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Maori Religion and Mythology Part 1


We now come to the lowest class of native gods, so called, such as were represented and utilized by the lower class tohunga, or priestly mediums. Some of them were merely what may be called family gods, and in such cases the medium was either a male or female member of such family. The Maori folk provided themselves with many godlets, as these inferior beings are termed by Phillips in his book entitled The Works of Man. In some cases these godlets had but a brief lease of life, perhaps only a generation, when they passed away into the unknown. We have an idea that gods never die, but the Maori, and Winwood Reade know better. A native witness in one of our Land Courts happened to remark of a certain god of former times, "That atua is dead." "But," protested the Court, "a god cannot die." The native was ready with his reply: "Gods can and do die, when there are no priestly mediums to keep them alive." And so Te Awanui and Te Rehu-o-Tainui, with many another atua of low degree, passed from human ken.

The lower grade malignant atua of Maori belief, cacodemons and spirits of the dead, resemble somewhat closely the evil spirits, devils, or demons the belief in which has been so common even in Christianity and Mohammedanism. Thus, possession by evil spirits is a belief that has been world-wide until recent times, from New Zealand right across the wide world to Ireland. People of the lower culture stages have ever believed that all sickness and disease are caused by malignant powers, and in many cases that such evil spirits actually enter and abide in the body of the afflicted person. In common with other races, the Maori firmly believed in this demoniacal possession. He not only personified disease and sickness generally, and so spoke of being afflicted by Whiro, Maiki-nui, Maiki-roa, &c., but also believed that, when ill, some atua had taken possession of his body. Such man-afflicting beings belonged to the class we are now dealing with, and were known as atua whiro (evil atua) and atua ngau tangata page 204(man-assailing demons); the latter term being also applied to wargods.

The causes of such demoniacal possession as causes illness may be stated as (1) black magic, (2) the violation of some law of tapu by the sufferer. Such a hara (offence) would be punished by the gods in the above manner. These curious beliefs are met with in the Bible, and the Jews seem to have relied more on the priest than physicians in cases of illness. The curing of disease by the laying-on of hands was essentially an Asiatic belief. When a Maori was afflicted by an atua, his one chance for relief from his sufferings was to apply to a tohunga (priestly adept or shaman). The first action taken by the latter was to find out the cause of the patient's illness, what wrong act he had committed and for which the gods were punishing him. His next task was to perform certain ritual in order to exorcise the demon. Thus the medicinal art had no chance to find favour among the Maori folk; the doctor was represented by the priest, whose empirical activities consisted of charms recited over the hapless patient. Tylor, in his Primitive Culture, gives a considerable amount of data concerning these beliefs, including illustrations from New Zealand and Polynesia. The casting-out of devils was in former times an important part of the duties of a priest, even in Christian lands, and apparently this ceremony has never been officially discarded by the Roman Catholic Church, all of which goes to show how barbaric beliefs and ceremonies were preserved in Christianity. Taylor tells us in Te Ika a Maui of a little book that he bought in France, and which contained "spiritual remedies"—special prayers to cure various diseases.

These malignant spirits were numerous in Maori belief, and were ever disposed to attack man, hence the Maori considered himself always in danger of attack from them. In some cases persons suffering from a prolonged or intermittent illness were recommended to move to another district for a time. This was not with a view to gaining a "change of air," but was intended to foil the evil influence of the local demons; thus it was a case of "change of atua." The sufferer left behind the local beings who had been plaguing him. This novel method of befooling demons is called whakahehe, a word meaning "to foil, confuse, confound, perplex." In his work on Animism Clodd writes as follows: "Among the delusions which have wrought havoc on mankind, making life one long mightmare, and adding to mental anguish, the infliction of death in horrible form upon a multitude whose vast total can never be known, there is probably none comparable, for its bitter fruits, with this belief in the activity of evil spirits."

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