The Coming of the Maori
Symbols of the Gods
Symbols of the Gods
The gods were invisible spirits created by the power of abstract thought, and they were of uncertain form. However, in the creation myth, the gods moulded the first woman into a form like their own. We may assume, therefore, that human beings inherited form as well as life from the gods. Some students doubt the authenticity of the statement and believe that it was incorporated in the myth after acquaintance with the first chapter of Genesis. I see no reason, however, to regard the idea as foreign to page 466Polynesian thought. In some Polynesian myths, gods such as Tangaroa appeared in material human form to mate with human females and produce progeny. Deified ancestors would also convey the idea of human form in the spirit world. There is no indication in Maori and Polynesian myths that a change of form was considered necessary.
Perhaps as a relief from the effort to visualize the unseen, the Polynesians, like other people, selected or created something visible as symbols of their gods. The things selected were natural phenomena, animals, and material objects; and the symbols created were made by hand from wood or stone. The charge made by so many early religious writers that the Maori were idolators who worshipped their symbols as actual gods was probably influenced by professional jealousy.
Natural phenomena. Such phenomena as rainbows, lightning, meteors, comets, and stars were regarded as the visible manifestations of certain gods; and such manifestations were termed aria. The rainbow (aniwaniwa) was the aria of the tribal gods Kahukura and Uenuku. Best has pointed out that mist and fog were the aria of Hinepukohurangi, who was the personification of mist and fog and that, similarly, light rain was the aria of Hinewai, the personification of light rain. It is probable, therefore, that the gods represented by natural phenomena were at first merely personifications and were later elevated to the rank of gods. A personification becomes a god when man regards it as such and invests it with power which he can command by means of ritual and offerings. Thus Kahukura, the personification of the rainbow, became an unseen war god and the visible rainbow became his aria. If the aria appeared across the path of a war party, his priest interpreted it as a bad omen and the war party returned to wait for a more propitious time. If it appeared behind or to the side, the omen was good and the war party proceeded with the conviction of ultimate success. Thus the invisible god, Kahukura, sent his visible aria to give advice to his followers.
An Arawa war god was Makawe, whose aria was a meteor. His priest studied the night sky to read the visible signs of his deity. Lightning as an aria appeared at opportune moments to convey information. Stars as aria shone brightly or grew pale according to the message to be conveyed.
Incarnations. Some gods manifested themselves through certain living creatures, such as reptiles, birds, fish, and insects. They were included in the term aria and may be regarded as incarnations. The incarnations functioned as temporary hosts for the gods who took possession when they had something to communicate or were called on for consultation by their priests on ritual occasions. The favourite reptile was the green lizard which was regarded with superstitious fear. It was the aria of the Tuhoe war god Te Rehu o Tainui and a number of others. The favourite bird was the owl. And of various kinds of fish, the shark was probably the page 467most favoured. Of insects, the mantis (whe) was the aria of Te Ihiotera. The priests professed to interpret the wishes of the gods from the appearance and movements of their living aria.
Inanimate objects. Some symbols consisted of natural objects, such as a particular tree or a lock of hair. One of the Arawa gods was represented by a lock of hair braided with strips of the inner bark of the paper mulberry (aute). Rakeiora, the deified priest of the Tokomaru canoe, was also said to have been represented by a lock of hair. These were also termed aria, but their use was not common.
Manufactured objects. White (104, vol. 1, p. 2) described and figured six staffs (toko) of equal length with a rounded knob at one end and pointed at the other for sticking into the ground. The shafts vary, being straight, corkscrew, zigzag, wavy, and with semicircular bends. White states that they represented the gods Tumatauenga, Tawhirimatea, Tane, Tangaroa, Rongo, and Haumia and that the treatment of the shafts represents certain characteristics of the gods represented, such as the zigzag form of Tangaroa to represent the waves of the sea. White states that the staffs were symbols of the presiding gods in the various schools of learning. The staffs do not look very convincing, but the term toko applied to them is interesting in view of the fact that the material symbols of the gods in Tahiti were also termed to'o, the k consonant being represented by the glottal closure in that group.
Best (15, p. 159) mentions that a priest, when travelling, sometimes used his walking staff (turupou) as a temporary shrine for his god when he wished to consult him. The stick was stuck in the ground and attached to it was a string which the priest tugged now and again to draw the attention of the god. Another name for a staff was tokotoko and, as it resembles the staffs described by White, there may have been an early relationship between the toko staff and the toko gods.
The human figure, whole or in part, was the commonest motif in Maori carving, and complete human figures abounded in the decoration of houses, canoes, village gateways, and memorials to the dead. Many of these represented ancestors but never gods. Though not common, wooden images were made in abbreviated form. Taylor (85, p. 211) described them as wooden pegs about 18 inches long, with a distorted human head on the top and with a lower pointed end that could be stuck in the ground. He further states that they possessed peculiar sanctity from the presence of the god they represented when dressed up for worship though at other times they were ordinary bits of wood.
"This dressing consisted in the first place of the pahau, or beard, which was made by a fringe of bright red feathers of the kaka, parrot,—next of the peculiar cincture of sacred cord with which it was bound; this mystic bandage was not only tied on in a peculiar way by the priest, who uttered page 468his most powerful spells all the time he was doing it, but also while he was twisting the cord itself, and lastly, painting the entire figure with the sacred kura; this completed the preparation for the reception of the god who was by these means constrained to come and take up his abode in it when invoked."
Maru (a): 36 cm. in height, with one shell eye retained. A flax cord, wound around the shaft in straight, transverse turns, was probably added by some former European owner. The head and flax binding are painted red.page 469
Kahukura (b): 37.5 cm. in height with a flax binding in the original "criss cross" pattern. The head and flax are painted red and the lower shaft, black.
Hukere (c): 37 cm. in height with head of unusual shape, mouth with triangular teeth, and two small hands with five fingers each. No binding, upper part painted red and lower part, black. In addition to the name, the locality, Whanganui, is written on the back. As Skinner points out, the head shape, teeth, and pointed lower end resemble those of a skull box in the Auckland Museum.
Maru was a well-known god in Taranaki and Whanganui, and Kahukura was important in some areas. Lack of information regarding Hukere indicates that he was probably a local god in the Whanganui district.
Three other "god-sticks", which have been figured by Hamilton (47, pl. 59, fig. 2) and Best (15, p. 157), were obtained, according to Skinner (70, p. 172), by the Rev. J. Aldred in the 1840's at a village between Patea and Hawera. Percy Smith (79, p. 88), in speaking of the gods brought in the Aotea canoe, says of the same three images: "Some idea of what these images were like may be obtained from the accompanying illustration, which though not copies of the originals brought from Rangiatea, are just the same, and were obtained from the Ngati Ruanui tribe, descendants of Turi and his tribe."
By "just the same", Smith probably meant in general form for the details of the carved heads are much later developments. These three god-sticks fortunately remained in their homeland and are now in the Auckland Museum. I am indebted to Dr. Gilbert Archey for the prints which are reproduced in plate XXIV.
The figures are supposed to represent Tangaroa, Rongo, and Maru. The double-headed figure is 12 inches high, the head, 3.5 inches. It was said to be Tangaroa but Best thought it was more likely to be Rongomatane. One of the single-headed figures is 12 inches high, and the other about 8 inches. The carving of the heads is typically Maori. The lower ends are worn and blunt but were evidently sharpened originally for sticking in the ground. All show signs of having been painted with the red ochre which Taylor referred to as the "sacred kura". The shafts of all three retain an ornamental binding of the same pattern which Taylor figured and which is retained on Kahukura in the Cambridge University Museum.
In the two other god-sticks, the binding commenced at the bottom. The number of courses to complete the pattern depended on the diameter of the shaft; the longer figure requiring but four courses each way, whereas the other required 15 courses. The binding of the short image (Plate XXIV c) was made with a twisted cord which is unorthodox both for Polynesia and New Zealand. It was probably applied after the image ceased to function, by someone who had cord handy instead of braid.page 471
The three god-sticks with the ornamental binding are invaluable specimens though the beard or ruffle of red feathers is lacking other images, without the lashing, have been figured. On the evidence, the god-sticks in the Auckland and Cambridge University Museums can be attributed to the Whanganui and south Taranaki districts. They were probably more widely spread in former times. The form with a pointed lower end and the ornamental braid binding are ancient but the carving of the head has changed with the development in local carving.
The function of the images, according to Taylor (85, p. 213), was to render the cultivations and workers tapu during periods of activity. They were stuck in the ground during the time of planting (tōkanga; to, to plant), when the plants were growing [probably weeding, waerenga], and digging up the crop (hauhakenga). Powerful spells rendered the workers sacred, and they could not leave until the work was finished. Best (15, p. 158) states that in divination, the expert seated himself on the ground and stuck the tiki in the ground, facing him. He tied one end of a strip of flax to the neck of the figure and held the other end in his hand. He chanted his incantations to induce the spirit god temporarily to occupy the image. As he continued his chants, he pulled the string to cause the figure to move and attract the attention of the indwelling spirit to the ritual being chanted. He gave a tug with each request and stuck a piece of wood in the ground to keep tally of his requests.
Stone Images. Figures made of stone occur more frequently than the wooden images, and they have a wider distribution. They were roughly made, but they served their purpose as a temporary abiding place for the deity or spirit whose aid was required. Best (15, p. 161) refers to them as tauranga atua and taumata atua, resting place of gods. Many of them are said to represent Rongo, and they were placed in the sweet potato plantations. One, named Matuaatonga, kept in a little house on the island of Mokoia in Lake Rotorua, promoted the fertility of the kumara crops. As in many of the smaller Polynesian stone gods, little attempt was made to produce an object of art.
Polynesian affinities. Incarnations of the gods were present throughout Polynesia; and in central Polynesia, they were termed ata, which in Maori means shadow. As in New Zealand, the priests interpreted the movements of the incarnations as messages from the gods they represented. In Mangaia, the ata of Tane was the mo'o bird. A follower of Tane, who was being led into an ambush, was warned by a mo'o bird flying down in front of his path twice; but the foolish man took no heed and was killed. In some of the atoll groups, various families have a tapu against certain fish, and it is possible that the fish were originally incarnations of family gods. In Hawaii, some families say that they had a shark ancestor, and, again, it is possible that the shark was originally an incarnation of page 472a deified ancestor. Totemism, meaning human origin from an animal or a plant, was not present as an institution in Polynesia.
Material symbols of the gods were used throughout Polynesia. They varied from natural objects, such as stones, shells, teeth, and human hair, to images carved in wood or stone. Clubs and other manufactured objects were used in Samoa and Tonga; carved slabs decorated with feathers in some of the Cook Islands; and carved wooden images in Rarotonga and Aitutaki of the Cook Islands, Society Islands, Australs, Marquesas, Mangareva, Easter Island, Hawaii, and Tonga. In central Polynesia, the images were termed tiki, in Hawaii, ki'i (tiki). In the Society Islands, the images termed ti'i were abandoned as symbols of the gods but were used by sorcerers to represent their familiar spirits (orometua). The gods, represented by wood covered partly or entirely by a wrapping of sennit, were termed to'o. Thus the terms tiki and toko used for the two types of Maori symbols were brought from central Polynesia by the Maori ancestors. Stone images were made in the Society Islands and Hawaii and they were developed to a large size in the Australs, Marquesas, and Easter Island.
Red feathers were the most valuable offerings to the gods in the Society Islands, and through them, divine power was given to the to'o symbols to which they were attached. Red feathers were also valued in the Cook Islands as decoration for religious symbols. The beard or collar of red kaka feathers used to decorate the Maori images thus followed a pattern derived from central Polynesia. The use of three-ply braid in a decorative wrapping around the staff of the Maori images was also an introduction. The pointed lower end for sticking into the ground was present in central Polynesia and very general in Hawaii. The double human head was a common motif on Rarotongan fan handles and in small stone images in the Marquesas. Painting with red ochre was a local development in New Zealand.