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The Coming of the Maori


page 431


Religion has been defined in various terms to give expression to the divergent opinions of many writers. A simple definition, which appears to be as useful as any, is that it is a system of faith and worship. The Maori shared with his Polynesian kinsmen an inherited belief in the existence of spiritual beings, whom he termed atua (gods). These atua were credited with supernormal powers which could be exercised in helping or opposing man in the mundane affairs of this life. The inward acceptance of their existence and power constituted faith. In order to gain the assistance of the gods in various human activities, acts of homage, ritual chants, and material offerings were made in an organized service which may be accepted as a form of worship.

Though an individual could use some vocal formula towards his gods, an organized ritual was conducted by specialists or priests who were termed tohunga. The tohunga could conduct his ritual at the place where the need arose, much as a chaplain of a higher religion might conduct prayers beside a sick bed or where his particular group happened to be when the help of God was needed. On other occasions, the tohunga sought communion with his god at a sacred place termed a tuahu which served the purposes of an altar. Thus an institution which comprised gods, priests, ritual, sacred altars, and a belief in the immortality of the soul, may lay just claims to the term religion.

Some early writers, through prejudice or ignorance, have stated that the Maori system was a mythology interspersed with magic rather than a religion. This is a distinction without a difference, for the religions of people regarded as civilized also carry their quota of myth and magic. It was inevitable that attempts to describe the origin of nature, gods, and man should fall within the category of mythology. However, myth and magic indicate man's attempt to account for the unaccountable, and they page 432should not be allowed to becloud the real issue. The fact remains that the Maori had faith in their gods, no matter how created, and the functional relationship established between them and their worshippers constituted religion.