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Maori Religion and Mythology Part 1

Human Sacrifice for a New House

Human Sacrifice for a New House

Here we have a barbarous custom as old as the days of human superstition and human folly. The custom of sacrificing a human being at the erection of a new house or fortress is very old; much information on this subject is accessible in Tylor's Primitive Culture, and the works of Andrew Lang and other writers. Foundation-stones and beams were laid in human blood the world over, and this abominable custom was practised but a few centuries ago in Europe. Survivals of it are still known, as when we place coins or other items under a foundation-stone. As such savage customs became distasteful, substitutes for a human sacrifice were utilized, until we are reduced to the coins mentioned. Among the Takitumu folk of the eastern coast of our North Island the practice of so slaying human beings was perhaps less in evidence than among other tribes. In the well-known tradition of Taraia we are told that he had his own child buried at the base of a post of his new house; but in one version we are informed that the doomed child was rescued, and a substitute in the form of a child of a slave wife was put in its place.

The general belief in connection with this practice seems to have been that such a sacrifice was necessary in order to ensure stability and durability in the building, be it house, fort, or bridge. The victim was buried under a main supporting-post or foundation-stone in order that he might hold it up. In some cases they were buried alive, or the living person was walled up in a stone wall; in others a person was placed in a hole or foundation and killed by having a huge post or foundation-stones placed on him. Truly man's inhumanity to man has been marked by ingenious devilry.

Apparently human sacrifice for a new house was by no means a common custom in New Zealand. It certainly was not universal, and was connected only with the superior type of house, carefully framed houses of wrought timbers, usually adorned with carvings and painted decorative designs, such as pertained to important chieftains only. No such function ever marked the erection of ordinary dwellinghouses. Again, it is often difficult to distinguish between a ceremonial human sacrifice, as pertaining to ritual observances only, such as the burial of the victim at the base of a post, and the mere killing of a slave to impart prestige to the event, or to page 232serve as the most important part of a feast. In many cases we are simply told that a person was slain for the new house of a certain chief, the tattooing of a certain young woman, or the baptism of some child of a person of rank. Such a remark might be made concerning the formal sacrifice of a human being in order to influence the gods, or the slaying of a person in order to impart éclat to a function, or the mere killing of a slave to serve as the principal dish at a house-warming feast.

The term raukakai, as applied to a human sacrifice, is met with in old narratives. Thus, at p. 38 of vol. 7 of the Journal of the Polynesian Society we find this sentence, He raukakai ka tukua hei tohi i te whare me ka oti; of which a translation is given—"A living sacrifice is given to consecrate a building of importance at its completion." The importance of the house is implied but not stated in the original. The ceremony performed over such a new house is usually called the kawanga, while the word tohi is used to denote ceremonies performed over persons. Some further notes on this subject are to be found at p. 153 of vol. 5 of the Journal of the Polynesian Society.

Tutakangahau, of the Tuhoe Tribe, informed me that his tribesmen occasionally sacrificed a human being at the building of an important new house. The body of the hapless victim was buried at the base of the central post supporting the ridge-pole; there is no evidence as to his being buried alive. A victim disposed of in this manner was called a whatu. Even if a stone was so buried at the base of the post, or a bird, or lizard, it was known as a whatu, a word used in this connection apparently in its sense of "kernel"; it acted as a sort of talisman that preserved the welfare of the people to whom the house belonged. That human body, lizard, bird, or stone represented the vitality and general welfare of house, lands, and people, as preserved and guarded by the gods. They were manea, or ika purapura—that is, mauri—and preserved all from the dread effects of black magic. Among some tribes these talismanic objects were buried at the base of the rear supporting-post, at the back wall of the house, as was the case among the Takitumu folk.

In the published account of Sir G. Grey's visit to Taupo in 1850 we are told that two Ngati-Awa natives had been slain there about two years before in connection with the ceremonial opening of a new house. In this case, however, the killing seems to have been at least partially prompted by a desire for revenge.

Human sacrifice was also known among the kinsmen of the Maori dwelling in the isles of Polynesia. At Mangaia they were made to Rongo and other gods, as the Rev. W. Gill tells us. Such offerings page 233were made in connection with both war and peace. Certain families had to provide any human sacrifices needed in the interests of the community.

A curious incident relating to the custom of human sacrifice at the Island of Mangaia, Cook Group, was related to the writer by Colonel Gudgeon. When holding a Land Court at that island some years ago a certain native came forward and claimed rights of ownership in certain lands. This claim was received in dead silence; no one spoke, until an old man came forward and said to the claimant, "You are dead. Neither you nor your children can claim lands. You have been dead for generations." He then explained to the Court that the claimant's grandfather had long ago been selected as a human sacrifice to the gods, but that he had refused to be so sacrificed, and hence his brother had voluntarily taken his place. The former endeavoured to find refuge with another tribe, but those folk refused to receive him, where-upon he retired to a remote or wild part of the island, and there lived the balance of his days. He was banished, and also looked upon as a dead person. Neither he nor his descendants could own land or possess any rights whatever, whereas the descendants of the brother possess full tribal rights.

At Rarotonga a human being was sacrificed at the birth of a child of the principal chief. The Rev. Mr. Gill tells us that "on the birth of the first-born son of the reigning King Makea a human victim previously fixed upon was slain. The royal babe was placed upon the dead body for the purpose of severing the navel string, thus indicating the absolute sway he would exercise over the lives of his subjects upon succeeding to the throne of his father."

Ellis states that, at Tahiti, a human sacrifice was made when a temple was erected. He adds: "I have been informed by several of the inhabitants of Maeva that the foundation of some of the buildings for the abode of their gods was actually laid in human sacrifices; that at least the central pillar supporting the roof of one of the sacred houses at Maeva was planted upon the body of a man…. The unhappy wretches selected were either captives taken in war or individuals who had rendered themselves obnoxious to the chief or priests. When they were wanted, a stone was, at the request of the priest, sent by the king to the chief of the district from which the victims were required. If the stone was received it was an indication of an intention to comply with the requisition."

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The same writer tells us that a similar offering was made to the gods in war-time. These victims, viewed as tapu offerings, were termed amo'a tapu, as an offering to the gods was called amonga tapu in New Zealand. In both places, also, human beings doomed to this purpose were spoken of as "fish". Cook wrote at some length on this custom at Tahiti, but the matter given can scarcely be deemed satisfactory when we consider that his knowledge of the native tongue must have been very slight.

Human sacrifices to the gods were also made at the Hawaiian Islands and other Polynesian groups and isles. At the Fiji Isles we have evidence that living human beings were buried at the bases of house-posts. Thus, Sir E. Im Thurn stated that "When a Fijian chief built a house, some of his dependants, whom the great man told off for the purpose, willingly stepped down into the holes which had been dug for the house-posts, and remained there while the earth was filled in on them, and continued thereafter as permanent supporters of the house."

Mr. Coleman Wall, writing in 1916, remarked of this custom of the Fijians, "They buried men standing up under the kingpost of temples and chiefs' houses. In later days the victims seem to have been clubbed first."

In Gordon Cumming's At Home in Fiji we find the following account: "A series of large holes were dug to receive the main posts of the house, and as soon as these were reared a number of wretched men were led to the spot, and one was compelled to descend into each hole, and therein stand upright, with his arms clasped round it. The earth was then filled in, and the miserable victims were thus buried alive, deriving what comfort they might from the belief that the task thus assigned to them was one of much honour, as assuring stability to the chief's house."

We can now see that this barbarous custom was an old one in the Pacific area. It may have been introduced here, in a modified form, from Fiji, or it may have been brought from Polynesia. We find among Maori customs, arts, &c., curious resemblances to similar ones in Melanesia, while in some cases no parallels are found in Polynesia where we would naturally look for them.

A note in vol. 23 of the Journal of the Polynesian Society states that, in Sarawak, Borneo, "the custom of driving the main post of a new building through the body of a female slave was prevalent amongst the natives of Sarawak until recent years." In H. Ling Roth's work on The Natives of Sarawak is an account of this custom, showing that the girl was placed in the hole and the huge post dropped on her body. In former times human sacrifices were made page 235at functions pertaining to burials and peace-makings. Thus we find that this old custom of human sacrifice for a new house has obtained in many lands.