Other formats

    TEI XML file   ePub eBook file  


    mail icontwitter iconBlogspot iconrss icon

The Maori Race

Chiefs and Priests

page 146

Chiefs and Priests.

At first sight it would appear that the highest offices of government among the Maori were carried out by men whose power descended to them in an hereditary and simple manner. Stated generally it was hereditary monarchy, for, although there was no king over the whole nation, it should be remembered that the greatest chiefs wielded power little short of regal, indeed sometimes passing the temporal sway of kings, for they united the office of monarch (under local limitations) with that of high priest. Eldest son of eldest son, down from the gods of Heaven and Earth, their ancestors; that was how the proud lineage of the mighty was counted. Yet not without interruption, perhaps, for few were the pedigrees into which some little flaw, some inferior marriage, or disputed succession did not obtrude itself, and the men of absolutely spotless descent in the land of the Maori could be counted on the fingers. page 147 On the territorial or temporal side great war-prowess or immense possessions might reinforce the pretensions of some mighty lord, but spiritually (one might almost say ecclesiastically) such a leader might be held as of less account than one to whom fate had denied the heritage of temporal power but whose authority (mana) as “god-descended” was enormous.

If a great chief's first-born son was by a slave wife, the boy had many privileges of primogeniture, but he could not be an ariki, unless his mother was a woman of rank. The different tribes and sub-tribes had ariki, but the greatest of them all, the “head of the Clan,” was the Upoko-ariki, the Pu, or Tumu-whakarae, the different names being bestowed in diverse localities. The Tumu-whakarae is stated to have been the title of one so sacred that, like the Japanese “Spiritual Emperor,” he was too exalted a personage to do anything at all. He therefore allowed his next younger brother to take the office of ariki and perform all the priestly part of his work. Hence the proverb, “The cockle may beget progeny where it likes, the High Chief sits quietly.” (Ka haere te Pipi-ai-he, ka noho te Tumu-whakarae.) It is probable that to this peerless sacerdotal rank belonged the great priest Taewa-a-Rangi of the Takitumu canoe, for although he was of far higher position than was the celebrated Ngatoro-i-rangi of the Arawa canoe, yet no record of an action or precept of his has been preserved in the traditions of his countrymen.

To descend, however, to the ordinary prince or ariki, we find that he was set apart from page 148 birth to his high office of priest-chief. He had great privileges, and being of higher birth than his parents (through uniting their two lines in him) considered himself almost a divine person, a Divus Cæsar. Taught all the knowledge of his ancestors in the University of the Whare-kura (shortly to be commented on), he emerged as a peculiar being, with rights and attributes all his own. He only might eat the meat of certain sacred offerings, and one variety of food, viz, the octopus (called for this purpose tapairu), was never eaten except by him. Almost the highest honour he could pay to any distinguished visitor was to send him some octopus, and the very highest honour was to ask him to eat some octopus from the same basket. He acted as judge in all tribal matters regarding land or property, he settled all ecclesiastical affairs such as those relating to tapu, he regulated the operations of agriculture, fishing, and burial ceremonies. He was the medium between the gods and his people, to him were brought the first fruits of the cultivation of the soil, of fishing expeditions, etc. If a certain part of the tribal lands was allowed to be cultivated by people of another tribe (probably a defeated or broken tribe) the first-fruits of the crops were taken to the Ariki by the chiefs of the cultivating tribe, and not till that Ariki had eaten and the chiefs returned to their own people did any of them dare to remove the rest of the crop from the ground.

To the care of the Ariki the sacred kura or charm-stones of the tribe were committed; with them went the power of making common page 149 objects into gods or of bestowing on them spiritual attributes. He also had the reverse faculty, viz, that of depriving things of their supernatural character (tapu) and making them common (noa). Generally this latter function was exercised by touching the sacred thing with cooked food or by putting it into the fire whereon food had been cooked. Then each member of the tribe who partook of that food would be outside the power of the god who had formerly made his abode in the now desecrated object, but such action was seldom undertaken unless it was found that the object in question was working evil instead of good to its clients.

To the Ariki belonged any wrecked canoe or “flotsam” generally, even if it were the property of some of his own relatives or friends. His also was any treasure-trove if it was ancient; things recently hidden could be claimed by the owner. He possessed royal rights in certain large fish, such as a whale (always a fish to the Maori, indeed “the” fish), dolphin or porpoise. If a white heron was seen fishing in a stream it was not disturbed, but the news had to be borne to the Ariki, who would take proper steps for its capture, that its feathers might adorn his regalia.

Strange to say, although the system was built on primogeniture, this was by no means universally adhered to. There are legendary instances where even the mana or spiritual power of the priest-chief did not descend to the eldest son. The great-great-grandson of the hero Tama-te-kapua of the Arawa canoe was named Rangitihi, and possessed all his ancestor's sacred power. When he died his youngest page 150 boy alone dared to rise up and bind his father's corpse with vines, the elder brothers who, each in turn should have done so, lacked the moral courage or confidence to utter the necessary incantations, any mistake in which would have been fatal to themselves. So, though the youngest brother, Apa-moana, considered that one of his elders should perform the rites, yet, since they dared not do so, he took upon himself the holy office, and the mana of his father passed to him, to the exclusion of his brothers. Sometimes the mana of a father was ceremonially transmitted before his death to his successor. The process was quaintly described by a native thus: “The father tells his son to bite the great toe of his (the father's) left foot, and then to fast. Neither father nor son touch food. Eight days do they fast, sleeping at night, while the father teaches his son what he has learnt in the spirit-world, until all the invocations have passed into the memory of the son. Then is the work finished.”1

If there was danger to a first-born prince that under extremely rare circumstances his priestly power might be lost, there was far greater probability that his temporal authority might be questioned and taken away. As a rule he was supposed to receive his spiritual appointment from heaven at birth, but his leadership and direction of the people in peace or war (especially in war) had to be confirmed by the popular opinion of his people. There was thus in the system a curious blending of theocratic and democratic ideas. The Ariki had to possess certain moral and mental attributes page 151 in addition to his “divine right;” he had to be brave, intelligent and generous. No coward, no fool, no niggard could lead the splendid, open-handed, clear-eyed warriors of the Maori. If in consequence of any glaring physical or intellectual defect he was incapable of being “dux et auctor,” he would be set aside by the unanimous consent of his tribe for another, generally an uncle or brother. This election or appointment was brought about by a kind of silent sympathy among the notables that a certain person was “their man.” It was considered a breach of etiquette to discuss among themselves the position or acquirements of the chief, but in some curious way (a barbaric “telepathy”) they seemed able to make each other feel that another leader was necessary, and who that person was to be. Then the chosen one became the war-chief, the director in council, and to him pertained the royal privilege of veto. There was quite enough energy among so warlike and turbulent a people to make sure that the leader had no sinecure and was no “roi faineant.” Cases have been known where the Ariki has lost his leadership through the dying words, “the last will and testament,” of his father, who, being hostile to him, passed him over for another.

If, however, the Ariki lost his temporal power, of his priestly position no one could deprive him, except under such rare circumstances as above mentioned in regard to the successors of Tama-te-kapua. He was essentially the holy one, necessary to his tribe as the medium of the gods. His was the task of page 152 preparing the war-parties before battle and freeing them from the tapu of blood thereafter, of blessing the crops, of serving at the altar, and his were the offerings at the altar. “Opener of the womb” was he, and through his children the line of the “god-born” was carried on. He was the greater if he united the spiritual and temporal powers, as he usually did, but no popular judgment affected his supernatural position; it was only in mundane affairs that the world could take away what the world had given.

If, by evil chance, a girl appeared as the first-born in the sacred line, she too had many of the powers that a son would have inherited. She was called the Tapairu (a word now translated “Queen,” anciently the mystic name of the octopus) and became the High-Priestess of the tribe. She could eat the octopus and the sacred offerings; no person might eat with her or after her. She alone of all women might taste human flesh, which she did when a war-party returned with portions of the bodies of the slain. As not even her sacredness allowed her to break the law which prevented a woman entering the Wharekura (unless she was its presiding priestess, and then only for the opening ceremony), she could not learn all the incantations which a male could have done in her place, but there was, still, much of ancestral lore for her to acquire, and this was imparted to her by a priest specially told off to teach her outside the precincts of the Holy House. There she learnt her lessons and the spells necessary to counteract witchcraft and evil influences. It was her task to “make common” (whaka-noa) page 153 and to “cause to live” (whaka-ora). Before a grand house could be open to the crowd she must take away the tapu of its newness by stepping across its threshold (paepaepoto). If a man or woman was afflicted by the gods for having infringed some ceremonial rite, by her stepping over or passing between the legs of the afflicted one, that person could be healed and made safe once more.

There is yet another case in which the king-priest line might suffer, viz, by the heir who should be Ariki dying young. The next brother could not succeed to the position because he was not “the Opener of the Gate” of birth. The succession generally reverted to the grandfather (mother's father) so far as his being the medium of the gods and the eater of the sacred food of the offerings. As the grandfather was probably old and unable to carry on the active work of leadership a solemn meeting was held in Wharekura. In deep silence the brothers of the dead man or youth stood up one after another in their places, and when the right man arose a low cough ran across the assembly. This was the sign of approval. All was done with great solemnity and decorum; there was no canvassing or persuasion allowed, not even to the extent of mentioning the matter to each other.