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The Coming of the Maori

Family and Inferior Gods

Family and Inferior Gods

The lowest grade of gods were those whose followers were confined to the members of the family in which they originated, usually from abortions or miscarriages. Such gods were termed atua kahu or atua kahukahu from the membranes (kahu) which enveloped the embryo. The spirit of the embryo having been deprived of its right to continue life in a normal human being, sought to prolong its existence on this earth by entering some other living form. Unless the spirit was laid by the proper disposal of the foetus, it entered whatever creature happened to come near. Hence the animate host could be a dog, bird, fish, reptile, or even an insect. The host creature then became the symbol or aria of the newly established god. Some member of the family became the medium or interpreter of the family atua kahukaku. This is the theoretical sequence, but in practice, a psychic member of the family announced that the spirit had entered him.

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Thereby, without any theological preparation or education, a low grade priest and an inferior god were created. If the new medium could enter into a convulsive seizure to show that he was possessed by the spirit, his new office was proved and established. It was with this lower class of tohunga that charlatanism and fraud became more evident. Women, who were barred from office with the superior and tribal gods, could become mediums of the inferior gods.

Theoretically, the atua kahukahu defended the family honour by punishing those who transgressed against the various tapu restrictions of the family, whether wilfully or through ignorance. The spirits entered the body of the transgressor and produced the suffering and abnormal condition now known as disease. Thus they functioned as malignant disease demons but it must be remembered that the fault lay with the patient. From their origin, they were atua kahukahu, and from their activities, they were also termed atua ngau tangata (man-biting gods). Their activities spread beyond the confines of the immediate family, for they attacked any member of the tribe who transgressed against the family tapu restrictions. Thus the whole tribe were well aware of the existence of family gods and went in fear of them. Another term for the malignant spirits which caused sickness was kikokiko, or atua kikokiko, so named probably from their eating away the flesh (kiko). In my childhood, I was warned against whistling at night as it would attract kikokiko.

The power of a god depended upon the personality of his medium. The medium Uhia raised Te Rehu o Tainui from a family atua kahukahu to the important position of a tribal war god. The family god exercised special protection over his medium, but if the medium became guilty of error (hara), the god left him. This appears to form a good excuse for the waning personality and loss of psychic power on the part of the medium.

The inferior gods could be sent out by their mediums to accomplish certain tasks. For this function, they were termed atua toro (visiting gods). The medium who practised black magic, sent out his god or familiar spirit to visit the prospective victim and attack him. The atua toro became an atua ngau tangata when the visit became a visitation. Gods were also sent out to reconnoitre the enemy and good or bad omens were interpreted by the medium on the return of his emissary. The power to travel, however, was also exercised by the tribal gods. Thus, Best (15, p. 131) records that the priest of the tribal god Rongomai sent him, in the form of a comet, to reconnoitre the advancing enemy. The obedient comet dashed out in their direction and burst directly over them, revealing the position of the enemy. If it had killed some of them, it might now be regarded as the precursor of the atomic bomb. As Best holds, doubtless a wily medium page 464would claim any unusual phenomenon as due to co-operation between him and his god.

Inferior gods were also stationed as guards over sacred places and objects. They formed what Te Matorohanga termed the poutiriao. It is well known that the latrines of the old hill forts were used as local shrines in some ritual ceremonies. Whanganui informants told me that they were protected by guardian spirits whose symbol was a lizard. The fear of reprisals by the guardians prevented sorcerers from taking faeces to use in their fell practices. Thus people could use the latrines for their legitimate purpose without any apprehension concerning black magic. Spiritual guardians were also appointed over burial caves; and any lizard seen near the opening had a deterrent effect on cave riflers, for it was likely to be the aria symbol of the guardian god. When I first examined the anchor of the historic Tainui canoe in the Mokau River, I passed my hands around its constricted neck under water. I touched a fish and an involuntary shudder ran up my spine, for I first thought that it was the aria of the guardians of the anchor. I do not know whether the anchor was ever provided with spiritual guardians, but I like to think that that friendly fish which would not leave the shelter of the anchor was their representative.

Some of the inferior gods appear to have been created without passing through a foetal stage in their development. If an individual declared that he had been visited by the spirit of some dead relative and if he continued to make contacts, he became a medium and the spirit of his dead relative became a minor god. This somewhat easy technique was seized upon by charlatans in post-European times, but usually the visiting spirit never attained the rank of a minor god. Lack of continued support from a sceptical public or the death of the medium usually curtailed the addition of new gods to a minor pantheon in which the older gods were already dead.

Polynesian affinities. Tane, Rongo, Tu, and Tangaroa, the big four of the Maori pantheon, were present as major gods in the Cook, Society, and Hawaiian Islands. With the exception of Ta'aroa in the Society Islands, they possessed more or less the same functions as in New Zealand. The four names occur in the Tuamotu, Marquesas, and Mangareva but the divine power of some of them has dwindled to such an extent that but brief mention of them is made in legends, chants, or genealogies. In Samoa and Tonga, Tangaroa occupied a prominent position, but the other three are markedly absent. Without doubt, these four major gods were introduced from central Polynesia, as were some of the tribal gods. Attention has been drawn to Tawhirimatea and Haumiatiketike as being created locally and given new functions.

Throughout Polynesia, the lesser gods were created by deifying ancestors, and in some parts, family gods were created from abortions page 465and miscarriages. Thus, the Maori, in creating local gods, have followed methods which were in vogue in central Polynesia when their ancestors left.