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Maori Religion and Mythology Part 1

Offerings to Atua

Offerings to Atua

The two direct methods employed by the Maori when desirous of influencing gods in his favour, or when about to seek their assistance, were (1) offerings of food or other things, and (2) placation by other means, such as the recital of ritual formulae supposed to possess powers of influencing spiritual beings. Such offerings are termed arnonga, raupanga, tiri, koropa, whakahere, and whakaepa. The last two words are also employed as verbs, meaning "to conciliate or placate by means of a present." Such offerings were frequently made by the human mediums of atua, though, as already explained, no offerings were made to the supreme being Io; the practice was confined to atua of the second, third, and fourth classes. The custom ranged from important ceremonial offerings to the more important beings, such as Tu, and these included human sacrifice, down to small offerings of food made to fourth-class atua, familiar spirits. As an illustration of the latter aspect I have known an old native to set aside a small portion of each meal he took for his particular atua. Other branches of the race appear to have practised a similar custom. For instance, in his account of the Tahitians Captain Cook says, "Many of them are so rigidly scrupulous that they will not begin a meal without first laying aside a morsel for the atua."

The attitude of the more primitive peoples in conciliating malignant beings only seems quite a justifiable one, inasmuch as it would be page 223obviously unnecessary to make sacrifices or offerings to a benignant deity. In this connection we can trace both aspects in Christianity and the old-time cult from which it sprang, or is an offshoot. Observe the numerous sacrifices pertaining to Judaism. In the Old Testament we read of human sacrifices, and others of certain animals being made to a wrathful and jealous deity. In Christianity these savage horrors were done away with, and we merely find survivals, such as the Communion; though, strange to say, we still retain the idea of a wrathful Supreme Being.

F.B. Jevons, in his little work on Comparative Religion, shows that in the earlier stages of sacrificial offerings the sacrifice was left entirely for the god, and that in a later stage of development those making such sacrifice partook of it.

All offerings to gods were tapu, and such as were made by the people, as cultivated and wild food products, fish, &c., were conveyed in many cases by the priest to the tuahu. Apart, however, from these, the people made private offerings, usually of food, to what may be termed their family gods. The act of making an offering to a god is described by the verb whangai, meaning "to feed," or "to offer to be eaten." A human sacrifice was ika tapu, and perhaps koangaumu: while hapainga seems to have been used in a more general sense for an offering. The modern expression patunga tapu was of missionary origin, not an old Maori usage.

Offerings to gods were made in connection with many things—with war, cultivation, sickness, witchcraft, fishing, fowling, and many other pursuits and conditions. There are few things in this world, or the unseen world, concerning which offerings were not made by priests to the gods, save and except the fact that no offerings of any nature were made to the God—that is, to the Supreme Being. Such offerings were made to the gods who dwell with Tama-i-waho in the heavens, and to those who abide in the underworld with Hine-nui-te-po. These offerings were of a placatory and conciliating nature, to gain the goodwill of the gods. Those made to departmental gods were composed of the products under the influence of such beings. Thus, offerings of birds were made to Tane, of fish to Tangaroa, of kumara to Rongo, of fern-root to Haumia, of slain men to Tu, while to Tawhiri-matea were made offerings of such birds as are active at night.

A Ngai-Tahu note in Mr. White's unpublished matter is to the effect that offerings of the blood of human beings and of dogs were made to gods by South Island natives, but we have no such information regarding such a custom in the North Island. A small page 224quantity of the blood was placed in a diminutive cup formed by a leaf, and so conveyed by the tohunga to the place where the ceremony was to be performed—that is, to the tuahu. Here he dipped his forefinger into the blood and then pointed that finger at the image or medium of the god, after which he again dipped his finger in the blood and pointed it towards the heavens. After a third dip he pointed the finger downwards, the last two movements representing offerings to the gods of the heavens and of the underworld.

The sacrifice of a dog would be made in ceremonies when it was not convenient to supply a human victim, as in those preceding a fight.

In some very old traditions it is noted that certain "bloodless" foods were selected as offerings to gods on account of their bloodless condition. As certain vegetable foods seem to be included—if, indeed, they were not all so—the term "bloodless" would seem to indicate a dry nature, a lack of moisture or sap in such food-supplies. We are told that in remote times the ancestors of the Maori lived in a land called Irihia, situated far away in the west—a hot-climate land, so warm that it was given the secondary name of Irirangi, on account of the heat of the sun. Remote ancestors of the Maori had migrated from a great land named Uru, lying to the westward, to the land of Irihia, for two reasons. The first of these reasons was war; the second was the fact that Irihia produced the kai toto kore (bloodless food) called ari. This seems to have been the principal food product of the land of Irihia; but there were also other "bloodless" foods, known as kata, porokakata, tahuwaero, and koropiri. All of these, including the ari, which seems to have been the most important of these products, were utilized as sacred offerings to the gods on account of their "bloodless" nature. (Enei kaie waiho ana hei kai whakaepa kinga atua, hei kai ma nga ariki; he kai kaore ona toto tahi, na reira ka waiho hei kai whakaepa ki nga atua.)

As to what these food products were it is impossible to say, but it is made clear that the ari was a vegetable food "grown in the hot land of Irihia." Ari is the Dravidian word for rice.

The following passage, taken from Grant Allen's Evolution of the Idea of God, is incorrect and misleading: "Dr. Codrington notes that the large mouths and lolling tongues of many New Zealand and Polynesian gods are due to the habit of smearing the mouth with blood and other offerings." Many writers and lecturers have fallen into the error of supposing that house-carvings and similar figures represented gods.

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Mr. White tells us that the offering of a matata bird to the gods was made in war. and that the blood only of that small creature was so offered, the bird itself being placed at the wahi tapu. It would appear, however, that blood offerings were by no means universal among the Maori, and may have been confined to a few tribes.

In Maori belief the gods consumed or appropriated merely the semblance or essence of all food offerings. Such offerings made at a tuahu were often placed on a small framework of sticks, called a tiepa.

In the legend of Manaia and Nuku is described an incident in which Manaia kills a bird and uses it as an offering to his atua, one Maru-tahanui.

Mr. White has a Ngai-Tahu note to the effect that, when a dog was slain as an offering to an atua, the person officiating cut open the carcase with an implement called a maripi tuatini, took out the heart, and set it before a fire on a stick to roast. Such a fire was first rendered tapu by means of the recital of certain ritual. While the priestly expert was intoning the necessary ritual before this fire, the onlookers stood and pointed their hands at it, joining in the responses. This ceremony was performed when an atua was required to assist in some important operation, such as war. In this case the officiating expert is said to have eaten the roasted heart himself, after its dedication to the god; and this eating of offerings by priests is mentioned by other native authorities. It is, however, certain that this eating of offerings by priests was not a universal custom; offerings of fish, &c., deposited at a tuahu simply lay there until they decayed. In other cases an offering of food was placed on a tree, or simply thrown aside, and so left. When so casting an offering aside a person would say, "Thy food, O——" (mentioning the name of the atua to whom it was offered, as in "To kai, E Whiro"). In many cases the person officiating took the offering in his hand and waved it toward the gods—that is, with outstretched arm he waved it outward toward space; hence the expression kapoia kigna atua employed in a description of this act. The Rev. R. Taylor remarks in his Te Ika a Maui, "When an offering was made it was held up by the tohunga [priest] above his head, whilst he uttered his karakia [ritual] and waved it about."

At Mangareva, in eastern Polynesia, priests acted in a similar manner in performing ceremonies, holding a portion of food in the outstretched hand. Offerings to the gods were made at certain stone erections called marae, one of which was named Anga-o-Tane. In page 226Price's description of Judaism we read: "A characteristic feature of Pentecost was the offering of two loaves of leavened bread made from the new wheat, which were waved before God and afterwards eaten by the priests."

When a person went fishing he might cast aside the first fish caught as an offering to the gods. The first eel caught by a lad, and the first bird snared by him, were devoted to a similar purpose. In this case the offering was made by the village priest, not by the lad himself: certain ritual being recited during the ceremony. Tunui-a-rangi, of Wai-rarapa, states that, after such fish or bird was so offered, it might be eaten by the lad; but it is doubtful if this was a universal custom. All firstfruits offerings were deposited at the tapu place styled a tuahu. One authority states that when the kumara (sweet potato) crop was about to be lifted a few tubers were taken up and cooked. One of these was "waved" to the gods by the priest, who himself ate the balance of them. Such details, however, often differed among the different tribes. Also, after the above ceremonial performance, two other ovens of tubers were cooked for the leading chiefs and the body of the people respectively. After this ceremonial lifting of the tapu the crop might be taken up. Similar performances marked the firstfruits function connected with uncultivated food products, birds, and fish, also with the first fish taken in a new net. Firstfruits of fish were offered to Tangaroa, those of birds to Tane (both of whom are tutelary beings), just as the body of the first enemy slain in a fight was dedicated to Tu.

The Rev. R. Taylor describes the ceremony pertaining to the first catch of rats made in a season, when five different ovens were used. In the first was cooked one lone rat, as an offering to the gods; in the second were two, for the principal priestly expert; the third contained ten, for the assistant priests, apparently; the fourth a considerable number, for the trapper; and the fifth a large number, for the bulk of the people. The offering to the atua had, however, to be made ere the other ovens were opened.

Mr. White describes a peculiar custom not recorded in any work on the Maori, though he does not say which tribe practised it. It is as follows: Should an expert in tapu historical and sacerdotal lore consent to impart such knowledge to a member of another tribe, then he claimed for himself and his descendants certain privileges. Each year the relatives of the scholar presented to the expert, or his family, a certain quantity of the firstfruits and kai popoa of their home. No explanation is given as to how long this tribute was payable, and indeed we have no corroboration of this communica-page 227tion; still, it may have been a local custom. The kai popoa referred to is a term applied to any tapu articles of food employed in the sacerdotal rites pertaining to many subjects—birth, baptism, illness, death, house-building, canoe-making, &c.

Polack, a sojourner in the northern parts of the North Island in early days, speaks of travelling parties making an offering of food to the local genius of any place they might camp at prior to partaking of such food themselves: "A portion is reserved in a small basket for the dryad of the place, which is hung on the branch of a tree…. Similar precautions to propitiate the said atua are taken in the morning; oftentimes he is obliged to rest satisfied with a lock of hair, which is elevated in like manner." This lock of hair was an offering frequently made in former times, and, apparently, was held to be most efficacious. Fishermen overtaken by a storm at sea, or the crew of a capsized vessel, would pluck a hair from their heads and cast it into the sea, at the same time repeating certain ritual utterances, a form of charm. Any person supposing himself to be in danger from a monster of the mythical taniwha type, on land or sea, would act in a similar manner.

Shortland speaks of food being offered by the Maori to stone images, but does not explain what those images were. The only ones we have any knowledge of were those used as fertilizing agents in cultivation-grounds. Offerings were made by travellers to the genius loci at certain trees or rocks known as uruuru whenua. Such offerings were merely branchlets, a handful of herbage, or stones, deposited at the base of the tree or rock, the act being accompanied by the recital of a charm. This act was a placation of the local atua (demons or spirits), and if neglected, then some trouble, such as bad weather, would ensue.

Offerings of a curious nature were also made at certain mortuary memorials, and at places where a sick person of rank had rested when being conveyed to his home on a litter. At these latter places a carved post was sometimes set up, such as Te Pou-o-te-Puehu, at Ruatahuna, and on such a post travellers would hang a garment, or a fragment of one. In late times coloured handkerchiefs and brightcoloured strips of cloth were used for this purpose. Other singular observances of a similar nature will be described elsewhere.

The terms hapainga and hapainga tapu are applied to these offerings to atua, and to human sacrifice, but they are probably modern expressions, like patunga tapu. Ngakoa is another word denoting such offerings. Of course, the Maori ever believed that any spirit being was perfectly aware of any offering made to it, no matter how page 228slight the ceremony might be, or how remote the spot at which it was performed.

Offerings to the dead are on much the same plane as offerings to atua, or spirit beings. When a person of any social standing died, not only were his own personal effects, weapons, garments, and ornaments arranged on or near him, but also condoling visitors brought similar objects as gifts to the dead. These were known as kopaki tupapaku, and were often buried with the body. The name applied to them may be rendered as "corpse-wrappings." Persons often placed articles in the grave of a relative, and this custom has survived the introduction of Christianity. Thus, I knew a case in which a woman placed in the grave of her child niece a prized old necklace of sea-shells known as hangaroa. In another case a father placed a silver crown piece in the grave of his infant child, and changed the name of a surviving sister of the child to Karauna (Crown). An old native friend of the writer, on the death of his father, deposited in the grave a manuscript volume of old tribal lore, collected and written out with much care, and hence a prized possession. Many instances might be quoted as illustrations of this custom among natives. It is also of interest to note how this custom has survived to the present day among European nations—one of the most persistent survivals being the depositing of flowers on graves.