Traditional Maori Proverbs: Some General Themes

Paul Moon
Auckland Institute of Technology

Deep South v.3 n.1 Autumn 1997

Copyright (c) 1997 by Paul Moon, all rights reserved.


This paper attempts to examine the nature and purpose of traditional (that is, pre-European) Maori proverbs, and their role in greater scheme of traditional Maori culture in New Zealand, and their similarity in purpose and use with other traditional cultures. Because the source material for these proverbs is overwhelmingly in written form, it becomes important to consider the impact of the written word on the oral-based culture from which these proverbs emanated. Issues such as the nature of popular culture, morality, education, and religion also deserve attention as part of the process of putting Maori proverbs into some sort of contextual setting.

The proverbs used as examples in this paper are drawn from several sources, and are not individually referenced unless for purposes of comparison.

An allied issue to the consideration of Maori proverbs is the spiritual significance of land to Maori. The Legislative Review Committee of the New Zealand Maori Council issued a statement in 1980 which identified the importance and relevance of land to Maori:

"Maori land has several cultural connotations for us. It provides us with a sense of identity, belonging, and continuity. It is proof of our continued existence not only as people, but as tangata whenua of this country. It is proof of our tribal and kin group ties....It is proof of our link wit the ancestors of our past, and with the generation yet to come. It is an assurance that we shall forever exist as a people, for as long as the land shall last." [1]

In 1978, Wiremu Parker, writing for a collection of essays commemorating the Silver Jubilee of Elizabeth II, expressed similar sentiments:

"For ever so long, land has been central in Maori thought. The source of his physical sustenance, of his very blood from time immemorial, the object of deep emotional attachment in song, poetry and oratory, the prized heritage of tribe and family, and lay at the very core of a people's mana. Land was for ever." [2]

These statements embody the strength of the bond between the identification of being Maori, and the inherent metaphysical relationship with the land. The two are inseparable.

Maori considered themselves custodians or stewards of the land where they lived, rather than exclusive owners. Different groups could acquire stewardship of a particular area of land through conquest or discovery, continual occupation, or through ancestral right. Of these, ancestral right was always the greatest basis for a claim to occupation. From the burying of the placenta of newborn children, through to the burial of the dead, the Maori were literally, and in every sense, tangata whenua - people of the land. Tribal land would be used by generations with the expectation that its status would be unaffected (with the exception of infringements caused by conquest). There was no conception of land as an entity that could be exchanged for goods. After all, there could be no physical value placed on spiritual and ancestral ties to a territory.

Definition of Proverbs

Although most people would have little difficulty in quoting a proverb if asked, the matter of precisely defining a proverb is much more problematic. The Oxford Dictionary's offering of a 'short pithy saying in general use' is neither sufficiently comprehensive nor accurate. Proverbs need not be 'in general use', and 'short pithy sayings' is ill-defined to the point of being meaningless. Archie Taylor's 1931 definition of a proverb extended to over 200 pages, and concluded that it was impossible to give a meaningful definition that was also brief [3]. Part of the difficulty with defining proverbs is that they do not conform to a neatly categorised genre. Their form, origins, content, purpose, structure, application, and a range of other aspects are so varied as to sometimes give the impression that there is no such single entity as a proverb. In some cases, a proverb can be something as basic as a moralising generalisation, while at the other end of the scale, it can be a complex and extremely culture-bound metaphor, conforming to an intricate structure, and containing several layers of encoded meaning. The constraints of space here prohibit a comprehensive analysis of what constitutes a proverb. Consequently, for all its shortcomings, an intuitive, popular understanding of a proverb is relied upon in this paper.

Creation of Proverbs

In the case of traditional Maori proverbs, no trace has generally been left on the historical landscape to indicate when they were originally created or by whom. Maori legends do not name the creators of proverbs, although proverbs are frequently included in these legends. Even in contemporary society, it is only rarely that a proverb can be seen to be in the making. Proverbs come about for several reasons, and in many ways. Some may arise from simple apophthegms and platitudes which over time are elevated to the status of a proverb. Others emerge from the symbolic or metaphoric use of an incident, some are based on a story or fable, while others are simply variations on existing proverbs [4]. In non-literate communities, it is virtually impossible to even approximately date proverbs, and in the case of pre-European Maori communities, there are too few chronological signposts to hint at periods even as broad as centuries.

Purpose of Maori Proverbs

As with most oral cultures[5], proverbs fulfilled an important function in traditional Maori communities. They could serve as a generalised code for establishing standards in ethical and moral behaviour. This was particularly so in traditional Maori communities, where many proverbs emerged which had widespread application, and became almost part of a moral code: Awhato kai paenga (The caterpillar eats round the edges of the leaves) likens a greedy person to a caterpillar and therefore denounces greed. Likewise, Waiho mate tangata e mihi (Let someone else acknowledge your virtues) gives guidance for individuals in the community.

Some proverbs offered advice or reflections on adversities that people encountered: He manga wai koia kia kore e whitikia (It is a big river indeed that cannot be crossed) suggesting that if difficulties are made light of, they will disappear, while others simply gave practical advice: He toa piki rakau he kai na te pakiaka (A brave man who climbs trees is food for their roots). These few examples indicate a more significant theme relating to the association between proverbs and culture in traditional Maori society: as with waiata (songs/chants) and the rituals of pohwiri (welcoming), tangi (funeral) and others, culture was transmitted by formula. Proverbs formed an integral part of this formulaic transmission of this culture. Proverbs can also be seen as a device for providing guidance for people's lives. The proverb

"...summarises a situation, passes a judgement, or offers a course of action. It is a consolation in difficulties large and small and a guide when a choice must be made. It expresses morality suited to the common man. It is cautious and conservative in recommending the middle way....It is not a call to high adventure"[6].

In oral cultures, proverbs can also assume the function of a legal code and are easily used in passing judgement. Proverbs such as He hono tangata e kore e motu; ka pa he taura waka e motu (A human bond cannot be severed; unlike a canoe rope, it cannot be severed) convey almost legalistic overtones, and serve to guide community and individual behaviour.

The Perception of Proverbiality

Proverbs and tradition seem to be inextricably connected. Age, among other factors, appears to give proverbs a heightened level of credibility and even respect. Often, the spoken delivery of a proverb is prefixed by phrases such as "There's an old Maori saying...", "Our old people used to say...", and so forth. Proverbs have a life that extends beyond the person using them. An example of the use of a proverb by parents to direct a child's actions indicates how this works in practice:

"A child knows that the proverb used by the scolding parent was not made up by that parent. It is a proverb from the cultural past whose voice speaks truth in traditional form. It is the "One", the "Elders", or the "They" in "They say", who direct. The parent is but the instrument through which the proverb speaks to the audience' [7].

Thus, the success of a proverb performance must depend ultimately on the listener's ability to perceive that he or she is being addressed in traditional, that is, proverbial, terms. If the listener is unable to reach that conclusion, then the performance of the proverb as a proverb has failed, even though the speakers opinions and comments may have had the desired effect for these reasons [8]. This would suggest that there are a number of cultural 'markers' which contribute to the weight carried by a proverb. In traditional Maori communities, where the wisdom of the elders, and the veneration given to deceased ancestors were critical elements in the cultural make-up, phrases such as 'Our old people used to say...' become a vital precursory cultural marker to the utterance of the proverb itself. Collections of proverbs, in which the proverbs themselves are isolated, therefore risk being interpreted as self-contained units of meaning, rather than in their broader cultural matrix. This has the potential to distort both the meaning and the extent of credibility the proverbs may otherwise carry. The isolation of proverbs can also affect the perception of proverbiality itself:

"In a list of sayings considered in isolation...meaning may affect the perception of proverbiality in ways that would not be applicable to a normal proverb performance, where meaning is supplied or clarified by the surrounding context" [9].

The processes involved in the hearer's perception of the proverb are central to the perception of a particular saying being proverbial. This fact, coupled with the cultural markers which give proverbs their fundamental level of meaning, leads to an even more essential implication: that "...the acceptance or rejection by tradition which follows immediately upon the creation of the proverb is a factor in its making quite as important as the first act of invention" [10].

At the level of the individual hearer, the tradition of a proverb commences with the first performance of the proverb which the hearer listens to, and with each successive performance of the proverb, the hearer's perception of the traditional component of the proverb will either be extended or diminished.

Translated Proverbs

Most written collections of Maori proverbs appear in Maori with an accompanying English translation. This has certainly made the proverbs accessible to a larger readership, but by the same token, has had implications for the status of the proverbs themselves. Stylistic and cultural problems can emerge during translation and are often difficult to resolve. Since proverbs are necessarily part of traditional culture, they tend to characteristically use the ordinary manner of speech. If there is any such thing as an English proverbial vernacular, then the translation of Maori proverbs into English has the potential to distort the manner of speech used in their original Maori version. The use of the compound relative pronoun, such as 'He who...' in proverbs like: Tama tu, tama ora, tama moe, tama mate (He who stands, lives, he who sleeps, dies), uses a form largely limited in the English language to proverbs, and therefore are not part of everyday speech for speakers of English.

Another aspect of the translation of proverbs from Maori into English is the influence of another culture being largely responsible for the initial printed collection of these proverbs. It is probably impossible to establish exactly how many proverbs may never have been recorded due to having been lost as the mechanisms of the Maori oral culture began to break down, and as the recorders of proverbs simultaneously exercised their own judgement over which proverbs they would or would not include in their collections. Victorian collectors of traditional English proverbs sometimes edited out of their collections those proverbs which they found to be vulgar or offensive to the prevailing public sensitivities, and there is no reason to assume that there would be much difference in practices in nineteenth-century New Zealand.

Use of Proverbs in traditional Maori Communities as as Educational Device

Traditional Maori proverbs clearly served a didactic purpose, despite the absence of Western-styled institutions of learning. The educational value of proverbs has a broad basis. Proverbs

"...awaken and enlarge reflections on the world and the nature of man, to suggest subjects for conversation, or to provide themselves with comment appropriate to situations in daily life. Such purposes are obviously closely allied to the essence of the moralising proverb" [11].

The preservation of proverbs in their 'original' form would almost have certainly been guaranteed in traditional Maori communities by the means of transferring knowledge. One of the purposes of the traditional Maori wananga, as described by Elsdon Best, was to

"...hand the teachings of old down succeeding generations in an unchanged form. Any deviation from such teachings was a thing to be carefully avoided. To deny the truth of any such teachings was an abominable act" [12].

Proverbs based on Metaphors

As oppose to those proverbs which are little more than terse sayings that have found their way into the repertoire of proverbs, metaphorical proverbs certainly provide a more interesting field for analysis. Metaphorical proverbs take a familiar scene and turn it into a metaphor which not only conveys a message, but does so in a way that is both vivid and memorable. Metaphorical proverbs can come to mean much more than the sum of words from which they are comprised. No te mea ra ia, he rakau tawhito, e mau ana te taitea I waho ra, e tu te kohiwi (In a very old tree you may be certain that the sapwood is on the outside, while the heartwood is in the middle) is a simple observation but its application as a proverb can be widespread.

Admittedly, some traditional Maori metaphorical proverbs, particularly those informed with the language of nature, are often naive in their metaphorical content, such as the proverb said by a parent after their child has been killed Ka whati ra ia taku mahuri totara(My totara sapling so suddenly broken off), but this is not to say that such proverbs are any less effective in their purpose. Others, by contrast, are more vivid: He tini nga whetu e ngaro I te kapua iti (Many stars cannot be concealed by a small cloud). In one way though, the nature-inspired metaphorical proverbs (which is the prominent type of metaphor in traditional Maori proverbs) would have been effective because their audience would readily have been able to identify with them.

The natural world yields many observations which lend themselves to metaphorical use on proverbs: He rei nga niho, he paraoa nga kauae (A whale's tooth in a whale's jaw - a metaphor for people being suitably qualified for particular enterprises); He wahine ke te kainga, he kaka ki te ngahere (A woman in the house is like a kaka in the forest). Hunting and fishing were also a good source of metaphors for proverbs: Ka ruha te kupenga, ka pae kei te akau (When a net is worn out, it is thrown away on the shore); He manu kai kakano e mau, tena he manu kai rakau e kore e mau (A bird which eats berries can be caught, but not a bird that eats wood).


In the collections of Maori proverbs that exist in written form, the use of personification is comparatively rare. This is surprising because personification is often a strong theme that runs through many Maori myths and legends [13]. The nature of oral cultures preclude the possibility of examining whether there was any stage in pre-European Maori history where personification was a prominent feature in the proverbial stock. However, the meticulous effort made in transmitting as much information as possible through well-developed oral methods suggests the probability that there may never have been many examples of personification in proverbs. If there were, then it would be safe to assume that the examples of them would have been handed down. However, other possibilities for the scarcity of personification in traditional Maori proverbs include their omission from published collections because the (mainly European) transcribers or publishers were looking for particular types of proverbs suited for particular markets, and hence rejected those proverbs whose personification may have seemed obscure, or may have required extensive prior knowledge Kei takahia a Tahu(Lest Tahu be trampled on - Tahu personified food supplies); Kua tu te haka a Tanerore (The dancing of Tanerore has begun - Tanerore is the quasi-religious personification of the quivering, heated air of summer). The examples that do exist, though, do make for interesting reading: The kumara never has to tell anyone how sweet it is' is an good case of an effective personification being used in a proverb.


The attention given to each of the preceding areas of analysis has been necessarily brief. As has already been stated, the purpose of this paper is to introduce some of the general themes relating to traditional Maori proverbs, and what is contained here is merely a foundation for further, more in-depth study. What does become evident, however, even from a cursory review such as this, is the extent to which proverbs form an integral part of oral cultures. More than being mere objects of amusement, or even devices for learning, proverbs in fact both reflect and contribute to patterns in people's lives, and therefore can form a powerful basis for community cohesion.


[1] Legislative Review Committee of the New Zealand Maori Council, A Discussion Paper on Future Maori Development and Legislation, December 1980, p. 1

[2] W. Parker, "The Substance that Remains", in I. Wards (ed.), Thirteen facets: The Silver Jubilee Essays Surveying the New Elizabethan Age, a Period of Unprecedented Change, Reed: Wellington, 1978, p.178

[3] A. Taylor, The Proverb, Harvard University Press: Cambridge, 1931; see also W. Mieder (ed.), Selected Writings on Proverbs by Archie Taylor, Suomalainen Tiedeakatemia: Helsinki, 1975.

[4] A. Taylor, The Proverb and An Index to "The Proverb", Sprichworterfroschung Band 6, Herausgegeben von Wolfgang Mieder, Peter Land, Bern - Frankfurt am Main - New York, 1985, pp.3-4

[5] B. Reay, "Introduction: Popular Culture in Early Modern England", in B. Reay (ed.), Popular Culture in Seventeenth Century England, Routledge, London, 1988, pp5-6.

[6] A. Taylor, "The Study of Proverbs", in De Proverbio, Vol 2, No. 1, 1996, p.4.

[7] E. O Arewa and A. Dundes, "Proverbs and the Ethnography of Speaking Folklore", in American Anthropologist, Vol.66, No. 6, pt. 2, 1964, p.70.

[8] S. L. Arora, "The Perception of Proverbiality", in De Proverbio, Vol. 1, No. 1, 1995, p.2.

[9] ibid. p. 9.

[10] A. Taylor, The Proverb and an Index to "The Proverb", p. 35.

[11] A. Taylor, "The Study of Proverbs", in De Proverbio, Vol 2, No. 1, 1996, p.4.

[12] E. Best, The Maori School of Learning: Its Objects, Methods and Ceremonial, Dominion Museum Monograph No. 6, Government Printer, Wellington, 1986, p. 25.

[13] See J. Cowan, Fairy Folk Tales of the Maori, Second Edition, Auckland, 1930.

Sources Cited

Arewa E. O., and Dundes, A., "Proverbs and the Ethnography of Speaking Folklore", in American Anthropologist, Vol. 66, No. 6, Pt. 2, 1964.

Arora, S. L., "The Perception of Proverbiality", in De Proverbio, Vol. 1, No. 1, 1995.

Best, E., The Maori School of Learning: Its Objects, Methods and Ceremonial, Dominion Museum Monograph No. 6, Government Printer, Wellington, 1986.

Broughton, A. E. and Reed, A. W., Maori Proverbs, Reed, Auckland, 1992.

Cowan, J., Fairy Folk Tales of the Maori, Second Edition, Auckland, 1930.

Legislative Review Committee of the New Zealand Maori Council, A Discussion Paper on Future Maori Development and Legislation, Wellington, December 1980.

Mieder, W.,(ed.), Selected Writings on Proverbs by Archie Taylor, Suomalainen Tiedeakatemia, Helsinki, 1975.

Parker, W., "The Substance that Remains", in I. Wards (ed.), Thirteen Facets; The Silver Jubilee Essays Surveying the New Elizabethan Age, A Period of Unprecedented Change, Reed, Wellington, 1978.

Reay, B., "Introduction: Popular Culture in Early Modern England", in Reay, B.,(ed.), Popular Culture in Seventeenth-Century England, Routledge, London, 1988.

Taylor, A., 'The Study of Proverbs', in De Proverbio, Vol. 2, No. 1, 1996.

Taylor, A., The Proverb and An Index to"The Proverb", Sprichwörterfroschung Band 6, Herausgegeben von Wolfgang Mieder, Peter Lang, Bern - Frankfurt am Main - New York, 1985.

Taylor, A., The Proverb, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1931.

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