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

Customs pertaining to Birth

Customs pertaining to Birth

Many peculiar customs and superstitions and a considerable amount of ritual formulae pertained to birth and death among the Maori folk, but not so much to marriage. Ceremonial performances pertained principally to birth, death, and exhumation of bones of the dead. Burial of the body was not marked by much ceremony, presumably because it was but a temporary affair.

In viewing these peculiar ceremonial functions pertaining to birth it must ever be remembered that they were practised only in connection with the more important families of a community. There was but little ceremony connected with birth among ordinary folk, though the condition of tapu held good in all cases to a certain extent. In this connection tapu may be said to be equivalent to the condition termed “unclean” in the Scriptures. A woman was tapu in this sense when giving birth to a child, and for soem days after, hence she was segregated for a certain period. As a rule a woman in this condition was treated much as a sick person was: she was placed in a temporary hut or shelter outside the bounds of the village. Not until the tapu was removed from her could she return to the village or mix again with people. page 100 The temporary hut in which the child was born was known as a whare kohanga, or “nest house.” While interned in that rude erection she was attended by one or more female attendants. A tohunga might visit the woman in the events of his services being required to recite charms in a case of difficult parturition. There was a greater amount of tapu and ritual pertaining to a first-born child than to any other. In some cases the clansfolk assembled in rejoicing and congratulation when it was known that a prominent woman was with child.

The Maori warlock practised a certain ceremony by means of which he caused conception, or people thought that he did. Other charms acted as a whakapa, or prevented conception. In the Tuhoe district is a famous tree that possesses the power of causing conception, hence it has for centuries been resorted to by childless women. A stone at Kawhia is said to possess similar virtues.

All matters pertaining to birth come under the sway of Hine-te-iwaiwa, a kind of tutelary being who controls matters connected with women's industries, childbirth, &c. This Hine is identified with Hina the moon-goddess, or personified form of the moon, who is the Sina of Polynesia. Here, as in ancient Egypt and Babylonia, we find the moon connected with productiveness and fruitfulness of crops and women.

Childless women sometimes carried a kind of wooden doll about, which they treated and sang to as though it were a child. I have also seen them nursing young pigs in lack of children, though this practice seems to have been abandoned in these latter days.

When a child was born to one of the principal families, but more especially in the case of a first-born male child, the people would assemble in order to greet the child and welcome him into the world of life. Gifts, principally of food, were brought for the child, and consumed by the mother. Songs of welcome were sung, and a ceremonial feast held. These songs were ancient compositions, and although they do not resemble any form of prayer as known to us, yet they were viewed as solemn ritual formulae by the Maori. This performance concluded by the whole of the people rising and chanting:—

Welcome, O child! welcome, O child!
To this world, to the world of light

The most important ceremony performed over the child, however, was that known as the tohi rite. This was the page 101 ancient custom of baptism, much resembling our own—a rite that was very carefully performed, and with which was connected some of the highest forms of ritual of the cult of Io. The ceremony took place in a stream or river, the performers facing the east, and the officiating priest standing in the flowing waters, where he was, as it were, spiritually insulated. The whole formed an impressive ceremonial, as, for instance, when the child was held up in the hands of the priest and dedicated to the Supreme Being, and an attendant priest released a bird, allowing it to fly away.

After the tohi rite came that known as the pure. The former was performed at a place removed from the village, but the latter occurred at the village itself, the principal house being prepared for the purpose. This affair was a final greeting to the child. Further ritual formulae were chanted by a priest over the child, and the relatives of both parents delivered speeches greeting the child and welcoming it into the world. During this formal reception the parents occupied the porch of the house, with their child, and the people were collected on the plaza before the house. In the ceremonial feast that followed this function the parents of the child were fed by attendants, being too tapu to be allowed to touch food with their hands. All those who attended the tohi rite had to be freed from tapu ere they could return to ordinary ways of life. This rigid tapu was caused by the introduction of the name of the Supreme Being into the ritual, and that was the reason why so few persons were allowed to attend that ceremony. This series of ceremonial functions, with their processions to and from the baptismal waters, were performed, be it remembered, over children of rank only. As a rule such honorific treatment was not accorded to female infants, but only to the more important males. Occasionally a female child of rank was so honoured.