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Tāne and the Forest

The Arrival in the Land of the Great Forest

When the ancestors of the Māori people first arrived on the shores of New Zealand, they encountered a land vastly different from their tropical Polynesian homeland. These larger islands, with their cooler climes and vast expanses of towering native forests, presented a new world to be understood and revered.

For a people accustomed to the open seas and small island environments, the dense bush that blanketed much of these new lands was both awe-inspiring and daunting. Survival in this unfamiliar realm would depend on developing a deep understanding of the intricate web of life that thrived within the embrace of the great forests.

Tāne: The God of the Forest

As the Māori explored and learned the secrets of these ancient woodlands, the figure of Tāne, the god of the forest, took on profound significance within their tribal consciousness and traditions. A reverence for te waonui-a-Tāne – the great forest of Tāne – became woven into the very fabric of their culture.

In the rich tapestry of Māori mythology, Tāne is a figure of immense importance, his various names and roles reflecting the depth of his influence. As Tāne-mahuta, he is the god of the forest, the embodiment of the towering trees that pierce the heavens. As Tāne-te-wānanga, he is the bringer of knowledge, wisdom, and understanding, gifting humanity with the baskets of enlightenment from the celestial realms.

The Separation of Earth and Sky

Perhaps Tāne’s most celebrated role is that of the creator, the one who separated Ranginui, the sky father, from Papatūānuku, the earth mother, bringing light and life into the world. In the creation traditions of many Māori tribes, Tāne’s brothers – Rongomātāne, Tangaroa, Haumia-tiketike, and Tūmatauenga – all attempted to pry apart the embrace of their parents, but it was only Tāne-mahuta who succeeded, his strength and determination allowing him to lift the sky and usher in Te Ao Mārama, the world of light.

The Embodiment of Correct Behavior

To the Māori, the trees of the forest are living embodiments of Tāne-mahuta, their trunks reaching skyward, separating earth and heavens, bringing light into the world. The widespread felling of these forests in the 19th and 20th centuries was seen as a calamitous event, akin to the sky rejoining the earth and the world returning to darkness.

But beyond the physical manifestation, Tāne also represents a model for correct behavior and action in the world. The word “tika” means erect, upright, and correct – just as a tree stands tall and true. From this concept arise the principles of tikanga (correct behavior) and whakatika (to arise or stand upright), reflecting the belief that correct actions and behaviors arise from within an individual, just as a tree grows upward from the earth, reaching for the heavens.

In this way, the great forests of New Zealand, and the figure of Tāne who presides over them, are not merely physical entities but also embodiments of cultural values, spiritual beliefs, and a deep connection to the natural world that has shaped the Māori people’s worldview for generations.