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

The Maori Genius for Personification

The Maori Genius for Personification

One of the most interesting features of Maori mythology is that of universal personification of natural phenomena and other things. We have already enumerated a number of such personified beings, and there are many others that enter into the singular allegorical myths so much appreciated by the Polynesian race. Such phenomena, conditions, and forces as wind, rain, mist, water, fire, space, lightning, thunder, comets, meteors, sun, moon, stars, cold, frost, summer, spring, winter, dawn, rainbow, volcanic forces, page 42 clouds, compass-points, stones, clay, sand, rock, mountains, trees, birds, insects, fish, disease, knowledge, misfortune, and many others were personified. It will thus be seen how such a system lent itself to the development of mythopoetic allegories, quaint myths, of teachings enveloped in extremely figurative language. The study of the esoteric version of Maori myths, the hidden meaning concealed within metaphysical abstractions and recondite concepts, is one of peculiar interest. The power of abstract thought is the very essence of the superior myths of the Maori; yet some writers, including Buller and Shortland, have stated that the Maori lacks that power—a most incomprehensible statement. Barbaric man has an outlook on life and on the hidden past very different to our own in many ways; his personification of natural phenomena led to the appreciation of poetic imagery, and he clothed his deductions therein. As Tylor puts it, “What is poetry to us was philosophy to early man.”

In his work on Primitive Traditional History, Hewitt explains how, in olden times, the peoples of southern Asia kept national records in the form of stories. The inner meaning of these was retained by the priestly conservers, and imparted only to select pupils. This describes Maori methods to a nicety. Our literal interpretation of native myths and stories shows how little we understand them, and how we need the services of a sympathetic expert to explain to us these illustrations of human culture. The development of myths forms a consistent part of the development of culture, and nature myths are the most beautiful of poetic fictions. Several phases of feeling apparently underlie the love of personification, and not the least interesting of these was a desire to illustrate admiration of certain sentiments and qualities. Hence was the Earth Mother endowed with the power of speech, with mother-love, and other human attributes. This feeling survives with us in our personification of such qualities as mercy, charity, peace, &c. Among a barbaric folk, such as the Maori, these personifications of qualities are not so common as they are in some higher culture planes, but still they exist. One of the most interesting illustrations of this faculty is seen in the personified forms of knowledge, all of which bear the name of Rua, followed by some explanatory word or phrase. Thus, Rua-i-te-whaihanga personifies the knowledge of the artisan; Rua-i-te-horahora represents the diffusion of knowledge; and so on. Thought, memory, powers of reflection, are also included in this series. Many interesting examples of personification are available, page 43 and some of these will appear in the following pages. The peculiar phase of mentality that evolves and appreciates myths is no longer ours; even as Tane drove the Dawn Maid down the long descent to the underworld, so has the change of thought driven these mythopoetic concepts from our ken.