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The Whare Kohanga (The "Nest House") and its Lore

Baptism a Pre-Christian Rite, Etc

Baptism a Pre-Christian Rite, Etc.

In the ceremonial baptism of infants as performed by the Maori in past times we see a close resemblance to a Christian usage. This peculiarity extends to other matters, as seen in the old Maori institutions of confession, immersion, and absolution, for example. E. B. Tylor, the anthropologist, expressed the opinion that such baptismal rites practised by barbaric folk might have been borrowed frompage 61 Christianity; but this surmise must be laid aside in the face of farreaching evidence to the contrary. It is clear that Christianity, like all other cults, was based upon preceding faiths, and that many of its rites and teachings, &c., can be traced far back into paganism. In like manner we can trace many Maori usages to far-off lands. The tapu pertaining to birth; the whare kohanga, or "nest hut," in which the mother was segregated; the planting of a branch at the birth of an infant; the performance of the baptismal and naming rite seven days after birth; the ceremonial piercing of the ears of children—all these usages were observed in far-off India as they were in the land of the Maori.

It must be borne in mind that the ceremonial described in this paper pertained to the first-born male children of high-class families only; this was owing to the respect the Maori ever had for the law of primogeniture.

In an account of the superior tohi rite collected by the late Colonel Gudgeon, a komako (bell-bird) is said to have been released during the performance. This ceremonial releasing of birds also appears in old-time lore of India and Babylonia.

Readers will note that in a number of cases the formulae or so-called charms recited by the Maori during such ceremonies as those described above seem to have no bearing whatever on the matter in hand. This peculiarity is said to pertain to such recitals of many peoples of a similar culture stage, and even to those of nations of antiquity that had attained a much higher level than that attained by the Polynesians.

Personal names in many cases owed their origin to incidents, and sometimes these were of quite a trivial nature. When the tua rite was performed over the child of Ruatapu, of the Toi line, a lizard was employed as a whakahere, or placatory offering, to the atua, or spirit god, under whose aegis the ceremony was conducted, hence to that infant was assigned the name of Rakaiora. This name is that of the personified form of lizards.

In a little-known work entitled Maori Mementos, by C. O. Davis, we find some unusual features assigned to the baptismal ceremony. He writes: "The mode of baptizing the Maori children was simply as follows: The mother and nurse accompanied the priest to a stream, the latter holding in his hand a small branch, which he dipped in the water, and, sprinkling the infant, uttered certain prayers. The mother of the child was not allowed to see the ceremony performed; she stood at a short distance with her back turned toward the priest, but at the conclusion of the rite the infant was delivered to the mother, who bore it in her arms to a sacred house, where the infant, herself,page 62 and nurse were obliged to remain in a state of tapu for one month. During this period no visitor was allowed to approach, and frequently the nurse was not even permitted to fondle the child until the expiration of the month. As to the father, he was treated as the veriest stranger. The extreme sacredness of this ceremony, however, was confined to the first-born, and took place three days after the child was born. Sometimes the rites were far more complex than the above."

The above notes were probably derived from a northern source, whereas the account I have given of baptismal ceremonies was obtained from the Ngati-Kahungunu folk.

Among the Tuhoe folk we hear of two huts as having been constructed for the accommodation of the expectant mother. The first one occupied by her was called the whare kahu and whare whakakahu, and in this she gave birth to her child. The word kahu denotes the membrane enveloping a foetus. The mother left this hut soon after delivery according to some natives, while others state that she remained therein until about the seventh day after delivery, when she took up her quarters in the second hut, the whare kohanga. This latter statement is not so credible as the first one. According to the Tuhoe folk the tua rite had the effect of removing the condition of tapu from infant and mother, and it endowed the child with health, vigour, and other desirable qualities.