Moko,Guardians or Enemies?

“Moko” in the Rapanui language means lizard, a small reptile which, oddly, causes panic among the Rapanui.  Even the most fearless of men will ask the wife to change the light bulb on the door step for fear of finding a moko there.  Many women can’t sleep if they hear the crickling sound that the lizards make as they are courting.  Surely this reaction must come from conditioning with some terrorific associations.  Let us see what can be found in Polynesian mythology.

Lizards and tuataras of New Zealand are often considered the guardians of caves or funerary chambers where they are to watch over the dead.  According to the tales collected by Dr. Stephen Chauvet…”to keep the ‘Aku Aku’ (malignant spirits) from the caves or funerary chambers, the Easter Islanders buried a carved wooden lizard on either side of the entrance.”   They also hung them from their necks during special ceremonies.  The Maori (of New Zealand) use stone carvings of lizards as a base for their talismans that are supposed to protect the health and vitality of a tree or a forest.  Sometimes they have been buried underneath the main pilar of a Hare Whananga (a house for aprentices) or other important constructions.

“All creatures feathered, scaled or hairy must be of dragon origin.” Lin An Huai Zi (c. 120 B.C.)”

“Ngarara” is the Maori word for reptiles like the tuataras, lizards, iguanas and dragons in some legends.  They believed that reptiles were the descendants of Punga, son of Tangaroa, the god of the sea. Punga and his descendants were ugly and replusive and the Maori feared them, considering them joined with Whiro or Hiro, the god of the dark, evil and death.  One of their legends tells of a giant reptile called Te Whakaruaki who obliged a woman to marry him.  Her family trapped him inside a house and burned him, but his tail separated and became the father of Mokopapa, the Pacific lizard.

Another story tells that a tuatara had a discussion with his brother, the shark, about whether they should live on the land or in the sea.  The shark remained with the sea, while the tuatara moved onto the land to frighten the people with his horrible appearance.   Yet another tale speaks of a woman who ran away with her lover, a warrior from Rotorua, but later begged forgiveness from the elders.  They challenged the warrior and sentenced him to swallow a lizard.  He died and was known from then as “Ngarara Nui” (great reptile).  Further legends tell of Tu Tangata Kino who took the form of a reptile and created insects, spiders and lizards.  The Maori believed that he was the spirit of a reptile which would crawl into the mouth of a person while he was sleeping and eat away at his stomach, causing stomach aches and malaise.

The only Rapanui legend related to lizards is that of a man called Raraku, who captured a great “Heke”, (squid) in the sea near Tongariki and ate it.  The result was that he went crazy and was chased away by the people.  Raraku made a wooden garrote, carved like a lizard, and rampaged over the northern and western coasts killing all he encountered. (Werner Wolf, 1847).   That might be sufficient reason to fear the “Moko”.