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What is a taniwha?
The taniwha, generally considered mythical, is a creature reputed to inhabit dangerous areas in New Zealand, especially waterways such as river bends, deep ponds, swamps and treacherous coastlines. The taniwha seems to take on diverse forms, but is most commonly depicted as a large water-dwelling creature with a lizard or dragon-like form.
There is some crossover between taniwha and the idea of rākau tipua (enchanted trees or logs) or the tuoro.These categories are somewhat flexible as showm by the stries of Mataura in lake Rotoiti, who started as a simple wooden post, but then broke free and floated in the lake and was considered a taniwha and dangerous omen.
Some authors see a connection between these creatures and waterways sometimes visited by seals or whales. Or with the Tongan word 'tenifa' (or tanifa), meaning shark. They suggest the taniwha might spring from tales based on rare sightings, or passed down and modified across the generations.
As with many cryptozoological creatures comparisons are made to dinosaurs such as the Plesiosaur.
The taniwha can be seen as one of a family of mythical water creatures around the world like the Loch Ness Monster or the Morgawr.
Hine-kōrako is a female taniwha who married a human man and had a child. Eventually she returned to the water, and she was known to sometimes protect people from dangerous waters in the Wairoa river. In fact most taniwha appear in stories as protectors or guardians such as Humuhumu who shepherded the Māhuhu canoe on the way to New Zealand
Other stories attribute impressive natural features to the actions of taniwha. For example Whängaimokopuna was cared for by the Rangitane people, but was left in the care of children who did not treat him well. He ate one of the children and as he fled created many of the natural features of the area.
Hataitai, one of the two great taniwha said to have shaped the Wellington Harbor gives his name to an inner suburb of Wellington City and is depicted in a well-known carving in the entrance foyer of the Reserve Bank of New Zealand.
Taniwha Proverbs and Mottos
In the Waikato there is was a saying "Waikato taniwha rau, he piko he taniwha" (Waikato of a hundred taniwha, every bend a taniwha). This may have had a literal meaning but also referred to the number of Chiefs that lived along the Waikato river.
The 490 Squadron of the RNZAF had the motto: "Taniwha kei runga" (The Taniwha is in the air)
In 2007, sightings of mystery creatures in Lake Omapere lead to speculation that there was a taniwha in the area. However it could not be a very large taniwha as the lake is only two meters deep. A 2010 sighting in the Coromandel seems to be a little too connected to a desire to drive tourism in the area.
In general, modern taniwha sightings are very rare. In New Zealand the taniwha is seen as being more somewhere between spiritual and symbolic. Few would expect to actually see one in the flesh. However if you go a little further back in history there are a small number of reports of actual sightings.
Taniwha in Politics
The traditionally recognized location of a taniwha often embroils them in development projects that will compromise waterways or swamps. The taniwha acts to protect the environment and bolster Maori authority over the land. For example:
- Horotui/Auckland central business district rail link (2011)
- Karutahi/Highway project (2002)
- Takauere/Northland Prison development
These appearances have caused the taniwha to also aquire a metaphorical meaning along the lines of 'problem' or 'obstacle for a project'. For example new Zealand transport minister Steven Joyce said: “Treasury found a few fiscal taniwhas as well, so it doesn’t surprise me that another one has turned up.”
Taniwha in Children's Literature
Taming the Taniwha (2001) by Tim Tipene and Henry Campbell is a children's book for ages 4-8 that uses a fierce taniwha as a metaphor, helping children understand how to deal with bullies.
The Terrible Taniwha of Timberditch by Joy Cowley tells the story of Josephine as she tries to discover exactly what a taniwha is. This story was originally published in 1982, and was reissued in 1987 and 2009.
Taniwha by Robyn Kahukiwa tells a story of friendship between a boy and a taniwha. The is a folk song (One Day a Taniwha) about the a taniwha written in 1974 by Beatrice Yates. It has also been published as a childrens book.
The Troll and the Taniwha is about accepting people with different abilities and the importance of learning to swim.
Stamp featuring the Ōpihi taniwha
Taniwha in Art
Perhaps the most famous depiction of a taniwha dates from the 16th century and is found in a shallow limestone cave in the Canterbury region. The "Ōpihi taniwha" was commemorated in 1960 on the stamp shown right.
Carved taniwha frequently appear in Maori meeting houses in their role as guardians (example: Ureia from a meeting house of the Ngati Maru, on display at the Auckland war Memorial Museum).
The taniwha is featured on a card in the Magic the Gathering game by Wizards of the Coast.
For some great examples of the taniwha in recent art see:
The SS Taniwha was a steamship that operated on the Waihou River in 1912.
The USS Taniwha (SP 129) was a WW1 patrol boat leased from Mr. Henry B. Anderson from 1917-1919 and used to patrol the waters near New York City.
The Taniwha is the logo of Fraser High School in Hamilton (new Zealand)--shown right. The heraldry is based on the school being in the Waikato district which is know as the land of many chiefs (symbolically: many taniwha; SEE: TANIWHA PROVERBS AND MOTTOS).
The taniwha's powerful reputation sees it used in many company names including Taniwha Solutions (software development) Taniwha Sleds (skeleton toboggans), and Taniwha Productions (event management).
Ride the Taniwha is an off-road experience riding in a eight-wheel vehicle in a steep Coromandel (New Zealand) dirt road.
The taniwha gives its name to a species of nematode.
The taniwha is the mascot of Northland Rugby Union (see below).
The Taniwha and Dragon Festival celebrates ties between the Maori and Chinese cultures.