theology and religion

Punga – The God 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 Māori (and several other Polynesian) pantheons.

Punga and the Gods

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.

Descendants include this toad in Papua New Guinea

Children of Punga

In Māori 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 wētā, ask any kiwi, these things are big and they are ugly! The gargantuan wētāpunga is named after the god himself. He is the son of Tangaroa, god of the sea, and has two sons; Ikatere stayed in the ocean and became the ancestor of fish, including the hammerhead shark; Tū-te-wehiwehi went to live with his uncle in the forest, he became the ancestor of reptiles, including the three-eyed tuatara. So basically, anything scaly, slimy and smelly that you woud never call cute is considered a child of Punga.

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

Te Ika o Maui

The entire North Island of New Zealand is also te aitanga a Punga. According to legend; Māui, the demigod and his brothers went out fishing. Using his grandmother’s jawbone as a hook, Māui fished up the catch of a lifetime; the North Island. Extremely jealous, his brothers tried to destroy his prize by beating it with sticks and hooks. The beating of the fish created all the lakes and mountains of the North Island. To this day, Te Ika O Māui (The Fish of Māui) is the official word for the North Island.


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

Inner ugliness

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.

Descendants include this Iguana in the Galapagos Islands

Experiencing Punga

You can see te aitanga a Punga almost anywhere in the world; but to pay proper homage, head to Aotearoa New Zealand. Seek out his ancestors in nature, specifically reptiles, amphibians and fish.

Auckland Zoo has a breeding program for wētāpunga, it’s probably the easiest place to see the endangered species. Head to Little Barrier, Motuora, or Tiritiri Matangi Islands to see them in the wild. They don’t live on the mainland any more.

There is great diving all around Aotearoa and throughout Polynesia. Sea Life at Kelly Tartans (in Auckland) is another great option if you’re travelling with kids or don’t have too much time.

You can see some pretty ugly movie creations at Weta Workshops in Wellington. Pre-book a tour, the place is pretty popular.

Ultimately, any trip to an aquarium, zoo, forest or reef can get you up close to te aitanga a Punga.

See more articles like this:

Further Reading:

Story: Ngārara – reptiles

Header image: Taken at Weta Workshops, Wellington

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