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Games and Pastimes of the Maori

Part IV — Games and Pastimes Requiring Calculation, — Mental Alertness, or Memorising Powers

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Part IV

Games and Pastimes Requiring Calculation,
Mental Alertness, or Memorising Powers

Draughts = Mu torere Word play, etc. = Rotatora.
Riddles, etc. = Kai. Panga. Story telling = Korero tara.

Mu Torere

This game, known as torere and mu torere, is one of the most interesting items we have to discuss, on account of its resemblance to our game of draughts, and the existence of a doubt as to whether or not it was a pre-European diversion. The board or diagram used is utterly different in form to that employed by us, there is no crowning of kings, and old natives have stated that, so far as they knew, it was an old Maori game.

Mohi Turei, a well informed and very old man of the Ngati-Porou tribe informs us (1912) that mu torere was the old name for the game, and, in this connection, he quotes an old saying:—"E mu torere mai ana ranei ko utou ki au, e hoa ma !" used in the sense of—"Are you striving against me, or, are you looking for trouble?" Tuta Nihoniho, of the same tribe, stated that the European game of draughts was introduced into that district in the time of his grandfather, probably by sailors, or early traders, or missionaries. In the far off Hawaiian Isles, a game resembling draughts was played, and known by two names, mu and konane. This word mu is also the Maori name for our game of draughts (mu and kaimu), and as mu is the Maori pronunciation of our word 'move,' it has been held by some that it was derived from that word so often ejaculated by our draughts players. If so, then the Hawaiian name of mu may have had a similar origin, though this has been denied. We have no information from any other group of Polynesia as to the existence, in pre-European times, of any game resembling draughts. If aboriginal games of a similar nature, both called mu, were practised at Hawaii and New Zealand, then there ought to be some evidence of a former knowledge of the same at some of the intervening groups.

The most disconcerting fact, if we view mu torere as an old time game, is that it seems to have been unknown to other tribes than those of the East Cape district, and its vicinity. From no other page 111district have we succeeded in obtaining any information as to a former knowledge of the game. It is an ethnographical axiom that nothing is more persistent than the games of a people, and it is hardly possible that the practice of any such game should have been confined to so small an area in pre-European times. The Maori eagerly borrowed our game of draughts, and they produce good players, as one of our leading players has assured the writer. The different form of diagram employed is, however, a puzzle, and apparently the question must remain an open one.

The following is a description of the game of mu torere, as explained by Tuta Nihoniho:—

A board is marked with charcoal with a design resembling an eight-pointed star (see diagram). The centre form which the arms radiate is termed the putahi, the radiating arms are termed kawai or tentacles, the design being compared by the Maori to an octopus, from which the pattern is said to have been derived. Two persons play this game, each having four perepere or 'men', which are small stones so marked that each player's men may be readily distinguished. One player has his four men on points 1, 2, 3 and 4, the other player puts his four on points 5, 6, 7 and 8. Let B represent the latter player, and A the one who has numbers 1 to 4. The men can be moved only to the points of the design, or to the putahi, or centre. No jumping over an occupied point is allowed, to move a man from one point to another it must be moved to the next point, which must be unoccupied, or he cannot move to it. A player cannot jump a man over an occupied point to put it on a blank one beyond, and there is no taking or crowning of men, it is simply a question of blocking your opponent. A man can be moved to the putahi if it be unoccupied.

B cannot open the game by moving either 6 or 7, as they are tapu (prohibited) for the time being. He can move 5 or 8 to the putahi. He so moves 5, say, into the centre. Then A moves 4 to 5. Then B moves the putahi man to 4. Then A moves 3 to putahi. Then B moves 4 to 3. Then A moves putahi to 4. B moves 3 to putahi. A moves 2 to 3. B moves putahi to 2. A moves 4 to putahi. Now B finds himself piro, or out, and A has won, for B is blocked and cannot move, A having his men on 1, 3, 5, and the putahi, while B has his on 2, 6, 7 and 8. Thus B is effectually hemmed in and has to capitulate.

The player can move a man either way, but only when a point (or kawai) on one side or the other, or the putahi, is open to move into. To avoid defeat it is necessary to ponder over the probable effect of a move, as in our draughts, but it seems to be a much simpler form. See Fig. 26 (p. 113).

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Fig. 25 The Mu Torere Board From The Maori, Vol. 2, p. 113

When B opened the game 6 and 7 were tapu, because, if he had moved either to the putahi, which is the only place open to place a man on at the opening, then A would have been blocked at the outset, and prevented from making even his initial move, as 5, 8 and the putahi would all have been occupied. This is merely a sample game as explained by our informant, Tuta Nihoniho, of Ngati-Porou.

The board used was sometimes a piece of hewn plank, sometimes a piece of the inner bark of the totara tree, the inner side of which was marked with the design while green, such marks showing out distinctly when the bark dried. To keep it flat and prevent curling while drying, straight sticks were placed on either side of both ends and tied together. In some cases diagrams of a temporary nature were marked on the earth with a pointed stick. Though the design of the diagram is said to have been derived from the octopus, it more closely resembles the patangaroa, or starfish.

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Fig. 26 Natives playing the Game of Mu Torere. See p. 112 Dominion Museum Photo

If derived from our introduced game, one would suppose that the chequered board would have been retained, as also the taking and crowning of men. The writer has wondered if any form of draughts practised by Asiatic peoples, or Europeans other than English, resembles the above described game. If so, such form may have been introduced by early voyagers.

During the voyage of the Active from Sydney to New Zealand in 1814, when ten Maoris were on board the vessel, Mr. Nicholas relates in his diary that on November 29, 1814:— "Duaterra (Ruatard) and I played together at draughts, in which the proficiency he had made excited no small degree of surprise." Here we have a Maori learning to play draughts as early as 1814.

Later inquiries in the Waiapu district did not clear up the question of the origin of the torere game. Some natives maintained that it was a pre-European usage, others denied this and attributed its introduction to early whalers. One stated that only one man was allotted to each player, and that the board had but six points, instead of eight.

East Coast natives state that Mu Panihi (Spanish draughts) used to be played among them; moving backward was allowed in this game. This form of the game was probably introduced by some strolling Paniora (Spaniard) in the early days of European settlement. I knew a member of that people who was living on the coast some fifty years ago. Personally I am not inclined to view mu torere as an old time Maori game.

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Hawaiian Draughts

Writers do not agree in their descriptions of the Hawaiian draughts board, as the following extracts will show. Prof. W. T. Brigham writes as follows:—"The game of Konane, a favourite one among the upper classes of old Hawaii, was usually played on a wooden board {papa mu) marked with spots arranged either in files or quincuncially, and of indefinite number. In some cases stone took the place of wood, as in a fine specimen in the Bishop Museum. Here a large flat stone 16x24 inches is dotted with depressions (about 120) in files…. The men used in playing were beach worn pebbles of black lava and white coral." He also states that some of the wooden boards were raised on stands, plain or carved.

The Hawaiian game of konane, explains Professor Brigham, derived its common name of mu from the Mu, or officer whose business it was to capture the man needed for sacrifice, or the ends of justice. Apparently this Mu of the far northern isles was a species of neolithic sheriff. If the above be correct, then it disposes of the theory that the common name of the game was derived from the English word 'move,' so far as Hawaii was concerned. The above authority also tells us that the Hawaiian game was played on a flat surface marked with points on which were placed black and white stones to serve as 'men,' the game resembling our draughts, or rather the game called 'fox and geese.' Photographs of some Konane boards kindly sent us by the above authority show the places for the men marked by small pieces of bone let in to the surface; the number of such places, however, on the different boards does not appear to correspond; one shows 180 such marks, others a much smaller number. See Fig. 27 (p. 115).

Lieut. Walpole speaks of a draughts board at the Hawaiian Isles, about a foot long, with eight or nine holes in two rows on one side, in which holes small round pebbles were adjusted, but he does not describe the game.

In Capt. King's account of the Sandwich Isles, we read—"They have a game very much like our draughts; but, if one may judge from the number of squares, it is much more intricate. The board is two feet long, and is divided into two hundred and thirty-eight squares, of which there are fourteen in a row, and they make use of black and white pebbles, which they move from square to square." Presumably this chequered board is a modern innovation, though Ellis, an early missionary, mentions it in the following paragraph:— "This place (Koroa) is also celebrated as furnishing the black and white stones used by the natives in playing at konane, a native game page 115 Fig. 27 Three Hawaiian Papa Mu or draughts boards. Bishop Museum, Honolulu. See p. 114 resembling draughts, and apparently more intricate. The konane board is generally two feet long, and contains upwards of two hundred squares, usually fourteen in a row. It is a favourite amusement with the old men: and we have known one game, commenced early in the morning, hardly concluded on the same day."

The following is taken from the Bishop Museum Handbook, Part I., 1915—"Konane was played on a flat surface of stone or wood, and somewhat resembled fox and geese, or gobang. Positions on the papa mu were marked by a slight depression on the stone, and often by the insertion of bone, usually chicken, or sometimes human, in wood. There seems to be no definite number of arrangement of places. Beach-worn pebbles, coral for white, lava for black, completed the equipment."

  • Exhibit 866, Papa mu for Konane. Wood, 83 places.
  • Exhibit 867, Papa mu for Konane. Wood, 180 places.
  • Exhibit 5313, Papa mu for Konane. Stone, 112 places.

A belated note: I have been informed that in the Spanish game of draughts a great number of pieces are employed, and it is known that Spanish vessels visited the Hawaiian Isles as early as the sixteenth century.

When the Novara was lying at Sikayana Island in Melanesia, in 1858, the natives were found to be well acquainted with the the game page 116 of draughts:—"Our astonishment reached its height when one of these apparently savage children of Nature, happening to find on a table on the gun-deck a draught board lying open, immediately challenged one of the bystanders to a game, which it seems he understood so well that he beat his antagonist two games out of three. We afterwards heard that the natives at Sikayana have learned draughts, as also an English game at cards known as "odd fourth," of which they seemed passionately fond, from some English sailors, who several years before, had spent five months on these islands."

It seems not improbable that the Spanish form of the game of draughts was introduced into the Hawaiian Isles in the 16th or 17th century by Spanish voyagers, some of whom certainly visited the group. The Hawaiian tradition of shipwrecked white folk living among them many generations ago probably refers to Spanish folk. The late Professor Tylor thought that the Hawaiian form of draughts might be related to an old Chinese game of circumvention, and that it was in any case probably of Asiatic origin. Our game of draughts seems to be a modern form of a simplified form of chess, it differs much from ancient games of draughts of Egypt and elsewhere.

If the Hawaiian form of draughts was known in that region in ancient times, or was brought from Asia into the Pacific, how is it that it has not been recorded as known in other isles?


A considerable number of games and pastimes are included in the term kai, it is evidently a generic term including several games, and all forms of riddles, puzzles or guessing competitions. The game of draughts is sometimes called kaimu.


In this game two players sit down opposite each other. Each holds up a hand with fingers outstretched. One holds his hand steady in that position, while the other, closing his eyes, thrusts his hand forward and endeavours to pass his outstretched fingers between those of his opponent. The latter repeats the following charm during the time the attempt is being made:—

"Kei te wai nui
Kei te wai roa
Ka tangi te korora, korora
Awhi te punipuni
Awhi te paroparo a nohoanga."

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When one has had the arranged number of attempts he then holds his hand for the other player to make his trial, and also takes up the repeating of the charm. It appears that attempts to so place the fingers could only be made during the time the charm was being repeated. As the recital was finished so must the attempts cease. This was employed, in some cases, as a kind of divinatory performance; if all fingers locked, it was a favourable omen, if they did not, then it was an aitua (bad omen, unlucky). This game or pastime has also been recorded by the Rev. R. Taylor in Te Ika a Maui.

Tutu Kai

Concerning this game Dr. Thomson writes:—

"Tutuka is an amusement corresponding to the English game of odd and even. Some article is put into one hand, and on the repetition of certain words, after the manner of conjurors, the spectators are asked to point out in which hand the thing is."

Mr. John White has left us a more detailed account:—

This game is played with a small, smooth waterworn stone. Many players sat in a circle and kept passing the stone from one to another, some kind of jingle of words being repeated at the time. As the repetition of this ceased one of the players, who did not form one of the circle, attempted to guess as to who had the stone. The following is such a charm as was repeated during this game:—

"Kura kura
Kura winiwini, kura wanawana
Te whai atu taku kura nei
Ki te kai motiti, ki te kai motata
Ka rere taua ki hea?
Ka rere taua ki Pohou-nui, ki Pohou-roa
Hei te koti, hei te kota
Torete, torete
Kei a wai?"

On the recital of the last line (meaning 'Who has it?') the outsider has to guess in whose hand the stone is. When the game commences a player holds the stone up to view and says: "Tenei" (here it is) after which it is passed round the circle from hand to hand but not exposed to view at all. Sometimes a player retains the stone in his hand but feigns to pass it on to his neighbour, who pretends to pass it on to his neighbour and so on. All this is an endeavour to deceive the guesser. The guesser continues until he locates the stone when he who had the stone takes his place.

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Mr. White also collected the following, a jingle or ditty which differs somewhat from the above:—

The following was repeated by a child who held some small object in his hand. During the recital another child endeavoured to guess what was so held—

"Kura, kura, kura winiwini
Kura wanawana
Te whaia e koe taku kai motiti
Taku kai motutu
Ka nu taua ko whea
Ka nu taua ki Pakihi nui
Ka nu taua ki Pakihi roa
Kei teke titi, kei teke tata
Haere pakiaka tore
Tohungia taku kai
Kei whea?
Kei te tu."

This apparently senseless effusion is said to have sometimes been recited by a chief as a tiwha or hint to his hearers that he proposes to attack some tribe, or slay some person. It was recited by Hone Heke Pokai to Waka at Wai-aruhe, where they met when Heke was returning from the sack of Korora-reka. A fight occurred here, Heke's party being near the Wai-aruhe creek and Waka on the hill known as Puke-rimu.

Regarding these rhythmical jingles sung by young folk when playing games, some have probably suffered in transcription, or in reducing them to writing when collected, and some are undoubtedly corruptions of the original forms. The writer is quite unable to translate them, except in a few cases. The word nu in the above specimen is unknown to us.

Children might be seen playing a similar game to the above, when a child would take some small object in his hand, show it to his playmates, and then bring his hands together and draw them across his mouth. Another then guesses as to where the object is. It may be in either hand, or in his mouth. These, however, are mere childish amusements.


A common form of amusement among young folk in former times was the asking and answering of riddles, termed kai, panga, and maka. The majority of such riddles and puzzles seem to have related to natural objects. The following is a sample of such items:— "He aha te kiri putaputa, kiri honohono, ara i te mua, ara i te muri, whai pane, whai karu, ka tow te hi arero?" (What is the kiri full of holes, joined together, elevated in front and behind, possessing head and eyes, page 119and with protruding tongue). Kir means bark, rind, etc., perhaps here used as we sometimes employ the word shell, to denote a hollow structure, or a light boat frame. The answer to the above is a canoe. The holes are the numerous ones bored to accommodate lashings; the elevated ends are the stern and bow pieces; head and eyes are those of the carved figures, the protruding tongue that on the carved tauihu or prow.

Thomson has left us the following note:—"Riddles form a common amusement among the young of both sexes and the ambiguity of some sets all guessing and laughing. The riddles have little merit, and consist of a play on the meaning or pronunciation of words." Polack writes:—"Playing upon words is an amusement common to the people, and they are adepts in conversing with words each beginning with the same letter. Riddles are also given and expounded."

There was an old usage of communication by means of signs made with the fingers. Each sign represented a word. When the alphabet became known the system was altered so that each sign denoted a letter sound. It is not, however, clear whether the latter method was syllabic, or whether signs were used for vowel sounds as apart from those representing consonants. Presumably it was syllabic, that system being more easily grasped by the Maori, and adopted by him when teaching others to write. The above mentioned practice may not have been universal, and has apparently been forgotten. All such methods of communication, also different ways of signalling are, called rotarota.

Young folk often spoke in some pre-arranged manner most confusing to those listening. A common method was to introduce some foreign syllable after every syllable of the ordinary words uttered. Thus the words "maku tend" might be given as ma-te-ku-te te-te-na-te. Other syllables are sometimes inserted, as shown in Mr. Stowell's Maori-English Tutor, p. 228, where this manner of speech is called korero hunuru.

Signalling by means of whistling was practised in time of war. Certain methods of whistling held certain meanings understood by the party. For example one such conveyed the following:—"Taki-tahitial Takitahitia! Kei kitea koutou." (Scatter out singly, lest ye be seen.)

Story Telling

Here we have to deal with a much favoured recreation of the Maori people, one appreciated by both young and old folks. Young page 120children had their simple tales, handed down from one generation to another, fables or folk tales. Young men and women memorised folk lore and historical traditions, and these were repeated when they assembled together at night. The old men were always ready to check any errors in such recitals, or supply omissions. At these social meetings there were no recitals of the superior myths and traditions, the versions taught only within the tapu school of learning, but only secondary matter, ordinary traditions, myths, etc., such as were known as korero parukau and 'oven-side' stories, or, as we would say, fire-side tales. Many of these described the origin of man, and the doings of demi-gods and ancient heroes, etc., in a popular manner always viewed by adepts as being good enough for common folk, but by no means correct. The inner or esoteric versions were made known only to a few specialists who passed through the school of learning and its ceremonial.

Some of the stories told were simply retailed as a form of amusement, some were instructive, and some illustrated the advantages of industry, courage, and other qualities. Many showed the dread effects of transgressing the laws of tapu. Some of the fables, such as that of the Ant and the Cicada bear a strong resemblance to those of Aesop.

The Maori is exceptionally good at story telling and his language lends itself to that purpose, such recitals being illustrated by innumerable expressive gestures. On returning from a journey a Maori will keep his friends interested for several evenings by relating his experiences during his journey, no detail of which will be neglected during his recital.

Descriptive of the native love of story telling and relating news, Wakefield says:—"Our friend Jim Crow found many old friends and relations at Pito-one, and his audience was by no means the least numerous or attentive. Nothing can remind one more forcibly of the monkey who had seen the world, than a Maori thus relating news. He is an incorrigible exaggerator, and swells each minute circumstance into an affair of state, taking delight in drawing repeated exclamations of amazement from his audience."

There was no class of professional story tellers in Maoriland, nearly all could tell a story well, or make a good speech. All ordinary stories, myths and folk tales, termed karero tara and korero purakau, were acquired by both sexes, there being no restrictions except in the case of what was deemed high-class matter. Ceremonial recitals, sacerdotal myths, and revered lines of genealogies came under this head.

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No specimens of the old folk tales, legends, fables, and children's tales are given here, as such matter would be much too bulky to be inserted, and, moreover, it is proposed to publish them under a more suitable title.