The Long White Cloud
Chapter III — The Maori and the Unseen
The Maori and the Unseen
Full of the groping of bewildered waves.
THE Maori mind conceived of the Universe as divided into three regions—the Heavens above, the Earth beneath, and the Darkness under the Earth. To Rangi, the Heaven, the privileged souls of chiefs and priests returned after death, for from Rangi had come down their ancestors the gods, the fathers of the heroes. For the souls of the common people there was in prospect no such lofty and serene abode. They could not hope to climb after death to the tenth heaven, where dwelt Rehua, the Lord of Loving-kindness, attended by an innumerable host. Ancient of days was Rehua, with streaming hair. The lightning flashed from his arm-pits, great was his power, and to him the sick, the blind, and the sorrowful might pray.
It was not the upper world of Ao or Light, but an underworld of Po or Darkness, to which the spirit of the unprivileged Maori must take its way. Nor was the descent to Te Reinga or Hades a facilis descensus Averni. After the death-chant had ceased, and the soul had left the body—left it lying surrounded by weeping blood-relations marshalled in due order—it started on a long journey. Among the Maori the dead were laid with feet pointing to the north, as it was thither that the soul's road lay. At the extreme north end of New Zealand was a spot Muri Whenua—Land's End. Here was the Spirits' Leap. To that the soul travelled, halting once and again on the hill-tops to strip off the green leaves in which the mourners had clad it. Here and there by the wayside some lingering ghost would tie a knot in the ribbon-like leaves of the flax plant—such knots as dull-witted Pakeha attribute to the page 66 whipping of the wind. As the souls gathered at their goal, Nature's sounds were hushed. The roar of the waterfall, the sea's dashing, the sigh of the wind in the trees, all were silenced. At the Spirits' Leap on the verge of a tall cliff grew a lonely tree, with brown, spreading branches, dark leaves and red flowers. The name of the tree was Spray-Sprinkled.1 One of its roots hung down over the cliff's face to the mouth of a cavern fringed by much seaweed, floating or dripping on the heaving sea. Pausing for a moment the reluctant shades chanted a farewell to their fellow-men and danced a last war-dance. Amid the wild yells of the invisible dancers could be heard the barking of their dogs. Then, sliding down the roots, the spirits disappeared in the cave. Within its recesses was a river flowing between sandy shores. All were impelled to cross it. The Charon of this Styx was no man, but a ferry-woman called Rohé. Any soul whom she carried over and who ate the food offered to it on the farther bank was doomed to abide in Hades. Any spirit who refused returned to its body on earth and awoke. This is the meaning of what White men call a trance.
As there were successive planes and heights in Heaven, so there were depths below depths in the Underworld. In the lowest and darkest the soul lost consciousness, became a worm, and returning to earth, died there. Eternal life was the lot of only the select few who ascended to Rangi.
In the age of the heroes not only the realms below, but the realms above could be reached by the daring. Hear the tale of Tawhaki, the Maori Endymion ! When young he became famous by many feats, among others, by destroying the submarine stronghold of a race of sea-folk who had carried off his mother. Into their abode he let a flood of sunshine, and they, being children of the darkness, withered and died in the light. The fame of Tawhaki rose to the skies, and one of the daughters of heaven stole down to behold him at night, vanishing away at dawn. At last the celestial one became his wife. But he was not pleased with the daughter she bor+ him, and, wounded by his words, she withdrew with her child to the skies. Tawhaki in his grief remembered that she had told him the road thither. He must find a certain tendril of a wild vine which, hanging down from the sky to earth, had become rooted in the ground. Therefore with his brother the hero set out on the quest, and duly found the creeper. But there were two tendrils. The brother seized the wrong one; it was loose, and he was swung away, whirled by the wind backwards and forwards from one horizon to the other. Tawhaki took the right ladder, and climbed successfully.1 At the top he met with adventures, and had even to become a slave, and carry axes and firewood disguised as a little, ugly old man. At last, however, he regained his wife, became a god, and still reigns above. It is he who causes lightning to flash from heaven.
1 Another version describes his ladder as a thread from a spider's web; a third as the string of his kite, which he flew so skilfully that it mounted to the sky; then Tawhaki, climbing up the cord, disappeared in the blue vault.
All beings, gods, heroes and men, are sprung from the ancient union of Heaven and Earth, Rangi and Papa. Rangi was the father and Earth the great mother of all. Even now, in these days, the rain, the snow, the dew, and the clouds are the creative powers which come down from Rangi to mother Earth and cause the trees, the shrubs and the plants to grow in spring and flourish in summer. It is the salf-same process that is pictured in the sonorous hexameters:—
Turn pater omnipotens fecundis imbribus Æther
Conjugis in gremium lætæ descendit, et omnes
Magnus alit, magno commixtus corpore, fetus.
But in the beginning Heaven lay close to the Earth, and all was dim and dark. There was life, but not light. So their children, tired of groping about within narrow and gloomy limits, conspired together to force them asunder and let in the day. These were Tu, the scarlet-belted god of men and war; Tané, the forest god; and their brother, the sea-god. With them joined the god of cultivated food, such as the kumara, and the god of food that grows wild—such as the fern-root. The conspirators cut great poles with which to prop up Heaven. But the father and mother were not to be easily separated. They clung to each other despite the efforts of their unnatural sons. Then Tané, the tree-god, standing on head and hands, placed his feet against Heaven, and, pushing hard, forced Rangi upwards. In that attitude the trees, the children of Tané, remain to this day. Thus was the separation accomplished, and Rangi and Papa must for ever remain asunder. Yet the page 69 tears of Heaven still trickle down and fall as dewdrops upon the face of his spouse, and the mists that rise in the evening from her bosom are the sighs of regret which she sends up to her husband on high.1
Vengeance, however, fell upon the conspirators. A sixth brother had nothing to do with their plot. This was Tawhiri-Matea, the god of winds and storms. He loyally accompanied his father to the realms above, whence he descended on his rebel brothers in furious tempests. The sea-god fled to the ocean, where he and his children dwell as fishes. The two gods of plant-food hid in the Earth, and she, forgiving mother that she was, sheltered them in her breast. Only Tu, the god of mankind, stayed erect and undaunted. So it is that the winds and storms make war to this day upon men, wrecking their canoes, tearing down their houses and fences, and ruining all their handiwork. Not only does man hold out against these attacks, but, in revenge for the cowardly desertion of Tu by his weaker brethren, men, his people, prey upon the fish and upon the plants that give food, whether wild or cultivated.
1 Sir George Grey, Polynesian Methology.
Such are some of the sacred myths of the Maori. They vary very greatly in different tribes and are loaded with masses of detail, largely genealogical. The religious myths form but one portion of an immense body of traditional lore, made up of songs and chants, genealogies, tribal histories, fables, fairy-tales and romantic stories. Utterly ignorant as the Maori were of any kind of writing or picture-drawing, the volume of their lore is amazing, and is an example of the power of the human memory when assiduously cultivated. Very great care was, of course, taken to hand it down from father to son in the priestly families. In certain places in New Zealand, notably at Wanganui, sacred colleges stood called Whare-kura (Red-house). These halls had to be built by priestly hands, stood turned to the east, and could only be approached by the purified. They were dedicated by sacrifice, sometimes of a dog, sometimes of a human being. The pupils, who were boys of high rank, went, at the time of admission, through a form of baptism. The term of instruction lasted through the autumns and winters of five years. The hours were from sunset to midnight. Only one woman, an aged priestess, was admitted into the hall, and she only to perform certain incantations. No one might eat or sleep there, and any pupil who fell asleep during instruction was at once thrust forth, was expected to go home and die, and doubtless usually did so. Infinite pains were taken to impress on the pupils' memories the exact wording of traditions. As much as a month would be devoted to constant repetitions of a single myth. They were taught the tricks of the priestly wizard's trade, and became expert physiognomists, ventriloquists, and possibly, in some cases, hypnotists. Public exhibitions afterwards tested the accuracy of their memories and their skill in witchcraft. On this their page 71 fate depended. A successful Tohunga, or wizard, lived on the fat of the land; a few failures, and he was treated with discredit and contempt.
Though so undoubted an authority as Mr. William Colenso sums up the old-time Maori as a secularist, it is not easy entirely to agree with him. Not only had the Maori, as already indicated, an elaborate—too elaborate—mythology, but he had a code of equally wide and minute observances which he actually did observe. Not only had he many gods, both of light and evil, but the Rev. James Stack, a most experienced student, says that he conceived of his gods as something more than embodiments of power—as beings “interested in human affairs and able to see and hear from the highest of the heavens what took place on earth.” Mr. Colenso himself dwells upon the Maori faith in dreams, omens, and charms, and on the universal dread felt for kehua or ghosts, and atua or demon spirits. Moreover, the code of observances aforesaid was no mere secular law. It was the celebrated system of tapu (taboo), and was not only one of the most extraordinary and vigorous sets of ordinances ever devised by barbarous man, but depended for its influence and prestige not mainly upon the secular arm or even public opinion, but upon the injunctions and support of unseen and spiritual powers. If a man broke the tapu law, his punishment was not merely to be shunned by his fellows or—in some cases—plundered of his goods. Divine vengeance in one or other form would swiftly fall upon him—probably in the practical shape of the entry into his body of an evil spirit to gnaw him to death with cruel teeth. Men whose terror of such punishment as this, and whose vivid faith in the imminence thereof, were strong enough to kill them were much more, or less, than secularists.
The well-known principle that there is no potent, respected, and lasting institution, however strange, but has its roots in practical usefulness, is amply verified in the case of tapu. By it authority was ensured, dignity hedged about with respect, and property and public health protected. Any person, place, or thing laid under tapu might not be touched, and sometimes not even approached. A betrothed maiden defended by tapu was as sacred as a vestal virgin of Rome; a shrine became a Holy Place; the head of a chief something which it was page 72 sacrilege to lay hands on. The back of a man of noble birth could not be degraded by bearing burdens—an awkward prohibition in moments when no slave or woman happened to be in attendance on these lordly beings. Anything cooked for a chief was forbidden food to an inferior. The author of Old New Zealand tells of an unlucky slave who unwittingly ate the remains of a chief's dinner. When the knowledge of this frightful crime was flashed upon him, he was seized with internal cramps and pains and, though a strong man, died in a few hours. The weapons and personal effects of a chief were, of course, sacred even in the opinion of a thief, but tapu went farther. Even the fire a chief had lit might not be used by commoners. As for priests, after the performance of certain ceremonies they for a time had perforce to become too sacred to feed themselves with their hands. Food would be laid down before them, and kneeling, or on all-fours like dogs, they had to pick it up with their teeth. Perhaps their lot might be so far mitigated that a maiden would be permitted to convey food to their mouths on the end of a fern-stalk—a much less disagreeable process for the eater. Growing fields of the sweet potato were sacred for obvious reasons, as were those who were working therein. So were burial-places and the bones of the dead. The author above mentioned, chancing one day on a journey to pick up a human skull which had been left exposed by a land-slide, immediately became an outcast, shunned by acquaintances, friends, and his own household, as though he were a very leper. Before he could be officially cleansed and readmitted into decent Maori society, his clothing and furniture had to be destroyed, and his kitchen abandoned. By such means did this—to us—ridiculous superstition secure reverence for the dead and some avoidance of infection. To this end the professional grave-digger and corpse-bearer of a Maori village was tapu, and lived loathed and utterly apart. Sick persons were often treated in the same way, and inasmuch as the unlucky might be supposed to have offended the gods, the victims of sudden and striking misfortune were treated as law-breakers and subjected to the punishment of muru described in the last chapter.
Death in Maori eyes was not the Great Leveller, as with us. Just as the destiny of the chief's soul was different from page 73 that of the commoner or slave, so was the treatment of his body.
A slave's death was proverbially that of a dog—no man regarded it. Even the ordinary free man was simply buried in the ground in a sitting posture and forgotten. But the departure of a chief of rank and fame, of great mana or prestige, was the signal for tribal mourning. With wreaths of green leaves on their heads, friends sat round the body wailing the long-drawn cry, Aué! Aué! or listening to some funeral chant recited in his praise. Women cut themselves with sharp sea-shells or flakes of volcanic glass till the blood ran down. The corpse sat in state adorned with flowers and red ochre and clad in the finest of mantles. Albatross feathers were in the warrior's hair; his weapons were laid beside him. The onlookers joined in the lamenting, and shed actual tears—a feat any well-bred Maori could perform at will. Probably a huge banquet took place; then it was held to be a truly great tangi. Often the wives of the departed killed themselves in their grief, or a slave was sacrificed in his honour. His soul was believed to mount aloft, and perhaps some star was henceforth pointed out as his eye shining down and watching over his tribe. The tattooed head of the dead man was usually reverently preserved —stored away in some secret recess and brought out by the priest to be gazed upon on high occasions. The body, placed in a canoe-shaped coffin, was left for a time to dry on a stage or moulder in a hollow tree. After an appointed period the bones were scraped clean and laid away in a cavern or cleft known only to a sacred few. They might be thrown down some dark mountain abyss or toreré. Such inaccessible resting-places of famous chiefs—deep well-like pits or tree-fringed chasms—are still pointed out to the traveller who climbs certain New Zealand summits. But, wherever the warrior's bones were laid, they were guarded by secrecy, by the dreaded tapu, and by the jealous zeal of his people. Even now no Maori tribe will sell such spots, and the greedy or inquisitive Pakeha who profanely explores or meddles with them does so at no small risk.
Far different was the fate of those unlucky leaders who fell in battle, or were captured and slaughtered and devoured thereafter. Their heads, stuck upon the posts of the victor's page 74 pa, were targets for ribaldry, or, in later days, might be sold to the Pakeha and carried away to be stared at as oddities. Their bones might be used for flutes and fishing-hooks, for no fisherman was so lucky as he whose hook was thus made; their souls were doomed to successive stages of deepening darkness below, and at length, after reaching the lowest gulf, passed as earth-worms to annihilation.