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The Astronomical Knowledge of the Maori, Genuine and Empirical



The term whetu (star) is often applied to comets by the Maori, but he has a number of other names by which he designates them, such as the following:—

Auroa. (Colenso.)
Manu-i-te-ra. (Stowell.)
Puihiihi-rere. (Stowell.)
Purereahu. (Stowell.)

It is quite likely that the name of Tiramaroa is also applied to a comet. This Tiramaroa was described by a native as having long puhihi (rays), which are sometimes directed upwards and sometimes downwards. This looks somewhat like the tail of a comet. It is said to have been seen during the siege of Te Tapiri, in 1865, and again about the time of the Tarawera eruption (1886). Evidently it is neither star nor meteor.

Auahi-roa and Auahi-turoa are common names for a comet (auahi = smoke; roa = long). A curious myth is attached to Auahi-turoa among the Matatua tribes. He is said to be the offspring of the sun. Now, the son of Tangotango—that is to page 54 say, the sun—bethought him sending his child down to earth in order to convey a boon to mankind. Even so, he said to his son, Auahi-turoa, “Go you and carry a boon to our offspring on earth.” Said Auahi-turoa, “In what form shall I bear it?” The reply was, “Give them five (tokorima). Take your offspring and attach them to those of Hine-te-iwaiwa and of the lightning. Give them fire to bring benefits to man. Do not approach the elder, but deal with the younger. Such is your task.”

Thus Auahi-turoa came down to earth to bring a boon to mankind, and that boon was fire. He took to wife here in this world one Mahuika, younger sister of Hine-nui-te-po, the erst Dawn Maid, and she bore the five Fire Children, whose names are the names of the five fingers of the human hand. These are the Fire Children, born on earth, who produce fire for man.

In the secondary myth pertaining to this subject, the origin of fire, Maui begs the fingers of Mahuika as fire for man. After fire took refuge in Hine-kaikomako (personified form of a tree, Pennantia corymbosa) it became necessary for man to grasp and manipulate the fire-generating sticks so as to coax fire from the body of the Lady Kaikomako. So when you see the comet in the heavens, know that it is Auahi-turoa, he who brought fire to mankind. And fire is often called Te Tama a Auahi-roa, or Te Tama a Upoko-roa (the son of Auahi-roa, or of Upoko-roa), because it is the offspring of the comet.

These are the five Fire Children.

It is a singular coincidence that, in Persian myth, fire is said to have been the son of the sun and messenger of the gods, who was sent down to earth in the form of lightning.

Te Manu-i-te-ra.—This singular name, which may be rendered as “The Bird form the Sun,” is, according to Stowell, a comet-name. We have also seen that it is connected with the sun by some writers. It is worthy of note that a comet is called manu in the island of Nuguria, Solomon Group—a Polynesian dialect among Melanesian peoples.

In Te Ika a Maui (2nd ed., page 278) Taylor gives a singular myth connected with Te Manu-i-te-ra. At page 283 he states that the abode of Te Manu-i-te-ra was on the mountain of Hikurangi, a place where the evils of the world were unknown. He was a supernatural being, and his abode was called Totoka, a word meaning “congealed.” In the sense of “frozen” it would be applicable to the summit of a mountain. On this place the lightning flashed; and when the Manu-i-te-ra flew abroad the heavens were illuminated.

In his Maori History of the Taranaki Coast, at page 149, Mr. S. P. Smith gives a version of the above myth in which the name of Te Manu-i-te-ra is replaced by that of Tama-nui-te-ra (a name for the sun), the difference between the two names being very page 55 slight—namely, a single vowel-sound. In the song given, however, the name of Te Manu-i-te-ra appears. Mr. Smith considers the latter to be a name for the sun.

Another peculiar myth concerning the Manu appears in vol. 2 of the Journal of the Polynesian Society, at page 143.

Meto.—It is now fairly certain that Meto is a comet-name. It si said to be a whelu puhihi—that is, it emits rays, or seems to be partially auahi, as a native described it. This word denotes smoke, but is also applied to haze or vapour. The rays or tail of Meto extend upwards, says a native; if its body be below the horizon, as a range of hills, its puhihi extend up above the horizon (Ka hihi ake nga puhihi). The appearance of Meto is said to be the portent of a hot summer. The Tuhoe folk claimed that the comet of 1907 was Meto.

Puaroa.—I am inclined to think that this is another cometname. Pua means “smoky” or “hazy,” and roa is “long.” It seems probable that pua has been used as a noun in the past. At Samoa Pusaloa is a comet, and is rendered as “Long Smoker.” Puaroa is said to have been regarded as a tapu phenomenon, and is said to possess or emit mist-like emanations, referred to by the name of hiku makohurangi, or misty tail. Again, the expression au pukohu, applied by natives to Puaroa, are appropriate words as applied to a comet. One native identifies Puaroa as Rereahiahi, which is doubtful. Another states that it is a whetu tapu. We have already seen that natives often term comets whetu.

Rongomai.—This is thought by Stowell to be the name of Halley's Comet, but that body scarcely shows itself often enough for the Maori to have a special name for it. It may be a generic term for comets. The Maori describes Rongomai as a body that moves through space, and appears to give off sparks. The Rev. R. Taylor tells us that when the Pakakutu pa at Otaki was being besieged Rongomai was seen in broad daylight, a fiery form rushing through space. It struck the ground and caused dust to rise. This looks like a meteorite. At Owhiro, near Island Bay, is a place named Te Hapua o Rongomai, where that atua (supernatural being) is said to have descended to earth in past times. Rongomai was quite an important deity of the Maori folk. In vol. 5 of the Polynesian Journal, at page 119, is an account of one Rongomai being transferred from the earth to the moon; but this may be a different myth.

Tunui-a-te-ika.—This is apparently another name for a comet that is viewed as a supernatural being by the Maori, and is utilized as what we glibly term a “god”—that is, to impart power to ceremonies, rites, and charms. It is said that Tunui can be seen in daylight. Another such phenomenon apparently is the Po-tuatini, and both are termed kikokiko, or malevolent spirits. The appearance of a comet was considered to be an evil portent. Tunui was one of the gods or malignant beings that are termed atua toro, that are sent by their human mediums on errands to distant parts. Thus I was told by an old man of the Bay of Plenty that the Wairoa natives on one occasion sent Tunui-a-te-ika to the former district to slay Hatua, page 56 of Awa. He added, “We saw Tunui-a-te-ika coming towards us through space.”

Tutaka, of Tuhoe, stated that Tunui is not a star; it is a demon, a spirit that files through space; it has a big head. Its appearance denotes the death of some person; hence, when it is seen, people ask, “Who has died?” Another says that Tunui and Te Po-tuatini are seen in space at night, and that both are atua toro, who have their human mediums who placate and influence them by means of ritual formulæ, &c. Thus Tunui is employed as a war-god, and certain invocations are addressed to him. The following is part of such a formula:—

Tenei taku aro
Ko to aro he aro kai manawa tangata
Auroki, aunguha, auwhekaro mai ki tenei pia,
Ki tenei tama nau, e Tunui-a-te-ika..e..i.

Tunui is the possessor, we are told, of a long tail, and, when seen, priestly adepts performed the matapuru rite, in order to avert the threatened evil, whatever it may be.

Taketake-hikuroa (Long-tailed Taketake) is a comet-name. “Another name of Wahieroa is Taketake-hikuroa, and when that demon is seen in the heavens it is viewed as an evil portent for the tribe.” So says the Maori.

Wahieroa is a comet-name, and also appears in Maori myth in conjunction with those of Whatiri, Tawhaki, Hema, and Hinetuahoanga, all of whom are personifications. A note in White seems to show that he viewed Matawhaura as a comet-name.

Whetukaupo is given as a star-name by Williams, but an East Coast native gives it as a comet-name. Good or evil omens were derived from its position, as to whether the tail (hiku) extended upward or downward. Hence one might ask, “Kei te pehea te upoko o te Whetu-kaupo?” And one might answer, “Kei te korakora” (“It is sparkling or flashing”). This was an evil portent. Or the answer might be, “Kei te auroki, puaho ana tera” (“The light is calm and steady”)—a good omen.

Unahiroa is a doubtful name. It has been described as a comet-name, also as the name of some such phenomenon as ignis faluus. Taylor gives it as Urahiroa—apparently a misprint, of which there are many in his little natural-history booklet.

The term whetu puhihi, applied to comets, is a decriptive name, not a specific name or proper name such as Wahieroa, &c. The word puhihi denotes the tail of the comet, which is said to be auahi (smoke, haze, vapour). He roa te puhihi, ara te auahi (The puhihi is long—that is to say, the auahi). Another description of a comet is Penei me te auahi ahi ona hihi, paku noa iho te tinana (Its rays or appendages are like fire-smoke, its body exceedingly small).

Early writers tell us of native speculations anent the comet of 1843, and a Wellington newspaper stated that “the Maoris hailed it as an evil omen, and commenced howling very pathetically.” Lieutenant Meade tells us of a comet seen during the natve disturbance of the “sixities,” the portent being page 57 interpreted in totally different ways by the two parties of natives, friendly and hostile.