Pania of the Reef
COVID-19 travel alert: Hawke's Bay is currently at Alert Level 1. Find out more about Level 1 here.
Pania was a beautiful maiden who lived in the sea. By daylight she swam about with other sea creatures but after sunset would go to a stream that ran into the bay where the city of Napier now sits.
Karitoki, the handsome son of a Maori chief, met Pania at this stream. He had never seen someone so beautiful and instantly fell in love. Pania fell in love also, and they pledged their lives to each other and were secretly married. Pania and Karitoki went to his whare (house), and at sunrise Pania prepared to leave but Karitoki tried to stop her. She explained that as a creature of the ocean, when the sirens of the sea called her each morning, she could not survive if she did not go to them. She promised to return every evening and their marriage continued on that basis.
Karitoki boasted to his friends about his beautiful wife, but no one believed him because they had never seen her. Frustrated by this, Karitoki consulted a kaumatua (wise elder). The kaumatua told Karitoki that being a sea creature, Pania would not be allowed to return to the sea if she swallowed cooked food.
That night, as Pania slept, Karitoki took a morsel of cooked food and put it in Pania's mouth. As he did so, Ruru the morepork (owl) called a loud warning and Pania awoke. Horrified that Karitoki had put her life in jeopardy, Pania fled to the sea. Her people came to the surface and drew her down into the depths. Karitoki never saw her again.
When people now look deep into the water over the reef, some say they can see Pania with arms outstretched, appealing to her former lover. It is unknown whether she is imploring him to explain his treachery, or expressing her continuing love. The sea off Napier is now protected by Moremore, the son of Pania and Karitoki. He is the kaitiaki (guardian) of the area, a taniwha (spirit) who often disguises himself as a shark, a stingray or an octopus.
A 1.5 metre statue of Pania was unveiled at Napier's Marine Parade on 10 June 1954 by then Prime Minister Sidney Holland.
The statue was commissioned by members of the Thirty Thousand Club after the Anglican Bishop of Aotearoa, Frederick Augustus Bennett, related the legend of Pania to them. Several students from Hukarere Girls College were photographed as models for the statue, and eventually, Mei Irihapiti Robin (now Mei Whaitiri), was selected. A clay likeness of the photograph of Mei and an actual traditional Piupiu skirt were made by the Italian Marble Company of Carrara in Carrara, Italy. The clay model was then used to produce the bronze statue.
The statue has often been compared to the The Little Mermaid statue in Copenhagen; there is a resemblance between the two figures, both statues are small, bronze, and near the ocean, and both are based on similar stories.