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Maori Religion and Mythology Part 1


page 272


The student of Maori lore looks in vain for any evidence of the use of temples, altars, or any elaborate or permanent erection used in connection with religious ceremonial in former times. In certain parts of Polynesia, as at the Society and Sandwich Groups, the Polynesian folk erected massive stone structures and enclosures in connection with their religion, but we look in vain for any such places in New Zealand. Here no form of building was ever erected to serve as a temple for service of offerings. The places set aside as tuahu, or sacred places, were in some cases, apparently, not marked in any way. Sometimes a rough, unworked stone, or several such stones, were set up at such a place, but otherwise the place would be allowed to remain practically in its natural state. Occasionally, we are told, a small platform of sticks, termed a tiepa, was erected at such a place, on which offerings to the gods were placed. I find the following notes on these tapu places in my notebooks:—

In some cases a tuahu was marked by a heap of rough unworked stones, and sometimes by one or more blocks of stone set upright, partially embedded in the earth. The term tuahu seems to have been applied, by some clans at least, to any place where men's hair is cut, where tapu food is cast away or offered to supernatural beings, or where any religious ceremony is performed. The turuma, or village latrine, served the purpose of a tuahu in some cases.

In Mr. John White's published matter and unprinted notes we find the word mua applied to a tuahu, and also to the carved figures used as temporary shrines. We can find no justification for its use as a name for such a shrine, but as a synonym for tuahu it is nearer the mark. In this wise: mua is the antithesis of muri; mua = the front, before; muri = the rear, behind, after. Any common noa place may be alluded to as muri, or ki muri; hence muri and kamuri are terms applied to a cooking-shed. "Heria nga kai ki muri" = "convey food to the rear"—i.e., to the back regions, the site of kitchens, the place void of tapu. In like manner mua may denote any select residence or area, as at Vavau mua is that part of a village inhabited by the chiefs. So that any tapu place, tuahu included, may be alluded to as mua. In Mr. White's matter, however, mua is used as a proper personal name, as the name of a person is used (e.g., "Ka heria ki a Mua"), and for this usage we can find no authority whatever. In other cases he uses the expression ki te mua, which is also a doubtful quantity. The only form ever heard by the present writer is ki mua, and it is the only form to which no exception can be taken. At the Hawaiian 'Isle a structure in the heiau was known as mua.

page 273

A Tuahu, or Sacred Place, Near Rotorua Lake

Among the illustrations prepared for John White's Ancient History of the Maori is one of "a tuahu and six hara" This has no connection with the Maori tuahu whatever. It is an illustration of a sacred place at Tahiti, Society Group, that appeared originally in Cook's Voyages, and later in Ellis's Polynesian Researches and Rienzi's work. As to the so-called hara, or carved planks, we have no information to show that they represent any Maori usage.

The elevated platform on which offerings were placed was often termed a whata, the ordinary name for all similar erections. The names whata puaroa and whata roa were also applied to such stages. In his work Te lka a Maui, the Rev. R. Taylor speaks of three different stages being erected at a sacred place where religious ceremonies were performed, which stages were known as the Paiahua, Whitipana, and Pou-whakaturia. This appears to have been a Taranaki usage. It is explained that the pouwhiro, or principal priest, would perform his rites at one of these stages in a state of nudity. The place was enclosed by a fence or barrier of some kind, outside of which stood the tauira, or pupils of the priests. Outside these again were the people who assembled to view the proceedings. At the conclusion of the ceremony a feast was usually held, and such a meal was always of a ceremonial nature. Separate ovens were page 274necessary in preparing food for persons of different classes and of differing degrees of tapu, for the Maori was very punctilious in such matters. The word signifying a steam-oven, umu (with its variant form imu) was often used to denote a rite, as was the word ahi (fire) when a tapu open fire was employed in the performance of religious ceremonies. Thus we have as well-known names of ritual performances the terms imu waharoa, umu pongipongi, and ahi purakau.

The word pouahu seems to be equivalent to tuahu, but is of restricted use. Old natives of the Bay of Plenty district are acquainted with it. A famed one is said to have been situated at Whakatane. Some such places seem to have had special names assigned to them, such as Ahurei, a famous sacred place at Maketu, Kawhia. These tapu places were usually situated at some little distance away from a village, at a retired spot which no person approached at ordinary times. Such an act of trespass was strongly resented, and for an unauthorized person to walk over such a spot was equivalent to risking death at the hands of the gods. Indeed, physical maladies were often assigned to such a cause, the committing of a hara, an infringement of the rules of tapu.

It is interesting to note that there were several differing forms of tuahu in former times. Some were utilized only for the performance of high-class ceremonies; such was the ahurewa. Others, as the rua-iti, seem to have been resorted to only for such evil purposes as the destruction of life. There appears also to have been an intermediary type of place at which ordinary ceremonial was performed, such as that pertaining to various industries, and to war, which itself may be said to have been a native industry.

The ahurewa was certainly a very important place, apparently the most important of all tuahu. It was often a real place, but the term seems to have been also applied to certain conditions, and even to persons, such as a high-grade tohunga, or priest. The late Colonel Gudgeon stated that, under certain circumstances, the ahurewa may be anywhere. It sometimes denotes such a condition as when a man places himself unreservedly in the power of the gods. Human powers are no longer of avail, and he leaves the matter to the gods entirely, with such a remark as "Ki a koe, e Rehual" ("To thee, O Rehua!") Hakiaha, the most learned man of the Whanganui district, agreed with the foregoing definition.

One native authority asserts that the tapu place called the ahurewa might be situated out in the open, or it might be within a hut specially erected for the purpose; such a hut or house would be called a whare tuahu. Among the Takitumu folk of the east coast of our North Island the ahurewa was not alluded to as a page 275tuahu, though it served the purposes of one. It was not located out-of-doors, but within the whare wananga, or tapu school of learning, at the rearmost of the three posts supporting the ridgepole. Such place was marked by one or more stones, an account of which appears in the description of the whare wananga. The ceremonies pertaining to the teaching of tapu knowledge to youths were performed at this ahurewa. Nor is it a modern institution, inasmuch as we are told that, when Tane visited the realm of Io, the pure ceremony was performed over him at the ahurewa.

The ahurangi is said to have been another form of tuahu, but we have no information as to its peculiarities. The word ahu itself was employed to denote a mound used in the performance of certain ceremonies; it was sometimes called a puke. Ahupuke is yet another term for a tuahu, perhaps a distinctive form. In an account of the rua torino rite of black magic given in vol. 3 of the Journal of the Polynesian Society, p. 169, the ahupuke is alluded to as a place at which the rite was performed. In his account of the old-time fortified native villages of the Maori Mr. W. H. Skinner, in vol. 20 of the same Journal, tells us that a sacred place might be found within the village limits, and perhaps near the residence of the high chieftain of the ceremony. He proceeds: "This was the sacred place of the pa, the tuahu tapatai (sacred altar). It was a small enclosure fenced round with high posts, in which was an erection called the pou tapu, in the form of a canoe-end fixed in the ground. Into this enclosure only the priest entered, except when for any purpose some one of the people desired the aid of the priest. Under such circumstances he was allowed within whilst the incantations were going on. This sacred spot or pillar was also called pou whakatipua, or pou whakakikiwa. When, however, the sacred spot or pillar, the pou tapu, was situated near the waharoa, or main gateway, as it should be, then near it was kept the waka, or receptacle (usually a wooden box) in which the emblem of the particular god of the tribe or pa was kept. It was from this sacred enclosure that the priest addressed the people when the will of the gods required to be made known. There was a particular kind of receptacle called kawiu, a pataka on a pole, where the waka of the god was kept." It is thus seen that a tuahu might be situated within the limits of a village, or it might be outside it, possibly at some very secluded place. The term "altar," applied above to these places, sounds somewhat grandiose when we know that they were remarkable for lack of any altar-like aspect. In vol. 27 of the Journal of the Polynesian Society, at p. 83, is an account of the page 276performance of magic rites at a tuahu tapatahi, a mode of spelling not usually employed. It is stated that such a place was also known as a tuahu hauora when used for the performance of ceremonies pertaining to life and welfare. Such a place is said to have been simply a small mound of earth. Such mounds, termed ahu and puke, often figured in Maori ceremonial.

Another term applied to tuahu is kauhanganui. It is alluded to at p. 207 of vol. 3 of the Polynesian Journal, where Tarakawa says: "There were many kinds of tuahu: one is the tapatai; another is the ahupuke; another is the torino; another is the ahurewa—a useful one, for it can be moved about; also the ahurangi, which succours man; indeed, a priest can utilize his own hand as a tuahu for his charms." In cases where a tuahu was moved to another site, some of the earth of the place was taken to the new site. In the same volume of the above Journal, at p. 152, appears an account of a sorcerer named Kaihamu utilizing his own hand as a tuahu to impart mana to his spells of magic. This resourceful person was confined in a house surrounded by enemies. Having no tuahu at hand, he employed his cupped hand as a substitute, recited his charms, and thrust them forth through the windowspace—a peculiar gesture. The act was effective, and Kaihamu escaped. We thus see that to recite ritual at a tuahu imparted mana, or power, to such ritual, and this would be the result of locating a certain atua (god or gods) at such place.

A good native authority has told us that the form of sacred place termed an ahurewa was likewise known as ahumairangi. In some cases tuahu were situated at places difficult of access, such as precipitous places. A great many ceremonies pertaining to birth, sickness, death, war, and innumerable other subjects were performed at such places, a number of which will be explained later on. A person would pride himself on being able to say, "I was taken to such a tuahu at birth to have the tua rite performed over me." This was a mild species of boast, a karanga whakai.

It is a very singular fact that the turuma, or latrine, of a village was often utilized as a place at which to perform what we must term religious ceremonies. Rites connected with many matters were there conducted. We are told that the reason for this strange procedure was that it was a place where interruption was improbable—a place steeped in a phase of tapu; trespassers would not trouble such a spot. I am strongly inclined to doubt this explanation, and believe that there is more behind it. Why should rites be performed at such a place? Moreover, the very latrine itself entered into the functions, as we note in the very extra-page 277ordinary ceremony known as ngau paepae, in which a person was obliged to "bite" the horizontal beam of the latrine. The late learned man Tutakangahau gave me some very curious information concerning the peculiar views or beliefs connected with a latrine. The space behind the horizontal beam (paepae) seems to have been called the kouka, and in some way this represented death, while the space in front of the bar represented life. It seems possible to the writer that the strange attitude of the Maori towards the turuma originated in his belief in the inherent powers of the generative organs—of which more anon.

Allied to the tuahu was another form of sacred place at which ceremonies were performed. This was the wai tapu of a hamlet, a stream or pond at or in which tapu rites were performed. Such a stream, or a portion of it, was set aside for such purposes, as it were, and viewed as a place not to be trespassed on. The names of wai kotikoti and wai whakaika were applied to such streams among the Matatua folk of the Bay of Plenty district, but they were usually alluded to simply as wai tapu, a name denoting that such places were set aside for a special purpose and might not be trespassed on. A considerable number of religious ceremonies were performed at such streams, lustration and immersion forming an important feature in Maori ritual.

The terms uruahu and uruuru tapu are given in William's Maori Dictionary as being equivalent to tuahu. Tregear's Maori Comparative Dictionary gives tuahu as the name of a part of a marae at Tahiti, and ahu as a Marquesas Islands term for a sacred place. In Mrs. Routledge's work on Easter Island we are told that the old stone platforms of that weird isle are called ahu. The Tahitian marae was an erection in the form of a truncated pyramid, built in a series of steps on which priests of different grades are said to have stationed themselves during the performance of ceremonies. The name is applied to a plaza or open space in a village or in front of a house in New Zealand and also in Polynesia, so that it is quite possible that the name was not applied to the actual stone edifice, but to the place where it was situated, or the open space before it. In a reference made to the Polynesian stone edifices termed marae, Colonel Gudgeon has told us that the tauira were stationed above the people—i.e., on one of the lower steps or platforms—and the pukenga above the tauira, while above all was the chief priest of the god to whom the edifice was dedicated. If these stone pyramids were constructed in eastern Polynesia prior to the departure of the ancestors of the New Zealand Maori from those parts, then they represent one of the Polynesian institutions that were not introduced here. No such erections have page 278been known in New Zealand, where we find none of the stone platforms, statues, &c., that are found in various parts of the Pacific. The only stonework met with in New Zealand are the stone-faced scarps seen at the sites of old-time fortified villages. In such cases the stones employed are merely rough, unworked boulders. It is a singular and very interesting fact that the Polynesian immigrants to these isles discarded certain customs, &c., of their former home, and evolved or adopted others that were unknown there. An explanation of these changes would assuredly throw much light on the question of the original peopling of New Zealand.

The Moriori folk of the Chatham Islands had the same name, tuahu, for tapu places, as also another name, tuwhatu, for what was apparently a similar place, a spot marked by a stone, where offerings to atua were deposited.

In his account of the natives of Niue Island Mr. S. Percy Smith tells us that "It is clear that there were places in former times which must, to a certain extent, have been sacred, where their rites were performed. These are called tutu, and are hillocks, more or less flat on top, and which present every appearance of being partly artificial. … In former times they were the sites of faituga." It is not shown that the faituga was anything in the form of a building, it was probably simply a tuahu. In eastern Polynesia the term ranga was applied to some such a sacred place.