Eels and water spirits, people we meet and the stories they tell us – more about our New Zealand Pacific Studio residency

Gaye and her friend Mary introduce us to the powerful, captivating Maori  concept of taniwha. To say, try  ‘tawny- fah ’. The taniwha is a water-dwelling spirit. They inhabit tricky spots, like eddies. In fresh water, the spirit resembles an eel. The taniwha in the sea is said to look like a whale or a shark. A real all-purpose mythic creature, the taniwha is a nurturing presence sometimes and a scary monster sometimes, a protector and a demon. The taniwha is employed, for example, in stories for children as a cautionary tale pointing to dangerous stuff to avoid. Then again, contemporary road building projects have been modified because construction could impede where a taniwha spirit resides. I find the contradictory character of the myth figure compelling, that the thing can hold opposite meanings. Are there other folkways where a spirit is both demon and protector?

Mary reads us a poem. Mary brought a perfect round watermelon to share for lunch, and wearing a perfect striped top. After lunch, she sat under the tree in front of our cottage, the dappling light activating her watermelon stripes, her kind voice and authenticity, to share her story poem of a significant encounter with a striped taniwha. (As I listen now, the wind sound is annoying, not so perfect, please forgive.) 

Gaye tells her taniwha story. She is a brilliant, compelling storyteller, listen here.

Gaye shares another story, ‘Death and the Rabbi’, also great.

Madeleine, lovely poet, shared There is so much time about the remarkable life cycle of the native eel, part of a ceremony to welcome the elvers back on their yearly return to inland fresh water.

On our way away, Michael, visionary forest builder, took us to Pukaha National Wildlife Center. The story of how the land was returned, with a formal apology, to the Maori family, is fascinating and well told in the linked Planet Money piece, totally worth a 20 minute listen.