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Maori and Polynesian: their origin, history and culture

Chapter XVII — Polynesian Art: The Literary

page 217

Chapter XVII
Polynesian Art: The Literary

Literature comes Long before Writing, and Prose is
the First to be Secularised

(1) So deeply has printing left its impress on the Western mind that it is difficult to think of literature without books. The connection between the two was looser and less essential in ancient times, when writing was the only means of recording, and a manuscript book was a rare possession.

(2) But long before a script or alphabet was thought of, there was a vast and ever-growing literature in the world, not merely in somewhat cultivated races like the Sanskrit-speakers when they reached the Punjaub, but amongst barbarous and even savage tribes. There are a few primitive folks, like the Fuegians in South America, and the Andaman Islanders in the south of Asia, that have no trace of a literature, or that, like the Veddahs of Ceylon, have only one legendthat of their origin. But, as a rule, even savages have some method of expressing their feelings rhythmically, and something about their forefathers that they can hand down from generation to generation. The now extinct Tasmanians, who belonged to the very earliest stage of palaeolithic culture, used to sing extemporaneously the deeds of themselves and their ancestors, indulged in recitative dialogue with pantomime, and had legends of gods and demons and the origin of fire.

(3) But these germs of literature go little beyond the intonation and action of daily intercourse. It is when music and page 218dancing become the handmaids of religion that literature proper emerges. Then is there a diction, or form of speech, evolved that differs essentially from that of everyday life; it is dignified, rhythmic, and often melodious in form, figurative in thought, passionate and often plaintive in emotion, and soon, as belonging to the most conservative of all human phenomena, religion, archaic in language; and even in its highest and latest phases it cannot doff these habits with ease, long after it has been completely secularised.

(4) It is prose that first flings off the trammels of its parentsmusic, dancing, and religion. The teller of legends and stories trusts to the language of the moment when he repeats them to new audiences or new generations; he is most engaged by the incidents and names he has to use; and considerable latitude is allowed him in their embellishment. Involved though these are in the holy past and the worship of ancestors, they admit of comparative freedom in the expression and in the introduction of episodes.

Hence the Prose Legends of Polynesia are Full of
Variations and Contradictions

(5) In White's "Ancient History of the Maori" we can see this prose literature in process of formation. Every tribe has its own version of the legends of the gods and the heroes, as seen in the first two volumes. We might have expected a people so strict in their attention to accuracy of genealogy and incantation to cling rigidly to the one form of the story of their gods. But here we have tribe after tribe giving its own version, in which, indeed, we can recognise the nucleus common to all; but there is often little else common; every detail varies with the tribe; one will give it badly, another with a labyrinth of romance. The stories of Whiro and Tinirau, or Maui and Tan-whaki, and even of Rangi and Papa, Tane and Tu vary page 219in a bewildering way. The Higher Criticism would make but short work of them. How the high priests of the Maori could have kept their faith in them undisturbed, in presence of the manifest inconsistencies, contradictions and absurdities, it is difficult to understand; for they had many of them the keenest of philosophical, if not sceptical, intellects, as we saw in the chapter on Polynesian theology and mythology.

(6) Sir George Grey, in his "Polynesian Mythology," leaves a different impression on the mind. For he has smoothed out the inconsistencies and rejected the disagreements and variations, in order that the stories might have their full effect as romances of the primitive mind. He is a harmoniser of the legends rather than a reporter. And the result is very satisfactory to the seeker of fairy stories and romances, and anything but satisfactory to the student of ethnology or folklore, or even the history of the Polynesian mind. Had the author of "Polynesian Mythology" fulfilled the title of his book, and sought farther afield than New Zealand, his task would have been tenfold more difficult to harmonise the sacred stories of the various branches of the Polynesian race. Their language and customs make one clear, broad impression of a racial unity. The legends, especially the divine legends, diverge in the most astonishing manner, not merely in the details, but in the prime essentials. The names of the gods and the demigods are common to some extent; but their places in the pantheons of the various groups, nay, of the various islands or each group, and the functions and honours of the divinities, differs as widely as in those of the different branches of the Aryan-speaking races. The general moulds of the divine stories, and characters, and manners, are not unlike, guided as they are, first by the psychological unity of mankind, but still more by the racial unity. But the names attached to them, names that are often manifestly the same in origin, are assigned to them as if drawn in a sweepstake. Every group page 220nay, every islet, has taken its own path in recreating its pantheon.

The Secularisation is an Evidence of Mixture of

(7) In short, the art of legend-making had continued vital in Polynesia down to recent times. There was no sacrilege in evolving the old gods or in inventing new gods, none in altering and embellishing the stories handed down by ancestors or in making them brand new. In other words, the art of moulding the Polynesian Olympus had been long secularised; even though it remained largely in the hands of the priests, it had also become an art of pleasure for the long nights; though the incantations were handed down and taught amid the strictest mystery in the school of theology, the tales of the gods and demigods were told around the fire or the lamp by any who knew themby preference the old men.

(8) This revolution in the attitude towards sacred things could not well have come about except by mixture of peoples, or races, that had different pantheons and different traditions. Purity of a race, in other words complete isolation of its racial culture and ideas, is the only thing that will preserve its religion unchanged and unchangeable in every feature; and here we have unmistakable evidence of a widespread and vigorous commingling of races and peoples in the secularisation of the art of religious tradition and legend, even if we had not already had enough in the revolutionary changes of the Polynesian pantheon. Gods and their histories and functions are but pawns on the religious chess-board of Polynesia, to be moved hither and thither with illimitable caprice. Nothing but stratum on stratum of people and belief can explain this singular phenomenon. There was no tapu on the stories of the gods; all might listen to them; and the secular imagination might still work on them, unhampered by more than the page 221mere general mould of tradition. Once or twice we hear of heterodoxy, as when a high priest is condemned for teaching that Tiki made man, and precautions are taken by stopping the mouth and ears of his corpse against the heresy passing into others. But this is a rare exception, and we may take for granted that the art of divine legend-making and divine story-telling had lost the consecration it had originally had as long as each element of the ultimate amalgam of Polynesian population remained pure.

The Later Legends were composed more in the Style
of our Fairy Romances, and reveal an Advance
in Morality.

(9) Of course this is still more true of the later tales of the heroes and their wars, the navigators and their adventures and migrations, such as are collected in the later volumes of White's "Ancient History of the Maori." The heroes, like Kupe and Turi, Tamatekapua and Ruaeo, no longer become demigods, though they may be transformed into giants nine and eleven feet high. They have to deal with fairies, and monstrous wizards and taniwhas, and have a supernatural atmosphere thrown round them. But Olympus is closed, and we have here nothing but the wonder-working imagination of the fairy-story-teller, the same that, when Christianity had spread over Europe, turned the unconverted, unsubdued tribes of the mountains and lake, forest and cave into pixies and kelpies, dryads and gnomes. Half the stories in White's later volume are the outcome of the religious imagination that has lost faith in the manufacture of gods, and indulges in raising semi-supernatural fabrics on a basis of fact; the other half are histories of the heroes and their deeds, still green in the memory of the dying generation.

(10) There is clear evidence of moral progress in the New page 222Zealand records of the story-telling art. As we go farther back towards the gods and their times we encounter coarser and coarser incidents, gross adulteries and incests, fierce cannibalism, wild injustice, undiluted filth. The nearer we come to purely human times, the more we have of humane dealings, tender passion, lofty generosity, pure chivalry. The fairy stories are mellowed with gentle and kindly relationships between the supernatural and the humans. And down in the merely human annals we have such tales of tender love and high feeling as those of Hinemoa and Tutanekai and of Takaranga and Raumahora. The tales of the gods are no more gross or in-human than those of Greek or Teutonic mythology. And though cannibalism and human sacrifice appear far down in the less supernatural series of Maori tales and legends, there are alongside of these a chivalry and generosity and loftiness of feeling that form a striking contrast to the European tales of classical or mediaeval or even modern warfare. We have indeed the clearest evidence of the primeval sources of Polynesian culture being far lower in morality than the stage it reached before the advent of Europeans; and in the partial secularisation of the prose literature a proof of the mingling of various racial and religious elements. There are traces of all the constituent peoples having improved even before they mingled.

The Incantations remained Musical and Religious to
the End, and evidently belonged to the Last
Immigrants and Conquerors

(11) It is only the incantations in the poetical literature that reveal the same progress. For they, as handed down unchanged for generations, being steeped in the religion that greatest preservative of the pastgive true pictures of the manners of the primeval past. Every turn and act of life page 223that belonged to the conquering minority had its incantation; every step in the making and launching of a canoe, every movement in preparation for war, in battle and siege and in returning from the expedition; every item of every ceremony, birth, baptism, naming, cutting of the hair, tattooing, death, mourning, burial, re-burial of the bones; every act in the industries that the arikis condescended to engage in, net-making, weaving the ornamental border of mats, dyeing with red, kumara-planting and kumara-harvesting. There were no incantations for the employments of common men or slaves, and in the lives of chiefs' daughters there were only a few.

(12) And all the incantations were in the peculiar unequal rhythm of the Polynesians; they were meant to be poetry, and were accordingly chanted or intoned by the priests, often with response or chorus. This chanting with response is a marked feature of the Hauhau religion; and when visiting Matatua in the Urewera country, the shrine of Hauhauism, last summer, I heard this going on in the carved house morning, noon, and night; and in the middle of the night I was wakened by the religious exercises of my host and hostess in a tent beside the whare. The husband intoned and the wife gave the responses. That this was not derived from the Anglicanism in which Te Kooti, the founder of the new religion, had been brought up is clear from an observation of Crozet on the religion of the Bay of Islands, when he visited it in 1772: "I noticed that the savages who came to sleep on board our vessels were in the habit of communing with themselves in the middle of the night, sitting up and mumbling a few words that resembled a prayer, in which they answered one another and appeared to chant. This sort of prayer lasted eight or ten minutes." Nocturnal intoning and response evidently come amongst the Maoris from very ancient times.

(13) These ancient incantations are generally marked by page 224constant recurrence of a phrase or sentence, appeal or injunction, evidently meant, like the refrain or burden of our song, to indicate poetical form. It expresses the natural periodicity or tiding of emotion. And it is generally explicit in its meaning. But it is not so with the rest of the chant; the references are often to some obscure god or hero or event in legendary history, and are couched in obscure metaphor that does not always reach articulateness or grammar. This is doubtless the stamp of antiquity. And the whole is often steeped in the fierce passions of primeval times, nakedly and violently expressed.

(14) It is no rash inference from previous indications to hold that these karakias or religious chants belong to the last incomers and conquerors, and picture the earlier phases of their culture, probably long before they set out from their birthland in the south of Asia. Religion preserves prehistoric ethics and beliefs, as the amber does the prehistoric fly. Women had nothing to do with either the making or the use of incantations. For poetry, like its parent religion, was, amongst the Aryan peoples at least, who had early thrown off the matriarchate, the affair of the men. That women should have come to any share in poetry and its guiding spirits, music and dancing, reveals the solvent power that new races and new environment had over Polynesian religion. In all the islands they entered more into song and dance than in New Zealand, probably because the enervating climate turned the men to indolence and luxury. In Tonga they were most emancipated in these and other respects, perhaps because of the proximity of Melanesia and its matriarchate. The rest of the poetry was largely secularised, for women shared in it, and it became very noble.

(15) It was rather the growing secularisation of the poetic art that in New Zealand admitted women to share in it. They take a large place in the waiatas and laments and page 225dirges, not merely as themes, but as singers. Even in the old legend of Irawaru, that belongs to the time of the demigods, it is Hina that laments in poetry over the transformation of her husband into a dog by her brother, Maui:

I weep, I call to the steep billows of the sea,
And him, the great, the ocean-god.
And let the waves wear their mourning, too,
And sleep as sleeps the dead.

O heaven, now sleeping, rouse thee, rise to power:
And O, thou earth, awake, exert thy might for me,
And open wide the door to my last home,
Where calm unruffled waits me in the sky.

But as a rule the more ancient the song or lament, the more is it occupied with the feelings, desires, passions, and deeds of the men, and the more evident is it that it was written by a man. There are dirges over the dead slain in battle, sung by the whole tribe, dirges over children who have died a natural death, laments over the loss of the kumara crops or over the sweeping away of the eel-weir, and laments of the hungry, the defeated, the enslaved, the men taken in battle and led to sacrifice. It is only as we come towards modern times that love-songs begin to predominate, and many of them are sung by women. But the most striking feature about these is that they are often by married women expressing lawful and noble love and sorrow. There is never a mention of the lawless lover or paramour, who takes such a large place in the song and ballad of Christendom. Free, even chartered, though the Maori girl might be before marriage, and little though the emphasis that was laid on that ceremony, after it there was never a thought of disloyalty or lawlessness; of course there was in actual life; but not in the poetry or romance.

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The song of love is that for a husband at a distance from his wife, beginning:

How weary my eyes are with looking for thee,
And watching the hill o'er which thou didst pass!

The lament is that of the wife who has had words of anger used to her by her husband, that of a wife abandoned by her husband, that of one who mourns over her husband slain in battle, that of a mother over her dead daughter. The dirges are those of widows. And they are instinct with the beauty that comes from true love and real grief, along with a refined poetic sense:

But father, come, come back to home,
And sleep with all thine own beloved ones now,
While I my palpitating heart will hold,
And weep my loss of long-kept bird,
Whose song awoke me at the earliest dawn.
And now that bird has swooped
And gone far, far away from me.

(16) Of course the poetic beauty of passion is not confined to the women; the love songs and laments of the men are full of longing regret for the past, and sorrow over the dead; they have their songs of the love of days long past, love songs that are also dirges of woe, dirges sung by the dying, and dirges of love sung just before death. And we can understand why they kept alive for so many centuries the memories of their birthland, Hawaiki, when we see their songs that mourn over the homes they have to leave or have left; there is the full germ of passionate patriotism in them. What can be more beautiful than the departure south of the Maori Napoleon, Te Rauparaha, with his relatives and tribe from their old home, Kawhia? As they reached the last hill that looked back on the ancestral hearth they page 227were leaving, they wailed aloud, and, weeping, sang a song of farewell:

O, my own home! Ah me! I bid farewell to you,
And still at distance bid farewell.

(17) But that which appeals most in the Maoris to our modern sense of humanity is the love they bore their children. Their lullabies are many and poetical; but it is naturally over the little ones that have gone that their poetry rises to its highest. They have many beautiful ancient dirges over the dead; but these as sung by the whole tribe over the warriors and the honoured have something official in them. It is the laments over the dead children that are so poignant in the intensity of their grief. Take this ancient dirge for example:

O let my restless spirit
Dream that thou, Riki, still art in the world,
And I with thee can view the waves,
That cover all the sea around the point,
Where life was joy at my own home.
But now alone, I am alone and desolate.

Even that fierce warrior Te Rauparaha has a most pathetic lament over his child.

There was no Need for Metrical Aids in the Old
Poetry, which was never divorced from Music,
and seldom from dance

(18) And in their poetry the Maoris have a far keener sense of the beauty of the nature around them, the mountains and the forests, the sea and the stars, than any poets of the West, except those since the Renaissance. This is especially apparent in their laments and their songs of pathetic regret, and most in those that belong to more recent centuries. page 228There seems to have been a distinct development of their poetry in this direction. Even in their fiercer masculine poetry, the poetry of the passion for battle, and the sea-passion, there is recognition of the wilder and more violent aspects of nature. But the early voyagers saw them chiefly at play, or unstirred by their dominant passion; and they report the universal tendency to plaintive melody and song. And it is their laments that approach nearest to our modern idea of poetry. They never developed in the direction of the drama, as their kinsfolk in Eastern Polynesia did; nor in the direction of epic, as the Tongans did. Their narrative poetry was more like our old ballads, short, energetic pictures of a famous battle or deed.

(19) For it must never be forgotten with regard to their literature that it was never divorced, like ours, from music, and only the lament and the love song were ever divorced from dancing or gesture-action. This is the reason why rhythm, in our sense of the word as a regular syllabic or accentual foot or line, was never attained in Polynesia, whilst rhyme, that wholly modern embellishment of poetry, and open alliteration, its old Teutonic embellishment, are unknown. Even the Vedic poets, and probably the old Aryan peoples, when they came, had a fair idea of metre. The Maori poetry has nothing syllabic or accentual in the form, though the Hawaiian poetry tried to get accent on the last word of every line. It appeals wholly to the higher sense of music, like Walt Whitman's and Henley's it has no fetters even in the length of the line; its chief beauty of form lies in a subtle alliteration or harmony of repeated sound, just as on its spiritual side it appeals to emotion and the emotional imagination. Never without music as its guiding spirit, and seldom without the aid of dance or gesture, it does not feel the need of those external attractions for the ear and eye, regular metre and rhyme.

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Prose was Democratised, Poetry remained largely

(20) For instead of being the rare accomplishment of a few choice spirits, as it is and has been for long in the West, poetry was the universal atmosphere of Polynesian life, and especially of Maori life. Nothing was done without it, at least nothing that was aristocratic and did not belong to slaves or common men or common employments. Though their music and dancing degenerated into amusements, they still retained the marks of their religious birth, and poetical literature retained them too, whilst prose literature, the legend, the fable, and the proverb, early threw them off. All the life of the conquerors from South Asia was interlaced with their poetry, most of it ancient, much of it modern. And, though many of their gods and demigods and heroes, and many of their religious beliefs came in with the women of the conquered into their households and the early education of their children, the poetry was almost monopolised by them, and doubtless, as a whole, points back to South Asia as its birthland. It is in the prose legend that we may seek for relics of the conquered; they were early emancipated from the tutelage of religion, doubtless by the help of the conquered mothers of the immigrant conquerors' children; these would take care to fill the imaginations of the young with the stories of their own past.