Other formats

    TEI XML file   ePub eBook file  


    mail icontwitter iconBlogspot iconrss icon

Maori Religion and Mythology Part 1

Ritual Connected with Sickness and Death

Ritual Connected with Sickness and Death

We have now to deal with matters in regard to which the Maori was exceedingly superstitious. Concerning sickness, death, burial, exhumation, and redisposal of the bones of the dead, the Maori had many singular beliefs and performed many ceremonies. Certainly burial was the least prominent of these, but exhumation was held to be a very tapu and important institution.

In the native treatment of the sick we observe some of the most puerile examples of superstition. The belief held by the Maori that practically all diseases and complaints were inflicted by the gods would naturally result in a neglect of medicinal research, even that page 371of an empirical nature. The great number of herbal remedies used by the natives in modern times are the result of becoming acquainted with our European medicines, but few if any of such wai rakau or decoctions were used by them in pre-European times. The following are examples of the superstitious practices formerly employed.

When a person was afflicted with kopito, or stomach-ache, he would hie him to the local shaman. That worthy would procure a piece of a culm of toetoe (Arundo conspicua), which he handed to his patient, telling him to tap his body repeatedly with it, and at each tap to repeat the words He kopito kei au, prefaced each time by the name of a tribal burial-place, or of some local maunga hirihiri—that is, a mountain, hill, or range of tribal lands that is held to possess mana, is greeted by those leaving their homeland or who return thereto, and which is mentioned in song, speech, and charms as though it were a protecting power. Thus the charm repeated by the sufferer consisted of a number of such lines as the following:—

Maungaroa E! He kopito kei au.
Te Ana Korotu E! He kopito kei au.

(O Maungaroa! I have a stomach-ache. O Te Ana Korotu! I have a stomachache.)

Having finished his budget of names of such tapu places, he concluded with:—

Hangahanga mata turuturu
Ka ora, ka ora,
Whitiwhiti te koreke
Ka ora, ka matiti au … e.

The meaning of which is by no means clear.

In these cases the Mana of the tapu place named was supposed to render charms efficacious. Tapu is the origin of mana, and the gods are the source of tapu; so that, if relief comes from a mention of tapu places, that relief really emanates from the gods. Te Ana Korotu in the above effusion may possibly not be a proper name, but a cave wherein bones of the dead were deposited. The words mean "the skull-cave," and the Tuhoe folk so designate any cave in which exhumed bones of the dead were deposited.

Another method employed was to repeat the names of living chiefs and priests of the tribe: "Tell—that I have a stomachache (Meinga atu ki a Mea he kopito toku)." His pains may have been caused by the spirit of some defunct elder or ancestor of such persons, and the mention of the name of a living relative of such spirit may cause it to relent and relieve him of his sufferings.

When a sick person consulted a priest the latter would perform a rude diagnostic rite, and report to his patient after the manner of barbaric man, not by giving the name of a complaint, page 372but by stating what the cause of the trouble was—that is, some infringement of the laws of tapu. These things called for what may be termed expiatory rites, placation of the gods, and also for another performance known as takutaku, an expelling of the evil spirit afflicting the sufferer. The shaman procured a strip of Phormium leaf, or a fern-stalk, or some such object, and used it as an ara atua—that is, as a path for the demon to leave by. One end of the stalk would be placed on the sufferer's body. A charm to exorcise the demon would be repeated as a hint for it to leave. The following is a sample of such effusions:—

Tenei to ara
Haere ki o tipuna, haere ki o matua
Haere ki o koroua, haere ki nga mana o o tipuna, &c.

(Here is thy path. Go to your ancestors; go to your parents; go to your elders; go to the mana of your ancestors.)

If a shaman suspected that a patient had been bewitched, he would conduct him to the tapu stream and sprinkle water on his body with a karamu branchlet as he recited a charm. He would then, we are told, see the spirit of the wizard standing by the side of his patient. Another incantation would be repeated to slay the wizard, or to nullify the effect of his magic. When a sick person recovered from his illness, the condition of tapu was removed from him in a ceremonial manner; this including the kindling of fire and the cooking of food. In one manner of performing this rite the adept took a piece of the edible plant called puha, and a dead ember from the fire, and passed them round the left thigh of the patient, from left to right. He then waved the hand containing those objects towards the heavens, and afterwards deposited them at the tuahu, or sacred place of the village. It is by no means easy to ascertain the signification of such acts, so very ancient are they, but there seems to have been a belief that the ahua or semblance of the disease passed into the herb. My informant here remarked that, although the right side of man is his tapu side, yet his left side possesses great mana or inherent power. Some curious acts were performed in native rites in connection with the left thigh and left side of man, which carries the mind back to similar practices in India.

When called in to succour a choking person the shaman would wave a stick to and fro before the sufferer, and at the same time repeat a charm, such as the following:—

Kaitoa ano koe kia raoa
Whiti raoa, taka raoa
Kahore he tangata i whakararua ai koe
Pakiri, pakiri ki uta, pakiri ki tai
He kawau, he kotuku.

page 373

The first line of this effusion is charmingly clear: "It serves you right to be choked." The rest is by no means lucid; the reference to the cormorant and heron in the final line may be a reference to greedy swallowers. Another mode of treatment was to slap the sufferer vigorously on the back while repeating a charm that begins "It is well that you are choking, for you ate greedily"—a remark that would scarcely comfort the victim.

In yet another method of treatment the shaman spits on his hand, grasps the sufferer by the throat, and repeats the following peculiar composition:—

Kaitoa, kaitoa, kaitoa ano koe kia raoa
He aha ra te manu i rere ki tai whakakoa ai
He toroa ra te manu i rere ki tai whakakoa ai
Ka kai o ika, ka tara o ika
Pa ki roto, pa ki waho
Homai ki waho.

This is a good example of these absurd charms into which appear to be introduced all sorts of subjects absolutely foreign to the matter in hand: "It is well, it is well, it is well that you should be choked. What is the bird that flew seaward to rejoice? An albatross is the bird that flew seaward to rejoice." What possible sense can one see in such jargon as this? The final line—"Come forth," or "Give forth"—is the only one that, after the first line, can be said to have any bearing on the subject of choking.

To cure a person of dim sight or threatened blindness all that seems to have been necessary was to obtain a grass-culm, point it at the sun, then at the eyes of the sufferer, at the same time repeating the ever-necessary charm, such as the following:—

Te tao o te ra tu aha ana
Te ra tu wewero ana
Ka whano koe ki Hawaiki, ki Ma-te-ra
Ki tou tupunga ake i tupu ai koe
Ma te mata kawha, ma te mata hura.

This peculiar ceremony was performed just as the sun was setting.

The following charm was repeated in order to cure a burn:—

I wera i te aha? Tikina mai whakaorangia
I wera i te ahi Hei mahi kai ma taua
Ahi a wai? Wera iti, wera rahi, wera kia raupapa
Ahi a Mahuika Maku e whakaihi, maku e whakamana.

(Burned by what? Burned by fire. Whose fire? Mahuika's fire. Proceed to restore him, that he may obtain food for us. Slightly burned; severely burned; burned and chapped. I will empower and effect.)

One way of curing a headache was to obtain a piece of cooked fern-root (edible rhizome of Pteris aquilind) and wave it over the head of the sufferer. The idea seems to be that the demon page 374who is causing the pain will fly from the presence of cooked foods. In a charm repeated at the time by the shamanistic tohunga occur the following lines:—

E Tiki E! E Pani E!
Kia ora tenei tangata.

Here a distinct appeal is made to Tiki and Pani to cure the patient, a direct form of invocation that is but seldom encountered in Maori charms.

Another remedy for headache was the wearing of an amulet consisting of a piece of fern-root, which was suspended from the neck, and which, as used for this purpose, was styled a pitopito. Curiously enough, the Maori usually disregarded amulets, and this one is the only one known to the writer as having been used by our natives.

Dr. Shortland has given an account of a ceremony formerly performed over a person who had become insane. This rite, like many others, was performed in the water, both the priest and patient being in a nude condition. The former, with a sharp-edged flake of obsidian, cut a lock of hair from the left side of the patient's head, and another from the top thereof. The first lock and the flake knife were then laid on the ground. The second lock was held aloft in the left hand, and a stone in the right, as a charm was recited. The priest then took up the flake, breathed on it, and smashed it with the stone he held in his right hand. He then took a shoot of the toetoe plant, tied both locks of hair to it, then immersed his body in the stream, and, as he did so, released the toetoe and hair, which floated away. He then recited a long incantation which, in its latter part, consigned to death the magician who had caused the patient to become insane.

Demoniac possession was a universal belief in Maoriland, and a great number of charms and ritual performances were employed in order to exorcise such demons and restore the afflicted ones to health. The use of mediums and the practice of symbolical rites were common. In fact the Maori, in dealing with sickness and disease, was on the same level as the Babylonians and Assyrians of yore; and the ancient Egyptians relied largely on charms or spells, and amulets, in cases of sickness, believing that all such complaints were the work of evil spirits. It is of interest to note how these puerile beliefs and superstitions have survived into modern civilization, and have been incorporated with Christianity. The belief in evil spirits and demoniacal possession has been one of the most serious blots on Christianity. Richard Taylor tells us of a small book page 375entitled Every Man his own Physician that he bought in France. It was a Roman Catholic Church publication that contained many spiritual remedies, prayers or charms to cure many ills, and it was sold to ignorant, credulous people.

A great deal might be said as to ritual connected with sickness, but enough has been given to show the nature of such ceremonies. Perhaps one of the most interesting things connected with the subject is the old practice termed tuku wairua (soul-despatching). This was a charm recited over a dying person in order to despatch his soul to the spirit-world. It was sometimes termed wehe, a word meaning "to separate." A very interesting form of this ceremony was that practised by the Moriori folk of the Chatham Isles. The person who recited the formula supported the head of the dying person with one arm and pointed to the sun with his other hand. The charm itself was called Tami-te-ra, which is a name for the sun, the Tama-nui-te-ra of New Zealand. This effusion called upon the flitting soul to proceed to the sun and the heavens above—an interesting allusion such as is seldom encountered in Maori lore.

At the death of a person there was much mourning ceremonial, but little pertaining to burial. This was owing to the fact that it was desirable to draw no attention to the place of burial, lest it become known to enemies, who might filch the bones of the dead wherefrom to fashion spear-points, fish-hooks, and flutes. This use of the bones of enemies was a common usage, and it was viewed as a dire calamity and grievous insult. Such was the cause of secrecy in burial, and perchance of lack of ceremonious functions pertaining to it.

When a person was in extremis it was a common usage for persons in the vicinity to assemble around him. Then, ere he passed away, cries of farewell would be heard, farewelling his spirit to spirit-land, there to sojourn with those of his ancestors. This gathering to await a person's death is called whakahemohemo. At death the body was "trussed" at once for sitting burial, and placed in a sitting position against a post, where it would remain for several days. All this time mourning would be carried on, and fresh parties of mourners from other villages would be arriving.

The hirihiri rite performed at the death of a person was intended to assist his soul to reach the spirit-world, and so is allied to the tuku wairua already mentioned—if, indeed, it is not the same thing. An ara atua was employed by which the soul left the body, and a charm recited at the time assisted it so to pass. In modern times volleys of gun-fire (fowling-pieces) acquaint people with the death of a person. Should it be thought that a person has been slain by page 376magic arts, then one would procure a fern-stalk (stipe of bracken) and strike the body with it, saying, "Here is your weapon by which to avenge your death." This is meant to incite the wairua (spirit or soul) to avenge the destruction of its physical basis.

Laceration of the body and limbs was practised by the kiri mate, or near relatives of the dead. It was viewed as a token of affection, esteem, and sorrow. In the innumerable speeches made during mourning functions there is eulogy of the departed one and much farewelling to the spirit-world.

In the Bay of Plenty district the ceremonial spinning of humming-tops occurred in connection with the function of mourning for the dead. A lament was sung, and at the conclusion of each verse a number of tops were spun. The humming sound made by the tops is said to have been compared to the wailing for the dead that forms so prominent a feature of such functions.

Another extraordinary ceremonial performance that took place at Ruatahuna in the "forties" of last century was the following: A certain clan or family group had been defeated in an intertribal fight, losing several men. Possibly the defeated party doubted its ability to obtain revenge; anyhow, it adopted a very peculiar mode of mourning. A lament was composed, and two moari, or swings (giant strides), were erected. The mourners assembled at these, each one grasping a rope of the swing. They would then sing a verse of the lament, and, at its conclusion, all swing off round the pole. Another verse of the lament would then be sung, and the swing again resorted to, until the final verse had been sung. Truly, barbaric man hath some strange notions!

Occasionally, we are told, a tuapa was erected at the death of a person. This was just such a post as that set up at the birth of a child, and it seems in some way to have represented the soul of the deceased person. A certain rite was performed at this post in order to prevent the spirit of the dead returning and annoying the living, or injuring the crops or other food products. The rite included, apparently, the recital of several charms, the real or simulated generation of fire, and the raising of a wind, or the performance of the ohorangi rite, the causing of thunder to resound. These two acts showing control over the forces of nature not only give force, effectiveness, to the rite, but also illustrate the mana of the priest. As to wind-raising, the adepts of the Tama-Kaimoana clan of Tuhoe would raise the tribal wind called Tutakangahau, while those of the Urewera clan would raise that called Uru-karaerae. The peculiar expression hika is employed to page 377denote this wind-raising feat: Ka hikaia ko te hau—a singular usage, the word meaning "to generate"; the wind was generated.

Bones of the dead were sometimes used in rites in former times, for they seem to possess much inherent mana. Human skulls and bones placed in a field were looked upon as being highly desirable: they either caused crops to flourish or protected the vitality of such crops. A flute made from a human bone had most beneficial effects in cases of difficult parturition, and a skull is useful as "guardian" of a tree on which birds are snared. In his paper on mana Colonel Gudgeon tells us how a rough sea was calmed by placing in the waters the bones of a famed ancestral wizard.

There were many karakia (charms, incantations, invocations) pertaining to exhumation of bones of the dead and the final disposal thereof. Those who disinterred the bones were under heavy tapu, and, when the task was completed, they could neither partake of food nor yet return to their families until a purifying rite had been performed over them. The ceremonial feast that marked this function of exhumation was viewed as a highly important one, and the pure rite of which it formed a part was specially tapu. At these ritual feasts the food had to be cooked in a number of different ovens for what one may term the different castes of the people. The Tuhoe folk seem to have followed a system of six ovens for the ceremonial feast of the pure. These ovens have been explained and their names given elsewhere. We have no detailed account of this rite, but a small part of the tapu food was used as an offering to the dead. Food for consumption by tapu persons is termed popoa and popoki, when consumed in connection with some religious ceremony. Persons attending these functions had to be very careful not to partake of food from any oven but the one they were entitled to, for such an act would mean serious trouble. Prior to the people commencing the feast, however, a priest had to perform the whakau rite over the food. This rite removed the tapu from the food and so enabled persons to eat it; it would be highly dangerous to consume it ere this ceremony was performed. The whakau is the higher form of this ceremonial freeing of food from tapu prior to a meal, and it is only performed on important occasions, such as this hahunga or exhumation we are describing. A less exalted form of charm is employed for any ordinary meal or function, and this form bears a different name, that of taumaha. The Maori believes that our grace before meals is a ceremonial removal of tapu from the food, to allow of its being eaten.

page 378

Curious beliefs were and are connected with food in Maoriland. Were a person going on a journey to some place whereat he thought there might be a danger of his being bewitched, he would cook a portion of food and take it to a tohunga, who would repeat a charm over it. The traveller would eat a portion of the food and put a small part in his belt-pouch and so carry it with him on his journey. That "prepared" food would protect him from all dangers emanating from black magic; it had the power to protect his life-principle. On his return from his journey he would proceed direct to the priest, who would free him from the condition of tapu he had been in during his journey. That tapu had been induced by his having been placed under the special care of the gods. After this latter ceremony the traveller was free to return to his home.

To return to our whakau rite of the ahi pure, the ritual feast of the exhumation ceremonial: When the priest recited this charm over the food he offered up a small portion of that food to ancestral gods, who endow his charm with its powers. He took another small portion of the food, and, as he intoned his charm or invocation, he held it over the arranged food-supplies. The charm or one such is as follows:—

To kai ihi, to kai ihi
To kai Rangi, to kai Papa
To kai tapu, to kai rua koiwi
To kai awe, to kai karu
To kai ure pahore, to kai matamua
To kai rua tupapaku
Whakataha ra koe, e te anewa o te rangi e tu nei
He tawhito to tapu e homai nei kei taku ure
Na te tapu ihi, na te tapu mana
Hinga ki mua, takoto ki raro ki to kauwhau ariki.

Doubtless these rhythmic utterances were considered to be effective, but a translation does not enlighten the European mind much. In this effusion the reciter announces to sky, earth, burial-caves, first-born sons, &c., that here is their food. He then calls, apparently, upon the whirlwind to pass by, and alludes to the power of the male organ as a protective agent. Translations of Maori karakia are to us puzzling and unsatisfactory. Having finished this recital, the priest lifted the piece of food to his mouth and repeated another charm.

The exhumed bones of the dead were tied up in bundles, each person's remains being so tied up separately, and were then deposited in some cave, chasm, or hollow tree situated in a remote spot. A priest preceded the bearers of the remains, repeating a page 379charm as he proceeded. In his work Te Ika a Maui the Rev. R. Taylor gives a number of charms repeated during the exhumation and final disposal of bones of the dead, and a few such are given in a paper on Maori eschatology in vol. 38 of the Transactions of the New Zealand Institute.