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Maori Religion and Mythology Part 1


Under this heading come what may be deemed the most important of all offerings to the gods of the Maori, although the subject is one that calls for careful inquiry in the matter of different functions. It appears that human beings were slain at such functions for different purposes. In some cases they were slain for purposes of divination, in others as direct offerings to the gods, and in yet others merely to add éclat to the function, which means adding to the prestige of the more prominent persons connected with such affairs. In any case, human sacrifice was never a common occurrence among the Maori folk; it was merely an occasional occurrence. There is also another point to be stressed—viz., that the killing of a slave in order to provide a much approved of meal for guests, or for a chieftain and his people, might easily be mistaken for a case of human sacrifice by careless observers, or those not acquainted with the native language and customs. For ever we must bear in mind that the Maori folk were habitual and shameless cannibals; that the eating of human flesh not only excited no repugnance in their minds, but that it was viewed as a genuine and desirable custom. Divers writers have told us that page 229the feeling of revenge alone prompted this abominable act, but this view is quite erroneous. The Maori ate human flesh because he liked it, as many an old-timer has told me. The killing of a slave for food purposes was not an act prompted by any desire for revenge.

When a human sacrifice was required in a Maori community there were several sources from which such might be obtained. All tribes, save broken clans in a condition of vassalage, would possess a number of slaves, members of other tribes captured in war. These were often utilized for the purpose, as also were members of the vassal tribes alluded to. In some cases a party would be despatched in order to capture or slay a member of a neighbouring tribe. Occasionally a member of another clan of the same tribe would be surprised and slain for the purpose, these last two modes of obtaining a human offering often, of course, leading to retaliation. Another form, and this was of the rarest occurrence, was represented by the sacrifice of a member of the same clan; we hear of rare cases in which a man has so sacrificed his own son in order to obtain the assistance of the gods in some desperate crisis. The offering to the gods of the heart of the first man slain in battle is of a somewhat different nature, but in this case a desperate rush was sometimes made by one or more persons, as the two parties approached each other, in order to secure an enemy as a "first fish." This captive would be at once slain, his heart torn out and offered to the war-god. This act had a remarkable effect on the fighting-men, for they believed that the offering would not only ensure a victory for themselves, but would also cause the enemy to become weak-kneed and irresolute in the fray.

According to Tuta Nihoniho, of the Ngati-Porou Tribe, human sacrifices were made for five different purposes, as follows:—

(1.) For a new house. When the kawa ceremony was performed over a new house, a person might be slain as a placatory offering to the gods, to ensure prosperity and peace to the folk to whom such house belonged. Any such ceremonial man-slaying was done with a view to secure the favour of the gods.

(2.) For a new canoe. The object of this slaying of a man when the kawa was performed over a new canoe was similar to that of No. 1—viz., a placatory offering to gain the protection and assistance of such gods. Such protection would imply good luck for the vessel at sea, as also the assistance of taniwha and other denizens of the ocean in any crisis, such as a storm, or the capsizing of the vessel. Such human sacrifices, and the attendant ceremonies, pertained only to the better and more important types of houses and canoes, the page 230superior framed house (whare whakanoho), and the waka taua, or war-canoe, and not to inferior huts and fishing-canoes. Neither was such a sacrifice made in all cases to supplement the kawa rite; on the contrary, it was often omitted.

(3.) For the tattooing of a woman of rank. In some cases a human sacrifice was made on the occasion of the tattooing of a young woman of good family, and such sacrifice was described as a toro ngarehu. In this case the idea was to impart prestige to the function, to enhance the status of the young woman.

(4.) For a funeral feast. In this case the sacrifice had a similar purport to that of case No. 3 above, and the hapless victim was described as a puru waha. The use of this term shows that the victim was cooked and eaten. The Tuhoe expression is putu kai, and a variant form is tami waha.

(5.) For the purpose of avenging a death. When a person had lost a relative, slain not in fair combat but in some treacherous manner, his aim would be to seek an equivalent as soon as possible. To effect this he might slay a person of the same clan as the offender, but who was in no way connected with the outrage. Such an act was deemed quite desirable and correct; it removed a stigma from the injured party, and put an end to all jeers or reproaches levelled at him for not avenging his kinsman's death. Such an act of diverted justice was described as he whakaao-maramatanga kia ea te mate, or a public settling of the account. The victim of this strange act of justice was called a koangaumu, a word that seems to have denoted a sacrifice or slain offering, as in the koangaumu waka, or human sacrifice for a new canoe.

In the above list of cases of human sacrifice, as given by a native, it seems clear that a considerable difference obtained in regard to motive and objective. In cases (1) and (2) the object was to placate gods: this was undoubtedly ceremonial or ritual human sacrifice. But in cases (3) and (4) no mention is made of such an object; the purport of the so-called sacrifice being simply an enhancing of the prestige of the function and of the individual principally concerned. Case (5), again, is on a somewhat different and lower plane. In cases (3), (4), and (5) the bodies of the victims were eaten, but not necessarily so in cases (1) and (2). Our east coast native correspondents know nothing of human sacrifice on the occasions of erecting a new fort. In addition to the above purposes for which human beings were sacrificed, we shall see that other occasions were the piercing of the ears of a child of rank, the building of a new fortified village, in connection with war, with divination, with the period of mourning, with agriculture, with the ceremonies performed over an infant. The page 231fifth occasion mentioned in the foregoing list of Tuta scarcely bears the aspect of a sacrifice, but rather of the killing of a person to gratify a desire for revenge.