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



We now come to one of the most important institutions of Maori life, and one that not only permeated his religion but also formed a very necessary and effective element in page 83 his social life. Inasmuch as the Maori did not possess a code of civil law, it was necessary that he should have some institution to act as a corrective and coherent power in his social life. The most important of the substitutes employed was tapu. The system of tapu was a series of prohibitions, and its influence was very far-reaching—so much so that it entered into all activities of native life. The laws of tapu affected all crises of life—birth, marriage, sickness, death, burial, exhumation; all industries; and no person in the community was exempt from its stringent rules. To disregard those rules meant disaster to the individual; but the punishment meted out to the transgressor was not inflicted by his fellow-tribesmen—it was imposed by the gods. Such punishment came in one or two forms: either the offender was afflicted directly by some dire tribulation, possibly illness caused by demoniacal possession, or even by death, or the protection of the gods was simply withdrawn from him. In this latter case the offender was still in the most dangerous condition, simply because his sacred life-principle, his mauri, was unprotected and exposed to many serious dangers. That tapu principle became exposed to every ill wind that blows, to all shafts of black magic, to all the malign influences that ever surround man on every side, that are ever ready to assail him. Unless a person in this sorry plight hied him to a tohunga, or priestly expert, and had such disabilities removed, he would probably worry himself into an early grave. If a seer disregarded a rule of tapu, he at once lost his power of second sight and became kahupo, or spiritually blind—that is, he would be unable to see the portents and signs by means of which the gods warn man of dangers that threaten him, and enable him to peer into the future. It is a singular fact, and one frequently noted by European sojourners among the natives, that a Maori can “die whenever he wants to,” as some put it. This means that when a native believes that he is stricken by, say, a spell of black magic he is almost assuredly doomed, and will not live long.

The word tapu is often explained as bearing the meaning of “sacred,” but that may be said to be one of its minor or secondary meanings. The term always implies a prohibition, and the rules of tapu are practically a series of prohibitions. A tapu place is a probibited place; a tapu person is a person who must keep aloof from others; a tapu house cannot be used for common purposes, as cooking or eating. To pollute any tapu place or person, as by page 84 contact with cooked food, is a serious matter, and places the offender in a very dangerous predicament. It is dangerous because he has offended the gods, and until he has, through the services of a tohunga, placated such gods, his life is in danger. Another phase of tapu is represented by such conditions as are termed “unclean” in the Scriptures. The gods represent the vital power and force of all tapu, they are the backbone of the system, and fear of the gods was the strongest force in Maori life.

The removal of a condition of tapu from place or person was an act that involved some peculiar ceremonies and the recitation of certain formulae. These acts of purification were deemed to be of great importance, and indeed were absolutely necessary, so genuine was the belief in the powers of supernormal beings. The ceremonial lifting of tapu from a newly constructed fortified village or a new house was an impressive act, and included some remarkable ritual chants. The release of a bird during such a rite finds its parallel in India, and tapu was a marked feature of the cultus of Zoroaster, as it is of Indian religions.

The condition of tapu of so pronounced a form as to prevent a person touching food with his hands was not an uncommon occurrence in Maoriland. Such a person was helpless at meal-times, and had to be fed by another, while he had to be particularly careful to avoid pollution of his tapu, a misfortune that might entail the most serious consequences. The head was the most tapu part of a person, and should a very tapu person happen to scratch his head with his fingers, that hand at once became useless, and could not be used until purified—i.e., rendered noa, or free of tapu. If such a person blew a fire in order to make it burn, that fire was thereby rendered tapu, and could not be used for any ordinary purposes. Tapu represents the mana or power of the gods, and is not to be trifled with. It may be said to have possessed a moral force that no other system or institution could have exerted. Montgomery puts this well in his Religions, Past and Present: “Taboo is an important aspect of the phenomena of religion, influencing primitive ethical and social behaviour in general to an extent that makes it in some regions as broad a concept as that of religion itself.”

Early visitors to New Zealand were often entertained by the vagaries of tapu natives, and others who respected the rules of tapu. In many cases Europeans seriously offended natives by unwittingly disregarding such rules. Dr. Savage noted how natives objected to passing along the page 85 tween-decks of the ships where nets containing potatoes were slung overhead. A native on board Marsden's vessel had a plate of rice, a spoon, and a pot of tea placed before him. He took spoonfuls of rice from the plate and emptied them into his hand, from which he ate it. He then poured the tea into his hand and so let it run into his mouth. By acting so he avoided making the vessels tapu, when it would have been necessary to destroy them or deposit them at some tapu place.

Tapu objects, or objects marking a tapu place, were often painted a red colour by the Maori, a custom that also obtained in India.

A stone artifact of unknown use

A stone artifact of unknown use