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Maori Religion and Mythology Part 1

Ritual Performances Pertaining to Birth

Ritual Performances Pertaining to Birth

There was much of tapu pertaining to birth in native eyes; indeed, it may be said that there were two aspects of this condition connected with parturition and after events. A woman was tapu when in the "nest-house," and that condition was allied to that of persons who handled bodies of the dead. There was also that aspect or phase of tapu that is attached to religious functions and ritual.

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It is almost impossible to describe any native custom or rite as having been practised in the same manner throughout the isles of New Zealand. In probably all cases there are differences in performance or wording as in different districts or among different tribes. Thus, the ceremonies performed over newly born infants differed considerably, as we shall see anon. The higher the rank of the parents the more elaborate were the ceremonies performed over their child. The Maori respect for primogeniture and rank also led to other results. In regard to first-born children only were the higher-class rites performed, and then only if they were members of the most important families. In families of lower rank the ceremonial was less important, and in the case of low-class folk no ceremony was gone through. The Maori had inaugurated aristocratic birth ritual as he had at least partially evolved the aristocratic marriage.

When a woman was about to give birth to a child she took up her abode on the outskirts of the village in a small hut constructed for her, and which was usually destroyed when she left it. Such a hut was called a whare kohanga; and this act of segregation equalled that practised in connection with a sick person. In some cases, apparently, this first hut was occupied by the woman only until the child was born, in which, case it was called a whare kahu. After the birth of the infant, mother and child removed to the whare kohanga, where they remained until the tapu had been lifted from them. It was during their sojourn in the "nest-house" that the tua rite was performed over the child.

In cases of difficult parturition charms or invocations were repeated in order to bring relief. One of these contains the name of Pani in the form of Hine-tinaku—she who is described as the "mother" of the kumara (sweet potato) in Maori myth. But the being to whom native women ever turned in their hour of trouble was Hine-te-iwaiwa, or Hina, the latter being apparently the more correct form, who is simply the female personification of the moon. Here, as in ancient Egypt, the moon-goddess was the patroness or tutelary deity presiding over childbirth and the art of weaving. When such difficulties assailed a woman it was the practice to repeat over her the genealogical line of descent of her husband, and sometimes that of herself. The repetition of such lists of names served to bring relief to the woman.

In some cases a charm was repeated when the umbilical cord (iho, pito) of an infant was severed, after which a ceremony called whakamoe, or putting to sleep, was performed, which called for another charm. These charms were supposed to have the effect of page 359making the child intelligent and clever, to endow it with a clear mind. The severed iho were often deposited in a crevice or hollow in a tree, often a tree standing on a boundary-line. Such trees whereat a number of iho had been deposited were sometimes smeared with red ochre. In modern times strips of cloth and brightly coloured cotton handkerchiefs were sometimes tied to these trees, so that unwary observers might have credited the Maori with tree-worship.

The umu whangai was a rite performed when the iho of an infant came away. It is described as an offering to the tapu of the child; it seems to have enhanced the condition of tapu, as it were, and to have had the effect of emphasizing the importance of the newly born one. The practice of burying the cord was a common one, and, in one district at least, a young tree was planted on the spot. The survival of the tree bespoke a healthy, vigorous life for the child.

Concerning the tua and tohi rites performed over an infant evidence differs much. Among some tribes both names seem to denote the ceremony wherein a child was baptized and also named. Some speak of the tohi rite but seem to be ignorant of the name of tua. Others claim them to be two separate rites, the tohi pertaining to the severing of the umbilical cord, and the tua to the naming of the child. Waituhi is apparently another name for the tohi. Among the Matatua tribes the tua was a "dry" ceremony, and included no form of baptism; it removed the tapu from mother and child. It was performed at the "nest-house" at dawn, ere the people were abroad, and before any food was cooked or eaten. No person not a participant was allowed to move about until the performance was over. The formulae recited were believed to endow the child with health, virility, courage, industry, all desirable qualities; also, they tended to preserve its life-principle. The charms influenced the gods to bring about these desirable conditions. The officiating priest took the child in his arms and held it as he chanted the formulae.

The tua rite was performed about a week after the birth of the child. In its highest form the tua or tohi rite dedicated the infant to Io, the Supreme Being: this was essentially an aristocratic rite. The secondary or ordinary form of the rite usually dedicated the child to the service of Tu, the god or patron of war: this was the tua o Tu. Another form was the tua o Rongo, which had the effect of endowing the subject with energy and industry in the peaceful arts of cultivation, &c. The ritual chanted by the priest over the child in the tua o Tu called for certain qualities to be implanted in him, also that he might develop into an able fighting-man. The following is a sample of such effusions: "May this child be active, strong, and strenuous; may be able with huata, with taiaha, with patu, &c.; may page 360he be expert in avoiding spear and club; may he be fierce and relentless and swift-footed; brave and quick to slay the 'first fish'; so shall he flourish in the world of life,"&c. The native words inserted are those of weapons. Occasionally human sacrifice entered into such a rite, but apparently it was a rare occurrence, and then it was merely to add éclat to the function, not really a ritual act. The body would be cooked and eaten at the ceremonial feast.

Concerning the tohi rite: this name was not only applied to a rite performed over infants, the tohi tamariki, but also to another connected with war, the tohi taua, and performed over fighting-men. It was this tohi rite into which aspersion entered, the subject, child or adult, being sprinkled with water. The rite performed over children was similar to the tua as far as objects and charms are concerned, but it was performed at a stream, and the subject was sprinkled by means of dipping a twig in the water, or sometimes merely the hand was so dipped. The Maori was much given to the use of twigs, leaves, and rods of Coprosma in his ceremonial functions. Female children were tohia to Hina-te-iwaiwa, or Hine-kahau. Tohi ora is the name of a rite performed in order to preserve the health and welfare of the subject; it seems to be also known as kawa ora and tu ora; while the mauri ora and tuapa are similar rites. The chief object of these ceremonial functions is the protection of the sacred life-principle; that being assured, then physical welfare ensues.

Among the Kahungunu folk of the eastern side of the North Island the tohi rite was performed over the child when the iho fell, and no mention is made of the tua, save as a synonym for tohi. If the period of trouble of the woman extended to the fifth day, then it was known that she or her husband had committed some wrong action, its effect being felt in protracted labour. A priest would then be called in, who would make inquiries as to the moral cause of the trouble, and remove it, to enable the child to be born. He would then recite a charm over the woman in order to assist delivery. As he finished his recital he laid his right hand on the woman's head, and the child was born. Should, however, the case be a bad one, it might be necessary to convey the woman to the local tuahu, or sacred place, where another charm was repeated over her.

The tohi rite was performed at some stream, at a place not likely to be trespassed on in later days, in the case of a child of the ariki, or highest rank, the function was quite an imposing one, and was marked by punctiliousness. Two priests, the tohunga tohi and the tohunga tarahau, took part in the proceedings, and the baptismal party marched in procession to the waterside. The tohunga tarahau, or assistant priest, led the way, followed by the mother with her page 361child and husband; then came the mothers of the parents, then two female nurses (tapuhi) who had attended the mother, then the fathers of the parents. In the rear walked the tohunga tohi, or tohunga waitohi. Mats were spread near the water on which the parents sat, the wife on her husband's left side, she holding the child; the others stood in the rear. The principal priest discarded his garments, and, with a green branchlet in his hand, entered the stream, standing where the water was up to his loins. Holding the twig in his right hand, he dipped up a little water in his left hand, and recited a form of invocation to Io, the Supreme Being, and to Para-when-uamea (personified form of water), after which he sprinkled the water on the leafy branchlet. The mother now handed him the child, and he faced to the east as he held the child in his arms. In this position he recited another invocation in which the name of the child was mentioned. On completing this he stooped down until the child's body was immersed in the water, previously covering the child's mouth with his hand. Rising again, he handed the child to its father, who returned it to the mother. (My informant omitted to say what was done with the branchlet; apparently something has been left out.)

The next act of the priest was a divinatory one. His assistant plucked a few leaves and handed them to him, and he recited over them these words; "Here is thy neophyte, O Io the Parent! Dedicated to thee to acquire form and growth, as a proper son for thee. For thine is this child, this neophyte; a repository of knowledge, a wise one of thine." As he completed this utterance, he cast the leaves into the stream and allowed them to drift away. According to the manner in which the leaves floated down-stream auguries were derived as to the child's future. The priest then performed what is termed the ohorangi rite, which "awakens the heavens." He recited the following:—

Tenei au he kau tu, he kau noho
He kau aro ki a koe, e Tawhiri-matea i runga nei!
Papa, papa tahi nuku, papa tahi rangi nau, e Whaitiri!
He murimuri aroha ki tenei tama nau, e Tama-te-uira!
Taua i te itu, taua i te mauri
Taua i te iho o to tama ariki
Ki tenei pia, ki tenei aro nou, e Tawhiri-matea… e… i!

He now struck two stones together and threw them up in the air, whereupon, and immediately, the voice of Hine-whaitiri, the Thunder Maid, was heard in the echoing heavens. Now, if this peal of thunder resounded in the east or north it was a good omen for the child's future; if in the west or south it was an evil omen—a hapless future lay before the child.

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The next act of the tohunga tohi, or baptizing priest, was to sprinkle water over the assembled folk, parents and other relatives of the child, at the same time repeating—

He uenga nui, he uenga tauhinga
Tau tu ki tenei tama
He toi tu, he toi aro, he toi matua ki a koe, e tama… e… i!

The priest now left the water and took his stand by the side of his assistant, being careful not to make any attempt to dry his body. The assistant now handed him a living bird, a miromiro or tatahore (two small forest-birds) that had been captured for the purpose. He intoned a formula over the bird as he held it in his hand, then touched the child's head with it, and then released the bird, allowing it to fly away. The charm or invocation recited calls upon the child to open his or her ears and acquire the knowledge of his ancestors. It also endowed the child with mana, a quality that emanates from the gods. The release of the bird is said to illustrate or represent the return of such mana to the gods when the subject dies, no matter at what age. I am, however, strongly disposed to believe that it had some other meaning that is not explained. The clapping together of the two stones was an act of mimicry to represent a clap of thunder. Should the heavens respond, the fact showed that the rite would be an effective one; if it did not do so, then the whole proceeding would be virtueless. One would imagine that failures would be somewhat numerous, but you cannot convince a Maori of such a likelihood. We are told that the immersion of the child had an absolutory effect—that it did away with noxious external influences or effects, such as any perplexities or troubles of any kind affecting the mother.

Our tohunga waitohi now performed another singular act. He took a sharpened stake or pole that had been provided, called the pou uekaha, and with the pointed end punched a hole in the earth near the paparoa, the mat on which the parents were seated. He then procured a certain number of small stones, one for each day that the mother had been assailed by the pains of labour, and deposited them in the hole. He also placed therein another series of stones to represent the lunar month in which the child had been born. Thus, if the birth had taken place in the seventh month, then seven stones were put in the hole. Quite possibly the two lots of stones were separated in some way, in the light of other evidence, but this is not assured. On these stones in the hole was now deposited the iho (severed umbilical cord) of the child. The hole was then filled up with gravel. The position of page 363this hole with regard to a nearby tree or rock would be noted in case it might be considered desirable to locate it in later years.

Such was the tohi rite as performed over a child of rank at the wai matua, the living water that alone is suitable for use in such cases. The party then returned to the village, the mother going with them, for she was now free from the "nest-house." As they approached the village house the assistant priest chanted a certain lay, termed a whakaaraara, which warned the village folk of the return of the ope wai matua, as the party was called. The villagers assembled and welcomed the party with the rhythmic measure of the powhiri, or welcoming-song. The porch of the principal house would be prepared, spread with mats, to be occupied by the parents and child. The latter would be laid on a garment spread over mats below the window-space, and a weapon, such as a greenstone patu, was placed under the child's head. As human sacrifice appears to have been unknown in connection with this rite among the Kahungunu Tribe, it is just possible that the peculiar custom of laying the babe's head on a weapon was a survival. Then again, it may have been connected with the universal desire to see a male child develop into an efficient fighting-man.

The assistant priest then took his stand in front of the house-porch, near the post supporting the prolonged barge-board, and, facing the assembled people on the plaza, he chanted another invocation designed to bring benefits to the child. As in many other cases, no names of gods are mentioned in this effusion; it is one of those vague, indirect appeals so often met with in Maori ritual. After this, speeches of greeting were made by members of the community to the child, its parents and grandparents, and presents for the child were brought forward. All these functions were carried out in the one day, the day that mother and child left the "nest-house," which temporary hut was then destroyed by fire, and its very ashes collected and deposited at a tapu spot.

Some interesting notes on these rites pertaining to birth are given by the Rev. R. Taylor in Te Ika a Maui, and also by Shortland in Maori Religion and Mythology. The latter also gives one of the charms repeated in order to assist a woman in her hour of trouble.

The following ritual chant is one of the superior type, as taught in the whare wananga to those scholars who were destined for the office of priestly expert of the first class, and to them alone. It may be termed an invocation and dedicatory psalm chanted by priests when they performed the peculiar baptismal rite called tohi over an infant. Lines 11 to 19 clearly show its dedicatory nature, when the babe was placed on the outstretched hands of the chief priest page 364and by him held up towards the heavens. This act, accompanied by appropriate words, was a dedication of the infant to Io, the Supreme Being, Io the Parent and Io the Parentless.

Tenei au he uriuri, he pia, he aro nou, e Io e! Ki te uru tau, ki te uru rangi,
Ki te uru tangata nau
Ka turuki atu ki a koe E Io rangi … e!
Ki nga atua o nga rangi tuhaha He puri nui, he puri roa,
Kia turuki mai koutou ki tenei tama He mauri taketake nou,
Ki tenei aro, ki tenei pia. E Io te waiora … e!
Ki tenei tawhito, ki tenei tipua nou, Tenei ka tau, ka tau ki a koe
E Io mata ngaro … e … i! He uri, he pia, he aro
Tenei to uriuri, tenei to pia, tenei o aro He tama tane, he tama wahine
He aro turuki mai nou, No Tane, no Hine-ahu-one
E Io matua … e … i! Ka tau, ka tau ki tenei…….(tama)
Tenei ka rewa, ka rewa ki runga ki taku ringa* E Io taketake …e!
E tipu, e rea he pia nou
He hapahapainga nuku E tipu hei kauru nui, hei kauru roa
He hapahapainga rangi Hei kauru toi nui, toi roa
Ki a koe, e Io … e! Toi matua ki te ao taru aitu
Tenei ka tohia to pia, to uriuri, Ki te ao marama taiahoaho nau,
Ki te wai o Moana o Rongo E Io taketake … e … i!
O Moana o kura, o Moana wai rangi Tenei au te turuki atu nei ki a koe,
O Moana Para-whenuamea E Io mata ngaro … e!
Ki a koe, e Io … e! Kia turuki mai koe he hikitanga
Tenei au ka tohi i te ingoa ki a koe He hapainga, he arewa
E Io taketake … e … i! Ki tenei tama, ki tenei pia
Ka tohia, ka tohia ki …… Ki tenei uriuri nou,
Ka whakamau atu ki te uru tu, E Io tama akaaka… e!

These effusions contain a number of archaic and obsolete expressions, also many words found in vernacular speech but which also carry a sacerdotal meaning of quite a different nature. Probably no living native could now explain some of the expressions in the above invocation to the Supreme Being. It is a very old composition, and interesting withal, but I refrain from an attempt to translate it.

In vol. 6 of the Journal of the Polynesian Society is given an account of the tohi rite as practised at the Chatham Isles. Here the priest dipped his hand in water and wetted the forehead and face of the child. A small tree was planted "to symbolize the growth of the child," as Mr. Shand puts it, and a number o charms were repeated.

In his lectures on Maori customs the late Mr. John White gave an account of native usages pertaining to birth that contained some interesting notes. These data were probably obtained in the northern part of the North Island. He remarks that a branchlet of karamu (Coprosma) was employed wherewith to sprinkle the infant, after which it was planted in the earth. If it struck root and grew it was a favourable omen for the child's page 365future. Such a tree, he adds, was called a kawa. This word often appears in accounts of native ritual. Certain charms were styled kawa, such as the kawa ora, kawa pa, kawa waka, kawa whare, and kawa mo te riri. The first of these was a charm to endow a person with spiritual and physical welfare; the second was to promote the prosperity of a village home and its inhabitants; the third did the same for a new canoe, the fourth for a new house, and the fifth was recited over men about to engage in fighting. The kawa moana was connected with sea-voyaging. In some at least of these ceremonies a branchlet was used as in the tohi rite, and seems to have been alluded to as a kawa. In the case of a new house, canoe, or fortified village the rite seems to have included a lifting of the tapu that had hitherto pertained to it. The expressions kawa ora and tu ora are both applied not only to a rite and charm or invocation, but also, apparently, seem to equal mauri ora (the sacred life-principle). The term uru ora is sometimes employed in a similar sense, as also is kauru ora. Both kawa ora and tu ora are applied to the charms repeated over an infant in the tohi rite with the object of endowing it with physical, intellectual, and spiritual welfare; they endowed the child with the desirable quality or condition termed hauora. The tira ora was a similar rite.

A peculiar institution known as tuapa tamariki is reminiscent of the kawa birth-tree and the material mauri, a form of talisman. It was evidently not a universal usage, and possibly only a local one. As Tamarau, of Tuhoe, explained it to me, it was a hewn piece of timber set up as a post at the time a child was born. A tohunga was employed to perform a certain rite over it in order to endow it with power to ward off all evil influences from the child. The belief seems to be that the post absorbed the semblance of the vitality and general welfare of the child, including that of its sacred life-principle, and protected them from all harm. Hence it served as a mauri.

The turakanga rite referred to at p. 64 of Shortland's Maori Religion and Mythology is evidently that known as tira ora to the Tuhoe Tribe. At p. 39 of the same work appears an interesting account of a rite performed over a woman who experienced difficulty in feeding her child. Into this curious ceremony also aspersion entered. In vol. 11 of the Journal of the Polynesian Society, at p. 203, is an account of rites connected with birth at Niue Island.

I am inclined to think that tuora may be written as one word, as being practically equivalent to waiora and hauora. The wai of waiora is probably the vai (to be) of eastern Polynesia, and in tuora we page 366probably see the tu (to be, to exist) of Easter Island, and tu (life, being, existence) of Mangareva.

The tira ora rite was performed on several different occasions, pertaining to both war and peace. In this performance two small mounds of earth were formed. One of these was known as Tuahu-a-rangi, the other as Pukenui-a-Papa. In each of them was inserted a wand or branchlet of Coprosma, that of Tuahu-a-rangi being the tira ora (representing life), and that of Pukenui the tira mate (representing death). The former mound, and wand or sprig, represents the male sex—welfare and life; while the others represent the female sex—earthly matters, death and misfortune. Rites performed at these mounds caused all misdemeanours, the taint or effects of all wrong acts of the subjects, to be absorbed by the tira mate, leaving sucl. subjects in a clean, pure condition intellectually and spiritually. The priest then overthrew the tira mate and left the tira ora standing. This rite was certainly of an absolutory nature.

The use of small mounds of earth entered into several rites of yore. In the popular version of the origin of man Tu-matauenga formed an image of earth, which he vivified, and which developed into Tiki, the progenitor of man. Prior to forming the image, Tu fashioned a mound of earth and thrust into it two green branchlets that represented life and death. This looks like the tira ora rite, but there is no explanation of its connection with the image-making. (See Journal of the Polynesian Society, vol. 14, p. 125.)

* At this juncture the priest holds up the child as explained above.