kupe spoke of respect for the seas,
Spoke of unfailing love for Tangaroa.
Stood resolute, handsome, tall,
Black hair wind –blown,
Skin, golden in setting sun
“I pledge to unravel this mystery
Untangle the starving secret of the sea.”
Long days did Kupe search the waters,
‘Til a giant feasting octopus
Left telltale slime upon his bait,
Then wise, Kupe knew not to wait.
Speedy, he traveled across Hawaiki,
Traveled to the home of evil Muturangi,
“Is your pet octopus Te-Wheke,
Making his own delectable dish
Eating the people’s bait and fish?”
Murangi scowled and scorned Kupe.
“Te-Wheke eats without heeding
I shall not curtail voracious feeding.”
Kupe rose and stood before Muturangi
Eyes flashing in anger, hands clenched.
“I came in peace, help you not a bit
Then I, Kupe, shall kill your pet.”
Muturangi smirked and smiled,
Satisfied, he nodded and scowled
Muttered into the whistling winds,
“If he does not kill you for your sins!”

III Kupe hunts Te-Wheke

Matahorua, ocean going waka,
Did our Maori Kupe build.
Waka stocked with supplies,
Set out upon the wild waves,
Laden with family and braves.
Te-Wheke, irate, rose from the waters
His long arm lashed at the waka
The waka shuddered and swayed.
Kupe stood brave, mere in hand
He struck and hacked the writhing tentacle
Te-Wheke quivered and shook
Wounded, unable to hide in the deeps,
He writhed and wriggled over the waves.
The great chase began,
South fled Te-Wheke, ever south,
Southward followed the waka
Chased Te-Wheke across the ocean.
Always following, always alert
Dolphins playing, danced alongside
Where are you going noble Kupe?
“I follow Te-Wheke-o-Muturangi,
Chase him southward in his flight
Chase him to the death fight.”
Then rose above the ocean a cloud
Long, white over waves, a shroud,
To a new land of mountains and trees
Beaching they paused for water, food,
Spoke Kupe’s wife, Hine-te-Aparangi,
“I name this the land of Aotearoa
The land of the long white cloud.”
Still Te-Wheke thrashed in the sea
Kupe answered and alone went to face
His enemy, this feeding disgrace.
The battle ranged down the coast
Past bays and inlets
Past coves and beaches
Past islets and caves
Past seals on rocks
Te-Wheke paused between islands
Will not currents between two seas
And winds between two lands
Give him a fight advantage?
Fearless Kupe faced the monster
There in rushing waves
There in windy seas
Raged a great battle
Floundering flustering foam
Seas lashing against risen rocks
Kupe upon the octopus’ slimy head
Hacked hard and fast with his mere
So did Kupe slay Te-Wheke

IV Kupe travels Aotearoa

But Aotearoa, enchanted land
Captured Maori Kupe and his band
Lured him to explore its shores
To morph into its customs and mores.
The habitat of bat and birds,
Of Godwits and flightless Kiwi and Kea;
Of Fantails and giant land-bound Moa;
Of white heron, royal albatross, Bell-tails;
Of friendly bush robins, and Fantails.
The land of mysterious plants;
Of Kowhai tree, with flowers of gold,
Of coiling crowned tanga ferns of old
Of silver and back beeches, upland mosses
Home of insects and water beasties
Of aged black long-finned eels,
Of Sand flies and bumble bees
Of Monarch butterflies and scale insects
Place of geological wonders
Of the roaring Huka Falls
Of the split apple rock
Of glaciers and volcanos
Of boiling mud and shooting steam.
Many years did Kupe stay
‘Til destiny called and he did obey
Returned across the Pacific waters
Back to the island of Hawaiki
There to tell of Aotearoa
There to bid his own farewell
There to leave for his Hereafter
All the whanau begged him to stay
But only ‘farewell’, could noble Kupe say.

Foot Notes

Aotearoa, is the most widely known and accepted Māori name for New Zealand. The most common translation is “the land of the long white cloud”.

Hawaiki, is, in Māori mythology, their original home, before they travelled across the sea to New Zealand. It also features as the underworld in many Māori stories.

Rangatira are the hereditary Maori leaders, ideally, rangatira were people of great practical wisdom who held authority on behalf of the tribe.

Waka are Maori watercraft, usually canoes ranging in size from small, unornamented canoes used for fishing and river travel, to large decorated war or travel canoes up to 130 feet long.

Tangaroa is one of the great gods in Maori mythology and is considered by them to be the god of the sea. He is a son of Ranginui and Papatuanuku, Sky and Earth. He is the father of many sea creatures

Hinemoana, in Maori mythology is an ocean woman, and personification of the sea. She is second wife to Kiwe, a male guardian, of the sea with whom she has many children.

Whanau, pronounced fa-nau is a Māori-language word for extended family.

Hui, is a Māori word meaning a gathering of people. In modern times a gathering of New Zealand Māori people

Matahourua in Maori tradition, was the name of the canoe of the legendary hero Kupe.

Mere is a type of short, broad-bladed weapon in the shape of an enlarged tear drop. It was used to strike/jab an opponent in the body or the head; it is misleading to call it a club. It is usually made from Nephrite jade or greenstone. A mere is one of the traditional, close combat, one-handed weapons of the indigenous Māori, and a symbol of chieftainship.

Moa were nine species of flightless birds endemic to New Zealand. The two largest species, reached about12 feet in height with neck outstretched, and weighed about 510 lbs. Moa were the only wingless birds, lacking even the vestigial wings. They were the dominant herbivores in New Zealand for thousands of years. Most, if not all, species of moa died out by 1400 due to overhunting by the Māori and habitat decline.

Huka Falls are a set of waterfalls on the Waikato River that drains Lake Taupo in New Zealand. A few hundred meters upstream from the Huka Falls, the Waikato River narrows from approximately 100 meters across into a narrow canyon only 15 meters across. The volume of water flowing through often approaches 220,000 liters per second. At the top of the falls is a set of small waterfalls dropping over about 8 meters. The most impressive, final stage of the falls is an 11 meter drop. The drop is technically six meters but the water flow, five meters deep raises the level to 11meters.


© copyright, April 2014, Jane Stansfeld

16 thoughts on “The Song of the Maori Kupe

  1. Once again you have given us both interesting information and a unique poem which when checked against Maori expressions gives us a glimpse of a beautiful culture. I wonder if Hawaiki refers to the present site of the Hawaiian Islands?

    • As far as I can tell no one knows where Hawaiki was. Certainly Hawaii is in the right direction and the name is similar, however it is way too far away Most experts put the Maori as having come from one of the closer Polynesian islands and as there are so many, I suspect that this is so. Even then it would have been a long way to travel using oars in an open boat the largest of which was a 125 foot long canoe (waka).

  2. I found this most interesting, since my wife and I visit New Zealand every now and then to see two of our daughters and their families – part of our whanua. I’ve written poems of my own about NZ because the place is so darned inspiring!
    Incidentally I also enjoyed your play on Hiawatha. When I was a boy I relished Longfellow’s poem – I remember marching about the house reciting it, probably driving people mad.

    • John, thank you for your visit. I immediately went to your site, (you are such an inspired poet!). I read and enjoyed ALL your New Zealand poems . My favorite is the “Watershed” although I rank them all high on my scale.
      I agree “Hiawatha” is a wonderful piece. I wonder how much you learnt as a boy, and which part as it is long.
      I am one of your official followers and intend to go back from time to time to delve into some of your past posts which I, as a newcomer, have missed.!

  3. Such a rich and beautiful description, Jane. After reading and savoring this abundant feast of sound and imagery, I think you brought wonders back from your trip to New Zealand for us to enjoy..wonders beyond what any camera would tell….

    • Thank you Cynthia. You bring up a good point and I agree. Sometimes I think that the camera is so ubiquitous that we forget to see and feel what we focus on photographing. I even suggest that much is better seen, experienced and remembered, without the intrusion of the camera lens. What better memory device that the pen?
      Cheerio, Jane

  4. Read the first time and found myself lost in the words and the world. With the help of the Footnotes and returned and read again and was simply lifted away, beautifully.

  5. woinderful poem, Jane. One of your best and well researched. Loved the weaving in of Maori myth and also the descriptions of the unique animals, birds and plants – which are so strange in themselves that one starts to wonder where myth ends and reality begins. This one’s a goodun.

  6. This so marvellously written, Jane dear – splendid!

    I read the footnotes before journeying down your poem. This helped me to recognise and relish all that I encountered, so carefully planted and presented by the gardener, my dear Jane.

    I love New Zealand and visited both the North and South Islands a dozen times on business. Even when holidaying, it’s my favourite destination. I first brought my family there when the children were – children. As adults, they also visit. My recent trip was in 2012 when I went on a self-drive holiday in the South Island – obviously, I’ve friends in all the major towns. Lisa and I plan to take another drive holiday in August this year – Inshallah!

    Your words evoked pleasant memories of all that I’ve seen and enjoyed, traversing the Land of the Long White Cloud.

    Your poem brought me to an evening fireside. I sat as one in a circle, wrapped in tight wool against the brisk cold, as a wise one enthralled us with stories of the Great Kupe.

    Thank you, Jane.

    Truly, I enjoyed this journey,

    • My dear friend Eric, how your comments always warm my heart! I rather wish that we lived closer to NZ as we would love to visit again. Dan says that he wants to do a south island driving tour. My youngest daughter honeymooned there in 2011 (did a south island driving tour) My biggest regret is that we didn’t get there sooner! I like your imagery of the fireside evening.
      Cheerio, Jane

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s