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The Coming of the Maori

Offerings and Sacrifices

Offerings and Sacrifices

Food was the most appropriate material for an offering to the gods, particularly as five of the six major gods presided over departments which provided foods of various kinds for their followers. When food was page 485collected by parties, it was the custom to divide (tuha) the food among the various families concerned. In such activities, gratitude to the divine head was shown by giving him a share of the products of his particular department. The gods did not have the appetite of human beings, so quantity would have been wasted upon them. What they did expect was recognition and priority in accordance with their status, so the first share was given to them.

When the sweet potato crop was dug up, a tuber from the first mound was laid aside for Rongo and, cooked or uncooked, it was laid later by the priest on the tuahu with the appropriate words. Similarly, the first bird speared or snared by a fowling expedition was offered to Tane, in the firm conviction that he would repay the recognition by allowing a plentiful supply to be obtained by his loyal followers. The first fish caught went to Tangaroa. When fern root was dug up for food, a piece of rhizome was offered up to Haumiatiketike.

As the department of Tu, the war god, provided a harvest of human beings, a slain man was the correct offering to him. In actual battle, both sides competed to slay the first man and so obtain the appropriate offering which would incline the favour of the war god to their side. The priest tore out the heart of the "first fish" (mata-ika), as he was termed, and offered it up on the spot to influence the tide of battle. Thus, Tu received the first fruits of the harvest of death. Sometimes a piece of flesh or a lock of hair (mawe) of the "first fish" was brought home by the priest to lay on the tribal tuahu. However, the services of Tu were solicited before the batde. A human sacrifice was selected from the home slaves, or procured elsewhere to provide the necessary offering for the war ritual before setting out. A dog was sometimes accepted as a substitute for the human offering. It is recorded that the dog's heart was cooked on a spit and that, after the god was appeased by the essence, the priest ate the material.

Tawhirimatea, the god of the winds, had nothing material in his department, so an offering had to be devised for him. Best (15, p. 141) states that the correct offering was one of "such birds as are active by night". Presumably, a kiwi, weka, or owl had to be provided when some special service was required of Tawhirimatea.

The system of sharing with the gods applied to anything procured in quantity, rats for example. Best (15, p. 142) quotes a description regarding the ceremony observed after the first catch of the season. The rats were cooked in five ovens, one of which contained a single rat for the offering to the gods. The gods' oven was opened first and the offering made before the other ovens were opened. Here, again, the gods received priority.

Parties and individuals made offerings to their tribal or family gods page 486with whatever they deemed appropriate at the time. Travelling parties made offerings by placing some food in a basket and hanging it to a tree. Similarly, an individual could gain favour by laying aside a portion of the food he was about to eat. It was like saying grace before meals, but the words were accompanied by something material.

Human hair formed an appropriate material for an offering on various occasions. Many tales are told about canoes being saved in a storm at sea by a priest reciting a charm and casting into the sea a hair plucked from his head. The advent of sea monsters (taniwha) was also dispelled by a similar technique. Much, of course, depended on the mana of the head from which the hair was plucked.

Offerings of stones or leaves were made to natural rocks or trees which were held to symbolize the spirit of the district. This was required from the stranger who passed that way for the first time. If he failed to comply, the rain poured down and wet him through before he reached his destination. The occasions on which I complied with the custom, which is termed uruuru-whenua, the weather continued fine. A well-known example is a tree on Hongi's track between Lakes Rotoiti and Rotoma, and the constant pile of leaf offerings at the foot of the tree indicates the interest that tourists take in local myths.

Another form of offering was connected with the initiation of women in the craft of weaving. The novitiate wove a small rough sampler of flax fibre beforehand, and the sampler was placed on the tuahu by the priest as an offering to the tutelary god of weaving after the priest had performed the initiation ceremony. The god was satisfied with the semblance and the gesture, but the priest fared better, for the initiate was in honour bound to present her first good cloak to the priest who had stood as her sponsor to the gods.

Human offerings, though not so common as in central Polynesia, were made to placate the gods in war and in the construction of important works, such as a new house, canoe, or fort. Other isolated instances occurred which did not establish a custom. Some slayings termed human sacrifices were connected with social matters and had nothing to do with religion.

The victims, whether for religious or for social reasons, were obtained from among the slaves captured in war and spared to perform menial duties in the service of their captors. Another source was from a neighbouring subjugated tribe which was allowed to remain in occupation of their land by paying tribute in preserved birds or other foods. Sometimes a human tribute was exacted, and the unfortunate tribe was usually too weak in manpower to resist. Failing these two sources, relatives from another tribe, who were staying in the village at the time, might be slain page 487to provide the offering. Otherwise, armed warriors waylaid an unsuspecting person of a neighbouring tribe, but such a procedure was likely to cause complications.

In war, a human offering, termed an amonga tapu or whakahere, was deemed necessary by the priests of Tu and some other war gods, such as Uenuku, in order to gain the most certain results. The victim was selected from me most convenient of the sources already described. For ordinary campaigns, Tu could be placated with a dog. The war god, Maru, was satisfied with a dog on all occasions. In such matters, much depended on the precedent which had been established by the early priests. Sometimes, when a tribe was in the greatest danger of defeat, the priest of the war-god might demand a human victim as absolutely necessary for the purposes of divination. When an outside victim was unprocurable, instances occurred of a member of the tribe offering himself as a sacrifice to save his people from destruction. Mention has been made of the heart of the enemy first killed in battle having been offered to the war-god by the official priest.

The victim used on the completion of a house of great importance was termed a whatu (core). He was buried at the base of the rear ridge post, and brought good luck to the house and protected it against the evil spells of black magic. Such sacrifices were not general, however. Usually a stone talisman (mauri) was used in place of the human victim and was credited with procuring similar good results.

The completion of a valuable canoe, such as a war canoe with carved bow and stern pieces, was an event deemed worthy of a human sacrifice. The unfortunate victim was used as a skid over which the canoe was hauled at the launching. The offering was made to the gods to assure the canoe of success in future operations and protection from storms and adverse circumstances.

Knowledge of human sacrifices in connection with the building of a new fort rests on excavations made at the old pa of Tawhitinui in the Opotiki district. The European owner of the land dug up some of the decayed puriri posts and found human skeletons in a position which indicated that human sacrifices had been put in the post holes before the posts were erected. No other information is available concerning similar operations elsewhere, so the procedure was evidently rare.

A sporadic instance of human sacrifice in connection with agriculture is recorded in the Bay of Plenty story concerning the voyage back to Matatera, under the guidance of Taukata, to obtain the sweet potato. Seed tubers were obtained; and, after the first crop in New Zealand had been stored, Taukata was slain and his blood smeared over the door of the storehouse to prevent the spirit of the sweet potato from returning to its tropical home. His skull was kept in the cultivation fields to promote page 488the fertility of the crops. This precedent was followed as far as bones were concerned, for the bones of the dead were often used in cultivations for a similar purpose. However, it is clear that Taukata was slain to prevent the sweet potato from leaving, and as that had been accomplished, there was no need to continue offering human sacrifies in connection with the sweet potato crops.

Though human sacrifies were sparingly used, a feeling existed that such a procedure would result in fixing matters and perpetuating the life of an institution. In the mythological account of the first latrine, Kaitangata was killed by falling over a cliff because the holding post had been purposely imbedded loosely in the ground. Though not a ritual sacrifice, a death was associated with the construction. In public health propaganda, I used to cite Kaitangata as the human sacrifice which perpetuated an ancient institution.

Polynesian affinities. Offerings to the gods were made throughout Polynesia, and they ranged from a pebble to a human sacrifice. In Mangaia, fishermen on their way to their canoes dropped a piece of taro or a pebble at the foot of the rock shrine representing the god of fish, and they presented a fish from the day's catch on their way home. The gods were in no way annoyed that the fish was the smallest in the basket. In Hawaii, the fishermen, before going out, added a stone to the fishermen's shrine (ko'a) consisting of a pile of rocks on the beach. On atoll islands, a piece of coconut husk was sufficient to convey the gesture.

On volcanic islands, the gods shared in the richer and more varied food supply. In Mangareva, a meal for the gods was placed on special stone tables each day. Local rumour has it that, even in those days, small boys secretly abstracted choice morsels. They were too young to have acquired a fear of divine punishment In Mangaia, the caretaker of the national godhouse fed his 13 charges every evening by cooking a taro on a separate fire and breaking off a piece for each god as he called his name. The one taro for 13 gods shows how respect and economy went hand in hand. In Tahiti, where several priests and assistants officiated at important maraeceremonies, the people contributed quantities of fish, pigs, vegetables, and local delicacies as offerings, for the priests saw to it that the staff as well as the gods were amply provided for. The invisible essence of the offerings was sufficient for the gods, and the priests and their assistants ate the material substance on behalf of the stomachless gods. The assistants evidently fared well, for they received the name of "big bellies" ('opu nui), a term which was evidently descriptive.

Human sacrifice, as an institution, was present throughout Polynesia with the exception of the atolls and western Polynesia. In Tonga, the nearest approach was the offering of a finger tip to the nearest joint to induce the gods to cure a sick relative. Though economical, it was painful page 489and repeated medical consultations resulted in a severe shortage of finger tips. Though Tahiti and Hawaii were culturally opposed to cannibalism, the number of occasions on which human sacrifices were deemed necessary far exceeded those of New Zealand. This was largely due to the fact that the temple became the centre for many social institutions, which thus acquired a religious connection. The priests of the temples elaborated their religious ceremonies and in so doing demanded a higher standard of offerings which culminated in human sacrifice.

The ruling chiefs of Hawaii built many temples in their own lifetimes, and the type of temple depended on the political outlook at the time. If peaceful, the form of temple was that of Lono (Rongo) who was satisfied with offerings of pigs and dogs at its dedication and services. If the outlook augured war, the type of temple indicated was that of Ku (Tu), who required human sacrifices in its dedication. Many other occasions, such as the felling of a tree to make temple images, required human sacrifices.

In Mangaia, a change of government through war necessitated a human sacrifice on the temple of the national god, Rongo. In this remarkable island, the highest sacrifice of all occurred, the chief of a defeated tribe offering himself as a sacrifice to the gods in order to turn the tide of misfortune which threatened to exterminate his tribe. This sacrifice was termed ika tea (white fish) in distinction to the usual form, termed ika motu. In the Society Islands, the chiefs and priests established an all Polynesian record for the number of victims slain to bolster up the prestige of the riding families. Henry (50, p. 197) lists 17 different occasions in which victims were required and probably there were others. In the life of the royal first-born (ari'i matahiapo) the following occasions demanded a human sacrifice: washing after birth, first introduction to the public, circumcision, coming of age, installation as sovereign, the visiting of outlying areas by canoe, invocation for success in battle, and support after defeat. In addition, when the royal maro girdle was prepared for his installation, a victim was required when the needle entered the tapa cloth in making the required addition to the girdle and another was required when the addition was completed. During his official visits by canoe, victims were provided at each landing place to serve as human skids over which the canoe was drawn.