Battling mountains and duelling wizards: how Maori myths are informing our understanding of natural disasters

Battling mountains and duelling wizards: how Maori myths are informing our understanding of natural disasters

During my childhood holidays to Lake Taupo, fights in the car would always start well before the Desert Road. But it was always the wind-blasted, volcanic-scarred centre of New Zealand where the actual punches started flying.

To quell backseat uprisings, Dad would regale us with a story of another fight — the epic battle between the powerful mountains Tongariro, Tauhara and Taranaki, over a woman, Pihanga.

The contest ended with a triumphant yet badly wounded Tongariro, who secured the eternal presence of tree-clad Pihanga by his side, but at the price of a shattered mountain peak. A grieving Tauhara limped to the other side of Lake Taupo, forever looking back at his lost love. And jealous Taranaki stormed west to the coast, leaving a deep scar in the land, which formed the Whanganui River and where he broods to this day.

Different tribes have different versions. Some include Mt Ngauruhoe (better known these days as Mt Doom) as a second wife of Tongariro, Pūtauaki as a fourth suitor who disappeared into the Bay of Plenty, and Whakaari (White island), Paepae-o-aotea (Volkner Rocks) and Moutohorā (Whale Island) who fled into the sea.

Two mountains next to each other
Mount Ngauruhoe, the second wife of Mount Tongariro in some versions of the Battle of the Mountains. Credit: Steve Clancy Photography / Getty Images

The Battle of the Mountains is a Maori myth, but one that highlights the ways in which tribes in that part of the North Island observed the local geology and natural landforms, and recorded those observations, says geologist and Massey University Professor of Natural Hazards, Jon Procter.

“They were making the links that [there are similar] rocks in the central North Island as in Taranaki and the same andesite rocks are also down the Whanganui River, so the mountain must have travelled down the river,” he tells Cosmos Weekly.

It’s only in the last two decades that myths like the Battle of the Mountains have been treated as anything but apocryphal stories.

It’s only in the last two decades that myths like the Battle of the Mountains have been treated as anything but apocryphal stories.

Researchers are adding another layer to a global shift in thinking about ancient legends, to add Indigenous myths to geologic toolboxes. In New Zealand, this means applying matauranga Maori, the Maori system of knowledge that covers everything from mythmaking to cultural practices and observed data, to the country’s rambunctious geology.

“It is relatively new. We’ve only started on this as a line of inquiry about 15 years ago,” Procter says.

“If you combine volcanology and matauranga Maori there’s information and knowledge, observations, witness’ accounts of past volcanic events, retained in the memory of those cultures that don’t exist in the European cultures of New Zealand. There’s almost a database of information and observations that we could learn from.”

“Not to be taken seriously”

By approaching geology from a Maori perspective, Procter and his colleagues are taking a new angle to a field of inquiry that only gained a name in the late ’60s.

Indiana University geologist Dorothy Vitaliano coined the term “geomythology” in a 1968 paper, putting a label on the long history of archaeologists’ parallels between myths and volcanic eruptions.

But the initial reception to the idea of geomythology was mixed. Vitaliano’s 1974 book was called “delightful and scholarly” by one reviewer, while another slated geomythology as a field that “need not be taken seriously as a new scientific or humanistic discipline”.

“There’s almost a database of information and observations that we could learn from.”

Professor Jon Procter

The concept was effectively ignored until the 2000s, when geomythology took off around the world.

Where Vitaliano published her first paper in a folklore journal, it took a University of the Sunshine Coast geologist to bring the idea back into the geological school, according to an article in Neon. Patrick Nunn had spent two decades in and out of Fiji by the time he joined the dots, in 2000, between local legends and the small islands scattered throughout the country.

Since then, researchers have been applying what is known about geological events to ancient societies’ myths from India to Greece and Australia, and confirming that yes, those legends were a record of ancient volcanic eruptions, earthquakes and even meteor strikes. 

Duelling wizards and tsunamis

In New Zealand, some researchers are taking a new angle: they are starting with the view that the myth is an accurate record, and searching for the geological evidence to support it.

The Maori tribes Ngati Koata and Ngati Kuia tell a story about duelling wizards who caused huge waves to smash into tiny D’Urville Island in the Marlborough Sounds, after a dispute over a fishing catch.

Working backwards from this legend, in 2018 and 2019 a team of researchers and members from the two tribes took soil core samples from Swamp Bay on the island, to find evidence proving not that the tale has roots in truth, but what caused the waves: was it a tsunami or a storm surge?

“We wanted the science to tell us things the tradition couldn’t,” says Dr Daniel Hikuroa, earth systems scientist at the University of Auckland and one of the authors of the final paper.

“We wanted the science to tell us things the tradition couldn’t.”

Dr Daniel Hikuroa

“We wanted to know the exact time of the wave, the direction it came from, and whether it was one wave or successive events over years.”

An unusual layer of pebbles, plant roots and gravel-sized pieces of mud in the rock layers, that couldn’t be explained by storm surges, led them to pinpoint the duelling wizards tale to a tsunami in 1855, when an earthquake rippled out from the Wairarapa Fault.

People walking along volcanic rim
The volcanic rim of Mount Tarawera. Credit: Jose Azel / Getty Images

Code red

Maori myths are not just a way of explaining geological phenomena, as in the central North Island, or recording past tragedies, but also warnings.

In 1886, Mt Tarawera (“burnt peak”) spectacularly exploded. Lava fountained from a burning 17km rift, killing 120 people and destroying the famous Pink and White Terraces.

The eruption was preceded by omens such as the inexplicable rise and fall of the waters of Lakes Tarawera and Rotokakahi, steam above the mountain, and, finally, alleged sightings of a phantom war canoe ferrying souls to the mountain of the dead.

Lake tarawera and mountain in background
Lake Tarawera, and the mountain of the same name. Credit: Mark Meredith / Getty Images

But it was the volcano-related names of Tarawera’s original three peaks, and the story of the cannibal-chief Tamaohoi imprisoned in the mountain and the associated tapu (a ban on people visiting, sometimes for sacred reasons and sometimes for safety), which suggested to researchers Dr Darren King and Professor James Goff, that Maori living in the area might have seen an explosion before.

Europeans have only been a sizable presence in New Zealand for a little more than 180 years.

Procter believes understanding stories from Maori traditions, which go back almost 800 years, will help mitigate the effects of future geologic and volcanic events.

The science, or mystery, of predicting earthquakes and volcanic eruptions has eluded researchers since these fields entered popular scholarship. And yet what indigenous knowledges such as matauranga Maori may be able to reveal through legend, historical observation and cultural practices could be some new puzzle pieces for preventing future natural catastrophes.

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