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Noe Garin / © Culture Trip
Noe Garin / © Culture Trip
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The 11 Most Magical Creatures in Maori Folklore

Picture of Joe Coates
Updated: 3 May 2018
Whilst New Zealand is relatively young in terms of how long it has had people inhabiting its shores, it has no shortage of strange, mythical creatures that have sprung up over the course of the years that the Maori people have called NZ home. Read on to find out a little bit more about the magical creatures that colour Maori folklore.

Poua-kai

This is an interesting beast, not just because of its legendary status but also because it might have sprung into being from a real-life animal which is now extinct. The poua-kai was an enormous black-and-white bird with greenish-yellow wingtips and red crests. It is said that its cries were of the freeze-your-bone-marrow variety, and they were always swooping down at inconvenient times to pluck people from the ground and take them away to gnaw on. The haast eagle was a real eagle that used to be able to carry off moas — a huge, flightless bird about the size of an emu that are now extinct — so it’s not inconceivable that they might have been able to carry off small humans.

Taniwha

These are perhaps the most famous of all the creatures from Maori legend. They dwell, as you’d imagine when you think what an affinity Maori had and have to the ocean, in the waters — whether it be salt or fresh. They most often resemble dragons, but sometimes are depicted as whales or sharks too. They are sometimes told to act as guardians, but mostly they are to be feared as they were said to lure humans to their lairs and eat them. There are stories of taniwha being slain, opened up and whole, perfectly preserved humans found inside their bellies.

Noe Garin /
Noe Garin / | © Culture Trip

Tipua

The tipua were tricky shape-shifting demons that could take the form of quite literally anything, whether it be vegetable, mineral or animal. How would you spot them, then? Well, that was the problem wasn’t it. If you were to see anything out of the ordinary, then the best thing to do was to make an offering — or face the consequences.

Kahui-tipua

This is where things get nice and fantastic. The kahui-tipua were said to be the first inhabitants of the South Island of New Zealand, and were of the ogre persuasion. They were your proper mythical creature, the sort that could stride from one mountain peak to another and drink rivers dry when they were parched. Sadly, they apparently didn’t long survive when humans came to colonise the land.

Noe Garin /
Noe Garin / | © Culture Trip

Manaia

It is a common misconception that the manaia were monsters. This is mostly found to be untrue. Rather, the manaia were messengers that flitted between mortal kind and those who had passed on to the spirit world. They had the bodies of men but the heads of birds.

Porotai

This is an interesting one, and the description is short as not a lot is known about these creatures. What is known is that they were said to be creatures of flesh and stone, and that they had two faces. Why is so little known about them? Because they’re invisible to humans.

Noe Garin /
Noe Garin / | © Culture Trip

Te-tini-o-hakuturi

These spirits were a bit more like their European counterparts in the way that they were a bit more lovable and less scary than the usual Maori beasts. These guys were little fairies or sprites that inhabited the forests, lived in the trees and looked after them. If the sanctity of the forest was ever threatened, then it would be up to this lot to sort it out. It was prudent to always make an offering to these spirits before taking anything from the forest.

Pakepakeha

This might be a familiar-looking word to those who are familiar with New Zealand culture. The reason that the white colonisers of New Zealand were called ‘pakeha’ by the Maori inhabitants is because of these little creatures. They were said to be tiny, pale-skinned fairies that could be commonly seen floating down rivers on bits of wood and singing and generally just having a gay old time of it.

Noe Garin /
Noe Garin / | © Culture Trip

Pona-turi

The pona-turi were also fairies. However, these creatures were sea-dwelling. It was rumoured that they had a hidden land under the sea, and that’s where they lived during the day. They feared sunlight and fire, which was justified because sunlight meant death to them. At night, they would creep out of the water and sleep in little huts on the shore.

Patupaiarehe

The patupaiarehe were considered to be New Zealand’s fair-folk — that is to say, most similar to elves. They were reported to be basically the same shape and size as humans, but with red hair, pale skin and blue eyes. Due to their pale skin and light eyes, they were very sensitive to sunlight and would mostly move about at night, unless it was a particularly misty day and they could venture out under the cover of the fog. They were said to play a mean flute and sometimes lure people away and kidnap them with their ethereal music.

Maero

These mythical figures were simply men of the forest, albeit exceptionally dangerous and scary men. They weren’t reputed to have any sort of supernatural power. It was told that they were cannibals, were incredibly strong and had fingernails like knives. Many strong Maori were said to claim maero ancestry.