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The Southern Districts of New Zealand

III.—Natural Religion Of The New Zealander

page 292

III.—Natural Religion Of The New Zealander.

The ancient religion of the New Zealander taught him that anything, if placed in contact with a sacred object, acquired the sacred nature of that object; and that it was his first duty to guard whatever had been thus rendered sacred by contact from being eaten, or used for the purposes of cooking or eating.

The greatest injury one man could inflict on another being to eat him, it was a natural idea that to eat anything which had become sacred by contact would be offensive to the person whose sacredness it had acquired; and—as every New Zealand gentleman, in former times, was more or less sacred, and his head and back-bone especially so—to carry a basket of food on his back would have been to render it unlawful for any one but himself to eat of it.

So sensitive, indeed, were they on this point, that the dish of food destined for a person of the sacred class was carried to a little distance from his house, and from the spot where he and his friends usually reclined, and there set on the ground, in order that he might eat his meal by page 293 himself; and, as no one else dared to eat of what he left, if any food remained it was preserved for his future use in a small safe or roofed box, which formed a conspicuous object stuck on top of a pole, in a particular part of the court yard surrounding the family dwellings.

In conformity with their singular religious belief, although murder might, in many cases, be a meritorious act, it was a heinous crime for a sacred person to leave his comb or his blanket in a cooking house, or to suffer another person to use a drinking cup after it had been rendered sacred by touching his lips. For this reason a chief—unless a Christain—never drinks from a cup, but holds up his two hands close to his lips, in order that water may be poured into them, and thence run into his mouth; and if he wants a light for his pipe, burning embers must be brought to him, for his pipe is sacred from having been so often in contact with his mouth, and transmits sacredness to the live coal; so that, if a particle of sacred cinder were to be replaced on the common fire, it would render that fire sacred, and by consequence no longer serviceable for cooking food.

For similar reasons, a slave or other person not sacred would not enter a “wahi tapu” or sacred place, without having first stripped off his clothes; for the clothes having become sacred the instant they entered the precincts of the “wahi tapu,” page 294 would ever after be useless to him in the ordinary business of his life, since they would be liable to be brought frequently into contact with food intended for the use of the family.

In short, the most marked peculiarities in the social habits of this people can be traced to the influence of the same pervading principle, that food which has once touched a sacred object becomes itself sacred, and therefore must not be eaten except by the sacred object. For this law was not a mere idle belief, but was enforced by dread of their “atua.” The “atua” or spirits of their ancestors who had died—such being, indeed, the only sort of divinities supposed to take an interest in human affairs—were believed to be very jealous of any neglect of the duties enjoined by their religion, and seldom to fail to take speedy vengeance on a delinquent by sending some infant spirit, or a “kahukahu,” to enter into his body, there to feed on a vital part till sufficient punishment or death had been inflicted.

Infant spirits, as has been mentioned (page 31), were considered very deadly, because they had not had time to acquire any attachment to their living relatives: a “kahukahu,” representing as it were the mere germ* of a human being, was held in page 295 still greater awe, in proof of which the following stanza may be cited:—

“Ko te kahukahu piri-tara-whare.
Kei te wakaheke au i aku toto,
Wai tuhi-rae mo nga tohunga.
Nana ka ngau kino, ka mate rawa.”

It is the “kahukahu” sticking fast in the wall of the house.
I am making my blood run down,
Instead of water to smear the brow of the “tohunga.”
Should he (the “kahukahu”) gnaw spitefully, it will be certain death.

It is somewhat strange that the “atua” was not supposed to seek redress directly from the person who ate the food to which sacredness had been imparted—and who, as one would imagine, should naturally have been looked on as the principal offender—but from his own living relative, whose duty it was to prevent the occurrence of such an indignity. Hence we cease to wonder that a chief should have been moved to anger even to kill a slave, who through carelessness caused him to offend the dreaded spirits, by such an act as that of leaving any article of his dress within the limits of the family cook-house; although, while ignorant of the peculiarity of the New Zealander's superstitious belief, we must have regarded his doing so as wanton barbarity.

From what has been said, it will readily be understood why carrying food on his back was a page 296 labour in which a New Zealand gentleman could take no part before he embraced Christianity. Then if, as was often the case, he had not thrown aside all dread of the “atua” of his tribe—for though a Christian he still believed in the reality of their existence—he had faith that they were but inferior spirits, who had no power to harm a believer in Christ.

In relation to the subject under consideration, it may be here stated that the “atua” of one tribe are not believed to meddle with the members of another tribe; and that, when a person was taken prisoner, his connexion with his own tribe was severed, and its “atua” ceased to care for him. Hence, as a captive had no dread of offending the “atua” of his own or of his adopted tribe by cooking or by carrying food on his back, every sort of work having to do with cooking was performed by this class of persons, aided by those females of the tribe, who were not supposed to be regarded with peculiar interest by the “atua,” and were therefore unworthy to be ranked among the sacred.

Slavery was, in New Zealand, a necessary consequence of the superstitious belief of its inhabitants. The captive was, however, in some respects more free than his master: he entered into conversation with him fearlessly, he fed well, was not expected to overwork himself, and seldom cared to return to his own tribe—which circumstance in page 297 itself is a satisfactory proof of his being generally well treated: and if eventually he obtained a wife from the females of his adopted tribe, his children inherited their mother's position, and became objects of care to the spirits of her ancestors. Any one, therefore, would be led into error, were he to form an idea of the condition of this class of persons from a knowledge of what slavery has been generally, or is now, in other countries.

* Verbum “kahukahu” quid valeat, in hoc loco apertius exponere minimè decet.