Other formats

    TEI XML file   ePub eBook file  


    mail icontwitter iconBlogspot iconrss icon

The Coming of the Maori


page 473

The gods had human mediums or interpreters, for without such mediums they could not exist. Best (15, p. 127) quotes a Maori witness who stated before a Land Court that a certain atua was dead. "But," protested the Court, "A god cannot die." The native was ready with his reply: "Gods can and do die, when there are no priestly mediums to keep them alive."

When a god manifested himself through some creature, the creature was termed an aria; but when a deity expressed himself through a human being, that person was termed a waka atua. The term waka atua means literally a "canoe of the god", but it was used figuratively to indicate that the person was regarded as the human receptacle or medium of the god. It implies further that the god could enter or take possession of the human medium to express himself directly to his followers. The act of taking possession was termed uru (to enter). Reports state that the medium so possessed exhibited a series of symptoms which indicated a departure from normal. The eyes became suffused and staring, the face flushed, and the body and limbs twitched convulsively, as if under the control of some invisible agent. When the possessed medium spoke, it was in a squeaky, high-pitched voice, which was regarded as the voice of the god and not of the medium. It is said that when mediums were possessed by the Ngapuhi god, Te Ngakahi, the high-pitched voice was heard coming from the roof. If so, the priests must have had some knowledge of ventriloquism and used it to augment their own prestige as well as that of their god. The divine messages, like those of the Delphic Oracle, were sometimes couched in double language which was left for the people to interpret. Whatever proved wrong was the fault of the interpretation, for the gods could not err.

In New Zealand, possession was confined to the mediums of the minor gods. The visible manifestations of possession were used by a medium to page 474create his god in the first place, and he had to continue them to prove that his god was alive. Possession was practised by the fanatical followers of the late post-European sect known as hauhau, when dancing around a pole termed the niu. The medium who could work himself up into a frenzy was termed a porewarewa, and the gibberish which poured from his lips was regarded as the speech of their god. The non-success of the movement against well-armed Government troops may have been partly attributed to mistakes in interpreting the language used by the crazy mediums.

The mediums of the gods were termed tohunga, probably derived from the verb tohu, to guide or to direct. However, tohunga was applied to experts in any branch of knowledge, and a qualifying term was necessary at times to distinguish them. The expert carver was a tohunga whakairo (whakairo, to carve) and the tattooing artist was a tohunga ta moko (ta moko, to tattoo). The experts in religious theory and ritual were graded according to the class of god they served. Best (15, p. 166) listed 10 priestly titles derived from various sources. The highest class of priests were termed tohunga ahurewa or tohunga taua; and the lowest, who exploited their fellows through fear, were termed tohunga kehua or tohunga kiato. The tohunga matakite foretold the future, the tohunga tatai arorangi or tohunga kokorangi read the stars, and the tohunga makutu or tohunga whaiwhaia slew people by black magic.

The high-class priests went through a difficult course in a proper house of instruction, in which the instructors were termed tohunga pukenga. An entrance student was termed a pia; one in the next grade, a taura. Towards the end of the course, he became a tauira and was allowed to assist the fully qualified priests in religious ceremonies.

After graduation, the priests were said to be able to demonstrate their newly acquired powers by using an oral spell to wither a green leaf, split a stone, or kill a bird on the wing. A story is told of an English missionary who visited the last authentic tohunga of the Arawa tribe to convert him to Christianity. The tohunga asked the missionary to call upon his god for some visible sign of his power. The missionary not being able to produce any immediate result, the tohunga picked up a dry ti leaf, threw it down in front of his opponent, called upon the heathen god with an incantation, and the dry leaf turned green. After this demonstration of divine power, the tohunga turned the leaf back into its original state. The missionary credited the tohunga with the power of the evil spirit, but a modern interpretation would be that the old-time priest had the power of hypnosis, assuming, of course, that the incident occurred in real life as well as in narrative.

The high-class priests were credited with possessing control over natural phenomena and the elements, such as making the lightning flash, page 475the thunder roll, and the winds raise a violent storm over land and sea. When the high priest Ngatoroirangi was surprised on the island of Motiti by the fleet of his enemy, Manaia, the priest conjured up all the winds of Tawhirimatea into a calabash. He broke the calabash with a spear and the winds issuing forth at the one time raised such a terrific storm that Manaia's fleet was totally destroyed. This and similar marvellous exhibitions of priestly power are told with detail in tribal narratives and old-time songs.

Sorcery was not taught as a subject in the higher schools of learning, but it may be inferred that the higher priests, who were credited with such extraordinary power, could successfully dispose of a human being if the public welfare demanded such a course. Sorcery was taught in inferior schools, termed whare maire, and it could be acquired individually from an established sorcerer, if he were willing to take the risk. Besides learning the method and ritual, the student had to establish contact and control over a familiar spirit, usually of the atua kahukahu class, because it was the familiar spirit who attacked the victim against whom the ritual was directed. Before commencing, the sorcerer had to obtain some material object which had been in contact with the patient's body. The spells were directed against the object which was termed the ohonga. The student had to select as his first victim some near relative or, better still, his instructor. If successful, his mana was established and he could continue practice as a sorcerer. If he failed in this vital first attempt, the very power which he had launched returned against him and he fell a victim to his own evil machinations.

The priests did not wear any distinctive clothing. In ritual ceremonies, particularly at a stream, the tohunga divested himself of all clothing, for the garments of every-day life might contaminate the tapu associated with ritual. Sometimes, he wore a small apron of fresh leaves during the ceremony. A priest went, at times, into tapu retirement in his hut for contemplation or private communion with his god. As he could not touch food with his hands during such a period, an attendant placed food directly into his mouth, unless he was fasting. He remained insulated by tapu from his wife and the activities of everyday life. If he broke the commandments, his god left him and he was deprived of priestly power. However, he could regain favour by a process of expiation, termed whakaepa, which included confession and conciliatory offerings to his god.

First-born chiefs inherited certain religious powers (mana atua) by reason of primogeniture. In youth, they were admitted to the schools of learning together with theological students and thus acquired a good deal of religious theory and practice. However, they rarely practised professionally as priests, but there were some rites which could be performed page 476only by them because of their birth. Such was the opening of the sacred oven of the first-born during the ceremony following exhumation.

The office of tohunga was not strictly hereditary in New Zealand, though, as in other expert professions, a son usually followed in his father's steps. The priests of the departmental and tribal gods were educated men who occupied a responsible position in public life and were often of high birth. Priests of the family gods were usually self-taught and self-created. Those who practised black magic were detested and condemned by public opinion, but they were also feared because of their credited power to slay those who displeased them. As in other walks of life, the social position could be improved by brains and personality.

Making all due allowance for quacks, who are present in every race, the tohunga constituted a superior class. Though they may have used ventriloquism, hypnotism, possession, and other aids to impress the people with the belief that they had super-normal powers, they used their power wisely in helping the chiefs to govern the people aright. They were the repository of tribal lore regarding myths and tribal history, and they were expert genealogists. They studied natural phenomena and learned much regarding the stars, the seasons, and weather conditions and acquired other information of practical value to the people. Religion was so interwoven with social and material matters that the priests were absolutely necessary to the proper functioning of Maori society. Thus the high-class tohunga were scholars, scientists, and philosophers as well as theologians.

Polynesian affinities. In most of Polynesia, the gods were served by human mediums, who were designated by a dialectal form of tohunga, as follows: Cook, ta'unga; Society, tahu'a; Marquesas, tuhuna; and Hawaii, kahuna. In all these islands, the term also meant any skilled craftsman, except in the Marquesas, where the term for craftsman was tahuna. In other main islands, the term taura was used for priests: Tuamotu, taura; Mangareva; taura; and Samoa and Tonga, taula. In the islands using taura, their dialectal form of tohunga was applied to skilled craftsmen. It is evident that tohunga was a general term throughout Polynesia for experts in various skills. The term taura was more specific, and it probably had a wider distribution when religious ritual was in a simpler stage. In New Zealand, the term taura was applied to a neophyte who had not graduated as a tohunga. In the Marquesas, tau'a (= taura) was applied to inspirational priests who were entered and possessed by the god, whereas the priest who had the expert knowledge of the ritual and chants was termed a tuhuna o'ono. It would appear that taura was the original Polynesian term for priest and that in some centre, such as the Society Islands, the development in religious ritual led to the priests being regarded as experts in knowledge and so being classed as tohunga or tahu'a. As a consequence, the original term taura fell into disuse and the term tohunga, page 477as applied also to priests, was carried by settlers to Hawaii, the Cook Islands, and New Zealand. The Marquesans hedged, using both terms with a distinction, whereas the other areas retained the old term taura.

The priestly mediums were also described as vaka aitu (canoe of the gods) in Samoa and the west and as pi'a atua (god box) in Mangaia. When printed as pia in Gill's writings, the Mangaian term resembles the Maori term pia applied to a neophyte, but the resemblance is due to omitting a symbol for the glottal closure representing h in the Mangaian word, which should be written as pi'a (= piha). The word pi'a literally means a box, but, like vaka in Samoa and waka in New Zealand, it was used figuratively to denote a medium.

Possession of the medium by the gods under the general term of uru also prevailed throughout Polynesia, and the technique of convulsions accompanied by a squeaking voice was the same as in New Zealand. Sorcery was universal and greatly feared. The principle of using material objects and familiar spirits was similar throughout, but variation or elaboration in details occurred.

The social position of the taula aitu in Samoa and Tonga was not very high, but the priests of the Society, Cook, and Hawaiian Islands ranked high because of their birth as well as office. An ancestral high chief of Rarotonga, in making his last behests, conferred the succession to chieftainship on his first-born son and delegated the care of the gods to a younger son. From the younger son sprang a line of hereditary priests of high order. The more elaborate marae ritual, which included the installation of the king in the Society Islands, gave the priests an increased status; and the theologians at Raiatea were responsible for revising the local pantheon and leading proselytizing expeditions to the other islands of the group. The high priests of Hawaii had the power of life and death, choosing human sacrifices and inflicting capital punishment on those guilty of carelessness in observing temple etiquette.