Te Waka O Tamarereti

As the waka entered the sky, Tama Rereti began to scatter the luminescent stones and pebbles in all directions as he went along. The wake of the canoe became the Milky Way and the stones and pebbles became its stars. This is why we have stars in the sky.

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I first heard the story of Te Waka o Tamarereti from navigator Jack Thatcher in 2005. He was holding a navigation wananga at Carter Observatory and I just arrived in New Zealand and started working there. Since then, it has become one of my favourites legends ever. There are a few variants for it and my favourite is one I was given by educator Tony Fisher in 2007, which is written below.

photo of rock formation on sea side
Photo by Gantas Vaičiulėnas on Pexels.com

November in Māori is approximately Orongo, and means the time after the great rain. Orongo harbours the most beautiful asterism I have ever imagined, the grand canoe of Tama Rereti, te waka o Tama Rereti.

The story of Tama Rereti:

(rewritten from a resource compiled by Tony Fisher for the SMART Trust)

A very long time ago, soon after the first people were placed on the Earth, there were no stars in the sky at night. It was so dark that it was impossible for humans to walk around outside without tripping into things. Taniwha were the only creatures lurking in the dark. Taniwha are very powerful guardians of nature and it was said they liked to feed at night on anything that moved, spending their days asleep at the bottom of lakes and in deep rivers.

At this time lived a great warrior named Tama Rereti. His whare (house) was at the south end of the great lake that we call Taupo. One morning, Tama Rereti awoke feeling hungry yet very little was left in his food store so he decided it was time to go out fishing again. It was a lovely mild late spring morning with a light breeze from the South.

Tama Rereti gathered up his fishing lines and baits and put them in his waka (canoe), then pushed off onto the lake. He hoisted the sail and set off for his favourite fishing spot. Arrived at it, he lowered the sail and started fishing. After a while, when Tama Rereti had caught some nice fish he decided to head back to the village for a late breakfast.

Unfortunately the wind had dropped and he was becalmed. It was a beautiful warm day and Tama Rereti decided to lie down on its waka for a snooze. The gentle rocking of the waka and the sound of the waves lapping against the sides put Tama Rereti soon to sleep.

While he slept, the gentle breeze returned and the canoe with Tama Rereti on board sailed quietly all the way to the north end of the lake. Tama Rereti slept for a long time. When he awoke he saw himself at the far end of the lake. There was no way he could make it back home across the lake before dusk. And after dusk the taniwha would come and eat him up. Tama Rereti was a brave warrior. He was not afraid of fighting the taniwha but he’d rather get back home in one piece to his wife and children, to the Ahi-kaa, the sacred fire of his family.

By now he was very hungry. Tama Rereti, a wise man, knew that important decisions cannot be taken on an empty stomach. He had to eat. So he sailed his canoe to a nearby beach, threw over the anchor and paddled ashore with his fish. There, he lit a small cooking fire. He skewered his fish onto a stick and baked them over the flames. When they cooked, he sat on a log eating and contemplating how to get home. He listened to the sounds of the breeze in the trees, the song of the Tui and the rippling of the little waves as they washed on the beach. It was warm and it felt very peaceful. As Tama Rereti gazed into the final dance of the flames of his fire, he noticed that all the pebbles and stones he used in the fireplace stayed luminous.

Suddenly this gave him an idea. He loaded as many of these shining stones and pebbles into his canoe as it would hold and pushed off into the lake. He kept thinking, “What if, instead of going back home through the lake I will sail onto the great river from the sky?” Tama Rereti sailed towards the river and guided his canoe carefully into the entrance just as the sun slipped below the horizon and darkness descended on the Earth. The current of the river was strong and the canoe moved along at a steady pace.

As the waka entered the sky, Tama Rereti began to scatter the luminescent stones and pebbles in all directions as he went along. The wake of the canoe became the Milky Way and the stones and pebbles became its stars.

This is the reason why we have stars in the sky, they say.

By the time Tama Rereti had thrown out all the stones and pebbles he had sailed right across the sky and was able to see his village in the first light of dawn.

He was very tired so he beached his canoe and tied the anchor rope to a large tree stump. Having secured his canoe Tama Rereti walked slowly to his whare and just as the Sun rose above the hills in the East he clambered through the door and lay down on his sleeping mats exhausted. In just the twinkling of an eye Tama Rereti was sound asleep.

Tama Rereti slept soundly for many hours. When he awoke in the middle of the afternoon he found Ranginui, the sky-father, sitting outside the whare waiting for him. At first Tama Rereti was afraid that Ranginui would be angry with him for littering the sky with thousands of pebbles. Much to the surprise of Tama Rereti, Ranginui was very pleased with the new appearance of the night sky.

For the first time there was enough light at night to enable people to see what they were doing and allow them to move around safely. Best of all, Ranginui was delighted with the beauty of the night sky.

So that people in the future would remember how the stars were placed in the sky and how the sky was made beautiful at night, Ranginui asked Tama Rereti if he would allow his canoe to be permanently anchored among the stars. Together that evening they chose the place in the sky where the wake of the canoe is at its brightest, and there the great canoe of Tama Rereti floats peacefully to this day.

Photo of Te Waka O Tamarereti by John Drummond
The canoe of Tama Rereti sets sail in November from Aotearoa signaling to Māori navigators that it was time to start planning their journeys back to Rarohenga. Rarohenga is the rohe (domain) beyond the Sun, Ra, the Māori name for places they cannot see beyond the curvature of Earth.

Also read:

How to find Te Waka O Tamarereti