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Maori Religion and Mythology Part 1

The Use of Water in Ritual Functions

The Use of Water in Ritual Functions

It may be said that water entered largely into Maori ritual performances; both aspersion and immersion being practised. Near every village some stream or pond was utilized as a tapu place at which ceremonies of what we may term a religious nature were performed. Such a place was termed the wai tapu, wai whakaika, wai kotikoti, and sometimes, apparently, wai whakaiho. The last two terms seem to be connected with hair-cutting, a performance that, in the case of tapu persons, was in reality a religious ceremony. At this stream many rites were performed. In many cases those who took part in such a performance stood in the water, in some cases waist-deep. In performing certain ritual the tohunga, or priests, cast off their garments, and, clad in nothing more than a bunch of leaves, entered the water and took their stand at a place where the water surrounded them. The idea prompting this act was the desire for what may be termed spiritual insulation; all contaminating influences were avoided by this means. Such rites were also carried out early in the morning, before the participators, or any of the village community, had partaken of food. The importance of an empty stomach in the religious ceremonies of barbaric peoples survives in Christianity, more especially in the Roman Catholic Church.

The Maori folk would never have consented to our form of baptizing infants, simply because the water employed in the rite was contained in a vessel fashioned by human hands. This would affect its efficacy or potency; hence our Maori always turned to the wai matua o Tuapapa, as he termed it—virgin water as it flows from the earth—when utilizing water in his religious ceremonies. This was the only water free from polluting tendencies. When the Maori first saw the Christian form of christening, the sprinkling of water contained in a vessel made by human hands, his verdict was "Kaore i hangai"—meaning that it did not comply with the demands of ancient custom and propriety. Pure water is that produced by Para-whenuamea (personified form and origin of water); it must be used in its natural font. Thus the baptism of infants was performed at a wai tapu. In old-time Babylonia water was considered as the primal element from which life came; and in the superior cosmogonic myths of the Maori we note that, ere the earth was formed, all was water, and that Io, the Supreme page 344Being, abode in space. In native teachings it was said that the welfare of all things depends upon water; without it nothing can flourish. When Tane ascended to the heavens in order to obtain the three baskets of knowledge, he was compelled to twice undergo the tohi ceremony in tapu water ere he could be admitted to the divine presence.

In the baptismal rite performed over an infant some differences existed as to details; in some cases a sprinkling process was employed, or the hand of the operator was dipped in water and drawn across the child's face. Another method employed was to immerse the child's body in water. Among the Kahungunu Tribe of the eastern side of the North Island an impressive ceremony marked the baptism of a child of rank. The persons who took part in or attended the function marched in procession to the wai tapu, a recognized order being preserved with regard to precedence. At the waterside the parents of the child took their stand, the mother holding the infant in her arms. Their relatives were grouped behind them. The principal tohunga, or priest, entered the water and took his stand where the water reached to his waist, or somewhat deeper. The assistant priest took the infant from the mother and handed it to the chief priest as he stood in the water. The latter intoned a certain karakia as he sprinkled the child with water, and then another as he dipped his hand in the water and then drew it across the child's face. The final performance of the baptism was the immersion of the body of the child in the water. Details of such rites differed as in different districts. This baptismal rite was known as tohi and tua. Among the Tuhoe folk a branchlet of the karamu shrub was employed wherewith to sprinkle water on the infant. The baptism of a child abolishes or renders innocuous all harmful influences, and also brings it under the influence of the gods. In the highest form of the rite the child was dedicated to, and placed under the protection of, the Supreme Being.

Immersion was practised in the absolutory rite performed over persons about to be subjected to some tapu ceremony, as in cases of illness, or when a person was freed from a condition of tapu. Thus it pertained to a cleansing ceremony conducted over those who had handled bodies of the dead, or the bones of forebears at a hahunga, or exhumation. Aspersion was practised in some functions, such as ceremonial divorce, the dedication of fighting-men prior to a raid, &c. Immersion entered into the ritual pertaining to the tapu school of learning, and a priest who was about to intone invocations to the Supreme Being immersed himself in some if not all cases. At the Island of Mangaia, in the Cook Group, a baptismal rite was per-page 345formed over children in pre-European times, in which they were sprinkled with water by means of a branch, as often occurred in New Zealand.

In some cases, or districts, when a priestly expert performed the wai taua rite over fighting-men he procured two strips of Phormium leaf, knotted them together, and took the knotted strips with him when he entered the waters of the stream where the rite was to be performed. Here he so arranged it that the knot was up-stream and the two ends trailed down-stream, and he stood in the bight, so that he was between the two. Now comes the interesting part of the account, as given by an old native: "Ka kiia he kuwha tangata taua harakeke" ("That strip of flax represented the thighs of a person"). This was symbolical: the performer was supposed to be standing between the legs of a person, and thus in close proximity to the organ that was believed to possess important powers of protection over the life-principle of man. Here we seem to have a survival of something very much like a system of phallic worship. While standing in this position the tohunga intoned certain ritual that is said to have enabled him to see before him the wairua (soul, or astral body) of those warriors who were doomed to fall in the coming fray. Such apparitions would be seen hovering over their physical bases, the material bodies of the doomed men.

In divinatory rites performed in order to ascertain the author of some noxious act of black magic the tira karamu (wand or branchlet of Coprosma) was employed in sprinkling with water the person who had been bewitched, as it was also used in sprinkling the naked bodies of fighting-men in the wai taua rite. This sprinkling process also entered into the performance of the atahu rite, or what we would call "love charms." When a mourner, such as a widow, left the whare potae, or house of mourning—that is to say, when her period of mourning was over—she was sprinkled with water during the ceremony performed in order to relieve her of the condition of tapu. Persons suffering any form of sickness were often taken to the wai tapu after sunset, where a divinatory or diagnostic ceremony was performed over them. Or it might be the whakahoro rite, in which the sufferer was immersed in the waters. This was a lustral act, a cleansing or purifying process that abolished all evil influences, the effects of wrong acts committed. As the Maori puts it, it was hei mum i ona hara, hei whakamarama i tona ngakau (to condone or abolish his faults, to enlighten his mind). The sufferer was told by the priest that he must "unfasten" all his faults and peccadilloes. This called for confession; after which certain ritual was recited over him, he was told to immerse his body in the stream, and what may be page 346termed "absolution" followed. He was then in a condition fit for further ceremonial, and also for consideration of his case by the gods. Man is himself a descendant of the gods, and when he places himself in the hands of the gods he must approach them in a fit and proper condition.

In a ceremony performed over scholars who had passed through the tapu school of learning the officiating priest took his stand in the water, facing the east, while the scholar stood at his left side. As the priest recited certain ritual over the scholar he kept his left hand on the young man's head and extended his right hand toward the rising sun. When performing the opening ceremony pertaining to the final session of the ancient school of learning in the Wai-rarapa district, the officiating expert filled his mouth with water, ejected it into his left hand, and then sprinkled it over the house.

When forming the road from old Fort Galatea to Ruatahuna in the "nineties" we came to a place called Wahine-kai-awatea, a peculiar name that might be rendered as "daylight eating woman," or woman who eats in the daytime. On inquiry we found that, generations ago, the widow of one Wharau, who had been in the "house of mourning" for her husband, had undergone in a stream at this place the rite that freed her from a condition of tapu, concluded her period of mourning, and enabled her once more to partake of food during the day. While the period of mourning continued she could eat only at night.

Although, as we have seen, water was employed as a pure and purifying element, yet it is possible for it to have a polluting effect, such properties being imparted to it by some foreign object. Water contained in any vessel fashioned by human hands loses much of its virtue in Maori belief. Again, the washing of one's face in water heated in a vessel has a markedly polluting effect. When the introduction of Christianity had such a marked (albeit often transient) effect on the native mind, some enthusiastic converts polluted and abolished their own protective tapu, and antagonized their gods, by laving their heads with water heated in cooking-vessels.