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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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No recognized national system of worship. Barbaric man deeply religious. Religious ceremonial permeated every activity. Interesting stage of development. Religion in the making. Atua, or supernormal beings. Classification of gods. Tutelary beings and personifications. The cult of Io. Departmental deities. Asiatic analogues. Natural phenomena personified. Ancestral spirits. Human mediums of gods. Evil spirits. Demoniacal possession. Atua as guardians. Forms of incarnation. Too much importance attached to ancestor-worship. Supreme Being not placated. Offerings to other gods. Human sacrifice. Lack of idols and images. Ritual. Magic formulae. Karakia, an expansive term. Ceremonial functions. Priestly experts—tohunga. Several classes of priests. No temples erected. Tuahu. The whare wananga. Spiritual concepts of the Maori. Purification of the spirits of the dead. Spirit-life. Spirit-world in west. How reached. The Broad Path of Tane. Two spirit-worlds. No punishment of soul after death. Tapu.

An eminent writer on Egyptology has told us that the ancient Egyptians can scarcely be said to have possessed a national religion, and that we can merely speak of their religious ideas. The latter, however, were exceedingly numerous, as also were the gods, or manifestations of gods, in the Egyptian pantheon. This was precisely the condition of Maori religion. No concrete form of national religion existed; no universal system of worship was practised. The cultus of the Supreme Being was confined to a narrow circle; it was never a national system, never known to the people. Our task, therefore, is to examine the nature of Maori belief in supernatural powers, the status and duties of his so-called priests, his spiritual concepts and belief in a future life, together with his practice of shamanism and magic.

As a preliminary statement it may be asserted that a barbaric folk such as the Maori is usually much more religious than are peoples of a higher culture stage—than ourselves, for example. We may contemptuously brand page 62 native beliefs with the name of superstition, but they are the beliefs from which our own higher religions have been evolved. They entered into practically every activity of Maori life. Some form of ritual, some ceremony or formula, pertained to every industry, to agriculture, seafaring, war, social usages, house-building, canoe-making, bird-snaring, fishing, travelling, &c. The Maori could do little without relying on his gods for help or protection. In birth, marriage, sickness, death, burial, and exhumation the gods must be consulted or appealed to. Without their protection man cannot retain life; his spiritual welfare would depart and evil powers would destroy him. We have to rely on force, in the form of civil law and police, in order to maintain order and peace; without these, chaotic disorder and disaster would overtake our social system. The barbaric Maori had none of these: his gods preserved order for him; fear of their anger was the most powerful influence in the Maori commune.

Maori religion was in a most interesting stage of development when Europeans broke through the hanging sky and destroyed the fabric of untold centuries. We shall see anon that these barbaric folk had in times long passed away evolved, inherited, or borrowed the concept of a Supreme Being, which conception was pitched upon a high plane of thought; that they believed in two spirit-worlds, in the existence of a personified form of evil dwelling in the underworld, and were apparently developing the belief in a hell and heaven, though they had not reached the point of belief in any punishment of the human soul after death. They practised to some extent ceremonial confession, absolution, and immersion; and other evidence points to a dawning idea of the necessity of combining morality and religion. Other matter shows us how these Polynesian folk were gradually evolving a form of racial religion, and the methods followed. Speaking generally, these methods and concepts resembled those of other races, but differed in some respects. Thus their treatment of the concept of a Supreme Being was very different from that employed by Semitic folk as shown in the Bible. The Maori, in common with his brethren of the isles of Polynesia, possesses a good deal of Asiatic mysticism, and shows in his myths, spiritual concepts, and religious ideas that he has in the past been given to introspective thought. Doubtless this remark applies to the higher minds only of such a folk; but the same may be said of any people. It is very remarkable that the average Maori can, if he has confidence in you, discuss questions relating to abstruse page 63 matters in a manner impossible to many of our own folk, with all our advantages. In the following brief account of Maori beliefs, or religious ideas, we shall see that we are viewing a remarkable and highly interesting process—namely, a religion in the making. This inner view of the process, of the working of the mind of barbaric man, is assuredly of great value to anthropologists, more especially to those who study the development of religion.

It will be seen that myth, religion, and magic are commingled in our account of Maori life, and it is quite impossible to wholly separate them. The same may be said of higher forms of religion, wherein are conserved many old pagan myths of remote times. It must also be explained that several planes of Maori religious ideas and practices existed—certainly not less than three—and also that atua (supernatural beings, gods) and tohunga (priestly experts) must also be divided into different grades. Followers of the cultus of the Supreme Being had no dealings with low-class shamanistic performances and black magic, and those who upheld the latter were not allowed to attain any knowledge of high-class ritual and teachings. The cult of the departmental gods formed a third system intermediate between those above mentioned.

In the first place, we will glance at the native beliefs connected with such supernormal beings as we generally term “gods,” though the term is not always appropriate. Some of these beings may be classified as tutelary deities, as “parents” or originating-powers; others as “demons,” or evil spirits. Even the lowest type were supposed to be helpful to man, if placated in a proper manner. The only ones who were persistently evil, who never assisted or succoured man, seem to have been Whiro and his myrmidons of the lower world.

Our atua maori, or native gods, may be classified as follows:—


Io, the Supreme Being.


The departmental gods—personifications of natural phenomena, &c.


District gods—more or less widely known.


Inferior beings—deified ancestors, “families,” demons, of local fame.

In the first class Io stands alone. There can be but one Supreme Being, and the cult of Io was the acme of the esoteric beliefs of the higher minds of the people. It was unknown to the majority of the people, being confined to the first order of priestly adepts and the superior families. The departmental gods are represented by the page 64 offspring of the primal parents, Sky and Earth, and are personified forms of natural phenomena. Each presides over his own department, and is looked upon as a parent or originating being—a tutelary being more than what we commonly understand as a god. They were, however, placated by means of offerings, and ritual formulae were recited in order to influence them in favour of the reciters or the clan. It is thus seen that they must be included in any description of Maori religion. In the third class we have a number of beings who occupy a lower rank than the departmental deities, and may be said to be subordinate to them. Thus Tu, of the second class, personifies war and bloodshed; he may be styled the chief war-god. But Uenuku, Kahukura, and others of the third class, also are war-gods, though they do not rank with Tu. The latter personifies war, is looked upon as a general supervisor of the art of war; his tapu rests on all fighting-men, but any fighting-force selected an atua of the third or fourth class as a fighting-god, or more intimate controller of their actions and destiny. There is a considerable difference between the tutelary beings of class 2 and the atua of class 3 in the native mind, but that difference is by no means easy to explain. Some of these third-class beings are also personifications: the two mentioned above are personified forms of the rainbow. Some of them are known all over New Zealand, as are Uenuku and Maru, and a few are also known in Polynesia. The fourth class of atua includes many deified ancestors—indeed, is apparently principally composed of such ancestral shades. The spirits of still-born infants, termed atua kahu, also come into this class. Any person could, by means of certain ceremonial observances, become the medium of a deceased parent or other relative, and so gain the status of a seer. The spirit of such deceased forbear would watch over such a medium, and warn him of any danger threatening his life or spiritual life-principle. Such atua as these can scarcely be termed “gods”—they are familiar spirits.

In regard to the superior cult of Io, the Supreme Being, its ritual was resorted to, or practised, only in connection with what were considered highly important matters. It never became known to the many, but was jealously conserved and retained by the few, hence it was not affected by degeneration as were similar concepts in other lands. The Maori preserved the purity of his conception of the Supreme Being by means of withholding it from the bulk of the people, hence Io was never degraded to the level of a tribal war-god, as was the case with Jahweh. To page 65 force monotheism on a barbaric people must necessarily result in a form of degeneration of a superior concept. If the lower minds of a community are not allowed to deal with low-class gods, then they will proceed to drag down the high-class being to their own level.

Among the beings of the second class the most important are Tane, Tu, Rongo, Tangaroa, Whiro, and Tawhiri-matea, with others of minor importance. These were all offspring of the primal parents, the Sky Father and Earth Mother, and are personifications of natural phenomena. Thus Tane personifies the sun; he is the fertilizer and light-bringer. As the fertilizer he was the origin of trees and all vegetation, and also created woman. He was the most important being of his class. Tu represents war and bloodshed, and resulting death; he seems to personify the setting sun, as Tum did in Egypt. Rongo was the patron of agriculture, and, as is shown in Hawaiian myth, personified the moon. For Rongo was but another name of Hina, though the change of sex is unusual. Hina and Sina are the names of the moon-goddess throughout Polynesia, while Sin was the moon-god of Babylonia. One would suppose that Tane the Fertilizer, the warmth-giving sun, would have been selected as the principal patron of growing crops; but not so: the Maori deemed Rongo more important in connection with agricultural rites and ceremonies pertaining to peace-making. In this he was but following ancient Asiatic and Egyptian belief and usage, for in those lands the moon was viewed as a generator, and so became a patron of agriculture and a corn-god. In the latter land the personified form of the moon was also connected with the art of weaving and with maternity, even as Sina, or Hina, or Hine-te-iwaiwa, is in New Zealand and Polynesia.

In Tangaroa we have an ocean denizen; he is another parental or origin being, and represents all fish. Whiro is the personified form of evil, darkness, and death; while Tawhiri-matea personifies wind. All these, and others, were placated and conciliated by means of offerings and incantatory formulae, although no offerings were ever made to Io. The peculiar dual name of Rongo-ma-Tane (Rongo and Tane) occurs in both New Zealand and Polynesia, employed as though it were the title of a single being. This is equivalent to utilizing the form “Moon and Sun” as though those two useful bodies represented one being. Both were viewed by the Maori as fertilizing agents. In certain lands of the Old World moon-worship is supposed to have preceded sun-worship, as is Babylonia.

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In Babylonia and some other regions the moon was considered at one period to be older and of greater importance than the sun. With the Maori Rongo was an elder brother of Tane, and the two are coupled together in the dual being Rongo-ma-Tane (Rongo and Tane), represented apparently in the double stone image employed in connection with growing crops. The crescent carved on the upper end of the shaft of the old Maori spade is a well-known lunar symbol.

Many of the gods of the third class are also personifications. Thus Uenuku and Kahukura are personified forms of the rainbow, and Maru (known in Polynesia) represents some celestial phenomenon. Tunui seems to represent meteors, and Te Po-tuatini comets. Tupai, Mataaho, Hine-te-uira, and Tama-te-uira all personify lightning, as also does Tawhaki. Whaitiri is thunder, and Te Aputahi-a-pawa represents the same phenomenon. Aitupawa, known to Maori and Samoan, also belongs to this class. Rongomai seems to personify meteorites or aerolites. Rakaiora represents lizards; but Rehua, Puhaorangi, Ruatau, and Tau-o-rongo are denizens of the heavens. Hine-korako personifies some lunar phenomenon—a halo, probably; while Ruamano and others represent monsters of the deep. Puhi is the so-called eel-god; Tamarau represents meteors. Ihungaru and Te Ihinga-o-te-ra lack explanation. Tahu is a kind of tutelary being presiding over all foods of man. To give further lists of names would be tedious; but we can now grasp the meaning of Mackenzie's remark in his work on Babylonian myths— “Behind all systems of primitive religion lies the formative background of natural phenomena.”

The fourth class of atua, or “gods,” as we are pleased to term them, includes cacodemons, evil spirits, and other low-class beings, also “familiars” and deified spirits of ancestors. The bulk of these beings seem to have been ancestral spirits, in fact, and any person might become the human medium of his deceased parent or other forbear. In this latter case the medium would thus become possessed of a familiar spirit whose duty it would be to assist and succour him, and to warm him of any threatening danger. These godlets, or spirits, had, of course, to be conciliated by means of offerings, and any infringement of the rules of tapu would cause them to withhold their protection and withdraw the powers granted to the medium. In such a condition the medium would become hinapo (syn. kahupo)—that is, he would be spiritually blind; he would be unable to see supernatural warnings; he would no longer be a seer.

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Many of these inferior atua had but a brief reign, possibly only a generation, when they passed away into the unknown. A man might conciliate the spirit of a defunct parent or grandparent and become its medium for his lifetime, but possibly no one would occupy that position after his death, so that that atua or “familiar” would disappear from human ken. In fact, that god died. This term atua was used in a wide sense; it included all supernatural beings, spirits or manifestations, from the majestic Supreme Being down to low-class malignant demons, also familiar spirits, lares, and even any inanimate object viewed as a tipua. The term is even applied to disease, and may include almost anything that is disagreeable or viewed as being supernatural, as atua. Its wide range of meaning is disconcerting to the student and writer.

A number of the fourth-class atua were what are known as atua kahu. These were the spirits of still-born children, and such spirits were believed to be peculiarly malignant, hence they were often conciliated and utilized as tribal war-gods. Women sometimes acted as mediums of these parental, ancestral, or foetus spirits. A detailed account of one of the latter class appeared in volume 6 of the Journal of the Polynesian Society.

Evil spirits are known as atua whiro, probably because Whiro is the personified form of evil. (This Whiro of times primeval must not be confused with Whiro the Polynesian voyager alluded to previously in connection with Rata.) Demoniacal possession was a common belief, and disease and bodily pains were believed to be caused by atua ngau tangata, or man-assailing demons. This gross and world-wide superstition was the cause of countless barbarities and untold misery and suffering. Such possession might be the result of infringing some law of tapu, or be brought about by means of black magic. Thus the treatment of disease was purely empirical, and the priest acted as doctor, his task consisting of expelling the evil spirit. This was accomplished by means of a shamanistic performance and the recital of magic formulae of incantatory aspect. This absurd belief in demoniacal possession was long a marked feature of Christianity, which absorbed many pagan myths and superstitions. The above belief as to the cause of disease would, of course, prevent all medical research. Among an ignorant and superstitious folk the practice of the medicinal art is apt to be looked upon as being an impious interference with the activities of supernatural beings.

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Atua of the third and fourth classes were in some cases employed by their human mediums as messengers in connection with war or black magic; these were termed atua toro. They were also utilized as guardians and protectors of burial-caves or other tapu places, and of villages and people. It must be recognized that man was ever, in Maori belief, under the protection of the gods, and lacking such protection he had but a poor chance to retain life. The Maori placed himself under the protection of a certain god or gods, and this protection was his defence against the innumerable evil spirits that ever surrounded him. The loss of that protecting power would mean that his sacred life-principle would be seriously endangered; he would be exposed to, and defenceless against, the fell designs of evil spirits, of dread Whiro and his satellites, the shafts of black magic, and all evil and destructive influences. “Be assured,” saith the Maori, “that man cannot live without the protection of the gods.”

These ancestor “godlets” were in most cases confined to the fourth or lowest grade of atua, hence we see that ancestor-worship, so called, occupied but a lowly position among the Maori folk. As to the word “worship,” it is not applicable to the Maori attitude towards his gods; for he did not worship them as we understand the term. Such a feeling is discernible only in the attitude of superior minds towards the primal being Io.

Atua of the third and fourth classes possessed aria (visible forms, or forms of incarnation). Thus some were incarnate in birds, some in lizards, &c., while the aria of others was the rainbow, a meteor, lightning, comets, or other natural phenomena—that is, they were personified forms of such phenomena.

Lord Avebury's statement to the effect that ancestor worship occupies a higher plane than sun-worship cannot be accepted in connection with the natives of Polynesia. Here we find that the former represents the lowest form of religion, while the cult of Tane is the higher phase, second only to the cult of Io. Spencer's theory that all religions were based on ancestor-worship seems to be untenable, and is not supported by evidence from Polynesia. Grant Allen's belief that all gods were simply dead men must be classed with Spencer's theory. Both have failed to grasp the important part that personified forms of natural phenomena have played in the theogonies of barbaric man.

The subject of offerings made to gods is one of some importance, or was so to the Maori of yore. The Supreme Being alone was exempt from this practice; no offerings page 69 whatever were made to him, presumably because he was viewed as a beneficent being. Had he been a jealous, vengeful being, as Jehovah is depicted, then assuredly it would have been necessary to placate him by means of offerings. Offerings commenced with atua of the second or departmental class: thus offerings of birds were made to Tane, of fish and seaweed to Tangaroa, of cultivated foods to Rongo. Such offerings were termed whakahere and whakaepa, both of which terms mean “to conciliate by means of a present.” Some offerings, such as those pertaining to cultivated crops, were made with certain ceremonial performances, while a traveller or other person might simply toss aside a portion of a meal with the remark, “To kai, E Whiro!” (“Thy food, O Whiro!”). Natives believed that the gods consumed merely the ahua (semblance) of these offerings. Small offerings, such as a modicum of food, were often “waived” to the gods, the hand containing it being extended with a waving motion toward space. A portion of the first fruits of each season—fish, fowl, and vegetable—were offered to the departmental gods. Small offerings were made by travellers to the genius loci of any place where they camped. Those overtaken by a storm or other danger at sea would pluck a hair from their heads and cast it into the waters, at the same time reciting a charm to avert the danger.

The most important offerings made to the gods are represented by human sacrifice. This custom is one that calls for close examination, as certain cases described as illustrations of human sacrifice were simply non-ceremonial killings in connection with food-supply. Ceremonial or ritual human sacrifice was by no means a common occurrence among the Maori. Human beings were occasionally sacrificed both in war and peace; sometimes as direct offerings to the gods, rarely for purposes of divination. Another custom was the slaying of a person in order to add éclat to some social or ceremonial function; this was a fairly common procedure. In some cases slaves provided the necessary victim; in others a raid was made against a neighbouring tribe; but in some cases a member of the same tribe was slain. In this latter case the victim would not be a member of the same hapu or subtribe as his slayers. In war, the first enemy slain was tapu, and his heart was offered to the war-god. Other occasions on which a human sacrifice was sometimes made were—(1) the building of an important house; (2) the launching of a new war-canoe; (3) the completion of a new pa, or fortified village; (4) in connection with agriculture. Human beings were slain in page 70 connection with certain other functions, but apparently merely to add importance to such meetings—that is, to the leading persons concerned in them.

Maori religion is marked by a lack of idols and images of gods. Of true idols we may say that he had none, and but very few images were employed. No images represented Io the Supreme Being, but small wooden ones representing Tane, Tu, Rongo, Tangaroa, Tawhiri-matea, Haumia, and Maru were occasionally used. Some of these are in human form, but others, of which no specimens have been preserved, are said by Mr. John White to have been peculiarly formed wooden pegs of a symbolical form, as illustrated in volume 1 of his Ancient History of the Maori. Stone images of very rude form were used in connection with crops, and some of these represented Rongo; otherwise the Maori did not fashion stone images. The wooden images representing Rongo, Tangaroa, &c., were utilized by priestly adepts simply as temporary abiding-places for spirit-gods while certain magic formulae were being chanted, after which the atua abandoned the image until again summoned by the priest. The carved figures in human form seen in houses, storehouses, and on stockades never represented gods, but many were named after ancestors.

The lesson to be read from all collected data is simply this: that Maori religion was no well-defined system of beliefs and practices. It was a loose, free-and-easy series of beliefs and ceremonies that left each individual at liberty to please himself to a great extent. So long as he observed the rules of tapu he might please himself as to his dealings with the gods. He was extremely fortunate in not being subjected to any form of priestly intolerance, for that barbarous condition often pertains to a higher plane of culture than that occupied by the Maori.

In regard to ritual, we find that such matters differed almost as much as did the status and disposition of the gods. That pertaining to the cult of Io was marked by much solemnity, and its invocations and chants were greatly superior to those connected with the lower gods. This cultus had no concern with affairs of minor importance, or with anythig evil, such as black magic. Nor were all persons allowed to attend its functions, but only members of the higher class of priestly experts and of the principal families. The ordinary people were not allowed to listen to the ceremonial chants, nor to become acquainted with the twelve names of Io.

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Fig. 19.—Images used as temporary shrines for spirit-gods

Fig. 19.—Images used as temporary shrines for spirit-gods

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The ritual connected with the gods of the second and third classes was of an intermediate character. Occasionally one notes a direct appeal to higher powers, something that may be termed an invocation; but such effusions are certainly rare. The Maori folk did not pray. In the great majority of cases they employed formulae that can only be termed “charms” or “incantations”: they are not prayers; they are not invocations. They are on a level with the magical formulae employed by the people of Egypt, Sumeria, Babylonia, and elsewhere in olden times. In all cases these karakia, as the Maori termed them, although containing no appeal, were yet supposed to influence the gods indirectly, and to cause them to assist the reciters. These charms or incantations entered into every activity and phase of human life. There were many pertaining to birth, baptism, courtship, marriage, divorce, sickness, death, burial, exhumation, reburial, and the despatch of the spirit to the spirit-world. Others concerned all industries—house-building, canoe-making, tree-felling, agriculture, fishing, bird-snaring, and many other activities; while those pertaining to war, magic, divination, exorcism, &c., were as the sands of the seashore in number—yea, as leaves in the vale of Vallombrosa.

The charms and incantatory formulae pertaining to the fourth-class atua, and those employed by ordinary persons to avert evil omens, &c., were simple productions of no merit, and often apparently of no meaning. Of all recitations termed karakia, we find at the bottom of the list the charms used in playing games, &c., as those to cause a kite to fly well, and others used in dart-throwing, wrestling, and so on. Thus the term covers a host of jingles, charms, chants, and recitations, from such as are employed in childish games to the chants, sonorous and euphonious, of the cult of Io. The higher-class karakia represent a kind of blank verse. They were intoned, not merely spoken, and always in rhythmical measure. In some cases, when lengthy chants of importance were delivered, two adepts took part in the performance. One would commence the recitation, and continue it until his breath gave out, whereupon his companion took up the intoning without a moment's break in the rendering. This breakless recital was deemed a matter of importance, and any mistake or omission was viewed as a serious affair—indeed, it might cause the death of the reciter.

It must be added that every man possessed some knowledge of such charms. He would at least know some used for the purpose of averting evil omens, and others connected page 73 with his various occupations, such as fishing, trapping, bird-snaring, &c. More important ritual recitations were acquired and delivered only by priestly experts.

In some cases religious ceremonies were performed in public, but some of the more important ones were too tapu to be witnessed by the many; the knowledge of higher ritual was confined to the few. Ceremonial feasts were a marked feature of such functions, and at these the food for tapu persons were cooked in special ovens. The religious functions pertaining to firstfruits and harvesting operations were of much interest. The elements of fire and water entered frequently into Maori ritual; sacred fires pertained to many ceremonies, while water was employed in many rites of purification. The practice of immersion was followed in connection with certain ceremonial performances, and was, indeed, a part of a peculiar ritual of absolution. There was more in Maori religion and ethics than we know of, but no person has made a close study of them. The use of human hair as a kind of offering in times of danger, and the employment of saliva in ceremonial observances, were other peculiar features. The ceremonies and ritual performed by first-grade priests over a newly born child of rank were very remarkable; the dedication of the child to Io in connection with its sacred life-principle being a peculiar feature thereof. There may be survivals of a phallic cultus noted in Maori beliefs and practices, or at least they held very singular views regarding the innate powers of the organs of reproduction. The old concept of the phallic serpent, and the Asiatic symbolizing of the phallus in the eel, are met with in Polynesia, and Maori myth has preserved some very strange beliefs in this connection. The explanation of our borrowed myth of Eve and the serpent is in Maori minds.

We now see that the so-called priests and mediums influenced supernatural beings by means of incantations, offerings, and ceremonial performances, all of a conciliatory nature.