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Maori Taniwha, Dire Sea Monster and Powerful Guardian

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Wood carved taniwha

Wooden carved meeting house post (poupou) depicting a taniwha called Ureia.

Taniwha is a mythological creature living in the sea, rivers, pools, swamps and underwater caves. Their habitat was especially located near ominous places. These legendary Maori beings are both perceived as hostile beings as well as guardians (kaitiaki) of individuals or tribes. Taniwha have the ability to shift shape. Once in the water they could appear as sharks, giant squids, or big sea snakes while on land they turned into giant lizzards or even dragons. The fierce creatures were feared by many.

One legend, titled “The Taniwha of Kaipara”, illustrates the deceptive nature of the beast. Very briefly summarized: Three sisters, of which one exceptionally beautiful, were chased by a Taniwha when they were picking berries. Finally Taniwha managed to capture the prettiest sister and took her to his cave. Years later she had given the monster six sons. Three were like their father and the others were human. She learned her human sons to craft weapons and the art of war. One day the sons killed their three brothers and father and they took her mother home. Reed A,W.,`Reed book of Māori mythology`(2004),pp.285-286 Source: Wikipedia

While from nature they were dangerous beasts, when treated with respect by humans Taniwha could be their guardians. Each tribe had its own Taniwha saving members from drowning, protecting them from approaching war-seeking enemy tribes and, fighting alongside the tribe.

From a more spiritual point of view the Taniwha was considered a connection between the human life on earth and the spiritual world of the gods, ancestors and stars. In this matter the mythological creature functioned as a link between common daily life and ancestral heritage.

Because of the fact that its spiritual meaning is so deeply rooted in Maori culture and society many artworks were created resembling the Taniwha. A historical popular art form were pendant necklaces . Even today New Zealand artists, some of which Maori, create the most stunning Taniwha bone, wood and jade (pounamu) carvings.

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