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The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 14, Issue 9 (December 1, 1939)

The Witch's Tiki — A Story of Maori Magic

page 17

The Witch's Tiki
A Story of Maori Magic

Harata Te Kumi, the wise woman of the West Coast, was one of those exceptional Maoris of her sex who combined with the sacred mana of a noble pedigree strong intellectual powers and a determined will. She refused to accept a tribal standing inferior to that of the men. When the elders met in council she made her views known; she became the woman's voice and she did not hesitate to oppose the highest chief.

But it was rarely necessary for her to play critic in matters of clan policy. Her part was less obtrusive, but all the more influential, because it was for the most part played behind the scenes. She was a ruahine, a wahine mohio, a kuia matakité; that is to say, she was regarded as being possessed of certain occult knowledge, she was psychic and clairvoyant. She had been instructed in hidden sacred lore by her mother, who also was a wahine mohio, and by an elder who was a tohunga. Her mother was the eldest child of her family, and Harata in turn was the eldest of many children. It was her part as the ruahìne to participate in such ceremonies as removing the tapu from a new carved house, or a new canoe; in her the female element in all nature had its priestess. She was a seeress; she dreamed dreams of strange import; she beheld trance visions whose meaning she interpreted to the people. So wise a woman was a source of strength to any tribe, especially in the old war days.

This exposition of Harata's gifts, both inherent and acquired, is necessary as an explanation of the mingled respect and fear with which she was regarded by the community. She was of the aristocratic line in half a score of tribes, but she had the strongest sympathetic alliance with the weakest of all, the remnant of one of the tribes harried and slaughtered by the conqueror Rauparaha. She took those people, the Muaupoko, under her protection, so far as she could give it. She was nearly eighty when I saw her in the early Nineteen-hundreds at Muru-whenua, but her form was straight, her eyes bright and often glittering with animation when she spoke; the carefully carved lines of tattoo emphasised the firmness of her lips and chin. A mako shark's tooth with its dab of red sealing-wax hung from one ear; from the other a greenstone pendant dangled by a black ribbon. But the greenstone tiki of fame that had descended to her through many generations from mother to daughter was missing from her neck. I heard its story, not from Harata, but from one of her kinswomen, a kuia mohio like herself.

The Collector.

Three miles inland from Harata's home on the beach there was a lake, and on the shore of this lake among the hills was the showy new house built by Compton, the land agent, Maori agent and interpreter, dealer in stock, timber, Maori antiques, native bird skins, and anything else that promised profit. Everything turned to money in Compton's acquisitive hands. (Compton, by-the-way, is a fictitious name, for the purpose of this factual story). He was perfectly unscrupulous, a highly respected citizen who would have a grand funeral when he was finally compelled to loose his grip on his many possessions.

One of his most profitable sidelines of commerce was dealing in Maori greenstone treasures. In one way and another he had gathered into his private museum most of the older pounamu artifacts on the coast. There were splendid ancient patus or meres, shaped long ago on the coast of Greenstone Land, which had passed through many hands by process of war or barter. There were beautiful pendants, and the curious pekapeka, that eardrop fashioned in the form of the native bat.

Most numerous of all were the tiki (or heitiki when worn suspended from the neck), the prized adornment of the high-born women. Compton had more than a score of these, and like most collectors, he was greedy for more. There was always a good market for such treasures and for the Maori bird skins too. Compton did business with most of the large museums in Europe and America. This was in the days of free trade in native birds and everything else Maori. The money he made from the massacred huia alone would have built that big house of his.

Greenstone Treasure.

There was, however, one heitiki that all Compton's coaxings and all his tricks of the trade could not add to his collection. It was the largest worked Greenstone of that kind that he had seen. It was a kahurangi, of deep green, and flawless. The carved grotesque was fashioned in the customary pattern; the contorted little figure with its head cocked on one side, its feet drawn in under it. To the Maori it represents the origin of mankind. The first human being was Tiki; and the figure is the unborn child. This precious kahurangi page 18 page 19 was held highly sacred, for it had rested on the bosom of many a chieftainess cold in death, and had been buried with her and disinterred again, cleansed and ceremoniously freed from tapu; and worn again by the next of the line. Now it was Harata's; she wore it on a cord of twisted flax about her neck. It had a name, embodying a tradition; it was Panirau, which means “Many Orphans.”

Compton proceeded to acquire that tiki. He began by offering Harata £5 for it. She refused with scornful and contemptuous words, as Compton had anticipated.

“You are quite right,” he said. “It would be very wrong to sell your most sacred possession for money. Indeed, it would be selling your ancestors. I only offered you money in order to try you; I know £50, or £500, would not tempt you to part with it.”

“Money! Money—everything is money with you pakehas,” said Harata, with increasing indignation. “What is money to me? You must not speak of my tiki and your filthy money in the same breath. It is tapu beyond expression; it has a wonderful mana, as you surely know. When I die it will lie on my breast; and it will go to my granddaughter after me, for her mother is dead, and to her children after her.”

The Luck-Bringer.

“That is well, old woman,” Compton replied. “Enough of that. No more about money. But I have something to ask you. My wife is with child; if all goes well she will give birth to it in three months. I am anxious about her, for it will be her first child. Now, your heitiki is a bringer of good fortune. The image of man is laid on the body of a woman with child to mould and assist the unborn one and cheer the mother. I have many a tiki, but they are dead; they are long cut off from the living; their mana has departed. But yours holds the life of man within it still. Will you not lend it to me for a little while, so that it may rest on the bosom of my wife, to give her good cheer and fond hope, and to give of its life to the growing child within?”

This and much more Compton said, in his persuasive way, and with the Maori idioms and allusions that went with such an appeal.

Business Methods.

Harata listened, with a doubting mind. Her experience of Compton tallied with that of most other Maoris on the coast. The land on which the pakeha lived had been theirs. His method was to lend them a little money and take a mortgage over land to which a clear title had been established in the Land Court, where Compton often acted as agent for the tribe. Bit by bit he had added to his acres, until the choicest parts of the tribal land were now his.

The original owners had only a vague idea of the process by which they had been separated from their old homes. There were recollections of grand sprees, some fine clothes, a smart buggy, a tangi or so.

Harata knew all about that. She had needed money urgently for the expenses of the customary hospitality to mourners when one of her young relatives died. Compton, like the Irish village “gombeen man” was always ready to oblige. The transaction was perfectly satisfactory to the financier. Harata received and spent her fifty pounds; Compton presently secured a full title to land worth ten times as much; no, nearer twenty times. Everything had been legal, perfectly legal; not the slightest ground for complaint or appeal to any authority. But Harata realised, helplessly, that she had been swindled. All her Maori wisdom availed nothing against the commercial cunning of the white man.

“Now,” Compton coaxed, “you'll let me have Panirau, won't you. Only for three days, I promise you. Just for the sake of the mother and the child. It will be a boy, I hope, and your tiki will help it to be a fine big strong man like me”—and Compton laughed and expanded his lungs and slapped himself on the chest.

(Photo., H. Farmer McDonald). St. Mary's Anglican Church, New Plymouth. In the foreground are shown the graves of the British soldiers who fell in the Maori War in Taranaki.

(Photo., H. Farmer McDonald).
St. Mary's Anglican Church, New Plymouth. In the foreground are shown the graves of the British soldiers who fell in the Maori War in Taranaki.

Harata's scornful lips and narrowed eyes said as plainly as words: “Maminga! Tinihanga!” which is to say, in the pakeha vernacular, “Humbug.”

But the Maori resistance, as usual, was broken down by the persistence of the pakeha appeal. When Compton rode home that evening the precious pounamu Panirau was in his pocket— and he intended it to remain there, or in his safe, until he had mailed it securely to a great museum whose discriminating directors paid well for the Maori artifacts supplied by so successful an agent as Compton.

The collector had not really intended to use the tiki in the way he had described to Harata. No, he would get Panirau off to London by registered and well-insured packet without delay. But as he greeted his wife a thought struck him: “Why not? It can't do any harm.”

Wife and Tiki.

“Laura,” he said, “you remember Harata, down at the beach, the old girl who knows all about bush medicines and things, and leads the ceremonies at the tangis. Well, she sends her aroha page 20 to you and she has lent me her heitiki of wonderful mana, that brings luck and safety to mother and child. Her mother and her mother's foremothers for generations have worn it when they were with child; it strengthens them both. Now, let me hang it round your neck; and later on, you know, you should fasten it on your waist, or thereabouts, that's the Maori way.”

“How good of Harata,” said Mrs. Compton. “It was thoughtful of her. I must send her a little present when you return the tiki.”

“Oh, not yet, not just yet,” said Compton hurriedly. “Plenty of time. Must let its influence become gradually felt, you know—the greenstone image of the unborn child resting on the human one.”

“How curious,” said Laura, meditatively. She took the heavy amulet in her hands and looked at it intently. “What an ugly little thing it is! I hope my baby won't look like that, with its head all on one side and its tongue out.”

“Oh, no, that's before it sees the light. The Maoris knew all about the human anatomy. Trust the old cannibals for that.”

Laura shuddered. “I'll wear it if you like, but I don't want to look at it long. It feels so cold and uncanny on my breast. Is it true that they place these things with the dead when they are buried, and then dig them out again for the bone-scraping?”

Compton replied that they did. It was the custom to bury the greenstone with its wearer and disinter it after about a year, when the next of kin took possession and wore it. That was what gave it its rich old tone and its smooth surface as if it had long been polished with fine oil.

“Oh, no more of it! I think you had better return it to Harata tomorrow, or I'll be going about with my head on one side. But you have any number of greenstones in your safe. Surely you don't want any more?”

(Govt. Publicity photo.). Looking towards Russell from the grounds of the old Residency at Waitangi, Bay of Islands.

(Govt. Publicity photo.).
Looking towards Russell from the grounds of the old Residency at Waitangi, Bay of Islands.

“Ah, but none like this one, Laura. You must wear it a while for luck.”

Deceived and Robbed.

The three days stipulated by Harata went by, and three weeks, and more. She waited with growing anxiety for her tiki; it was her most precious possession. She sent messages to Compton. Then she went herself and demanded it. Compton was working in his garden. He steered her away from the house, saying that his wife was ill and couldn't be disturbed. “Be patient,” he said, “your treasure is quite safe.”

Next day Compton sent a Maori messenger to Harata with a letter containing five sovereigns. His wife, he wrote, would not part with the tiki, at any rate not yet, and the five pounds was just a little present by way of remembrance and gratitude.

“He lies!” cried Harata, in a fury. To the messenger: “Take this gold back to the pakeha and throw it at him. Or throw it in his lake or in the ditch.”

The wise woman realised now that she would not see her treasure again. She had been fooled long enough; now by sense of intuition she was sure.

She and her people had been deceived and robbed time and again by the smooth-spoken pakeha. Now it was her turn. Her hot anger passed; a cold determination to exact payment took its place. Utu she would have, but not filthy white man's money. Revenge upon Compton would be compassed, and in the way of her ancestors. She had all the wisdom and the magical arts of page 21 the priestess at her command. Compton should suffer, and if his wife and soon-to-be-born child suffered, too, the stroke of revenge would be all the heavier.

The Sorceress

From that day onward for many days Harata's thoughts were concentrated on wreaking retribution. She gave herself up to the dark world, the powers of sorcery, the occult rites and magic incantations, the recital of which released curses upon curses. She spent her days and nights in solitude, away from her people; she fasted; her whole powers of brain and heart were directed upon that house by the lake. Well she knew the fatal efficacy of projected thought, exercise of will power for good or for ill. She was sustained by her intense faith in the deadly potency of the karakia that she repeated and mentally projected against her enemy.

Night after night the priestess sat by the waters of Whiro, the dark god, the spirit of wizardry. She set up her wands of incantation, beside the sacred spring, where the ancient tuahu, the altar-like white stone, stood; the tapu place where none but herself could set foot. The image of her precious and lost treasure was ever before her; it gave added force to the curses that she launched, borne on the resistless current of her hate.

* * *

The Makutu'd Child.

The first-born son of the Comptons came into the world with the first light of a midsummer morning. Harata knew, even at that moment. “My work is done,” she said to herself. She freed her mind of her witch's work; a calm possessed her soul like the placid face of the deep. She coiled up in her blankets, and slept for a day and a night.

When the infant was placed in Laura's arms by the nurse she wept with the relief and joy of the new mother. She tried to hold it up, but the nurse, saying, “You're too weak yet,” took it and held it before her.

The mother gasped, closed her eyes, looked at it again and fell back. She shrieked, “It's the tiki! Take it away.”

The horrified nurse called Compton. “Look,” she said. “Your wife has fainted. She says it's the tiki. Whatever does she mean?”

Too well Compton knew, when he stared at the newly-born. The tiki it was! It was greenstone Panirau done in the flesh. The head, seeming too large for the body, lolled on one side, the end of the tongue protruded, the feet were curled under it, the tiny hands were held across the body. Certainly all very new babies look like that he thought, except for that helpless head twisted to one side. But he understood all now—more than he could ever tell his wife. He knew of Harata's secret powers. This was her revenge for his trickery. His son—his only son.

Laura would never forgive him. That accursed tiki! Yet his next thought was an evil satisfaction that he had had his way and added to his gains.

Laura, hysterical, raving against her husband, refused to look at the child again. Soon, however, she calmed down and at the nurse's entreaties nursed the grotesque little thing. Presently she was kissing it and crying over it, murmuring pet names. Compton, relieved, told the nurse, “The youngster will grow out of it. If he doesn't the doctors will put it to rights.”

(Govt. Publicity photo.). At anchor in peaceful Dusky Sound, South Island.

(Govt. Publicity photo.).
At anchor in peaceful Dusky Sound, South Island.

* * *

The little Compton did not “grow out of it.” The doctors said it would not do to interfere with Nature; they seemed chiefly interested in the child as a kind of scientific exhibit; an example of the power of ante-natal suggestion. Compton had told them of the tiki incident—withholding half the truth.

The boy grew to manhood. He carried for life that tiki-like twist of head. His mother died while he was still a boy, mourning always over the one she loved more than any other creature in the world. There was a lovable quality in the gnome-like boy. Even old Harata, muttering her karakia, would have undone the harm she wrought, but that was beyond her powers. She outlived them all. The boy who was beloved by everyone who knew him, the more because of his deformity, died in his young manhood, a student and recluse.

Compton himself was not long in following the others. He may have repented of his ways. The only indications that he did was the fact that he sold every scrap of greenstone in his safe and all the Maori articles scattered through his house. He did not give that museum money to charity, or to the churches. And whatever became of it, it is certain that Harata was not a beneficiary. She did not even receive that miserable five pounds in gold money that she so contemptuously returned to Compton. He was not the man to be troubled by twinges of the commercial conscience.