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The Maori Division of Time


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THE Polynesian system of division of time was crude and incomplete. It contains, however, elements of interest, for it was probably brought from the old homeland of the race in the far west. Moreover, it possesses an evolutionary interest, for we see in the primitive time measurement of the Maori the rude system from which our accurate one has been developed. It seems by no means improbable that the two systems sprang from a common source, and it is probable that its place of origin lay in the far-off regions of southern Asia, in India, or the ancient Land of the Two Rivers.

From whatever region the ancestors of the Maori may have wandered in long past centuries, it is clear that their knowledge of arts and sciences must have been but elementary when they settled in the isles of the Pacific. Also it is evident that such crude knowledge became fossilised in this region. Dwelling in small communities in isles of small area, cut off from communion with more advanced peoples, the Polynesians must have lived for many centuries in much the same stage of culture as they had been when they first entered the Pacific.

The Maori of New Zealand followed in the footsteps of many other divisions of mankind with regard to the commencement of the year. His year commenced at the beginning of winter, after his harvesting operations had concluded. It would appear that some change was made in the Polynesian system when immigrants from that region settled here in New Zealand, for we are told by several writers that the Polynesian year commenced in December with the evening rising of the Pleiades.

In his interesting work entitled Neolithic Dew-ponds and Cattleways A. J. Hubbard wrote as follows: “Early man naturally measured the year from the ripening of the crops of one year to the corresponding period in the succeeding year. Thanks to the investigations of Sir Norman Lockyer and Mr Penrose, it has perhaps been established that this system of measuring time gave the early part of May as a starting point for the year in ancient Egypt, as it had been in Chaldea in a still more remote period.” Another authority, however, states that the Egyptian year commenced with the cosmic rising of Sirius, about the middle of July.

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The following extract is from Folk Lore, Volume xxv, No. 3: “Ancient Celts and Teutons reckoned only two seasons in the year, and began it with the winter season in November, not with the summer season in May. This, obviously, is the practical husbandman's calendar, beginning the year with ploughing and ending it after harvest.”

It was during the autumn or early winter that the Maori year commenced – that is, in May or June; the precise time differed. The Pleiades year of south-eastern Asia has, at some unknown period, been introduced into the Pacific, and so is met with in these far southern isles of New Zealand.

Here, however, we encounter an instance of those contradictory and disconcerting facts so frequently met with in the study of Polynesian institutions. It frequently occurs that a community has preserved two different versions of a myth, or two forms of a custom, art, or institution. Now, in some districts, as the east coast of the North Island, the Pleiades year was a permanent institution, but in others the heliacal rising of Puanga (Rigel in Orion) marked the commencement of the year. This was the case in the far North, in the South Island, and at the Chatham Isles. It is possible that the two systems were introduced by different bands of migrants, and possibly from different regions of the Pacific. It is a noteworthy fact that the Orion year was followed by tribes most closely connected with the original people of the land, and the Pleiades year by the later coming Takitumu migrants. The natives of the Takitumu district of the east coast were noted by Cook and his companions as being of superior culture to those of the far North and those of the South Island.

We are told that the primitive Aryan folk reckoned the years as winters divided into moons and nights, not into months and days, and that they made no attempt to reconcile solar and lunar time. The ancestors of the Polynesians must have possessed a somewhat similar system of time measurement when they entered the Pacific region in times long past away. Their mode of life in the far-scattered isles of Polynesia would not make for advancement, but still there was evidently some unexplained system of intercalation by means of which the lunar year was occasionally rectified.

The Babylonian year was one of 12 months of 30 days each, and it was regulated by intercalation at certain periods. We owe much to the ancient populations of that far-off land and their strivings after astronomical knowledge, including the 12 hour dials of our timepieces. Twelve was a highly favoured number in Babylonia, as it also was with Polynesians, including our Maori folk. That predilection emanated from the study of astronomy and the division of the year into 12 months. The Egyptian year was also divided into 12 months of 30 days page 7 each, to which were added five extra days set apart for a ceremonial agricultural festival. Curiously enough, this usage reappears at the Hawaiian Isles in the northern Pacific, where the five intercalated days were devoted to exactly the same purpose.

In as much as the Polynesian division of time was based on the movements of the moon, it behoves us to pay some little attention to that luminary, one of the leading members of what the Maori calls the Whanau Marama, or Children of Light. In some ancient mythological systems pertaining to barbaric folk the moon is masculine, on account of its supposed superior importance, while the sun god is feminine. This was the case among the Accadians. Among the more highly civilised Semites of a later period the sexes of these orbs, or their personified forms, were reversed. Now, in Polynesian mythology we encounter the moon in both characters, as both male and female. This may represent racial admixture in the past, a commingling of two mythological systems. In Maori folk tales the moon is distinctly alluded to as a male, as the husband of all women; but the moon has two personified forms, one of which is female and the other male. These two personified forms are also known far and wide across Polynesia.

The female personified form of the moon in New Zealand and Polynesia is known as Hina, Sina, and Ina, in sympathy with well known letter changes. The Maori replaces the s with h. The name of Sina carries the mind back to Sin, the moon god of far Babylonia. The Maori has two forms of the name: Hina-keha (Pale Hina) is applied to the moon when bright, while Hina-uri (Dark Hina) describes it during the hinapouri or dark nights of the moon. She also appears as Hina-teiwaiwa and Hine-te-iwaiwa, who is the female deity presiding over childbirth, the art of weaving, and women in general. The moon goddess of ancient Egypt occupied exactly the same position.

In the name of the twenty-eighth night of the lunar month, Orongonui, we find the name of the male personified form of the moon. In the name of the twenty-seventh night, Otane, we find that of the personification of the sun. Rongo of the Maori is known as Rongo, Rono, Ro'o, Longo, Lono, and Ono in the various groups of Polynesia. Judge Fenton has stated in his Suggestions for a History of the Maori People that Rono was a Babylonian name for the moon; this has not been encountered elsewhere by the present writer. We do know that in that far region the moon was the measurer of time, and its personified form the god of agriculture. This position of the moon was a far spread usage, and it reappears in New Zealand. The superior importance of the moon is a belief of which we see survivals in Maori lore, wherein Rongo appears as the elder brother of Tane. Again, in the peculiar page 8 double title of Rongo-ma-Tane, employed both here and in Polynesia, we note that the name of the personified form of the moon precedes that of the sun. A very brief study of Maori institutions and myths shows us that Rongo was here both the time measurer and the patron deity of agriculture.

Rongo-nui is one of the lengthened forms of the name of the important being under discussion, and the name has been applied to a certain night of the moon, as noted above. This name should stand as O-Rongo-nui, the O carrying a possessive sense. It is worthy of note that the Maori husbandman planted his sweet potatoes during the Otane and Orongonui phases of the moon, thus showing that he recognised the powers of sun and moon in connection with the growth of crops. Ritual formulae pertaining to crops were addressed principally to Rongo, and offerings of the firstfruits of such food supplies were made to him. This identification of Rongo with the moon cost the writer many years' study, and, when concluded I found that Fenton had arrived at the same conclusion long before. This is shown in a sentence in the above-mentioned work: “Several of the days are named after the old gods of the people, and the twenty-seventh day is called Orongonui, after an ancient name of the moon god.” Hence Fenton has the credit of solving that puzzle.

It will be noted that the lists of names of phases of the moon, as given by different persons or different tribes, do not agree. In some cases the names differ, in others the order in which they appear. In Fornander's work, The Polynesian Race, we find that, 4,000 miles from New Zealand, the Hawaiians call the twenty-seventh and twenty-eighth nights of the moon's age Kane and Lono (Maori Tane and Rongo), and that they are both la kapu (ra tapu), or sacred days. These two names of nights, as the Maori terms them, are also found in conjunction with each other in the lists of the Chatham Isles, Tahiti, and Mangaia. Of the latter the Rev. W. Gill wrote: “The twenty-sixth and twenty-seventh were fête days, Rongo and Tane being patrons of their dances in time of peace.”

In the well known name of Rongo-marae-roa, or Rongo of the Vast Expanse, we have another form of the name. Marae-roa, Tahua-roa, Marae-nui-atea, Mahora-nui-atea, and Tahora-nui-atea are all names denoting the vast expanse of the ocean. With that ocean Rongo is ever connected, and this appears clearly in Hawaiian myth, wherein he is alluded to as “Great Rongo dwelling on the Waters”. In Old-World mythologies we again meet with this close connection between the moon and water. Note the Maori myth of Hina-uri passing over the ocean during the dark stages of the moon, after which Tane-te-waiora restores her and returns her to this world as Hine-keha, once more page 9 young and beautiful. Yet another name, that of Rongo-mai, is connected with the moon, for the being of that name ascended to the moon. In an interesting communication from Huru-moana, of Pipiriki, occurs a remark concerning the 12 lunar months termed therein te tatau o Rongo-nui ngahuru ma rua, the tally of 12 of great Rongo.

We have seen that in Maori myth there are two personified forms of the moon, Rongo and Hina, or Sina, the one male and the other female. At Samoa Rongo is said to have been the son of Sina. In the New Hebrides we meet with the word sina as meaning “to shine”. In the Journal of the Polynesian Society, Volume 20, page 172, we are told that Sina is a Hindu name for the moon. At the Hawaiian Isles we find an old myth that shows Rongo and Hina to be but two names for the one being. When Hina became crippled and ascended to the moon to abide therein she took the name of Lono-moku (Rongo-motu = crippled Rongo).

In Asiatic beliefs of old the moon is closely connected with reproduction, as in Polynesia and New Zealand. A lunar crescent surmounting a linga was the symbol of Ira, the eel god of India, where the phallic eel was also nearly concerned with reproduction, as it is in Maori myth. Now, the old symbol of the moon god, the lunar crescent, reappears here at the end of the earth in the whakamarama or whakaaurei (both moon names), which is the crescent carved on the upper end of the old Maori ko, or digging implement.

Early man ever turned to the moon for help in the matter of the division of time, in as much as its phases are more apparent than those of the sun. The fixing of the solar year with precision was too difficult a task for him, hence he employed various devices in order to bring the lunar year into agreement with the solar year – that is to say, with recurring seasons. The lunar month would be one of the first mediums for division of time to be recognised by uncultured man, so apparent are its limits. Many peoples have advanced so far as to recognise a year of 12 months, each of 30 days. Then came the difficulty of the odd days, which often proved to be a serious stumbling block, and, amongst other races, we find that Polynesians made various attempts to surmount it. Some divisions appear to have kept an extra month up the divisional sleeve, to be slipped in when matters became serious. Others added five loose days to the year. It is because we encounter so many institutions, arts, beliefs, etc., in process of development in the Polynesian area that the ethnography of that region is so interesting a study. Our week of seven days is a heritage from people whose system of time measurement resembled that of the Maori.

The first attempt made by man to employ the sun as a time measure, beyond the very evident alternation of night and day, was apparently page 10 in the recognition of seasons, to which he assigned names. Thus season names are older than words employed to denote the solar year, and in some cases we find that the word defining the solar year originally meant “season”. The Maori word tau, formerly employed as denoting a season, has now come to be used as meaning a year, owing to European influence.

In the realm of myth we see that the Maori tells of the death and resurrection of the moon in the mythopoetic conception of the Waiora a Tane, but we do not encounter such fancies in connection with the sun, or its personified form Tane. This fact tends to show that the importance of the sun as a time measurer was not fully recognised by Polynesian folk; they clung to the lunar year of early man. Both the lunar and solar years have been the progenitors, as it were, of a great many interesting myths.

The Maori not only lacked a precisely measured year, but also any dependable system of chronology whereby to register the fleeting years. No man knew how old he was. The only serviceable unit for the defining of long periods of time was the human generation, and that is assuredly not a precise one. The unit was not an arbitrary one of a certain tale of years, but actual genealogies were employed, a fact that rendered precision impossible. A generation may be shortened or lengthened; two persons descended from a common ancestor of 250 years ago may count, the one 10 generations from that ancestor to himself, the other possibly but eight. This imperfect system of chronology cannot be termed a satisfactory one, but it is the only one that can be utilised in dealing with the traditional history of the Maori. In order to introduce uniformity the Polynesian Society has fixed upon 25 years as representing the Maori and Polynesian generation.

The Maori had some peculiar ways of defining lapses of time, some of which appear vague to us. A few quotations from traditionary stories will illustrate this: “Whatonga remained one autumn with his sons.” In as much as he arrived in December this would mean that he remained about five months with them. Names of the lunar months were commonly employed in fixing time, as – “The old man was lying in the porch of the house, basking in the sun of Tatau-uruora (November), the division of the year that impinges upon Akaaka-nui (December).” And, again: “It was decided that the canoe race should be held in Tatau-uruora of the Orongonui season of the year.” This season of Orongonui seems to have included summer and autumn, but we know not why it was called Rongo-nui; possibly it was because the fruits of the earth are plentiful during that period.

A more precise way of fixing a date was by means of mentioning not only the name of the lunar month, but also that of the night or day page 11 of the moon, as in the following: “The vessel came to land at Rangitoto. Having remained at that place for some time, until the Akaakanui month of the season, on the Omutu night of the moon the vessel of Kahu sailed from Rangitoto.” A very frequent usage was the use of ordinal numbers to designate the months, as – “In the fourth the head of the Cordyline was cut off.” The word month was omitted but always understood.

In certain notes on Maori matters collected by Governor King of New South Wales, and published in 1796, occurs the following: “The New Zealanders reckon time by the revolutions of the moon, and employ 100 moons as a unit in measuring time.” The latter statement is assuredly an error; no such unit was used by the Maori. Of the word tau, now employed by natives to denote the solar year, Williams says in his Maori Dictionary: “Tau = season, year; the recurring cycle being the predominating idea rather than the definite time measurement.” An old native of much knowledge, on being asked in what year a certain event in Maori history took place, replied: “The Maori had no tale of years as Europeans have; their reckoning of time was by months and days, by summer and winter.” The Rev. W. Gill tells us that at Mangaia the year was divided into two seasons, or tau. The same system obtained at Tahiti and other parts of Polynesia. Fornander states that the primary meaning of tau in Polynesia is “season”, – in some cases a season of six months. Occasionally it denoted, derivatively, a year. The Maori probably used the term in a similar manner. If engaged in planting crops he would refer to the planting of the previous year as that of “last tau”, which would be equivalent to “last year”.