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Maori Religion and Mythology Part 1

D—Atua of the Fourth Class

D—Atua of the Fourth Class

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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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!

Atua Toro

Any spirit god, or familiar spirit, that is employed by its human medium as a messenger or exploring agent for any purpose is termed an atua toro, from toro=to reconnoitre, explore, discover, visit, &c. Thus, an atua might be despatched as an active agent in black magic, or to convey or seek information. When the Arawa were about to attack Te Tumu, some eighty-odd years ago, one Te Kahawai despatched his familiar spirit, known as Te Weka, to reconnoitre the place. The atua returned promptly to its medium, and this in itself was viewed as a good omen. When Tamatea visited Taupo, he heard that Ngatoro-i-rangi was approaching the place, and so despatched the atua called Tunui-o-te-ika to act as a guide to him. Ere long Tunui was seen gleaming above the hill Pihanga, hence it was known that Ngatoro had arrived there. We have noted elsewhere that the visible form of Tunui is a comet. Again, we are told that, during certain hostilities at Taupo, Pahau, a medium of the atua Rongomai, who appears as a meteor or fireball, despatched that being in the direction of an approaching enemy force. The demon was seen by all rushing through space, and it burst at the place where the enemy was at the time. This was accepted as a good omen for the despatchers and, an evil one for the approaching invaders. It is not made clear as to whether the act of so despatching Rongomai was done as an act of divination, or for some other purpose. Doubtless the truth in all such cases is that, whenever such unusual phenomena were seen, some cunning warlock or medium would at once claim that he was responsible for the display, and take every advantage of it. We shall see in the legend of Ngatoro and Manaia that the atua Rongomai, Tama-i-waho, Tunui-o-te-ika, Kahukura, Tama-te-uira, Aitupawa, and Turongo-rau were all utilized as atua toro by Ngatoro. As we have seen, Tunui is represented by a comet, Kahukura by the rainbow, and Aitupawa by thunder.

Atua as Guardians of Tapu Places, &c.

In former times atua of the third and fourth classes were widely employed by the Maori as guardians of such tapu spots as burial-places. Thus the famous cave called Wharekohu, on Kapiti Island, wherein bones of the dead were deposited for centuries, was under page 210the guardianship of Tunui-o-te-ika. In some cases a lizard was placed in charge of some spot or object the sanctity or privacy of which it was advisable to protect. Thus I know of cases in which lizards were placed as guardians of the so-called burial-caves, and in one instance as guardian of a highly-prized tree much frequented by game birds, and on which they were snared. In such cases the lizard that represents Whiro (the personified form of disease and death) would certainly be an excellent deterrent to would-be trespassers, and doubtless, in some cases at least, the lizard was the aria, or form of incarnation, of an atua, as in the case of Te Hukita and Te Rehu-o-Tainui. Atua were also utilized as guardian beings of a village, as in the case of the Te Whetu-kairangi, an old-time fortified village on Seatoun Heights, Wellington, which was placed under the protecting power of Tuhinapo and Tunui-o-te-ika. Maru was another atua employed for such purposes.