The Maori As He Was : A Brief Account of Maori Life as it was in Pre-European Days
The term tohunga, as understood by the average European resident, denotes a shamanistic humbug; but the word simply means an expert or adept, and not necessarily in sacerdotal matters. Thus a tohunga matatuhi is a seer, but a tohunga whaihanga is a carpenter or canoe-maker, and a tohunga ta moko a tattooing-artist. The higher class of priests were tohunga ahure wa and tohunga tuahu. page 74 Other terms were tohunga puri and tohunga kiato; while tohunga makutu and ruanuku denoted a wizard—dealer in black magic. The title of pouwhiro was applied in some parts to a high-class priest, and that of horomata to one of the third grade. Those engaged in learning the higher type of oral traditions, and in acquiring sacerdotal lore, were known as pia, taura, and tauira at different stages of their progress. These tohunga of the highest class did not indulge in shamanistic jugglery or black magic. Thaumaturgic performances were the province of the tohunga kehua (a charlatan, an empiric and imposter).
The upper orders of tohunga were the conservers of all superior versions of tribal lore, and transmitted such knowledge orally down succeeding generations. Youths of superior intelligence and memorizing-power were selected to be trained as tohunga. The teaching of matters pertaining to religion, cosmogony, the origin of man, &c., was an extremely tapu business, and such men as these tohunga remained tapu for life. Those of the low class were but shamans and wizards, and never acquired any knowledge of an esoteric nature. Many of them, especially those dealing with atua of the fourth class, were not in any way trained men, but merely imposters of the shaman type. There was a world of difference between the low-class sorcerer and the priests of the cult of Io.
The position of tohunga of the superior class, priestly experts, in the tribe was an important one. In many cases they were members of the more important families, and so possessed two forms of prestige. They took part in the conduct of all tribal affairs, and in war their assistance was, of course, indispensable in connection with divination and the many ceremonial performances. They were the historians and record-keepers, the conservers of old-time ritual, and astrologers. The tohunga occupied the place of the doctor, the military leader, the agricultural expert, and many others.
When performing any tapu ceremony a priest might not wear any clothing, his covering being confined to a rude apron of green twigs. Some European observers have thought that these priests were acquainted with ventriloquism. Many of them were rhapsodists in connection with their practice of matakite, or second sight, and prophecy. These prophetic utterances or oracles were often delivereed to the people in the form of short songs. When they pertained to war—a proposed raid—these were often adopted as war-songs, and were sung during the page 75 page 76 performance of the war-dance. A few students of Maori life and customs are inclined to believe that many of the old-time tohunga were acquainted with hypnotism and telepathy; that they possessed certain phases of knowledge and powers not usually attributed to barbaric folk; also that the many karakia or formulae employed were really a form of medium between a mental process and its object. Thus the karakia makutu, or spells of black magic, acted as a connecting-link between the innate powers of the wizard and the object to be affected by them. The object might be a person to be slain, a tree to be blasted, a stone to be shattered. A certain element of Asiatic mysticism is assuredly found among the Polynesians, and certain strange eastern ceremonial acts—fire-walking, for example—were practised in Polynesia and New Zealand.
It is a noteworthy fact that the Maori of these isles never erected any form of edifice wherein to perform religious ceremonies; he ever preferred to conduct such in the open. The stone pyramidal structures of Tahiti were unknown here, as also were the stone platforms of Tonga. The most ever done by the Maori to mark his tuahu, or places where religious rites were performed, was to set up a rough unworked stone or stones, and a rude platform of sticks on which offerings were placed. Among the illustrations prepared for Mr. White's Ancient History of the Maori is one entitled “A tuahu and six hara.” This is not a New Zealand item, but represents a sacred place at Tahiti. It appeared in Cook's Voyages, and later in the works of Ellis and Rienzi. This dislike to erecting any form of sacred edifice for the performance of tapu ritual, the strong preference for the open air when dealing with the gods, was a very marked characteristic of the Maori. It tends to explain the absence of archeological remains of interest in New Zealand, of stone buildings, for among similar barbaric folk such erections are in many cases connected with the religion of the people; they pertain to ceremonial religion, or the dead. The objection of the Maori to fashioning any images of his gods for public exhibition has likewise deprived us of such interesting objects as the stone sculptures of Easter Island and other regions.
One of the few occasions on which highly tapu ritual was recited within a building was when scholars were being taught the venerated tribal lore in the school of learning. A building used for this purpose contained an ahurewa, which name denotes an exceedingly tapu place whereat priests performed religious ceremonies. The generic term page 77 for such places is tuahu, and there were different kinds of them, each of which possessed a specific name. Inasmuch as no building was erected, it is not easy to ascertain what the difference amounted to.
Many ceremonies were performed at the wai tapu of a village community. This was a stream or pool in the vicinity that was resorted to in many cases where immersion or some other form of lustration was practised.
Fig. 22.—A tuahu, or wahi tapu (sacred place), in Rotorua district, whereat religious rites were performed. Marked only by unworked stones set up. Each stone represents a certain atua (god). Now overgrown with rarauhe (bracken—Pteris)