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The Maori As He Was : A Brief Account of Maori Life as it was in Pre-European Days

The Whare Wananga

The Whare Wananga

In pre-European times the Maori had evolved a peculiar institution in the form of a school of learning. In order to preserve tribal lore it was necessary that it should be taught to a certain number of young men of each generation, hence the institution known as the whare wananga and Whare kura. Each tribe of importance contained certain men skilled in tribal history, in long-conserved myth and ritual. To these men were given the task of transmitting the prized lore to the young men selected as pupils. The page 78 subjects taught may be classified as follows: (1) High-class ritual and other lore; (2) historical and other matters of less importance; (3) the arts of black magic. In some cases at least the conservers of what may be termed high-class matter, such as the higher form of ritual and old cosmogonic myths, would have nothing to do with black magic, the art of the warlock. The teaching of all these tapu matters was necessarily itself an extremely tapu business, and no person not engaged in either teaching or learning was allowed to be present. In some cases the instruction was given at some secluded spot away from the village; in others the lessons were conducted in a house that was put under tapu and to which thee public had no access for the time.

The whare wananga, or house of occult lore, was an ancient institution. The original one, known as “Rangiatea,” was situated in the uppermost of the twelve heavens. The first one on earth was erected by one Rua-te-pupuke, who is the personification of knowledge, and was situated in the original homeland of the Maori. The name of this house of learning was “Whare-kura,” which name is often employed as a synonym for whare wananga. In this house was conserved all the tapu knowledge of the three “baskets” of the wananga, or esoteric lore obtained by Tane from the Supreme Being. Another house constructed by Whiro, and named “Tai-whetuki,” was devoted to the conserving of all noxious ritual, arts of black magic, all arts and knowledge pertaining to evil and death. From that remote period man has ever constructed and utilized these houses of knowledge, says the Maori, even to the time when the arrival of Europeans broke down ancient customs and practices. In whatever lands the Maori of yore sojourned, such places were utilized, and the priestly experts who presided over them became the keepers of tribal records and national history. In his settlement of Polynesia the Maori was compelled to dwell in isolated far-sundered communities, and then each one had to preserve its own lore as it best could. Some communities seem to have succeeded much better than others. In New Zealand the institution was kept up faithfully by the principal tribes, and we have the names of many of the old houses. The Takitumu folk of the eastern side of the North Island were perhaps the most advanced in regard to this mode of preserving knowledge: Some of the whare wananga were famous for many generations; such as the “Ra-wheoro” at Uawa. In such cases the actual house was rebuilt when it fell into disrepair, for it was not a page 79 Maori custom to repair a house. In other cases the whare wananga was but a name and a system; no special house bore the name, and the knowledge pertaining to it might be taught in the open air or in any house set apart for the purpose.

East Coast natives tell us that there were three schools of learning in former times in that region. In one was taught what was deemed high-class matter only, in another ordinary tribal history, and in a third the arts of black magic. A learner made his own choice as to which “basket” of knowledge he would acquire. It is certain that different houses were not erected in which these subjects might be taught.

A considerable amount of ritual pertairred to these instructional courses, as also some very peculiar customs, and scholars had to show that they had successfully memorized the matter taught. After each lesson the scholars had to be freed from tapu ere they could return to their homes. Some of these scholars became priestly experts in the sense of practitioners, but not necessarily so.