theology and religion

Punga – The Ancestor of Ugliness

He whanau a Punga koe, for you are a child of a god – but don’t let it get to you head. Punga, your forefather is the god of ugliness, and all ugly things are his descendants. This old-fashioned insult (also “te aitanga a Punga”) is used to describe anything ugly or undesirable and has immortalised Punga amongst the Maori (and several other Polynesian) pantheons.

Quick disclaimer – this has been written by an Aotearoa Pākehā from sources based in Aotearoa. If you have any comments about Punga in other Polynesian cultures, please comment below, I would love to hear from you. If you are Aotearoa Maori, please also comment below any mistakes I’ve made or any stories to add.

Punga’s father Tangaroa (aka Takaroa in Waipounamu/South Island; Kanaloa in Hawaii), the God of the sea, named Punga after the anchor stone of his canoe. He has two sons; Ikatare is the ancestor of all fishes; and Tutewehiwehi, the ancestor of lizards and reptiles, who after a disagreement with his brother, took his children to live on land with his great-uncle, Tane Mahuta, god of the forest.

Sometimes, you need two hands to hold a wetapunga Credit: Dinobass via wikimedia CC BY 4.0

In Maori mythology, the gods are more or less ancestors, and Punga is the ancestor of all ugly things. New Zealand’s /Aotearoa’s most famous insect is the weta, ask any kiwi, these things are big and they are ugly! The gargantuan wetapunga is named after the god himself. The easiest place to see wetapunga is at Auckland Zoo where they have a breeding program for the endangered species. If you want to see them in the wild, look for them on Little Barrier, Motuora, and Tiritiri Matangi Islands. You won’t find wild wetapunga on the mainland.

Although not from Aotearoa, the Australian blobfish is seriously ugly, and therefore aitanga a Punga Source: Singh via flickr

Punga’s influence on the gene pool is not confined to Polynesia, his descendants can include any animal (or person) you believe to be ugly, and we aren’t just talking about physical beauty. An old saying “me aha hoki, ngā uri o Punga aruaru kai” describes someone you wouldn’t want to have dinner with, whether they are self-centred, racist or just rude.

It is worth pointing out that the entire North Island of New Zealand is in fact: te aitanga a Punga. In the song “Your Welcome” in Disney’s “Moana”, Māui sings about the “island I pulled from the sea”, the Maori believe the South Island was the canoe of Māui, the smaller Stewart Island was his anchor and the North Island was Māui’s catch of a lifetime. Māui’s brothers, being extremely jealous, tried to destroy Maui’s prize by beating it with sticks and hooks, creating the lakes and mountains of the North Island. In North Island Maori, the three islands are known as Te Ika a Maui, Te Waka a Maui, and Te Punga a Māui; meaning the fish, canoe and anchor of Māui respectively. Although his name is in the Stewart Island, he was named after the anchor of Tangaroa, not Maui, but the North Island is a fish, so is definitely a descendant. Looking further into te reo Maori language, his influence is not only confined to living creatures; one punga describes a light soil that lacks substance, a real disappointment in the normal fertile volcanic isles.

Te Ika a Māui (North Island) kind of looks like a stingray, Māui’s hook supposedly took a chunk out of the Hawke’s Bay (look for Napier on the map). Map Source: Google Maps


So is Punga your ancestor? Of course not, we are all beautiful whether you see it in yourself or not. You might know someone who is a Punga, but you’ve taken the time to read this whole blog, so to me, you’re awesome 😊.

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Story: Ngārara – reptiles

Header image: Taken at Weta Workshops, Wellington

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