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Maori Religion and Mythology Part 2

The Adventures of Rata

The Adventures of Rata

In this well known and far spread story we have a good illustration of a world-wide myth, viz., the re-erection of a tree felled without the performance of some placatory rite. This story of Rata and his startling adventure with the forest elves and the magic tree is known in New Zealand and many isles of Polynesia. The voyage of Rata may have been a genuine one, and Rata a mortal man of normal habits but the matter must remain in doubt.

I collected an account of the adventures of Rata in the original Maori, and this recital will serve our purpose, though another in vol. 31 of the Journal of the Polynesian Society pp. 1-15 contains more detail. Inasmuch as Rata was a descendant of Tawhaki one expects that he would possess abnormal powers and meet with strange experiences.

Wahieroa, father of Rata, had been slain by Matuku-ta-ngotango, and so Rata determined to avenge the death of his parent. The expedition of vengeance called for sea-going vessels, and Rata found it necessary to construct a new vessel. So Rata set off to the forest to fell a suitable tree, bearing with him the stone adzes of his ancestress Whaitiri, the names of which implements were Haehaepo and Tawhirirangi. He was accompanied by one Karaerae, a canoe-hewing expert, and, on reaching Tau-o-rerepari, where the forest of Tane is situated, they found trees in profusion, standing close together. Karaerae and the Ngati-Pumotomoto folk felled a tree, and, when it was down, all returned to the village. On the morrow they returned to the forest page 441in order to hew out the hull of their canoe, but when they arrived at the place where the tree had been felled, behold, the tree was again standing on its stump, as though it had never been felled. On seeing this strange sight fear assailed the hearts of Karaerae and his companions.

Rata now told his companions to again fell the tree, and they would remain near the spot and so ascertain how it came to be set up again on its stump. So the tree was again felled and the party withdrew a space, and, in the evening, they heard the Hakuturi folk approaching, chattering as they came through the forest. As they drew nearer, Rata and his companions heard them chanting a long karakia in which the name of Rata was mentioned as having felled a tree in the forest of Tane without performing any placatory rite. The words of the chant then call upon the chips to return and make whole the severed body of the tree, the bark to again encircle it, the sap to continue flowing, concluding with a command to the tree to rise and take its stand in the forest of Tane. The name of Hine-tangatapu mentioned in the chant is unknown to me, apparently she was viewed as the origin of some species of forest tree, the tree felled was her offspring. The being usually mentioned in this connection is Mumuhanga, she who produced the totara tree.

As the chant of the Hakuturi folk ceased, Rata and his friends saw the felled tree rise and stand erect, even as it stood ere it was felled. Rata now called out: "O friends! Leave the tree lying, to serve as a canoe for me; let it lie." Then the chiefs of the Hakuturi, namely Te Ihorangi, Tutapuakiri, and Tamore-o-te-rangi replied thereto: "You have erred grievously in slaying your elder brother, did you not remember that this is the sacred forest of your ancestor, and that you should perform a ceremony to lift the tapu from the tree?" So they contended over the question for some time, until Tutapu remarked: "Well now, just let my people make your canoe and haul it out to the sea." So it was that the experts of the Hakuturi folk set about fashioning the canoe of Rata, and the names of those experts were Mokota, Tunga and Uhu, while Mahuika was the one who finished off the work and gave it a seemly appearance. The canoe was finished, and named Niwaru, then it was conveyed to Rata, who recited the kawa ritual over it. As the recital concluded, Niwaru, the canoe of Rata, was launched.

Now the vessel of Rata was manned and he and his people sailed to Tawhanui, the home of Matuku-tangotango, where the page 442only people seen were Toi and his folk, living in the village of Papakura. Rata enquired of Toi: "Where is Matuku-tangotango?" Toi replied: "He is down below indulging in human flesh." Said Rata: "And when do you think he will return?" Toi replied: "When the moon appears above the sea horizon he also will appear." Again Rata enquired: "How may I bring about the death of Matuku?" Toi explained: "Construct carefully a timber fabric, when he mounts it, and then goes to the stream to wash himself, do you duck his head in the water and then kill him."

Rata now set off, and, on arriving at the long stretch of Makuratea, he found dwelling there the people of Ake-rautangi whom he slew to serve as weapons wherewith to slay Matuku. Here perished Ake-rautangi, who was fashioned by Rata and Tumatauenga into weapons to be used for the aforesaid purpose. When Rata had fashioned his own weapon it was called a pouwhenua; when Tumatauenga's were finished one was termed taiaha, the other a maipi. These were the weapons wherewith the priests of the people of Matuku were slain.

Matuku came forth and went to the stream to wash himself; as he lifted his head Rata struck and killed him, and so the death of his father, Wahieroa, was avenged, he who had been slain and eaten at Papakura. Rata then cut out the heart of Matuku, roasted it at a fire and recited a spell over it, after which the body of Matuku was cooked and devoured by Rata and his companions.

Rata enquired of Toi, Tawhaitari, Ponganui and Whaka-rongoiho as to what danger would threaten him if the people of Matuku sought to avenge his death. They replied: "Unless you slay the priests and people of Matuku then his death will be avenged." Rata asked: "Where is the village of Matuku whereat his people dwell?" Whakarongoiho replied: "Go you to the mouth of the stream Haha, where their village of Whakaarorangi is situated, while up above is another, Amairangi, whereat the priests are living." So Rata and his companions set off for the villages; they found the people of Whakaarorangi asleep, but at the Amairangi village the priests were engaged in reciting magic formulae, and these were heard and acquired by Rata. Then the two villages were attacked, and the priests and people slain, and so Rata and his party returned to their home at the Akau roa o Maura. So ends the story of Rata.

The tree felled by Rata is alluded to in the recital as his elder brother, and from the Maori point of view this is correct, page 443inasmuch as trees and man are all the progeny of Tane, and trees appeared, or rather were generated, prior to mortal man. The canoe-fashioning experts of the Hakuturi forest folk were not human shipwrights, the three first names are those of grubs that eat their way into tree trunks and carry their tunnels far and wide by devious ways, while Mahuika, as we have seen, represents fire, that was employed, not only in tree felling, but also in the slow and laborious task of hollowing out a canoe. The timber fabric alluded to was probably latrine. The people of Ake-rautangi slain by Rata were trees of ake-rautangi (Dodonaea viscosa), a hardwood much used for weapons, that were felled by him to serve that purpose; so the hapless Ake-rautangi fell in death, as the Maori puts it. In the description of the weapons fashioned from the timber of these trees it is evident that some difference was recognised between the taiaha and maipi, whereas I have always laboured under the impression that the two names pertained to the one weapon, also known as a hani. Another item of interest is the easy way in which Rata, with apparently but one boat's crew, slew the inhabitants of two villages.

One of the most interesting incidents of the tree-felling episode is omitted in the above version of the story of Rata, one that is described in the Journal of the Polynesian Society, vol. 31, pp. 8-22, Rata is told by a wise man that he should have performed a simple placatory act when he felled his tree by covering the stump thereof with paretao, a forest-growing fern. When the shades of evening fell Rata conveyed such paretao to a tapu place of rites, where the aforesaid wise man repeated over it a long and peculiar formula. Some writers fancy that the practice of placing a branchlet on the stump of a felled tree, as is done in some lands, is an endeavour to provide the indwelling spirit of the tree with a new home.

When Toroa was about to fell a tree at Hawaiki wherefrom to fashion a vessel to bring him to Aotearoa he was instructed by Hine-tuahoanga to bear to her the first chips that flew when he began to fell his tree. This Toroa neglected to do, and so his tree was re-erected by the forest folk. He then consulted Hine, who sent him to explain the matter to one Tuhoropunga, and the latter said: "Take the girdle from my waist and attach it to the tree when you fell it." Toroa followed these instructions and experienced no further trouble.

In Siam, Burma and Indonesia this belief in indwelling spirits in trees is met with, also the necessity for placatory rites ere felling a page 444tree. The Dyaks of Borneo have an equivalent of the Rata story among their folk tales.

Some of the forest folk who re-erected the tree felled by Rata are given the tribal name Tini o te Petipeti.

Wohlers collected a South Island version of the story of Rata, in which Rata goes to Hine-tuahoanga in order to sharpen his stone tools ere he fells his selected tree. The grinding process was effected by rubbing the stone tools on the back of Hine the Sandstone Maid, who, during the operation, kept repeating the words—"Kia koi! Kia koi!" (Become sharp); so the tree felling tools of Rata become keen edged. After the second re-erection of his tree Rata lay in wait and heard the forest folk approaching, singing as they came: "It is Rata, it is Rata offspring of Wahieroa, the tapu wood of Tane was impiously felled by you, etc." An arrangement was made, as in the former version, and, when Rata awoke the next morning he found his canoe completed and lying outside his house. In this case Matuku lived in a cave, and he was caught in a noose set at the mouth of the cave; the wording of this part seems to show that Matuku was not a human being, but some kind of monster. Now at p. 155 of vol. 3 in the Journal of the Polynesian Society we have an account of the slaying of Matuku in which he is said to have' been noosed at the mouth of his cave. Here Matuku is described as a ferocious beast, a taniwha, that lived in a cave, and whose strength lay in his tail, a beast that drew itself up into trees by means of its tail. The cave in which Matuku lived was known as Putawaro-nuku.

In another South Island version, written by Matiaha, Rata is said to have obtained his stone adze from Ngahue, and the name of it was Papa-ariari. We are now told that the forest folk who reerected the tree of Rata were known as the Tini o te Pararakau, otherwise the story is the same as that published by Wohlers.

At Aitutaki island we find the same story of Rata and his tree felling, but in this case the tree was twice re-erected because Rata had refused to assist a crane he had seen engaged in a fight with a sea snake. When he did finally rescue the crane then all the birds of Kupolu assembled and fashioned his canoe for him, and the vessel was named Taraipo. Rata resolved to sail on a voyage of exploration, and Nganaoa accompanied him, in order to seek his parents Vaiaroa and Tairi. Evidently in Vaiaroa we have Wahieroa, father of Rata in the New Zealand version, but given as Wahiaroa by South Island natives. It is not shown that Rata and Vaiaroa were related to each other. Gill tells us (p. 149) that page 445the story of Rata was hot known at Mangaia, though his name has been preserved in song, but they have something similar in the tale of Oarangi, as given in Myths and Songs, pp. 81-84.

family tree

In the Rarotongan version we find the line of descent of this Tawhaki family to be the same as our local one, and the father of Hema is called Kai-tangata by some, and "Tui the eater of men" was another of his names, while yet another alias is given in the Journal of the Polynesian Society, vol. 19, p. 143. At p. 145 of that volume we note a curious episode not included in the Maori version of the family history. Vahieroa and his wife dwelt at Hawaiki, and Vahieroa went forth to catch some eels to serve as a meal for his wife; the eels were caught, though Koura and Kokopu (Crayfish and Brook Trout) had warned them not to be deceived by baited hooks. Shortly after this Rata was born, while his parents were swept out to sea by flood waters, their bodies being devoured by the offspring of Puna (Punga of Maori lore), viz., the shark, octopus, clam, etc. Then comes the tree felling episode, for Rata had resolved to make a vessel and seek his lost parents. The tree was re-erected twice during hours of darkness, then Rata, lying concealed, saw a multitude of beings assemble to gather the chips and heal the injured tree. Rata drove the forest folk away, and they fled, crying out ever and anon—"E utu"—thus commanding Rata to make a proper return for the tree. Acting under his grandmother's advice Rata had food cooked to serve as a propitiatory offering to the guardian spirits of the forest; all ended well, and the atua fashioned a vessel for Rata. Now Rata prepared for his voyage, and here the Nganaoa episode comes in and he saved the lives of all the crew several times during the voyage, in both the Rarotongan and Aitutaki versions. Not only so, but it was Nganaoa who slew the offspring of Puna who had consumed the parents of Rata. Then Rata and his companions sailed to Whitinui and to Motu-taotao, where the daughter of Puna was slain, and then made for Tumu-te-raroraro page 446(Rarotonga). But in later days, when Rata sailed the seas again, and went to Apia at Kuporu, it was then that he knew death.

In the Journal of the Polynesian Society, vol. 21, p. 52, vol. 28, p. 140, we have another story concerning this marvellous re-erection of felled trees, as taken from Wyatt Gill's papers. This tale includes the story of the bird v. sea eel or sea snake fight, but the hero is one Orotaere, not Rata, though the latter is mentioned as guardian of the forest. The bird adversary of the sea snake in this tale is Ruru, the white heron. Now this story of Rata and Ruru was also known to our Maori folk. Beattie collected a brief account of it in the South Island, for which see vol. 25, p. 144 of the above named Journal It is explained that Ruru (which name denotes the owl in the Maori dialect) was the leader of the small forest birds. In the fight between the forest birds and sea birds the former were defeated, and the life of Ruru was saved by Rata. Then, when Rata had his felled tree re-erected by the forest birds on account of his neglect of the proper ceremonial, it was Ruru who assisted him, taught him the ceremonial and induced the forest birds to fashion the canoe for him. That canoe was named Taraipo because it had been made during the night. The forest folk spoken of as birds, who re-erected the tree, made the canoe, and assisted Rata in slaying Matuku, were known by the name of Tini o te Pararakau; they had to be placated ere a tree was felled.

The Tuamotu version of our Rata story is given in the Journal of the Polynesian Society, vol. 19, p. 176. Vahieroa was swallowed by one Matu'uta'ota'o (k and ng dropped), an evil being under Puna, a cruel chief. Matu'u was really a huge bird. When Rata was about to fell his tree he sharpened his felling tool on the back of 'Ui (Kui), who takes the place of Hine-tua-hoanga of the Maori version. After felling his tree for the third time Rata hid himself and so confronted those who had tampered with his tree, and they made his canoe and deposited it by his house the same night. Rata then sailed the seas and slew the dread beings of Puna, including Matu'u; in later days he slew Puna.

In Hawaiian lore we find our Maori names somewhat altered, as shown in the two series given, the Hawaiian form being on the left.

Aikanaka Kaitangata
Hema Hema
Kahai Tawhaki
Wahieloa Wahieroa
Laka Rata
page 447

In some versions of this Rata story he is told by his mother, Hine-tu-a-hoanga, to rub his stone tool on her back in order to sharpen it, this because she represents sandstone, which was ever used in tool grinding. We cannot marvel that she named her son Rata (sharp).

In one version we are told that the semblance of the vessel of Rata was taken by him to a priestly expert, who performed over it certain rites whereby to ensure a successful voyage. In another version we are told that the vessel itself was dragged to the village latrine, the same being a tapu place whereat many ceremonies took place, and that the charms were repeated over the actual vessel. In this version we see that the expedition included eight vessels, including Aniwaru, that of Rata. So the eight craft lifted the sea roads on their mission of vengeance. One Apakura accompanied the party as a priestly expert and medium of the spirits under whose care the raiders were: When approaching the home of their enemies Apakura busied himself in prolonging the hours of darkness by the exercise of magic arts, that the approach of the vessels might not be observed by the islanders. When the raiders had landed and fighting was toward, then Apakura proceeded to lengthen the hours of daylight so that such fighting might be carried to a finish. This interference with night and day, we are informed, greatly alarmed the islanders.

The forest folk who re-erected the tree felled by Rata are, in various versions, termed the Tini o te Hakuturi, the Pararakau, the Pakiwhara, the Ponaturi, and divers other names. In other tales the Hauturi seem to be birds, and the Ponaturi fish, and the Pakiwhara primitive tribes of man who wore no clothing. Whatever they were they seem to have perched on trees to some extent, for we are told that it was those folk who caused the leaves and branches of certain trees to droop and hang down, among them the toi or mountain palm and the mamaku and ponga tree ferns. One informant explained that such changes were caused by those trees becoming alarmed at the turmoil produced by the tree cutters and the forest folk.

In these different versions of myths held in common by far sundered communities of Polynesian folk we find evidence in favour of their own traditions anent the sea voyaging activities of their ancestors. Here we have this story of Rata and his family known to the natives of New Zealand and the Hawaiian Isles, and from the Tuamotu group in the east of Samoa in the west, and possibly further. The same incidents mark the tale, the same page 448names occur. Such tales must have been acquired when the ancestors of these far separated peoples dwelt together in a common homeland, or, if evolved in any of the isles of the eastern Pacific, then they must have been carried far and wide from such isles; in either case they prove the former ability of Polynesian folk to cross wide stretches of ocean.