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Maori Religion and Mythology Part 1

[argument and introduction]

page 305


True prayer not a Maori institution. Invocations rare. Myths and ritual subject to change. The term karakia and its meaning. Similar primitive charms of Egypt and Babylonia. Charms universally employed. Types of karakia. Grades of tohunga. Maori beliefs rendered use of charms imperative. Observations by Forster and others. Aspect of aloofness in charms. The necessity of mana. How ritual formulae were delivered. Attitudes adopted during delivery. Nudity often essential. Charms for all purposes. Rites performed at dawn. Fasting. Purificatory rites. Wai tapu. Aspersion and immersion. Use of fire in ritual performances. Sacred fires. Fire-generating. Fire-making. The whakau rite. The tuapa. Fire-walking. Ceremonial feasts and ovens. Use of hair in rites. Hair-cutting a ceremonial function. Use of saliva in rites. Superstitious practices. Sun-worship. The sun personified. Personification of moon. Hina and Rongo. The use of water in rites. Rites performed in running water. Baptism. Lustral ceremonies. Bird released in rite. Ceremonial dances. Phallic worship. The heitiki. The eel cult. Tuna and Hina. Protective powers of organs of generation. The ngau paepae rite. Ritual pertaining to birth. The tohi rite. Marriage rites. The atahu rite. Divorce ritual. The miri aroha rite. Ritual pertaining to sickness and death. Bones of dead employed in rites. Ritual pertaining to war. The wai taua rite. Magic rites. Ritual pertaining to agriculture. Miscellaneous rites. Ceremonies performed by travellers. Fishing ritual. Rites performed by seafarers. Rain charms. Wind charms. Invocation to Io.

Under this heading it is proposed to give some explanation of Maori rites and karakia, or religious formulae. This explanation will consist principally of a survey of native mentality, and its effects as seen in the performance of rites connected with religion and magic, as also some account of the manner in which such rites were carried out. To describe in detail the many rites concerning which we possess particulars would result in a chapter of extraordinary and cumbrous length. Moreover, such details should be reserved for separate monographs on the various subjects to which they pertain, such as birth, marriage, death, war, &c. In like manner, but few illustrations of karakia will be given, merely some that illustrate different grades of such effusions. The number of these formulae that have been collected is remarkable, and any paper that included all would assuredly be one of prodigious length.

page 306

It is well to bear in mind that the rites of the Maori, and of barbaric man generally, were based not on worship and prayer, or direct entreaty, but on symbolism, on analogies, and sympathetic magic. The methods of influencing supernormal powers were indirect, and the medium employed might be a ceremonial action, a verbal formula, or a material medium. In the esoteric cult of Io alone do we perceive the higher attributes of religious thought, and that cultus was unknown to the many. As a general statement it may be said that, in the relations of the Maori with his gods, indirect influence was the leading characteristic.

J. W. Fewkes, of the Bureau of American Ethnology, spoke truly when he remarked that "Myth and rite form the woof and warp of religious development." In Maori lore we find enlightening and highly interesting data concerning these products of the mentality of the Polynesian folk.

We are often assured that backward people, such as the Maori, maintain their religious concepts, ritual performances, and myths at one level for long periods of time. This may be so to a considerable extent, but still a certain amount of change does take place, more especially among any body of people that breaks off from a community to settle in some distant land. Thus it has been noted that, among the descendants of the old-time Polynesians who settled in New Zealand, both mythology and religion have undergone change. In some cases a change has occurred in regard to quite prominent and important features. Thus, in local Maori myth we have in Rangi and Papa the personified forms of sky and earth, and these were viewed as the primal parents from whom all things sprang. Now, among the natives of Rarotonga, who are closely allied to the Maori, Te Tumu takes the place of Rangi, and the two words have different meanings. Either Rarotongans or Maoris have made the change since their ancestors separated. Again, we know that changes have occurred here, and that ritual performances pertaining to any function, such as the tua or tohi rite performed over an infant, differed among different tribes.

It will be well to here attempt some explanation of the term karakia, a word that occurs so often in any native account of religious functions. The word has a wide range of meaning, for it is employed to denote the simplest form of charm and the highest form of invocation.

It denotes a charm, a spell, an incantation, an invocation. Any simple form of words, no matter how puerile it may be, uttered in order to avert ill fortune, to secure good luck, to render one dextrous, skilful, to cause a child's kite to fly or a top to spin, all were termed page 307karakia, as also were invocations to the Supreme Being. As to the etymon of the term I can say nothing, save that the remarks of the Rev. Mr. Taylor are certainly incorrect. In his work Te Ika a Maui he says: "It may be derived from ka, to burn, showing the consuming power of the spell, and raki, to dry up, denoting its effects." But ka, to burn, is not a transitive verb, and raki is not a verb but an adjective. Moreover, what of a karakia repeated in order to cause a crop to flourish? Surely these devastating effects would not be sought or considered desirable in such cases.

The following definition of karakia was written by Maning, author of Old New Zealand: "Karakia properly signifies a formula of words or incantation, which words are supposed to contain a power, and to have a positive effect upon the spirit to whom they are addressed, totally irrespective of the conduct or action, good or bad, of the person using them."

We cannot quite agree with this gifted writer in the above remarks—namely, in regard to the conduct of the repeater of the karakia. In many cases such a person had to be remarkably circumspect in his behaviour, though such behaviour was usually in respect to ceremonial matters, not to his spiritual state or moral behaviour. The moral aspect did, however, enter into such functions in some cases, as we have seen in the foregoing chapter.

The infrequent occurrence of true invocations, of direct appeal to the gods, is a very remarkable feature in Maori ritual. Even in the higher class of ceremonial formulae anything like prayer, entreaty, direct invoking, is often absent, and the power of efficacy of the ritual seems, in native belief, to be in the repetition of set phrases that, in many cases, seem to have no bearing on the subject being dealt with. Much might be written on this subject. We observe that in the fine ritual pertaining to ceremonies performed at the baptism of a child much of the matter is simply descriptive of the doings of the offspring of the primal parents; the fact that such offspring were supernatural beings seems to have been sufficient to impart mana to these ritual utterances.

As an illustration of the simplicity of some of the formulae employed by the ordinary people, to which even the name of "charm" can scarcely be applied, we may cite a curious custom formerly practised by persons suffering from the ordinary "barn-door" variety of stomach-ache. The hapless sufferer keeps repeating the following phrase: "Meinga atu ki a mea he mate kopito toku" ("Tell —that I have a stomach-ache"), repeating the names of all the chiefs and priests he can think of. In this amazingly simple per-page 308formance the idea is that the persons named all have relatives in the spirit-world, the spirits of their dead relatives of many generations, one of which spirits may possibly be the cause of the distressing stomach-ache. Now, on hearing the name of its living relative mentioned, the spirit that is afflicting the sufferer may relent, its anger being appeased, whereupon it will cease to afflict the person; hence the repetition of the name is supposed to conciliate the troublesome atua, or spirit. It is worthy of note that even this simple phrase is termed a karakia. It may also be noted that the names repeated are those of chiefs and priests, not those of common folk.

Perhaps the most remarkable feature of Maori karakia is the fact that in but a few cases do we find a true invocation, anything that can be called an appeal to higher powers. When we do meet with such productions it is noted that they mostly belong to the higher type of ritual pertaining to matters of the highest importance, and not to such as deal with everyday affairs. Again, of these invocations the writer would classify very few as prayers, though a few connected with the whare wananga may be so placed. Many of the better type of karakia consist of a repetition of matter seemingly quite foreign to the subject under treatment, and this peculiarity it is that illustrates the mental attitude of the Maori in connection with his gods. This peculiar dissociation of ritual from its object relegates the karakia maori to the mists of antiquity, and places it in the same category with those of the ancient inhabitants of Egypt of pre-pyramid days. This singular phase of mentality has probably obtained among all races at some period of their history, for traces of it have been noted in many lands. We know that the ritualistic formulae employed by the early Egyptians bore a strong general resemblance to the average Maori charm—that is to say, they were but incantations. We know that Babylonian religion was supercharged with magic and mystery, and that even among civilized peoples of to-day are found survivals of very primitive forms of charms.

It will readily be understood that a very considerable proportion of Maori charms consisted of such as might be acquired and used by any person. Every child learned and repeated simple forms to accompany certain games, to cause rain to cease falling, &c. Every wrestler knew and employed a charm to strengthen himself, and another whereby to weaken his adversary. Every fisherman, fowler, and trapper possessed charms that he uttered over his paraphernalia. Every fighting-man learned charms used in various conditions pertaining to war, and every man knew at page 309least one of the minor charms to avert the shafts of magic. Tree-climber and traveller, paddler and planter, bushman and bather, all possessed their private budget of charms. No man so lowly, no calling so humble, but it possessed a few necessary charms. Apart, however, from these generally known charms, there were a great number of others that were known only to professionals—that is, to persons who occupied the position of tohunga, or expert in one or more branches of knowledge. It is in this class that tapu pertains to ritual, and that a special and close study of the many forms of charms and ceremonial observances was necessary before a person would take his place as an expert and practise his profession. A large number of such charms and ceremonies pertained to all industries and arts, as agriculture, fishing, trapping, weaving, war, &c., and a tohunga might confine his studies to one or two of these subjects, or become a general practitioner.

Above this medium grade of ritual was the highest form, including that connected with the Supreme Being, and such ceremonial was known to and conducted by the higher class of tohunga only, such as were termed tohunga ahurewa and tohunga tuahu. Lower grades of experts not only did not practise the higher forms of ritual; they were not even acquainted with it. And here it must be noted that the term tohunga means simply "expert," and not "priest" or "shaman." It is applied to persons of the higher class of the priesthood and to the most inferior grade of necromancer, sorcerer, thaumaturgist, warlock, or shaman; also to an artisan, any person who is an adept at any particular craft, Carrying as it does this wide range of meaning, it behoves one to be careful in rendering its meaning into English when encountered in native traditions.

We see that any man may possess the knowledge of simple charms connected with his daily life or ordinary tasks, but the more important ritual charms and observances were retained by the priesthood or experts, and practised by them only, by which means they preserved their power over the people, a peculiarity of the priestly class in all lands and periods.

Some of the religious ceremonies of the Maori were performed in public, and were viewed by the people as important functions; while others, the more tapu and important ones, were conducted in the presence of but few persons, those immediately concerned. The most intensely tapu functions were those in which the Supreme Being was referred or appealed to.

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It is clear that it was necessary that every man should be acquainted with a number of charms for use in daily life at times and places where the services of an expert were not procurable. So numerous, for instance, were evil omens and unlucky signs in Maori life that it was highly necessary that every person should be in a position to avert such influences. Again, in war, each man must know certain formulae to be repeated under certain conditions, as when pursuing or being pursued. The fisher and fowler also needed to be acquainted with certain charms, likewise the traveller. But in the higher branches of sacerdotal observances the tohunga came into his own. In the case of some functions that were public spectacles, such as the kawa whare and whakainu waka (ceremonies performed over new houses and new canoes of superior design), the opening function for a new pa (fortified village), and others, the participants in the function alone occupied the place where such ceremony was performed, while the public were grouped some distance away.