Io, Io-matua-kore, Io-taketake, Io the parentless, Io the root foundation of all things.

The Reverend Maori Marsden tells of a discussion he held with some of his elders on his return from the Second World War. He was talking about the war and in particular about the atom bomb. One elder asked him to explain the difference between the atom bomb and an ordinary bomb. Maori Marsden took the word hihiri, which means pure energy, and to quote Maori: "Here I recalled Einstein's concept of the real world behind the natural world as being comprised of 'rythmical patterns of pure energy', and said to him that this was essentially the same concept. He then exclaimed "Do you mean to tell me that the Pakeha scientists (tohunga Pakeha) have managed to rend the fabric (kahu) of the universe?" I said "Yes." "I suppose they shared their knowledge with the tutuaa (politicians)?" "Yes." "But do they know how to sew (tuitui) it back together again?" "No!" "That's the trouble with sharing such 'tapu' knowledge. Tutuaa will always abuse it".

This story gives some insight into the Maori understanding of Io as well as one explanation of why the knowledge of Io has been held by a few and not disclosed to everybody.


The Maori understanding of Io first became generally known with the publication in 1913 of Percy S. Smith's two volume work, The lore of the whare-wananga, and from some of the writings of Elsden Best, especially his writings on Maori religion. The sources for this material were the writings of H. T. Whatahoro (John Storway).

Two eminent tohunga 'experts', of the East Coast Ngaati Kahungunu people, Te Matorohanga and Nepia Pohuhu gave a series of lectures at a whare wananga, 'school of learning', in the Wairarapa district in 1865. These were taken down, developed and rewritten by H. T. Whatahoro over a period of forty years, the volume of text increasing fourfold by 1907. Whatahoro's text was approved by the Tane-nui-a-rangi Committee in 1907 as an agreed expression of genuine Ngaati Kahungunu tradition in that year. It does not necessarily represent the tribal tradition in 1865. However it is an oral tradition approved by a responsible body of elders.

This presentation of the Io tradition was soon rejected by scholars. Sir Peter Buck wrote that "The discovery of a supreme God named Io in New Zealand was a surprise to Maori and Pakeha alike." Buck regarded the Io tradition as originating amongst the Kahungunu people late in the 18th century as a reaction to Christianity.

J. Prytz Johansen follows Buck in rejecting the tradition of Io as the supreme power before the coming of Christianity. Johansen's final, though carefully tentative, conclusion is this: "All things considered there is the greatest probability that Io became a high god after the Europeans came to New Zealand." He does argue, though, that if there were other pieces of evidence "independent of one another, the pre-European existence of the high-god Io would be assured" because of the distance of the tribes from one another.

Bishop Muru Walters, speaking in Fiji at a Pacific region Religious Liberty Congress, June 1993, also rejects the tradition of Io. Bishop Muru says that: "The invention of a supreme god Io was a response to the political, social and economic circumstances of the times." He follows the arguments of Sir Peter Buck and adds that:

"The supreme god Io which was developed about the late nineteenth century was not known by my elder's, my parent's, my uncle's and my auntie's tribes. It was developed by a few Maori of the Kahungunu tribe...."

However, written evidence of an Io tradition comes from different sources, from Waikato, Ngaati Kahungungu, Ngaapuhi, Kai Tahu and possibly the Moriori.


Richard Taylor - John White

Sir Peter Buck, Prytz Johansen and Bishop Muru mention the references to Io in John White's Ancient history of the Maori. Some of the references are certainly questionable, but one is not. Prytz Johansen says this text: "is of some interest." Bishop Muru says that John White "altered the word 'io', which means muscular twitches, by giving it a capital letter 'I'. In this case White did not alter the word 'Io'. He copied it from one of the Reverend Richard Taylor's notebooks, though he did put some of Taylor's English into Maori. I give the note as it is written down by Taylor, in a mixture of English and Maori, in his notebook:

Notes from the Teacher of Wawarua Mai 7/52. Their chief god was Io. He was the creator of heaven and earth. E Io e rangi tapa mai e koe a taua tama ko te wakarongonga i raro i to tawito tapa rongonui a rangi ka totoko rangi ki te ahurangi etc. This was the beginning of a karakia addressed to Io in the hahunga tupapaku and afterwards another was addressed to Tiorea (the mokai or servant of Uenuku) an ancestor. Uenukuatu was once a man and afterwards became a god. Io made the heavens and the earth and Tiki.

Wawarua (Whawharua) is about half-way between Otorohanga and Te Kuiti, deep in the Waikato. The date, May the 7th. 1852, is thirteen years before the Kahungunu meeting. The date is also on the manuscript for John White's Ancient History with Taylor's notebook number and page reference. Both the reference to the teacher at Wawarua and the date have been pasted over in the manuscript, but can be read quite easily when the manuscript is held up to the light. White used a scissors and paste method in preparing his manuscripts for the printer, cutting out and then pasting together what he wanted published.

Richard Taylor

In his notebook number 11 Taylor has another undated reference to Io showing his awareness of the Kahungunu belief in Io:

"Io the great god of Waikato and of Ngati Kahununu. The resemblance of his name to Ihowa was pointed out to me by the natives themselves who still affirm it to be the ancient name of this god. They say he was the maker of heaven and earth and of the first man Tiki."

Pei Te Hurinui Jones

Pei Te Hurinui Jones also gives evidence of the strong presence of the Io tradition within the Waikato. In his biography of King Potatau Te Wherowhero, he describes the raising-up ritual for the first Maori king in 1859 and he gives the Io karakia used by Te Tapihana whom he describes as 'a High Priest of the ancient Io (Supreme Being) cult of the Tainui tribes'. There is a strong link between the opening line of the Io karakia given by Taylor and the first lines of the karakia given by Pei. Both would appear to be 'naming' karakia:

E Io! e Rangi! O Io! Thou Heavenly One! Tapa mai ra ia Name him, Ta taua tama This son of ours, I whaka-tama ai taua A son, indeed, he was to us; I o taua nonoketanga When You and I strove manfully I nonoke ai taua; In our striving. I o taua momoetanga He guarded our peaceful slumbers, I momoe ai taua And we slept soundly i te po: through the night E Io! e Rangi! O Io! Thou Heavenly One! Tapa mai ra ia, Name him, Ko wai? Name him what? Hei Kingi! Name him King!

In speaking of the Io religion of the Tainui priesthood, Pei Jones elaborates:

At the outset the declaration is made in the Io religion that the world evolved from Io, the Supreme Being; and his dwelling place is at the apex and centre of Creation. And that Io himself evolved through eight stages from Te Kore or the Formless Void. In this deistic conception two elements were introduced and merged in Io, namely: - Te Ira Tane ... Te Ira Wahine.

Pei Jones also notes the references to Io in the traditional poroporoaki 'farewell' used at the burial of King Koroki in 1966. In his book King Potatau he gives an explanation of why the name of Io was so little known and used in ordinary life:

In the teachings of the Tainui House of Sacred Learning it is given that: Kahukura Uenuku was set up as a symbol to (mortal) man of the godhood of Io. Io was so intensely sacred in himself that even the utterance of his name was avoided on all ordinary occasions. This is the reason why it was laid down that only to his symbol, Uenuku (the rainbow) were the common people to sing their sacred chants. It was the prerogative of the altar priests to recite the sacred chants to Io."


I have already mentioned the Ngaati Kahungunu material published by Percy S. Smith and Elsden Best and the doubts raised to its authenticity. There is as well an 1862 reference to a Ngaati Kahungunu tradition. It does not speak clearly of Io as the Supreme being, but refers to Io as an atua whose special work is the building of fortified paa. This identifies Io with the establishment of peace and does not exclude the notion of Io as Supreme being:

Ko ta Tumatauenga mahi, he whawhai tonu, he riri tonu, ko ta Io mahi he hanga patu atawata. 'Tuumatauenga occupied himself in warfare and fighting. The work of Io is to build palisaded forts.' Mauria mai nei ko te rongo a whare, ko te rongo taketake ki mua ki te atua ka whakaoti te riri. 'So was brought here the house of peace, Lasting peace in the presence of the atua, And the fighting was ended!'

There is a strong element of peace in the Io tradition and still today the Whatawhata marae, one of the centres of the Tainui Io tradition, has strong links with peacemaking. A commitment to Io is a commitment to peace.

Christian Maori today draw their spiritual strength from both streams - the traditional Io tradition and the European Christian tradition. These two traditions are complementary, not contradictory. Perhaps this explains why the Maori accepted the Bible with such enthusiasm in the nineteenth century; they saw that Christianity did not conflict with but rather converged with their own religion. This was the attitude of King Potatau Te Wherowhero, as Pei Te Hurinui Jones records:

The arrival of the missionaries in his district was made the occasion for strong exhortations to his people to embrace Christianity. As a high priest of the Tainui sacred house of learning, he was very interested in the new faith of the white man and, as he could not share the esoteric lore of the Tainui priesthood with his people, the religion of the missionaries offered an alternative belief that would be of spiritual benefit to the tribes.


Judge Maning

Sir Apirana Ngata, in a recorded talk on 'The Cult of Io', recounts how Judge Maning, a resident of Hokianga from 1833, acquired knowledge of an Io tradition in the North and wrote it down but had the manuscripts burned when on his deathbed:

Maning chose to become an adept and he was the only Pakeha who made a complete study of the Cult of Io. He absorbed it all, karakia and everything, and was even initiated in it. Well, in due course he had to go to London for medical advice. He had cancer and while he was dying he wrote down all this material. Then his conscience began to prick him because one of the things that you do when you become initiated in the Cult of Io is to swear secrecy, and he had taken the oath of secrecy ... Maning ordered the housemaid to make a fire and he burned the manuscript. Now, that story is well accredited.

C.O. Davis

A second written source for a Ngaapuhi Io tradition is the 1876 book written by C.O. Davis on the life and times of the Ngaapuhi chief Patuone. Davis relates information given to himself of a belief in Io as the Supreme Being:

...while travelling with a distinguished Maori Chieftain some years ago, he inadvertently revealed the fact that the Maoris, in the olden times, worshipped a Supreme Being whose name was held to be so sacred that none but the priest might utter it at certain times and places. The name was Io, perhaps an abbreviation of Iouru.

Davis also uses a reference in an old song as proof of the existence of Io. This is probably a mis-translation, te Maru aio, 'the Shelter of peace', becoming te Maru a Io, 'the Shelter of Io'. But there is no reason to doubt his reference to Io in the above quotation, especially as he links Io with Iouru, a name for Io which is part of the northern Ngaapuhi Io oral tradition, but not part of the Ngaati Kahungunu tradition.

The Penehare Manuscripts

According to one Ngaapuhi tradition, the most important, the most powerful karakia were those of the different Io whare wananga, 'schools of learning'. The Penehare manuscripts (1923) give the story of a certain chief, Pokaia, who went in search of an Io karakia. Being outnumbered in his conflict with Taoho of Ngaati Whaatua, he sought to gain the advantage by obtaining and using a karakia "more tapu than any other karakia" which was only to be found at a whare wananga of Io:

Ko te karakia tapu tera kei runga atu i nga karakia tapu katoa, ko Pinepine iterangi. No roto tenei karakia tapu i tetahi o nga whare wananga o Io i a Te Rarauatea. Ko Takahiaiterangi no roto tenei karakia tapu i tetahi o nga whare wananga o Iomatuakore, i a Titoremahutu.

Pinepineiterangi was a karakia more tapu than any other karakia tapu. This karakia tapu was in one of the schools of learning of Io at Te Rarauatea. The karakia tapu Takahiaiterangi was in one of the schools of learning of Iomatuakore at Titoremahutu.'

There is also a note in Maori Marsden's papers refering to the two Io schools of learning Rarauatea and Titoremahuta. The note says that the karakia Pinepineiterangi is a karakia to bind taniwha (he karakia herehere taniwha). The Penehare manuscript and the note also mention the karakia Takahiaiterangi as belonging to the school of learning Titoremahuta and gives the names of five other karakia of that house - Maninikura, Kikirangi, Tohinuiarangi, Komarurangi and Rerewhakapiko.

Corroborating Evidence

There is as well some corroborating written evidence of a northern Maori belief in one supreme being. As early as 1842 the French missionary Catherin Servant was aware of the belief in one supreme being in the Hokianga district. His interpretation of Maori customs was not always accurate, being coloured often by his inexperience (he was in New Zealand for only four years) and by his sharing the common European prejudices against Maori religious practices, but his writing remains a valuable early record.

There is no doubt that in earlier times the natives used to believe in several gods ... but ... they nevertheless accept the existence of a great spirit...

Moreover Governor King, Governor of New South Wales between 1800 and 1806, records a conversation with Tip-a-he, a chief of the Bay of Islands, in 1806. He writes:

... The existence of a God who resides above they believe, and that his shadow frequently visits the earth ...


Teone Taare Tikao, born on Banks Peninsula in 1850, trained in the ways of the tohunga and a recognised expert in South Island Maori culture, related much of Kai Tahu belief and practice to Herries Beattie in 1920. According to his account of the Creation Story: the conclusion of the Po ages, Io, the Supreme God, brought the sky (Rangi-nui or Rangi) and land (Papa-tua-nuku or Papa) into being .... Io was the supreme god of the Maori .... He is far and away the greatest of our many gods, and it was through his act of creation that the other gods appeared...

This belief is expressed in the tauparapara, 'introductory chant', which is the introductory chant of Tikao Talks:

Ko Io-whakatata, ko Io-whatamai Ko Hekeheke-i-nuku, ko Hekeheke-i-papa Ko Te Korekore ka ahu mai ka Po-takiwa No ka Po-takiwa ka ahu mai ka Ao katoa Ka puta ki waho, ki roto i tenei ao marama He takata hou ki te whaiao, ki te ao marama Tihei mauri ora!

'Io-who-approaches, Io-who-comes-here Descending-to-earth, Descending-to-Papa The Absolute Nothingness there come the Night- periods From the Night-periods there come all the Days There comes forth, into this world of light A new human person into the daylight, into the world of light Sneeze living soul!


In GNZMMSS 16 there is a Moriori karakia from the Chatham Islands in 1859. It was written in Maori by an old man for his children who spoke Maori rather than Moriori. This karakia contains what could be a reference to Io in a phrase referring also to Tane and Tangaroa: ... te ruanuku eio te ruanuku tane te ruanuku tangaroa ...."

Williams translates ruaanuku as 'Wise man, wizard, warlock'. This manuscript is dated Apirera 22, 1859.


The evidence for a genuine Io tradition comes from widely-scattered tribal areas, principally Ngaapuhi, Waikato, Ngaati Kahungunu and Kai Tahu. Some commentators claim that Io was an academic invention, a reaction to the Christian ideas and religion introduced by the nineteenth-century missionaries, or an adjustment cult which attempted (like the prophetic movements of Papahurihia, Pai Marire, Ringatu, Parihaka, Rua Kenana and Ratana) to accomodate Maori and European ideas together in a single unified structure of belief.

But as Manuka Henare points out, these explanations fail to convince. After contact with Europeans, Maori at first showed little interest in the Christian religion. In the early 1800s they were willing to cultivate crops such as potatoes and trade in pork but only in the 1830s did they accept Christian baptism in any numbers. Given the sophistication of the Io tradition and the reluctance of any group to accept new religious ideas and principles which undermine or exclude traditional beliefs basic to the culture of that group, it is inconceivable that an Io tradition could have been created and developed about 1839 and then taken root in widely dispersed tribal areas by the 1850s.

The secrecy surrounding the tradition and its restriction to elite circles of tohunga, ariki and rangatira, 'priests, high priests and chiefs', explain why an authentic religious tradition which pre-dated Maori knowledge of European Christianity became widely known only after several decades of Maori-Pakeha contact. Move to Io - the Ngaapuhi oral tradition Return to intro. What is Maori Theology. Return to Maori Theology home page.