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Maori Religion and Mythology Part 1



A chapter devoted to images of Maori gods might on first thought be compared to that famous and oft-quoted one on the snakes of Ireland, in the line of brevity. There are, however, two kinds of such representations of atua that were made and utilized by the Maori folk, and these call for some description and explanation.

In the first place, it must be distinctly stated that the Maori was no idolator; he possessed and worshipped no idols; his peculiar mentality would not have allowed of his doing so. There is another point: our native folk were further removed from idolatry than are vast numbers of Christians, such as the Spanish Americans and many Irish. Dieffenbach wrote: "Nowhere in New Zealand have I seen anything that could be regarded as an idol, although some persons have said that such exist. This absence of all carved gods among the page 248 Wooden Images Employed as Temporary Shrines for Spirit-Gods page 249 natives appeared to me a very attractive trait in their national character. They are too much the children of nature, and perhaps too intellectual, to adore wooden images or animals, and I often heard the heathen natives deride the pewter images of the Holy Virgin which the Roman Catholic priests have brought into the country."

Some folk appear to believe that the grotesquely carved human figures in native houses, and the equally uncouth cenotaphs, are Maori idols, and such statements have even been made by lecturers on native customs, &c. Such an assumption is, however, entirely wrong, for those figures were never so viewed by the Maori. Those pertaining to houses were named after, and represented, ancestors. Even Polack, with all his misconceptions, tells us that "the numerous grotesque images sculptured by the people have been supposed by travellers to be representations of divinities, yet the natives have never attached any such ideas to them."

The Maori folk never ventured to form any image of the Supreme Being, nor did they do so in connection with the inferior atua. The only classes of deities of whom they had any images or representations were the intermediate ones. We find that among the Aztecs of Mexico a similar condition existed; no image represented the Supreme Being, though the lower gods were so personated.

The beings of whom certain small images were made in former times, though not apparently universally used, were Tane, Rongo, Tu, Tangaroa, Tawhiri-matea, Maru, and Haumia, possibly also Kakukura. There are two forms in which these images, so called, were made. Those employed by cultivators in the fields were rudely fashioned stone figures representing Rongo, the patron or tutelary being of the art of agriculture. The others were wooden figures, carved in grotesque imitation of the human form as to the upper part, and with the lower ends brought to a point. These were employed by tohunga, or priestly experts, as mediums of communication with atua. The illustrations given show the different forms of such as have been preserved. Our information concerning these objects is not complete, and is in some ways unsatisfactory. Some authorities state that to each atua so represented a special figure was assigned, which was used in connection with that being only. In Mr. White's Ngati-Hau notes, however, it is said that different spirit gods were, at different times, located in, or induced to enter, one and the same image. It is possible that both statements are correct, but that they pertain to different tribes. We know that native customs, ritual, &c., did vary in different districts,

In vol. 1 of White's Ancient History of the Maori may be seen illustrations of six peg-like objects said to have been used by the page 250Maori in former times to represent the six tutelary beings whose names are given above. These pegs are of different forms, and such shapes are said to denote some peculiarity connected with the beings they represent. Thus, the wooden peg representing Tu is perfectly straight; that of Tawhiri-matea is of corkscrew form, said to symbolize the whirling winds: that of Tane is straight, with the exception of a semicircular bend in the middle, which is said to represent growth in the vegetable world, which pertains to Tane. The toko (as Mr. White terms these pegs) of Tangaroa is of zigzag form, to represent the waves of the ocean, the realm of that being; that of Rongo has four curves, to represent the curved tubers of the kumara; while that of Haumia has three small rounded bends, to betoken the form of the rhizomes of Pteris, of which Haumia is the personification. All these pegs have a rounded knob on the upper end, while the lower end is pointed for thrusting into the earth. The author gives us no information as to what district or tribe these peculiar symbols pertained, or how they were used, but simply states that each one was kept in the school of instruction pertaining to the subjects with which the tutelary beings mentioned were connected. Some remarks on these schools will be made elsewhere. No specimens of these curious objects seem to have been preserved, nor has any corroboration of these notes appeared, but they may have been employed by some section of the native folk.

We now pass on to another form of which old specimens have been preserved, and concerning which we can offer more precise information. The carved pegs of staves employed as temporary abiding-places for spirit gods during placatory, invocatory, and divinatory rites are sometimes called by us "god-sticks," which is not an attractive name. They were termed tiki by some, and this name is applied in a general sense to figures fashioned in human form, not only in these isles but also in Polynesia. In White's notes they are called either tiki or tiki wananga, the last word having reference to their use in sacerdotal matters. One native gave the name of atua kiato for them, but no corroboration of this has been received. The cenotaphs carved in human form were styled tiki, but similar figures on a house-gable, or the posts of a stockade, were called tekoteko. Taylor speaks of them as whakapakoko, a term used to denote images used for different purposes. Williams gives whakapakoko rakau, or pou whakapakoko, as "a post with a carved top, used for purposes of incantation." I am inclined to think that pou is here applied to these peg-like objects, and not to a larger one that might be termed a post.

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Taylor writes as follows of these carved pegs and their employment; "The Maori could scarcely be said to be idolators, although they certainly had idols, yet they were not generally worshipped, but only used by the priests as adjuncts to their karakia (invocations, &c.). The whakapakoko, or images, thus used were little more than wooden pegs with a distorted figure of the human head carved on the top; these were about eighteen inches long; the other end was pointed so that they could be stuck in the ground … These images were only thought to possess virtue or peculiar sanctity from the presences of the gods they represented when dressed up for worship; at other times they were regarded only as bits of ordinary wood. This dressing consisted in the first place of the pahau, or beard, which was made by a fringe of the bright-red feathers of the kaka parrot, next to the peculiar cincture of sacred cord with which it was bound. This mystic bandage was not only tied on in a peculiar way by the priest, who uttered his most powerful spells all the time he was doing it, but also whilst he was twisting the cord itself, and, lastly, painting the entire figure with the sacred kura. This completed the preparation for the reception of the god, who was by these means constrained to come and take up his abode in it when invoked."

I certainly would not apply the term "idol" to these mediumistic figures. They were in no way worshipped, but merely used as temporary shrines while a ceremony was being performed. At no other time were they used or resorted to.

The following notes on the subject are based on matter in Mr. J. White's manuscript notes. The statement that such symbols were employed whereby to represent third-class atua is a new feature, but quite possibly correct, at least in reference to some tribes.

In at least some cases, when the tiki wananga were about to be consulted by a priest, he first tied a sort of ruffle of red kaka feathers round the neck of the figure. These figures were styled tiki because they were made in human form; they were given the name of the first person created by the gods. They were made of wood, and showed human bodies; the lower part, below the legs of the figure, being pointed like a top (kaihotaka = whip-top), so that it might be stuck in the earth.

The divination expert seated himself on the ground and stuck the tiki in the earth before, and facing him. He then tied one end of a strip of Phormium leaf round the neck of the figure, holding the other end in his hand. He then chanted the karakia (ritual, charm, invocation) by means of which the spirit god was induced to temporarily occupy the image. Thus the wooden image served as a page 252shrine or medium for the atua, which it was induced to occupy for a brief period, until the ceremony was over.

The tohunga then proceeded to recite his invocation or charm, for few of these effusions can properly be termed invocations. As he did so he pulled the string in his hand so as to cause the figure to move, and this was to attract the attention of the indwelling spirit, and cause it to pay attention to the ritual being recited. Having finished the first part of his ritual chant, the priest shook up his spirit god by means of another tug at the string, and proceeded with the second part, this process being repeated until the whole of the ritual was delivered. As each division was recited he stuck a piece of stick in the ground, or, as some explain it, he stuck in a piece as he finished each request he made of the god.

A Ngati-Hau native states that a single image might be used as a shrine for different spirit gods at different times, but other evidence seems to show that each atua had its own special image assigned to it.

These curious "god-sticks," as we are pleased to term them, are said to have been kept in papa whakairo or carved boxes when not in use, though this need not have been a universal custom.

A Ngai-Tahu note states that occasionally a bone of a defunct ancestor, or a lock of hair taken from the head of a dead person, and that had been used as an offering to the gods, was used as a tiki wananga or material medium, in these divinatory rites. In these cases, however, the term tiki seems to be a misnomer.

Mr. White has also a note to the effect that the wooden images made to represent Kahukura and Rongo-nui-a-tau were a cubit in length. The upper part was carved into human form, the head and body of a person, but in place of legs the lower part was left uncarved, and simply pointed for sticking in the ground. These figures were painted red with ochre, and, when about to be used as a shrine or medium for the atua, such an image had a form of ritual recited over it. To it might be attached an arm-bone or leg-bone of the skeleton of some important person of past generations. Now the spirit god invoked would enter the image, and all was ready for the ceremonial of divination. No clear explanation, however, is given of how the indwelling spirit made known its dicta.

Mr. White also tells us that, when so sanctified and occupied by the spirit god, the image was styled a mua. This term mua was applied to a tapu place in former times, as in antithesis to muri (a common or noa place, such as a cooking-shed).

In yet another account the above authority says that hair from the head of Rakaiora was sometimes used as a medium itself, or was attached to a tiki wananga. These attached objects seem to have page 253imparted additional mana to the medium, in native belief. As to the hair of Rakaiora, one scarcely knows what this is supposed to convey. Rakaiora, in Maori myth, is the personified form of the lizard, but, so far as the observation of the present writer has extended, the head of that reptile is sadly lacking in hair, hence some other source must be sought.

In some cases, as when travelling, a tohunga would use his turupou or walking-staff, as a temporary shrine for an atua that he wished to consult, either in divinatory ceremonial or to invoke for other purposes. In some cases he attached a string to the staff, which was stuck in the ground, and gave the string a tug now and again, as was done with the carved wooden images.

In his Maori History of the Taranaki Coast, Mr. S. P. Smith speaks of the images of such third-class beings as Maru, Te Ihinga-o-te-rangi, Kahukura, and Rongomai. He also gives illustrations (p. 88) of three old specimens of these carved and sinnet-bound wooden mediums. These originally belonged to the Ngati-Ruanui Tribe, and are supposed to represent Rongo, Maru, and Tangaroa. These specimens appear to belong to Mr. Aldred, and an account of them appeared in a German publication some years ago. The double-headed one is thought to represent Tangaroa, but this is by no means assured; I should think it more likely that it referred to Rongo. Its length is 12 in.; length of double head, 3½ in. The lower end has apparently decayed. There is a hole perforated between the two heads that shows rough work as of a stone chisel. All three of these specimens were probably fashioned by means of stone implements, and all show signs of having been painted with red ochre. The eyes of the double-headed figure are fitted with pieces of Haliotis shell, which are kept in position by the small projections over which they fit. The crossed lashing of small well-laid cord has been neatly executed in two specimens, the cord being apparently three strand flat. In two specimens the lashing is countersunk, but not so in the third, the figure to the right, where the lashing seems to have a packing of thin, fibrous bark under it. This latter specimen is made of matai (Podocarpus spicatus) wood; it has a peculiar carved design on the forehead of the figure, and a row of six small knobs on the top of the head. Both this and No. 1 appear to be very old; prominent parts are worn smooth and bear a glazed appearance. The shell eyes have disappeared from No. 3, and the eyes of No. 1 are protuberant, not countersunk.

In Bulletin No. 3 of the Dominion Museum series are given illustrations of five more of these image sticks. Three of these were obtained by the Rev. R. Taylor, and are now in the possession of page 254Mr. Harper, of Whanganui. Replicas of these three old specimens are in the Dominion Museum. One is double-headed, the upper parts of the heads being of a peculiar shape. Illustrations of two others given on the same page show one plain specimen, and the other adorned with a very curious carved design. This is said to represent two highly conventionalized human figures, back to back, and having their arms and legs interlaced.

Mr. White's notes mention the images (whakapakoko) of Kahukura and Rongo-nui-a-tau. The latter name seems to have been widely known, but it is not clear as to whether or not it denotes the same being as Rongo-maraeroa. The names Rongo-te-aniwaniwa, Rongote-haeata, and Rongo-te-whakatapu also appear in those notes, but these are not familiar to us. One of the above writer's Ngai-Tahu notes is to the effect that all ritual matter recited before these images was directed not to the image itself, but to the atua abiding within it. The image itself is but a temporary shrine, and serves as a shrine for the spirit god, which, by means of the ceremonial performances of an expert, is induced to enter and abide in it for a space.

Mr White has also a note to the effect that a wooden image was occasionally made in order to represent a deceased relative, and set up in the house. The garments of the lost one were arranged on it, it was called by his or her name, wept over, and food offerings were made to it, as though it were a living person.

In Mr. Shand's account of the Moriori folk of the Chatham Islands occur the following remarks: "Certain of these gods were represented at various places by carved images. There were five or six of them at Ouenga…. Amongst them were included Maru and Rongomai. … It was customary to bind the image of Maru with a plaited rope." In the list of Moriori atua, or gods, given by Mr Shand, the following were also known to the Maori: Tu, Tane, Tangaroa, Rongo, Maru, Rakeiora, Uenuku, Rongomai.

From an east coast source the Auckland Museum has acquired a carved human image representing two persons joined back to back. Apparently it is a modern object, and several auger-holes have been bored in it, and closed by means of plugs. Concealed in these holes were found (1) hair of a child; (2) an umbilical cord; (3) a child's penis.

The Rev. W. E. Hipwell, C.M.S., Pakhoi, S. China, informed the writer that some Buddhist images seen by him had orifices in the back that contained the "soul" of the image. This was a silver object that represented the various organs of the human body. At p. 154 of vol. 8 of the Journal of the Polynesian Society will be found a description of a huge image made in connection with certain ritual page 255observances. Carved forms of lizards appeared on the image, and in its back was a hollow space in which was deposited an atua in the form of a heitiki, a greenstone neck-pendant. Hollow images were also known in eastern Polynesia, and offerings of red feathers were placed in such holes. These Polynesians had the Maori custom of adorning their images with curiously wrought sinnet lashing. All such images were styled ti'i (=Maori tiki) at the Society Group. Ellis gives an illustration of one, 4 ft. in height, that was hollow and contained a number of small images. This came from Rurutu Isle of the Austral Group. The atua known as Ri, who seems to personify evil passions at Tahiti, was represented with two heads.

At pp. 60 and 62 of his Maori Religion and Mythology Shortland speaks of offerings of food to certain images of persons, prominent chiefs, as being a part of certain ritual performances. Thus, in a ceremony to free persons from tapu, the said tapu was transferred to an article of food, which was offered to the image of a defunct forbear. This meant that it was so offered to the koromatua, or ancestral spirits, and the tapu was so transferred to them. We have no definite information concerning these images of family ancestors apart from house carvings, or of their connection with sacerdotal ceremonies.

In vol. 4 of the Journal of the Polynesian Society, p. 295, Mr. Rutland speaks of a greenstone image 8 in. or 9 in. high as having been found in the Nelson district about 1865. This may have been an unusually large heitiki, or neck-pendant. The lack of precision in the estimated length given may denote some exaggeration of size. In vol. 10 of the same Journal the Rev. T. G. Hammond speaks of curiously wrought stones and images in wood and stone as having been used as landmarks in the Taranaki district, and these boundarymarks are, he says, in that district, termed atua maori. This term might be applied to any object of superstitious regard, and it is quite probable that the mana, or power, of such objects was due to the fact they had been endowed with punitive powers by means of some ceremony. The force behind such powers could emanate only from the gods (atua).

Another form of image was occasionally employed by the Maori, small wooden images that were put to a very peculiar use. Occasionally a childless wife would make a small wooden figure in human form, clothe it in small garments, possibly decorate it with ornaments, and then nurse it as though it were a child. Several songs (oriori = lullabies) are on record that have been composed to be sung over such sooterkin babes. (See Journal of the Polynesian Society, vol. 14, p. 139; also vol. 15, p. 8.)

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Rude Stone Image Employed as a Shrine, or Abiding-place, for Atua Under whose Care a Crop was Placed

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It will thus be seen that images of human form were employed by the Maori for divers purposes, and care has to be taken by investigators when inquiring into their uses.

We now come to the crudely carved stone figures usually called "kumara gods." These objects are blocks of stone roughly fashioned in semi-human form, and which served as taunga atua, or taumata atua—that is, as temporary abiding-places for atua. These mediums were placed in the fields in which the kumara (sweet potato) crops were grown, in order that the plants might flourish and a bountiful crop result. They are sometimes alluded to as mauri, or talismans, that protected the life-principle of the kumara—to fully explain which concept would require too much space here; it must be left to a future chapter. To describe such a mediumistic object as a god is, of course, a misnomer. They simply acted as shrines or abiding-places for certain powers of certain tutelary beings or spirits, and, while so possessed, were highly valued and respected. They were protective and nurturing talismans.

The late Mr. Denton, of Wellington, possessed a small stone image, perhaps 6 in. in height, with a hollow space in it, which is said to have been used formerly in the kumara fields, but we have no precise information concerning it.

Hurae Puketapu states that offerings were made to these stone talismans. He was probably referring to offerings of the food products under cultivation in the field. The Dominion Museum Bulletin No. 9 contains a considerable amount of information concerning these matters. In Bulletin No. 3, p. 109, is an illustration of a specimen in pumicestone that was found at the Chatham Islands. It resembles New Zealand specimens, though it cannot have served the same purpose, for the sweet potato was not grown at the Chathams.

A number of these rude stone figures are preserved in our museums and in private collections. Some of them seem to have represented Rongo, the tutelary being of agriculture and personified form of the sweet potato, and were so called. An illustration of one appears as frontispiece to vol. 5 of White's Ancient History of the Maori. Other such illustrations are given in Museum Bulletin No. 9. Hari Wahanui, of Otorohanga, spoke of a local stone image as though it were a double one, or possibly two were used in the field. He says that it was called Rongo, and it was the mauri of the sweet potato (Penei tonu i te tangata te hanga, e rua, e awhi ana ki a raua nga kumara)

Such roughly-fashioned stone figures as these under discussion were made in various parts of Polynesia. One such from Tahiti is illustrated in the American Museum Journal for 1908. Others from page 258Neckar Island are illustrated in vol. 3 of the Journal of the Polynesian Society.

The evidence goes to show that the wooden and stone figures described above cannot correctly be termed "gods," and that the term "idol" is also a misnomer, for such objects were assuredly not worshipped. It requires much careful inquiry and an infinite patience to ascertain the true status of such things, and the precise views of natives concerning them. Many errors have been recorded by observers respecting these matters, and such errors are, unfortunately, liable to reappear in the works of anthropologists who have to rely upon published matter for their data.

It is quite clear that the Maori folk had no true idols; that they did not confuse the symbolized atua with the stone or wooden symbol. There was, I believe, a closer connection between an atua and its living aria, such as a lizard, in the minds of the ordinary people, than between an atua and its image or shrine.

It seems to me that idolatry, faith in idols, with the accompanying worship of such images, demands a peculiar mental condition not found in the Maori. Such beliefs and practices call for a superstitious nature, and this the Maori assuredly possesses. But a certain degree of servility is also necessary, and in this quality the Maori is certainly lacking. I do not think that the Maori could ever be induced to place any faith in idols. His mental attitude was too independent and too critical. Thus we have the strange position of a barbaric race despising idolatry, and, on the other hand, nations occupying a much higher plane of civilization generally having the greatest faith in idolatrous practices. When Tylor applied the term "memorial idol" to Maori cenotaphs he conveyed a wrong impression, and the word "idol" should have been omitted. Temporary spirit embodiment in a carved stick, induced for the purpose of a brief sacerdotal ceremony, can scarcely be said to transform that image into a true idol; it was not worshipped. Such an object occupies a very different position from that of the images, holy spirits, bones, and toe-nails of certain Christian peoples. Waitz tells us that the West African negro demands a visible object to worship, but the Maori requires no such a symbol. In certain parts of Polynesia the natives seem to have favoured images of important gods in a way that the Maori of New Zealand never did.

In some cases, in the Pacific Isles, idols, or so-called idols, were merely shapeless blocks of wood or stone, unshaped by the hand of man. In many cases, however, such objects were fashioned page 259in human form, for man has ever fashioned his gods after his own form. This fact impinges on the universal concept of anthropomorphic deities, concerning which so much has been written. Some have laid stress on the fact that uncultured man ever conceives his deities as of human form. But civilized man does precisely the same thing; and what else can man do, be he savage or enlightened? We cannot assign to a deity the form of a cube, or sphere, or other geometric figure. The one alternative to anthropomorphism in such conceptions is, apparently, the belief that deity—that God, for example—is not so much an entity as something non-corporeal, some ichor, that occupies all space and all matter.

Grant Allen tells us that the destruction of the symbol of a god is apt to refine a religion, and cites the example of Jahwehworship, when that cultus attained to a higher and purer form of spiritual monotheism after the destruction, or loss, of the sacred ark and its contents.

Evidence given in this paper will show that Maori religion was no well-defined system of beliefs and practices, of rules and ceremonial to which all were compelled to adhere. It was a loose and free-and-easy series of beliefs and ceremonial, that left each person pretty well free to follow his own line of desire. So long as he respected the laws of tapu (and such observance was compulsory), he could please himself as to his own dealings with the gods, and he had the privilege of selecting his god from a large number. If he wished to deal merely with a familiar spirit, a private atua, as it were, he might act as the medium of the spirit of a defunct parent or other forbear. There was no regular system of worship or ceremonial to attend, and as to irregular performances for the public benefit, he might attend them or not as he thought fit. As regards private ceremonial, the recital of charms and performance of magico-religious acts, as connected with his own activities, he was at liberty either to practise all such aids or to leave them severely alone.