The genealogy of Tāwhaki varies somewhat in different accounts. In general, Tāwhaki is a grandson of Whaitiri, a cannibalistic goddess who marries the mortal Kaitangata (man-eater), thinking that he shares her taste for human flesh. Disappointed at finding that this is not so, she leaves him after their sons Hemā and Punga are born and returns to heaven. Hemā is the father of Tāwhaki and Karihi. Tāwhaki grows up to be handsome, the envy of his cousins, who beat him up and leave him for dead. He is nursed back to health by his wife, who feeds the fire that warms him with a whole log of wood. In memory of this incident, their child is named Wahieroa (Long-piece-of-firewood) (Biggs 1966:450). In some versions Tawhaki is the father of Arahuta. She was the cause of a quarrel between her parents, and her mother Tangotango took her to heaven, where they were afterwards joined by Tāwhaki.
Avenges his father
Hemā, while looking for a gift for his son, trespasses into the land of the Ponaturi, who are evil beings. They capture him and Urutonga, blinding Hemā in the process. While journeying to rescue his parents, Tāwhaki meets and marries Hinepiripiri, to whom is born their son, Wahieroa. Tāwhaki and his brother Karihi rescue their enslaved mother, who tells them that light is fatal to the Ponaturi. Eventually, with the help of their mother, they trick the Ponaturi, who have returned to their house to sleep. Tāwhaki and his brother hide, after having blocked up all the chinks of the house so that no light can enter. When the Ponaturi begin to think that the night is very long, Urutonga reassures them that there is still a long time until dawn comes. They then set fire to the house, and open the door. The Ponaturi are killed by the fire and the exposure to the sunlight. The only survivors are Tonga-Hiti and Kanae.
Climbs into the heavens
Tāwhaki and his young brother set off to climb up to the sky. At the foot of the ascent they find their grandmother, Whaitiri, now blind, who sits continually counting the tubers of sweet potato or taro that are her only food. Whaitiri is the guardian of the vines that form the pathway into the sky. The brothers tease her by snatching them away, one by one, and upsetting her count. Eventually, they reveal themselves to her and restore her sight. In return, she gives them advice about how best to make the climb into the sky. Karihi tries first, but makes the error of climbing up the aka taepa, or hanging vine. He is blown violently around by the winds of heaven, and falls to his death. Tāwhaki climbs by the aka matua, or parent vine, recites the right incantations, and reaches the highest of the 10 heavens. There he learns many spells from Tama-i-waho, and marries a woman named Hāpai, or as others say, Tangotango or Maikuku-makaka. They have a son, and according to some versions of the story it is this child who is named Wahieroa (Biggs 1966:450).
In a country like New Zealand, each tribe has a different version (or series of related versions) of a story like Tāwhaki; actually, the stories told by each storyteller within a tribe would be different, and the same storyteller would tell a slightly different tale each time it was told. To illustrate this variation in a small way, and to demonstrate that there is no one correct way to tell the story of Tāwhaki, two versions from different tribal groups are presented below.
In an 1850 version of Tāwhaki by Hohepa Paraone of the Arawa tribe of Rotorua (Paraone 1850:345-352, White 1887:115-119 (English), 100-105 (Māori), Tāwhaki is a mortal man who is visited each night by Hāpai, a woman from the heavens. When Hāpai becomes pregnant, she tells Tāwhaki that if their child is female, he is to wash her. After their daughter Puanga is born, Tāwhaki washes her, but expresses disgust at the smell. Offended, Hāpai takes the child, climbs onto the roof of the house, and disappears into the sky.
After some months, Tāwhaki decides to go and find Hāpai and Puanga. He sets off with his two slaves. He warns the slaves not to look at the fortress of Tongameha as they pass by. One of the slaves looks, and Tongameha gouges out his eyes. Tāwhaki and the remaining slave go on, and meet Matakerepō, an old blind woman, guarding the vines (or ropes) that lead up into the heavens. Matakerepō is an ancestress of Tāwhaki's. As Matakerepō counts out her ten taro tubers, Tāwhaki removes them one by one.
Matakerepō, aware that someone is deceiving her, begins to sniff the air, and her stomach distends, ready to swallow the stranger. She sniffs towards the south, and towards all the winds. When she sniffs towards the west she catches Tāwhaki's scent and calls out 'Are you come with the wind that blows on my skin?' Tāwhaki grunts, and Matakerepō says, 'Oh, it is my grandson Tāwhaki.' Her stomach begins to shrink. Had he not been from the west wind, she would have swallowed him.
Matakerepō asks Tāwhaki where he is going. He replies that he is searching for his wife and daughter; his wife is a daughter of Whatitiri-matakamataka (or Whaitiri) and has returned to the heavens. Matakerepō shows him the pathway, advising him to set off in the morning. Tāwhaki's slave prepares a meal. Tāwhaki takes some cooked food and rubs it on the eyes of the old woman. Matakerepō is instantly cured of her blindness. In the morning, Tāwhaki presents his slave to Matakerepō, who chants a spell to help him as climbs. When he reaches the heavens, Tāwhaki disguises himself as an old slave and assists his brothers-in-law to build a canoe. Each night, the brothers-in-law return to their village, where Tāwhaki's wife and daughter are living. Pretending to be unable to keep up, Tāwhaki lets the brothers-in-law go on ahead, and returns to work on the canoe, arriving at the village much later. The next morning, Tāwhaki and the brothers-in-law return; seeing the canoe, the brothers-in-law are surprised by all the work that has been done. Each evening, Tāwhaki sits in the special seat of Hāpai, despite the protests of the villagers. These deeds of Tāwhaki bring him to Hāpai's attention, and she asks him who he is. Tāwhaki resumes his true appearance and is recognised by his wife. He performs rituals of dedication over their daughter.
Ngāti Porou version
In a legend committed to manuscript by Mohi Ruatapu of Ngāti Porou in 1971 (Reedy 1993:25-33, 126-134), Tāwhaki is a descendant of Māui. Whaitiri, a granddaughter of Māui, marries Kaitangata and has Hemā. Hemā marries Rawhita-i-te-rangi, and has Tāwhaki and his younger brother Karihi. Tāwhaki and Karihi set off to find their grandmother Whaitiri. They come to a village where a kawa (open ceremony) is being performed for Hine-te-kawa's house. They hide in the walls of the house and listen to the incantations. As the ceremony ends, Tāwhaki and Karihi leap out and kill all the people except Hine-te-kawa, who sleeps with Tāwhaki that night. She shows them the pathway they must take into the sky; it has pegs as footholds. Karihi makes several attempts at the climb, but falls to his death on the second attempt. Tāwhaki takes Karihi’s eyes and makes the climb. He comes upon Whaitiri, his blind grandmother, counting out twelve taro for her grandchildren, who are away at the village of Tama-i-waho. Tāwhaki removes the taro tubers one by one, until Whaitiri realises that it must be her grandson who she had foretold would come to find her. Tāwhaki places Karihi’s eyes into her eyes, and her sight is restored. Tāwhaki busies himself tidying his grandmother’s village, and washes and cares for her. Tāwhaki catches marries Maikuku, one of Whaitiri’s granddaughters; the other granddaughters escape to Tama-i-waho's village, up in the second sky. When they look down and see Tāwhaki and Maikuku making love outdoors, they are offended and come down and take Maikuku away into the sky. Tāwhaki, desperate to find his wife, who is pregnant, tries to ascend on a kite, but the evil Tama-i-waho sends a hākuai, a mythical bird, to attack the kite, causing Tāwhaki to fall. Tāwhaki then turns himself into a harrier hawk, and takes off. Using his adze Te Rakuraku-o-te-rangi, Tama-i-waho cuts off one of the wings of the hawk, and Tāwhaki falls to his death. After Tāwhaki's death, Maikuku bears him a son, named Wahiroa.
Some versions of the Māori story of Tāwhaki contain episodes where the hero causes a flood to destroy the village of his two jealous brothers-in-law. He directs his own people to relocate their village to the top of the mountain Hikurangi. A comment in Grey's Polynesian Mythology may have given the Māori something they did not have before — as A.W Reed put it, "In Polynesian Mythology Grey said that when Tāwhaki's ancestors released the floods of heaven, the earth was overwhelmed and all human beings perished — thus providing the Māori with his own version of the universal flood" (Reed 1963:165, in a footnote). Christian influence has led to the appearance of genealogies where Tawhaki's grandfather Hema is reinterpreted as Shem, son of Noah of the biblical deluge.
- Kaha'i for information on cognate deities in other Polynesian cultures
- In some versions, Tāwhaki's mother is Urutonga.
- Grey, Sir George (1885). Polynesian Mythology and Ancient Traditional History of the New Zealand Race. Auckland: H. Brett. p. 41. Retrieved 29 Nov 2010.
- In other stories, the blind woman guarding the vines is Tāwhaki's ancestress Matakerepō.
- In other versions, when Tāwhaki reaches the sky-world he disguises himself. When at last he reveals himself, he is reconciled with Tangotango, and their daughter Arahuta. Some versions say that he decided to stay in the sixth heaven, Ngā Atua, where he displays his power with lightning and thunder. In others stories, Tāwhaki's wife is named Hinepiripiri; they are the parents of Matuku and Wahroa.
- White unaccountably attributes this Te Arawa story to the Ngāi Tahu tribe of the South Island; he also has 'Pihanga' instead of 'Puanga' for the name of Tāwhaki's daughter.
- B. G. Biggs, 'Maori Myths and Traditions' in A.H. McLintock (editor), Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, 3 Volumes. (Government Printer: Wellington), 1966, II:447-454.
- R. D. Craig, Dictionary of Polynesian Mythology (Greenwood Press: New York, 1989).
- H. Paraone, "Tawhaki". (GNZMMSS 64, manuscript in Grey collection, Auckland City Library, Auckland, 1850), 345-352.
- H. Potae, "Story of Tāwhaki," Journal of the Polynesian Society, 37 (1928), 359-66.
- A. Reedy, Ngā Kōrero a Mohi Ruatapu, tohunga rongonui o Ngāti Porou: The Writings of Mohi Ruatapu (Canterbury University Press: Christchurch), 1993.
- J. White, The Ancient History of the Maori, Vol I (Government Printer: Wellington, 1887).
- E. R. Tregear, Maori-Polynesian Comparative Dictionary, (Lyon and Blair: Lambton Quay 1891), 497.
- Journal of the Polynesian Society Vol. XXVI page 116