For the mountain in Cameroon, see Mount Kupe. For the NZ oil and gas field, see Kupe field.
House carving showing Kupe (holding a paddle), with two sea creatures at his feet

In the Māori mythology of some tribes, Kupe (10th century) was involved in the Polynesian discovery of New Zealand.


There is contention concerning the status of Kupe. The contention turns on the authenticity of later versions of the legends, the so-called 'orthodox' versions closely associated with S. Percy Smith and Hoani Te Whatahoro Jury. Unlike the attested tribal traditions about Kupe recorded before Smith and Jury, the orthodox version is precise in terms of dates and in offering placenames in Polynesia where Kupe is supposed to have lived or departed from. The orthodox version also places Kupe hundreds of years before the arrival of the other founding canoes, whereas in the earlier traditions, Kupe is most definitely contemporary with those canoes (Simmons 1976). In addition, according to legends of the Whanganui and Taranaki regions Kupe was a contemporary of Turi of the Aotea canoe. In other traditions, Kupe arrived around the year 1400 on other canoes, including Tainui and Tākitimu (Simmons 1976:20–25).

Stephenson Percy Smith, 1905[1]

The orthodox version

In the "orthodox" version, Kupe was a great chief of Hawaiki who arrived in New Zealand in 925 AD. He left his cousin Hoturapa to drown during a fishing expedition and kidnapped his wife, Kuramarotini, with whom he fled in her great canoe Matawhourua. During their subsequent journeys, they overcame numerous monsters and sea demons, including the great octopus named as Te Wheke-a-Muturangi, and discovered New Zealand. Returning to Hawaiki, Kupe told of his adventures and convinced others to migrate with him (Craig 1989:127; see also External links below).

David Simmons said "A search for the sources of what I now call 'The Great New Zealand Myth' of Kupe, Toi and the Fleet, had surprising results. In this form they did not exist in the old manuscripts nor in the whaikorero[2] of learned men. Bits and pieces there were. Kupe was and is known, in the traditions of the Hokianga, Waikato, East Coast and South Island: but the genealogies given did not tally with those given by S. Percy Smith. The stories given by Smith were a mixture of differing tribal tradition. In other words the whole tradition as given by Smith was pakeha, not Maori. Similarly, the story of Toi and Whatonga and the canoe race leading to settlement in New Zealand could not be authenticated except from the one man who gave it to Percy Smith. Learned men of the same tribe make no mention of this story and there are no waiata[3] celebrating their deeds. Tribal origin canoes are well known to the tribes belonging to them: but none of them talk as Smith did of six large sea-going canoes setting out together from Raiatea. The Great New Zealand Myth was just that". (Simmons 1977).

Attested local traditions

Traditions about Kupe appear among the peoples of the following areas: Northland, Ngāti Kahungunu, Tainui, Whanganui-Taranaki, Rangitāne, and the South Island.


Māori tribal districts

In the Northland traditions, Kupe is a discoverer and contemporary with, but older than, Nukutawhiti, the ancestor of the Ngā Puhi people. Kupe arrives, lives at Hokianga, and returns to Wawauatea, his homeland, leaving certain signs and marks of his visit (Simmons 1976:34).

Ngāti Kahungunu

Early accounts from the Ngāti Kahungunu area consistently place Kupe on board the Tākitimu canoe or name as his companions people who are strongly associated with the Tākitimu. No other canoes are mentioned in connection with him. They also contain no references to the octopus of Muturangi, nor of the chase from Hawaiki (Simmons 1976:20).

He then traveled south to reach Mahia.


Paratutae Rock, with the indentations said to have been left in the cliff-face by Kupe's paddle

Tainui traditions about Kupe can be summarised as: Kupe stole Hoturapa’s wife or wives; came to New Zealand and cut up the land; raised rough seas; and went away again. The sources in detail:


Whanganui-Taranaki traditions can be summarised as: Kupe came looking for his wife who had been abducted by (H)oturapa. His canoe was named Mataho(u)rua; Kupe was associated with Turi as his contemporary. Kupe cut up the land, and he was a brother of Ngake. Kupe encountered rough seas on his journey. The octopus story is known, but the creature is not named. Except in later versions which are somewhat suspect as to their authenticity, the accounts do not include the episode in which Kupe chases the octopus from Hawaiki (Simmons 1976:27). Here are some of the accounts from this area:


Kupe Statue at the Centennial Exhibition (1939–1940)

South Island

The few references to Kupe in South Island sources indicate that the traditions are substantially the same as those of Ngāti Kahungunu, with whom Ngāi Tahu, the main tribe of the South Island, had strong genealogical and trading links (Simmons 1976:34).


"When Kupe, the first discoverer of New Zealand,first came in sight of the land,his wife cried,'He ao! He ao!" (a cloud! a cloud!). Great Barrier Island was therefore named Aotea (white cloud), and the long mainland Aotearoa (long white cloud). When Kupe finally returned to his homeland his people asked him why he did not call the newly discovered country after his fatherland. He replied, 'I preferred the warm breast to the cold one, the new land to the old land long forsaken'." [31]

Kupe Statue

Kupe Statue on the Wellington Waterfront

William Trethewey produced the statuary for the New Zealand Centennial Exhibition that was held in 1939/40 in Rongotai, Wellington. A 100 feet (30 m) frieze depicted the progress of New Zealand, groupings of pioneers, lions in Art Deco style, a large fountain and a figure of Kupe standing on the prow of his canoe were produced for the centennial exhibition. Of all these works, only the Kupe Statue still remains.[32] After having spent many decades at Wellington Railway Station, then the Wellington Show and Sports Centre and finally at Te Papa, the Kupe Group Trust successfully fundraised to have the plaster statue cast in bronze. Since 2000, the bronze statue has been installed at the Wellington Waterfront.[33]


  1. Photograph of Stephenson Percy Smith by kind permission of the Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand, reference number 1/2-004600-F.
  2. whaikōrero: formal speech, oratory
  3. waiata: song, sung poem
  4. Simmons cites Catherin Servant, ‘Notice sur les Maoris de la Nouvelle Zélande’, 1842. Microfilm. (DU:Ho), from an original in the Marist Archives, Rome. Servant was stationed at Hokianga from 1838 to 1839 and then at Kororāreka (Russell) until 1842.
  5. In this version it is not made clear who Tuputupuwhenua was.
  6. The genealogy is: Kupe begot Matiu who begot Makoro who begot Maea who begot Mahu (or Maahu) who begot Nukutawhiti.
  7. Simmons cites A. Taonui, manuscript in Auckland Museum Library, Graham Collection, no. 120:2. Note also that Kupe and his great-great-great-grandchild appear to be contemporaries in this legend.
  8. 1 2 Simmons cites Shortland MS86, Hocken Library, Dunedin.
  9. That is, a striking natural feature which is said to be Kupe's bailer turned to stone.
  10. Simmons cites Kamira Manuscript Book No. 9, p. 259, but gives no date.
  11. The names translate as Kupe Earth, Kupe Sky, and Kupe Heart.
  12. The names of the nine others translate as echoing cliff, birds, spirit folk, insects, lizards and reptiles.
  13. That is, he left these items and they turned to stone.
  14. A later manuscript from the same area was published in the Journal of the Polynesian Society (Biggs 1957). This version contains episodes which appear to have been borrowed from literary sources, including associations with Toto, Rongorongo, Kuramarotini, Turi, and Hoturapa.
  15. Other Ngāti Kahungunu traditions, very similar to this, are given in a manuscript translated in Transactions of the New Zealand Institute, volume 15:448, in which Kupe appears as a name among the 13 children of Tato; also in John White, Ancient History of the Maori, 1887–1891, Volume 3:71–73; and in another account by White entitled Ahuriri Natives' Account of Hawaiki 1855, Turnbull Library Manuscript 94.
  16. Simmons cites Rev. J. Hamlin, ‘On the Mythology of New Zealanders’ Tasmanian Journal of Natural Science, 1842, I:260.
  17. Simmons cites Rev. W.R. Wade, A Journey in the Northern Island of New Zealand (George Rolwegan: Hobart) 1842:90.
  18. Simmons cites G. Graham (translator), Fragments of Ancient Maori History by Wirihana Aoterangi (Champtaloup and Edmiston: Auckland), 1923.
  19. 'Goblins' and 'fairies' represent an attempt by the original translators to render the names of various spiritual or quasi-spiritual beings given the lack of appropriate terms in English. Polynesian 'goblins' and 'fairies' tend to be much scarier entities than English ones.
  20. Simmons tentatively assigns this tradition to the Whanganui area and cites Grey New Zealand Māori Manuscript 102:35.
  21. Simmons cites Rev. R. Taylor, Te Ika a Maui (Wertheim and MacIntosh: London), 1855.
  22. Corynocarpus laevigatus, an important food tree which is endemic to New Zealand and thus not found elsewhere.
  23. Simmons cites G. Grey, Nga Mahi a Nga Tupuna. Polynesian Mythology (H. Brett: Auckland), 1885:19.
  24. At this point in the story, Grey inserts the story of the killing of the octopus Te Wheke-a-Muturangi. However, according to Simmons, this episode is not in Piri Kawau’s manuscript, and Grey’s source for it remains to be discovered.
  25. Simmons cites R. Taylor, ‘notes on New Zealand and its native inhabitants’, No. 6, p 110, MS, Auckland City Library.
  26. Simmons cites John White, MS 119, 'Miscellaneous material in Maori'.
  27. The Rangitāne people live on both sides of Cook Strait.
  28. Simmons cites Journal of the Polynesian Society, 1893, pp. 147–151.
  29. Simmons cites Rev, J.W. Stack, 'Remarks on Mr McKenzies Cameron's Theory respecting Kahui Tipua', Transactions of the New Zealand Institute 12, 1879:160
  30. Simmons cites White 1887–1891, III:199.
  31. Lilliput Maori Place Names. pub. A . H. Reed 1962 printed in Germany by Langenscheidt KG p36.,
  32. Phillips, Jock. "William Thomas Trethewey". Dictionary of New Zealand Biography. Ministry for Culture and Heritage. Retrieved 24 May 2011.
  33. "Art and Design". Wellington Waterfront. Retrieved 28 May 2011.


External links

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