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The Coming of the Maori

2 — Birth and Infancy

page 350

Birth and Infancy

The children of commoners were born with littletrouble or fuss, except to those immediately concerned. They had no inheritance of mana and tapu and no prospects of power and prestige. As the tapu of blood was equally obnoxious to poor and rich, confinement took place in the open or in a rough shelter instead of in the dwellinghouse. The father and mother of the patient were in attendance with the husband. During labour pains, the Polynesian squatting position was assumed and the patient supported herself by holding to hand posts erected for the purpose. The mother or some other person assisted by clasping her arms around the patient's abdomen from behind and helping the bearing-down pains with external pressure. Usually there was no difficulty, as the squatting position was the best for directing the contractions of the womb in the right direction. The proximal end of the navel cord was gently massaged towards the abdomen, and the cord tied with flax fibre. The massaging was supposed to prevent a protruding navel. The placenta was buried somewhere without any ceremony, and the dried cord, when it separated from the navel, was also concealed.

Childbirth among the aristocracy was a different proposition, and interest spread among the people when it was known that the chief's wife was pregnant. The vagaries of appetite which occur during pregnancy have led to consequences of historical importance. An example was furnished in the story of the Aotea canoe in which the pregnant Taneroroa induced her husband to steal her elder brother's dog to provide the dog's flesh for which she hungered. The incident led to enmity between the two families and the removal of Taneroroa's family to the territory north of the Patea River. The Ngarauru descendants of the elder brother, Turangaimua, state that when the Ngati Ruanui descendants of Taneroroa become excited, they use the word au as an exclamation. Then with a smile, the Ngarauru say, "That is the bark of the dog which their ancestress stole."

page 351

When the expectant mother felt that the confinement was drawing near, a maternity house termed a whare kohanga (nest house) was built in some secluded spot away from the village. Female attendants termed tapuhi waited upon her, and other servants attended to the cooking in the open or in a roughly constructed shelter. The maternity house was tapu to all but the personal attendants, hence the cooks brought the food part way and the attendants took it into the house.

In some families, the services of a priest were necessary to recite appropriate chants to Hineteiwaiwa, the goddess of parturition. Certain chants were recited over a normal delivery, others, over delayed labour to promote the opening of the path by which the child would emerge into the world of light. Best (22, p. 12) gives a slightly different posture and treatment, in that the patient knelt down with the knees wide apart, while the female attendant squatted before her. They clasped one another under the armpits, and the attendant used her knees to make pressure against the abdomen from above downwards to assist expulsion.

The cutting of the cord (iho) was treated as a minor operation without any special ceremony such as that held in the Cook or Society Islands. Lacking the bamboo knife of Polynesia, the instrument used was a sharp flake of stone or chip of obsidian. The operator was one of the female attendants or an experienced female relative included among the attendants. After gently massaging the attached end of the cord, it was tied close to the abdominal wall with flax fibre or some other material such as the thin stem of a creeping plant (makahakaha) which had been scraped and soaked in water to render it pliable. The cord was cut about an inch and a half from the navel, or the measure from the tip of the thumb to the nearest joint (konui), or sometimes the longer measure of the length of the little finger (koiti). The cut end was smeared with oil expressed from the seeds of the titoki (Alectryon excelsum), and a dressing of the inner bark of the lacewood (Hoheria sexstylosa) soaked in titoki oil was applied. The dressing was kept in place with a bandage formed of a wide strip of inner lacewood bark, which readily splits into thin ribbon-like layers. During the daily washings, the cord stump was examined. Any necessary swabbing was done with flax tow (hungahunga) obtained by scrapings of flax fibre (whitau, muka). The afterbirth (whenua) was buried where it was not likely to be walked over. The dried cord, after it separated from the navel (pito), was placed in the cleft of a rock or tree or buried on a boundary line or elsewhere, and the spot was marked by a stone or post. The place was referred to as the navel cord of whatever the name of the child (Te Iho o …). If a tree were used, the whole tree received the name, the well-known hinau tree named Te Iho o Kataka for instance. The method of disposing of the cord in the cleft of a rock or a cliff was common throughout Polynesia.

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One of the first things the mother did after giving birth was to bathe in the stream or river to cleanse herself physically and psychologically. She was then ready to receive a ceremonial visit from representatives of her family and her people to welcome the new addition to the tribe and to congratulate the parents and their family. The ceremony of welcome was termed koroingo or maioha, and it was particularly observed on the birth of a first-born who had been announced by the sounding of the shell trumpet. The mother, with her child in her arms, sat in the doorway of the maternity house and the relatives of the father and the mother deposited their gifts separately in the open space before the house. The leaders of either side made speeches of welcome to the relatives of the other side and then to the child. The greeting to the infant was augmented with old-time chants or songs which referred to the mythological creation of man, the development of the child within the mother's womb, and the final emergence into the land of the living. The speeches concluded the formal visit to do honour to the newly arrived member of the tribe.

After the social visit, the mother resumed her normal activities in a much shorter period than the ten days' rest insisted upon by European physicians for their patients. When the mother and child returned to the village, the maternity house, which was tapu, had to be destroyed to prevent it becoming a source of danger to others. The woodwork, if used as firewood for cooking fires, would result in affliction and death. Later, even any material which had grown on the site would bring trouble to those who used it. Thus as a preventive measure, the house was burned down as were any mats or material used within it. A priest conducted the ceremony to remove the tapu from the house site. From a modern point of view, the maternity house was equivalent to an infectious disease shelter, and the treatment by fire and ritual destroyed a psychological source of infection in a way similar to the material destruction of microbic infection by fire or fumigation with chemicals.

The next important event in the child's life was the tohi rite, which has been termed baptism by Best and other authorities. It certainly resembled Christian baptism, in that the child was sprinkled with water and made a member of the congregation of a god. The Maori child was taken to a stream, and the officiating priest sprinkled it with water from a branch of karamu (Coprosmasp.) dipped in the stream. The priest recited the ritual, which invoked manly qualities of strength, endurance, and bravery for a male child, skill in the domestic crafts for a female. He then dedicated the child to the service of a particular god. For males, choice was made beforehand by the parents between Tu, the god of war, and Rongo, the god of peace and agriculture. Instances have occurred in Maori history in which an exiled tribe dedicated all its male children to the war god in order to build up an army to regain their conquered page 353territory. The vital point in which the tohi rite differed from Christian baptism is that the child was not named during the rite.

In Best's account of baptism (22, p. 20), as described in the teaching of Te Matorohanga, there is a great deal of detail about the spreading of cloaks near the water's edge, the order of procession, the positions taken up by the relatives, the employment of two priests, and the number of chants in which mention is made of Io, the supreme god of the Matoro hanga school. This elaborate ritual may have been true of the followers of that school, but the wealth of detail arouses a tinge of scepticism on my part.

The pure Rite

According to Best (22, p. 24) the tohi rite was followed immediately by the pure ceremony conducted at the parents' dwellinghouse. Fine dress cloaks were spread in the porch in front of the window and jade and whalebone clubs placed upon them to make a show of family wealth. The people gathered and greeted the returning procession with ceremonial weeping. The priest recited a ritual chant replete with mythological references regarded as the foundation of knowledge which the child was to acquire. The people then moved close to the porch and greeted the child with the usual weeping of welcome, after which some of them made speeches of welcome to the child. When the speeches were over, a feast was held on the open marae before the house. Thus the child was formally received into the society of his family and his tribe.

The tohi and pure rites are capable of various interpretations. Briefly, in the tohi rite, the child was rendered tapu by the sprinkling of water and was ceremonially presented to the god who was to aid him in this world. The pure rite was a fixation process which rendered his spiritual powers or mana permanent. The term pure in central Polynesia is a general term for a religious ritual, but in New Zealand, it has a localized meaning. The parents and attendants who had shared in the tohi and pure rites were in a state of tapu and this was removed by the whakanoa (render normal) rite conducted by the priest at the village latrine (turuma) or a stream of water.


Circumcision, or rather superincision, by the method of cutting through the upper surface of the foreskin in the middle line so as to expose the glans penis was performed throughout Polynesia. Both the operation and the result were termed tehe. It was such a general custom that the male whose glans was not uncovered was treated with ridicule. It is strange that though the custom must have prevailed in central Polynesia before the Maori ancestors left, they did not continue it in New Zealand. They page 354did, however, bring with them the term tehe, which was applied to the glans exposed without operation. As if in defence of having abandoned an ancient custom, the person with a tehe was ridiculed as much in New Zealand as the person without it was in Polynesia.


In the birth of twins, some difference of opinion exists as to which was more important. The general view was that the one born first was the more important and he was marked in some way to avoid subsequent confusion. The later child was believed to be stronger and more virile. In my own lineage, it was held that the second child was more important because, as an old man told me, "The womb was his house and he kicked the other child out of it." However, as our family is descended from Te Rangihiroa, the younger of two twins, the story may have been a local rationalization to suit our particular circumstances. A descendant of Te Pawa, the elder twin, would probably have had a different story. On the other hand, Best (22, p. 15) states that the Tuhoe tribe held that "the first-born of twins was viewed as an interloper hanging on the outside of the nest', and so in some cases slain."

Breech Presentation

A child born by a breech presentation (whanau waewae) was regarded as likely to be smart physically and mentally. The result was often figuratively referred back to an assumed cause and a good athlete was referred to approvingly as a whanau waewae.


The child was fed at the breast, and there were no complications caused by other forms of milk being available. Trouble occasionally occurred, however, through the mother having an insufficient supply of milk. Chiefly families could, on occasion, find a foster mother from junior families or even from among commoners. The length of time before weaning was uncertain, one test being the time when the infant could turn over. However, it was a matter for individual decision, as mothers with a good milk supply would continue breast feeding longer than those with a meagre supply. As regards other infant foods, the Polynesians used the soft flesh of young coconuts which was held to be readily digestible, but the Maori could not avail themselves of this ancestral food. Infants were early fed with starchy foods such as taro and sweet potato, but the mothers chewed or mumbled each mouthful before feeding it to the child. Thus the ptyalin absent in the infant's saliva was supplied by the mother in her preliminary chewing and the insoluble starches were converted into soluble sugar which could be digested by the infant. Thus nature solves page 355the problems of the poor in ways that are not always appreciated or understood by the cultures which have so much.


Infant betrothal (taunaha, to bespeak) was sometimes requested by an old comrade in arms of the father, some other branch of the expanded family, or some other tribe which wished to form a friendly alliance. The family desiring the betrothal sent a messenger (toro) with valuable gifts (paremata), such as fine cloaks, to the village of the parents. The messenger's purpose was speedily known, and the family concerned usually held a private discussion, at which a decision was made. The forming of a decision was a touchy affair for a refusal would be regarded as an insult by the family or tribe requesting the alliance and remembered for future reprisal. At a public assemblage in the tribal meeting-house, the messenger made a formal request in an eloquent speech and ceremonially laid his gifts before the family. The representative of the family replied and, if the request was to be granted, recited a chant termed a hono (joining) and the gifts were accepted. It then became a point of honour to see that the marriage was made when the child grew up. A male child might have temporary love affairs before the time arrived, but a girl was tapu to her betrothed and she was carefully guarded during adolescence. This type of betrothal was not confined to infancy but could occur during later years.


During childhood, a good deal of attention was paid to manipulation of the body to make it attain a standard of beauty of form. Various forms of massage were used such as stroking and kneading the muscles with the fingers (romiromi), pressure against the spine with the feet (takahi, tread), and stretching the legs by pulling (toto). I remember my mother looking at my legs approvingly and saying, "My hands made your legs what they are." There is a saying which counsels mothers, "Stretch the legs of your daughter that she may walk with grace across the courtyard before the assembled people." Manipulation applied to the nose has created a difference of opinion. Some writers have stated that pressure was applied with the fingers to flatten and broaden the nose and hence have argued that this method pointed to a Melanesian origin in which a flat nose was the type of manly beauty. If this were true, it is curious that a flat nose or ihu parehe as it is termed not only does not create any enthusiasm but the unfortunate possessor is made the butt of disparaging remarks. On the other hand, old women have demonstrated to me that the fingers were pressed inwards and upwards from either side to raise the bridge of the nose and narrow the spread of the wings of the nostrils. This second procedure points to a different ideal of beauty.