18th/19th century carving of Tangaroa, Cook Islands.
Collection of the British Museum.
The Encyclopedia of New Zealand gives us our first insight into the identity and importance of Tangaroa:
Māori people and their Polynesian ancestors lived close to the sea and relied on it for food and other resources.
The sea also has spiritual importance. In many traditions it is thought to be where all life began. People evolved from fish to human form. Traditional carvings of the ancestors show snake-like bodies, three fingers and large heads – a lot like amphibians, which can live on both land and water.
Māori believe that water is an energy, with many moods. It can be calm and life-giving, or dangerous and destructive. This energy is called Tangaroa – ‘god of the sea’.In some versions of the story, Tangaroa is one of the children of the Earth (Papatuanuku, or Papa) and the Sky (Ranginui, or Rangi). Since time immemorial, Papa the Earth Mother and Rangi the Sky Father held each other in a tight lover's embrace. Their children, all male, lived in the closed darkness between them. Eventually they grew tired of their cramped conditions and agreed to pry their parents apart so that they may see the light and smell the air. Tāne, the Forest, conceived of the plan. The first to try was Rongo, god of Cultivated Food, but he was unsuccessful on his own. He was joined by Tangaroa and Haumia-tiketike, god of Wild or Uncultivated Food. Still they failed. Finally Tāne tried, but instead of using his hands he decides to push with his strong legs. Straining nearly to the breaking point, he did succeed. The Earth and the Sky were separated.
A 19th century Māori carving of Papa and Rangi embracing.
Photo: Wikimedia Commons.
Another brother, Tāwhirimātea the Wind, did not assent to this plan. Filled with rage over the weeping of his mother and father, sorrowing over the tears of Rangi that fall to the Earth, he pledged violence to his siblings. Retreating to the Sky, he rallied his own children, who are the various winds and storms, clouds and rains. When he struck Tangaroa with a ferocious attack, huge waves formed. Two of Tangaroa's grandchildren - Ikatere the father of fish and Tu-te-wehiwehi the father of reptiles - each fled. Tu-te-wehiwehi took refuge in the Forest, which set Tangaroa's anger against Tāne for hiding them from him. In retaliation, Tāne supplies human beings (who are the descendants of Tūmatauenga the god of War) with canoes and nets to catch the grandchildren of Tangaroa. The Sea replies by flooding the land and overturning canoes.
Not only do the Tū (humans) capture the fish of the Sea, but they also make snares to catch the birds, who are children of Tāne. Furthermore, they subdue Rongo and Haumia-tiketike, gathering and consuming them as they try to hide in the Earth. They are able to overcome all the cowards who shrank before the assault of Tāwhirimātea. Tūmatauenga, and the Tū, could neither subdue nor be subdued by Tāwhirimātea. So it remains to this day, when humans may be bowed by the storms and hurricanes, but stay fast, unbroken. Meanwhile, Rangi continues to weep for Papa, and Papa heaves and strains to be reunited with her love. Out of sympathy, Tāne gathered the stars, sun and moon, and dressed Rangi in them so that he appears beautiful to Papa and everyone living on her.
Disney's version of Tangaroa seems to derive from the equivalent deity in Samoa and Tahiti. In the Samoan version, Tagaloa is the supreme deity, the creator of both the universe and its inhabitants, human and divine. Ta'aroa is also the supreme deity in Tahiti. In the time before the universe...
Ta’aroa sat in his shell in darkness, for millions of ages. The shell was like an egg revolving in endless space, with no sky, no land, no sea, no moon, no sun, no stars... Ta’aroa was quite alone in his shell. He had no father, no mother, no elder brother, no sister. There were no people, no beasts, no birds, no dogs. But there was Ta’aroa, and he was alone. (Ta’aroa and the creation of the world by Teuira Henry and J. M. Orsmond)Growing bored, he shook his body and cracked the shell, freeing himself into the empty void. With the remains of the shell, he created the Earth - Tama-Nui - and the rocks and sand. Then he began to fill this new world with himself: his backbone formed the mountains, his tears filled the oceans, his feathers became the trees and bushes, his fingernails became the scales of fish and reptiles, his blood coloured the rainbow, he decorated the sky with the stars. Ta'aroa summoned artists to sculpt the first god, Tane, then Maui, Ru, Hina and the other deities. Finally he created humanity.
When Ta'aroa created the world, he organized it into seven layers or orders of being. At first, humanity occupied the lowest level. But humans reproduced and filled the level, so they punched a hole through the roof of the seventh layer and spread into the sixth. On they went, filling each level and then spreading into the next. Eventually humans filled every level, filling the whole earth, and this pleased Ta'aroa greatly.
What we learn from the stories of Tangaroa, Tagaloa and Ta'aroa is that these deities are not so easily dismissed as mere ancient superstitions to be poked at in a theme park with gentle fun. In many ways, the whole concept of "superstition" and even "religion" is an invention of the Enlightenment and its belief that the universe is an inanimate, mechanical object. This belief conforms to the vested interests of capitalist-colonialism which sees the world and its inhabitants (including ourselves) as mere resources to be exploited. It marginalizes other beliefs as mere "religion" and "superstition"... Primitive myths to be cast aside in a more "enlightened" age of industry and commerce, an isolated pocket of "private belief" shrinking before the onslaught of science until it offers no further resistance to the economic view of life. Indigenous traditions around the world, from Africa to the Americas to Polynesia, see the world as an animated force, a living system, vital and active. If you were to ask a Māori if they believe in Tangaroa, they may very well point to the ocean and ask "don't you?"