The personification of darkness and evil, the antithesis of Tāne as the light. At the time that Rangi (Sky) still embraced Papa (Earth), their offspring became discontented with their lot in the world, for the conditions of life were unpleasing, so cramped were they for space. It was Tāne who proposed to separate their parents by forcing Rangi upward. Most of the children agreed to this course, but Whiro and others objected, preferring to remain in darkness. Hence dissension arose among the children. Some sided with Whiro, while many followed Tāne.
Whiro was angered at having to endure the cold and discomfort of the outer world, the open spaces. He objected to the separation of Rangi and Papa, to their limbs being severed, to the superior attitude of Tāne, to his ascent to the heavens to obtain the three "baskets" of knowledge. Yet another cause did Whiro have for his opposition to Tāne. Ruatau and Rehua, the two messengers of Io, came down to Maunga-nui (great mountain) and bade Tāne and Tupai ascend it. They did so, whereupon they were conducted to the Wai-o-Rongo (waters of Rongo), where the sacred tohi rite was performed over them, as also the pure. In this ceremony they received the names of Tāne-nui-a-Rangi (great Tāne, offspring of Rangi) and Tupai-a-tau. The two then returned earthward, while Rehua and Ruatau returned to the realm of Io. The above incident increased the ill-feeling of Whiro towards his younger brother Tāne, and so the rivalry between them continued.
At a certain time Io sent Ruatau and Aitupawa down to this world to ascertain which of the primal offspring would be selected to ascend to the realm of Io in order to obtain the wananga (occult knowledge and arts, esoteric lore). They visited Tu-te-aniwaniwa, the realm of Whiro and Uru-te-ngangana; Wharekura, the domain of Rongo, and others, also Huaki-pouri, the home of Tāne, Pāia, and others. Whiro declared that he would ascend to the uppermost heaven to obtain the prized wananga, that he would ascend thereto by scaling the sides of the heavens. But Aitu-pawa said:
Not so. It cannot be accomplished in that way. Tāne declared that he would make the ascent, that he would ascend by way of the Ara-tiatia, the Toi-huarewa of the offspring of his brother Tāwhiri-mā-tea. These two terms are sacerdotal or honorific names for the whirlwind. Many of the brethren were in favor of Tāne being selected to carry out the important task at the behest of Io. Whiro was again angered by this selection of Tāne.
Tane now decided that a fit place must be prepared in which to preserve the sacred wananga, when obtained from Io. He proposed to proceed to Rangitamaku (the second of the twelve heavens) in order to procure the semblance of the Whare kura of that realm, which house had been erected by one Nuku-te-aio, father of Rua-i-te-pukenga. Thus it was that the first Whare-wananga was constructed in this world. It was named Wharekura.
Tāne was now prepared to commence his ascent, but meanwhile Whiro had already begun to scale the side of the heavens, as he wished to obtain the prize himself, and so confuse Tāne. Tāne now began his ascent, accompanied by Tawhiri-ma-tea, by Tamakaka and Tupai. They ascended by way of the Ara-tiatia (whirlwind); they were borne upward by the Whanau-puhi (the Wind Children). Other brethren now joined the company, including Tukapua. So exasperated was Whiro that he despatched the horde of the Whanau-akaaka, the repulsive ones, to assail Tāne. These emissaries were insects, reptiles, and certain carrion-eating birds. They furiously attacked Tāne, and endeavored to obtain a portion of his blood to be used as a medium for magic spells that destroy life. But now the Wind Children came swiftly to the rescue; from the outer regions, from the vast realm of Vātea (Space) they rushed to the fray. Fiercely they attacked the repulsive ones, banished them, drove them afar off. Tāne continued his ascent.
Meanwhile Whiro was compelled to desist in his attempt to scale the bespaced heavens; he awaited the return of Tane in order to again assail him. Tāne succeeded in his quest and received from Io the three "baskets" of knowledge and two highly sacred whatu atua, or supernatural stones. He was afterwards escorted down to the eleventh heaven, where he met his companions. On reaching the ninth heaven in their descent, Tane and his companions were again assailed by the emissaries of Whiro, by insects and birds. Again the swift Wind Children came to the rescue and dispersed the hordes of Whiro. They took many captives and brought them down to this world, which is why we have the mosquito, sandfly, mantis, and other creatures, also the the hawk, bittern, bat, owl, parrot, kea, and some other birds.
The face of the heavens was now marked by reddened clouds, a token to the brethren in the world that Tāne had succeeded in his great quest. Whiro alone was angered by that success. All now assembled at Wharekura, and in that edifice the three "baskets" and two stones were deposited at the rear end of the house. Whiro demanded that they should be handed over to him, but this course was objected to, and the darkness of disappointment and anger descended upon Whiro.
The contest between the two brothers was long and bitter and many fierce struggles ensued. This series of battles is known as Te Paerangi. War, bitter and unrelenting waged on earth, in the heavens, and in the vast space of Vātea. In the end Whiro was defeated by Tāne and he and his forces were compelled to descend to the underworld.
Whiro, also Whiro-te-tipua (Whiro the demon), is responsible for all the evil that is manifested in the human mind and human acts:
Ko Whiro te putake o te kino o te ao (Whiro is the origin of evil in the world). Hence a malignant demon is styled an atua whiro, and the latter word also denotes a person of evil character. The old contest between Tāne and Whiro is still continued, for Whiro leagued with Ruaumoko, who still abides within Papa's womb, and together they assail mankind, the offspring of Tāne. The most relentless and effective emissaries of Whiro, however, are the dreaded Maike brethren, the personified forms of sickness and disease.
Whiro was viewed as one of the most active, and certainly the most pernicious, of all beings. His activities are ceaseless and so many offerings were made to him, and it was considered advisable to placate him.
A House of Knowledge, called Tai-whetuki, belonged to Whiro. His representative is the lizard. Seeing a lizard was deemed a very serious omen. It is the emissary of Whiro and the harbinger of death. When the gods decide to destroy man they do so by introducing a lizard into his body, and that creature devours his vitals and so causes death.
In New Zealand, as in Polynesia, the doings of Whiro the demon have been confused with the those of Whiro the voyager.
- Best, Elsdon. (1924). The Maori. Wellington: Harry H. Tombs, pp. 66, 99--104, 106, 107, 237,
This article incorporates text from The Maori (1924) by Elsdon Best, which is in the public domain.