Other formats

    TEI XML file   ePub eBook file  


    mail icontwitter iconBlogspot iconrss icon

Maori Religion and Mythology Part 1

[argument and introduction]

page 134


What is a god? It may be anything. The gods of the Maori. Classification of same. Mistakes of armchair anthropologists. No national religion. No regular system of worship.

A—The Supreme Being. Early writers, and what they missed. Names of Io. His status and attributes. The abode of Io. Io known in Polynesia. A beneficent deity. Io and Jehovah. Evidence of early writers. Supreme Beings of uncultured peoples. Cult of Io confined to few. The divine spark in man. Advanced concepts of barbaric man. Belief in Supreme Being no indication of monotheism. Why gods are anthropomorphic. All gods are one. Polynesian Christianity. Why the concept of Jehovah was degraded. Io and Ha.
B—Departmental gods. Their place in the development of religion. Origin of evil. Personification of natural phenomena. Tane. Fertilizer and demiurge. The Light-bringer. Descent of man from Tane. Disguised sun-worship. Tu. Tu represents war, bloodshed, the setting sun. Rongo a widely known being. Rongo and Sina. The moon-god of agriculture. Tangaroa. Tawhiri-matea. Forbear of the Wind Children. Haumia. Whiro represents darkness and evil. Ruaumoko. Uru.
C—Third-class gods. Intermediate deities. Tribal gods. Misconceptions of early writers. Few gods permanently malevolent. Different status of gods and some personifications. Rainbow gods. Lightning gods. Celestial phenomena invoked as gods.
D—Fourth-class gods. Deified ancestors. Cacodemons. Demoniacal possession. Development of a war-god. Gods as messengers. As guardians. Deified ancestors in superior religions. Familiar spirits. Shamanistic practices. Atua as ocean guides. Forms of incarnation of atua.

Before proceeding to describe the gods of the Maori it may be well to inquire as to what constitutes a god, inasmuch as this term is employed by many writers in an extremely loose manner. Our dictionaries give two applications of the term as defining supernatural anthropomorphic beings possessing powers over nature and mankind. One refers to the Supreme Being as conceived in Christianity, the God, and the other to the gods of inferior races. Apart from these definitions, it is also explained that the term is applied to some of the lower animals, to inanimate objects, &c. Webster gives us—(1) a being conceived of as possessing supernatural power, and to be propitiated by sacrifice, worship, &c.; (2) the Supreme page 135Being. Here the first definition would also fit the Supreme Being; and it is not made clear that the common usage is to apply the term "God" to the supernatural being we believe in, and that of "god" or "gods" to those we do not believe in, as the gods of inferior races, and also to tutelary beings and certain personifications.

In the new Oxford Dictionary we find many columns devoted to the word, from which we take the following: (1) A superhuman person who is worshipped as having power over nature and the fortunes of mankind; (2) God the Creator and Ruler of the world; (3) any animal, image, or natural object worshipped as the symbol of a deity, or as itself possessing innate powers. Herein it is not recognized that the gods of uncultured races falling into classes (1) and (3) are not, as a rule, worshipped. They are feared and placated, offerings and sacrifices may be made to them, but "worship" is not the word to apply either to the feelings of man towards them, or to the ritual pertaining to them. In (1) and (3) I should feel inclined to insert the word "viewed" in place of "worshipped." in which case the gods of the Maori might be included in those two classes.

Grant Allen has remarked: "A god, as I understand the word, and as the vast mass of mankind has always understood it, is a supernatural being to be revered and worshipped." Here again are used expressions that properly belong to the gods of the higher races, but in many cases are not applicable to the deities of savage and barbaric folk, or to their attitude towards such beings. These definitions employ terms that are not suitable, and should be restricted to the higher grade of gods of higher races. Those who use them in connection with, say the gods of the Maori are viewing the matter from the standpoint of civilized man. To revere a being would include at least a modicum of respect, if not of love; and worship should denote a similar feeling; but a Maori could scarcely possess such feelings towards an atua kahu (cacodemon), or towards such gods as Tu, Maru, &c.

In his definition of a god Grant Allen goes on to say: "He stands to his votaries, on the whole, … in a kindly and protecting relation. He may be angry with them at times, to be sure; but his anger is temporary and paternal alone: his permanent attitude towards his people is one of friendly concern; he is worshipped as a beneficent and generous father." These remarks are applicable to very few of the gods of the Maori; but worship was unknown—it was replaced by conciliation.

The question of what constitutes a god is likely to be confused by the application of the Maori term atua to many different beings, things, and conditions. The meanings of this word, as given in page 136Williams Maori Dictionary, include the following: (1) god, demon, supernatural being, ghost, object of superstitious regard, anything malign or disagreeable, strange, extraordinary, &c. It is thus seen that this term atua is applied not only to what may fairly be called a god, but also to any creature or object supposed to possess supernatural powers, to anything terrifying or disagreeable. Thus, an epidemic sickness may be alluded to as an atua, as also a brutal, terrifying person. Firearms were so termed when first introduced, as also a watch, or compass—anything not understood and that seems to possess some innate supernormal power. The selection of this word by early missionaries whereby to denote the Supreme Being of Christian belief was scarcely a happy choice.

Nicholas tells us that natives of villages visited by him in the north were amazed at the ticking of his watch, and styled it an atua, the wearer of the watch being also viewed with a feeling of awe. Again, after having shot a couple of birds, he showed his shot-bag to an old native: "The sight of it terrified him so much that he durst not venture to take a second glance at it, and turned away his head in the greatest trepidation from this magazine of death." At this place the ticking of the traveller's watch was held to be the voice of the atua. When some cows were landed from the vessel the natives fled in terror; when Mr. Marsden rode his horse along the beach he was looked upon as something more than mortal. The Rev. T. G. Hammond tells us that, in the Taranaki district, stone landmarks are called atua.

Our dictionary-makers have not recognized, apparently, the different conceptions of a deity as evolved by civilised and savage or barbaric man. The use of such words as "revere," "venerate," "worship," &c., in connection with the deities of the lower races is often a mistake. It is well to employ these expressions when describing the cult of a high-class, moral Supreme Being, to whom prayers or supplications are addressed, but all Maori gods, except Io, are on a very different plane. They are placated, conciliated, but they are not adored, nor are prayers such as ours, direct supplications, addressed to them as a rule. A very small proportion of the ritual recitals or chants might be termed invocations; the balance occupy the status of charms, or incantations.

Lubbock made a shrewd remark when he gave us the following passage: "We must always bear in mind that the savage notion of a deity is essentially different from that entertained by higher races. Instead of being supernatural, he is merely a part of nature. This goes far to explain the tendency to deification which at first seems so strange." These remarks are just, but they do not apply to all page 137classes of gods, and it is the differences in native deities that anthro-poligists neglect. In Greek mythology we find three classes of supernormal beings; (1) gods: (2) daemons; (3) heroes or demigods. The daemons were supernatural powers of lower rank than the gods, while the heroes were magnified, immortal men. The so-called gods of love, wine, music, &c., may be viewed as personifications. Of all these mentioned we find corresponding classes in Maori myth.

Another fact by no means recognized is that, among the beings to which the generic term of atua is applied, are some who should be termed "tutelary beings" rather than "gods," while yet others are looked upon as matua, or parents of certain animals and natural productions. Thus, in ritual performances pertaining to the forest, we are told by native adepts that one formula was recited to Tane and another to the gods (nga atua), as though Tane was not viewed as an atua. This illustrates the concept of Tane as the parent or origin of trees, as also the tutelary being of all forests and forest products. Again, such supernatural beings, as the primal offspring, Tane, Tu, &c., are sometimes alluded to as "ancestors." Thus, when Te Whatu, of Tuhoe, was explaining to me some old ritual formulae, he remarked that it pertained to Tu; whereupon I inquired, "Do you mean Tu the atua? He replied, "No; I mean Tu the tupuna (ancestor)." Here he meant Tu-matauenga; while Tu the atua was the third-class atua Tunui-a-te-ika. Perhaps all the so-called gods of the second class pertain more to mythology than religion; they are originating beings, personifications, and tutelary beings. Grant Allen, who seems to believe that the conception of a god began with ancestor-worship—i.e., deification of the dead, or their spirits—yet admits that gods may afterwards have been framed from abstract conceptions, natural objects, or from pure outbursts of the mythopoetic faculty.

We shall also see that we have, in various works on the Maori, applied the term "god" to certain objects that were employed as temporary abiding-places for spirit-gods. This is misleading, for such objects were but a form of inanimate medium of the real atua. In Dieffenbach's work on New Zealand we are told that "The gods of the New-Zealanders are emanations of the unknown, and seem to be based upon a former purer belief of monotheism." Setting aside the first part of the passage, which is arguable, I cannot place any faith in these golden-age theories of a former monotheistic faith.

Some consider that all Maori gods were deified ancestors; but the evidence disproves the assumption. Allen claims euhemerism as a primary condition, but conjecture on such remote origins is a vain task. The many personified forms of natural phenomena cannot be page 138viewed as deified ancestors. It is a noteworthy fact that this latter class in Maori theogony occupies only the lower grades of godship, the third and fourth; the second grade, or departmental gods, having quite a different origin.

There is another matter in reference to our gods that calls for some explanation, and that is their attitude towards mankind. This differed considerably in the various classes. The Supreme Being Io does not seem to have played any active part in directing the everyday affairs of man. No offerings or sacrifices were made to him, and the people generally had no direct dealings with him, but only through their priests. This condition however, is one that obtains widely among ourselves at the present time. Many of us are not attendants at any church, and never make use of any form of prayer; we leave such matters to the priestly adepts we never go to hear. As to the departmental gods of the second class, these tutelary deities are not depicted as vindictive beings, and are dangerous or hostile to man only when they have been offended. Thus, if a person pollutes or desecrates the tapu of Tane by taking birds in a forest, or felling a tree without some act of placation, he will assuredly suffer for it in some way. Our gods of the third class are much more active in affairs of mankind, but the same remarks hold good as to their punishment of man. In the fourth class we find two different types. Many, such as family gods, are helpful and protective, unless slighted. When this latter condition eventuates, the punishment of the offender appears to have been simply a withdrawal of protective power and of warnings of danger, and not a direct punishment. But in this fourth class we have also the evil spirits, beings permanently and persistently evil and hostile to man, ever seeking to harm him. Such are the atua kahu, or spirits of still-born children. There was also a vague, ill-defined belief in spirits of the dead hovering about us in this world, and these were certainly dreaded by all. They were, in native belief, particularly active during the hours of darkness. Again we, have in Whiro, the personified form of evil, a being who is ever striving to destroy man, and who was placated by means of small offerings. Mr White has said that the spirits of still-born children were the only evil spirits known to the Maori, but it would appear that they also feared others—in fact, all spirits of the dead were feared, even those of friends and relatives; ghosts caused terror among the Maori. These ghosts, spirits of the dead, might manifest their presence anywhere at any time, but night was their favoured time of activity. So that, apart from the occasional punishment or neglect (withdrawal of protection) inflicted by gods of the second and third classes, the Maori ever knew the abiding fear of evil spirits.

page 139

We will now endeavour to classify the gods of the Maori in such a manner as to illustrate these remarks:—