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Maori Religion and Mythology Part 1

Aria of Atua; Forms of Incarnation

Aria of Atua; Forms of Incarnation

This is decidedly an interesting subject, inasmuch as it illustrates the universal desire of man for some visible representation or symbol of a god, some material object that will save him the trouble of having to exercise his powers of abstract thought. Here it must be explained that the Maori often employs two or more distinct terms, each having its special and restricted signification, where we use but one. Thus we speak of the human medium of an invisible spirit god, and the term "medium" might also be applied to the material object that represents such a being. The Maori, however, employs two distinct terms to denote the two media. The human medium referred to is called a waka, or kaupapa, but the animal or other object that is the visible form of an atua is known as its aria. These two terms are never confused. These aria, or forms of incarnation, if they may be so styled, are usually material entities, such as animals—i.e. dogs, birds, lizards, and insects—also stars. In some cases they are immaterial phenomena, as lightning, rainbows, and comets. Certain kinds of stone, notably nephrite (pounamu) were believed to possess strange powers and to have had a strange origin. They were viewed, however, more as atua—that is, as having something supernatural pertaining to them—than as aria.

These aria, be it clearly understood, are visible media or agents of invisible beings. The atua they represent cannot be seen by man. The only persons who can see spirits, such as spirits of the dead, are the matakite, or seers. Another matter that calls for explanation is that a certain object may be looked upon as being a kind of medium of an atua, as endowed with a certain quantum of mana atua, and so be used in divination rites, but yet is not the aria of such god. For instance, a certain highly valued weapon, a prized heir-page 219loom, was believed to possess a considerable amount of mana from the atua called Uenuku—in fact, to be a form of medium of that being; hence it was employed in certain divinatory rites connected with war. This did not, however, make it the aria of Uenuku, which, as we have seen, is the rainbow. Prolonged inquiry alone enables one to understand all these subtle distinctions met with in studying Maori customs of past centuries.

The lizard was a favoured form of aria in former times. We have seen that it was the form of incarnation of the atua kahu known as Te Rehu-o-Tainui. Among the same tribe (Tuhoe) one Tamarau (apparently a deified ancestor) was also represented by a lizard, as also was Te Hukita, of which the late chief Kereu-te-Pukenui was the human medium.*

The aria of Tama-i-waho is a star; that of Te Ihi-o-te-ra is a whe (mantis); that of Te Iho-o-te-rangi, a lock of hair; that of Te Rewhao-te-rangi, a star; those of Pare-houhou and Te Pu-tapu are gourds; that of Kaka, a lizard; that of Reko, an owl. Others were seen in the form of natural phenomena, as already shown in the foregoing pages. Dieffenbach made a shrewd remark when, in speaking of these aria, he wrote: "Not to these earthly forms of the atua, however, but to the spirit itself, prayers are addressed." In this sentence the word "prayers" is the only misleading term employed, as will be shown anon.

It is of some interest to note that these aria seem to pertain only to atua of the third and fourth classes. We hear nothing of any such media of the departmental gods; thus Tu, who emblemizes war as its tutelary being, has, apparently, no form of incarnation; yet the inferior war-gods (atua tu parekura) have such, as we have seen in the cases of Maru, Kahukura, Uenuku, Rongomai, Te Rehu-o-Tainui, &c. We shall see that this lack of aria in the case of beings of the second class was compensated for by the use of certain wooden images.

We thus see that the aria of a supernatural being is the form in which it is seen by mortal eyes, but that form is not the real atua, which is an invisible spirit. Also, such a medium may be a material body, such as a bird, fish, insect, lizard, &c., or it may be an intangible but visible phenomenon such as a rainbow or comet. The term aria is also sometimes employed in other ways, as shown in the following illustrations. In the old myth of the contest between Maui and Hine-nui-te-po—that is, between Light and Darkness, Life and Death—the emissary of the latter was despatched in order to obtain a drop page 220of Maui's blood to serve as a medium (ohonga) for spells of black magic. That drop of blood is sometimes styled the aria of Maui, though in other versions it is called the ahua of Maui. This latter term denotes the semblance or invisible form of any object, but is also applied to a material thing—as the ahua of a battle may be a lock of hair from the head of one of the slain enemies. Here again, this latter ahua is often called a mawe or maawe. Again, the aria of Wheterau, an old-time chief of Ngati-Ha, who was slain at Waikare, is a stone; that stone is the visible form that represents a human body long since returned to Mother Earth. Such a material symbol as this is called the kohiwitanga of the person it represents.

In Maori traditions we note a curious mixture of historical and mythical matter. Thus, the well-known ancestor Taneatua, of the Tuhoe Tribe, is said in popular story to have had some strange offspring. Two of them, Ohora and Kanihi, seem to have been of a supernatural nature, and their aria are two streams bearing their names, the same being tributaries of the Whakatane River. Another was Okiwa, whose aria is a dog, that may yet be heard howling in the gloomy forest-clad defiles of that river. The local valley wind experienced at Ruatoki, and called "the Okiwa," is the breath of that weird dog. When travelling down the river with a native some twenty years ago the writer camped for the night near these various aria. In the dead of night we heard a dog barking on the forest range above, and the native was firmly convinced that it was the spook dog Okiwa. The next of these uncanny creatures was Tamoehau, whose aria is a tree. Next came Rongo-te-mauriuri, whose aria is a pond on the summit of the Maunga-pohatu Range. The next was Takuahi-te-ka, whose aria is a rock in the Whakatane River, the same being a place where the curious ceremony called uruuru whenua was performed in former times. The balance of the offspring of our worthy Taneatua seem to have been ordinary human beings.

In the old legend of Hape the wanderer—another story that has become encrusted with myth—we find that his son Tamarau, when he found the body of his parent, took a lock of his hair as the aria of his wairua, or spirit—that is, as a material token or symbol of the immortal life-principle of man. He also bore away with him one of the foot-bones of his father as the ariatanga of his manea. This manea will be dealt with later on. The addition of the suffix tanga to the term aria is not a common usage, being a gerundial form attached to verbs, whereas aria is usually employed as a noun. Another interesting illustration is connected with a peculiar ceremony styled tira ora, in which a stick or wand was inserted in a small artificial mound of earth to represent the aria of life, health, and page 221welfare generally, physical, mental, and spiritual. A similar object in another such mound represented or symbolized evil, misfortune, wrongdoing, and death. Herein we have the aria of qualities and conditions, a concept calling for the exercise of abstract thought. Again, a certain tapu tree at Whakatane was a famed local mauri, or talisman, and was held to be the aria of all welfare among the Matatua folk.

We hear also of the aria of personifications, the same being the thing or conditions personified. Thus, mist and fog are the aria of Hine-pukohu-rangi, the Mist Maid, and light misty rain is that of her sister Hine-wai. Among the Ngati-Whare clan of Te Whaiti the cormorant is viewed as the aria of one Hine-ruarangi, an ancestress who became a tipua, or supernatural being, after her death. This seems to have been a case of metempsychosis, and other such cases are known in Maori folk-lore. The aria of a district called Ruatahuna is a hill bearing the same name—that is to say, the district derived its name from that hill.

Among the Arawa folk I have heard the unusual form arika replacing aria. Thus, a native of that tribe remarked to me, "Ko Makawe he atua patu tangata, ko te matakokiri tona arikatanga" ("Makawe was a man-destroying demon; the meteor is his arikatanga"). Here again we have the use of the suffix before noted.

Colenso's definition of this term falls far short of the full extent of its ramifications. In Williams's Maori Dictionary we find a much wider range of meanings, though it may be doubted if sufficient stress has been laid on its application to qualities and other abstractions.

This dissertation on the term aria and its varied applications will probably be deemed tedious, but is the result of a long-continued inquiry among my native friends, and that result is here recorded in the hope that it may be of some use to others in the future.

* See Journal of the Polynesian Society, vol. 11, p. 30.