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

Spiritual Concepts of the Maori

Spiritual Concepts of the Maori

The Maori conception of the spiritual nature of man is a matter of considerable interest, and his beliefs in connection with the possession of such a spirit by inanimate objects are very remarkable, though not uncommon among barbaric folk. The conclusions arrived at by the priestly adepts of yore as to the soul of Nature and unity of all things, and of all things originating with the Supreme Being, show that they must have indulged in a considerable amount of introspective thought.

The Maori has ever recognized an immortal element in man, which he styles the wairua. Indeed, he may be said to have held the theory of the tripartite nature of man—body, soul, and spirit being his tinana, mauri, and wairua. This word wairua also means “shadow.” Another Maori word denoting a reflected image and shadow is ata, and this is a name for spirit or soul here, and at Uvea in the Loyalty Isles, as also at Taumako. The wairua of a person is that which leaves his body at death, never to return. It also leaves his body for brief periods during his life—that is, when he dreams—and is a more active force than the mauri. Spirits of the dead that do not immediately proceed to the spirit-world but lurk round the village home in the form of ghosts are termed kehua. The mauri of a person page 80 differs from his wairua, for it cannot leave the body during life. It is his life-principle, or vital spark, and so is sometimes referred to as mauri ora, or living mauri. This word ora itself is used to denote a spirit at Tikopia. The mauri is termed the mouri in some dialects; it is the mauli (life, soul) of Wallis Island, the mauri (to live) of Efate, and mauri (Soul, mind) of the Paumotu Group. Certainly the moui (life) of Niue is connected with this mouri or mauri.

This mauri is also possessed by what we view as inanimate objects, thus we hear of pains being taken to protect the mauri of crops so that they may flourish. A similar belief in connection with rice exists in Indonesia. Again, apart from this soul mauri, there is also the material mauri, which is some object that represents the vitality and general welfare of a place, a forest, river, lake, village, or of people. This material object, often a stone, was a taunga atua, a sort of shrine in which certain spirit-gods were located by priestly experts. Thus such a talisman might be employeed in order to protect a fortified village—that is, to preserve the health, courage, prestige, and general welfare of the inhabitants of that village.

Another peculiar word is hau. The hau of a person, of land, of a forest, &c., is its vital essence or power. The material mauri above described serves to protect the hau of land, forest, or man. A forest or stream provided with such a talisman will be the resort of great numbers of birds or fish, because they are under the protection of that object. The material mauri protects their intangible mauri, hence birds and fish from regions not so favoured will flock thither in order to share its prosperity and enjoy the protection of its talisman. But ever the powers of that talisman emanate from the gods.

A singular illustration of the esoteric beliefs of the Maori, of his powers of introspective thought, is seen in the highly interesting concept of the purification of the human spirit after death. This belief was apparently confined to what we may call the higher minds of a community, and was unknown to the ordinary people. It taught that the spirit which leaves the body at death still holds certain gross elements, and that after a certain period of time these are sloughed off, and so the wairua becomes etherealized, as it were. This purified spirit page 81 is known as the awe, a word denoting lightness, and hamano, which expression implies the heart or centre, the innermost part.

A peculiar form of ritual, termed tuku wairua, was recited over dying persons in order to facilitate the passage of the spirit to the spirit-world. The term ata (reflected image, shadow, semblance) is sometimes applied to this departing spirit.

The ordinary conception of spiritual life after death was a somewhat matter-of-fact one. The spirits of men are spoken of as though retaining in the lower spirit-world their material form of this world. They are said to live much as they did here; they dwell in houses, cultivate and consume food-supplies, and in the story of Mataora we note that they tattoo themselves. This latter statement, however, may perhaps be viewed as an historical tradition permeated by myth. What the inner teachings may have been concerning such spirit-life we do not know, but they could scarcely have been more vague than our own.

Fig. 23.—A stone mauri. It served as a shrine for protecting spirit-gods. The stone is a natural form

Fig. 23.—A stone mauri. It served as a shrine for protecting spirit-gods. The stone is a natural form

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An old native belief is to the effect that when a person is near the point of death the spirits of his dead forbears come hither from the spirit-world in order to guide his own wairua to spirit-land. The spirit-world, or the entrance thereto, lies afar off in the west, under the setting sun, hence it is alluded to as “the hidden land of Tane.” At the same time we are told that the spirits of the dead remain about their former homes here for just so long a period as intervened between their birth and the falling of the pito (umbilical cord). Maori beliefs resemble our own in at least one particular—they are often inconsistent. However, the passage of the freed spirit across the vast ocean to the westward is made clear to us. It traverses the way known as the Ara Whanui a Tane (the Broad Path of Tane), and that path is the gleaming sun glade, the golden path of the setting sun. Along that glittering path that traverses the heaving breast of Hine-moana fare the spirits of the dead, until in hidden, far-off seas they reach the old homeland of the race, the land of Irihia. There they congregate at the sacred meeting-place of spirits at Hawaiki-nui, and from there pass to one of the two spirit-worlds, that in the heavens or the underworld. There is some evidence to show that the upper spirit-world was the aristocratic realm of the two, and that the majority of the people knew little or nothing of this conception. Each spirit seems to have made its choice as to its ultimate destination, and apparently there was nothing to dread in either case, for there is no punishment of the spirit after death in Maori belief. It was reserved for the gentle teachings of Christianity to acquaint the Maori with the existence of burning lakes, fiery pits, and other unpleasant conditions awaiting him.

A popular belief is that Hine the erst Dawn Maid is the destroyer of man, that ever she draws mankind down to death in the underworld, known as the Po, or the Reinga, also as Rarohenga. This is quite a wrong impression, and it is shown in whare wananga teachings that Hine is the protector of the spirits of the dead. Ever she wages war against dread Whiro and his evil satellites, who ever strive to destroy the spirits of mankind that abide in Rarohenga.