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West Coast Māori legend: The legend of Poutini

To Maori the West Coast of the South Island is known as Te Tai o Poutini or simply Tai Poutini.

Legend is that Poutini was a taniwha, (a giant water being) swimming up and down the rough seas off Te Tai o Poutini protecting both the people and the spiritual essence (or mauri) of pounamu (greenstone).

Taniwha Poutini guards the mauri within the treasured stone. The mana (spiritual force) of pounamu comes from Kahue (or Ngahue) an atua (God). Taniwha Poutini as protector of the stone is the servant of Kahue. Poutini from time to time used to venture further afield.

One day, while resting in the warm waters off Tuhua (Mayor Island, in northeast NZ) he saw a beautiful woman, Waitaiki, bathing in the sea. Poutini looked at Waitaiki with lust in his heart. He lunged forward and snatched her and fled south towards the mainland.

Waitaiki’s husband, Tamaahua was a powerful chief and skilled in the rituals of the spirit world. When he realised that his wife had been taken he threw a magical dart in the air. The dart pointed in the direction of his wife. Tamaahua and his slave paddled after then in hot pursuit.

Finally, after reaching the shore Poutini lit a fire to warm Waitaiki, but hearing Tamaahua approaching he took her up again and moved on.

The chase continued across Aotearoa (New Zealand).

Each time Poutini stopped, he lit a fire to warm his captive at Tahanga, on the Coromandel Peninsula at Whangamata in Taupo, at Rangitoto Ki te Tonga (d’Urville Island), Onetahua, (Farewell Spit) and Pahuatare on the West Coast. The rocks at all these sites – all of them important sources of stone for Maori – are all still stained by the fires of Poutini.

Fleeing further south Poutini and his captive eventually reached Piopiotahi (Milford Sound). Weeping with cold and fright, Waitaiki begged him to turn around. Poutini listened to her, and carried her back up the coast, eventually taking sanctuary in the headwaters of the Arahura River. In close pursuit, at Piopiotahi Tamaahua found his wife’s tears preserved forever in the stone named tangiwai (Bowenite). He realised that Poutini and Waitaiki had turned back and tracked them up the coast to the Arahua valley.

That night Tamaahua rested and prepared for the final showdown. Poutini was concerned. Fearing Tamaahua’s strength and determination, he decided that if he could not have Waitaiki, no-one would. He transformed her into his likeness (pounamu) and laid her in the cold waters of the river. Then he slipped downstream past the sleeping warrior.

In the morning Tamaahua set out to do battle with Poutini to reclaim Waitaiki. But when he reached the head of the river, his enemy had gone. He found his young wife cold and lifeless, transformed into stone in the riverbed. Realising what had happened he went back home, grieving.

His tangi (song of grief) still sounds throughout the mountains.

To the Ngai Tahu people Waitaiki is the mother of pounamu.

The Jade fragments that break from the mother lode and roll down the river to the sea are her children.

Page last updated: 13 March 2019

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