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Forest Lore of the Maori

Trees and Ceremonial

Trees and Ceremonial

The origin of trees, as explained in Maori myth, has already been reviewed in No. 11 of this Bulletin series, in which was also given some account of the personified forms of certain trees, which illus-page 27trates quaint concepts of the Polynesian mind. A few small trees or shrubs were favoured by the Maori when he employed branchlets or wands in ceremonial performances, and three such were karamu (Coprosma spp), kawakawa (Macropiper excelsum), and mapau (Myrsine Urvillei). Leaves of Phormium and some other small plants were also used in divinatory and exorcistic rites. The use of green branchlets as symbols of peace, a world-wide usage, was noted by early voyagers who came into contact with the Maori. I am not prepared to state that the Maori actually viewed such branch as a symbol of peace or goodwill; he may have employed it merely as he did in many of his old rites, as a medium or connection between himself and the object of his charm or performance, as he used it in the baptismal rite. See Museum Bulletin No. 10, reprint p. 361. The following illustration will tend to prove that this use of a branch was not a borrowed usage, inasmuch as the incident related occurred at Turanganui, where the town of Gisborne now stands, and where Captain Cook first came into contact with Maori folk. On October 10, 1769, Cook landed with a party, and a native crossed the river to meet the party. We are told that the Maori "swam over to us, bringing in his hand a green branch, which we supposed, as well here as at Otaheite [Tahiti], to be an emblem of peace. We received his branch, by the hands of Tupia [Tupaea], and made him many presents…." When at Dusky Sound in 1773 Cook witnessed another use of a green branch in Maori hands. On April 19 a Maori man and woman were induced to go on board Cook's vessel, and the Captain describes the incident as follows: "I conducted them to the brow; but before the chief set his foot upon it to come into the ship, he took a small green branch in his hand, with which he struck the ship's side several times, repeating a speech or prayer. When this was over, he threw the branch into the main chains, and came on board." In this latter case it is highly probable that the man recited a charm of the tamoe type in order to nullify any harmful designs or influence of the strange newcomers or their marvellous vessel. By means of the branch he established contact with the vessel, it served as a form of medium to bring the vessel and its occupants under the influence of the repressive charm. Something similar may have prompted the Turanga man to hand over a branch to the strangers from the great ocean. Polack, in his Manners and Customs of the New Zealanders remarks that the green branch used as a symbol of peace by a messenger could by no means always be relied on to save him from ill-usage, and this is probably correct.