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Maori Religion and Mythology Part 1

Human Sacrifice in connection with Agriculture

Human Sacrifice in connection with Agriculture

Here we encounter an extremely ancient custom that has been practised in many parts of the world. Innumerable cases are on record describing such sacrifices as made by many races for the purpose of securing bountiful crops. It will be seen that it was not a Maori custom of later times, but that certain survivals and traditions tend to show that it must have been a custom of their ancestors of page 242the remote past, one that has fallen into desuetude with the lapse of time.

Such sacrifices in connection with agriculture have evidently been practised in Asia for a very long period, and probably the custom spread thence westward into Europe, where curious survivals are noted. It was also probably carried eastward from Asia into the island system. Several phases of the custom were practised in India until quite recent times, and in that land we find that it has survived to modern times in its most savage and revolting form. For example, among the Kandhs a man was dragged round the fields and pieces of flesh were cut from his living body until he died; such pieces being taken away and buried in the different fields to ensure good crops. Compared with such horrible savagery the local Maori custom of utilizing bones of the dead for a similar purpose seems a mild one.

Grant Allen has advanced the theory that human sacrifice by agriculturists—and, indeed, the art of agriculture itself—has originated in observation of the fact that plant-life on graves is peculiarly luxuriant; seeds readily germinating and plants flourishing in the newly turned soil. This seems to be a somewhat far-fetched theory, and one we need scarcely inquire into. The buried person, of course, came to be supplanted by the body of a man killed for that specific purpose, to cause crops to grow. Allen gives a considerable amount of information pertaining to this custom, but Mr. Fraser's works are the great storehouse of such data. In common with Greeks, Asiatic peoples, and many others, the Maori personified food products, and so religious ideas were closely connected with agriculture. The Maori belief that the sweet potato, their principal cultivated product, possesses a life-principle that demands careful treatment lest it depart, and the East Indian belief that rice is animated by a soul, would necessarily lead to very peculiar usages, and in such beliefs might even be found the ideas that prompted human sacrifice in connection with agriculture. Herein also may be found a base for the evolution of such concepts as corn-gods, personified forms of cultivated food products. The peculiar usages to which this belief has led in Indonesia are far-reaching. The belief that a plant you wish to destroy and consume is inhabited by a sentient spirit must necessarily result in the practice of very singular customs. This was evidently the origin of the peculiar attitude of the Maori toward the kamara (sweet potato) and its personified forms, or tutelary beings, Rongo and Pani. Hence we have the tapu of growing crops and the fields in which they grow; hence the magic formulae or charms recited over the seed when planted, the deference paid to the plant, the conciliatory attitude, actions, and words of planters when page 243they injured a tuber. Some very astonishing evidence concerning such beliefs has been recorded, and the Maori can contribute his share of such data. From our local Pani and Rongo to Ceres and Persephone of the far west the chain extends across the wide earth.

So little is known in Maori tradition concerning human sacrifice in connection with agriculture that in order to describe an illustrative case we are compelled to go back some twenty generations in native history. It may have been a well-known custom at one time among the Maori, but it must have pertained to a remote period of their history. In the tradition of the introduction of the kumara, or sweet potato, into these isles we are told that difficulty was experienced in retaining the life-principle or soul of the prized tuber—without which highly important element the plant could not possibly flourish. This difficulty was surmounted, and the vitality and productiveness of the tubers ensured, by slaying the hapless voyager who had introduced them from Polynesia, and by sprinkling the door of the store-house in which the crop was placed with his blood. In addition to this heroic remedy, for many years after the skull of the victim, one Taukata by name, was placed in the fields in order that a bountiful crop might be assured. Apart from the case given, it is only this latter custom that we hear of in local Maori history. It is evidently a survival of the more barbarous method of which Taukata fell a victim. We hear of a number of cases in which bones of the dead were placed in the cultivation-grounds to produce a good crop. In some cases they were the remains of clansmen, relatives; in others they were the bones of enemies; both appear to have been effective. Probably the remains of persons of some importance only were so employed. In one case that occurred about a century ago the head of a slain enemy chief was used by the Tuhoe folk to "guard" a famous bird-snaring tree. Members of the Awa Tribe of Te Teko heard of this occurrence, and asked for the loan of the head, that they might utilize it to procure good crops. Frazer, of Golden Bough fame, tells us that the Wa natives of Upper Burmah "still hunt for human heads as a means of promoting the welfare of the crops. Without a skull his crops would fail."

Survivals and other evidence of former cannibalism are still met with among the most civilized nations. and we see the same survivals with regard to human sacrifice. Thus, Grant Allen mentions the case of the restoration of Holsworthy Church, Devon, in 1885, when a human skeleton with a mass of mortar plastered over the mouth was found embedded in an angle of the building. The introduction of savage customs into Christianity has been truly remarkable, of which the above-mentioned writer gives some interesting examples. The page 244communion of the Christian and the placing of coins under a foundation-stone are survivals of barbaric ceremonial, of cannibalism and human sacrifice.

There were other minor occassions on which a human sacrifice was sometimes made, though I cannot agree with some writers who imply that such sacrifices were universal, or even common. They were made only in connection with members of leading families, and were evidently often omitted. Again, I am by no means inclined to admit that the examples mentioned below should come under this heading simply because the victims were not slain as offerings to the gods, but merely to enhance the prestige of the individual, the family, or the function. To a certain extent the sacrifice was ceremonial, but can scarcely be termed a religious rite. The minor occasions alluded to comprised (1) the tattooing of the chin and lips of the daughter of the chief; (2) the piercing of the ears of such a girl; (3) the function of baptizing the first-born son of an important chief; (4) the function that put an end to the period of mourning for the dead. Of these occasions, the evidence goes to show that No. 3 was the one most frequently marked by the death of a victim, and that on the other occasions it rarely took place. Such killings, we are told, occurred only in the case of the first-born of either sex, for the Maori upheld the law of primogeniture. It was to these first-born offspring that tapu more particularly pertained.

There is one phase of this man-killing as a human sacrifice, or for purposes of self-aggrandizement, that natives frequently enlarge upon. When the victim was a person belonging to another tribe or subtribe the inevitable result in after-years would be that jibes would be cast at the descendants of the victim, such as "Your ancestor was slain for the tanga ngutu [lip-tattooing] of my ancestress." This would be as much as saying that the person addressed was a nobody, whose family had been obliged to provide such victims. This would be a bitter taunt to a Maori.

When a person of rank died, his near relatives, as a widow, entered the whare potae, or house of mourning, which is purely a figurative expression employed to denote the period or state of mourning for the dead. When this period was over a certain religious ceremony was performed over the mourners in order to release them from the condition of tapu. It was at this function that, occasionally, a slave or other person was slain in order to add importance to the ceremony. In a case that occurred at Te Whaiti a slave was killed, his body being cut up, cooked, and eaten as a part of the ceremonial feast that accompanied most Maori sacerdotal perfomances. A few notes on these so-called sacrifices may be found in vol. 15 of the page 245Journal of the Polynesian Society, at p. 153, also in the Transactions of the New Zealand Institute, vol. 30, pp. 37-38.

There was another curious form of human sacrifice, or at least of man-slaying, that may be mentioned, the meaning of which is not clear. It may have been instituted as an offering or reward to the gods in return for certain powers granted by them. When a man had been trained as a tohunga, and had acquired the knowledge of charms and formulae of black and white magic, his powers were put to the test. We are told that there were several such tests. In one of these the pupil held a stone in his hand, over which he recited a certain charm, after which he struck the stone with a stick held in his right hand, and so broke the stone. In another test he killed a tree by means of a magic charm; in yet another he killed a bird by the same means. But yet another test that was in some cases assigned him was the slaying of a person by means of such formulae of black magic. This is spoken of as the price paid by the pupil for the knowledge he had acquired. The price consisted of the life of one of his relatives possibly his mother, or brother. We are told that, occasionally, the person selected was the adept who had taught the pupil. Such a victim was slain by magic alone; no personal violence was offered him. Doubtless fear would kill him. All natives are firm believers in the powers of black magic to effect these wondrous things. The body of such a slain relative would, of course, be buried, not eaten, and the person sacrificed was called the tauira patu of the pupil who slew him.

Turner tells us that Samoan traditions speak of human sacrifices to the sun as having been made in ancient times, but the story seems to be a vague one. We have no knowledge of any such practice having existed among our Maori folk of New Zealand. If it ever did exist, then such a sacrifice would presumably have been made to Tane, the personified form of the sun.

We are sometimes told that prisoners of war were often sacrificed when a raiding force returned home, whereupon the widows of local men slain would kill a number of prisoners. This, however, does not seem to have been in any sense a religious ceremony, but merely prompted by a desire for revenge.

It is, of course, incorrect to attribute the custom of human sacrifice to the lust of cruelty. What may be termed true human sacrifice, the slaying of persons to serve as offerings to the gods, or for similar ritual purposes, is evidently the product of superstition and ignorance. It has been adopted and continued by religious systems the world over. The savage slaughter of persons by the Holy Inquisition of Christianity pertains much less to page 246religion than did the killing of a man to cause crops to flourish, or to placate a tribal god.

We now see that many of these killings of human beings, as intermittently practised by the Maori, were not religious rites. Those connected with funeral observances do not appear to have been perpetrated with a view to pleasing any god, but rather to please the spirit of the deceased person, or to enhance the mana of his family.

In these explanations of atua maori, their attributes and activities, it has not been considered worth while to give lists of names of the innumerable beings of the fourth class; they would be tedious and unprofitable. A partial list of those of the Matatua tribes may be found at p. 64 of the Journal of the Polynesian Society, vol. 11; also vol. 17, p. 102.

In vol. 7 of the Transactions of the New Zealand Institute, p. 4, Wohlers tells us that "the heathen religion of the Maori of New Zealand had got into such confusion that no meaning could be found in it…. But the Maori religion had lost its hold on the old gods altogether, and had taken hold on their living chiefs, and their surrounding tapu." He maintains that the original gods (meaning the departmental deities) had been neglected, and superseded by new ones, deified ancestors. In this contention he was assuredly wrong. The cult of the departmental widely known gods, or personifications, was retained until Christianity was introduced. Deified ancestors of the fourth class never supplemented them, nor were they confused with them. The apparent confusion that misled Wohlers is now better understood; we now know how to classify these atua, and assign to each class its proper place in the Maori pantheon. This group system of gods is viewed by Montgomery, in his Religions Past and Present, as an advance on animism, and which eventually might lead to the concept of a Supreme God.

The original basis of the Maori religious system, and indeed that of the whole Polynesian race, was probably animatism, the attribution of life and personality to things. This view of natural phenomena led to widespread personification, and these personifications form what we have called the second class or departmental gods. Presumably this was a very ancient form of belief, and the concept of a Supreme Being must have been evolved after that of departmental tutelary beings. Below the latter come a multitude of inferior beings—godlets, familiar spirits, and demons. The whole system bears a striking resemblance to that evolved by the old peoples of Babylonia.

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Andrew Lang urges us to bear in mind that gods do not improve, morally or otherwise, in pace with advancing civilization, and also lays stress on the moral gods of low races. To the present writer the cause of this peculiar fact, in many cases, seems to be that already referred to. The Maori, with his numerous and classified gods, had no difficulty in preserving the purity of the cult of Io, and the moral status of that being. He did so by confining that advanced cultus to a few superior minds, and by allowing the people to deal with any lower type of gods they appreciated or thought fit to utilize. As a people advance beyond the culture-level of the Maori there is opened up before the superior minds the attractive vision of monotheism, and efforts may be made to introduce such a belief, or one god is given many names. But the lower minds are by no means fitted to receive and appreciate monotheism, hence a lone god is bound to become endowed with undesirable qualities. He becomes degraded by gross superstition and thaumaturgic practices.

It has already been stated in these pages that the Maori word atua is one of very peculiar significance, and, in many cases, to translate the word as meaning "god" is to convey a totally wrong impression. It is however, often difficult to find a suitable term to employ. The expression atua whakahaehae, as applied to a person, seems to mean a malignant or terrifying demon. Yet this word atua is also applied to the Supreme Being of Christianity and to a virulent or loathsome disease. Europeans, firearms, watches, and compasses have all been alluded to by natives as atua. Anything supernatural, or strange, or objectionable, anything not understood or mysterious may be so termed.