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Fairy Folk Tales of the Maori

Chapter IV — Whanawhana of the Bush — A Tale of the Fairy Folk

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Chapter IV
Whanawhana of the Bush
A Tale of the Fairy Folk

This is one of the many tales of the Nehenehe-nui, the forest and its people, told me by the old man Te Pou. More than most natives was he saturated with the spirit of the bush and the strange lore of the bush life and elusive bush tribes. He was a true Peter Pan, for all his tattoo and his grey hairs. Had he been a matter-of-fact unimaginative pakeha he might of course have explained away those quaint old tales of the Patu-paiarehe and their doings by referring them to a period when native tribes vanquished in war were driven into the rugged mountains, there to live a life of seclusion varied by occasional guerrilla raids upon the dwellers in the open country. But Te Pou has the soul of a poet.

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It is not so very long ago (said my old tohunga friend) since two ancestors of my hapu lived over yonder on the western side of the Waipa River, on the narrow levels page 56 at the foot of the Hakarimata Range. They were husband and wife; the man was Ruarangi, the wife, a young handsome woman, was Tawhai-tu. Their home was a carved house called “Uru-tomokia.” Their cultivation where they grew their kumara and potatoes was at the edge of the forest; in fact it was partly surrounded by forest, and the tall rimu and rata stretched their arms over the fringes of the garden plots, for the Maori liked the protection of the high timber for his crops; it saved them many a frost. Into this cultivation one day went the wife Tawhai-tu to dig potatoes for the evening meal. She filled a large kit with the riwai, and then she sought a flax-bush wherefrom to make a kawe or sling to fasten her heavy basket upon her shoulders for the journey to the hamlet of thatched huts where she and her husband dwelt. She could find no flax, therefore she plucked some of the long tough leaves of the wharawhara, growing in a low tree fork, and these leaves she split and knotted for shoulder-straps.

Now, as Tawhai-tu went about her work, she was watched all the time by a strange man who crouched within some low thick page 57 bushes at the forest-edge. He was a man of wild aspect, with long hair that fell upon his shoulders and was confined at the back with a cord of mountain flax, and the curious thing about his hair was that it was of a reddish or rather coppery tinge, with a glint of dull fire in it. He was a Patu-paiarehe, that is to say a fairy—he was not a man of the Maori people. His home was the bush, and in it he hunted his food. This day he hunted not food but women, for he sought a wife, and it was his fancy to seek for one among the tribes of the Maori. So he stalked the outskirts of Maori settlement for such straggling females as might suit his taste, and here before him was the most desirable one he had ever set eyes upon. For surely Tawhai-tu was a beauty as she sat there unconscious that she was almost within hand-grasp of a Patu-paiarehe. She wore but a waist-mat of flax, for the day was warm and windless, and her well-rounded charms of breast and hip and limb set the man of the mountains on fire for possession of her.

As silently as a night-owl stealing upon a nestling in a hollow tree, so silently the fairy hunter crept up behind the young page 58 woman. He sprang upon her, silenced her before she had time to scream, and aue! while still dazed from the sudden capture she found herself in the depths of the gloomy bush, being borne swiftly through the forest in the wild man's long powerful arms.

Now an even more terrifying thing happened. The fairy with his beautiful burden had gained the summit of a small hill in the forest; its top was clear, in a circle as if artificially formed. This circle Tawhai-tu knew, for all she had heard, must be a meeting-place of the fairies, and therefore tapu. She knew by now, also, that her captor was a Patu-paiarehe—he was not of this Maori world.

The red-haired fairy sat his captive on the ground and in a high thin voice he recited an incantation, and in a moment the hilltop was enveloped in a thick mist. He seized the young woman again, and in another moment she felt herself mounting into the air, sustained by the fairy's arms. All about her were the mists of the mountains. The pair mounted higher and higher, and at last they came to rest upon the higher peak of the ranges, and Tawhaitu knew now that she must be in the most page 59 secret fastnesses of the Patu-paiarehe tribe, on the summit of Mount Pirongia.

She found herself surrounded by strange forest folk, with fair hair of the ruddy tint called uru-kehu. Their garments were but dangling forest leaves. Their habitations were living trees, the mamaku fern-tree and the nikau palm, arranged in the form of small round houses. Into one of these bowers the fairy lover bore Tawhai-tu and now she knew what it was to become the wife of a Patu-paiarehe.

In the morning, while she lay in a deep sleep made heavy by the incantations of the fairy, she was borne away again through the clouds. She awoke, and there she was, lying upon the fairy mound in the bush—and before her stood her husband Ruarangi.

The pair pressed noses and wept as they took each other's hands, and Ruarangi told how in his grief and alarm at his wife's vanishing he had sought her in the forest, fearing greatly that she had been stolen by a Patu-paiarehe.

“Alas! it is even so!” said Tawhai-tu, and she told the strange tale of her abduction and her flight through the air and her night in the fairy citadel. She told that her page 60 captor's name was Whanawhana—this he had told her when they reposed together, He was the supreme chief of the fairy tribe on Pirongia Mountain, and the name of the forested peak upon which he dwelt was Hihikiwi. Moreover, he had cast a most powerful spell upon her, and the effect of this was that although she would be returned to her husband in the day-time, by night she must become again the bride of the fairy.

The husband and the wife returned to their home, but as the evening approached the thick fogs and mists rolled down from the mountains and all in a moment Tawhaitu vanished from Ruarangi's gaze. The Patu-paiarehe had carried her off again.

In the morning Tawhai-tu was returned to her husband in the same miraculous manner. “Alas!” she said, “I have slept once more with the Patu-paiarehe! His spell is upon me—my will is as the water of yonder river before his incantations and his fairy mana.” And that evening again Ruarangi found himself powerless to hold his wife with him; she vanished in a breath with the cloudy coming of her fairy lord; and as before, in the morning, she stood page 61 weeping on the threshold of the house on the Waipa bank.

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The husband and the wife now resolved to call the tohunga of the tribe to their aid. Ruarangi had watched with spear and stone club to slay the Patu-paiarehe, but what avail are mortal weapons against a fairy chief? He must be fought with charms and potent ceremonies; mere bravery and muscle and spear and club are useless.

The tohunga devised his occult schemes and gave directions to Ruarangi and his wife. “Build quickly,” he said, “a small hut of sapling and fern-tree fronds, and lay across the doorway a heavy timber for a paepaepoto (threshold).”

The shelter was soon built, and then the magician ordered that the timbers of the hut and the threshold should be coated thickly with the red ochre called kokowai. (This is hæmatite earth, mixed with shark oil.) “And paint your bodies also with the kokowai, and smear your garments with it, for it is a thing dreaded by all the fairy tribe.” And this was done, and the odour of the oil-mixed ochre hung heavy on the air.

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“Now,” the tohunga said to the young woman, “kindle an earth-oven in front of the hut and when it is heated pour water upon it and place food in it so that the steam of the cooking will safeguard you from the Patu-paiarehe, for the fairy tribe greatly fear the steam that rises from cooking-ovens.” And this was done.

As the sun went down to its cave over the high shoulder of the Hakarimata Range, and the river mists came curling up to mingle with the mists of the mountain, Ruarangi and his wife Tawhai-tu sat within the red-painted threshold of their hut, holding tightly each other's hands, and repeating the charms that the tohunga had taught them. Without stood the tohunga himself, naked but for a kilt of green flax-leaves, reciting his spells to drive away the fairies. The earth-oven had been opened, and its steam enveloped all the front of the whare.

In a moment there appeared the fairy chief Whanawhana. With him came three of his fellow-chiefs of the bush; their names were Te Rangi-pouri, Tapu-te-uru, and Ripiro-aiti. They came to stretch forth their hands and seize Whanawhana's Maori page 63 wife and bear her off through the clouds to Hihikiwi Peak. But the steam of cooking affrighted them, and they smelled also the odour of the oil and ochre with which everything was plentifully daubed, and they heard the rhythmic mutterings of the priest. So they stood at a distance, and stretching out their arms they sang in chorus a waiata, a chant of lamentation, and Whana-whana cried aloud for the Maori wife whom he had lost. His spell was powerless now; the tohunga had snatched the woman from his grasp. Bitterly he lamented for the desirable Tawhai-tu, and when his chant of sorrow was ended, he and his companions vanished from the Maoris' sight. They melted into the clouds and the forest; and never again did they trouble Ruarangi and his wife. But the song that Whanawhana the Patu-paiarehe chanted as he stood there outside the sacred circle of incantation was well remembered by those who heard it—it was from it that they learned the names of his fellow-fairies—and it is known among all of us to-day. And this, my friend, is the song—--

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But I need not chant it to my readers. Sufficient is it that I have the words of this true fairy lament, and have done them into English, though in the alien dress they lose the subtle sound and colour of the bush. As for Ruarangi and Tawhai-tu, they are no myth; their descendants live on the banks of the Waipa to this day. “You may know them,” says wise old Te Pou, “by the peculiar tinge of the hair in some of the families; it is what we call uru-kehu, because it is distinctly red or copper-coloured; indeed it glistens like gold in the sun.”

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A Chieftainess of the Ngati-Maru Tribe.

A Chieftainess of the Ngati-Maru Tribe.

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Tokahaere: the Walking Rock. (See page 73.)

Tokahaere: the Walking Rock. (See page 73.)