Maori Religion and Mythology Part 1
Ceremonial Releasing of Birds
Ceremonial Releasing of Birds
A very singular act that entered into some ceremonial performances was the releasing of a bird that had been captured for the purpose. We have gained no explanation of this peculiar act, but it must have possessed some symbolical significance. Among the Takitumu folk the birds employed in this and other ceremonial were the miromiro (Petroeca toitoi) and the tatahore, or whitehead (Certhiparus page 347albicapillus). In some districts the mata, or fern-bird (Spenaeacus punctatus) seems to have been often employed in ritual performances, more especially perhaps in connection with war. We are told that birds were employed in rites performed at the tuahu, or ahurewa, and at toma tupapaku (caves, &c., where exhumed bones of the dead were deposited). When a new pa (fortified place) of importance was opened by means of a religious function, at one juncture of the proceedings two priestly experts took stand at two corners of the defences, each holding a captive bird in his hand. They then intoned the following formula: "Tenei to aro he toi tu, he toi matua, he toi taketake…." Here the name of the new pa was pronounced, and the twain proceeded: "Ko to aro, ko taku aro; ko to toi matua, ko toku toi matua; ko to toi taketake he tipua ki roto ki tenei pa. Tihe mauri ora!" Here the two birds were released and allowed to fly away. It is said that the meaning of this act was a symbolic communication to the gods that the supplicants craved for the new village such prosperity and welfare as was represented in the escape and freedom of the two birds.
The late Colonel Gudgeon has informed us that during the performance of the tohi rite over a male infant of high rank a bell-bird (komako; Anthornis melanura) was released. These customs were probably not universally practised throughout New Zealand, but they assuredly existed. In ancient Babylonia a raven was sometimes released by a magician during the performance of a rite to exorcise demons, as a hint to such demons to depart in a similar manner. In Morgan's work on the Iroquois he tells us that in the funeral rite of that people a bird was set free on the eve of the burial in order to carry away the soul of the dead. Max Muller, in his Anthropological Religion, explains yet another illustration of this quaint custom. When a certain ceremony is being performed in India in connection with an image of Kali, or Durga, that image is allowed to sink in the waters of the sacred river just as the sun is setting. At the same time a bird, the beautiful Indian jay, is released from a cage to fly away to Siva to tell him that his beloved Kali (Durga) is coming back to him.
The reliance of the barbaric mind on mediums and symbols is a very marked characteristic, of which many examples have been given in the foregoing pages. Some of the examples of this practice known to us are extraordinary, and serve to illustrate the peculiar workings of the native mind. Thus, when, about the year 1820, a virulent epidemic introduced by the ship "Coromandel" swept down the Taranaki coast, a local tohunga adopted a singular course of action to stay its ravages. As a kind of medium he page 348formed a representation of a European ship, and over this object he recited charms or invocations to the gods that were supposed to allay the epidemic. This may seem to us a very absurd procedure, but when a severe earthquake was experienced in Wellington in the "forties" a solemn fast was proclaimed. Presumably a few thousand empty stomachs were sufficient to prevent further shocks.