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Maori and Polynesian: their origin, history and culture

The Polynesian Spirit-road

The Polynesian Spirit-road

(3) It is often, then, an indication of the route the primitive emigrants took if the souls of their dead make in a definite direction when they depart to their underworld. The name of the paradise or spirit-home might even, if not too mutilated or transformed by passage through the generations page 48or by contact with peoples who speak other tongues, indicate one starting-point of the migration. Thus Bulotu, one name for the paradise of the Northern Polynesians, has led to innumerable speculations, some identifying it with a Persian Gulf locality, others with Celebes. Hawaiki, the more common name of the Polynesian paradise, has been still more fertile of speculation, as in some of the islands it is the name of the original or birth-land, and it has been applied to other islands on the route.

(4) There is one feature of the spirit-route, however, in which all the central groups of Polynesia agree; and that is in the direction. They all fix their spirit-leaping-off-place on the western-most point of the group. The soul, when it leaves the body, has there to leap into the sea, and thence take its way back to the home of the race. But there are two significant exceptions in Polynesia. The Hawaiian group in the north and New Zealand in the south send the spirits of their dead away on their shadowy journey in a north-west direction. Mr. Percy Smith explains this with regard to the southern country as correct orientation of the route, when the canoes had sailed so far away to the south-west. But this will not apply to the Sandwich Islands. Their Polynesian migration reached them from the south, and the leaping-off place should therefore have been oriented to the south instead of the north-west.

(5) There is no escaping the conclusion that this is a sign of migration from the north into Polynesia. There are the two largest land areas in the region. Each of them has as much superficies as nearly all the other Polynesian groups put together, and their mountains and forests would give easy shelter to defeated tribes. In the other islands extermination, or at least obliteration, of the original inhabitants would be no very lengthy process. In the Hawaiian group and in New Zealand the small number of the immigrants page 49and the extensive and intricate refuges inland would extend it over centuries, and mean in the end absorption often on a basis not unlike alliance. And, though the aristocracy would be at first mainly of the new-comers, and the genealogies of the old inhabitants would vanish, many of the aboriginal beliefs and ways of life would be adopted. The mere introduction of the women into almost every household of the immigrants would ensure this. And it was the women that had chiefly to do with death and the dead. The warriors and the men in general were polluted by touching the corpse.

(6) Hence the spirit-route in New Zealand, as in Hawaii, is that of the pre-Polynesian inhabitants. The spirits of the coast-dwelling Maoris do not take the shortest route to the Spirit's Leap, near Cape Maria Van Diemen. They make for the nearest mountain ridge, and then travel along it from south to north till they reach the final point of spirit-departure. And so afraid are the natives of the northward passage of the spirits of their dead that they build their kumara-stores and their important houses facing north lest the travelling souls should cross them and so taint or destroy their sacred contents by the contamination of death. The Chatham Islanders also sent the spirits of their dead in a north-westerly direction, and, though this is a minute group, it is explained by the fact that, according to tradition, they had mingled with the aborigines of New Zealand before they left its shores, and, having absorbed the natives of their new home in a peaceful way, they had always loved peace.