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The Maori Race


page 374


We have mentioned the “Holy House” of the Maori as being the place in which the sons of chiefs were taught. One of the most interesting studies in the history or custom-lore of any people, savage or civilised, is that which seeks to investigate the circumstances surrounding education. Ancient legends seem to establish the fact that in some far off country there was a great temple called Whare-kura, the “Holy House.” The locality is said to have been known as Uawa. It probably united the functions of Temple, Herald College, Council Chamber, and Hall of Justice. Here worship of the gods was carried on, the pedigrees of the chiefs recited, peace and war arbitrated. Tradition pretends to give the names of chiefs and tribes that assembled there, but the legends are so antique that most of the names are those of gods or deified men, and the matters touched upon are too confused to be of any historic value. In Samoa, the Fale-ula, as they call it, is the Ninth Heaven.

The account of the ancient proceedings in Whare-kura are fragmentary and shadowy, but they appear to show that parliaments or councils sat engaged in discussion on historical or page 375 political subjects. The wise men were arranged by leaders into parties according to the branch of knowledge in which each elder was proficient; this proceeding was called “putting into order” (ranga). As time went on dissensions arose, and the troubles became so serious that further meetings were impossible, and then the tribes were governed each by its Ariki, every tribe erecting its temple of learning on the model of the ancient structure.

The shape of the building has, however, been remembered and described and is represented by the following sketch.

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The name Whare-kura (or Whare-maire, or Whare-takiura as it is called by the Tuhoe tribes) was transferred on the arrival of the Maori in New Zealand to tribal buildings with something of the old attributes. That at Whanganui was sacred to the god Maru. The edifice erected by Toa-rangatira was named Maranga-puawai, (“Blossom raised up”). A college of this kind was used for the education of the sons of great chiefs in all the learning which helped to give power and privilege to the nobles of the Maori tribes. The building was carefully oriented, its front being eastward. On its erection a human sacrifice was slain and the blood used as an offering while a sacred fire was being kindled (by friction) and then the body of the victim was buried in the sacred place (mua). The Mua was the holy enclosure surrounding the Whare-kura and its most sacred centre was the place where stood an image of Kahukura, the rainbow god. The image was of totara wood, a cubit in height, representing a human figure without feet. The people of the tribe collected the material for the building, but only priests built the house; every part of it, even to the lining reeds, being set in place to charm and incantation.

The colleges or schools were divided into two classes. To the first, that dealing with mythology, astronomy, history, and the mysteries of life and death, only the ariki were admitted, unless under certain conditions when second sons might be permitted to enter as “understudies.” To the other class, the schools where agriculture was the principal page 376a
A Relic of Old Wars.

A Relic of Old Wars.

page 377 subject and where practical astronomy (as to planting-seasons, etc.), the making of weapons, hunting, fishing, etc., were taught, to these all classes were allowed entrance under certain conditions, but they were no part of the real Whare-kura course. The only ceremonial used in these was the setting up of a short staff as a symbol of the god presiding over each subject of study. In the actual Whare-kura classes everything was done with intense regard to ceremonial, for it must be remembered that when dealing with subjects so intermingled with the supernatural the lives of teachers and taught were hanging by a hair. One is almost tempted to say “were in their belief hanging by a hair.” But not so, from the peculiar temperament of the Maori and a reverence for holy things too deep for us to understand, death stood very near to him if by accident or carelessness he provoked the anger of the gods. The priests performed a special baptismal service over the 20 or 30 youths who presented themselves to be taught and then after incantations and offerings to Kahukura a solemn tapu was laid on all concerned. A fire was lighted by friction and fern-root roasted thereon, this was then given to an aged priestess who passed it under her thigh, and it was handed to the youths to eat, they standing in a line down the middle of the house. No woman but this priestess was ever allowed to enter the building and she only for the opening ceremony which was supposed to ensure recollection of the lessons by the pupils. Boys were generally about twelve years old when beginning the course.
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The priest commenced his work by repeating the history of the tribe and then followed the religious teachings, etc. Only one priest spoke at a time, others taking it in turn. The mythology pertaining to the elder gods took the first month to learn, after that came lessons in incantations, witchcraft, etc. Study ended at midnight and the pupils slept during the day. The tuition lasted about four or five months, from autumn to spring. During the recess every effort was made by boy friends or girl sweethearts to coax from the neophyte some part of the knowledge gained in Wharekura. If he was so weak as to reveal the most minute particular he was expelled and entered Wharekura no more. Pupils attended from three to five years before they were considered as perfect. Each pupil brought a stalk of the cutting grass (toetoe) and chewed it in order to assist the memory. The priests and pupils ate food in the building, but no one else was allowed to do so, and no person was permitted to sleep in the sacred house itself. No pupil might go home nor near a place where food was being cooked, food was always brought to the school. Pupils were allowed to bathe and take exercise but not (during term time) to associate with people who were un-sacred. Great care was taken by the priests that no bad omens should be encountered by the pupil studying at Wharekura. If bad omens were encountered the knowledge gained by the young man would not remain in his memory.

Some of the most potent incantations could not be recited in Wharekura; these were so page 379 sacred that they might not be uttered under any roof, even that of the most holy temple, but had to be imparted only in the woods and mountains. When the time came near that the senior pupils were considered to have imbibed all the priests could impart to them of learning and magic the hour of the test approached, the time answering to our examination for a degree. The final incantation, the whaka-pou, was uttered, this was to fix firmly in the mind of the pupil the whole of the knowledge previously imparted. When this was fixed (poua) he was taken to an altar (a stone placed upright, or an ordinary tuahu, a shrine) and told to hurl a stone—small, flat, about an inch in diameter—at the stone or the tuahu poles. If the stone broke the pupil was supposed not to have learnt his lessons properly and he was rejected for a term. If the stone remained unbroken a further test was applied. A hard, smooth, round stone was placed in his hand and then by using a certain invocation (hoa) the stone had to shiver in his hand. This had to be done by a pure operation of the will, aided by the incantation which was here regarded as the medium or instrument through which the will-power was applied. If the stone tests succeeded then a flying bird or dog was made the next victim of experiment, and should this be also destroyed by an uttered spell, only one final and crowning trial of skill remained.

On the last night of the term priests and disciples had to sleep in the open air. On the following morning at dawn of day they went to a sacred spring of water and endured page 380 another baptismal immersion, with the rite of hair-cutting (wai-kotikoti) and the peculiar ceremony called “turning the mat” (huri-takapau), spoken of elsewhere. Then followed what for the chosen few who had passed their preliminary tests was the “honours pass.” They were taken to the mua of the temple and each had to kill a man by the utterance of a spell, and the proof of the proper mana or spiritual force having been acquired by the pupil was that the person against whom the deadly charm was pronounced dropped instantly dead. Generally the persons experimented upon were slaves, and this slave was led out and placed in front of his (psychical) assailant, but it was always some person named by the teacher. In case, however, of very distinguished people a relative might be named. The witchcraft incantation (karakia makutu) had to kill the particular person pointed out; to destroy anybody else would be a miss, and, moreover, would nullify all knowledge previously gained. If a relative was “named” it might be an uncle, aunt, or cousin, but might not be the pupil's own child nor his father or mother. The mental struggle and pain caused to the aspirant (tauira) were the reward of the teacher; he received no other payment; to do so would negative the power of the spells taught. Cases have been known where the teacher named himself as the victim. If the slain person was a relative the body was not eaten; the pupil would take out the heart and touch it with his lips, then he repeated an invocation (makaka karakia) that made the body tapu so that no one could eat it.

page 381

After the “test” proceedings were over, the priests and pupils again performed the huritakapau ceremony, and the pupils went their way rejoicing. They were, however, not even then quite free from tapu, but had to reassemble on the third day after dispersal to go through a final ceremony. The head-priest prepared a mound of earth in the shape of a lizard, and standing astride it, he repeated a charm. He then trampled down the mound, and by doing so made the pupils entirely “common” (noa) so that they could perform all the usual and ordinary functions of daily life.

We have hitherto spoken of the true Wharekura or university for high chiefs. Apart from this there was a branch college in every village for the study of agriculture, etc. The sons of nobles attending the real Wharekura were not allowed to enter this place while under tuition. It was common to all other persons, but was only open during the winter season. The school was generally conducted in a large building able to accommodate a hundred persons, and when the people assembled therein, they had to remain within certain precincts, there to eat, sleep, etc. No other food than roasted fern-root was allowed. Lessons only went on at night. Everything connected with the art of procuring food was taught at this school; not only instruction in regard to growing crops of kumara, taro, hue, etc., but also concerning snaring birds, catching fish, etc. It was a sacred place on account of the incantations recited there, but women were allowed to enter to enquire and learn as to page 382 matters of their daily labour. In the summer time the school building was used as a guest-house, and sometimes as a place of amusement.

One or more schools of astronomy were to be found outside every important village. Such a school was open every night from twilight to dawn, but no one was allowed to enter it between sunrise and sunset, or to sleep therein. The priests and chiefs used it as a meeting place in which to speak of planting crops, hunting, fishing, and other matters connected with food-getting, but more especially as to the manner in which the stars governed these occupations and guided operations. Here also were arranged visits, feats, the reception of guests, etc. As in Wharekura, common persons were forbidden to come near this place. When food had been prepared it was brought to a certain distance from the house and a call given, then the youngest person present among the men of consequence would leave the building and go for the food. A female of high rank might be allowed to go up to the door, knock, and hand the food in, but if so the person receiving the food would have to recite a charm on receiving it. The only exception made in regard to women was that sometimes a few (never more than three) of them, after being specially prepared and sanctified, were admitted to learn incantations.

In villages where there was no proper school of astronomy, a house called Whare-mata was often to be found. In this was taught the art of snaring birds, with instruction in making the apparatus, traps, snares, etc.