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Maori Religion and Mythology Part 1

Sun-worship in New Zealand and Polynesia

Sun-worship in New Zealand and Polynesia

Persons who have made some study of the customs and beliefs of the Polynesian race have expressed surprise at the absence of evidence as to any practice of sun-worship in former times. Evidence of a direct nature is certainly exceedingly scanty—indeed, almost nonexistent. There is one brief, unexplained passage in White's Ancient History of the Maori that may or may not refer to such a practice, and we have an item collected by the late Mr. Nelson. These are local references, and, apparently, the only ones on record. Evidence from Polynesia is also a small quantity; that given by Fornander being probably the most interesting.

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It is when we come to closely study native myths that we understand how it is that so little direct evidence is met with as to sun-worship in Polynesia and New Zealand. We have statements concerning sun-worship in isles of the Society Groups, that Ra was the tutelary god of Porapora and that sometimes similar obtained at Ra'iatea. We have, however, never yet grasped the genius for personification possessed by the Polynesians—how natural phenomena and many other things were by them personified under different names than those of vernacular speech. Thus a close study of their myth and religion opens up a vast new field of exploration, and withal one of surpassing interest. By such close examination only can we acquire a true knowledge of native beliefs, and the mental conditions that produced them. We know now that the moon is personified in Hina, comets in Tunui-a-te-ika, clouds in Hine-kapua, space in Watea, and the sun in Tane. In this last name lies the solution of the puzzle. We know that Tane was one of the most important of the Polynesian gods; that the cult of Tane was widespread, even from New Zealand to the far Hawaiian Isles. We can now see that the form of sun-worship adopted by Polynesians was that connected with Tane. This personification was very prominent in eastern Polynesia and New Zealand. Among our Maori folk Tane held a high place; indeed, he may be said to come next to Io, the Supreme Being: that is to say, he was the most important of the secondary or departmental gods. Tane was often appealed to in ritual formulae; either his aid was craved, or some ceremonial placatory form was directed to him. This latter aspect was prominent in ritual conducted by those who wished to fell a tree, for the forest is essentially the realm of Tane. He was, however, invoked in connection with a great many other subjects. Thus we see that in an invocation pertaining to the school of learning the concluding line is "To thee, O Io the Parent, O Ruatau, O Tane-te wairoa!" Another of similar nature concludes with the words "that they may be endowed with thy godlike knowledge, O Tane!" Many other instances might be referred to in which Tane was appealed to, or conciliated in some way, while offerings were made to him in connection with many pursuits of the Maori.

Fornander, in his fine work on Hawaiian lore, gives many proofs that Tane represents the sun, and indeed he recognizes the identification of Tane with the sun. It therefore seems strange that he should state on the next page that solar worship had faded from the Polynesian mind since the race entered the Pacific area. He wrote as follows: "To whatever extent either solar or serpent worship may have formerly obtained among the Polynesians in pre-Pacific page 341habitats, it is tolerably certain that at the time and after their entrance into the Pacific it had faded from the national mind, and only remained in the form of some cherished customs, or some hateful, dreaded recollections. If the ideas of solar worship embodied in the Polynesian Kane, as the sun, the sun-god, the Shining One … were of Cushite origin, yet the name itself is of Arian kindred, and refers itself to some primary root expressed in the Sanscrit kan (to shine)…. Though La and Ra are Polynesian terms designating the sun and the day, as well as in Egyptian and old Babylonian, yet there are few traces in Polynesian lore that he ever was associated with religious ideas, or deified, so to say, as he was both in Egypt and ancient Chaldea."

In reference to the derivation of Kane from the Sanscrit kan, to shine, it is well to remember that Kane, as a variant form of Tane, is very modern, the change from t to k in the Hawaiian dialect having taken place early in the nineteenth century.

Fornander knew that Tane was a very important deity in Polynesia, and should have readily seen that the natives of that region, instead of worshipping the sun in a direct manner, preferred the indirect method of treating its personified form as a powerful deity. The sun was undoubtedly deified in Tane, and a great many religious ceremonies pertained to the cult of Tane.

Another of Fornander's statements is as follows: "I have found no trace in Polynesian folk-lore that the moon was ever regarded as an object of adoration, nor, though the planetary stars were well known and named, that these latter ever received religious consideration." Now, both these statements are misleading. Hina, or Sina, is the female personification of the moon, the tutelary goddess of women, and was frequently invoked in ritual performances. Again, Lono, or Rongo, is the male personification of the moon, though Fornander did not recognise this fact, and yet he gives the proof of it in his data. Rongo occupied the highest position in the Hawaiian pantheon, equalling Tane; and so we see how Hawaiians and Polynesians generally practised sun and moon worship through the medium of personifications. With regard to astrolatry, this was certainly practised, of which proof is given elsewhere in this paper. Believing as he did that the stars influenced to a very marked extent both food-supplies and weather conditions, it was scarcely possible that the Maori could escape some form of star-worship—it might be termed a natural sequence.

The brief reference to sun-worship said to be found in vol. 2 of White's Ancient History of the Maori is a somewhat doubtful item. A woman is asked as to what the people of a hamlet are doing, and page 342replies "Kei te tui i te ra" followed by the explanation "Hei puri i te whenua, i nga tangata." I must confess that I can detect no evidence as to sun-worship here, when one disregards the very peculiar rendering of the word tui given by Mr. White, and really no other coarse is open.

The late Mr. Charles Nelson collected some data concerning what appears to have been a more direct form of sun-worship than that of the cult of Tane. Unfortunately the collector did not publish his notes, though Mr. Tregear published some of them in his work The Maori Race. At p. 467 of that work is given an account of an ancient form of hakari, or ritual feast, held, we are told, as a sun festival. The diagram and descriptive matter are interesting, and we can but regret that Mr. Nelson did not publish his notes in their entirety, giving the source thereof. Mr. Tregear's description tells us that, at the annual hakari, long piles of food products were stacked up in the form of a heptagon, a fire being kindled at each of the seven interior angles, and a pole bearing a pennant at each exterior angle. In the middle of the enclosed space was a larger fire, called the here, that represented the sun, and around it, in the form of a cross, stood four larger poles bearing pennants. A human sacrifice, called the whakahere, was burned in this central fire. The pennant-bearing poles erected were called wana and toko. William's Maori Dictionary gives "Wana = (1) division of a heap of food at a hakari; (2) ray of the sun. Toko = (1) pole; (2) ray of light, &c." The piles of food were termed tahua, and the officiating priests tahu or tahuna. In this brief account we have a most interesting glimpse of an extremely ancient cultus, and the heptagonal form of the tahua carries the mind back to far lands. A number of native myths appear to possess some astronomical signification, but it is now too late to seek explanation thereof from natives.

It is possible that Maui represents the sun—certainly he represents light in some form; but, inasmuch as he was not viewed as what we term a god, and as no invocations, offerings, &c., were connected with him, we need not concern ourselves about him with regard to sun-worship. In the case of Tu a different aspect is observed. If, as I suspect, Tu represented the setting sun, then it may be said that he occupied an important position in connection with native ritual, for he was the great patron of war and of all fighting-men.

We can thus put it that the Maori gave the personified form of the sun (Tane) a prominent place in his pantheon, as he appears to have viewed him as the most important of the secondary or departmental gods. As to direct worship of the sun, or functions page 343connected with such a phase, we have but the one item of evidence, though Mr. Nelson was a competent collector possessing a good knowledge of the Maori tongue.