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Maori Religion and Mythology Part 1

The Use of Hair in Ritual Performances

The Use of Hair in Ritual Performances

Having dealt with the elements of water and fire as connected with Maori ritual performances, we now come to certain mediums connected with the human body. Of these the most important is hair, for it entered into many ceremonial observances, sometimes in a very strange manner. The peculiar tapu pertaining to human hair would, to a great extent, be caused by that of the human head, which was the most highly tapu part of man. Among the Maori folk the act of hair-cutting might be termed a religious ceremony. With the Tuhoe folk this act was often performed at a place called the wai kotikoti, or wai whakaika, a pool or stream set aside for the performance of rites. Ceremonial hair-cutting entered largely into Maori ritual. When persons were subjected to certain ceremonies for various purposes, the cutting of the hair of such person was often one of the concluding acts. The inner meaning of this ceremonial act has never been satisfactorily explained.

The Rev. R. Taylor, in his work Te Ika a Maui, states that the most important functions of a sacerdotal nature differed considerably as in different districts. Thus, at one place the advent of the new year was the most important event, and on this occasion ritual performances were held. These would probably be firstfruits rites, including invocations to the stars. At another place, says the above writer, the most tapu day of the year was that appointed for hair-cutting. He continues: "The people assembled from all the neighbouring parts, often more than a thousand page 330in number, the operation being commenced with karakia, the operator and his obsidian substitute for scissors being thus rendered peculiarly sacred. … In some places the hair was cut only in the morning; at Taupo, in the evening. The hair in other parts was laid upon the tuahu, or altar, whilst the karakia was uttered, and left there, the tuahu being in the wahi tapu, or sacred grove." Mr. White also has a note to the effect that, in some cases, many persons had their hair cut at one time, that all persons fasted until the performance was over, and that no fires might be kindled, save a special one in which the shorn hair was burned, though it might be buried, or deposited at the tuahu. This general hair-cutting performance may have been practised at some places, but it was certainly by no means a universal usage. Such a ceremonial, moreover, would of course not apply to persons of low social status who were devoid of tapu. This writer also gives a formula (karakia), a charm that was repeated over the flake of obsidian that was used to cut hair with. The laying of the severed hair on the tuahu, accompanied as the act was by the recital of some formula, would probably mean that it was used as a kind of offering to the gods in such a ceremony as that termed whangai.

The depositing of human hair at sacred places seems to have been a fairly widespread Polynesian custom. In his account of human sacrifice in the Society Isles, Ellis states that some of the hair of the victim was laid before the gods. In a description of ceremonies of the Paumotu Group in vol. 27 of the Journal of the Polynesian Society, p. 134, occurs the following: "On the ranga, a kind of altar, were the fare tini atua, a kind of reliquary in which was deposited the hair of the dead whom it was desired to honour. It was these bunches of hair that formed, scarcely fifty years ago, the chief objects of adoration in our Polynesian islands."

As an illustration of the unpleasant restrictions pertaining to a person who had cut a tapu man's hair, the following extract from a missionary record quoted in Mr. S. Percy Smith's Maori Wars of the Nineteenth Century is of interest: "Rauroha … had suffered whilst on board from one of their superstitions: he had cut and dressed his brother's hair prior to his coming on board, and therefore dared not go below lest he should be killed by the atua (god). The weather being bad, he had been obliged to squat for three nights under the longboat."

Cook remarks that while lying in Queen Charlotte Sound in 1770 he saw human hair tied to the branches of trees; and other early writers have recorded similar statements. Human hair has been found thrust into the crevices of rocks, and in other strange places. page 331It is probable that, in many cases, hair was so concealed by a man who had had his hair cut, lest it be found by some evilly disposed person who might employ it as a medium in sympathetic magic. There must, however, have been other superstitions connected with hair, or, naturally, he would have destroyed it.

Some of our early writers on the Maori could not understand the condition of tapu, and did not grasp the fact that, in many cases, hair-cutting was practically a religious rite. Thus, Nicholas writes as follows of a native who left the European visitors in order to submit himself to such an operation: "As there was no apparent motive for his immediate departure, we rallied him on his not being able to live for a few days apart from his wife, but he readily confessed that this was not his reason for leaving us; and the one he gave was puerile enough—that he wanted to get his hair cut." Elsewhere this writer mentions seeing a man cutting his wife's hair, which he did with a flake of obsidian, cutting the fore part quite close, and leaving all the hair on the back of the head untouched. The operator carefully collected all the hair cut off, which he carried off to some place on the outskirts of the village, probably to the tuahu. He explained that the hair was tapu, hence he must be careful as to its disposal, otherwise he would incur the anger of the gods. He would not allow Nicholas to touch the obsidian flakes he had used, saying that they were tapu. Nicholas ridiculed these superstitions, and so annoyed the native, who naturally retaliated by ridiculing the Christian teachings and myths introduced by the companions of Nicholas.

Cook became acquainted with this tapu pertaining to hair and hair-cutting at Queen Charlotte Sound. Thus he speaks of a youth named Taweiharooa (?Te Wai-harua) as follows: "He refrained from eating … on account of his hair being cut, though every method was tried to induce him to break his resolution. … He said if he eat anything that day the atua would kill him. … I had often conjectured, before this, that they had some superstitious notions about their hair, having frequently observed quantities of it tied to the branches of trees near some of their habitations; but what these notions are I never could learn."

In his series of lectures on Maori Customs and Superstitions the late Mr. John White gives an account of the cutting of a child's hair; but all the ceremonial acts explained would not be performed over every child, only those of the more important families.

Ceremonial hair-cutting was also observed in mourning for the dead. Thomson tells us that "some mourners clipped half their head-hair short"; and I have known a woman cut all her hair off page 332when mourning for a dead relative. Another old practice was to cut off all the hair in mourning save one long lock, termed reureu, or taweu, left on one side of the head. These ceremonial cuttings of hair were probably observed throughout Polynesia. Widows are said to have cut all their hair short; in some cases it was singed off close to the head with a fire-brand. When a long lock was left, as a token of mourning for a child, it was so left on the right side of the head if the child was a boy, and on the left side if a girl. Sisters of the dead adopted the koti poro style, in which the hair was cut short but not close to the head. The singeing process was known as uru tahutahu. Such customs as these, however, often differed as among different tribes; thus it is not safe to assign to them a universal application. In some cases hair taken from the head of a dead person was burned, the manipulator reciting a charm in order to prevent the spirit of the dead returning among the living.

At Mangareva young priests were subjected to such a hair-cutting operation (Journal of the Polynesian Society, vol. 27, pp. 122-123). In vol. 29 of the same Journal, at p. 104, is an account of the ceremonial cutting of the hair of boys on attaining the age of puberty. Ceremonial hair-cutting was a common practice in India.

We are told that the important operation of cutting the hair of a tapu person was performed early in the morning, and that all persons in the village were compelled to fast until the conclusion of the ceremony, nor could any food be cooked until it was over.

Mr. White quotes an Arawa tradition in which it is said that their ancestors came from Rarotonga, Waeroti, Waerota, Parima, and Manono, of which places Rarotonga was the most tapu, because it was the residence of the gods. At that place, when a person's hair was cut the severed hair was all carefully preserved.

We are told that, in former times, only the eldest male of a high-class family might cut the hair of a priest of high rank, and vice versa. This was on account of the intense tapu of the two persons. In some cases a highly tapu person allowed his hair to grow freely, declining to have it touched, and never washing his head, hence its condition may be imagined. The act of hair-cutting was called waru mahunga, kotikoti uru, and whakaiho. The expression pure mahunga, now sometimes used with that meaning, is not correct so used, but refers to a religious rite termed pure, of which the ceremonial cutting of the hair often formed a feature. At p. 420 of Sir George Grey's Poetry of the New Zealanders may be seen a long ritual formula that was intoned by a priest when ceremonial hair-cutting was performed during the pure rite. Hair-cutting might be done at such a tapu spot as the wai whakaika, or wai kotikoti, already mentioned, or at page 333a tuahu kotikotinga uru (hair-cutting tapu place). A flint flake used for the operation is called a rehu koti uru; if not sharp enough, then the edge would be ground on sandstone. Sharp-edged flakes of obsidian (mata tuhua) were, however, more commonly used for this purpose.

A man would sometimes use a finely plaited cord formed from the hair of a slain enemy wherewith to confine his own top-knot of hair; it was termed a kota.

In his Primitive Traditional History Hewitt tells us that ceremonial hair-cutting in India was practised by the soma drinking peoples, who cut the hair close, with the exception of a top-lock.

A lock of hair from the head of a slain enemy was often secured and taken back to the village home by a victorious party of warriors. This was called the mawe, and it served as a medium for the priests in performing certain rites, one object of which was to nullify the endeavours of the defeated foe to avenge the defeat.

In connection with the arts of black magic, hair was also much used as a medium. When a wizard obtained a lock of hair from the head of a person whom he wished to destroy, he employed it as a destructive agent between his active spells and the passive victim. A modern story, related by "W. B." in his interesting work Where the White Man Treads, relates how a native plucked a hair from his own head and dropped it into a glass of beer which his enemy was about to drink. The act was accompanied by what we would probably term a curse—which in itself, like karakia, is viewed by the Maori as the active medium or agent by means of which spells or charms are rendered effective.

This use of one's own hair in rites was very common in former times, occurring in acts performed for self-protection in some way. Thus it entered into a brief rite that was performed in order to subdue or placate taniwha (mythical monsters), beings that are apt to destroy persons who venture near their places of abode. A native named Te Waiwai, of the Waikare-moana district, once told me of one adventure he met with on the lake of that name. "I was in my canoe at Tawhiti-nui, fishing for maehe, when I heard a strange sound, and two great waves came rolling in from the lake. Also I heard two loud reports like unto that of the cannon of the white man. Then I knew that the taniwha was angry. O friend! Quickly I plucked from my head a hair, and cast it into the water, reciting at the same time a charm whereby to render the demon harmless, and to calm the rolling water." This act of subduing such creatures is termed a whakaeo.

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Another story concerning this same act, in connection with the water-dwelling monster Horo-matangi, in Lake Taupo, is given in vol. 27 of the Journal of the Polynesian Society, at p. 43. In his History of the Taranaki Coast Mr. S. Percy Smith relates a similar story told him by a native. He was, with others, fishing at sea, when a number of taniwha surrounded the canoe (on account of an act of desecration, of breaking the laws of tapu). The chief man on board bade the others keep quiet, and then plucked some hairs from his head, his armpits, and the lower part of his abdomen, and threw them into the sea, repeating a charm as he did so. The sea-monsters then disappeared.

In one account of the coming of the vessel "Tainui" from Polynesia we are told that as it approached the shore it was surrounded by sea-monsters, that were dispersed or appeased by a priest who repeated charms and cast a lock of his hair into the water. Evidence also seems to show that this hair offering was also made when the help of sea-denizens, whales, &c., was required, in order to rescue a canoe in distress at sea.

We also note that human hair was used, at least in some cases, when performing the rotu rite in order to calm the ocean waves during a storm. Pakauwera, of Ngati-Kuia, explained this act to Mr. S. Percy Smith, in which relation the hair of a woman was mentioned as the offering. It was not customary, however, for women to go out in sea-going fishing-canoes. Pakauwera stated that the chief man in a canoe so overtaken by a storm would say to his wife (who would probably be busy bailing water out of the vessel), "Whakaarahia te huruhuru," whereon she would pull out a hair from her private parts and hold it out at arm's length, while the husband recited his rotu charm. In this account it is not actually stated that the hair was cast into the water, but it probably was.

In a certain rite performed by travellers about to take a journey, a fire was kindled and the traveller threw into it a hair from his head. The inevitable charm was, of course, repeated at the time. All this was precautionary, as against the dangers of the road. The same act was performed when a person encountered a lizard in the path and burned it in the ahi whakaene, already explained.

Once upon a time the famous ancestor Tutamure was traversing the wild high-lying district known as Te Wera, inland of the Bay of Plenty. Presumably he became athirst, for he is said to have pulled a hair from his leg and cast it on the ground, at the same time repeating some charm or spell, whereupon a spring of water broke forth at the spot. I have been informed by natives that the page 335spring still flows—a clear proof of the truth of the story—and that in it abides an eel having eight tails.

Mr. John White states that when a new fishing-net was used for the first time one of the catch was taken out by an expert, who plucked a hair from his own head, placed it in the fish's mouth, recited a charm over the fish, and then returned it to its native element. Apparently this was done with a view to securing good catches of fish in the future. A reliable native authority has informed me that human hair so employed in rites imparts mana (power, efficiency) to them—that is to the charm or invocation recited (Ka unuhia te taio makawe kia mana ai te karakia). Tuta Nihoniho, of Ngati-Porou, informed me that hair taken from the head to be used in rites is termed awe, and that it is plucked from the region of the rua kai (fontanelles).

It sometimes occurred that a special religious ceremony was performed over a man of parts whom it was necessary to endow with mana, that he might act as an efficient and respected controller of tribal affairs. This ceremony was known as hou, and its effect was to endow the person with both mana and tapu. The important ritual formula known as Hangaroa was repeated over him, and during the performance the officiating priest placed a sprig of karamu (Copros-ma) and a hair from his own head on the head of the subject. (Ka houa te tangata ki te hou no Tu; ka whakanohoia a Hangaroa karakia ki runga ki a ia: na, hai mana taua tangata.)

In the quaint old story of Hape the Wanderer, as given in the Journal of the Polynesian Society, vol. 8, p. 49, we see that Tamarau took a portion of his father's hair as the aria of his wairua (spirit or soul). This word aria is applied to the material representation of something immaterial—to the form of incarnation of a deity, &c.

A wizard has been known to bewitch a man by obtaining some of his hair, placing it in a diminutive vessel fashioned from a leaf of the raupo bulrush, and so launching it on the waters of a stream, repeating his magic charms as he did so. The object of such launching has not been explained. Polack saw hair tied to a tree near or in the midst of a tapu crop, and also hanging on trees standing in a burial-ground. This writer sojourned in New Zealand during the "thirties" of the nineteenth century. Posts erected as rahui, or boundary-marks, sometimes had human hair attached to them, to endow them with mana. A carved figure obtained by the Auckland Museum from the east coast was observed to have a plugged hole in it. The removal of the plug led to the discovery of a lock of hair and the umbilical cord of a child in the bottom of the bored hole. In olden days a lock of hair sometimes served as the aria of an atua. page 336Human hair and iho tamariki (severed umbilical cords of infants) were sometimes deposited at some spot on the tribal boundaries, or at the place where the baptismal rite (tohi) had been performed over a child.

On the east coast of the North Island a peculiar procedure was followed when a man, or party of men, visited other clans in order to seek assistance in some war raid. The messenger or envoy would cut the hair off one half of his head and dab red ochre over it; on the other half the hair was left long. All who saw him would at once know the object of his visit; there was no need for any questioning.

In the Tuhoe district, when youths entered the tapu school of learning called the whare takiura, their hair was first cut at the wai tapu (sacred water) of the village by a priest, while another priest, standing in the water, recited a karakia (invocation, charm) known as Tiki, one of a class termed Kawa ora. They were also subjected to the peculiar usage or ceremony known as moremore puwha (Ka whangaia nga tamariki ki te karakia, ka moremore puwhatia). Among the Takitumu folk hair from the priest's head was used apparently as a kind of offering, or to impart mana when a new tapu school was erected. When a season's teaching concluded, some hair and saliva of each pupil was buried by the priestly teacher with certain ceremonies to prevent the pupils being affected by magic arts in the future.

In his paper on "Maori Religion" (Journal of the Polynesian Society, vol. 14, p. 121) Colonel Gudgeon tells us that human hair was sometimes employed as a tiri. Thus, when a priest was attending a sick person and wished to exorcise the evil spirit assailing him, he would take a hair from his own head, one from the patient's head, join them together, and insert them in the patient's mouth. When the demon was banished it would leave the sufferer's body by way of this tiri, as it was called.

Human hair was employed in the rite known as hirihiri, in connection with maunga hirihiri—sacred hills appealed to formerly when invoking the aid of ancestral spirits. Thus, in a native account of a war expedition we are told that the clans assembled, thereupon the chief of each division cut a lock of hair from the summit of his head, took it in his right hand, and, facing in the direction of the tapu mountain, he recited his invocation and threw the hair in the direction of the mountain. This rite was a calling upon the spirits of defunct elders and ancestors to assist their living descendants in battle, and to endow them with courage. Those ancestors had been buried in those ranges, or, rather, their bones had been deposited there in caves or chasms.

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