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Maori Religion and Mythology Part 1

Atua Kahu

Atua Kahu

The malignant type of low-grade fourth-class atua known as atua kahu may be termed demons. They are the malignant spirits of stillborn children, as denoted by the word kahu. Such spirits are extremely harmful to man, and delight in plaguing him, afflicting him with disease, and so forth. Such an object as a still born child, or foetus, should be buried by an expert, one who knows how to render it harmless, otherwise no end of mischief may result. If no ceremony be performed in order to lay the spirit, then it may enter some animal, as a dog, pig, bird, fish, or insect. Having so gained an abiding-place in an animal body, it would soon develop into a manassailing demon (atua ngau tangata). A bird merely flying over such a foetus would probably be utilized by such a spirit as a basis for itself. In the Tuhoe district such an object was, in one case, buried without any ceremonial under the perch-stand of a tame parrot (kaka), hence its spirit took up its abode in the bird and worked much harm to man. That bird was the cause of many evils that afflicted the village folk. Various ills that flesh is heir to were caused by it—that is, by the malignant spirit inhabiting it. Omens were also derived from the bird, according to its appearance, as to the recovery or otherwise of a sick person. When these malignant atua kahu afflicted man they had to be exorcised by an adept.

Dr. Shortland has written as follows in his Maori Religion and Mythology: "Intimately connected with the superstition respecting things tapu is the belief as to the cause of disease—namely, that a spirit has taken possession of the body of the sufferer. The belief is that any neglect of the law of tapu, either wilful or accidental, or even brought about by the act of another person, causes the anger of the atua of the family, who punishes the offender by sending some infant spirit to feed on a part of his body—infant spirits being generally selected for this office on account of their love of mischief, and because, not having lived long enough on earth to form attachments to their living relatives, they are less likely to show them mercy."

The punishment of a person for having transgressed some rule of tapu was by no means confined to atua kahu, or to the spirits of children who had died young. In vol 26 of the Journal of the Polynesian Society, at p. 87, is an account of a mummy of a human embryo in the Cairo Museum, and "some one, to appease the malice of this born-dead thing, had covered its face with a coating of gold, for, according to the belief of the Egyptians, these little abortions became the evil genii of their families if proper honour was not paid to them."

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These beliefs as to the cause of disease and sickness most effectually prevented any researches in medicinal treatment, and so we found the Maori utterly ignorant of medical science, relying entirely upon superstitious practices and magic formulae in cases of sickness.

In order to illustrate the origin, development, and activities of an atua kahu, we here insert an account of one such known by the name of Te Rehu-o-Tainui, whose fame for a generation was great among the Tuhoe Tribe. After that period this particular godlet seems to have "died," as so many other gods have in the days that lie behind. This is probably the only account of such a development that has been recorded in connection with our Maori folk.

Some five generations ago a woman of the Tama-kai-moana clan of Tuhoe, who lived on the upper waters of the Tauranga River, was delivered of a premature birth, which, on account of some malformation, was called Hope-motu. It was the spirit of this unsightly embryo that developed into the successful and formidable war-god Te Rehu-o-Tainui—that dread being who laid the tapu on Lake Rere-whakaitu, who smote the Arawa and Whakatohea, and left but the drifting waters at Taupo-moana.

When this embryo was buried it was enveloped in leaves in which some of the small fresh-water fish called titarakura had been cooked, and hence, when the spirit of the embryo achieved fame that species of fish became tapu, and could no longer be eaten by the people. The aria, or visible form of the spirit of the embryo, its form of incarnation, in which it was visible to human eyes, was that of a green lizard (moko kakariki). The superstitious dread the Maori feels for this reptile imparted additional mana to the spirit god, and endowed it with additional power to destroy human life—a truly desirable quality in a war-god.

One Uhia, a resident of Maunga-pohatu, on hearing of the new atua Hope-matu, conceived the idea of becoming the kauwaka, or human medium, of the new godlet. He resolved to placate it by means of a propitiatory offering, and this offering of tapu food, called an amonga, consisted of several birds of the species called porete (a parrakeet). Thus it was that Uhia became the medium, instigator, and mouthpiece of the new atua, which he named Te Rehu-o-Tainui. This atua mo te riri, or war-god, became the most famous inferior god among the Tuhoe Tribe and their principal war-god. In such cases the tutelary being Tu still retained his mana (power and influence), but Te Rehu was consulted in all cases bearing on divination and the activities of war-parties. So successful were the prophecies or oracles delivered by Te Rehu page 207in regard to proposed raids, as given through Uhia the medium, that the hill-bred bushmen had the greatest confidence in both atua and medium. This fact, combined with the courage and hardihood of these mountaineers, enabled the Tuhoe folk to make successful forays into surrounding districts. In the exaggerated language of the Maori, the name of Te Rehu-o-Tainui struck against the heavens, while the setting sun followed him in wonder to the Sea of Taupo.

The lizard that was the aria, or form of incarnation, of Te Rehu was sometimes shown by Uhia to the people. It would be seen lying on his hand, and occasionally putting its tongue out; this was looked upon as being a favourable omen. At other times, we are told, it would conceal itself in a hangi (steam oven), a peculiar place to be favoured by the representative of an atua. The intense heat of the oven would not injure the creature in any way, but the circumstance of it being found there was deemed an evil omen. It is said that some ignorant folk looked upon the lizard as being itself the spirit god Te Rehu-o-Tainui, but others knew that it was merely the visible representation of that being; the true spirit god is invisible. It was through this lizard medium that Uhia placated and invoked Te Rehu whenever he desired to utilize the services of that being. He also had to be careful to carry out the behests of Te Rehu in a proper manner, otherwise that worthy would be offended, and would not only refrain from assisting the projects of the tribe, but would also inflict upon it punishment for the offence.

The first manifestations of the power of this new godlet were of a strange nature. It caused Uhia the medium to ascend a tall tree and throw himself to the ground therefrom. He was not injured by the fall in any way, being preserved from harm by the powers of his atua. On a later occasion Uhia was instigated by Te Rehu to perform another marvellous feat. He cast himself into a river and passed under water for a long distance, finally emerging with two of the small fish previously mentioned suspended from his ears. Such were the tokens of his powers given by Te Rehu. During these weird and unusual performances Uhia is said to have been in a strange mental condition, like a deranged person, and quite oblivious of ordinary mundane affairs. When Uhia recovered from his peculiar condition he found himself possessed, as it were, by the spirit of Te Rehu, and an accredited medium of that being. He now recognized the fact that Te Rehu was an atua of great powers, and one worthy of service. He then, with due performance of the proper ritual, set aside and prepared a certain spot to serve as a tuahu, or sacred place, whereat to perform rites connected with Te Rehu. This place page 208was situated at the spot where he had emerged from the waters of the Tauranga River.

These data concerning Te Rehu-o-Tainui were obtained from natives of the Tuhoe Tribe, who stoutly maintain their truth; and who am I that I should deny it?

The rest of the history of Te Rehu consists of an account of the various fights that were conducted under his direction, and of the various oracular utterances delivered per medium of Uhia. The latter, in times of stress, now became the most important person in the tribe, and all hostilities were conducted under his personal direction. He performed all divinatory rites connected with warfare, and accompanied the armed warriors on the warpath; he planned all forays and attacks, and directed all engagements. After the return of a war-party from an expedition the ruahine ceremonial was performed. This lifted the tapu that had been placed on the warriors when they came under the sway of Tu and Te Rehu at the time that the expedition left the home village. This was viewed as an extremely important ceremony, one that could not be neglected. It would be highly dangerous for the members of a war expedition to go to their homes unless the tapu of the atua had been lifted from them. Until that rite was performed all members were under the influence of the atua, and any infringement of the rules of tapu while in that condition would entail most serious consequences. There are many acts that may be performed without danger under ordinary conditions that are disastrous when the performer thereof is under stringent tapu.

There is much more to be said concerning Te Rehu-o-Tainui and Uhia the priestly medium—their activities in many a wild foray and Homeric combat, the strange prophecies and stranger conditions uttered and imposed by Te Rehu. Many of these will be explained when we come to deal with the art of matakite, or divination. Uhia led many successful raids against neighbouring tribes, but after his death other mediums were less successful, or less fortunate, so the power of that war-god waned. Then came the introduction of Christianity, with its new gods, and Te Rehu-o-Tainui passed away from human ken, as did many another atua maori of the days of yore. They are as dead as are Osiris and Isis.

The last atua kahu that I have any knowledge of was one named Te Awanui. This godlet, or demon, was the spirit of a child still-born to a woman named Maraea, the mother of Te Pouwhare, now (1919) living at Ruatoki. Maraea herself acted as the medium of Te Awanui, and in that capacity she organized the fight of her people against Ngati-Manawa at Te Tapiri in the "sixties" of last century. Members of the Tuhoe Tribe who were engaged in that fighting informed me page 209that she stood out fearlessly in front of her tribesmen during the fray, and caught the bullets fired by the enemy in her hands! Truly is faith a fine thing!