Wizard in the “Gall of Satan”

From H. Beatties’ Traditions and Legends of the Natives of Murihiku. (Southland, New Zealand) from the Journal of the Polynesian Society volume 28 No: 112

Merehau, a tohuka, who resided usually in the Port Molyneux district was living when the white settlers came. He was a magician, said one of the collector’s informants, and if offended could upset canoes which were out at sea, and he could do other magic. He had a garden between O-marama and Te Karoro, and he called it Te-au-o-Hatane, which means “the gall of Satan,” according to the narrator, who added, “He was not afraid of Satan as he always had his own taepo* with him,” and continued, “The powers of the tohukas were wonderful. Matamata, a priest or prophet of the old times, was appealed to in storms at sea. The tohuka would use a firestick, and say karakia, and two whales would come alongside the canoe and keep it from capsizing. The tohuka would give each whale a hair of his head. Rakitauneke was a famous tohuka of old, and had a guardian whale Tu-te-raki-hua-noa, and also sometimes one called Matamata. One day the former of these whales appeared off Moeraki, and the children cursed it, and its owner in anger sent a tidal wave which drowned them. The creek they were standing by had been fresh water till then but it has been brackish ever since. Its name is Ka-wa.”

*according to mythologydictionary.com Taepo means: “A Maori ghost which has power. Only during the hours of darkness.” but there was a variety of opinion on the origin and meaning of this word at the time this account was collected. 

Beatties’ comments in the Journal of the Polynesian Society Volume 29, No. 116:


This query was recently sent from the North Island to the collector, and it is an interesting one. The word ‘taipo’ is currently supposed among Europeons to mean ‘devil,’ and there is a Southland farmer who owns a horse which was called Taipo, under the impression it was a polite way of designating ‘Old Nick.’ The collector was aware, however, that the word ‘taipo’ was ruled out by good Maori scholars, but the word taepo is given in Tregear’s Dictionary as signifying “a goblin, a spectre,” so whenever his informants used the word the collector thought he was on safe ground in following their example without question. Now, however, that the question has been raised, the collector has asked three aged southern Maoris about it, and these are the answers:—“I think that taepo or taipo is a whalers’ word. Atua is the correct name for a ghost or spirit.” “I reckon that taepo is a slang word. A Maori who was jocularly called that name died recently,” “I consider that taipo is a pakeha word. In Maori it means ‘night-tide,’ but I cannot suggest how it came to be associated with demons or spirits, which should rightly be termed tahae and atua.” To use a familiar saying, the question “is now open for discussion.”

[The word should be taepo, if anything. But it is doubtful if the word is Maori at all. One never sees it written in the many papers supplied to this Society by well informed Maoris. The word means ‘arrive by night,’ or ‘night visitant,’ and in all probability was intended by some white person as an equivalent of ghost.—EDITOR.]

A reply from Volume 30, No. 117 of the Journal of the Polynesian Society

 On Taepo or Taipo.

In the latest issue of the “Journal,” Vol. XXIX., No. 4, appears a paragraph requiring comment. It is in a very interesting paper by Mr. H. Beattie, concerning traditions of natives of Murihiku. He says that in my Dictionary appears the word taepo, meaning “a goblin, a spectre”—but, having doubts about it being really Maori, he consulted three aged southern Maoris, who informed him that taipo or taepo is a whaler’s word—a pakeha word—and that “atua is the correct name for a ghost or spirit.”

The authority I relied on as to the word being Maori was the Rev. Mr. Colenso. If anyone will kindly examine the first volume of the “Transactions of the New Zealand Institute, p. 384, and also Mr. Colenso’s booklet named “Nomenclature,” he will find that the great scholar hurls scorn on those who deny thattaepo is a Maori word or believe that any Englishman gave such a word to the Maori. He asserts that the presence of the taepo was made known by a peculiar rustling or whispering of the raupo leaves of a Maori house.

Now, on the other side of the evidence, what is the value of an informant who says that taepo cannot be a Maori word because atua is the proper word for a ghost or spirit? What about wairua, tupua, rita, tapui, ata, kehua, rapa, pareho, rikoriko, ngingongingo, kahukahu, and a dozen others? Mr. Colenso was a Maori scholar more than eighty years ago, at a time when the language was practically undefiled. His direct statement that the word is Maori should outweigh the merely negative statement of any scholar of to-day who says that he never heard or read the word. Neither I nor any of my friends ever heard or saw the word “slubberdegullion” in an English sentence, but the word has its place in a dictionary. Maoris adopted English words when they had no Maori word that expressed the meaning, and in this particular case their language teemed with words which classified and denoted the kind of ghost or goblin referred to. Without wishing to insist that taepo is a Maori word against those who have reason to deny it, I quote my authority and stand by it to justify its inclusion in a dictionary. If excluded on negative evidence, some of the most valuable words in the world would have been lost.


Mr. Colenso notwithstanding, we think the word was manufactured by white people, or at any rate after white people came to this country. If our memory does not fail us, the word is never used in the very large number of Maori documents we have perused, and moreover in some seventy years experience of the Maori language, we never heard it used otherwise than in chaffing young people—a kind of “Beche-le-mar.”—EDITOR.”

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