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Maori Religion and Mythology Part 1



This being represented darkness and evil, and, in a secondary sense, disease and death. Naturally, he is termed the elder brother of Tane, because darkness is older than light; it was a primordial condition. Whiro was also looked upon as a kind of patron of thieves, because he is ever striving to destroy man and to capture and annihilate his spirit as it passes to the subterranean spirit-world. The undying enmity between Whiro and Tane—that is, between Darkness and Light—has already been explained, and it is the cause of the ceaseless efforts made by Whiro to destroy man, who is the offspring of Tane. We have seen that Whiro was the origin of all disease, of all afflictions of mankind, and that he acts through the Maiki clan, who personify all such afflictions. All diseases were held to be caused by these demons—these malignant beings who dwell within Tai-whetuki, the House of Death, situated in nether gloom. This old belief is, of course, nothing more than demoniac possession, a belief that has continued to our own time, even among what we are pleased to term civilized peoples. This is the belief that retarded for so long a period all progress in medicinal treatment of disease. The Maori treatment of such afflictions was purely empirical; it became a sacerdotal matter, and called for the expulsion of the demon from the body of the afflicted person. Even among the Babylonians and Assyrians medicinal treatment was held to have the effect of driving the disease demon out of the body, and not that of regulating the functions of the bodily organs. Among our Maori folk the lizard was held in terror because it represented, or was the visible form of, Whiro.

It is on account of this old myth concerning Whiro that we occasionally note allusions to his energy in destroying man in old songs, as in the following line: "I taria koutou ki te tari a Whiro" ("You were ensnared in the noose of Whiro").

This original Whiro has been confused with one or more genuine ancestors of the same name, as seen in Tregear's Dictionary. A page 186famous Polynesian voyager named Whiro is often so confused with the personification we are dealing with. The Whiro-nui who is said to have come to New Zealand in the vessel "Nukutere" was probably a different person to the famous voyager and contemporary of Tura. The same confusion of two or more Whiro is noted in the isles of Polynesia. It is a curious fact that the qualities pertaining to Whiro in New Zealand and certain parts of Polynesia are attributed to Tangaroa at the Hawaiian and Marquesas Groups.

The Rev. Mr. Yate wrote as follows concerning Whiro in his Account oj New Zealand, published in 1835: "The ideas of the New-Zealanders with respect to Whiro, the evil spirit, are in some respects more in accordance with the Scriptural accounts of Lucifer, the Prince of Darkness. They say he is a liar and the father of lies; that he tempts to murder and cannibalism; urges to adultery; incites to theft, witchcraft, self-destruction, and every description of crime; and that there is no sin but what is put into the heart by him; that he laughs when men weep, rejoices when they are sorrowful, and dances when they are on the way to war; that blood is a feast in which he delights; and that as he feeds upon the souls of men, so he has taught the New-Zealanders to feed upon their bodies. They believe that he is a great spirit, everywhere present, and at all times engaged in mischief; that when men lie down to sleep he hovers round their pillow and makes them dream of evil; when they rise he rises too; when they walk he walks with them…. This is the evil spirit, with whom they believe they have to associate for ever in the Reinga." These remarks are moulded too much on Scriptural models (a common failing among missionaries), but give a good idea of the ubiquitous nature of Whiro. Cannibalism and self-destruction were not viewed as crimes by the Maori.

It has come to pass that the word whiro has been introduced into vernacular speech as an adjective meaning "bad evil." Thus malignant atua, or demons, are termed atua whiro. The Rev. R. Taylor tells us that Whiro is connected with thunder and lightning, but apparently this lacks corroboration.

At the Cook Islands Whiro, or Whiro-te-tupua, as he is often called, is also associated with darkness, as noted in vol. 25 of the Journal of the Polynesian Society, at p. 141. Offerings were made to Whiro by our Maori folk; on many occasions a portion of food would be cast aside with the brief remark, "Ki a koe, E Whiro!" ("To thee, O Whiro!").

Tylor, in his Primitive Culture, speaks of the personal semi-human nature of the disease spirits (beings that cause disease) so commonly believed in. Such beliefs are very prominent in the Indian Archi-page 187pelago. This, of course, brings us to demoniac possession, a belief that lingered long among us. Tylor suspected that Whiro was but the Christian devil, borrowed from missionary teaching; but there he was quite wrong. Cruise, in his account of New Zealand published in 1823, tells us that a native stricken by illness is under the influence of an atua "who has taken possession of him, and who, in the shape of a lizard, is devouring his intestines."