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Games and Pastimes of the Maori

Humming Tops

Humming Tops

The ordinary form of humming top was similar to the whip top, but from its upper end projected the horn round which the string was wound. See Figs. 44-45-46 (pp. 158 and 162). The papa takiri or handle, a flat piece of wood about six inches long and half an inch wide, was not slipped over the horn or upright projection, as with us, but was simply held against it. The fingers of the manipulator's left hand kept it and the top in position, as he pulled the string with his right hand. The horn or shaft of this top was not an inserted piece but cut out of the solid. Among the Ngati-Porou folk a different form of handle was used, as explained by Tuta Niho-niho:—

The potaka kukume, or humming top was made, body and shaft, from a single piece of wood. The cord was wound from the top of the shaft downwards to its base. Then a small stick, like a diminutive shepherd's crook, was hooked by the left hand over the cord held in the right hand, and slid along the cord until it rested sideways against the base of the shaft. Then, with a finger curled round the shaft to keep it in position, the operator pulled the cord vigorously with his right hand, thus causing the top to revolve and the cord to unwind.

These tops and sticks were sometimes given special names, such as those of ancestors, and carved on the sides and top, the top and sides also being adorned with pieces of bright hued Haliotis shell countersunk therein. They were usually made of matai wood.

The humming tops that remained spinning for a considerable time were said to possess a long breath, which was considered desirable. Sometimes a number of players would start their tops, then each page 158 Fig. 43 Two Stone Whip Tops. Fig. 44 Two Humming Tops. One with cord attached. Dominion Museum. See p. 157. H. Hamilton, Photo. Fig. 45 Two Humming Tops. Two ordinary whip tops with pieces of Haliotis shell inlaid, one double pointed whip top, and whip of Phormium fibre. From Maori Art. player would insert his hand under his top and so carry it, still revolving and humming to a distance, perhaps across a stream, then set it on the ground again, still spinning. A humming top that page 159 spun steadily, without rolling or shaking, in fact a 'sleeping' top, was termed a potaka anewa, whereas one that rolled or wobbled as it revolved was described as a whero kai kamakama, an expression that was also applied to a woman of unsteady habits.

Our worthy friend Tuta Nihoniho included the humming top among musical instruments, and who shall say it was not so, if the tirango, pahu and pu kaea be admitted.

Of a humming top that made a considerable sound it would be said:—"Kai te potaka a Mea wheo ana te tangi." (What a whizzing sound So-and-so's top makes.) Wheo is a sound word, an example of onomatopæia, such as is frequently noted in the Maori tongue.

Humming tops were made of matai (Podocarpus spicatus) or ramarama (Myrtus bullata) at Wai-rarapa. The body of the top and its projecting upper piece were cut out of the one block of wood. This form of top is known as a whitirea among the Kahungunu tribe, and some had longitudinal (perpendicular) ridges or sharp angles, termed io, cut on them. This form is said to have been invented by some person at Pangopango, at Hawaiki (Polynesia). In some cases these tops had speical names assigned them.

Adults indulged in the pastime of spinning these tops, and contests were held with them, being won by that which continued spinning for the longest period of time. Those that made the loudest sound seem to have been the most highly prized.

Short ditties were sometimes chanted by spinners of humming tops. As a rule two lines were sung, and then, at a signal word, all players started their tops spinning. The following is a sample of such couplets:—

"Piki te wahine ki runga ki te rakau … e
Ka whatero i raro te hi arero inawa … Hei!"

At the repetition of the word Hei! all tops are spun.

The potaka hue or gourd humming tops were made of small sized gourds as a rule, occasionally a medium sized one was employed for the purpose. In order to form a spinning point a stick was thrust right through the middle of the gourd so that its ends projected, that at the bottom as a spinning point, and that at the top as a shaft or spindle on which to wind the cord. One or two holes were made in the sides of the gourd in order to cause it to hum well when spun. It was through the holes made for these purposes that the dried up pukahu or inside matter of the gourd was abstracted. It took two persons to set spinning one of the larger gourd humming tops, one to hold the papa takiri or spinning stick, and another to pull the cord.

page 160

When a certain meeting was held in the Wai-kato district prior to the war, for the purpose of discussing the matter of electing a Maori "King," a curious trial of humming tops was made, of which the following singular story is told, a story for the truth of which I decline to vouch … The Wai-kato folk proposed that the representatives of each tribe should make a humming top, and that the tribe whose top hummed the loudest in a competition should have the privilege of electing one of its members as Maori "King." The proposal was agreed to, and each of the visiting tribes made a humming top of matai wood, the favoured material, and assembled for the contest. But the local folk of Waikato made a large potaka hue, or gourd top, which they named Te Ketirera, and which hummed so loudly that its owners easily won the contest, and thus elected Po-tatau as "King." On such small issues does the fate of a king sometimes depend!

The song chanted when Te Ketirera was spun runs as follows:—

"E tangi ra, e Te Ketirera, e!
Kia iti to tangi kei rangona inawa,
Hai! Tukua!"

At the conclusion of this stanza the top was spun. Another such runs:—

"Haere ra te kurakura i whero ai
Hai whakapai koe mo te kai aunawa … e
Hai! Tukaru!" (Tukaru here used for tukua).

The peculiar wailing sound made by these humming tops appears to have resembled the wailing or moaning sounds made by natives when mourning for the dead, at least to the Maori ear, hence a very curious custom that obtained in the Bay of Plenty district, and probably elsewhere. This was nothing less than employing tops in ceremonial mourning for the dead. Death was viewed by the Maori as the fell work of Aitua (misfortune), and tears and wailing are said to avenge the afflictions of Aitua. This is a survival from times when everything was personified, hence in funeral speeches we still hear quoted an old, old saying:—Ko Roimata, ko Hupe anake nga kaiutu i nga patu a Aitua (Tears, etc., alone are the avengers of the strokes of misfortune). Thus, when a lament for the dead was chanted, either a natural death or for those slain in battle, it might be so arranged that humming tops should provide the usual orthodox moaning, or serve as an addition thereto. This represented the murmuring wail of the mourning widows or other relatives of the dead. Such songs as were composed and sung in this manner are known as whakaoriori potaka.

page 161

When a clan had been defeated in battle, and visitors came to condole with them, all assembled on the plaza of the village, and there chanted the lament for the dead. At the conclusion of each couplet of the song, many tops were spun, and these wailing tops helped to avenge the defeat, as the Maori puts it. With this curious act, and mental attitude, may be compared the equally singular one connected with the moari swing already described, and the Thibetan praying wheel.

In the Bay of Plenty it is said that the above custom fell into disuse after the arrival of Europeans, but was revived after the the defeat of the Orakau garrison by British troops in 1864. When the Whakatohea and Ngati-Porou clansmen were defeated by our forces at Maketu, the following whakaoriori potaka or top song was composed and sung in the above described manner in many native hamlets:—

"Kumea! Toia te roroa o te tangata
Ina noa te poto ki te oma i Hunuhunu … e
Hai! Tukua!"

As the last word was repeated, the tops were spun. When run down, they were restrung, another couplet was sung, and the tops spun again. This occurred at the conclusion of each couplet of the song—

"Nga morehu ma te kai e patu … e
Ko te paku kai ra mau, e Te Arawa! … e
Hai! Tukua!
E ki atu ana Karanama, e noho ki tamaiti nei … e
Takiri ana mai te upoko o te toa … e
Hai! Tukua!
Koro Mokena, huri mai ki te Kuini … e
Koi rawerawe ana ou mea kanu kaka … e
Hai! Tukua!
Na Tamehana ano tona whenua i utu ki te maramara taro … e
Waiho te raru ki to wahine … e
Hai! Tukua!"

It is useless to translate these effusions without explanations from some person acquainted with the circumstances.

In his work Head Hunters Black, White, and Brown, dealing with the native folk of the Torres Straights and New Guinea regions, A. C. Haddon refers at p. 40 to a curious native usage, the spinning of tops during funeral ceremonies.

The following was obtained from Ngati-Porou sources:—

He Oriori potaka takiri. A top spinning song.

"Koro Kawana kati te toheriri rere
Ka wepua to kiri ki te pona kareao
Aurere! Hai! Tukua!
Tiki mai Kawana Hone i toku motu

page 162

Fig. 46 Two Tops in the Museum of Science and Art, Dublin. From Edge-Partington's Album

Ka hinga te Kingi te manu kaihora
Aurere! Hai! Tukua!
Roto korora te upoko o te kaihatoka (kaihotaka)
Kia nui to reo piukara i Ohinewai
Hai! Tukua!
No muri mai Kawana i tui ai te haki … e
E tu nei a Rauru te tauira inawa
Hai! Tukua!
Kanakanae nga whatu o Rauru … e
Na Te Poari koe i raweke i Ohinewai
Hai! Tukua!
Koro Paratene kati te toheriri rere
Ka wepua to kiri ki te wepu maitai
Hai! Tukua!
Kai Tauranga Wiki e whakahaere ana
Aurere ngaro tonu atu te Kingi ki Tauranga
Aurere! Hai! Tukua!"

This was a contest between two parties of top spinners, one representing the taha kingi (Maori King movement of Waikato) and the other the taha Kawanatanga or Government side during the page 163late unpleasantness in the "sixties." The pona kareao referred to were short lengths of green supplejack cane used in place of bullets.

In Fig. 46 (p. 162) the whip top shown is adorned with carved designs.

Mr. R. Etheridge describes a gourd top of North Queensland:— "The toy is made of a small gourd about three inches in diameter, besides the holes for the axial stick the gourd is pierced by four holes." In his Presidential Address to the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science, 1902, W. E. Roth states that this Queensland gourd top was spun "by twirling with the flats of the open hands," no string being used, while the pierced holes to make it hum have only been introduced of late years.

A curious note is to hand concerning ceremonial top whipping in one of the churches of Paris, said to be mentioned in Hone's Every Day Book, Vol. I., but no particulars are available.