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Moko; or Maori Tattooing

Chapter VIII — Moko in Legend and Song

page 114

Chapter VIII
Moko in Legend and Song

In the interesting native mythology in the Rev. Mr. Taylor's book, it is stated that Maui its grand hero is said to have tattooed the lips of the native dog, which accounts for its muzzle being always black, as Kahutara tattooed the face of heaven and made it dark, and also that of man. In White's Ancient History of the Maori there is this legend, which serves in some sort as an account of the origin of moko. Tama-nui-a-raki paid a visit to his ancestors; they asked him, “What brought you here?” He answered, “To obtain your services to make on my face the lines I now see marked on yours.” Tama's face was marked all over, but when he went to bathe it all washed off, and this took place a second time. He then asked, “I see you are tattooed so that when you wash it does not wash off; but mine is gone as soon as I bathe.” They said, “Rise, and go to your other ancestors, Taka (take action), Ha (breath), Tua a Piko (a little awry), Ta Wai Tiri (splashing water), with whom you will find the soot to make the moko permanent.” Tama went to his other ancestors, and was asked why he paid the visit. He answered, “To obtain knowledge page 115 of the art I see exhibited on your faces.” They said, “But it is a very painful operation.” He said, “It cannot be death, as you have borne it and live.” They said, “But some die under the operation.” However on the following day the instruments were got ready, and as soon as Tama had lain down and shut his eyes and the operator had cut some of the lines on his face, he fainted away. On recovering consciousness, he exclaimed:

“O Taka! O Ha
Tua Piko and Ta Whai Tiri
I shall expire.

His ancestors said:

“We do not cause the pain,
It is the instruments
And blood and severed flesh.
Now darkness comes,
Black darkness covers thee;
And He is watchful;
We also are watching now.”

Tama again fainted, but on recovering, said:

“O Taka! O Ha!
In agony I shall die.”

And again his ancestors said:

“We do not cause the pain,
It is the instruments
And blood and severed flesh,
page 116 And darkness comes,
Black darkness covers thee
And He is watchful;
We are watching;
Drink water and be refreshed.”

Tama now went and bathed, and said:

“Man near death reels and trembles,
And beloved ones show him affection.”

He then lay down with his face to the earth, and one of the operators kneeled on him to cause the blood to flow from the punctures. Again he fainted away, and was carried to the settlement in a litter. A fire was kindled, and he was laid near to it. After three days he could see things around him, and day after day the moko healed, and he could walk about and go to bathe. Soon he recovered and said to his ancestors: “I will now return home to my children.”

From Sir George Grey's book, Hakirakra O Nga Maori, I give the tattoo song for a man—“He Whakawai Taanga Moko”:—

“E noho ana, e kai-tahi ana,
Ki te titiro, ki nga rewa
I te ihu, O Tutetawha
E wehoki ana, me he peke ngarara
Taia mai ra, ki te uhi Mataora
Taria, e tuku atu,
Ki to wahine, takiri karito kowhara,
Naku, koe i whakanoko, &c., &c.

page 117

Which may be translated:

“We are sitting eating together,
And are looking at the prints
Over the eyebrows
And nose of Tutetawha;
They are curved like lizards' legs.
Tattoo him with good points.

“Be not impatient to go
To the girl who gathers you sweet greens
In baskets of kowhara.
Let every line be traced
On this man who will pay;
Let the figures be handsome;
Let our songs lull the pain,
And inspire thee with fortitude,
E hiki Tangaroa?
E hiki Tangoroa?”

And the song when a young woman is being tattooed, which certainly supplies the motive for the operation:

“Takoto ra, e hine
Pirori e,
Kia taia o ngutu,
Pirore e,
Mo to haerenga atu, ki nga whare tapere
I kiia ana mai,
Ko hea tenei wahine kino?
E haere mai nei,” &c.

Given well is the following from a paper by Mr. W. Colenso in the Transactions of the New Zealand Institute:

“Lay thyself quietly down, oh daughter
 (Soon it is done,)
page 118 That thy lips may be well tattooed;
 ('Tis quickly performed.)
For thy going to visit the young men's houses;
 Lest it should be said
Whither indeed is this ugly woman going?
 Now coming hitherward.
Keep thyself still, lying down, oh young lady,
 (Round the tap goes.)
That thy lips may be well tattooed,
 Also thy chin;
That thou mayest be beautiful.
 Thus it goes fast.
For thy going to visit the houses of courtship,
 Lest it should be said of thee,
Whither does this woman think of going with her red lips?

“Who is walking this way?
 (Still it is revolving.)
Give thyself willingly to be tattooed;
 Briefly it is over.
For thy going to the house of amusement;
 Also thou wilt be spoken of:
‘Whither goes this woman with her bare lips,1
Hastening hither, indeed, in that state?’
 (Round it revolves.)
It is done. It is tattooed.
 (Soon it is indeed.)
Give hither quietly thy chin to be imprinted;
 (Nimbly the hand moves.)
For thy going to the houses of the single men,
 Lest these ill words be said—
‘Whither goes this woman with her red chin,
 Who is coming this way?’”

page 119

The song of the operator says in no uncertain terms that perfect work must be liberally paid for, a proposition from which no artist will dissent.

The operator sings:

“Te tangata i te whakautu,
Kia ata whakanakonako;
Tangata, i te whakautu kore,
Kokoia, kia tatahi,
Patua i te whakatangitangi;
E hiki Tangaroa?
E hiki Tangaroa?”

Which may be rendered:

“He who pays well let him
Be beautifully ornamented,
But he who forgets the operator
Let him be done carelessly.
Be the lines far apart,
E hiki Tangaroa?
E hiki Tangaroa?
Strike that the chisel
As it cuts along may sound.
O Hiki Tangaroa?
Men do not know the skill
Of the operator in driving his
Sounding chisel along,
E hiki Tangaroa?”

This song was chiefly, says the Rev. Mr. Taylor, to remind the gentleman of the duty he owed the operator, who, not having any regular professional charge, chiefly depended on the liberality of page 120 his patient, who was expected, not only to feed him with the best, but to make him a handsome present as well. When the operator suspected he would not be remembered he frequently became careless in his work, and rendered the person an object for life; some of the mokos are very coarsely done, whilst others are finished with an artist's touch, by which we may judge the way they severally paid the owner of the sounding chisel.

Again, from Sir George Grey's invaluable collection of Maori songs and legends, the lament of the brother on the death (1846) of the celebrated Te Heuheu has this verse (translated):

“Turn yet this once thy bold athletic frame,
And let me see thy skin carved o'er with lines
Of blue; and let me see thy face,
So beautifully chiselled into various forms;
Ah, the people now are comfortless and sad.”

1 Literally, plain, unadorned, without ornament or covering, applied sneeringly.