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Maori Religion and Mythology Part 1

Spiritual Guardians of Man

Spiritual Guardians of Man

There is another aspect to be considered in regard to the useful activities of atua of the lower grades. They served as watchful guardians over the lives and welfare of their human mediums, and hence were often the means of preserving a clan or tribe from disaster. Such, at least, was Maori belief, and it is Maori beliefs we are describing. Improbabilities and impossibilities cannot be recognized when regarding the beliefs of barbaric man. It was the duty of an atua to carefully watch over its human mediums, to warn them of approaching dangers, to utter oracular prophecies concerning future events, and in all ways to preserve and forward their welfare. This desirable condition would be maintained so long as such mediums were careful to act in a discreet and proper manner in regard to the placation of such a spirit by means of offerings, and a rigid respect for the rules of tapu. It was very easy to offend an atua, and so cause it to punish the offender, or at least to withdraw its protection, which would amount to much the same thing. For instance, any mistake made by a priestly medium in the recital of ritual matter, charms, invocations, or incantatory formulae would assuredly be followed by unpleasant consequences. Again, should such a medium infringe a rule of tapu, his own atua would desert him and withdraw its help and protection until the cause of offence had been removed. The favour of the atua could be regained only by judicious placation and correct behaviour. Any person so abandoned by his familiar spirit was assuredly in parlous plight, for he was left defenceless against the dangers of black magic and all the evil influences that ever page 211surround hapless man and are ready to assail him. Physical qualities alone cannot enable a man to survive these innumerable dangers; supernatural help is ever necessary to enable him to retain life; truly has it been said that, without the gods, no man may live. Yet it has been shown that man is ever being pestered by malicious atua seeking to harm him. Quite so; but those hostile spirits are the familiars of other persons, or are free lances: an atua always helps, protects, and succours its own medium or mediums, so long as the latter do not offend them.

An atua has many ways of warning its mediums of threatening dangers. Any supposed danger, or ominous occurrence, or object seen in a dream is a manifestation of the power and care of one's familiar spirit. Anything that warns one of danger has been prompted, as it were, by one's guardian, though it be but the cry of a bird, the fall of a tree, a landslip, or the peal of thunder, I well remember old Pio, of Te Teko, telling me of a visit that he made to Waikaremoana. When crossing the lake in a canoe he noted a certain star, that represented his guardian atua, in a certain position. On reaching his destination he warned the people of danger, saying that they would probably be attacked by enemies shortly. As a matter of fact they were so attacked the next morning, much, apparently, to Pio's satisfaction, who ever after lauded the powers of his familiar.

Such protecting powers are believed to be ever hovering about their mediums in time of danger in order to preserve them from harm. A good illustration of this belief is given at p. 174 of vol. 3 of the Journal of the Polynesian Society. A man and his son visited a village of a neighbouring tribe in the Bay of Plenty, and, when leaving the place in order to return home, the father beheld his familiar hovering about him. This puzzled him, but he knew that some danger was nigh. After they reached home the father was taken ill, and it was found that he had been bewitched by one of the people of the village they had visited.

It will be observed that only these lower-class atua, such as ancestral spirits, acted as familiar attendants of man. The departmental gods never did so—they held themselves aloof; while those of the third class, such as Kahukahu, Rongomai, &c., though visible to man through their aria, yet did not act as close attendants on their human mediums. We recognize the fact that the familiar spirits of the Maori, usually termed "family gods," were either ancestral spirits or those of children of living parents; but it is not safe to apply such a statement to the atua of any class above the fourth. We have seen that many of those of the third class were personifications of natural phenomena. The statement page 212has been made that all atua maori, or native deities, were ancestral spirits, but no more misleading remark is on record. The fourth class of atua was largely composed of the household gods. The cult of these fourth-class beings was simply a form of family worship, if the word "worship" be admissible, and this represented the lowest type of religious practice among these natives. These family atua did not develop into higher forms; they never acquired, however famous within the tribal area, the status of third-class gods.

Ancestor-worship among our Maori folk is thus seen to occupy the lowest grade; and yet few things are more persistent, for we still perceive it in somewhat changed form in Christianity. It has been said that the Roman Catholic Church does not apotheosize, though its canonization of the dead has its roots in ancestor-worship. Whatever the Church may or may not do, its members practically worship those so-called saints, as I myself have seen, and their saint-worship is ancestor-worship. These deified ancestors are inferior deities of Christianity, a cultus that is spoken of as a monotheistic system. They are looked upon as being active in human affairs; they are reverenced and prayed to by the people; in fact, they are atua maori of the fourth class.

Enough has been said to show that so-called ancestor-worship as practised by the Maori did not include what we call worship; it was simply a matter of placating ancestral spirits, and of utilizing their services. Such spirits were known as koromatua, a term that appears in the Tahitian dialect as orometua. This cultus was one of the most matter-of-fact and practical that could be evolved, and must be viewed as a very inferior exhibition of the religious sentiment. Herein we encounter some fear of powers supernatural, but none of the reverence and awe displayed in the cult of Io. The mental conditions illustrated in these two phases of religion are totally different—indeed, they seem to be opposed to each other. The two could not appeal to any one human mind; gross shamanism dominated by fear could not find a place in the mind that appreciated the precepts and ritual pertaining to Io. In the higher belief, as appreciated by the few, fear of punishment had small place, and such mild precepts could have been evolved and appreciated only by superior minds that had risen above the plane of shamanism. The fear of ghosts pertains essentially to the childhood of the race, as it also does to the childhood of the individual, although it may survive in a somewhat weakened form among more advanced conceptions in later times. When it survives in higher forms of culture its grosser aspects tend to disappear.

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Lord Avebury remarks that the worship of ancestors has, in Polynesia, tended to replace that of earlier deities. Such a statement calls for careful consideration ere it is accepted. It is well to remember that, among barbaric folk, the lower forms or phases of religion are most in evidence, the higher forms being carefully concealed by the conservative upholders thereof. Thus it is only of late years that we have gained a knowledge of the higher beliefs and practices of Maori religion of former times. The writer mentioned quotes a remark by Shortland in support of his statement, but Shortland never acquired any knowledge of the superior beliefs of the Maori, and clearly shows that he did not understand his mentality.

Another statement made by Lord Avebury is that ancestor-worship occupies a higher plane than that of sun-worship. But this does not appear to be so in regard to the Polynesians. Who, for example, would assert the superiority of the koromatua and atua kahu of Maori belief over the cult of Tane? The latter represents the Polynesian system of sun-worship, and Tane is one of the principal beings of the second, or departmental, class, while the others are of the fourth class. The same writer shows how ancestor-worship may be combined, as it were, with a partial deification of living persons, such as important and influential chiefs. One of such cases mentioned by him is that of the Maori chieftain Hongi, who claimed for himself the title of atua. He also gives other such cases from the Society and Marquesas Groups, showing to what absurd lengths adulation may be carried among such folk. The belief that man is descended from supernatural beings would, of course, tend to support any such claim made by a chief. The isolating tendency of the intense tapu of an important chief would also have some effect in causing the people to look with a feeling of awe upon him.

The reflective mind must admit that some form of ancestor-worship would be a natural evolution among uncultured folk, whether based on affection and regret or on fear—that is to say, fear of the spirits of the dead. The solemn funeral rites prompted by such feelings would also tend to elevate the defunct elders in the estimation of the living. This same feeling, transferred to living men, has been carried to astonishing lengths, as in the case of the Incas of Peru, and the claims made by the modern savage, William of Germany.

The feeling of veneration for dead parents and elders may have been carried to a bewildering extent, until such spiritual beings became as numerous as the so-called saints of a certain Christian Church. Among our Maori folk there seems to have arisen, among page 214the more advanced thinkers, a desire to ignore all these koromatua, or ancestral spirits so far as attributing to them any great powers. Thus, they did not maintain, as did some inferior races, that human ancestors were responsible for the existence of the world and all things in it, but stated that "there is but one parent of all things," that parent being the mighty Io. However, we usually find that ancestor-worship is associated with other beliefs, and in the case of the Maori we find that it occupies the lowest level. It is not confused with what may perhaps be termed nature-worship; deified ancestral spirits and personifications of natural phenomena are two separate and distinct series of beings in Maori belief. The cult of such beings as Tane, Tangaroa, Tawhiri-matea, as also the lower-grade Rongomai, Kahukura, &c., was quite apart from the utilizing of the spirit of, say, a defunct grandfather as a familiar and protecting power.

One fact shows clearly in this deification of ancestors—namely, the firm belief in the continued existence of the spirit of man after death. As to the destination of that spirit, and the conditions under which it exists, here the human mind has exercised itself for ages, and has evolved some curious myths or beliefs, as will be seen when we come to deal with the spirit-world.

Spencer's theory that ancestor-worship is the root of all religion scarcely seems to be a tenable one. Surely the ever-present and striking phenomena of nature would deeply affect primitive man, and hence such tutelary beings and nature gods as we have discussed in these pages. Lubbock held that ancestor-worship presupposes nature-worship, or, more correctly, a worship of the gods of nature. It cannot be that nature gods have been evolved from deified ancestors; the two are widely sundered.

In connection with this lower phase of native religion the Maori practically says, "Our ancestors ever watch over us, see all that we do, and hear all that we say. They punish us if we infringe the rules of tapu and if we deny the truth of ancient lore as taught by our experts. They appear to us at night, and warn us of threatening dangers." An old Maori said to the writer, "The gods of the Maori were his own ancestors." He was alluding to ancestral spirits; and we must bear in mind that the departmental gods and all personifications treated as gods are also viewed as ancestors.

In a paper on "Maori Religion" published in the annual volume of the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science for 1910 appears the following passage: "The deification of ancestors was essentially a Maori cult. It was a form of necrolatry; a man would placate the spirit of his father, grandfather, or ancestor, and page 215make offerings to the same, that such spirit might protect his life-principle, warn him of approaching danger, and give force or effectiveness to his rites and charms of black or white magic."

Grant Allen, in his Evolution of the Idea of God, treads in Spencer's footsteps to a great extent, and relies on ancestor-worship (or "corpse-worship," as he puts it) in tracing the origin of the belief in gods. His description of Maori cenotaphs as "memorial idols" is not correct, for they were in no sense idols. Nor were the carved figures seen in Maori houses idols. He draws attention to the fact that the Roman Catholic Church finds it necessary to keep renewing from time to time the stock of minor gods, a practice borrowed from peoples of low culture, and pre-existing cults. He remarks that "the religious emotion takes its origin from the affection and regard felt for the dead by survivors, mingled with the hope and belief that they may be of some use or advantage, temporal or spiritual, to those who call upon them." He evidently has little belief in any other origin for the belief in gods, and this is, to the present writer's mind, the weak side of his work. He also has an interesting passage on the remarkable resemblance between the latest and what he believes to have been the earliest phases or types of religion—that is to say, between spiritualism and ancestor-worship. The modern spiritualist seeks to establish intimacy with the spirits of the dead, as did the old-time folk who practised ancestor-worship during long-past centuries. Of a certain type of spiritualists he remarks: "They have rejected religion, but they cannot reject the inherited and ingrained religious emotions."

In his Story of New Zealand Dr. A.S. Thomson refers to the deified ancestors of the Maori. He includes among them Maui, Uenuku, and Tawhaki. But it is very doubtful if any of this trio were human. They personified natural phenomena, light, the rainbow, and lightning; though Maui and Tawhaki may have been confused with human folk of comparatively late times bearing the same names. This writer makes a distinction between gods and deified ancestors that shows he had devoted both thought and acumen to the subject. He says, "The New-Zealanders believed that the gods never visited the earth, but that the spirits of their deified ancestors did."