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

Customs and Beliefs Pertaining to Death

Customs and Beliefs Pertaining to Death

There was a vast amount of tapu pertaining to death among our Maori folk, and several different phases of that disability are noted in connection with sickness, death, and burial-places. The tapu of a sick person is much the same as that of a woman at the birth of her child; it carries a sense like that described as “unclean” in the Scriptures. Behind that lay the belief that all sickness is the work of the gods.

The myth of the origin of death is but an allegorical rendering of the old story of the conquest of Light by Darkness. Maui, who represented light, was destroyed by Hine, who at first represented the dawn, but, like all dawns, had passed into the shades of night. Darkness and death go ever together in the mind of barbaric man; hence Whiro, who represents darkness, and dwells in the underworld, also represents death. His emissaries are ever among us, striving to strike us down; but his permanent representative here on earth is the lizard, hence the great fear displayed by the Maori when he encounters the harmless little green lizard (Naultinus).

The Maori was fortunate in not having a priesthood whose ambition it was to make him fear death, hence he had no fear of the hereafter, and death-beds were remarkable for the calmness of the passing sick man, and the collected, clear-minded way in which he expressed his last wishes. This is a fact I have been much struck with, and have witnessed such passings with great interest. The common saying is that the dead have been caught in the snare of Hine-nui-te-po, of the underworld; but the esoteric teachings show us that Whiro is the destroyer, not Hine. Her task is to protect the spirits of the dead. It was not until the ira tangata (human life, mortal beings) entered the world that death was known. Prior to that time the ira atua, or supernatural life, alone was known in this world.

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In Maori myth Maui is credited with the desire to permit temporary death on earth, so that man might die and revive as does the moon; but Hine-nui-te-po, the erst Dawn Maid, now queen of the underworld, opposed him. This led to the contest between Maui and Hine, or Light and Darkness.

When a native was taken ill he was not allowed to remain in a dwellinghouse, but was removed to some place, usually outside the village, where a rude temporary hut was erected for his accommodation. The tapu pertaining to a sick person was the cause of this procedure. If left in the dwellinghouse he might die therein, whereupon the house would have to be destroyed, or at least deserted. A person of importance was, in some cases, carried to the plaza of the village when near death, and there made his dying speech to his people. Such a speech would consist of advice as to future actions of the people, and a statement of his desires as to his property and family. The Maori really prefers to die in the open air, so that he may look upon and greet the world for the last time, for this is what he calls a mihi ki te ao marama. But little care was bestowed upon a sick person, and the belief that sickness is caused by the gods prevented any use being made of medicines or simple remedies. An oft-expressed desire of those taken ill away from home was that they be conveyed back to those homes. Thus sick persons were often carried long distances that they might die on their own land. Any place whereat the carriers laid down their burden in order to rest would be known by a special name thereafter if he were a man of importance. I have seen carved posts set up at such places in order to mark them.

A person in extremis is sometimes farewelled to the spirit-world ere the breath of life leaves his body. This would be done by the people near at hand. Otherwise the wailing commenced immediately after the breath of life left the body of the sufferer. An interesting fact is that death not infrequently took place shortly after the consumption of a relished o matenga. This is the “death-journey food,” the last food partaken of by a dying person. Human flesh, rats, and earthworms were viands much favoured by invalids at such a time. I have known many cases in which a surviving relative has taken as a new name that of the death-journey food of a parent or child, or other kin. Thus my worthy old friend Hatata assumed the name of “Kuku” because the last food partaken of by his late grandchild chanced to have been some mussels (kuku). Another such case is that of a page 106 child named Te O-arani, so called because the last food partaken of by a dying relative was an orange, pronounced arani by natives. A woman named Pua-wananga received that name at her father's death because he had taken some medicine made from roots of the pua-wananga plant (Clematis indivisa). Certain East Coast natives, however, achieved the climax when they named a hapless child Apenehaiti Apereihana (appendicitis operation)! When near death a wish might be expressed for a certain kind of food, and if the invalid were a person of importance no pains would be spared in procuring it. In some cases a man would say that he longed to drink once more of the waters of a certain stream, and, though that stream were twenty miles away, the water would be quickly procured for him by swift-footed messengers.

In some cases at least, or perhaps in certain districts, a curious custom was practised of forwarding the departing spirit to the spirit-world. This was done by means of the reciting of certain ritual termed a tuku wairua, a name that explains the object of the act. This ceremony seems to have sent the flitting soul on its way, and prevented it hovering about its former abode. Among the more important families the ritual pertaining to sickness, death, and burial was of a high class, inasmuch as priestly adepts of the first grade were the performers, and these men were the upholders of the cult of Io. Prior to visiting the sick person these priests would immerse their bodies in the waters of a stream. They would then approach the hut wherein the sick person was lying, chanting karakia as they did so. Other such formulae were intoned over the body of the patient, in which were mentioned the names of a number of gods. These had the effect of what we would term absolution—all disadvantages derived from past indiscretions of wrong actions were swept away. A person must be cleansed spiritually, as it were, ere undergoing any high-class ceremonial. Also the gods were called upon to succour the sufferer, for he had been placed under the protection of those gods when he was baptized shortly after birth. The healing charm was then recited. This calling upon the great gods, Tane and the various poutiriao, or guardians, was a very tapu affair. When two priests were performing this rite, each one laid a hand on the head of the sufferer, and held the other hand up, much as the modern Ringa-tu folk hold up the right hand. That position they maintained while intoning the final ritual.

Farewells to the dead, as made at death, often appear also in songs composed by friends of the departed. Such page 107 remarks as the following often occur in such addresses: “Farewell! Go forth to the region wherein human life began. There your ancestors and elders will greet you, and convey you to the path by which your forbear Tane ascended to the bespaced heavens. Even so shall you enter the precincts of Rangiatea, the abode of Io the Parent, there to be welcomed by celestial maids and whatukura (male attendants).”

The trussing of the body of the dead was a very far-spread custom—indeed, a world-wide one. Among our Maori folk the body was so manipulated immediately after death. The knees were drawn up until they touched the body, then held in that position by means of a cord passed round both. The body was covered with superior garments; the hair was combed, oiled, and arranged, being adorned with plumes. Tufts of snow-white albatross-down were used as ear-ornaments. The face would probably be marked with red paint, and a pendant suspended from the neck. The corpse was then ready for the lying in state—or, rather, it was a sitting position that the trussed body was placed in. The weapons of the deceased would be laid by his side, also any presents brought to show respect for the dead, such presents being known as kopaki. The body would be kept in this condition for days, while the mourning ceremonial was practically continuous, as parties of mourners kept arriving from other parts of the district. Each party as it arrived would march into the village in column and, halting in front of the body, would proceed to tangi for the dead. This procedure consisted of copious weeping, the emitting of mournful wailing sounds, and, with some individuals, swaying movements to accompany the wailing. This latter was termed tangi whakakurepe, and included a curious quivering movement of the hands.

In many cases the body was buried, and every few years a hahunga tupapaku, or exhumation of the dead, took place. On these occasions a number of dead were exhumed—that is to say, the bones were taken up, cleansed, and taken to the village. There they were placed upon an elevated platform, and a considerable amount of ceremonial speech-making and feasting was indulged in. Different sections of a tribe would assemble at such gatherings, which were not occupied with ceremonial affairs alone, for social pleasures also entered into the programme. At such meetings also were discussed any political matters that chanced to be prominent at the time. The hahunga ceremony is referred to by unsympathetic European settlers page 108 as a “bone-scraping match,” in allusion to the custom of cleansing the disinterred bones. As to the final disposal of the bones of the dead, they were conveyed to some cave or chasm far from the haunts of man, or placed in a hollow tree. On several occasions I have come across such remains in hollow pukatea trees. Occasionally bodies of the dead were taken direct to a cave or chasm, both inhumation and exhumation being dispensed with, or perchance forced down into the mud of a swamp. In a few cases bodies of the dead were subjected to a drying process over a fire, and these mummy-like remains were exhibited periodically to the people.

The Maori had ever a keen dread of enemies tampering with his dead. Where bitter enmity existed between two peoples, it was considered a fine thing to obtain bones of the enemy's dead, and from such bones were fashioned fish-hooks, spear-points, &c. One of the easiest and most effective modes of burial was adopted in some cases by coast-dwelling folk. A body was placed at the base of a sand-dune and the loose sand rolled on to it; no burial was easier or more effective.

Objects of value, such as weapons and ornaments, were sometimes placed with the dead. In some cases such objects were recovered, as at the exhuming of bones of the dead. In other cases they were so deposited for ever, and such objects will occasionally be found in these isles for long centuries to come.

The condition of tapu pertaining to death, burial, and exhumation wa intense. Those about to engage in exhuming bones of the dead discarded their garments and immersed their bodies in water, while certain ritual was recited over them. When the task was over a similar ceremony had to be performed.

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In pre-European times the Maori lived in much the same manner as apparently did the neolithic folk of Britain, in communities, the size of which was controlled by the food-supply. His naturally cheerful disposition caused him to enjoy social pleasures, and the lack of written language would mean greater dependence on such pleasures. The want of domestic animals, save an inferior species of dog, was a handicap to advancement, and threw much extra work on the women.

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Fig. 29.—Cenotaph

Fig. 29.—Cenotaph

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Fig. 30.—A Maori coffin. Bones of the dead placed therein

Fig. 30.—A Maori coffin. Bones of the dead placed therein

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Fig. 31.—Diminutive coffin. To contain a tapu bone of exhumed remains

Fig. 31.—Diminutive coffin. To contain a tapu bone of exhumed remains

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No people had less in the way of furniture than the Maori folk—in fact, save mats, they had none, and the interior of a house or hut was bare and comfortless from our point of view. In the larger houses they lay or sat on floor-mats on either side of a central passage-way. In sitting the men adopt the cross-legged attitude that soon becomes so distressing to us. Women bring both feet to one side and sit sideways, as it were. A common posture when engaged in tasks that permitted of it was that of squatting on the heels. These people used no form of raised seat, and no form of table. A peculiar habit, and a most persistent one, was the covering of the mouth with cloak or cape when seated in company. The attitude of kneeling is seldom adopted. The carriage of the Maori is good as a rule in youth and middle age. In former times women became bent and decrepit-looking, probably on account of the heavy burdens they carried. In carrying such burdens they did so by the use of shoulder-straps, and never used the balance-pole of Polynesia. Girls were taught to walk with a curious swaying movement of the hips that looks awkward to us, though the Maori admired it; they term this loose-jointed walk onioni. The gait of the man differed from ours, as that of all barefooted peoples does; a heavy, plodding step is never acquired by shoeless folk. In travelling the men often adopted a shuffling gait page 113 page 114 that was kept up for long distances. As foot-travellers they had not the speed or endurance of the Indians of North America. Women carried their children on their backs, confined by a garment, and occasionally on the hip. Both sexes are excellent swimmers, employing the side stroke; children learn to swim at an early age.

Fig. 32.—An ancient Maori custom. The mouth covered with garment when sitting

Fig. 32.—An ancient Maori custom. The mouth covered with garment when sitting

Fig. 33.—Method of carrying burdens. Pack-straps (kawe rapa) to contain the burden

Fig. 33.—Method of carrying burdens. Pack-straps (kawe rapa) to contain the burden

An upward nod of the head is a sign of assent in maoriland. Some of their gestures are peculiar, such as the kapo, in which the arm is raised and the hand closed as though clutching something. This is a silent answer given sometimes to a taunt, or message, and the action means that, though no action is taken at the time, yet will the act be remembered and attended to in future; or it may be simply a token of assent. Applying the projecting middle joint of the bent forefinger to the nose is a gesture that has saved many lives, for it symbolizes the hongi salute, and has meant protection and salvation to many captives. Signalling to a distance was carried on by means of smoke signals, and signs (tohu) by the way-side often imparted important information to wayfarers. The hongi, alluded to above, was the common mode of saluting each other, and consisted of touching or pressing of noses, the common expression “rubbing noses” being misleading.

The ordinary greeting, as to either sex, exists in three forms, singular, dual, and plural, as follows: Tena koe (singular); tena korua (dual); tena koutou (plural). This may be said to mean “You there,” or “There you are,” and does not sound very gracious. In many cases a form of address is added to the greeting, as in “Tena koe, e hoa!” the e hoa being equal to “O friend.”

Other terms of address are—

  • E pa! To a man.

  • E koro! To a man.

  • E ta! To either sex, as in different districts.

  • E tama! To a youth or man.

  • E hika! To either sex. In some districts to children only.

  • E kui! To an elderly woman.

  • E ko! To a girl.

  • E hine! To a girl or young woman.

  • E mara! To a man.

  • E whae! To a woman.

Yet another mode of address is to mention the name of a person addressed, as “Tena koe, e Para!” or “E Tohu, tena ra koe.”

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Fig. 34.—The hongi, or nose-pressing salute. The clasped hands is a modern usage

Fig. 34.—The hongi, or nose-pressing salute. The clasped hands is a modern usage