As part of my general getting up to speed with the theft of a national icon, I decided to look into the story of the real Pania of the Reef. Typically there are variations, but here’s the version I like best.
It’s an interesting tale, a hot woman who lives in the sea falls in love with Karitoki, a young rangatira. They get hitched and move in together, but the catch is – and there’s always a catch with this sort of thing – she has to go back to the sea during the day, or she’ll die. Why? It’s just one of the inconvenient things about being a dusky sea maiden apparently. And you thought menstruation was a bitch.
Naturally enough, the young man goes around boasting to his mates.
“Eh hoa, you should see my missus. She’s hot as.”
“Nah nah, serious. She’s real hot.”
“How come we’ve never met her then. Sounds a bit fishy to me.”
“Well that’s part of it… it’s hard to explain.”
“You sure she exists Kari?”
“Of course she exists! And she’s a babe…”
[gesturing to empty stool] “Yeah look at her man. What a hottie!…ahahah!”
“Screw you guys… I’ll show you.”
[walks off as his mates jeer] “Hey bro – Don’t forget your wife…she’s still sitting here!”
Peeved that no-one believes him, Karitoki decides to go and see a kaumatua for some advice. The part of the wise elder will be played by Pat “Mr Miyagi” Morita.
"Ah Karitoki, san. I see you come to me with long face. Much like Celine Dion."
"Mr Miyagi, I don’t know what to do. I’m really in love with my wahine Pania, but I also have a desperate urge to show my mates I’m getting some quality poon."
"Yes Karitoki san. True Love versus bragging rights. It’s an age old dilemma."
"Tell me about it."
"Look, I think I have a solution. Feed her cooked meat."
"She's a sea creature Mr Miyagi, not a vegetarian..."
"I know that you ignorant boy. Much like dirty hippies on a commune, the sea creatures are militant vegetarians. They’ll spurn Pania and she’ll be unable to return to her watery home."
"That’s brilliant Mr Miyagi! Wow. How do you know all this shit?"
"Wikipedia, where else?"
"But aren’t you slightly concerned about its inherent unreliability as a source, given the ability of users to udpate entries as they see fit?"
"A little, tama, a little."
"And it won’t kill her?"
"Well if it does, I’ll be sure to amend the entry accordingly. Anyway, what’s more important to you, your one true love, or proving to your mates you’re tapping that fine ass?"
"Mr Miyagi, you’re so wise!"
So Karitoki returned home where Pania was waiting with a feed of regulation-size scallops she’d brought with her from the ocean that evening.
Eventually they retired to bed, where Pania fell fast asleep. Ever so carefully, as not to wake her, Karitoki tried to slip some meat into her mouth.
Unfortunately, as any guy who’s ever come home late from the pub to find his wife asleep in bed knows, that’s a lot easier said than done. Legend has it the call of the ruru* woke Pania. I personally think it was her husband trying to shove a bit of old steak down her throat. Either way, Pania was startled and realising what Karitoki was trying to do, fled to the safety of her ocean retreat, never to return.
Some say you can still see Pania today, beckoning from under the water. People describe her look as one of anguish, while she tries to understand why Karitoki would put her life in jeopardy.
Karitoki is said to have later kicked himself when he realised what he should have done was have his mates round to his place for dinner one night.
*Morepork. "Ruru" and "morepork" are both supposed to be onomatopoeic representations of our native owl's call. Somehow I think the gulf between Maori and Pakeha is a lot wider than we might like to think...