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Maori and Polynesian: their origin, history and culture

Chapter X — Polynesian Religious and Mythological — Ideas

page 113

Chapter X
Polynesian Religious and Mythological

The Evolution of Religion and Myth

(1) Religion is the effort of the human mind to make truce with the phenomena, or, later, the problems that press in upon it, mysterious or half-understood. And primitive man has naturally but a limited horizon. The stocks and stones that obstruct him or aid him in his hunt for food are at first more real and immediate to him than the sun or stars, or heaven, or the ancestry he has hidden away in the earth. Out of them he makes his tools and weapons, and as rocks and mountains, or as forests, they bar his way to the satisfaction of his appetite. And where the struggle for life is in its essence one for bare subsistence, these are supreme over all phenomena and conditions. We need not hesitate, then, to accept fetichism as the primal religious attitude of the human mind, the system that deifies anything that comes to hand.

(2) And this is confirmed by the evidence of childhood, that rough, shorthand record of primeval history. The first attitude of the infantile mind to things is almost the same as its attitude to living beings. Long before the time of dolls it resents the wounds that things seem to inflict, and accepts their aid as benignant. Everything that enters its narrow sphere is dealt with as alive, to be punished or rewarded, like its nurse or its mother. It, in short, transfers its own personality to all the phenomena that come within page 114the range of its senses. And those that seem powerful to hurt or confer benefits are to it as gods.

(3) As the world of the child and the primitive man expands their Olympus expands too. The moving, shifting phenomena around them, the fountains, the streams, the waves, the raindrops, the mists, the trees, and flowers and the animals, are sources of wonderthat mother of both religion and philosophy. They seem to have personality and life, and can confer and withhold favours. They are not mere symbols and representatives of gods, but very gods themselves. This is the worship of the lesser features of Nature.

(4) Still the horizon widens, and the great and impressive processes of Nature, the storm and the tide, the thunder and the earthquake, add omnipotence to their idea of deity. No less living and real seem these sublime phenomena than the features of their landscape and life, that have been familiar friends as well as divinities to them. And their religious thoughts begin to fix even on the less mobile sublimities of Nature, the heaven above and its stars, the moonlight and the sun. Still though these seem to be, their vastitude strikes the imagination, and induces awe. Hence comes a loftier type of reverence and religion.

(5) And perhaps before this, perhaps contemporaneously with it, death has left its solemn inspiration on the threshold of the soul. Led by his twin-brother, sleep, with his dream retinue, he erects shrines for those who have passed away, and makes them still-living divinities. The spirit in visions of the night seems to wander far from its physical tenement. And when the eyes close in the final sleep, and the great darkness comes, the same thing occurs: the spirit has gone a long journey; it must have commissariat and retinue; and food is offered on the grave, and slaves and even wives are sacrificed, that they may accompany it on its way. page 115Hence the warmer and more human religion of ancestry-worship, with its tales of the past and its genealogies.

(6) From this the personal element creeps into the Nature-worships. Personification of the lesser and greater features and processes of existence arises. Allegorical story and legend gather round the names of the Nature-deities. They become living flesh and blood like the worshippers themselves. They love and hate, wrangle and scold, war and make treaties; they eat each other, if their makers are cannibals; they are as gross or as cultured as their clientle, as criminal or immoral, as imaginative or intellectual. They are "touched with like passions." The only difference between a tribe's or nation's pantheon and its own life is that the gods are stronger or greater or less subject to accident, and can elude one or more of the senses.

(7) Some of the ancestral spirits, the great and heroic, join them. And thus the line grows difficult to draw between the home of the gods in the sky and the home of the spirits of men in the darkness beneath the earth. Yet there is ever an upper world and an under world beyond the immediate ken of the senses.

(8) A final stage of primitive religion is the philosophical. The mind begins to work on its own creations, and in trying to find out the origin of the world as it is, has also to account for the gods, their state, and relationships to the world. This is the cosmology of a religion, and is a sign that the race in its higher intellects is about to break away from the trammels of the old faith, and to rise above it. It is out of this that monotheism grows, if the tribal divisions have reached any national unity under a ruler. If there is no monarchical government as a model, philosophy gradually rejects Olympus, and accepts the world of common sense, or a world of mystic meaning in its place.

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The Polynesian Religion mingles all Stages

(9) Wherever we find two or more of these stages intermingled, we may be sure that there has been a crossing of races or tribes with different culture-developments. It is perfectly true that at least two of them co-exist in most peoples that have got beyond the merely savage. But this only means that few or no peoples have ever risen to anything that can be called culture without cross-breeding. Genealogies and all the birth-paraphernalia that belong to an aristocracy encourage the fiction that the conquering or dominant race is pure. No fiction could stand less investigation than this. For the race that is pure never advances. Crossing produces the competitive types that mean progress and ultimate dominance in the struggle for life. We may therefore accept the co-existence of any two or more of these stages of religious thought and feeling as evidence of the intermixture of races or tribes.

(10) Now if there is one feature that distinguishes Polynesian religion more than another, it is its inconsistent, and often contradictory, phases. We have the purely fetichistic stage, not only in the system of tapu, but in the kura or sacred stones, which had the power of communicating divinity to new objects. They were generally only round stones from the beach or the brook. And all over the islands of Polynesia similar stones were worshipped or used as talismans or amulets. The artificial stones sculptured into the form of some living thing, generally the human form, like the kumara gods, belong to a much later stage of religious development. They imply the reactive power of advancing culture, the power to mould that which is worshipped, to represent in material form that which has appealed to the imagination. And it soon leads to a temple or pro-page 117tection for the divine images, an elaborate ceremonial and a priesthood.

(11) The Indo-European peoples who spoke the primitive Aryan tongues on the Euro-Asiatic steppes between the Baltic and the Black and Caspian Seas had not reached this stage of image-making and temple-building, before they scattered to the four quarters. And the Maoris have not only these images, as for example that of Kahukura the rainbow-god set up in the porch of the school of the priests, but they have the imageless, templeless worship of the Aryan nomads. The priests could set up an altar wherever they were, and they generally preferred the open air for their ceremonies and incantations, whilst there were certain gods that could be worshipped only in the open air; their names were not to be spoken, their rites were not to be mentioned except in the forest or in the solitudes of the mountains. This takes us back to the description of the Teutonic worship given by Tacitus in his "Germania": "They think it unfitting the might of celestials to pen the gods within walls or counterfeit them in human likeness. Groves and forests they consecrate." Temples they afterwards had, and images too. But the earlier Teutonic religion was that of the Aryan nomads, open-air and imageless. Even the Vedic religion, when we first meet it in the Punjaub, is more advanced than this; it has elaborate hymns composed by Rishis or seers; its ritual has got beyond the stage of spontaneous worship in the household or the forest. It is developing a priesthood that alone knows how to please the gods with sacrifices and conduct the rites.

The Maori Ideas resemble the Teutonic more, yet
with South Asiatic Elements

(12) The templeless, imageless, grove-haunting side of Maori religion points more to the northern migration into page 118Polynesia than to the southern. The pre-Japanese, pre-Aino people, who built the dolmens and mounds in Korea and Japan, might well have been a section of that northern or Teutonic migration from the Euro-Asiatic steppes that spread the Aryan dialects and creeds over the north and west of Europe. And like their European kin they might well have learnt the megalithic art from their Caucasian predecessors, and down in the eastern groups of Polynesia they kept up the combination of open-air worship and the megalithic habit in those great maraes or stepped and truncated pyramids of colossal stone-blocks, on which the Tahitians and the Marquesans served their gods with sacrifices up till the time the missionaries arrived. The fetichistic phase of the Polynesian religion belongs to a far more primitive people, just as the image-making and temple-building phase belongs to a people more advanced in culture.

(13) The colossal stone statues of Easter Island, and the wooden figures of the great Maori carved houses belong to quite a different religious stage. They are not images in the strict sense of the term. They are memorial forms like the busts and figures in our cemeteries. They are meant to recall some ancestor, to give his memory a more lasting form than thought or emotion; and yet they will not make it trivial by reducing the form to mere human proportions; hence the angelic wings on the modern tombstone, the gigantic size of the Easter Island busts, and the monstrous features of the Maori ancestral figures. They belong to that stage of religious evolution which lays great stress on the ancestral spirit. There was little of this in the Vedic religion as it comes upon the stage of history in the Punjaub. Ancestor-worship had vanished; there were still family rites, but they were overshadowed by the public cult of the great national gods, the embodied powers of Nature. The Polynesian still retained the power of deifying, or at least divinising, ancestors, page 119that belonged to the primitive Aryans and to the people of the megalithic monuments, and though they learned to carve memorial images of the greater ancestors or heroes, they never used them as idols or objects of worship, and this again affiliates them to the early religious attitude of the Aryan-speaking peoples.

(14) But there was also a phase of their religion that shows close affinity to the peoples of Southern Asia. This was the magic and witchcraft that the tohungas dealt in. This makutu was closely interwoven with the life of the people. It belonged to the last-comers rather than to any of the aboriginals or tangata whenua. It is true that some of the fairy peoples, like the Ponaturi, are described as dealing in magic rites and incantations. And it is not unlikely that they represent an earlier South Asiatic migration. But the fair-skinned Patupaiarehe or fairies, who seem to have occupied especially the north of the North Island, have no karakias or incantations, and are evidently free from all that sorcery which distinguishes the South Asiatic races, like the Assyrian. It is not an unlikely thing that some of those older inhabitants of New Zealand, and doubtless of Polynesia, may have had intercourse with peoples bordering on the Persian Gulf; and the intermingling on their borders may have given the Semitic hooked nose and general Semitic physiognomy that is sometimes seen on the islands, and not infrequently amongst the Morioris of the Chatham Islands; and they may have emphasised in the ultimate religion of Polynesia that element of sorcery which belongs in a rude or elementary form to all religions.

In Ancestor-Worship and Maritime Demigods there is
the same General Resemblance

(15) There is a similar medley of elements and stages in what one might call the literary or imaginative side of Maori page 120religionthe myths and personified religious thoughts. No people has so manifestly indulged the imagination in its treatment of ancestral tradition as the Maori. Their genealogies alone would prove this; they have no shamefacedness in yoking up their aristocratic families by means of definite names and generations to the great gods that are clearly in their origin the sublimer phenomena of the cosmos. The line is as unambiguous and decided in its baldness as those supplied by the Heralds' College for new-made families. There is as little hesitation in the early links that bind together gods and men as in those of grandfather and grandson, where memory is guide. Little wonder that chiefs like Te Heuheu of Taupo should claim to be themselves gods whilst still living.

(16) It is this ancestral deification that is responsible for so much that is refreshingly human in the annals of Olympus, especially amongst the European divisions of the Aryan race. All races and nations indulge in it; but the Teutons, the Celts, the Greeks, and the Polynesians excel in its use. For amongst them no great imperial unity forced into the background the god-forming right and duty of every locality and clan. The necessity of national defence or offence in war obscures, if it does not obliterate, the old ancestral worship of the household, and at the same time the myth-making faculty that produces a pantheon of demigods.

(17) The Polynesian demigods have most resemblance in their lives and deeds to those of Scandinavia. Although Tawhaki, with other later humanised editions of him, has a hint of Endymion visited by the moon in the story of the heavenly maiden's visit to him, his character as a perfect and beautiful hero has more likeness to that of the northern hero Baldur. So Maui, though, like Prometheus, he brings fire to men from the other world, and tries to snatch immortality for them, and though he goes through a series, of labours, page 121like Hercules, has in his nature far more of the northern Loki; he is full of a wicked humour, if not wit, that never ceases playing mischievous tricks on both gods and men; moreover, Loki, Scotch lowe, is in origin, like Maui, a firegod or sungod. Further, the demigod voyagers that abound in Polynesian traditions and genealogies, Whiro, Kupe, Turi, Ui-te-Rangiora, Tangiia, and a dozen others remind us far more of the half-mythical Scandinavian vikings who sailed to Iceland and Greenland and Vinland, and many places that are not identifiable by modern geography, than of the wanderings of Ulysses narrated in the "Odyssey." Yet there is a likeness and kinship in all three types that seem to indicate some primeval proximity in the peoples that evolved them. Of course, they have each local colour that differentiates them, and the affinity may be due to the similarity of the regions and circumstances in which they were evolved. But there are other maritime peoples in similar conditions, like the Phoenicians, the Arabs, the Carthaginians, the Malays and the Japanese, that have not developed a similar series of heroic voyagers.

Aryan and Polynesian Culture looks to the Cold
North, and so does the Myth of the Discovery
of Artificial Fire

(18) Such sea-adventurers and sea-adventures point in each case to northern origin, to a climate that, with its rigorous winters, induced a strenuous life. And it is now generally accepted by philologists that the Aryan language was originally moulded in the north temperate, if not sub-Arctic, zone, and the Baltic Sea, with outliers to the Black Sea, is usually chosen as the starting-point of the Asiatic Aryans, the Greeks and the Latins, when they hived off southwards. The tongues of that region are too much alike ever to have been widely page 122separated or to have migrated from Asia, and both Sanskrit and Persian are too advanced, when they come on the scene, not to have travelled far and come into contact with more cultured peoples. Then the animals whose names are common to the various Indo-European languages, bear, beaver, boar, deer, dog, duck, fox, goose, lynx, mouse, otter, wolf, eagle and swan are chiefly those of the European colder zone; the trees and fish whose names are common point in the same direction, whilst the common vocabulary shows familiarity with the sea and marine animals. And the following description of the original land of the Aryans in the first chapter of the Persian sacred book, the "Vendidad," confirms the indications: "The winter months are ten, and the months of summer two, and these cold for the waters, cold for the earth, cold for the trees, and winter falls there with the worst of its plagues." It reminds us of the passage that was quoted in the sixth chapter from the Easter Island inscription. The division of the year into winter and summer, with stress laid on winter, and the reckoning of time by nights, and not by days, all of which are common to the Polynesians and the European Aryans, have a similar significance; they were not originated in the tropics, where winter is not markedly distinguished from summer, and the nights do not impress by their length. Raumati, the Maori name for summer, sometimes translated "the time of leaves," is not a distinctive name for the season in a land of evergreen forests. It is the natural epithet in a region of leafless winters.

(19) All this is doubly emphasised in the mythology of not only the Indo-Europeans, but the Polynesians. In all of them there is the record of the greatness of the revolution in life achieved by the discovery of the artificial production of fire. Prometheus, the Greek fire-bringer, snatches it from heaven in a fennel-stalk, and is sorely punished for his act. Maui, the Polynesian fire-bringer, gets the secret of making page 123fire from the goddess of artificial fire, Mahuika, the sister of The Great Lady of Darkness, and after being almost consumed in the conflagration of land and sea that she starts in consequence, he throws the seeds of fire into the kaiko-mako, the soft-wooded tree from which the Maoris take the under or grooving stick for making fire. They have another goddess of the under-world, Hine-i-Tapeka, for natural or volcanic fire. And thus the race emphasised the difference between that which they could produce and that which they found in New Zealand, and indicated that it was in no volcanic land that their ancestry first learned the secret of fire. And though they had a mechanical drill for boring holes in green-stone, they adhered to the much more primitive method of rubbing one stick along another that is held firm on the ground.

(20) Up till the time of European matches it was continued, and the under stick was held firmly by a woman, who placed her foot upon it. And this, added to the fact that the two deities of fire in the under-world are goddesses, seems to be a relic of the matriarchate, when women were dominant in the household and were the arbiters of heredity and rights. The downfall of "mother-rights" is clearly indicated by the assignment of the rule of the circles or zones of Po or the under-world to goddesses, whilst those of heaven have gods to govern and direct them. It is the mark of a discarded or conquered religion that its deities are tumbled into hell or the under-world as giants or demons. When women were the pivot of the property and rights of a race, Olympus must have consisted of goddesses. When the patriarchate took their place, their divine counterparts were relegated to the lower world.

(21) But in the mythological history of the races of Polynesia this dethronement took place before the discovery of firesticks. For Maui has to descend to the under-world to bring back the secret from the goddess, who kept it from men. In other words the matriarchate must belong to a period in the history page 124of the Polynesians, as in the history of the Caucasians, that is separated from our era by thousands, if not tens of thousands of years; for artificial fire goes back with them into early palaeolithic times. And the fire-bringing episode in the stories of Prometheus and Maui must go back almost as far. One of the most impressive facts about the antiquity of Polynesia and its isolation is this: it is the only region in the world that has preserved this primitive method of producing fire; all others have the drill of one kind or another, or as a variant the method of striking out fire. The firesticks do not belong to India or Indonesiaanother proof that the majority of the people in Polynesia cannot have come with the last or South Asiatic immigration.

(22) Nor would we be far wrong in localising the discovery of artificial fire in north temperate or sub-Arctic regions, or at least in regions frozen by the advancing ice-sheet. In the warm zones fire is not a necessity of primitive man, but a luxury. The easy-won fruits and nuts of most tropical regions would make cooking almost a superfluity. Necessity is undoubtedly the only mother of invention in primeval times; and so we may take it for granted that artificial fire, and cooking too, appeared first in the zones of the wintry north, and found their way to the tropics with migrant and probably conquering peoples. At first cooking must have been done in the open air because of the smallness of the huts, and the danger to them, if made of reeds or wood. The custom of cooking in an open shed or in the open air, still common amongst the Maoris, is a relic of this primeval stage, preserved by the women of the aborigines taken into the households. The habit was firmly established before their ancestry had advanced far enough to build large houses capable of having fires and hearths in them. The hearth as a centre of family and social life is another feature of northern origin, where the long winters make it of extreme importance. The home-life page 125that is so characteristic of the Teutonic nations, as contrasted with the Latin and southern nations, is based on this. But the myth of Prometheus shows that the Greeks migrated from the north. And, though the fire-bringing episode of Maui's life might have come from the Aryans of the Punjaub, we see in the growth of their myths and worship the lessening importance of fire in the warmer zone to which they had come; and it is more likely to have accompanied the migrants from the North Pacific. By either route the sea nurture of the infant Maui is easily explained, though in the Manahiki group it is to Tangaroa that Maui goes to discover the secret of fire; and Tangaroa is in Polynesia the fair god of the fair-haired sea-haunting people, who were driven put or absorbed by the newcomers from South Asia.

Some of Maui's Feats Explained

(23) But his exploit in noosing the sun and compelling him to go slower, and so to lengthen the day, is best attributed to the North Pacific immigrants. There would not be much difference made in the day by sailing from South Asia into Polynesia (and the episode belongs to Polynesia, and not to New Zealand alone); the migration from the north to the tropics offers a natural and easy rationale of the seemingly absurd story. The only other tribes that have this story of noosing the sun in their mythology are the North American Indians, though there are traces of it in North Germany and Hungary; and the peoples of these regions all migrated from the north. In spite of Maui's phase as a fire-bringer, that must date far back in palaeolithic times; he is best looked on as a culture-hero and migration leader of the northern element in the Polynesian race. The story of his mischievous and humorous exploits would be as welcome to the children in the households of the conquerors as it would be ready to the lips of the conquered women.

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(24) His feat in fishing the various islands out of the depths of the sea is natural to a people that lives in archipelagoes of volcanic origin, where an island may appear and disappear within a short period. But this feature belongs to Indonesia and the Japanese Archipelago alike, as it does to parts of Polynesia itself. So the story of his effort to obtain immortality for man by re-entrance into the womb of Hine-nui-te-po, or The Great Lady of Darkness, has close kinship with similar descents into Hades or hell in Greek and in Teutonic mythology. And it might have come either route, though its absence from Hindoo mythology in any comparable form might indicate that it belongs to the northern immigration.

(25) It is generally taken as a much-obliterated sun-myth, as most of those stories of descents into the darkness of the under-world are, and they are frequent in many branches of Aryan-speaking peoples. What seems especially to mark it as a sun-myth is the laughter of the piwakawaka, or pied fantail, that by waking The Great Lady of Darkness caused the failure of Maui's effort to gain immortality: he is the bird that welcomes the night. All these sun-myths have doubtless their origin in the north, where the long winter makes the coming of the sun in his strength so welcome. A tropical or even sub-tropical origin is difficult to understand; for in hot climates the sun is perhaps the greatest commonplace of life; it is ever with the inhabitants, and is no more likely to be specially singled out for beneficence than the air they breathe. The Sanskrit-speaking Aryans reached the Punjaub with Varuna, the Heavens, as the highest of their deities, and all the gods that had originated in sun-worship high in their pantheon. In India these fell gradually into the background, and the gods of the thunder and the rainshower and the storm took their place, to be thrust out in their turn by the new local gods like Vishnu and Siva.