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The Maori As He Was : A Brief Account of Maori Life as it was in Pre-European Days



A considerable number of fables were also known to the people. As a sample of these we may quote that of the sandfly, the mosquito, and man.

It fell upon a certain fine day that Namu the Sandfly and Naeroa the Mosquito foregathered, when the former said, “Friend, let us go and assail Man, and consume his blood.” Naeroa proposed to wait until nightfall, lest they be seen and slain by Man. The Sandfly folk declined to wait, and so set off in great numbers to attack Man. But, as they settled on him, he smote them with his great hand, and lo, a myriad went down to death! Thronged the Sandfly folk about the face of Man, only to meet the slapping hand, and truly a multitude perished. Sadly the survivors returned, and reported, “We are no more; nor numbers, nor courage availed us.” Then Naeroa the Mosquito sang his lament for the slain:—

I said, I said,
“Remain, remain,
Lest slain ye be
By slapping hand of Man.”
Alas! Alas!
Behold your fate.

page 57

Then sorely wept Namu, lamenting his lost kin, and so sang the following dirge:—

What matters death,
What matters death,
Now that his blood,
Now that his blood
Is welling forth?

Thus we see that the Sandfly folk reek not of death so long as they can shed the blood of Man.

In the fable of the hawk and the hokioi we note the humbling of a boaster. The hawk challenged the hokioi (a mythical bird, apparently) to a flight toward the heavens, telling him that he could fly no higher than a fern-bird. In the contest that ensued both rose to a great height, until at last the hawk was compelled to descend, when his companion jeered at him for a boaster, and continued his own upward flight. To such a great height did he ascend that he never returned to earth; but sometimes, in the dead of night, men hear the hokioi, far up above the earth, calling out its own name: “Hokioi! Hokioi! Hu!” The last word is supposed to represent the sound of the flight of the bird. Now, when a person is given to boasting and self-praise the Maori compares him to the hokioi, the bird that is ever calling out its own name.

There is also the story of the Ruruhi-kerepo—a terrible ogress; the tale of the woman who was taken up to the heavens by spiders; the story of the woman who ate her own child's heart; with many another quaint and puerile folk-tale of bygone times. In some of the fabular accounts of former times we are told that certain inanimate objects possessed the powers of locomotion and speech in those mist-laden days. Thus we hear strange fables concerning mountains and prominent hills perambulating around the land, experiencing human emotions and indulging in conversation with each other. It was owing to family troubles that Mount Egmont moved away from the Taupo district and found a new home at Taranaki. Again, Mount Edgecumbe, Kakaramea, and Maunga-pohatu originally stood in the same district, but moved northward to their present sites. The last-named is said to have been the wife of Kakaramea, but they became separated and are now far apart. When overtaken by daylight each became fixed, and could not move again; evidently their migration was a deed of darkness. page 58 It is said that Kakaramea and his wife quarrelled, this leading to their separation. He persisted in going northward, while she made for the east. As the former stopped by the wayside to cook a meal, he got no farther than Wai-o-tapu, where he still stands. Their children, however, succeeded in getting farther; being much smaller, we may presume that they were more active. Hence Tapanaua, a large rock in the Tauranga Stream, reached Te Wai-iti; the Toka-a-Houmea, an isolated mass of rock, reached its present position at Whakatane; Hingarae got to the mouth of the Whakatane River; while Moutohora (Whale Island) got some miles out to sea. Mount Edgecumbe (Putauaki) occupied a lonely position, and so he sang a song of greeting to Maunga-pohatu, which song is yet known to the Maori. Whakaari (White Island) and Pohatu-roa (a huge mass of rock of the mesa type at Atiamuri) also moved to their present positions from Taupo.

A similar fable is told concerning the Waikato and Rangitaiki Rivers. These rivers commenced to flow from the Taupo district, and each strove to outpace the other in a race to the Bay of Plenty. Rangitaiki forged so far ahead that Waikato gave up the contest and turned westward, following the course he still pursues.

We have now descended from the height of the superior myths of the Maori to the much inferior level of fables and other simple folk-tales. Remains to say a few words anent the peculiar mental conditions and superstitions that produced such a mythology. It may be said that the Maori mind is essentially practical until the superstitious side of his character is affected, and then anything may happen. Hence the absurdities noted in native behaviour when under the influence of pseudo-tohunga, shamanistic frauds, and such humbugs. This curious phase of human character is, of course, still in evidence among ourselves, and we have all seen illustrations thereof. The higher-class myths pertaining to cosmogony and the origin of man are the result of introspective thought in the domain of causality. The folk-lore of the Maori is the fruit of his mythopoetic nature, his ignorance of natural laws and forces, and his inherent superstition. These brief statements may be allowed to stand in place of lengthy explanations, inasmuch as they cover the problem. Our Maori folk are of those who feel the unseen presence in forests, who hold close kinship with nature, who have a fellowship with every member of the far-scattered Children of Tane. They enter sylvan solitudes page 59 imbued with a subconscious feeling that they are among not only friends, but beings related to themselves—for are not men and trees alike descended from Tane? The old Earth Mother seems very real to them; they greet the Mist Maiden when, in early morn, they see her rising from forest-clad gulches and ascending to her celestial home. From the breast of the Mountain Maid across green valley comes the carolling of Punaweko (personified form of birds) that calls them to daily activities. As night falls across the white world they greet the children of Light, the Whanau marama that gleam on high, the stars that look down on the hidden homeland of the race. They chant old songs of welcome to those heavenly bodies; their memories wheel back to far-off days of lone voyagings in strange seas; their hearts cling to scenes, concepts, and emotions of a thousand years ago.

As to Maori superstition, examples might be given in a hundred forms, but a long list of such would be tiresome to the reader. Let a few illustrations suffice. Like many other peoples, the Maori was a firm believer in dreams. His priestly adepts were held to be past masters in oneirology. Dreams influenced the most serious activities, such as warlike operations. Many omens were drawn from involuntary movements made by sleeping persons. Any twitching of nerves of the body was ominous. To hear the note of a robin on your right hand is a lucky omen; if on the left hand it is unlucky. It was unlucky to see human spirits moving abroad; to see certain species of lizard; to see certain kinds of stone; to eat food while standing when on a warlike expedition; to hear the singing or babbling of a stream; to make a false move when performing a war-dance; to awaken a sleeping person; to dream of having one's hair cut; to weave a garment after sundown; to blow chips aside when wood-carving; with many other things too numerous to mention. To excavate a house-site and then abandon it is extremely unlucky: we have wounded the Earth Mother without just cause. Landslips betoken some approaching disaster. A very numerous series of unlucky signs and incidents are connected with the pursuits of the fowler and fisherman; these are termed puhore. To speak of the game you are going to secure is extremely unlucky. A settler who went pig-hunting with natives took some salt with him to make a hastily prepared meal more palatable. This act was condemned by his companions, who said, “Kaore ano kia mate mai he poaka, kua kainga e page 60 koe” (“Ere yet we have killed a pig it is eaten by you”). One must be careful how one speaks in the bird-snaring season, or the birds will hear one and escape. When digging for roots of the perei, one must not call it by its proper name, or no roots will be found.

To see a lizard is terribly ominous, for this creature represents death, and it is advisable to destroy it and employ an expert to avert the omen. As cooked food is a very polluting substance, it would be sheer lunacy for a tapu person to enter any hut containing it. No food was eaten in the dwellinghouses; meals were consumed out in the open, or in the porch of the house. Unlucky actions are numerous as sands of the seashore—these are called aitua; but of lucky signs, termed marie and waimarie, we do not hear so much—one is often left to inference. If it be unlucky to commit a certain action with one's left hand, then presumably it is lucky to do it with the right hand.

Divination was much practised by priestly experts of Maoriland, and auguries were derived from a great many sources. Serious attention was paid to many trivial things and occurrences on this account. Many of the so-called weather signs are absurd, and it may be said that such beliefs resemble those among our own children.

In studying the beliefs and concepts of a barbaric race such as the Maori it is necessary to pay a considerable amount of attention to its mythology, simply because myth and religion are commingled, and the maintenance of law and order within the commune was based upon belief in the gods.

The Tamil bell, found among the natives of the north in the early days of European settlement

The Tamil bell, found among the natives of the north in the early days of European settlement