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The Coming of the Maori

The Death of the Gods

The Death of the Gods

A wise Maori told a learned judge that the gods died when there were no mediums to keep them alive. In other words, when the priests ceased to function the gods withered on the vine. Some defunct gods were remembered in tribal history, but others were completely forgotten. The major gods were remembered even though individual members ceased to function actively, because they formed part of the academic myths which scholars and orators kept alive. It was the minor gods belonging to families or small groups who passed into oblivion, often with the people as well as the priests who had kept them alive. Thus, while there has been a spontaneous birth rate among minor gods, there has also been a death rate which has prevented the Maori pantheon from becoming overpopulated.

Gods have been deliberately rejected because their mana, as valued by benefits received, had receded to the lowest ebb. People who had suffered a series of defeats in battle lost faith in their own war-god, as they attributed their disasters to the superior power of the opposing war-god rather than to greater military prowess on the part of the enemy. A continuation of sickness followed by death was sometimes blamed on the tribal god, who was not only charged with negligence but was actually accused of causing the deaths. Though I cannot recall examples from Maori history, ample evidence can be quoted from central Polynesia.

In a district in Tahiti where Tane was worshipped, a series of deaths was blamed on Tane. He was accused of being an atua niho roroa (a page 520god with long teeth), who had developed a taste for human flesh and was eating his worshippers. The people demanded that he be cast out, and the priest of Tane reluctantly complied by sealing the sennit braid symbol of the god in a coconut shell. The priest committed the coconut shell to the deep, telling his god to seek a new home in some other land. The priest, however, remained faithful to the rejected Tane and, after some time had elapsed, set forth in his voyaging canoe to seek tidings of his god. He sailed to the Cook Islands and, inquiries at Aitutaki and Atiu having failed to elicit information, then voyaged on to Mangaia, where he decided to settle down. He built a marae to Tane on the east side of the island and then went fishing with a dip net in the lagoon to catch some fish for an offering for the dedication of the new marae. After catching one small fish, a sweep of his net caught something larger. On bringing it to the surface, he recognized the coconut shell container in which he had set his god adrift from Tahiti. He removed the plug and the god within gave a chirp (kio) of recognition. The priest with joy took the symbol of his salvaged god on to his new marae and offered up his small fish in the dedication service to his old god under the new name of Tanekio. This tale ends like a fairy story, but other cast-off gods did not fare so happily.

Teuira Henry (50, p. 178) gives an excellent account of the official casting off (po'ara'a) of a god in Tahiti. The family priest went to the marae and recited the following ritual:

"There is a casting off, I am casting thee off. Do not come in to possess me again; let me not be a seat for thee again! let me not know thee again; do thou not know me again. Go and seek some other medium for thyself in another home. Let it not be me, not at all! I am wearied of thee—I am terrified with thee! I am expelling thee. Go even to the Vai-tu-po (River-in-darkness), into the presence of Ta'aroa, thy father, Ta'aroa, the father of all gods. Return not again to me. Behold the family, they are stricken with sickness; thou art taking them, thou art a terrible man-devouring god."

The symbol of the god (to'o) was then buried. If the priest or family imagined they were being haunted by the discarded god in dreams or otherwise, the symbol was exhumed and buried in another grave. The process of reburying went on until the god ceased to trouble the family.

A new to'o symbol was made for a new god and it was blessed by the high priest at the next pa'i-atua ceremony when the symbols of all the gods were assembled on the national marae. Thus an old god was cast aside and a new god ruled in his stead.

Though gods were cast off for causes which arose within the culture, it was a different proposition when missionaries urged the wholesale casting off of native gods in favour of a strange god from another culture.

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Some neglect of duty was required as a legitimate reason for a proposed change. In the island of Aitutaki, the Tahitian missionary Papahia laboured for a year without making any headway. Then the favourite granddaughter of the leading ariki chief became ill. The local priests consulted their various gods and used all their ritual and incantations, but the child died. Her grandfather was so incensed at the futility of his gods that he ordered his son to set fire to the houses and religious objects on the marae. For an obvious cause, he cast off his gods and the replacement with a new god by Papahia was at last accepted. The symbols of the native gods were committed to the flames or handed over to the missionary as spoils of the victor and the people followed their chief into Christianity. It was the spirit of a little child that led them.

Another reason which made people hesitate in changing over was the doubt as to whether the new god was more powerful than the gods they were asked to reject There was also the fear that the rejected gods might retaliate against those who had cast them off. Thus, when the missionaries burned the symbols of the native gods in the Cook and the Society Islands, the people who did not approve waited expectantly for the heavens to fall. Even though they were disappointed at the lack of immediate results, there remained the possibility of delayed action. Some demonstration of the greater mana of the new god was required to convince prospective converts. When the Reverend Chapman endeavoured to convert the last authentic priest of the Arawa tribe, the old tohungademonstrated the power of his own god by turning a dry leaf green. The medium of the new god having failed to produce some similar or stronger manifestation of mana, the old priest remained unconvinced and thed in the faith of his fathers.

Sometimes a fortuitous circumstance supplied what was regarded as proof. When the London Missionary Society first landed some Tahitian pastors on Mangaia, the teachers were handled so roughly that they were glad to escape to their ship. The brief stay ashore, however, resulted in an epidemic of colds and pulmonary ailments which proved serious on virgin soil. The Mangaians very naturally attributed the ailments to the anger of the Christian god for the mistreatment of his mediums. A demonstration of divine power had been given. Thus, when the mission schooner made a second visit, the Tahitian pastors were not only received peacefully but were taken on to the local marae, whereby they were protected from any further violence.

An even better example of how fate seemed to speed the death of the Polynesian gods is afforded by the history of King Pomare II of Tahiti. The first company of missionaries who were brought to Tahiti on the Duff in 1798 fought a losing fight over a number of years. Pomare supported their cause in a lukewarm manner, but he was defeated in page 522battle and forced into exile on the island of Mo'orea. Two remaining missionaries accompanied him to Mo'orea, but though Pomare was assiduous in learning to read and write, he would not cast off his own gods. Though he had not been successful with them, it is probable that he felt it was better to have them with him than against him. At the same time it was good to have the missionaries' god on his side. Towards the end of 1815, Pomare received an invitation from the enemy chiefs to cross over to Tahiti to discuss the return of his conquered territory. Pomare crossed over with a retinue of followers, some of whom had been converted to the Christian faith. The next day being Sunday, a Christian service was being held in the morning during which a superior force of armed men was seen approaching to attack. Pomare has received credit for his piety in ordering the service to continue to its usual end. As a matter of fact, Pomare was influenced by the fear that a broken or uncompleted ritual would turn the divine power which was being invoked against him, as would have happened in native ritual The Christian service was ended by the time the enemy attacked. In the battle, the high chief of the attacking force was killed and the enemy fled the field. The god who had been invoked in the Christian service immediately preceding the battle bad proved stronger than all the native gods. Jehovah had triumphed, and Pomare and the people of Tahiti went over definitely to the side of the stronger god. Having now no further need of them, Pomare handed over the symbols of his family gods to the missionaries for transmission to England to show the people of that land what fools the Tahitians had been. It is fortunate that they escaped the flames of religious fanaticism and that they now rest safely within the sheltering walls of the British Museum.

Though the change to Christianity resulted in material benefit from the acquisition of a certain amount of European goods from the scanty stock of the missionaries, it was difficult for some groups of people to accept the new religion, for a very obvious reason. War was the only means of effecting changes in native hereditary rule. People who had been defeated in battle had to reorganize their military forces to avenge their defeat, recover lost land, and restore their rule and honour. But Christianity taught the gospel of peace and the renunciation of force and war. Hence the acceptance of Christianity by a defeated tribe meant relinquishing its only means of regaining lost territory, power, and honour. When the missionaries established a mission station in an island district, they naturally sought the friendship of the most powerful chief, both for his protection and for his influence in furthering the objects of the mission. If such a chief and his people became converted to Christianity, his enemies suffering from some recent defeat refused to become converted because they could not very well share a god of peace with their enemies. The page 523missionaries referred to them as the "heathen", but the unconverted objected not so much to the missionaries as to their converts whose change of creed did not alter their status as enemies. I have a great sympathy for the "heathen" who were torn between the desire to share in the benefits of Christianity and a loyalty to their own gods through whom they hoped to recover their lost lands and damaged prestige.

When the Tahitian missionaries were allowed to remain on the island of Mangaia in 1822, they were taken under the protection of the ruling tribes of Ngati Tane and Manahune. These two tribes had but recently defeated the Ngati Vara and taken possession of their rich taro lands. When the Ngati Tane accepted Christianity and the gospel of peace, the Ngati Vara refused to cast off their god, Te A'ia, and thereby give up their hopes of regaining their territory by force of arms. Finally a battle was fought between the two forces. Though the missionary account referred to it as a battle between the Christians and the "heathen", the cause was not religious but political. During the battle, the missionary, Davida, remained on his knees praying that Jehovah would smite the heathen. Meanwhile, Tereavai, in a thatched hut perched on a high rock, invoked Te A'ia to bring victory to the Ngati Vara. However, the spiritual power of Te A'ia had departed with that of the other Mangaian gods, and the Christian party was victorious. Tereavai afterwards stated that he did his best but the Christian god was too strong. The matter having been settled beyond doubt, the Ngati Vara cast off the last of the Mangaian gods and accepted Christianity, and Tereavai changed over from a heathen priest to a deacon in the Christian church.

In New Zealand, the Ngapuhi were presented by nature with the landlocked Bay of Islands which gave safe anchorage to early visiting ships. Early whalers and traders provided the Ngapuhi with firearms. The Ngapuhi chief, Hongi Hika, returning from a visit to England, reversed the order of things in Sydney by converting his gift ploughs and agricultural implements into guns. The Ngapuhi war parties proceeded to raid the length and breadth of the North Island with their old war-gods supported by the new weapons. Among the conquests was the Arawa stronghold on the island of Mokoia in Lake Rotorua. The spirit of vengeance flared high among the defeated tribes, but guns had to be acquired before reprisals could be undertaken. An Arawa chief and his people laboured feverishly to earn money to buy guns and ammunition wherewith to cleanse his tribal honour. When approached by the Christian teachers of the new faith, he said, "I am too busy just now to hear you. Wait until I have avenged Mokoia and squared accounts with the Ngapuhi. Then I may be able to hear." However, the stream of events flowed in another direction.

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The Ngapuhi were fortunate in their possession of the Bay of Islands. The whalers had turned the village of Russell into the Alsatia of the Pacific, thereby demonstrating the fact that the white man, without policemen, readily abandons his claims to being civilized. However, those who bore the true banner of civilization arrived and planted it on the opposite side of the Bay. The first mission station was established at Paihia, where the Maori translation of the Bible was printed on a hand press. "Ah," said an old Whanganui Maori who visited the Bay years and years later, "So this is Paihia. I had thought that Paihia as well as Jerusalem was in heaven." A heaven was needed on one side of the Bay to offset the hell on the other.

The Ngapuhi were twice fortunate. They saw both the temporal and spiritual possibilities of the gospel of peace. They were war weary, and they no longer had a monopoly on firearms. They laid aside their guns, cast off their war-gods, and accepted Christianity. They also became eager to spread the good tidings amongst those whom they had injured so that they too might cast off their war-gods and lay aside the firearms they had acquired. The Maori accepted the teachings of the new faith literally, hence they could not hold a gun and a Bible in their hands at the same time. In the course of time, the gospel of peace prevailed, intertribal wars ceased, and the ancient gods of the Maori died, because there were no longer any mediums to keep them alive.

But though the Maori war-gods ceased to function, minor gods were created from time to time by individuals who sought to exploit the lingering field of superstition. They had their limited followings and some of them were deserted even before their mediums ceased to keep them alive by dying themselves. Matters in the field of religion were proceeding quietly but surely, when a relapse occurred through no fault of the Maori. The government of the day did not comply with the missionaries' gospel of peace when it assumed military occupation of Maori land at Waitara in the early 'sixties. In the war which followed, the Maori tribes involved in defending their rights, could not distinguish between politics and religion. The new religion which they had been taught was the white man's religion, and it was hardly likely that their god would give preference to the Maori cause. The bitter taunt that missionaries taught the Maori to look up to heaven while the Government stole the land from under their feet was more than a picturesque figure of speech. Of course, it was the time-old mistake of regarding two events which follow in sequence as being cause and effect, but the practical repercussions were the same as if the statement had been true. The defending tribes cast off the religion they had been taught to believe and sought some other form of divine aid. The cast-off war-gods, whom they then needed, had returned to Hawaiki and so out of the remnants of Maori superstition and page 525English military commands, they fashioned a composite war-god to whom they addressed their hybrid compositions. But justice and valour, so poorly supported, proved ineffective against greater temporal power in arms and numbers. The Taranaki and Waikato tribes not only lost the war but lost their faith in the Government and in Christianity. After the loss of life and further confiscations of land, they remained antagonistic to them. It was a melancholy satisfaction to them that 60 years later, in 1927, a Royal Commission found that the Government had forced the Maori to take up arms as their only means of defending their rights. The flight of years which might have been spent in progress has barely restored the faith they were forced to abandon so long ago.

When the first American visiting fleet came to Auckland before World War I, Admiral Sperry and some of his officers were welcomed by the Maori people at Rotorua. I had the privilege of being the official interpreter on that occasion. On the presentation of gifts, Mita Taupopoki of the Tuhourangi tribe stepped forward with a taiaha club and said to Admiral Sperry, "This is a Maori weapon. With this weapon our ancestors slew their enemies. But the Maori have become Christians and we no longer kill men. Therefore, I give it to you, to the man who still kills men." Whereupon, Mita laid the club at the feet of Admiral Sperry, the man whose function it was to kill men should the occasion arise.

Later, there came a time when the Maori had to kill men once more. Mita, in all good faith, had voiced an ideal which the Christian nations could not attain, much less maintain. World War I forced the British Empire into action. The pakeha New Zealanders responded to the call and the Maori New Zealanders went with them, this time as comrades in arms under the one God. Mita saw them go and no voice was more eloquent than his in exhorting them to smite the enemy as their fathers did of old. World War II called again, and the Maori went with their pakeha countrymen in greater number. The Maori people are Maori as regards racial origin, but in nationality, they are now as British as anything which ever came out of Britain.

In past times, the Maori war parties went to war accompanied by the priests of their tribal war gods. But in the two World Wars, the Maori contingents and battalions embarked with their own ordained chaplains of the Christian faith for battlefields on the other side of the globe. The Maori people as a whole are Christians. They have their churches, parishes and the Diocese of Aotearoa under a bishop of their own blood. They serve the same god as their pakeha countrymen, albeit that god is served by both races in the divers ways of different sects.