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The Maori Race

Chapter VI. Poetry, Song, Proverbs. Fables.—Tribal Mottoes

Chapter VI. Poetry, Song, Proverbs. Fables.—Tribal Mottoes.

page 71

Poetry, Song, Proverbs.

The Maoris were a very poetical people; song and musical utterance were the natural expression of their every emotion. All their religious moods found an outcome in chants and hymns; love songs to their sweethearts and dirges for the dead alternated with lullabies to their children and songs of defiance against their foes, while their more quiet and meditative moments were passed in crooning low ditties full of pathos and poetry. Children sung at their games and men and women at their sports. Even their ghostly fears were filled with music, for could they not hear the voice of fairies and spirits at night uttering their songs of warning and uncanny revelry?

The poetry is of peculiar character, unrhymed, and with only a feeble attempt at rhythm. It is exceedingly difficult to translate (as all old Polynesian poetry is) because full of obsolete words and forgotten allusions. It has never been composed in modern times, page 72 only old songs are adapted to the needs of every day life, and they thus are as full of interest to those who can catch the allusions as are apt quotations in the polished oration of a European speaker. Some of the metaphors are common to poets all the world over, for instance that of the moth or butterfly as an emblem of the soul, or the tendrils of a clinging plant as an emblem of tender affection.

The canoe-pulling song was used in dragging heavy timber or canoes out of the forest and took the place which the sailors' “chanty” does with us. There is variety in the measure, long lines or syllables adapted for heavy pulls and another part of the song for sharp quick jerks. The boat-songs were to give time to the paddlers in canoes, and were sung by directors or fuglemen of whom there were two in each large war-canoe, one near the bow and the other near the stern. Each of these directors would brandish his staff or weapon as a baton in exact time to the song. Part-songs (haka) were generally sung by young men and women ranged in rows and dressed in paint and feathers for the evening entertainment. These (haka) usually consisted of solo and refrain, the latter often a monotonous deep-breathed note accompanied with gestures of head and hands and body—the whole company moving in unison as if parts of some machine. Sometimes these songs were sentimental, sometimes humorous, but always a pleasure to listeners and performers.1 War-songs (peruperu) were page 72a Making New (or Sacred) Fire by Friction of Wood.A woman steadied the under-piece of wood with her foot.—[See page 138.]A. Hamilton, Photo. page 73 a solo and chorus accompaniment of the war-dance and were very inspiriting compositions, the words sometimes hardly to be understood, but the vigour and volume of sound enormous, hands, legs, and heads all agreeing in consentaneous motion. The ordinary songs (waiata) could be sung by one or several persons, but were not dance-songs, that is they were not usually accompanied by motions of the body. Wonderful were the memories of the Maori for songs. One old man recited or sung 380 to Mr. E. Best, each with its proper air or rangi.

A few, a very few, examples of different kinds of poetry may suffice to show the nature and genius of Maori song. In an incantation addressed to the sea god by Hina occur the words:—

“The tide of life glides swiftly past
And mingles all in one great eddying foam.
O Heaven, now sleeping! rouse thee, rise to power.
And O thou Earth; awake, exert thy might for me,
And open wide the door to my last home,
Where calm and quiet rest awaits me in the sky.”

It may be thought that these ideas militate against the notions of the future life elsewhere described in this volume, but Hina was a goddess, not a mortal, and was not subject to the ordinary laws of the natural world. The incantation by help of which Heaven and Earth were separated reads as follows:—

“Rough be their skin—so altered by dread—
As bramble and nettle, repugnant to feel.
So change, for each other, their love into hate.
With direst enchantments O sever them, gods!
page 74And fill with disgust to each other their days.
Engulf them in floods, in ocean and sea;
Let love and regret for each other be hate,
Nor affection nor love of the past live again.”

The magical charm to drive away wood-goblins was:—

“Whispering ghosts of the West,
Who brought you here to our land?
Stand up, stand up and depart,
Whispering ghosts of the West!”

The following may be offered as a specimen of a love-song (Waiata-aroha):—

“Look where the mist
Hangs over Pukehina,
There is the path
By which went my love.
Turn back again hither
That tears may be poured
Out from my eyes.
It was not I at first
Who spoke of love,
But you who made advances
When I was but a little thing.
Therefore was my heart made wild,
This is my farewell of love to thee.”

Another love-song runs as follows, but it is that of a widow for her dead husband:—

“After the evening hours
I recline upon my bed.
Thy own spirit-like form
Comes towards me,
Creeping stealthily along.
Alas! I mistake,
Thinking thou art here with me,
Enjoying the light of day.
page 75Then the affectionate remembrances
Of the many days of old
Keep on rising within my heart.
This, however, loved one—
This thou must do,
Recite the potent call to Rakahua,
And the strong cry to Rikiriki
That thou mayest return.

For thou wert ever more than an ordinary husband;
Thou wert my best beloved, my chosen,
My treasured possession. Alas!”

The natives sung lullabies (oriori) to their children. Part of one of these songs runs:—

“Here is little Rangi-tumua, reclining with me
Under the lofty pine-tree of Hine-rahi.
And here am I, my little fellow!
Seeking, searching sadly through the thoughts that rise.
In these days, my child,
For us two no lofty chiefs are left.
Passed are the times of thy far-famed uncles,
Who from the storms of war and witchcraft
Gave shelter to the multitudes, the thousands.”

Sometimes, when death interfered, the lullaby became a lament:—

“I silent sit as throbs my heart
For my children;
And those who look on me
As now I bow my head
May deem me but a forest tree
From distant land.
I bow my head
As droops the tree-fern (mamaku),
And weep for my children.
O my child! so often called,
“Come O my child!”
page 76Gone! Yes with the mighty flood,
I lonely sit midst noise and crowd,
My life ebbs fast.”

Of quite a different character are the songs of revenge and lust for blood, fierce and implacable. They were called whaka-tea tumoto, or kai-oraora:

“O the saltness of my mouth
In drinking the liquid brains of Nuku
Whence welled up his wrath!
His ears which heard the deliberations!
Tutepakihirangi shall go headlong
(Into the stomach) of Hinewai!
My teeth shall devour Kaukau!
The three hundred and forty of Te Kiri-kowhatu
Shall be huddled in a heap in my trough!
Te Hika and his multitudes shall boil in my pot!
Ngaitahu (the whole tribe) shall be
My sweet morsel to finish with! E!

Combined with the poetry the proverbs of the people must be considered, for they are often interwoven in the old songs, and a line from some ancient poem or a few words recalling some legendary action may have a pungency impossible to explain to those who do not recognise the allusion. The Maori mind was a treasury of pithy proverbs; hundreds have been collected, but even at the present day unregistered but pregnant sayings are on the lips of the people. Some of these proverbial utterances carry their meanings on the surface. Of such are the proverbs:—

“Though the grub may be a little thing it can cause the big tree to fall.”
“A spear shaft may be parried but not a shaft of speech.”
page 77“The weaving of a garment may be traced but the thoughts of man cannot.”
“Son up and doing, prosperous son; son sitting, hungry son.”
“Did you come from the village of the Liar?”
“The offspring of Rashness died easily.”
“The women shall be as a cliff for the men to flee over.”
“Great is the majority of the dead.”
“The home is permanent, the man flits.”
“Outwardly eating together, inwardly tearing to pieces.”
“Man is passing away like the moa.
“Will the escaped wood-hen return to the snare?”
“Perhaps you and False-tongue travelled here together.”
“Well done the hand that roots up weeds!”
“A chief dies, another takes his place.”
“Passing clouds can be seen, but passing thoughts cannot be seen.”
“The digger of fern-root has abundance of food, but the parrot-snarer will go hungry.”

Other proverbs require explanation, some being only slightly, and others extremely, obscure. “Those who escape the sea-god will be killed by those on shore” is an allusion to the legendary custom in the ancestral home (Hawaiki), of killing shipwrecked strangers. It is used as applying to a very perilous position, as we say “Between the devil and the deep sea.” The proverb “The attendants of Papaka who were slain in forgetfulness” means that it is convenient to forget at times, for Papaka killed his mother's brothers ignoring that they were his own relatives. “The road to Hawaiki is cut off” is equivalent to our “The Rubicon is passed.” “The page 78 house of the orphan” is a phrase applied to one who has no family or friends. “A woman on shore, a kahawai in the sea.” The kahawai (Arripis salar) is a fish difficult to hook.

When a Maori said “It was not one man alone who was awake in the dark ages” it meant that the wise men of other tribes had their own versions of the ancestral legends.

“A tail drawn down beneath” is a taunting expression used of a coward, likening him to a cur with its tail drawn between the hind legs. A lazy fellow was mocked with the saying “An often-singed tail” pointing out that he resembled a dog that was always lying close up to the warm fire. “The flounder will not return to the place where it was disturbed” means that the chance not availed of will never return. “The white heron eats daintily, the duck gobbles up the mud” is equivalent to saying that a man is known by his tastes. “Eat underdone, you get it; fully cooked, somebody else may” is the rendering of our “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.” “If a fisherman yawns he will catch no fish” is a saying founded on the belief that it is unlucky for a fisherman to yawn, but it is applied to anyone doing work in a lazy perfunctory manner.

“You cannot hew a bird-spear by the way” is a proverb enjoining careful preparation before action. It was easy to spear a bird for food but to make the spear took months of careful work. “The big basket of Stay-at-home” is said in praise of one who minds his own business and attends to page 79 his duties, as we say “A rolling stone gathers no moss.” “Deep throat, shallow sinews” is applied to a lazy glutton. “A rain-drop above, a human lip below,” means that as “Dropping water wears away a stone” so does slander a good name. “Well done, children! smashing your calabashes” was spoken of one defaming his family and “Fouling his own nest.” “Is the entrance to the Under-world closed?” was said to one advocating war. “The head of Rangitihi bound up with the vine” was a proverb equal to “Never despair,” for the hero Rangitihi when his head was split by an enemy's club bound up his skull with a forest-vine and went on fighting.

The proverb “Food will not follow at the back of Hekemaru” implies that the hospitality offered has only been prompted by an after-thought. A great chief named Hekemaru refused to accept food on a journey except when he was seen and welcomed on approaching a strange village. If his party had passed without being seen, and messengers were sent after him asking him and his followers to return and partake of food, he would answer that food would not follow his back, meaning that such food being offered to the sacred back of his head would be dangerous to others.

“The little basket of Whaka-oti-rangi” was often quoted as an excuse to a guest when only a scanty store of provisions could be set before him. Whaka-oti-rangi was one of the few women who accompanied the page 80 voyaging Maori to New Zealand in the “Arawa” canoe. Most of the provisions were lost from the canoe when it entered the great mid-ocean whirlpool, but the lady in question saved some of her sweet-potatoes in a little basket. The potatoes being planted on arrival here were the origin of this root in New Zealand, according to a tribal story.

Some proverbs are mere local boasts, such as “Wind is everywhere, but (the best) food at Orariki.” “A greenstone of two colours” implies a changeable person. “The men are of Waitaha (tribe) but not their hearts” is used against diversity of council. “Descendants of Kapu, with minds undeciphered” was spoken of a reserved party of visitors. “It would scarcely stir the beard of Haumatangi” means as though one said “It would hardly be a mouthful,” for Haumatangi had a valiant appetite. “The children of Ninihi” was used to those who professed to scorn dainties but were gourmands nevertheless—probably this affectation was one of the weaknesses of Ninihi. A person usually neglectful of personal appearance but who was highly ornamented on some special occasion was rebuked by the adage “Buried in the ground, a chrysalis; appearing in the air a butterfly.” “The many of Rangiwhakangi” is equivalent to our “Many hands make light work.” If a greedy person secured a dainty portion of food and secreted it, he was told “You have a fat kahawai fish, so turn your face away.” “Haste with the harvest, the Pleiades are setting” was a hint that the season was advanced.

page 81

These examples may suffice to show what a treasury of quaint wisdom the Maori's memory held in keeping.


The natives amused themselves at times by reciting fabulous or invented stories (korero tara). These must not in any way be confounded with legends or folk-lore tales; the latter being regarded, however improbable, as being in the nature of traditional narratives of truths. The fables generally related to animals and their imaginary adventures. They are not of great interest, and I give a solitary example as a specimen; the best procurable specimen of such stories.

The Battle of the Birds.

“In ancient days two shags (Cormorant; Kawau; Phalacrocorax, N.Z.) met at the sea-side. One was a salt-water bird, and the other was a fresh-water bird; nevertheless they were both shags, living alike on fish which they caught in the water, although they differed a little in the colour of their feathers. The river-bird, seeing the sea-bird go into the sea for the purpose of fishing food for itself, did the same. They both dived repeatedly, seeking food for themselves, for they were hungry; indeed the river-bird dived ten times and caught nothing. Then the river-bird said to his companion, “If it were but my own home, I should just pop under water and find food directly; there never could be a single diving there without finding food”—To which remark his companion simply said, “Just so.” Then the river-bird said to the other, “Yes, thy home here in the sea is one without any food”—To this insulting observation the sea-bird made no reply. Then the river-bird said to the other, “Come along with me to my home; you and I will fly together”—On this both birds flew off and kept flying till they got to a river where they dropped. Both dived and both rose, having each a fish in its bill; page 82 then they dived together ten times, and every time they rose together with a fish in their bills. This done, the sea-bird flew back to its own home. Arriving there it immediately sent heralds in all directions to all the birds of the ocean to lose no time but to assemble and kill all the fresh-water birds and all the birds of the dry land and the forests. The sea-birds hearing this assented, and were soon gathered together for the fray. In the mean-while the river-birds and the land- and forest-birds were not idle; they also assembled from all quarters, and were preparing to repel their foes.
Ere long the immense army of the sea-birds appeared, sweeping along grandly from one side of the heavens to the other, making a terrible noise with their wings and cries. On their first appearing, the Fantail (piwakawaka; Rhipidura flabellifera) got into a towering passion, being desirous of spearing the foe, and danced about presenting his spear on all sides, crying Ti! Ti! * Then the furious charge of the sea-birds was made. In the first rank came, swooping down with their mighty wings, the albatross, the gannet, and the big brown gull (ngoiro) with many others closely following, indeed all the birds of the sea. Then they charged at close quarters, and fought bird with bird. How the blood flowed and the feathers flew! The river-birds came on in close phalanx and dashed bravely right into their foes. They all stood to it for a long time, fighting desperately, Such a sight! At last, the sea-birds gave way, and fled in confusion. Then it was that the hawk (kahu, Circus gouldii) soared down upon them, pursuing and killing; and the fleet sparrow-hawk (karearea; Hieracidea, N.Z.) darted in and out among the fugitives, tearing and ripping, while the owl (ruru, Spiloglaux, N.Z.), who could not fly by day, encouraged by hooting derisively “Thou art brave! Thou art victor! (Toa Koe! toa Koe!) and the big parrot (kaka; Nestor meridionalis) screamed “Remember! Remember! Be you ever remembering your thrashing!” (Kia iro! kia iro!)
In that great battle the two birds, the petrel (ti-ti; puffinus tenuirostris) and the black petrel (taiko; Majaqueus parkinsoni) were made prisoners by the river-birds; and hence it is that these two birds always lay page 83 their eggs and rear their young in the woods among the land-birds. The petrel (titi) goes to sea and stays there for a whole moon, and, when she is full of oil for the young in the forests, she returns to feed them, which is once every moon. From this circumstance arose with our ancestors the old adage which has come down to us, “A titi of one feeding”—(He titi whangainga tahi), meaning “Even as a petrel gets fat though only fed now and then.”2

Tribal Mottoes.

Many of the important tribes had “Mottoes” or proverbial adages, often quoted, and supposed to convey in a terse and emphatic manner some characteristic of the people to which the name or expression was applied. Sometimes these were scornful epithets used by others almost as nicknames and applied contemptuously. I refrain from giving examples of these, as they would only confer more publicity on annoying phrases, and wound some of my native friends without cause.

Another kind, that of the true “Motto” was a proud descriptive sentence or word, well remembered by the members of the tribe alluded to and by those who wished to flatter or approve. Of these the following may be taken as examples:
  • Ngaiterangi tribe “Truthful” (Ki-tahi; literally “single-speech”).
  • Ngati-paoa tribe “Easily offended” (Taringa-rahirahi; literally “thin-ears”).
  • Waikato tribe “The hundred chiefs” (Taniwha rau).
  • Ngapuhi tribe “Eaters of men” (Kaitangata).
  • Ngati-awa tribe “Of a hundred holes” (Kowhao rau; meaning “Of a hundred hiding places,” fertile of resource).
  • Rangitihi tribe “The arrogant head” (Upoko whakahirahira).

* This appears a very humorous idea to a Maori, because the dear little Fantail is one of the tiniest and least terrible of the bird tribe.