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Maori Religion and Mythology Part 1



This word embraces any and all ceremonial ritual or formal utterances employed as charms or aids in any way. These range from simple expressions, such as "Kuruki whakataha" repeated by a person who meets with a slight mishap, such as striking one's foot against an obstacle, to the highest form of ritual, such as invocations to the Supreme Being. A karakia may be a meaningless jingle repeated by a child over his toys when playing, or a charm recited by a trapper over his traps, or the ritual of black magic. It may be an incantation, an invocation, or a charm. It may include a scant line of puerile composition, euphonious but apparently meaningless, or be a long chant containing brief references to many acts and scenes in Maori anthropogeny, cosmogony, and other mythopoetic conceptions.

Dieffenbach remarks: "A karakia is a prayer or an incantation used on certain occasions, and in saying this there is generally no modulation of the voice, but syllables are lengthened and shortened, and it produces the same effect as the reading of the Talmud in synagogues." Like most writers on the Maori, Dieffenbach never became acquainted with the higher forms of karakia.

J. R. Forster, who accompanied Cook on his second voyage, remarks of our native folk that "They have rites and customs peculiar to themselves, which they perform on certain occasions; for instance, in forming friendships, and making peace, in announc-page 311ing war, and burying their dead." Again, he writes: "When we were in New Zealand and the man in Dusky Bay was willing to come on board our ship, he pronounced a carmen or speech in very cadenced and solemn manner, which lasted about two minutes, holding at the same time a green branch in his hand. As soon as he had finished his ceremonious formulae he struck the ship with the branch just as he had done before he began the ceremony, and then threw the branch into the ship. In Queen Charlotte's Sound a party of Indians came aboard our ship, whom we had not seen before, and one of them held a green flag in his hand, while another person delivered a long, solemn, and cadenced speech." The above-mentioned rites would be performed in order to avert or remove all evil influences that might emanate from the strange beings with whom the natives were brought into contact. Such rites would be of the tamoe class that deprive a dreaded person or people of power to harm the performers.

Dr. Shortland, in his Maori religion and Mythology, writes as follows: "The term karakia is applicable to all forms of prayer to the atua; but there are a variety of names or titles to denote karakia having special objects…. It will be seen that a karakia is in some cases very like a prayer; in other cases, for the most part, an invocation of spirits of ancestors in genealogical order; in other cases, a combination of prayer and invocation." The use of the word "prayer" is not desirable in connection with these ritual utterances—it is misleading; and they but seldom rise to the level of invocation. This latter term implies a direct appeal to a supernormal power, whereas the vast majority of karakia contain nothing invocatory; the subject-matter is detached and its supposed effect an indirect one. The term "charm" would be much more applicable. Dr. Shortland here gives too much credit to Maori ritual formulae, as he gave too little to their powers of abstract thought. In the appendix to the above-mentioned work, the doctor defines the meaning of the term karakia as follows: "This word, generally rendered by 'charm,' does not signify what the word 'charm' would mean in its popular sense. The word 'invocation' conveys more correctly its meaning; for it is a prayer addressed to spirits of deceased ancestors, in form like a litany." I must, however, still maintain that the doctor assigns to karakia much too dignified a position. Possibly "incantation" would be more appropriate than the term "charm," but prayers or invocations they are not, in most cases.

There is an extension of this peculiar detached attitude that should receive some little attention. Not only were cryptic utterances, page 312composed of expressions unconnected with the subject being considered, believed to have an important indirect effect, but ritual performances were also credited with similar powers. Certain actions and functions of a ceremonial and sacerdotal nature were believed to have also a certain indirect effect on atua, and to influence them in favour of the performers. This aspect of ritual is, of course, of world-wide distribution, and is still in evidence among the higher races of man.

Judge Fenton, in his little work on the origin of the Polynesian race, tells us that "A Maori karakia was an incantation or charm, a form of words which was effective simply by its own innate virtue, without reference to the state of mind of the person using it, and without the interventive assistance of any superior power giving it its effect." Now, I believe that it will be found that—at least in connection with the more important formulae—the possession of mana is essential in order to reap advantage from a repetition of the formula employed, and the innate powers of that mana emanate from the gods. The gods who live for ever are the vivifying force of tapu, and of at least the higher forms of mana. In vol. 14 of the Journal of the Polynesian Society the late Colonel Gudgeon published a karakia employed in certain desperate cases, and continues (p. 122), "I shall not attempt to give any translation of the karakia, but provided always that the tohunga himself has mana it is an invocation of great potency."

Another paragraph in Colonel Gudgeon's paper alluded to above is well worthy of quotation: "Like the Brahmin, the old-time Maori believed that he had the power to overcome his enemies by the mere force of certain incantations which had been handed down to him from his ancestors, and were addressed for the most part to the tribal god. The modern Maori does not now believe that he has this power, for he realizes that however potent the karakia may be when uttered by a man of mana, it is a mere empty form of words when there is no mana tangata to back it. He is too shrewd not to comprehend that the mana which had been the birthright of the Maori from the time of Tiki down to the advent of the missionaries left him for ever on the day that he deserted the religion of his forefathers and embraced Christianity." In these extracts we observe what were the conclusions of one of the ablest writers on the Maori as to the native belief in the power of karakia, and the vivifying force of such qualities and conditions as mana and tapu was believed to emanate from the gods. So firm was the belief of the Maori in mana that those who were held to possess it in a high degree were credited page 313with amazing powers, such as control over, or power to influence, natural phenomena. For instance, such highly endowed men could, we are told, cause thunder to resound, raise or allay a storm, wind, and rain, cause the sun to shine, mist to disappear, and many other things equally marvellous.

Dr. Thomson, in his Story of New Zealand, speaks of the native karakia as "prayers"—of natives praying to their gods—thus giving the reader the impression that such formulae resembled our own prayers; which they certainly do not. Polack, another early writer on the Maori, remarks that these karakia were "gibberish"; and doubtless many of them do seem to be so, but, still, the natives believed them to be effective.

In Jevons's Comparative Religion we note how the ritual of old-time Babylonia resembled that of the Maori folk: "Exorcisms … form by far the larger part of the sacred literature of Babylon preserved to us in cuneiform…. They have prefixed to them formulae which intimate that their effectiveness is due to the power of the gods who are mentioned in the formulae." Of the same people Montgomery tells us, in his Religions of the Past and Present, that "The use of incantations rested upon the widespread view held by people in a primitive state of culture, and surviving into advanced periods, of the power supposed to reside in words as such, when uttered by the properly authorized persons." The present writer feels assured that such power was not believed to reside in the formulary words as such, but that it emanated, directly or otherwise, from the gods: for in such manner did barbaric man build up his systems of ritual; in such channels did his mind work.

It would seem that all ritual acts performed by the Maori were accompanied by some karakia, some form of words, however simple such expressions might be. These formulae appear to have been equally as necessary as any ritual act with which they were connected. In many cases, indeed, no ceremonial act was performed; the desired condition, whatever it might be, was brought about, it was believed, by the mere repetition of the karakia. Now, inasmuch as the quality of mana is—or, rather, was—possessed by different individuals in varying degrees of intensity, it follows that the power to bring about desired results by means of karakia varied in the same manner. Thus, ordinary folk employed the more common charms only, such as were connected with everyday pursuits, ailments, dangers, &c. Such people knew nought of what we may call high-class ritual, that pertaining to the superior gods, to interference with natural laws, &c.

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Concerning the manner in which these ritual utterances were rendered it may be said that karakia of everyday use, as employed by ordinary people, charms of an inferior type, were recited in a rhythmic manner, but not with the careful delivery and modulation of tone that marked the higher-class ritual. Invocations and other forms of appeal to the Supreme Being and the departmental gods, as also some other beings, were intoned by the reciters in a very peculiar rhythmic manner extremely pleasing to the Maori ear. That manner was euphonious, and, to the native ear, was marked by pleasing cadence and modulations of the voice that are almost undetected by our duller organs. A great desideratum was a smooth rhythmical, long-continued flow of words, maintained as long as the reciter's breath held out—and the powers of natives in this connection are very remarkable. In the case of high-class ritual the chanting or intoning was often performed by two tohunga (priests). One of these would, with full lungs, commence the chant, and carry it smoothly on until his failing breath compelled him to desist, when his companion at once took up the recital and carried it on. By this means the longest form of ritual was intoned and concluded without a break; and on this fact great stress was laid. Such a rendering was held to be absolutely necessary to the successful issue of the performance; any hiatus or break, any forgotten or misrendered word, spelled failure and disaster to the native mind. The word tapepe denotes the making of such errors in the recital of ritual matter. Dr. Emerson has told us that "Satisfactory utterances of those old prayer-songs of the Aryans, the mantras, was conditional likewise on it being a one-breath performance." Among our Maori folk the misrendering of an important karakia is said to have brought about the death of the hapless priest. The belief was that such a death was due to the offended gods; and the truth of the matter probably is that the fatalistic spirit of the race would so cause death.

The Maori had prodigious faith in the potency of karakia, as employed by his ancestors. Should one ask a native how his ancestors managed to cross the great stretch of open sea between eastern Polynesia and New Zealand in their small, open craft, he will reply that they did so by means of karakia. These highly effective effusions calmed the rough seas, lulled stormy or adverse winds, and so sped a vessel on her way. Ask him how great forest-trees were felled with rude, thick-bitted stone tools, and he maintains that karakia enabled the task to be accomplished with reasonable despatch. In all page 315activities of life our Maori firmly believed in this marvellous power of ritual utterances, charms, incantations, invocations, all of which he styles karakia. In his paper on the "Tohunga Maori," published in vol. 32 of the Transactions of the New Zealand Institute, Mr. S. Percy Smith seems to hold that, in remote times, the Maori employed karakia as a medium between active mental power and an objective. He apparently believes that the priests of yore practised hypnotism, telepathy, &c., and exercised the power of mind over matter in remarkable ways. Such a process would resolve the karakia employed into a vehicle as between mind and matter: but we cannot accept any theory that dispenses with the gods, whose power, in Maori eyes, was so essential as a vivifying force. The gods endow that man with his powers, his mana.

In some cases the chanters of religious ritual held out extended arms, or pointed towards the east or to the sun with one arm; while in others both hands were held out, open, palms upward, but the elbows kept close in to the side of the body. Other attitudes were adopted in special cases. When any very tapu ritual was to be recited the reciter would remove his clothing and go through the performance in a naked condition, save that he recognised the claims of decency so far as to tie a few green, leafy branchlets round his waist. In his work on northern India Crooke states that natives remove their clothing when about to address the gods, and that pollution is at the root of the matter. This is precisely the Maori attitude. Perhaps the most extraordinary attitude adopted by an officiating priest was that assumed when reciting certain magic ritual, when he stood on his head in a pit, as shown at p. 70 of vol. 16 of the Journal of the Polynesian Society. A similar act is alluded to in vol. 25 of the same Journal, p. 109, though in this case the performer merely thrust his head into a small pit.

We have seen that this most comprehensive term karakia embraces an extensive range of subjects, from childish, meaningless jingles recited by children at play to high-class invocations to the Supreme Being. Our tohunga Maori, or priest, had in his budget a great variety of charms. Thus, he would have one whereby to cure toothache; others to expel demons, to render a person fleet-footed, to slay by means of magic, to cause a flood to subside, a kite to fly well, rats and birds to enter snares, an enemy force to become fainthearted, the land to contract for travellers and to be drawn out for enemies, to stay the sun in its course, to produce thunder, rain, mist, &c., and to cause them to cease; yet others to cause a person to be invisible, to bring ocean monsters to aid distressed mariners, to page 316destroy food products, to remove tapu or cause weapons to be effective, to attract fish or subdue a taniwha, to join a couple or divorce them, to usher a person into the world or consign him to the spirit-world, to ward off magic spells or sharpen a stone tool, to produce good crops or a fine day, to fell a tree or succour a choking person, to instil desirable qualities into a child or put a person to sleep, to cause a woman to conceive or to prevent conception. This list might be lengthened to a tedious extent, for there was scarcely an activity in Maori life but had some form of ritual formula connected with it. The karakia connected with war, agriculture, fishing, woodcraft, magic, &c., are innumerable. In many cases such formulae had special names assigned to them. Thus, in connection with the class of charms termed kawa, each one had its specific name. Again, in relation to the series of fowlers' charms known as kaha, we find that each one had its special name, as Tuota, Motumotu, &c. When living in the Tuhoe district I collected the names of eighty-two such formulae, but many others had no special names, so far as I could learn. These latter would be alluded to in such a manner as karakia tohi (baptismal ritual), karakia tuapa (charm to ward off ill luck), and so on.

Any ritual performance of any importance was performed early in the morning, or about dusk, as a rule, though exceptions to this were bound to occur, as, for example, in time of war. The time generally favoured was about dawn, and the reason lying behind this preference was the very old belief that ritual utterances and acts are more effective when carried out on an empty stomach. Thus, when such performances were conducted in the morning, the people of the village community were not allowed to partake of food, or even to kindle a fire, until the ceremony was over. This primitive superstition anent fasting was introduced into Christianity, and has still much force in the Roman Catholic Church, though almost discarded by less superstitious sects. In his work on the native religions of Mexico and Peru, A. Reville writes thus: "Fasting is one of the most general and ancient forms of adoration. It rests, in the first place, on an instinctive feeling that a man is more worthy to present himself before the divine beings when fasting than when stuffed with food; and, in the second place, on the fact that fasting is shown by experience to promote dreams, hallucinations, ecstasies, and so forth, which have always been considered as so many forms of communication with the deity. It was only later that fasting became the sign and index of mourning, and therefore of sincere repentance and profound sorrow." Among the Maori fasting was practised by near relatives of the page 317dead, by mediums of spirit gods when some oracular utterance was desired, and in a number of other cases. Another rule connected with these ceremonial acts among the Maori was one forbidding men to approach their wives during the performance, and this applied to other phases of tapu. Those persons who took no part in a performance, either as actors or spectators, were enjoined to remain in their huts until it was over, lest their wairua (souls, spirits) be harmfully affected by the powers of the karakia employed.

Notable features in connection with Maori religion and ritual were the institutions of tapu, pollution, purification, conciliation of atua, immersion, sprinkling, confession, absolution, and, as we have seen, fasting. Ceremonial feasts were also common, and formed the concluding act of a great many ritual performances. As to fasting, abstention from food was demanded in many cases wherein a person was concerned in some religious performance, as in connection with war, sickness, death, or any condition or activity into which a state of tapu entered. Purificatory rites were performed in connection with many matters, and the act of whakanoa, or removal of tapu, often comes under this heading. A very interesting rite of this nature was performed over persons who were about to engage in some enterprise that imposed upon participants a condition of intense tapu. Thus, when fighting-men were about to go forth on a raid into enemy country they came under the sway and tapu of Tu, the supreme war-god of Maoriland. It was on this account that a tohunga performed over them a rite in order to render them clear-minded, to endow them with presence of mind and other desirable qualities, and to absolve them from all harmful influences and effects of any misdemeanour, or act offensive to the laws of tapu. In some cases, at least, as we have seen in the foregoing remarks on divination, ethical purity was demanded ere a person was allowed to participate in a rite—a factor that marks the introduction of morality into religion. On the east coast of the North Island, the first act of a tohunga who was called upon to attend a sick person was to call upon his patient to confess all his peccadilloes—all acts offensive to religious or moral laws, all hara and raruraru. This act of confession was followed by an absolutory rite, the performance of which left the patient in a condition of moral and spiritual purity, and so rendered him a fit subject for further ritual performances designed to relieve him. The tapu of the gods appealed to in such cases was the cause of this preliminary purification of the patient. The absolutory rite acted as a wetewete i nga page 318raruraru (a loosening or setting free from all pernicious hindrances), and was known as the hirihiri rite; e ruke ana i nga mate—it removes all troubles and disabilities. When this rite is performed over warriors about to engage in fighting it is called tohi taua. In this case, as in others, it was accompanied by sprinkling with water. Lustral rites were often marked by ablution, sprinkling, or immersion. In the case of sprinkling, as in the tohi taua and some other rites, a green branchlet of karamu (Coprosma) was employed as a sprinkling agent. In his work on northern India Crooke tells us that, among the people of Chota Nagpur, a branch of the karam tree (Neuclea parviflora) was utilized in ceremonial functions—a curious similarity in names.

In some regions when a people suffered from an epidemic, some person was selected to whose body was loosely attached a stipes or stalk of bracken (Pteris aquilina). The priestly expert then recited a charm or invocation over him, and he waded into the water and immersed himself therein. While so covered by water he released the fern-stalk and allowed it to float away. The stalk as it drifted away was supposed to bear with it the evil influences that had been affecting the people. In this case, as in others, the object of the immersion seems to have been complete insulation of the medium or subject.