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Maori Religion and Mythology Part 1

Human Sacrifice connected with War

Human Sacrifice connected with War

The practice of human sacrifice in war, as followed by the Maori, has two aspects to be considered. One is connected with the slaying of a person for a special purpose connected with fighting, but, as a rule, not on a battlefield or during an actual engagement. The other phase is illustrated by the utilization of the body of the first enemy slain as an offering to the gods, a placatory offering to ensure their page 240aid. In his paper on Maori religion Colonel Gudgeon tells us that "When the service on which the war-party was engaged was one of unusual danger, a victim would be chosen and offered up to the gods before the warriors left their village, in order that the favour of those deities might be more effectually secured. In such case the offering to Uenuku would be a man, but to Maru a dog would be offered." This same writer mentions a remarkable case that occurred in the Bay of Plenty district. The Whakatohea Tribe had been twice defeated, with heavy loss, by the Ngai-Tai folk. This fact meant, of course, that the gods were against them, or at least had not exerted themselves in favour of Whakatohea. Their principal tribal god Tama-i-waho, must be placated and propitiated, induced to assist them in squaring the account. Their principal tohunga (priestly expert, seer) was consulted, and he came to the conclusion that the best thing to do under the circumstances was to slaughter a number of persons nearly related to Ngai-Tai, who were living among the Whakatohea. These folk really belonged to both tribes, the result of intermarriage; they had every right to live as members of the Whakatohea, and lived in amity with them. But the gods had spoken, or their human medium had, and hence these hapless folk were doomed. They were slain pitilessly as offerings, as a human sacrifice, to the tribal atua, thus showing the insecurity of life among a superstitious people. This action had, however, as the writer puts it, the very happiest results, for in the subsequent fighting, Ngai-Tai were almost annihilated as a tribe.

A human sacrifice was sometimes made in war-time for the purpose of divination; and at any time of stress, perplexity, or threatened danger such an offering might be made, though, so far as we can gather, they did not often take place. In these cases a member of the same tribe, even a near relative of the slayers, might be killed for the purpose. Wilson mentions such an instance in his Life of Te Waharoa, when, at such a time, a priest demanded the sacrifice of a man of rank in order to save the tribe from disaster. A relative of an important chief was selected, and the courage with which he met his death put new heart into the tribesmen, who defeated their enemies in the next engagement.

In an account of the troubles of the Rotorua Mission published in the Church Missionary Record of 1838, Mr. Knight gives a vivid description of horrors he witnessed: "A body, apparently that moment killed, was dragged into the camp before me; his head was off almost before I could look round. This did not satisfy the wretches; his breast was opened, and his heart, steaming with warmth, was pulled out and carried off." Here the heart of the slain page 241was almost certainly taken as an offering to the gods. Of another incident that occurred in the same district this writer says: "According to the savage customs of the New-Zealanders, they took out the heart of the first man who was shot on the Rotorua side, and made it an offering to Whiro, the Evil Spirit. His mangled corpse, in a state of nudity, was then exposed on a rough wooden stand outside the pa."

Shortland also makes some remarks on this use of the heart of the first slain of the enemy; "The body of the first person slain was sacred to the atua, or spirit, who had guided them to success. It was devoted to the atua to keep him in good humour, or, in their own words, kia koa ai (that he might rejoice). The heart of the victim was fixed on a stake." Tunui-a-rangi, of Wai-rarapa, states that the heart of the first enemy slain in a fight was handed to the priest, who offered it to the gods. It also seems, in some cases, to have been placed against the lips of the first-born male child of the leading chief, that he might become a successful warrior.

Judge Wilson, in speaking of the offering to Whiro mentioned above, says: "The offerings consisted of a cooked piece of heart or liver, a lock of hair, and a cooked potato each placed on a small stick planted in the ground by a little oven, for Whiro had his own separate oven, about the size of a dinner-plate. The flesh and hair had been taken from the body of the first man killed in the battle, which body was a whakahere (propitiatory offering) held tapu to the atua. And sometimes, in a doubtful strife, the priest of a force would hastily rip out the whakahere's heart, and, muttering incantations, would wave it to the atua to ensure the success of his people."

In his Ngai-Tahu (South Island) notes Mr. John White tells us that the body of the first enemy slain in a fight was tapu to Tumatauenga. If such body was not obtainable, then a prisoner, or even a camp-follower, would be killed in order to supply the deficiency. In this latter case the body was not cooked, but an offering of the blood thereof was made to Tu. In some cases, where a human offering was not available, a dog or bird was substituted therefor.