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Pātaka are storehouses for food or valuables. Customarily they were built close to a leading chief’s dwelling in a village. They can be intricately carved, often with symbols of plenty such as whales.
In earlier times, a stranded whale would supply a tribe with an enormous amount of food and other resources. A pātaka stocked with whale meat could provide a tribe with protein for months.
The maihi (bargeboards) of many pātaka have pakakē whale-like patterns. These patterns probably have their origins in the story of the chief Tinirau and his pet whale Tutunui. Tinirau offers Tutunui as transport for a guest, Kae, who in turn kills and eats the whale. The story illustrates aspects of the complex relationship Maori had with whales – as friends, guardians, and food.
A chief should ensure his people have food. A great chief would also show his bounty to guests who came in peace. An ornately carved pātaka symbolised this physical wealth as well as the leader’s generosity of spirit.
A carved pātaka also showcases the chief’s and by association the tribe’s artistry, enhancing the mana (prestige) of the whole group. The structure symbolises wealth, knowledge, and prestige.
Two carving patterns peculiar to pātaka are ‘pakakē' and ‘taratara a Kae’. Pakake consists of a large, scroll-like shape representing a whale’s head. Behind this is the familiar shape of the whale’s body tapering toward the tail. In the example below, manaia (supernatural sea beings) appear to be hauling the whale up the gable.
This is a dramatic tale of treachery and revenge involving the chief Tinirau, his pet whale, Tutunui, and Tinirau's sinister guest, Kae. The story reveals the complex relationship that Maori have with whales. Many versions are known throughout the Pacific.