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The Maori: Yesterday and To-day

Omens, Tipua and Taniwha

page 215

Omens, Tipua and Taniwha.

Every Maori tribe has its omen-mountain, where lightning flashing in a peculiar manner, particularly in fine calm weather, is read as an omen of death or misfortune. In Waikato and most other districts these mountains are called maunga-hikonga-uira—“peaks where lightning flashes”; in the Urewera country they are known as rua-koha; in the Lakes district as rua-kanapa. A noted rua-kanapa in the Lakes Country is Matawhaura mountain, at the eastern end of Rotoiti; lightning flashes darting downwards from immediately above this peak are interpreted as an omen of death for members of the Ngati-Pikiao tribe, of Rotoiti. Elsewhere, Moehau, or Cape Colville, Rangitoto (the King Country range), Pirongia, Wharepuhunga, Taupiri, are such peaks of omen. Rangitoto is the lightning mountain of the Ngati-Matakore tribe, of the Rohepotae. When lightning flashes straight downwards on that range a chief of the tribe will die.

Te Kauwae—“The Jaw”—the bold ridge, bare of trees, which stretches out from Ngongotaha mountain towards Lake Rotorua, and ends in a steep rock-strewn and fern-clad bluff, sloping abruptly to the plain close to the railway line, is a lightning-mountain of great mana. It is regarded by the Arawa as a place of omen, and it is tapu because of the fact that in the rocky caves and recesses on its face lie the bones of many generations of the people. It was Ngati-Whakaue's burial-place, and it is their rua-kanapa. The portents are read thus: When two flashes of lightning are seen, in fine weather, in quick succession like the opening and closing of one's hand, above the Kauwae Bluff, then a rangatira-taitamariki, a young chief of the tribe will quickly die. Should three or more bright flashes be seen in quick succession, a rangatira kaumatua, page 216 an aged man, is called for by the gods, and will presently pass to the Reinga-land.

When a high chief of the Ngati-Whakaue, Petera te Pukuatua, died at Otaki in 1906, this lightning portent was seen, say the Ohinemutu people. It was a calm still evening, and the people were gathered in the marae in front of Tama-te-kapua, the carved meeting-house, after the evening meal. Suddenly, some of them saw four bright flashes of lightning in quick succession, just above the sacred mountain.

Aue!” they cried, “he aha tera! Ka mate he rangatira!” (“Alas! What is that? A chief will die!”)

There was much anxious speculation that night as to whom the tohu-aitua indicated. Next morning it was explained. A telegram arrived from the South announcing the death of Petera, who, although the head-chief of Ohinemutu, had lived for several years near Otaki, where he had married a Ngati-Toa woman. The old rangatira had left his people and his land, but when at last his spirit left his body it returned to his tribe, say the Maoris, and above the sacred mountain of his homeland it announced its passing by the lightning flashes that all might know, and then it flitted northward on its way to the Leaping-place-of-Souls, the Rerenga-wairua, at the far Land's End.

Strange tales are told about enchanted trees and demon-haunted logs, which sail uncannily about the lakes and rivers, plunging along like the Flying Dutchman, head to wind. Said Nga-Mahanga, of the Ngati-Pikiao tribe, Rotoiti:—

“In my younger days there was an enchanted tree, a sacred taniwha-log, which used to drift about this lake, Rotoiti. Its name was Mataura. It had originally been a pou-tau-koura, that is a post to which the crayfish nets were fastened or stretched page 217 for fishing; it stood on the east side of Pateko Islet, the side facing Tapuwaeharuru village, but it broke adrift and went sailing about the lake, and it was regarded as a taniwha. Its owner was one Kahu-Pukatea, of the Waitaha tribe, and he alone could approach it. It was a tohu-aitua, an evil omen, to see it at close quarters, should one be out in a canoe; it usually appeared to the people only as a harbinger of misfortune or death. Should you see it in a year when war prevailed, it was a sign that there would shortly be a battle in which many lives would be lost. Should you see it in a tau-aio, that is, a year of peace and quietness, it was an omen of misfortune to your tribe in the form of a fatal visitation of sickness or of deaths caused by witchcraft. It was seen floating about, with its head raised above water, in the year of the great fight at Te Ranga, near Tauranga [in the year 1864] when the white soldiers so terribly defeated the Maoris and shot and bayoneted many of the Ngaiterangi and also the Ngati-Pikiao of this district, and the Ngati-Rangiwewehi of Rotorua.”

Another eccentric timber-taniwha that used to go cruising round Rotoiti was a totara-log called “Te Upoko-o-Huraki-tai” (“Huraki-tai's Head”). It was a rakau-tipua, a magic tree. It would go sailing about the lake, with a broken branch at one end sticking up above the water, and sometimes when it appeared at Tapuwae-haruru, at the eastern end of the lake, the people would go out to it and would recite karakia or charms to propitiate the spirit which inhabited it and would adorn its branching head with feathers, as if it were a living person.

A kind of Maori banshee was—and perhaps still is—the enchanted log Rangiriri, which, when I last heard of it, lay stranded below Dargaville, on the Northern Wairoa River. Rangiriri is a rakau tipua, page 218 a demon-tree. It is a log of totara, whose erratic cruises up and down the river were looked on by the Ngati-Whatua natives with superstitious dread. Rangiriri used to play some queer pranks on the Wairoa. He would sometimes run into a raft of logs and break it up for sheer mischief. He would be seen steering straight up the river, with his wooden tail sticking up, right against the ebb-tide, or he would take a run down stream in spite of the fact that a strong flood-tide was setting in his teeth. That sort of thing invested him with supernatural attributes. Often, again, a bird, a kukupa (pigeon), or a kawau (shag)—the bird of ill-omen—would be seen perched silently on the log as it ploughed its ghostly way through the yellow waters of the Wairoa. That was a sign that never failed. It told the riverside people that some one of their headmen was soon to die. As fateful and significant an omen as the down-flashing of the summer forked-lightning on the sacred peak of Tutamoe was the appearance of that demon-log at a kainga on the river-bank. When Rangiriri left his bed on the muddy shores and went nosing up the river, it would not be long before the tangi's mournful wail was raised along the Wairoa.

This and other folk-tales of the Wairoa were told me by the chief Te Rore Taoho. He was a wizened grey old fellow, wearing a shark's-tooth pendant in each ear. Squatting beside him in his weatherboard house by the Kaihu's banks, was another veteran, the tattooed, saturnine Hapeta. And the tales came forth of the Taniwha of the Kaipara and Wairoa. There were taniwha and demons of land and water haunting all this district, said the old men, in the days that are past. From the Kaipara Heads right up the Wairoa and the Kaihu, these dragons held page 219 sway. The high clay and sandy hills at the mouth of the Kaipara were once the homes of powerful sea-gods. If a canoe and its crew disappeared there, was it not the work of the water-monster, who raised the angry waves and drew the dug-out and paddlers down into his awful maw? Koia ano! These taniwha must certainly be propitiated if the mariner is to live. And when pakeha ships go to pieces on the Kaipara Heads shoals, who shall say that it is not the work of the taniwha?

The great dragon of the Kaipara was Pokopoko (apparently a deified or taniwha-fied hero of olden days) who dwelt in a cave under a half-tide rock at the western head of the Kaipara River, close to which the white man's steamers pass. Not far away is Shelly Beach, a native settlement, and in its vicinity are the vestiges of a cliff on which once stood the great Okāka Pa. This was Pokopoko's hunting-ground. Here he was wont to assemble his army of sea-monsters, of gambolling taniwha and marakihau; they would gather here and perform their singular evolutions before the dread cavernous eyes of their sea-lord. And he would place his sacred brand on their backs, a mark in kokowai (red ochre), and the wonderful inspection parade of the Maori Tritons would be dismissed. The only taniwha, say the Northerners, who would not bow before Pokopoko and submit to the sea-god's earmark were Niua and Arai-te-uru, who now dwell under the Heads of Hokianga Harbour. Possibly the sea-creatures of Pokopoko's marine parade were a school of blackfish, or of porpoises, or a herd of the vanished sea-lions, which would readily become taniwha to any Maori of a reasonably imaginative mind.

Seven generations ago Pokopoko destroyed the Okaka Pa and all its inhabitants. A tohunga named page 220 Mawe, who cherished a grudge against the Ngati-Whatua people of the Kaipara, journeyed here from the Bay of Islands and invoked the assistance of the Lord of the Taniwha. He performed his makutu ceremonies and repeated his incantations, and called upon Pokopoko to rise and destroy the Pa which stood on the cliff-top. And the monster, responding, roused himself in his salt-sea cave, hung with waving masses of kelp. He raised his voice like the rolling of thunder, and burrowed under the cliffface, and the winds and the waves came at Pokopoko's call, and lightnings flashed and thunder crashed, and in the turmoil of the elements the Pa collapsed, the hill crumbled, tottered and crashed down into the furious surf, carrying with it the people and their dwellings. All perished, and what a feast was Pokopoko's when Okāka fell!