Lights Will Guide You Home

Find out how a simple plant, once used to guide Māori hunters home after nightfall, is now a much-loved symbol of New Zealand. The history of the Silver Fern is just one of the fascinating facts about the Māori language and culture that we’re celebrating as part of ‘Te Wiki o te Reo Māori’, which literally translates to ‘the week of the language Māori’.

Ponga (Silver Fern)

Ponga is the Māori name for the Silver Tree Fern (Cyathea dealbata) which is native to New Zealand. The silver fern is so named because it has green fronds with a silver underside. When Maori hunters and warriors were roaming far and wide after nightfall, they would typically break off some of these fronds and leave them silver side up on bush pathways so that the moonlight would reflect off them and light their way home.

The plant has been worn as an emblem on the country’s national rugby team shirts since the 1880s and there’s even speculation that the colour of the famous ‘All Blacks’ kit was chosen to complement the colour of the silver fern.

‘Silver Ferns’ is also the name of the country’s national netball team and the fern symbol is used by many of New Zealand’s national football, rugby, cricket, hockey and basketball teams as well as the country’s armed forces. 

Poignantly, all Commonwealth war graves of fallen New Zealand soldiers have the silver fern engraved on their tombstones.

The fern symbol is also used on countless commercial, political and not-for-profit ventures. 

All this for a plant, which according to Māori legend, was asked to leave its home in the sea to come and live on the land to help the Māori people.

Waka (Canoe)

Waka is the Māori name for canoe (although nowadays it can be used as a generic name for forms of transport). The Māori people are believed to be descendants of East Polynesians who emigrated to New Zealand hundreds of years ago in several waves of waka (canoe voyages). Historians believe these early settlers would also have used a specific sort of canoe for their journey known as a ‘waka hourua’ or double hulled canoe. Looking a bit like two canoes held together by platform, ‘waka hourua’ would give more stability in rough seas than a single canoe and were powered by sails. 

Other examples of Māori canoes include the ‘waka ama’ (an outrigger canoe), which is a canoe with floats attached to the hull on either one or both sides for extra stability and power in rough seas.  

And there is a ‘waka taua’ or war canoe, such as the one in the Auckland War Museum which dates from the 1800s, is 25 metres long and carried up to 100 people. Traditionally the waka taua were highly sacred (‘tapu’). No cooked food was allowed in the vessel and the waka had to be entered over the sides (gunwales) not the bow or the stern which were highly decorated with powerful symbols. Historically, battles between waka are thought to have taken place by one boat ramming another in a bid to capsize it. 

Aotearoa (New Zealand)

This is the collective Māori name for New Zealand (both North and South Islands). The most popular translation of this word is ‘long white cloud’ which experts believe is named after the cloud formations that early Polynesian navigators used to find the country.

Te Ika-a-Māui and Te Wai Pounamu (North and South Islands)

The demi-god Māui is a key figure in Polynesian mythology and stories are told about him in Hawaii, Tahiti and New Zealand.

According to a Māori myth, Māui and his brothers had gone fishing in their canoe and caught a great fish which Māui’s brothers then fought over. This fish became the North Island or ‘the fish of Māui’ – ‘Te Ika-a-Māui’ – while its hills and valleys are said to be caused by the brothers’ fighting. 

In contrast, the Māori name for South Island is the more peaceful ‘Te Wai Pounamu’, meaning ‘the waters of greenstone’.  Greenstone (pounamu) is the name given to several types of hard green stone found in the South Island which are highly valued by the Māori and often made into carvings.

Whakairo (Carving)

Whakairo (carving) or toi whakairo (art carving) is a traditional Māori skill and carved materials can include wood, stone or bone. Decorations of whakairo are often found on Māori houses, fences, containers and tools. 

Tiki (Carving) Hei-tiki (Pendant Carving)

The word ‘tiki’ is found in many countries throughout Polynesia and generally refers to a carving of a man. In Māori culture, ‘Tiki’ refers to the first man who, according to different legends, either came from the stars and was created by Tane, the god of forests and birds, or was created by Tūmatauenga, the god of war. 

A tiki is typically made from wood or stone and a ‘hei-tiki’ is a carving worn round the neck. Traditionally the Māori ‘hei-tiki’ shows a man with large round eyes in an aggressive stance with his hands on his thighs and with webbed feet. Hei-tiki can be worn for protection, to bring good luck or to represent one’s ancestors. 

Some people also believe the hei-tiki can be worn to bring fertility because it can represent the goddess of childbirth, Hineteiwaiwa. According to Māori mythology, the first hei-tiki ever made was given to Hineteiwaiwa by her father. 

Moko (Tattoo)

The practice of tattooing is thought to originate in Polynesia and the word ‘tattoo’ comes from the Polynesian word ‘tatau’. Moko is the name given for a form of Māori tattoo and art form which was particularly popular before Europeans settled in New Zealand. Historically most high ranking Māuri people would receive moko which was seen as an important milestone between childhood and adulthood. The designs chosen could signify particular Māuri tribes, their social standing or life journey. Generally, men received moko on their faces, buttocks and thighs and women on their lips and chins. In the past the practice of ‘tā moko’ (to apply moko) was done by carving grooves into the skin with chisels ‘uhi’ made from albatross bone before inserting dye. But tā moku today is done with tattoo needles. 

Whatu (Twining)

The main technique of Māori weaving or twining is called whatu. In whatu, there are two groups of threads – the aho (weft, or horizontal threads) and the whenu (warp, or vertical threads). Māori developed many innovative styles such as the weaving of geometric patterns, called tāniko. They were also skilled in whiri (braiding) and raranga (plaiting).

Kiwi (Bird)

The kiwi bird, which takes its name directly from the Māori word ‘kiwi’, is a flightless, long-legged bird native to New Zealand which is about the size of chicken. It is held in high esteem by the Māori and its skin was traditionally used to make feather cloaks for Māori chiefs. From the late 1800s onwards pictures of kiwis started to appear on badges worn by the New Zealand armed forces. The bird then became so associated with the country, that by 1917 New Zealanders began to be nicknamed ‘Kiwis’, a name which has stuck. In fact, the name kiwi proved so popular that the Chinese gooseberry was renamed kiwifruit by people in New Zealand in 1950 in homage to the national bird. The fruit has since become a marketing success story. 

Pāua (Type of Shell and Mollusc)

Pāua is the Māori name given to three species of edible sea snails native to the waters around New Zealand. The molluscs are valued for their meat and their beautiful shells which are widely used in both Māori and New Zealand jewellery and decorations. 

In Māori mythology, the Pāua was originally created without a shell and the god of the sea, Tangaroa, created one for it using some of the most beautiful colours he could find. The story goes that he used ‘the coolest blues of the ocean’, ‘the freshest greens of the forest’, ‘a tinge of violet from the dawn’, ‘a blush of pink from the sunset’ and ‘a shimmer of mother of pearl’. He also hid this beauty on the inside of the Pāua shell while making the outside of it a brown and grey colour to give the sea snail important camouflage from predators.

Kea (Parrot)

This Māori named bird is native to New Zealand’s South Island and is a large mountain parrot. It has olive-green plumage with brilliant orange under its wings. They are known for their intelligence.

Tuatara (Reptile)

Tuatara are reptiles which live in New Zealand. Although they look like lizards they are a different species (called Rhynchocephalia), which is the sole survivor of a lineage as old as the first dinosaurs. The tuatara, which measure about 31 inches long, can decapitate birds with their jaws, live to 100 years old and can remain active in near freezing temperatures. Their name derives from the Māori language, and means “peaks on the back”.


Pohutukawa (New Zealand Christmas Trees)

The Pohutukawa tree is an evergreen New Zealand tree of the myrtle family, which bears crimson flowers in December and January. Affectionately known as the Kiwi Christmas tree, it features on greetings cards and in poems and songs. 

The tree is also part of the Māori mythology and a Pohutukawa tree which grows on a cliff top on the northern most tip of New Zealand marks ‘the place of the leaping’. It is from here that the spirits of the dead are said to begin their journey to their traditional homeland of Hawaiki. 

Hāngi (Pit Oven)

This is a traditional Māori method of cooking food using heated rocks buried in a pit oven, called an umu. It is still used for large groups on special occasions.

Ruapehu (Volcano)

Mount Ruapehu is situated in the North Island and is the largest active volcano in New Zealand. In Māori ‘ruapehu’ means ‘pit of noise’ or ‘exploding pit’. Mount Ruapehu qualifies as both a mountain and a volcano and the Māori have strong spiritual links to it. It is also called Koro (grandad) Ruapehu by some of the locals.

Rakiura (Island)

Rakiura is the Māori name for Stewart Island, which is 19 miles south of South Island. The Māori name means ‘glowing skies’, a reference to the Southern Lights, which are also called Aurora Australis and can sometimes be seen from the island.

Kapa Haka (Performing Arts)

The Māori word ‘haka’ has become known across the world as the ceremonial war dance performed by the New Zealand All Blacks rugby team. The word haka literally means ‘dance’ and when combined with the word ‘kapa’ (group) it means a Māori performing arts group.

Koru (Loop or Coil)

The koru (Māori for ‘loop’ or ‘coil’) is a spiral shape based on the appearance of a new unfurling Silver Fern frond. It is an important symbol in Māori art, carving and tattooing, where it symbolises new life, growth, strength and peace. Its circular shape is also said to represent the idea of perpetual movement while its inward coil suggests a return to the point of origin.

Final Thoughts

That is how we have come full circle in this article on Maori culture, language and the Silver Fern or ‘ponga’.

If you are interested in hearing how to pronounce the key words described above, they just so happen to be voiced in Māori on the uTalk – Learn Any Language app. Just select the topic or category called Aotearoa (New Zealand). A culturally specific topic like this is included in most of the uTalk languages and gives learners an introduction to words which have a special meaning in the language they are learning. It does not include translations because there would be just too much information to include(!) 

Finally, in case this article’s headline ‘Lights will guide you home’ seemed familiar, it’s also a lyric from Coldplay’s Fix You song. 

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