In Māori mythology, Uenuku or Kahukura is the god of rainbows. He is particularly special to the Tainui and Ngai Tahu Māori.

Kahukura, after whom the rock, Te Tihi o Kahukura or Castle Rock on the Banks Peninsula in Canterbury is named was also known as Uenuku in the North Island. He was the spirit guardian invoked by tribal tohunga and appealed to for advice and omens in times of war. Each hapū had an image of Kahukura, often a small carved wooden figure, which was kept in a tapu place.[1]

A literal translation of Kahukura is a red garment and the rainbow is the celestial embodiment of Kahukura in our skies.


The legend of Uenuku is similar to many other vanishing lover tales such as Cupid and Psyche or Beauty and the Beast.

Uenuku was out hunting very early one morning when, in a clearing, he saw a beautiful girl who seemed to coalesce out of the morning mist. Her name was Hine-pūkohu-rangi[2] He persuaded her to stay and talk with him for a moment and to return the next night, and the next, and the next, and before long they fell in love. But as a mist maiden her home was in the sky, so she had to leave him at dawn. At last, she agreed to marry Uenuku on condition that he tell no-one about her.

They had a few months of happiness, though she still appeared only at night and left at dawn, and in time a little girl was born to them Uenuku had a child with her. But no one else could see her and therefore he was ridiculed. Uenuku's friends were sceptical of this wife and child they had never seen. He tried to explain that she left him each morning at first light, so his friends suggested that he block up the doors and windows so she could not see the sun. Finally, he was convinced to block the windows and door when she came to him one night so she couldn’t see the sun in the morning, then he could prove she existed. This he did, but of course, she felt tricked and when the mist maiden knew he had deceived her, she left him.

Uenuku wandered the world searching for his beloved wife and daughter. At last, seeing him lonely and bent with age, Rangi the Skyfather took pity on him and changed him into a rainbow so that he could join his family in the sky.


The Te Awamutu Museum in New Zealand has a large stone said to be inhabited by the spirit of Uenuku. According to local legend, the spirit of Uenuku was brought to New Zealand by the people on the Tainui canoe, in a stone. When they landed, they made a carving with a round opening at the top, in which the stone was placed so that the spirit of Uenuku inhabited the stone. Due to his spiritual significance, photographs of the stone figure of Uenuku are prohibited without the permission of the Maori sovereign.

The same museum is home to an early Māori carving, known as either Uenuku or Te Uenuku, which is of extreme significance both to the local Tainui Māori people and also for its archaeological value. The carving is unique in form, and bears a noted resemblance to Hawaiian carving styles.[3]


Geoff Murphy (of Goodbye Pork Pie, Utu fame) directed a freewheeling adaptation for television, his first film. It was the first TV drama to be entirely performed in te reo (The Listener magazine softened viewers by providing a translation prior to screening).[4]


  1. Cowan, James (1923). Māori Folk Tales of the Port Hills, Canterbury, New Zealand (Third ed.). Cadsonbury Publications.
  2. "The Origin of the Rainbow". New Zealand Electronic Text Collection. Victoria University. Retrieved 7 November 2018.
  3. "Uenuku". Te Awamutu Museum. Waipa District Council. Retrieved 21 September 2013.
  4. "Uenuku - Television". NZ On Screen. Retrieved 21 September 2013.
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