Orbell, Margaret

Orbell, Margaret

In Brief

Margaret Orbell was the author of several books on Māori literature, tradition and belief, an editor of collections of songs, poetry and stories, and a leading interpreter of Māori texts. She was editor of Te Ao Hou, the Maori Affairs Department magazine, and studied Māori in Wellington with Wiremu Parker before taking her PhD at Auckland with a thesis on waiata aroha (love songs). She became a distinguished companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit in 2002.


Orbell, Margaret (1934–2006), is the author of several books on Maori literature, tradition and belief, an editor of collections of songs, poetry and stories, and a leading interpreter of Maori texts to non-Maori audiences, including international ones.

Her major collections include Maori Folktales in Maori and English (1968); Traditional Songs of the Maori (1975, 1990, with Mervyn McLean); Maori Poetry: An Introductory Anthology (1978); Waiata: Maori Songs in History (1991); and Traditional Maori Stories (1992). Her achievement in such books is to preserve fidelity to the Maori texts and their cultural connotations while arranging, introducing and translating them in ways that make them accessible to other cultures.Her Illustrated Encyclopedia of Mäori Myth and Legend (1995) is a rich source of information on traditional literature, drawing on versions from many tribal areas and informatively illustrated.

Also of literary interest are Orbell’s editorship of Te Ao Hou 1961–65; her compilation of the early anthology, Contemporary Maori Writing (1970); her Select Bibliography of the Oral Tradition of Oceania (UNESCO, Paris, 1978); and her consultant editorial role in the Penguin Book of New Zealand Verse (1985). Her 1970 anthology put several significant writers before a wider public, including Witi Ihimaera (with the story that was the first version of Tangi), Patricia Grace, Harry Dansey, Hirini Mead and others.

Orbell’s MA at University of Auckland was in English; later (after teaching at Ruatoria, editing Te Ao Hou and studying Maori in Wellington with Wiremu Parker) she took her PhD at Auckland in anthropology with a thesis on waiata aroha (love songs). After lecturing in Maori at Auckland 1974–75, she moved to University of Canterbury, retiring as associate professor in 1994 to become a full-time writer in Auckland, where she was born.



Traditional Songs of the Maori, by Mervyn McLean and Margaret Orbell, received the New Zealand Book Award for Non-Fiction at the 1976 New Zealand Book Awards.

In 1993, Orbell was awarded third place for The Natural World of the Maori at the Goodman Fielder Wattie Book Awards.

Birds of Aotearoa: A Natural and Cultural History
(Reed Publishing, 2003) was a finalist in the environment category of the 2004 Montana New Zealand Book Awards.

Margaret Orbell passed away in July 2006.

Updated January 2017.