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


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Another department of mythology includes matter of secondary importance, folk-tales, fireside stories of everyday recital, such as were heard among young folk when assembled in a house during long winter evenings. These tales include stories of mythical man-destroying monsters, of fairies; they teem with personifications; they endow animals with the power of speech, and inanimate objects with those of speech and locomotion. Many quaint narratives, weird adventures, and puerile fables were known to the old-time Maori, and a number of these have been preserved and recorded in various publications.

One section of folk-tales includes stories of impossible happenings that may be connected with some central incident representing actual fact, such as a genuine historical tradition. In this wise: we have a native tradition to the effect that one Ngahue, a Polynesian voyager, made a voyage to New Zealand in remote times, discovered greenstone (nephrite) in the South Island, and returned to his home in eastern Polynesia. This is the genuine fact, the central core that has become encrusted with mythical accretions. Hence we hear the story now told in the following form: Ngahue was in some way connected with Poutini, the personified form of greenstone, and in their home at Hawaiki they incurred the enmity of one Hine-tua-hoanga, the personified form of sandstone; hence they fled hither to New Zealand. This part of the story is explainable, for sandstone was the principal agent employed by the Maori in fashioning greenstone implements, so it is spoken of as the enemy of greenstone. On reaching Tuhua, or Mayor Island, Bay of Plenty, Poutini (i.e., greenstone) proposed to remain at that place, but was alarmed by the presence of Mata (personified form of obsidian), and so fled to the East Cape district. Here he encountered Waiapu (a form of chert), another enemy, and so fled onward to Arahura, South Island, where he found refuge, and whence the Maori has ever obtained greenstone for the manufacture of implements and ornaments. The various enemies of “the greenstone folk” as the Maori quaintly puts it, are said to have pursued them and attacked them, slaying some and capturing others. The names of the captives are those of famous greenstone heirlooms, implements, and ornaments. All these quaint concepts are the outcome of the mythopoetic mentality of the Maori, and serve to illustrate his desire to explain origins by means of allegory.

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In the long-preserved stories of Rata, Whiro the Voyager, and others we have historical traditions of incidents in Polynesian history that have become partially impregnated with myth. In Tawhaki, Whaitiri, and Wahieroa we have beings alleged to be historical characters, but who seem rather to personify lightning, thunder, and comets.

All folk-tales of the Maori come under the generic term of korero purakau. Some of these are known far and wide throughout Polynesia; some are known to all or most of the tribes of New Zealand; others are local stories known only within a limited area. Many very old stories were brought hither from Polynesia and localized by the Maori. In volume 3 of the Journal of the Polynesian Society is a story concerning a fabulous monster called Te Kaiwhakaruaki. This creature abode in the Nelson district, and is said to have slain numbers of persons in the vicinity of Motueka and Takaka. Now, afar off at the Society Isles we find that Motue'a, an islet off Taha'a Island, is said to have been the abode of a man-destroying monster known as 'Ai-fa'arua'i in former times, while Ta'a'a is the name of another islet in that vicinity. By replacing the dropped k of the Tahitian dialect in the above names, we see fairly good proof that this myth was introduced into New Zealand, together with certain place-names.

These tales of ferocious reptiles and monsters are encountered throughout Polynesia. The monsters are often termed moko, a name sometimes applied to them in New Zealand, though they are generally called taniwha here. Moko also denotes a lizard in New Zealand and throughout Polynesia, but in one region of Melanesia is applied to the crocodile. Many stories of these dread taniwha are known to our Maori folk, who point out their former abodes, and relate harrowing tales of their deeds in former times. In many cases they were water-dwellers, and so may possibly represent a former knowledge of the crocodile on the part of the Maori. One that does not appear to have been amphibious (as many were) was named Hau-taruke, though it is generally referred to as Te Kuri nui a Meko—the Great Dog (or Beast) of Meko. This monster occupied a cave on the bank of Waikare-taheke, a tributary of the Wairoa River, and it is described as being a ferocious man-eater. Meko is said to have been a descendant of Te Orotu, after whom Napier Harbour was named Te Whanga nui a Orotu. Meko possessed certain supernatural attributes, but the origin of the monster is not explained. From Kura-tawhiti, page 51 a brother of Meko, who was an ordinary mortal, are counted fifteen generations to the present time.

A man named Tuwhai succeeded in slaying this scourge of the Waikare-moana district. He constructed a large crate of supplejacks, termed a taiki, into which he conducted five men to serve as live bait. These men, by dint of loud cries, soon attracted Hau-taruke, who rushed forth to devour them. Not being able to get at its prey, the creature thrust its legs through the openwork cage or crate, whereupon four of the men seized and held stoutly on to them. The fifth man, by means of a vigorous use of his spear, soon despatched the man-eater, and so the district was freed of this scourge. This slaying occurred six generations after the time of Meko, so that this particular monster must have enjoyed a fairly long life.

Many of these taniwha are described as beings of saurian form, and the stories describing the slaying of them by courageous brown-skinned dragon-slayers of yore are replete with detail. We are told that some of the huge beasts were cut up and eaten by the slayers. Their remarkably capacious stomachs were often found to contain the bodies of hapless folk they had devoured, as well as their garments and weapons. In some cases these monsters are said to have captured native women and kept them until rescued by their friends. This rescue was usually effected by means of building a special house, inviting the ill-assorted pair to visit them, and then setting the house on fire when the taniwha was alone in it. The huge moko known as Ngarara-huarau, that devastated the Wai-rarapa district in times long passed away, was killed at Tupurupuru by means of a very curious device. A track passing near the den of the beast led through a forest, and all the trees near this path were hewed into until nearly ready to fall. A dog was then sent to bark before the den of the taniwha, and so act as a patoi, or decoy. The beast pursued the dog along the forest-path, but came into contact with the deeply cut trees, thus causing them to fall on him with crushing effect. Thus perished Ngarara-huarau.

In the story of Hine-popo that woman is deserted by her husband, who sailed away to Rangitoto (D'Urville Island). She swims across Cook Strait in pursuit of him, but not for the purpose of reconciliation, for, by means of her magic arts, her errant husband and his brother are swept out to sea when fishing from a canoe in the strait. Far across the ocean were the waifs page 52 carried, until they reached a strange land occupied by a strange folk. These people knew not fire; they ate their food raw, and possessed singular customs. The castaways succeeded in slaying a man-eating taniwha that had long terrorized the people, hence the more prominent one was provided with a wife by the grateful folk. Then came the surprising discovery by the castaways of the fact that children were not born in the normal way, but that the Caesarian operation was always performed on the hapless mother, thereby causing her death. The myth is unsatisfactory, and we are not even told that the ocean waifs returned home. It seems probable that we have a mixture of two myths in this story.

One species of taniwha is known as a tuoro, and seems to have spent most of its time underground, where it burrowed its way through the earth, sometimes over-throwing great trees during its operations. A monster of this type is credited with having formed the valley of the Waikare Stream, a tributary of the Whakatane River. Examples of metempsychosis are met with in Maori myth, as when the spirit of a dead person passes into an animal form. In some cases men have so acquired taniwha form after death, though apparently not the saurian form described above. Thus Te Tahi, a famed ancestor of the Awa folk of Whakatane, became a marakihau after death. This mythical being is a species of merman, a sea-denizen of human-like form, and furnished with a remarkably long tongue, by means of which it is said to secure its food. One Hine-ruarangi, an ancestress of the natives of Te Whaiti, appears as a kawau or cormorant, and is a kind of tribal banshee. She hovers in that form over a village when any person is about to die there.

In the story of the slaying of Tutae-poroporo, a man-eating monster that lived in the depths of the Whanganui River, we note another novel method of disposing of objectionable taniwha. The heroic Aokehu was enclosed in a large box-like receptacle, and this was cast into the river and allowed to drift down to the lair of the ogre. It was swallowed by that creature, and when Aokehu found himself in its stomach he at once proceeded to recite certain potent charms in order to nullify the powers of his enemy. He then cut the lashings of the box, emerged therefrom, and, with certain magic implements, cut his way out of the body of the taniwha. The end of this gallant act was the death of the monster, and the freeing of the district from a dread scourge.

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Another old-time man-destroying creature is known as the Awarua o Porirua, and is supposed to dwell at Porirua, near Wellington. It was formerly a traveller, and wandered as far as Te Roto-a-Tara, where it formed the small islet that is still known by its name, Te Awarua o Porirua.

In the old primal myths we find that the genus taniwha traces its origin back to Tane and one Hine-tupari-maunga, the Mountain Maid. Water and stones have the same origin, but come from other members of the offspring of Tane. There is ever an element of the supernatural pertaining to taniwha; they are endowed with certain superhuman powers, as is usual with such conceptions.

We may note another supernatural form in what are known as tipua, or tupua, a word denoting something uncanny or strange; sometimes to be rendered as “demon.” These tipua were common in former times, and many curious superstitions are connected with them. Any object might be viewed as a tipua; in many cases rocks and trees were so viewed. In many instances such natural objects were also uruuru whenua—places at which travellers made small offerings, as a branchlet or handful of herbage, to the spirits or demons of the land. Such offerings were of a placatory nature. If neglected, travellers would be harassed by unpleasant weather conditions. Any impious interference with such objects always brought punishment to the offender. Some stone tipua have the power of moving from place to place, and it is necessary to repeat a charm when passing any of these peculiarly endowed objects. At Wairau and Maunga-pohatu are two ponds of water that are tipua. A drifting log in Waikare-moana (lake) was viewed as a tipua. It is said to have had a habit of singing as it drifted over the waters of that lone lake, and natives dwelling on the shores would hear it in the silent night, and remark, “Ko Tutaua e waiata haere ana” (“It is Tutaua singing as it goes”). Weiweia was a similar tipua log in the Waikato; it was seen in so many different places that a saying pertaining to it is still heard: “Ko paenga rau o Weiweia” (“The many stranding-places of Weiweia”). Yet another haunted the waters of Wai-rarapa Lake. In all cases, should a person interfere with one of these enchanted logs it would at once betake itself to another place. All these supernormal objects possessed, in native belief, an indwelling spirit or power, and the ramifications of that page 54 belief were far-reaching and curious withal. A native once remarked to me that, as water is heard singing, it must necessarily possess a wairua (spirit).

A rock of great mana, or abnormal powers, was that known as Uenuku-tuwhatu, situated at Kawhia. It is said to have been resorted to by childless women, with excellent results. Similar powers were possessed by a tree called Te Iho-o-Kataka, at Rua-tahuna. In this latter case the powers of the tree originated with the iho or umbilical cord of one Kataka, that had been deposited on or in the tree.

Among the Maori are found the usual folk-tales about fairies or forest-dwelling beings of human form, but differing from man in other ways. Such beings are known as Turehu, Heketoro, Patu-paiarehe, Tahurangi, &c., and few stories about them are explicit; they are hazy in detail. These forest-dwelling Turehu are sometimes said to be fair-haired people, unlike the Maori in appearance. They were but seldom seen by man, but on dull, wet, or misty days they were heard talking, singing, and playing flutes on the bush-clad hills. A condition of tapu pertained to these forest creatures, and should any person intrude on their domain they would immediately abandon that part of the forest.

We are told that these Turehu were the original inhabitants of New Zealand, and hence they held that all products of the land were their own property. When natives were engaged in digging up the edible rhizomes of the bracken, commonly termed “fern-root” by us, they sometimes heard a mysterious voice say, “You are joyful to-day, but my turn will come on the morrow.” They would know that it was the voice of a Turehu, and would hasten to set aside for the fair folk the first three pieces of fern-root dug up by them. This was a placatory offering to the Turehu owners of the land. On the following day no work would be done at the root-digging, that day being left for the Turehu. On the succeeding day work would be resumed.

These fair-skinned Turehu are credited with having captured and carried off Maori women to their forest haunts occasionally. Thus the wife of one Ruarangi was captured by a Tahurangi and dwelt with him for some time on the hill of Pirongia. Ruarangi sought her, and at length met her in the forest, but she fled from him, for the tapu of the forest folk was upon her, and so she had become estranged from her own people. Fortunately her husband was carrying with page 55 him a modicum of cooked food. This he threw at her, and, as it struck her, so her tapu was violated, polluted, and destroyed—so remarkable are the effects of cooked food on any condition of tapu. She now returned to her husband, but was followed by the Tahurangi, who made every effort to regain her. Ruarangi now came near to losing her a second time, for the Tahurangi entered the house, seized the woman, and was carrying her off, when she remembered the horror those beings have of red ochre. She called to her husband to mark the door-posts with that substance, so that the intruder would be unable to pass through it. He did so, and was about to also mark the other aperture, the window-space, when the Tahurangi released the woman and leaped through it. Ruarangi now marked the garments of himself and his wife with ochre, so that the nanakia (troublesome one) would be unable to touch them. The creature was now compelled to avoid Ruarangi on account of the dreaded ochre, and the latter kept following him about and marking with ochre each spot he had occupied. Thus, ere long, unmarked spots became few, and the Tahurangi was compelled to leap from one to another so as to avoid the noxious ochre. Eventually he was obliged to depart, and so leaped to the roof of a house, from which he sang a song of farewell to his lost Maori wife, and then fled to the forest. And that song is still known to the native folk of Waikato.

These forest folk were occasionally seen in numbers in native cultivations, but they did not damage the crops in any way. Albinos were said to be the offspring of fair-skinned Turehu and native women.

The evil effects of charcoal fires in unventilated, earth-covered huts were held by the Maori to be due to the malignancy of certain supernormal creatures known as Patu-paiarehe. Tutumaiao were weird creatures seen on sand-beaches looming through the sea-haze afar off. They looked like the spirits of human beings, but invariably disappeared as the observer approached them. Parangeki are spirits of the dead, and these may be heard, and occasionally seen, by man. The name of Tira-maka also seems to apply to these shadow folk. As a rule, only seers (matatuhi or matakite) can see these creatures; they are not visible to ordinary eyes. A species of forest elves was known as the Tini o Te Hakuturi, and these creatures were guardians of the forest and its denizens, the Children of Tane—that is to say, trees. The lax, drooping form of the fronds page 56 of the tree-fern is the result of these elves having perched themselves thereon. These particular elves, however, are usually located in a far land, a former home of the Maori folk, as also are the Aitanga a Nuku-maitore, a weird, uncanny folk who lived in trees and knew not the use of fire. Another “origin myth” connected with the leaning or bent trunks of the rata tree is to the effect that it was trampled on by the moa, presumably in its young stage of growth.

There were a great many folk-tales (korero tara) known among the natives, and much might be written on this subject. Some of these tales are highly curious, such as the story of the great battle between the land-birds and sea-birds, the battle between dogs and lizards the story of how it is that lizards lose their tails. Some tell of the Porotai, a strange class of beings whose bodies are half of flesh and half of stone; others of the Pakepakeha, little creatures occasionally seen floating down rivers on driftwood, ever singing as they drift; of the Turi-whekoi, and other weird creatures.