Other formats

    TEI XML file   ePub eBook file  


    mail icontwitter iconBlogspot iconrss icon

Maori Religion and Mythology Part 2

Myths Concerning Lizards

Myths Concerning Lizards

In many lands we find that strange beliefs are, or have been, held concerning the lizard, that it enters into many myths and superstitions. The Maori of New Zealand and his kinsmen in page 460northern isles are well to the front as upholders of these singular beliefs. Generally speaking lizards were dreaded by all Polynesians, and the Maori carried this feeling to the extent of attributing misfortune, calamities, death, to lizards. One explanation of this belief is that the lizard represents Whiro, and Whiro personifies darkness and death; a Maori belief was that evil spirits in lizard form entered bodies of men and consumed their vitals, so causing death. When an expert was called in to treat the case he would pose as an exorcist and expel the malignant spirit from the body of the sufferer. Curiously enough the Maori dread of lizards did not always extend to the tuatara, the largest species thereof, for it was an article of food in pre-European times; this custom may not have been universal but it was certainly widespread. At the same time I have seen natives who appeared horrified at the sight of a tuatara. Some time ago, about 1912, two Maori, an old man and a young one, came into the Dominion Museum, and, ere long, came to a glass case in which were several living tuatara. The old man uttered an exclamation betraying horror, and hurriedly left the building though the young man appeared to be in no way perturbed.

Some wise men have told us that the common green lizard, the moko kakariki (Naultinus elegans) did not originate on earth, it just appeared from space. This looks like an offshoot of the myth concerning flying lizards. The Tuhoe folk have explained to me that the tree lizard develops from a kind of iro (maggot or worm) that is found in the nest of the tihe bird (Pogonornis cincta), while the iro from which the koeau species of lizard is developed is found in the nests of the kaka (Nestor meridionalis), and this iro is light-coloured. This koeau is said to be a species of lizard that grows to about the size of a young tuatara, a statement that does not tell us much. The name resembles kaweau, said to be another name for the tuatara; the koeau is said to be of a reddish colour, and to see one is ominous of coming evil and of death. This fact was proved to my satisfaction by my informant, who said: "Te Rangiua once saw a koeau, and now all his elders are dead." Some of the Tuhoe natives maintained that the koeau and tuatara are two distinct species. Bay of Plenty natives tell us that the tuatara on the Rurima islets develops from iro seen in nests of the kuia or petrel. The Tuhoe folk say that the cuckoo is in some way the offspring of the tree lizard.

We have another reference to a flying lizard in the following remark of a Takitimu native—"This lizard, the moko kakariki, is a supernatural creature. Tamaiwaho reared it when he and Tane page 461went to Tiritiri-o-matangi, he brought it with him as a pet. When he reached Papa [the earth] then Peketua cherished it, and he deferred to it as a supernatural being or demon. So it was that this lizard attained the power of flying through space."

With regard to the tuatara we have already seen that it originally came from an egg, as birds did. That egg was made by Peketua, a brother of Tane, and so he is connected with lizards, while Rakaiora personifies the green lizard. A wise man informs me that, should an armed force on the march to attack an enemy encounter a green lizard on the way, then it would at once return home, it would be folly to proceed in the face of such an evil omen. This is borne out by an old saying: "Ko Rakaiora kokoti i te ara taua i te tuawhenua, he ana kokoti ihu waka i te moana." (Rakaiora intercepting a war party on land is equivalent to a herring intercepting a canoe at sea). Should a single person so encounter a lizard, then he or one of his relatives will ere long be assailed by grievous misfortune, calamity has marked someone for its own. If the lizard so seen is a male then a female relative of the seer will be afflicted; should it be a female then the foredoomed person will be a male. The male of this species, sayeth the Maori, is of a darker colour than the female.

The Algonquin Indians believed that the lizard causes death. The Zulu tells us that the Ancient One sent the lizard to men with the message or dictum "Let men die". The lizard was employed in rites of destructive magic in India, and in Cochin China it is believed that the lizard caused death to enter the world. Far and wide extends this strange belief, and yet the other page shows something in favour of the dreaded lizard. Together with the owl, another ill-omened creature, it is associated with Minerva and the higher forms of wisdom. Miss Buckland (Journal Royal Anthropological Institute, vol. 21) has drawn attention to certain figures, etc., from far sundered lands that show a man holding a lizard as though about to eat it, "the tongue of the reptile being attached to that of the man, as though the latter were receiving inspiration or some special endowment from his totem". This is a well known feature in Maori carvings, for which see a paper on the lizard in Maori carvings in the New Zealand Journal of Science and Technology, vol. 5, p. 321-335, "Notes on the Occurrence of the Lizard in Maori Carving"—Elsdon Best. The Maori cannot now explain his symbolic carvings, and usually refers these representations of persons holding a lizard as though about to eat or swallow it to the old practice of eating the tuatara. As observed above the tuatara served as a food supply in at least page 462some districts, e.g., the Wellington area and the Bay of Plenty, but there is no evidence to show that the smaller species were so utilised. We have, however, learned that these small and dreaded lizards were occasionally eaten in certain ceremonial performances as a form of ordeal. For instance the swallowing of a live lizard sometimes formed a part of the ordeal through which a learner of the arts of black magic had to pass. The eating of a lizard was also occasionally a test applied to a man who proposed to take part in some desperate adventure. Again, when the Maori, in the "sixties" of last century, strove to drive back the encroaching Europeans by force of arms, the Whanganui natives evolved some queer ideas anent the lizard. Thus Crawford tells us, in his account of a sojourn up the river that—At Karatia the Maoris, by order of the tohunga, destroyed a grove of karaka trees to seek lizards, which were to be roasted, pounded, and eaten in a prescribed form in order to enable the Maoris to conquer the English. Crawford, J. C. Recollections of Travel…, p. 111. He also tells us that the natives told the Rev. R. Taylor that the English wanted lizards to destroy the Maori people so that they might obtain possession of their land (ibid., p. 167). On Feb. 21, 1862 the same observer wrote—"Three large canoes passed down the river to Putiki, filled with Maoris. These were all kaingararas, or lizard eaters, bent on a lizard eating expedition to Putiki" (ibid., pp. 171-2). Moser states that lizards were supposed to cause sickness, and so when an epidemic occurred, the natives caught lizards, which were burned by the priest as he recited some form of incantation (Moser, Thomas, Mahoe Leaves, p. 76). Moser's writings pertain to the same period and district as those of Crawford quoted above. I am much inclined to believe that this eating of small lizards referred to was but a brief craze and that it was not an old usage. Earle, a much earlier writer, in his Narrative of a … Residence in New Zealand, p. 142, wrote that—"The lizard is sacred and never injured by them"—though the word "sacred" was hardly the right one to employ.

A curious, and I fear somewhat unorthodox or irresponsible statement, was once made to me by a Maori with whom I was discussing the attitude of natives toward lizards. It was to the effect that Tane proclaimed that lizards should eat of all things on earth. Others objected, saying that lizards were the elders or forerunners of man, while the forerunners or predecessors of lizards were the various forms of vegetation in the world. Man appeared after those things; animal and vegetable life had to page 463appear first, otherwise there would have been no food supplies for man when he arrived. Vegetation had to come before the lizard, or there would have been nought for him to eat. (Evidently Peketua was a vegetarian.) "When food supplies are assured then a home may be called a home", and those food supplies were represented by vegetation. All generations have dreaded the lizard that emanated from Peketua, that came from an egg made of clay.

Notwithstanding the feeling of dread experienced by the Maori in connection with the lizard, yet not only does it frequently occur in his wood carvings, but it is the only creature of the animal world that is given its natural form in such work. In the case of any other creature represented in that art, except man, the observer has to resort to conjecture, and the great majority of the human figures are purposely rendered grotesque. At the Marquesas Isles the lizard was likewise dreaded, and there also it appeared in carved work. This penchant for representing lizards in carved work extends as far as Indonesia. The Maori habit of so frequently depicting a fearsome, dreaded and malignant creature has been equalled only by Christian enthusiasts of the past, they who loved to terrify our forebears by means of pictures showing the horrors of their priest-invented hell, and the activities of Satan.

The incident that connects lizards with Peketua concerns the origin of the tuatara.Prior to the appearance of birds on the earth Peketua kneaded some clay into the form of an egg, which he carried to his brother Tane and enquired as to what he should do with it. Tane replied: "Give it life", and so the egg was fertilised and produced the tuatara lizard. As we have seen, land and sea birds were produced from other eggs in later times.

The atua or "gods", so called, known as Moko-hikuwaru, Moko-titi, Titihai and Tutangata-kino are said to be all atua ngarara, and are probably personified forms of the lizard; in other cases lizards were, we are told, the form in which many atua appeared to the sight of man, i.e., the form of incarnation of such beings. One Tarakumukumu is spoken of as another atua ngarara. Lizards were sometimes placed at the entrance to caves wherein bones of the dead were deposited, and at other places whereat trespass by unauthorised persons was dreaded, and they seem to have been highly effective guardians. Not only would these creatures inspire dread in the minds of trespassers by their presence, but also would there be a conviction that some magic page 464spell had been laid on the tapu place, all of which meant that the anger of certain atua would descend upon any offender.

The Maori tells us that lizards emit some kind of sound, usually described by the term kata, which one hesitates to render as "laugh" in this case; Colenso describes it as a chattering sound. To hear this sound was an ominous occurrence. Now when a Maori heard this sound, or saw a lizard in his path, he knew that it was no chance occurrence, but that it had been sent there for a purpose, by human enemies or by the gods. It may be possible to avert the evil omen of such occurrences, and one method of doing so when you chance upon a lizard is to slay the pernicious creature and then get a woman to step over it.

We now come to a statement that makes amends for all the trouble caused by Peketua or Rakaiora having destroyed myriads of persons in the world of light. This consists of what Tuta Nihoniho assured me was an infallible cure for toothache. The sufferer requests a friend to procure for him a lizard of the species known as mokomoko, but he, the sufferer himself, must not look upon that lizard. When so procured, the lizard is wrapped up so that only its head is seen, then the patient is told to open his mouth, and the lizard is thrust into it so that its head rests upon the offending tooth. The patient then bites, crunches the head of the lizard until blood flows. This, I was informed, is an absolutely certain cure for toothache, never again will that tooth ache.