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Maori and Polynesian: their origin, history and culture

Ancestor-worship and the Sense of the Supernatural — inspire it

Ancestor-worship and the Sense of the Supernatural
inspire it

(7) There is at the bottom of this luxuriance of terrific figures the idea of ancestor-worship. For there was great confusion in the native mind as to the destiny and character of the spirits of their relatives and friends, arising from page 196the coalescence of different racial beliefs as to the world and the life beyond death. In the midst of it there was the constant, steady belief that the dead were conscious of, if not present in, the domestic and other life of their descendants. And, as in all primitive religions, propitiation mingled in a singular way with terror and shrinking. Both feelings seem to find scope in these carved goblins. And over and above the spirits of ancestors and friends, to conciliate or drive off, there was a special class of mischievous demons to guard against in the housethe spirits of the unborn, who tried to take revenge on the living for the wrong done them in having died before birth. The Maoris were afraid of the doings of these; and doubtless their neck ornament, their much-prized heirloom, the hei-tiki, that in its semi-human, sometimes chaotic, outlines, head thrown on the shoulder, and limbs crowded together, suggests a stage in the development of the human embryo, was worn as an amulet to keep off these evil spirits.

(8) As a rule their house-carving has an ancient under-world significance, only now and again the more abstract gods being introduced, as for example the deities of singing, dancing, and oratory in one lintel. It is quite different with their kumetes and their carved boxes; they are often supported by two human figures; and in carving these not only do the artists show keen humour, but also a fine appreciation of truth to nature and human anatomy. The kumete in the Auckland Museum, with the wrestlers stretching over it, could not have been better done by the best European art-schools. In the house-carving there is no animal figure introduced that is not composite or monstrous, a bird-headed snake or a snake-headed lizard. These taniwhas, or chimeras, are evidently meant by their monstrosity to suggest the supernatural. But there is no hint of the dog or the rat, with which the Polynesians were so long familiar, although they page 197believed that the dog went to their Hades, albeit by a separate route. There may be a reminiscence of a domestic fowl, which many of the islanders had before the six canoes left in the bird-head of some of their monsters; but it is more likely to be a reminiscence of the moa, or of the immense bird of prey, the pouaka, of South Island legend; or, still more likely, a relic of that composite bird-headed divinity, which we meet in Easter Island, and which must have been common at one time to all the islands.

(9) And here that perennial problemthe three-fingered hand of the old carved figuresmight perhaps find a solution. In almost all cases the three fingers are widely separated, like the claws of a bird, and in a carving from the front of a foodstore in the Auckland Museum in which the central goblinesque figure is threatened by the bird-headed chimeras, it is difficult to distinguish the hand of the human figure from the claws of the monsters; that to the right has actually four fingers to its claw, and the hand of the human figure has on the point of what would be the middle finger in a man's hand a spur, or backward projection, a feature that appears in the hands of many of those monstrous images, though occasionally on the little finger. In most of the carved human monsters there is really a fourth finger, or rather spur, concealed on the other side of the weapon or limb grasped; the point of it often appears. It is possible that this claw-like appendage may be meant, like the wings sometimes set on the shoulders of our saints and spirits, to indicate that death has given to the dead something of the bird in its power of transit through the material world; it may suggest, like the bird's heads of the taniwhas, an element and a power that are beyond ordinary nature and beyond the human. Certainly the three fingers were considered by the old carvers a sacred essential, to depart from which seemed to them sacrilege.