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Kupe the Navigator

Updated on September 13, 2014

Navigators of the immense Pacific

Five thousand years ago, the first voyagers set out from Southeast Asia into the most forbidding ocean of all.

They crossed a vastness greater than all the seas combined, an endless expanse larger than the whole land area of our planet - the awesome and majestic Pacific. Their descendants, superb sailors and navigators, were masters of the boundless waters.

One of these fearless seafarers was Kupe the Navigator, who sailed out from Hawaiiki, mythical ancestral homeland of the Maori, and discovered Aoteoroa.

Ancestors of the Maori

The ancestors of the Maori were fishing people and farmers who made their way from Southeast Asia to islands just north of New Guinea, moved on eventually to Fiji and then sometime before 1000 BCE, sailed across the wide ocean to Tonga, Samoa and islands nearby.

Twelve hundred years ago, one or more of these migratory expeditions reached Aotearoa in the far south of the Pacific.


Journey to Aoteoroa

How the people came to Aoteoroa, so far across the huge ocean, has never been a mystery

A very long time ago, so say the people of Aoteoroa, the great sea was not so deep, and the land was mostly on two very big islands, like two giant turtles floating in the water.

One of these islands was high up on the earth’s shoulders in cold water, and the other island was in the warmth of the sun at the belt of the earth.

Then one morning a terrible thing happened!


The Earth slipped on a wet hibiscus

There came an unusually cold morning when much dew appeared on all the plants.

Then the earth, slipping on a wet hibiscus, fell onto its back!

The great white giant who slept in the shadows at the top of the world quickly changed himself into water. Other gods, the red ones, the fiery ones, Pele’s ancestors, roared in anger at being disturbed.

When everything finally settled down, the people found there were very few of them left, the land was fragmented, and so they built strong canoes from big trees floating around their former home.

They soon found thousands of small coral islets which had sprung up, like long strings of pearls, marking trails from one group of islands to another.

How Kupe came to Aotearoa

In Hawaiiki lived a canoe maker by the name of Toto.

One of these canoes, which he named Matahorua, he gave to his daughter, Kura, and it so happened that Kupe desired Kura very much, even though she was already the wife of his cousin Hoturapa.

One fateful day when Hoturapa and Kupe were out fishing, Kupe ordered Hoturapa to dive down and free a tangled fishing line. When Hoturapa dived into the sea, Kupe sliced through the anchor rope of the canoe and began to row furiously back to shore. Hoturapa drowned, but his family were suspicious of the circumstances surrounding his death. It was, in fact, a plan on Kupe’s part to take Hoturapa’s wife Kura.

To avoid vengeance from Hoturapa’s family, Kupe left Hawaiiki in Kura’s canoe Matahorua.

After many weeks they sighted the islands of New Zealand, which appeared as land lying beneath a cloud. Because of this, they named the islands Aotearoa, Land of the Long White Cloud.

Migratory Sea Birds

Kuaka | Source

Following the Birds

These early sea travelers had an adept knowledge of the skies and used the stars as a guide but they didn't look syward constantly. They looked also to the water, mapping currents and animal migration

Kupe had the sure and safe knowledge of the migratory birds, such as the kuaka, to guide him, his heart full of faith in his fellow creatures.

Traditions tell of journeys with the kuaka as a guide on the bird’s annual migrations between Aotearoa and Alaska.

Following the Whales

Another tradition tells us that the ancestor, Paikea, came on the back of a whale.

While this may seem too fabulous to be believed, the legendary journey replicates exactly the annual migration of the whale from out in the Pacific Ocean to the breeding and feeding grounds of Aotearoa.

Migratory Whales

Humpback Wale, Australia
Humpback Wale, Australia

Whale Rider

Whale Rider
Whale Rider

When his canoe capsized a thousand years ago, Paikea escaped death by riding to shore on the back of a whale. On the east coast of New Zealand, the Whangara people honour this great ancestor and the Whangara chiefs are considered Paikea's direct descendants.

Whale Rider is a gripping mystical fable and simply one of the most beautiful films I have seen in my entire life.


Whales, the Source of Life

The Maori tell us that whales are the oldest children of the sea gods.

Whales are not just beautiful to look at, they were the source of food, indeed of life. Above all, they are the connection between Aotearoa and the sacred ancestral land.

Kupe carved the landscape with his adze

Ka Roimata o Hinehukatere
Ka Roimata o Hinehukatere

Protected by Ruamoko

Not fearing the great forces still shaping the land, the people of Aoteoroa embraced them as the work of the god Ruamoko, who commands all geothermal activity.

Geothermal activity in the North Island is explained as fire sent from Ruamoko to warm the people.

The people found supplies

These daring navigators to Aoteoroa set out laden with supplies of coconut, breadfruit, banana, paper mulberry, pandanus, taro, yam, gourds, dogs, pigs and edible rats. They were to find their plants, even the hardy kumara, would fail and the climate was colder than they expected.

But the fishing was excellent! Plenty of fish, shellfish, seals, sea lions and the occasional whale were to be enjoyed. Flax grew abundantly for clothes, baskets, mats and rope. In the forests they found excellent timber trees, like the totara, and used these for their solid houses and their long narrow canoes.

And they found Moa.

Hunting the Moa


Good Luck for the Maori - Bad luck for the Moa

The people found large flightless (and delicious) birds, the Moa. So tasty were the hapless Moa they were soon all eaten

Moa lived for 60 million years in a peaceful and lush primeval landscape. At the end of the 13th century they became extinct as the new migrants to New Zealand put these huge birds on the menu and made warm cloaks from their feathers.

I am a Seed from the Past and I will never be lost

See more ...

Dances of Life
Dances of Life

The above video is an extract from the haunting 'Dances of Life'


What do you say?

How much of Legends are based in historical fact?

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Historical Note

There is no question that massive migrations of merging cultures actually occurred, mostly from west to east, across the Pacific Ocean.

However, pin-pointing exactly who came from where, and who came first, is a jig-saw puzzle that may never be solved.

I’ll take the word of the people who live there. Kupe came to Aoteoroa first, to carve the landscape. The people followed the whales.

© 2014 Susanna Duffy

Dance a little comment

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    • SusannaDuffy profile imageAUTHOR

      Susanna Duffy 

      4 years ago from Melbourne Australia

      Thanks Jodah!

    • SusannaDuffy profile imageAUTHOR

      Susanna Duffy 

      4 years ago from Melbourne Australia

      Greekgeek, I love the hibiscus flower element. Have you ever slipped on one? I have. It's a sudden, unexpected jolt out of the blue and I can just imagine an earth upheaval being described this way

    • Greekgeek profile image


      4 years ago from California

      I know that whenever I stop by your pages, I'll discover something. I love your retelling of the Maori origin myth.

      I've always had the sense from Hawaiian myths that they are almost more legends than myths, explaining real historical events and the natural world metaphorically. I suspect that's true here as well. That lovely "the earth slipped on a hibiscus flower" story sounds like a gentle, poetic way of explaining a natural disaster and/or Indonesian volcanism causing people to flee to new islands.

      But I also appreciate that you don't just idealize them; that note about the Moa is a sad one. So much megafauna ALMOST made it into the modern era.

    • jmsp206 profile image

      Julia M S Pearce 

      4 years ago from Melbourne, Australia

      Very interesting Susanna.Love the Maori people and their culture.

    • Jodah profile image

      John Hansen 

      4 years ago from Queensland Australia

      Very interesting and informative hub Susanna. I find the Maori and their legends intriguing. Voted up.


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