To Ngāi Tahu, Aoraki represents the most sacred of ancestors, from whom Ngāi Tahu descend and who provide the iwi with its sense of communal identity, solidarity and purpose. The ancestor embodied in the mountain remains the physical manifestation of Aoraki, the link between the supernatural and the natural world.
Aoraki and his brother mountains, carved by Cliff Whiting, Aoraki/Mount Cook Visitor Centre
The tapu associated with Aoraki is significant to the tribal value, and is the source of the power over life and death which the mountain possesses.
The mauri of Aoraki represents the essence that binds the physical and spiritual elements of all things together, generating and upholding life. All elements of the natural environment possess a life force, and all forms of life are related. Mauri is a critical element of the spiritual relationship of Ngāi Tahu Whānui with the mountain. They believe their association with the mountain provides vitality to their culture and mana to their status as tangata whenua - the people of the land.
The saying 'he kapua kei rungai i Aoraki, whakarewa whakarewa' (the cloud that floats aloft Aoraki, for ever fly, stay aloft) refers to the cloud that often surrounds Aoraki. Aoraki does not always 'come' out for visitors to see, just as a great chief is not always giving audience, or on 'show'. It is for Aoraki to choose when to emerge from his cloak of mist, a power and influence that is beyond mortals, symbolising the mana of Aoraki.
The mountains inspired fear, awe and respect for they were the places of the atua and other spirits. Generally, Māori would not climb to the summit of tapu mountains. The bones of high ranking men and women were laid to rest in burial caves on their tapu mountain. However the songs, poetry and speeches on the marae of Ngāi Tahu are full of references to Aoraki. The high places are the most significant landmarks, and their physical presence as ancestors render them inseparable from their tribal association and relationships.
Ngāi Tahu seek to encourage respect for their association with Aoraki by providing education material to climbers and guides, explaining that standing on the very top of this mountain denigrates its tapu status.
The meltwaters flowing from Aoraki are sacred. On special cultural occasions the blessings of Aoraki are sought through taking small amounts of its special waters back to other parts of the island for use in ceremonial occasions.
The whakapapa of Aoraki (genealogy)
In the beginning all was darkness (Te Po). Out of the first glimmer of light (Te Ao), long standing light (Te Aoturoa) emerged until it stood in all quarters. Encompassing everything was a womb of emptiness, an intangible void (Te Kore). This void was intense in its search for procreation. Finally it reached its ultimate boundaries and became a parentless void (Te Korematua) but with the potential for life. And so Te Maku, moisture, emerged and coupled with Mahoranuiatea, a cloud that grew from the dawn. From this union came Raki, the heavens, who coupled with Poharua Te Po the breath of life found in the womb of darkness. The first child in this chain of creation was Aoraki who stands as the supreme mountain of Ngāi Tahu.
The story of Aoraki
At this time there was no Te Wai Pounamu or Aotearoa. The waters of kiwa rolled over the place now occupied by the South Island, the North Island and Stewart Island. No sign of land existed. Raki (the Sky Father) wedded Papa-tui-nuku (the Earth Mother). After the marriage, some of the Sky Children came down to greet their father's new wife.
Among the celestial visitors were four sons of Raki who were named Ao-raki (Cloud in the Sky), Raki-ora (Long Raki), Raki-rua (Raki the Second), and Raraki-roa (Long Unbroken Line). They came down in a canoe which was known as Te Waka o Aoraki. They cruised around Papa-tua-nuku, who lay as one body in a huge continent known as Hawaiiki. Then, keen to explore, the voyagers set out to sea, but no matter how far they travelled, they could not find land. They decided to return to their celestial home, but the karakia (incantation) which should have lifted the waka (canoe) back to the heavens failed and the canoe fell back into the sea and turned over onto its side, turning to stone and earth in the process. The waka listed and settled with the west side much higher out of the water that the east. Thus the whole waka formed the South Island, hence the name: Te Waka o Aoraki. Aoraki and his brothers clambered on to the high side and were turned to stone. They are still there today. Aoraki is the highest peak (Mount Cook, and his brothers are the next highest peaks near him – Rakiroa (Mount Dampier), Rakirua (Mount Teichelmann), Rarakiroa (Mount Tasman). The form of the island as it is now is, owes much to the subsequent deeds of Tu Te Rakiwhanoa, who took on the job of shaping the land to make it fit fot human habitation.
For Ngāi Tahu, traditions such as this represent the links between the cosmological world of the Gods and present generations. These histories reinforce tribal identity and solidarity, and document the events which shaped the environment of Te Wai Pounamu and Ngāi Tahu as iwi.