Welcome to our first episode of the Mythsterhood of the Travelling Tales in our journey Around The World in 80 Dragons (or so)! We’ll be exploring the dragon mythology of the Pacific Islands and New Zealand. Grab your MythsterMap and markers and follow along! Don’t have a MythsterMap? You can grab yours by signing up to our newsletter.
Best buckle up because we’ve got a lot of ground to cover.
Scroll down for a full transcript of the show, and look out for our bonus blog coming Thursday.
Welcome to Mythsterhood of the Travelling Tales. Join us as we roar the heavens and swim the seas in search of the spectacular and magical. Like the Hydra of Greek lore, our teeth can raise the dead, bringing lost skeletons back to life for an episode or two. But unlike our three-headed friend, we’re not guarding the door to the underworld. No. We’re blasting it wide open, and asking you to come explore with us.
Jaz: Oh my freaking Goddess.
Anike: JAZ! Are you excited as I am?
Jaz: I dunno. How excited are you?
Anike: The words have yet to be invented.
Jaz: Then yes. I’m as excited as you. Because, dear listeners, we get to welcome you to our maiden voyage.
Anike: I see what you did there. Maiden voyage, Travelling Tales.
Jaz: Oh. Yes. Totally meant to do that. Intentionally. Ahem. Where are we travelling to again?
Anike: For this first episode, we decided to combine a few different places, due to the similarities between the cultures and their communal heritage. So, between the three of us, we decided to travel from East to West, following the sun. We’re headed for the Pacific Islands, starting in Hawaii, hopping through to New Zealand, the Solomon Islands, and Papua New Guinea.
Jaz: That sounds like a lot.
Anike: It’s just the tip, really. The Pacific Islands contain thousands of distinct cultures with their own myths. Many of them have water serpents and contain dragons as part of their creation myths. Unfortunately, we can’t include everything in a single episode, and research in each culture is often limited.
Jaz: Alright! Let’s get started in Hawai’i. I’ve always wanted to go there. Now, as always, we wish to apologise in advance for any mutilation of the words we’re trying to pronounce. I looked up the word dragon in Hawaiian, to begin with. I came across various mentions of the word Kelekona, but found nothing more than that it refers to–you guessed it–dragons.
Anike: But when our Koji went digging, she found references to Mo’o. Aquatic deities presenting as lizards or dragons.
Jaz: Ooh, doesn’t that sound promising? I certainly thought so. Mo’o are also thought to be shapeshifters, capable of taking human form, or possessing humans, either voluntarily or involuntarily.
Anike: They inhabit caves, pools and ponds, and protect freshwater sources. I’ll tell you one thing. These Mo’o are creatures you do not want to mess with. They’re omniscient, for starters. But like many other dragons we’ll be exploring in our future episodes, they have the power to manipulate the weather.
Jaz: Ooh. Nice. Think I could get one to bring us some rain? My garden is looking awfully dry, lately.
Anike: I’d be careful if I were you, Jaz. Some of them are not famous for their kindness. The more vicious ones would supposedly summon giant waves to sweep trespassers off a trail, or drown them in pits of toxic phlegm.
Jaz: So yeah. Best to let sleeping mo’o lie. But surely they weren’t all mean?
Anike: Oh, no. Many were revered as protective spirits. But you’re better off staying on their good side. Take the story of Kalamainu’u, for example. She was a mo’o who fell in love with–and married–a young chief. But her two cousins revealed her true identity, turned themselves into fish, and made their getaway through a crack in the ocean floor. Kalamainu’u, however, snared them with a woven trap. And it’s said that she’ll fill the fish traps of those who ask.
Jaz: Just remember to say please. Yeah, wouldn’t want to end up in her cross-hairs. I don’t like fish traps. Anyway. So one thing I find interesting is the origin of the myth.
Anike: Well, most myths find their beginnings in the natural world surrounding a culture. It’s how the people try to grasp phenomena they can’t otherwise find an explanation for.
Jaz: Exactly. But lizards, which correlate with the descriptions of mo’o, are not native to Hawaii. So how would they have come up with the whole concept?
Anike: Well, the first humans to arrive there were Polynesians. Perhaps they carried stories with them from the Asian continent: myths as well as memories of lizards and crocodiles. Oh, and did you know they hold dominion over dreams during the night, as well as storytelling in the daytime?
Jaz: Oh wow. I love how those two concepts are woven together this way. The Mo’o are so tightly bound to storytelling, and it shows even in the language: the Hawaiian word correlating most closely to myth is mo’olelo.
Anike: And it goes deeper than that too. We talk about mo’o as if they’re strictly relegated to mythology. To the past. But many Hawaiians insist that they are, in fact, real. There’s any number of eyewitness accounts of large, dragon-like creatures lurking in one of the islands’ many pools. In 1938, a mo’o called Mokuhina appeared in front of thousands of witnesses.
Jaz: Mass hysteria? Or plain and simple mo’o? Best to err on the side of caution. One way to see if a mo’o has dibs on a certain pond is to look for foam across the surface, or stones placed to mark their habitat. And, apparently, fish caught from a mo’o pool tastes bitter.
Anike: But if you want to be extra careful, make an offering. Drop a flower or branch in the water to test it for the presence of a mo’o, and to see whether it’s a friendly one. If your offering is swept away quickly, you’d do well to find a different spot to go swimming.
Jaz: So, talking about swimming… We could go on about mo’o for a whole hour. Easy. But we have other islands to visit. Let’s swim on over to New Zealand.
Anike: Smooth, Jaz. Very smooth.
Jaz: I know, right?
Anike: Uhu. So if we’re in New Zealand, we’re going to be looking at Moari mythology, mostly. The Moari believe in a group of creatures called the Taniwha, who live between this world and another.
Jaz: Right. Some of the Taniwha, such as the ngarara, sound an awful lot like dragons. They had hard, scaly skin, spines down the back, long tails, and devoured men. Sometimes they were described as crocodiles, only bigger.
Anike: But New Zealand doesn’t have crocodiles, right?
Jaz: That’s actually up for debate. There’s evidence that some of the largest sea-travelling crocodiles (up to 7-10 meters in length) can travel more than 1800km at open sea, making New Zealand an achievable destination. Since these would have to be among the largest specimens, they would need a more mammal-based diet, spending their time hunting inland.
Anike: So maybe these stories about dragons are really just giant, hungry sea crocodiles?
Jaz: Maybe, but similar stories exist on Tonga, Samoa, the Cook Islands, Tokelau, the Society Islands and Hawaii, which are all considered well out of the crocodile range.
Anike: Okay, so not just crocodiles. Then what were they?
Jaz: Well, some were believed to be guardians for a tribe, and people would offer them gifts and say a karakia (a spell). They were like giant lizards, sometimes with wings. Others were reptile-like sea creatures. Or they took the shape of sharks or whales, or even logs of wood in the river. Like the Mo’o, they could change their shape.
Anike: One taniwha, Tūtaeporoporo, began life as a shark. A chief caught him and kept him as a pet in a river. Over time, Tūtaeporoporo changed, growing scaly skin, wings, webbed feet and a bird-like head. He began eating people travelling on the river.
Jaz: Yikes. That sounds like some out of control pet.
Anike: I’d say. To catch him, a taniwha slayer named Ao-kehu hid inside a hollow log in the river. The taniwha smelt him, and swallowed the log. Ao-kehu slashed his way out of the taniwha’s stomach. Inside the taniwha were the remains of people and canoes that he had eaten.
Jaz: No wonder people avoid the rua taniwha (the places they live) which are almost always in lakes, rivers, or the sea.
Anike: Don’t you mean avoided, past tense?
Jaz: Nope. Avoid. Like the Hawaiians, many people in New Zealand still believe in the taniwha today. There are sometimes protests when an area thought to be the home of a taniwha is developed with roads or buildings.
Anike: So the taniwha came with the Maori and stayed. The first one came with Kupe, a great navigator who is thought to have discovered New Zealand. He placed his guardian taniwha, Tuhirangi, in Cook Strait. Tuhirangi guided and protected the canoes.
Jaz: I’m not so sure we can count Tuhirangi as a dragon. He supposedly later turned into a dolphin named Pelorus Jack, that accompanies boats through the strait.
Anike: Well, we all evolve, right?
Jaz: Another taniwha, who was more serpent-like was Ariteuru. She escorted the Mamari canoe, and when she arrived in New Zealand, she gave birth to eleven sons. They all went exploring, creating many of the waterways in Hokianga Harbour.
Anike: There are so many examples of these creatures, we could talk about them all day.
Jaz: Actually, if we want to keep our episode under an hour, we can’t, unfortunately. So let’s hop back on the boat and head over to the Solomon Islands.
Anike: I’m only agreeing because the Solomon Islands have the coolest dragon, who inspired our episode art for this podcast.
Jaz: Ah! Yes. Hatuibwari, sometimes known as Agunua, is our host dragon this week. He/she is a bi-gendered dragon with a human top and the lower half of a snake. He/she has four eyes, which allow him/her to see everything happening on Cristobal Island.
Anike: Not just four eyes. When he/she is depicted as a female, she has four breasts in order to nourish all the people and animals of Earth. He/she also made the first humans, shaping a woman from clay and then making a man from one of her ribs.
Jaz: So, the opposite of the biblical creation? Interesting. So, now he made the heavens and earth and just hangs out on San Cristobal?
Anike: Not quite. One day, Hatuibwari was babysitting his/her grandson. When the boy started crying, Hatuibwari wrapped his/herself around him to comfort him.
Jaz: What a sweet grandparent.
Anike: The father didn’t think so. He came in and didn’t recognise Hatuibwari. He thought a snake was trying to kill his son! So he hacked Hatuibwari to pieces. Hatuibwari, being a god of sorts, reassembled himself.
Jaz: And was probably pissed off.
Anike: Yep. He/she left San Cristobal and took off to Guadalcanal. Afterwards, San Cristobal suffered from drought and famine.
Jaz: The lesson from all this? Appreciate your in-laws when they take care of your kids.
Anike: For sure.
Jaz: But Hatuibwari isn’t the only dragon in the Soloman Islands. They’ve also got a local cryptid called the Dragon Snake.
Anike: That’s right. Dragon Snakes might be considered a hoax, hallucination, or a man-made phenomenon, but locals definitely believe in them. They are described as giant balls of light that come out at night with the silhouette of a man crossed with a stingray. They are white or black in colour, with greenish-brown scale skin, and piercing red eyes and red bio-luminescence.
Jaz: The coolest part? They can spit fireballs.
Anike: Our first fire breather! They sound an awful lot like the Ropen of Papua New Guinea.
Jaz: They really do. Both are flying creatures with bio-luminescence. And both are widely believed but unconfirmed.
Papua New Guinea
Anike: Moving on to Papua New Guinea, there are quite a few dragon myths there.
Jaz: If you want to get into snake and serpent myths, then there are probably hundreds. The stories are often about humans getting fire from snakes.
Anike: More fire breathers?
Jaz: Actually, no. The humans had to climb into the bellies of the serpents and extract the fire that way.
Anike: Interesting. We have time for maybe one more dragon. Do you have a favourite on Papua New Guinea?
Jaz: Do I! Manu, from the Yali people in mid-Papua New Guinea. Yali people carry snake skin with them to stay connected to their clan. They believe the stars are eyes of different kinds of animals and their ancestors, but mostly snakes. A falling star is a snake flying from heaven to earth.
Anike: With a message, maybe?
Jaz: More like to mess with humanity and kill people.
Jaz: Yeah, the snakes are known for being powerful and treacherous. But Manu wasn’t so bad. He was the primordial snake for the Yali people. He created waterfalls, rivers, and governs rain. Unfortunately, he added poison to the water, which made a bunch of people die.
Anike: Sure. Sounds like a real charmer.
Jaz: Well, the people got their revenge. They captured Manu and cut him into pieces. Unfortunately, those pieces became little snakes all over the island.
Anike: I’m guessing they’ve got plenty of snakes on Papua New Guinea, then?
Jaz: Just over 80 species or so. But some stories say Manu is not dead, just asleep at the top of the mountain. He awakes when there is an earthquake and people bring sacrifices to him.
Anike: Jaz, I hate to say it, but I think that’s all we have time for in this episode.
Jaz: No. I just have to tell you one more thing about Manu. He’s associated with rainbows, connecting heaven and earth.
Anike: Like the rainbow snakes in our next episode?
Anike: Oooh, that’s going to be such a delight to research and delve into!
Jaz: I can’t wait! And in honour of our launch, you don’t have to, Mythsters! You get to listen at your convenience!
Anike: Don’t want to wait for our next episode? We’ve got you covered. Patrons receive early access to all our episodes, as well as other Mythsterhood awesomeness, like cross stitch and crochet patterns, colour by numbers printables, etc. Visit patreon.com/mythsterhood for more details.
Jaz: But even if financial support isn’t an option, there are many ways to support the Mythsterhood. Please consider giving us a rating and review on the platform of your choice. It shows you appreciate our work and helps new listeners to discover us.
Anike: If you enjoyed an episode, blog, tweet, or talk about it. Any form of signal-boosting is huge to an initiative like ours.
Jaz: Now, until next time: See you later, Mythsters!
Anike: Until then, bye!
Want to find out more about the dragons of the Pacific Islands? Keep an eye out for our blog post next week!
Dragon Snakes – Hallucination, Myth or Reality?
Te Ara – The Encyclopedia of New Zealand: Taniwha
Giants, Monsters, and Dragons : An Encyclopedia of Folklore, Legend, and Myth, by Carol Rose, p. 169
Best, Simon. “HERE BE DRAGONS.” The Journal of the Polynesian Society, vol. 97, no. 31988, pp. 239–259.
Dragons: Fearsome Monsters from Myth and Fiction, by Gerrie McCall pp. 28-29
STUDIES IN CIRCUMPACIFIC CULTURE RELATIONS, IV. The Double-Headed Serpent, by Kaj Birket-Smith (PDF)
ULUKAU: THE HAWAIIAN ELECTRONIC LIBRARY
The Sacred Spine, by Shannon Wianecki, Maui Magazine
All About Dragons – Mo-o
Defining Magic: A Reader, by Bernd-Christian Otto, Michael Stausberg, p 201
Wikipedia list of endemic species of Hawaii
Hawaii Wildlife Center – Native Species list
Music: Wanderer by Alexander Nakarada (www.serpentsoundstudios.com)
Licensed under Creative Commons BY Attribution 4.0 License