Below are some maori legends featuring the tuatara. We thought they were really interesting and we wanted to incorporate them into the film. The imagery of the legends is so powerful, and conjures up all sorts of shadowy underworld thoughts of the tuatara. At this point the film’s story has turned in a different direction, but we are hoping we can try and use the basis of the legends, particularly tuatara as kaitiaki or guardians of knowledge. We think this idea supports Mildred’s history and her survivor characteristics.
The legends are lifted from the Te Ara: Encyclopedia of New Zealand website. It’s a great resource. Recommend you check it out.
What are ngārara?
Ngārara is the Māori name for reptiles – including tuatara, lizards, and the giant reptiles of Māori tradition.
Types of ngārara
The tuatara is named for its appearance – tara means spiny, and tua means back.
Māori call lizards (skinks and geckos) mokomoko. The kawekaweau, now extinct, was the world’s largest gecko. It was described as ‘about two feet [60 centimetres] long, and as thick as a man’s wrist; colour brown, striped longitudinally with dull red’1.
Māori also believed in giant reptiles, although no scientific evidence of them has been found. Simply called ngārara, they were a type of taniwha and looked like lizards or tuatara.
Descendants of Punga
Ngārara are believed to be descended from Punga, a son of Tangaroa, the sea god. All descendants of Punga – including other creatures such as sharks and insects – are said to be repulsive.
Punga’s son Tū-te-wanawana, along with Tūpari, produced the following offspring: the large gecko kawekaweau (Hoplodactylus delcourti), tuatara (Sphenodon punctatus andSphenodon guntheri), mokopāpā (Pacific gecko,Hoplodactylus pacificus) and mokomoko (skink, Oligosomaand Cyclodina species).
Some tribes have other traditions that explain the origins of reptiles. In one tradition, reptiles originated from Peketua (the son of the earth mother, Papatūānuku, and the sky father, Ranginui). He made an egg from clay, and took it to Tāne, god of the forest, who said, ‘Me whakaira tangata’ (give it life). This egg then produced the first tuatara.
In some stories, lizards originate from the death of a ngārara – a hideous giant reptile. The reptilian monster Te Ngārara Huarau was a terrifying giant reptile that burned to death. Its scales escaped and turned into lizards.
Another ngārara, Te Whakaruaki, forcibly took a woman as his bride. Her family trapped and burnt him inside a house. As he was dying, his tail broke off and escaped, becoming the father of the mokopāpā (Pacific gecko). It is said that since then, lizards have shed their tails when they are in danger.
Tuatara versus shark
In another tradition, a tuatara called Ngārara argued with his younger brother Mangō (shark) over whether to live in the sea or on land. Ngārara chose the land, while Mangō remained in the sea. Just as Ngārara moved onto the shore, Mangō swam up and asked him to return to the sea.
Ngārara cursed his brother: ‘Stay in the sea to be served on a dish of cooked food for man to eat.’ Mangō replied, ‘Go ashore and be smoked out of your hole with burning fern leaves.’
Ngārara replied, ‘Indeed, I will go on ashore, away unto the dry land, where I shall be looked upon as the personification of Tū [the war god], with my spines and ridgy crest, causing fear and affright, so that all will get out of my way, hurrah!’
The brothers’ curses came to pass. Māori often ate dried shark as a relish with kūmara (sweet potato) or potato, and caught reptiles by lighting a fire at the entrance of their hole.
Reptiles as guardians
Lizards and tuatara were often seen as kaitiaki (guardians) and released near burial caves to watch over the dead.
They were also used as kaitiaki for mauri – a talisman, usually a stone, which was thought to protect the health and vitality of a forest or tree. Lizards – often the moko kākāriki (Naultinus elegans) or moko tāpiri (Hoplodactylus pacificus) – were released near mauri, and were believed to stay there forever.
Lizards were also sometimes buried under a post supporting the ridge pole in a whare wānanga (house of learning) or other important building.