Theoretical Essay

Te taiao, te tinana, e rua, e rua: the environment and the human body

Hone Waengarangi Morris

Massey University image/svg+xml


Te Reo. Māori. Human Body. Environment.


The title of this paper reflects a Māori[1] perspective to the world we live and move in and our interaction with the environment. Its literal translation, ‘The taiao (environment) and the tinana (human body) are kin’ is the underlying theme of this paper.

In researching philosophies and narratives handed down by my ancestors, and those recorded by early ethnologists who came to Aotearoa/New Zealand, it becomes immediately apparent that the ancestors, through careful observation whilst living at one with the environment—its interconnectedness and infinite moods, fashioned a knowledge that everything in this world is connected through whakapapa (genealogy). The interconnected energies that dwell in Ranginui (Sky Father) ngā whetū (stars), momo ua (types of rain), ngā kapua (clouds), te hau (wind) and all weather patterns are all connected through a network of genealogies. On Papatūānuku (Earth Mother), ngā toka me ngā kōhatu (rocks and stones), te wai (water—fresh and salt), ngā rākau (trees), ngā ngārara (insects), ngā manu (birds) and animal life both on earth and in the oceanare all part of a genealogy that reflects the ancestors understanding of the natural world.

In the ever-present concern of global warming, climate change and the growing awareness of the need to protect and respect our environmentthis perspective of connected genealogy will assist in providing a conceptual lens to encourage one to view the environment as a living organism, breathing with moods and emotions similar to the human body that is totally interconnected. Through an analysis of the linguistic terms placed on the land by my tīpuna (ancestors) in Aotearoa I will provide a unique perspective that individuals can utilise to solidify their own personal relationship to the taiao (environment), to Papatūānuku, to Ranginui and the energies that sustain life. This analysis may also provide a conduit for comparison or contrast of other indigenous perspectives towards the use of terms for both the environment and the body.


[1] The Māori people are the indigenous people of Aotearoa-New Zealand.


As with many cultures, the earth is acknowledged by the Māori as being feminine and the sky as masculine2. The sun Tama-nui-te-rā masculine is complemented by the moon Marama feminine. This idea of masculine and feminine energies coexisting—as with many cultures—is infused into the Māori perspective which I will touch on with specific examples throughout this narrative.

I begin by referring to the curriculum that guided the Māori traditional whare wānanga (school of learning). The curriculum contained what was called the kauae runga (terrestrial knowledge) and kauae raro (celestial knowledge). The terms used for these two knowledge bases—‘the upper jaw’ and ‘lower jaw’ respectively—give a profound view of the Māori mind of the ancestors who saw all knowledge as emanating from a giant entity, known in western science as the universe. These two concepts are also conveyed phonetically by the vowel sounds for ‘a’ (short as in the word ‘away’, long as in the word ‘far’) referring to terrestrial energies and the vowel sounds for ‘o’ (short as in the word ‘order’, long as in the word ‘for’) referring to celestial energies. When the two vowels are placed together, ao, they form the word for ‘world’ (as well as ‘daylight’, ‘dawn’, ‘bright’, ‘cloud’, and ’bud’) and are also found in the word for environment taiao. When used with possessives these vowels indicate in some instances a spiritual connection as when using ‘o/ō’- E tō mātou matua i te rangi (our father which art in heaven3) ōku tīpuna (my ancestors) and in other instances an earthly connection when using ‘a/ā, tā mātou māra (our garden), āku taputapu (tools).

The term that Māori use for the land is whenua (Hawaiian aina, Samoan fanua) Rarotonga ‘enua, Tongan, Nuiean, fonua (TREGEAR, 1891, p. 620)). The word whenua also happens to be the word used by my tīpuna to name the placenta. The tīpuna chose this word to recognise and acknowledge that both the land and placenta are living energies that sustain life. The placenta is the organ that nurtures the growing baby within the womb, ensuring it develops to its optimum potential by providing oxygen and nutrients and acting as a filter to remove waste products from the baby’s blood (Mayo Clinic)4. The land Papatūānuku being the life form that nurtures ALL life through providing minerals and water—provided by Ranginui—to the terrestrial ecosystems and forests which in turn provide materials, food, minerals to support human livelihood.

A Māori cultural practice named ‘whenua ki te whenua’ is to bury the placenta in a special place—usually on ancestral lands—along with the pito (umbilical cord). In some instances, the pito ‘was placed in a cleft in a rock or tree, often on a boundary line of land in which the infant would have rights of ownership’ (BEST, 1975, p. 19). This practice strengthens the bonding of the newborn child to the land of their ancestors or in modern times to the land of their birth. There were other forms and methods of disposing of the pito within Aotearoa and similarly within the various social groupings, such as in the hollow of a tree, buried at the foot of a tree or a significant post.

In the beginning, Papatūānuku and Ranginui held each other in a close eternal embrace within Te Kore (nothingness, potential), Te Pō (night, complete darkness). Eventually they were separated by one of their children - Tāne-māhuta (guardian of the forest domain and its inhabitants) against the wishes of another sibling Tāwhiri-mātea (guardian of the domain of weather) which brought light into the world. The tension between Tāwhiri-mātea and his siblings Tāne-māhuta and Tangaroa (guardian of the oceans) manifests into the forces of nature forever antagonising life on earth and the oceans in the form of hurricanes, storms, tidal waves, etc. Other offsprings of Papatūānuku were in various divisions of Ranginui and were nurtured by feminine energies Hine-te-āhuru (mother of the heavenly bodies), by Hine-ruru-mai and by Hine-makohu-rangi (both personified forms of mist). (BEST, 1976, p. 59).

The term awa (river) has an association with the breaking of waters before birth. Not having any clear written narrative regarding this phenomenon we can connect this concept through other narratives such as the term ārai awa which refers to a person blocking the kūaha (doorway) of an ancestral house. The kūaha reflects the taiawa (a term for the female reproductive organ) which reinforces the notion that the term awa could refer to the breaking of waters before birth.

The term wheiao/whaiao (place between darkness and light) originates from the action of separating Ranginui and Papatūānuku by Tāne-mahuta. The ancestors also saw a similarity in the separation of earth and sky to that of the birth of a child emerging from the womb via the wheiao (birth canal) and to that of the middle of the tipuna whare, an ancestral house named after the eponymous ancestor of a hapū (subtribe). These houses, also termed whare whakairo (carved house), reflected a human body - the kōruru (gable head) representing the face of the ancestor carved with oversized eyes to acknowledge the sentinel aspects of the ruru (morepork, a native bird) who oversees the maraeātea (plaza, land directly in front of the house). The maihi (bargeboards) represent the arms, the kūwaha (doorway) represents the mouth, the pare (carving above the doorway) represents a female ancestor alluding to the doorway, being the ara o te ora (pathway of life) the female genitals, where all life passes through. The tāhuhu (ridgepole) represents the spine and the heke (rafters) the ribs. The early houses had no windows on the back wall leaving that area quite dark. This is also the wall where carvings—and in more modern times portraits of the ancestors, are located. This area of darkness implies Te Pō - the Māori world where the spirits of those who have passed journey to te wāhi ngaro (the invisible realm), Nirvana, Paradise in other cultures. The middle of the house was termed the wheiao, the space between the dark back wall and the front wall. The front wall of the ancestral house is where the windows are located and where light enters the house, relating to the concept of te ao mārama (the world of light) light coming into the world through the separation of Papatūānuku and Ranginui. This architectural design reflects the concept of the baby leaving the womb, te , and entering the wheiao to be born into the te ao mārama.

Figure 1. Figure 1. Tipuna whare, an ancestral house, also termed whare whakairo, carved house. Fonte: Original image taken from

There is a common proverbial saying used in Māori oratory, ki te wheiao, ki te ao mārama;

Tīhei mauri ora

Ka puta te ira tangata

mai i te pō, ki te wheiao

ki te ao mārama

The sneeze of life, life’s energy

Humanity emerges

from darkness, to the dawn

to the world of light

This brings to the fore another example of a term—from a Māori perspective—that reflects both the environment and the human body. That term is hau, the word for wind or air which Māori perceive as ‘the vitality of the universe’, and the ‘quality that pervades the whole being of humans’ (BEST, 1982, p. 51), i.e. human vitality.

E mōhio ana ahau kei te patu mai koe i a māua ko taku hau; e kore taku hau e riro i tō karakia5.

I know you are attempting to kill both my vital essence and me; my vital essence will never succumb to your spell.

The term hau originates from two words, (breath, essence) and u (instil) and during the act of pronouncing this word a person experiences both the outward breath and the inner vitality at the same moment. If for some reason the hau of a person is disturbed or restricted then it is identified by the addition of the letter ‘ā’ termed hauā (crippled, lame, disabled), hauā ā-hinengaro (intellectually challenged), hauā ā-tinana (physically challenged), hauā-pekewhā (quadriplegic). The people who reside close to or on traditional lands, kāinga, and play an active part in caring for the marae6 and providing hospitality for manuhiri (visitors) are termed hau kāinga literally meaning ‘the vitality of the village’.

The next term to illustrate the close connection of Māori to the environment is the term kiri (skin), used also in reference to the bark of a tree, the hide or pelt of an animal and the rind of a fruit (Tongan, Niuean kili, Hawaiian ili). It is also the base word of terms for the bereaved family kiri mate, (mate meaning death), self-esteem kiritau, (tau meaning settled), and identity, personality tuakiri (tua meaning the back of a person).

The Māori word for the forehead is rae (Tahitian, Rarotonga rae, Samoan, Hawaiian, Tongan lae) which is the word and base word for words used to describe a headland, a promontory or peninsula - rae, rae, pukerae, mātārae7. Once again, a geographical feature of the environment encapsulated in the human body to reflect the idea that Papatūānuku is also seen as a living being. Another example of an indigenous perspective when Māori walk the earth and acknowledge landforms and the environment.

Moving down from the forehead, we come to the mouth waha. The word waha can be found in other words such as waha (doorway), - waharoa (gateway or entrance to an ancient fortress – and marae (modern-day space where a community gather). The word waha (mouth of a river) also reflects the Māori mind when it views the mouth as being similar to an entranceway. Other parts of the human body reflecting the meaning of this word are the cervix waha kōpū8 whare tangata9 or simply waha the pudenda muliebria, female genitals.

The word for neck or throat, kakī, found in one of the terms for the source of a river kakī, is also the word for a brook or stream paralleling the narrowness of the flow of these waterways to that of the shape of the neck or throat upon Mother Earth.

The words hiwi, (a ridge of a hill)10, is also found in the word for shoulder - pokohiwi/pakihiwi/pokihiwi, illustrating again the thinking of tīpuna in seeing a connection of the body to the lay of the land, or the lay of the land to the human body. Other words for a ridge are tuahiwi and hiwi (Hawaiian hiwi, a flat or depressed summit of a protuberance; Tahitian tuaivi, a slope of a mountain ridge; Mangaiian tuaivi, a hill, kaivi a ridge, crest of a hill; Marquesan tuaivi, a mountain; Paumotan, tutaivi, a hill) (TREGEAR, 1891, p. 75).

The Māori word for hill, hillock, mound, swell up - puke is the term also used for pubes11, mons veneris (of female). This word is also combined with other words to reflect other environmental elements - with wai, water = waipuke (flood, swelling or mounting up of water), with huruhuru, (feather, pubic hair in some dialects) = puke huruhuru (puberty) with moana, sea = moana pukepuke (choppy seas)12. On the first sighting by the ancestors of a ship ploughing through the ocean creating its wake, they viewed it as though the ship was devouring the swell, thus the Māori term for a ship is kaipuke, eating, consuming the swell.

Turning to words used to describe internal parts of the body that reflect the environment we begin with the word for the manawa (physical heart), used also for deep underground—the bowels of both the earth and the human body—and to describe an unfailing deep spring of water - manawa whenua, more lately used to describe an aquifer. An oasis is termed a puna manawa. The word ngākau is the word for the spiritual heart.

The human bone, iwi is a common term also for people, tribe and nation and used widely in the phrase, “Ko wai tō iwi?” (Who are your bones/people/tribe?) when discussing tribal connections. In the term iwi whenua, it refers to people of the land like the term tangata whenua. Another word for bone and for skeleton is iwi also the word for a trunk of a tree.

One of the terms used to describe emotions, kare ā-roto, (ripples within) refers to the environment with the use of the word kare, (ripple). Other terms referring to the emotions are tama roto and tama tū ki roto, the male aspect within. The word hinengaro (mind, intellect), literally, the invisible female aspect, provides a nice balance to the masculinity of emotions and supports the notion promoted in other cultures such as the Chinese yin feminine, and yang masculine. ‘These opposite or contrary forces may actually be complementary, interconnected, and interdependent in the natural world and they may give rise to each other as they interrelate to one another.’13

Kōmata, (zenith, extremity, pinnacle, high point and acme) is also the word for nipple (of the breast). The term kōmata o te rangi, (zenith of heaven) reflects the influence of Christianity in early Aotearoa history. Pito, as mentioned previously, is the word for the navel, the umbilical cord, or an extremity. The pito which is the section of the umbilical cord nearest the baby’s body—once it detaches from the navel of the baby—is buried alongside the placenta in a special place. The pito also refers to the end of a beach, the extremity of the land, and the ends of the earth as used in the terms for the North Pole - Te Pito Raki, Te Pito Whakararo o te Ao and the South Pole, Te Pito Tonga, Te Pito Whakarunga o te Ao.

The word puku meaning stomach, belly, abdomen is also a term used for the centre of the land, te puku o te whenua14. The belly of the fish, te puku o te ika, refers to the centre of the North Island (Te Ika a Māui15 – The Fish of Māui). This analogy extends to other parts of the North Island - Te Upoko o te Ika, (The Head of the Fish - the Wellington region), Te Hiku o te Ika (The Tail of the Fish - Northland). See the following map for other references to the land as being part of Māui’s fish.

Figure 2. Figure 2. Aotearoa – New Zealand. Fonte:

The rekereke (heels/ankles) are used as an analogy for the base of a mountain and used in oratory to acknowledge the deceased lying in state and more specifically the photographs of close relations that are placed at the foot of the casket as if placed at the base of a mountain. Some people also use the term rekereke when informing others of their upbringing, where they reside or where their authority to speak, their mana rests,

Kei ngā rekereke o Ruahine tōku kāinga 17

My village/hone is at the base of Ruahine mountain

Waterways such as streams and rivers were also viewed as the arteries of Papatūānuku supplying waiora (life giving waters). Other supplies of wai māori (freshwater) were termed waiū—literally liquid of the breast—water that gives us sustenance.

Ko Ruahine te maunga Ruahine is my mountain

Ko Whatumā te waiū Whatumā is where I gather sustenance

The waewae (legs), found in the term tūrangawaewae, is an analogy for land—literally, a place to stand—in respect of where a person’s mana (authority) rests and where a person’s connection to the land is.

He tūrangawaewae (a place to stand) is an appropriate phrase to end this narrative as the words used by the ancestors to define both the land we live on and the body we live in is my place to stand, my place to share these concepts with other indigenous people. The wish is that these terms, phrases, words handed down through the generations will stimulate further discussion and research into the close interrelationship we as occupiers of Papatūānuku have. We are but kaitiaki (guardians, custodians) of Mother Earth for the next generations.

Ehara nō tātou te whenua, engari kē he kaitiaki mō ngā whakatipuranga e heke mai ana

We do not own the land but are mere custodians of the land for the coming generations

Tau ana!

How to Cite

MORRIS, H. W. Te taiao, te tinana, e rua, e rua: the environment and the human body. Cadernos de Linguística, [S. l.], v. 1, n. 3, p. 01–10, 2020. DOI: 10.25189/2675-4916.2020.v1.n3.id227. Disponível em: Acesso em: 19 jun. 2024.



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